Euro 2016: The best ball-playing center backs of the first round

written by – Rangers Report 

“Being a centre-back is not just about defending or being nasty or tough. It’s about knowing how to play football, control the ball, pass and be more comfortable in possession.”  Gerard Pique, November 2015

As I was trying to figure out what statistical project to do for Euro 2016, I thought about the aspects of Rangers style of play that I could hone in on.  The temptation of this tournament was that I would actually have data available & wouldn’t have to go DIY as I have done over this past season.  There would be heat-maps, passing data, chance creation numbers, shit – even defensive statistics!

One of the features of Mark Warburton’s team is his need & reliance on center backs who can play the ball out of the back.  There were times last season when Rangers were able to fully control play seeing Danny Wilson & Rob Kiernan pushing so forward that they were at times even driving possession through midfield into the final third.  Warburton wants to play the ball out of the back & I figured that this would be my entry point for my little Euro 2016 project.

Now, a tournament is is a very small slice of games that creates a sample size that is microscopic in comparison to an entire season.  But at the same time – it involves players playing against top talent & often involves players who can’t get first team time for their club but are being relied upon to carry the weight of their nation.  It’s not only an opportunity for the best players to shine, but also for overlooked talent to impress themselves on the world’s stage.

The bulk of this examination will focus on passing stats & where those passes occur.  All of the passing data is courtesy of Four Four Two’s StatsZone & WhoScoredboth sites that are powered by OptaStats.

This first report is being completed at the end of the first round.  When determining the best center backs for each category, I will be be looking to balance volume & effectiveness.  The more involved the center back is with the ball needs to be balanced out with actually successfully completing passes.

For the purpose of this post, I will be only highlighting the best performances (along with a few of the worst).  In order to see all of the stats that I have compiled you can see them here.  All that I ask is that you throw some credit my way if you share the stats, or use them in any way.

Passes within the defensive third

I decided to only factor in forward or square passes that began & ended in the defensive third here.  I excluded back passes in these tallies, mainly because you want a defender who can move the ball up the pitch when evaluating ball playing center backs.  Yes, there is often a need for a safe, back pass but look at the passes made by Hungary’s Richard Guzmics back to his goalie against Portugal.  He clearly could not handle the pressure that Portugal was putting on him & made the prudent pass back to the keeper.

courtesy of StatsZone
courtesy of StatsZone

Baseline:  There have been 1,079 forward or square passes attempted by center backs within their defensive third & the turnover rate is 9%.  Rather then focus on success rate, I figured a turnover rate would be more useful given the location of the pass.  Turning the ball over in your own third is a big no-no, especially if you are trying to evaluate a ball playing center back.

Adil Rami, courtesy of Clive Rose (Getty Images)

Top Five

1.  Adil Rami, France   The 30-year old has the third most successful forward/square passes in the defensive third with 35 & he has been perfect so far with zero turnovers on those passes.  Rami is also very involved further up the pitch (as his sequence of heat maps below show) but clearly is willing to move the ball in his own third to keep play moving.

2.  Ricardo Carvalho, Portugal   37 successful passes & a 3% turnover rate

3.  Sergio Ramos, Spain    34 successful passes & a 3% turnover rate

4.  Mats Hummels, Germany  37 successful passes & a 5% turnover rate (in 2 appearances)

5.  Vlad Chiriches, Romania   26 successful passes & a 0% turnover rate.   The 26-year old Napoli defender only made eight appearances in Serie A last season.  This after being €9.5 million flop for Spurs.  This tournament was seen as an opportunity for redemption for Chiriches & he’s done well averaging 2.7 interceptions, 4.3 clearances, 1 block, & 2.3 offsides forced per game.  All of those numbers are team highs for a Romanian team that finished last despite allowing only four goals in three matches (not stellar, but not woeful).  Chiriches is valued at €5.5 million & probably is worth scouting more for a team in need of a center back.

Kari Arnason

Whatever you do, pressure these three once they get the ball in their own third

1.  Kari Arnason, Iceland   20 attempted passes, 25% turnover rate   Arnason has actually been one of my favorite players, for my favorite team at Euro 2016, but if he turns the ball over in his own third against England like he did against Austria (see below) then the Viking conquest of the tournament may come to an end.

courtesy of StatsZone
courtesy of StatsZone

2.  Ashley Williams, Wales   15 attempted passes, 27% turnover rate

3.  Gareth McAuley, Northern Ireland    14 attempted passes, 21% turnover rate

Passes from the defensive third into the midfield

This is where you begin to really see the top ball playing center backs emerge.  They are able progress the ball up the pitch without relying on a forced, aimless long ball up the pitch.  It should be noted that 75% of the long passes attempted by center backs into the attacking third that originated in their own third failed.  That’s why you want to see a defender who can pass into the midfield as part of a build up that relies on allowing your creative players to bring the ball up the pitch, rather then watch a ball punted from one end to another.

Baseline:  Center backs have attempted 1,267 passes that moved the ball out of their end into midfield.  The average success rate was 76%.

Vasili Berezutski, courtesy of Matthias Hangst (Getty Images)

Top Five

1.  Vasili Berezutski, Russia  23 attempted passes from the defensive third into midfield, 100% completion rate.  It’s hard to knock perfect &  the 34-year old veteran was as good as it got when it came to distributing the ball to teammates in midfield.  His overall completion rate was 89% on 207 passes, which represented the third most passing attempts by a center back in the first round (behind Sergio Ramos & Jerome Boatang).  His performance against England was probably his most impactful as he became a focal point of getting the ball out of pressure & into midfield.

2.  Chris Smalling, England   23 attempted passes, 96% completion rate

3.  Mehmet Topal, Turkey   25 attempted passes, 92% completion rate

4.  Laurent Koscielny, France   24 attempted passes, 92% success rate

5.  Ricardo Carvalho, Portugal   38 attempted passes, 88% success rate

Craig Cathcart, courtesy of Alexander Hassenstein (Getty Images)

No…wait!  Let someone else do that!!!

1.  Craig Cathcart, Northern Ireland   5 attempted passes into midfield from defensive third, 0% completion rate.  There hasn’t been much nuance to Cathcart’s game, as he has only completed 58% of his 31 total passes.  That’s not to say he’s been bad, given that he has averaged 7.3 clearances a game & his team is still actually playing…it’s just doubtful you’ll ever tag the Watford player as a ‘ball-playing defender.’  He’s old-school.

2.  Ben Davies, Wales   12 attempted passes, 33% completion rate

3.  Adam Lang, Hungary   8 attempted passes, 38% completion rate

Center back Midfield Maestros

Not only do you need your ball playing center backs to get the ball out of the defensive third, you want them heavily involved in the build up play in midfield.  In this category, only passes that occur within the midfield are counted – so passes beginning & ending in midfield.

Baseline:  Center backs have attempted 3,079 passes that began in midfield & were to a teammate located in midfield.  The average completion rate is 92%.

Vasili Berezutski, courtesy of Alex Livesey (Getty Images)

1.  Vasili Berezutski, Russia   107 attempted passes, 97% completion rate

2.  Jerome Boatang, Germany   101 attempted passes, 96% completion rate

3.  Johan Djourou, Switzerland   94 attempted passes, 96% completion rate

4.  Ricardo Carvalho, Portugal   93 attempted passes, 96% completion rate

5.  Sergio Ramos, Spain   134 attempted passes, 93% completion rate

Gareth McAuley, courtesy of Paul Gilham (Getty Images)

Don’t pretend you’re a midfielder, you are paid to play right…back….there!

1.  Gareth McAuley, Northern Ireland   23 attempted passes, 57% completion rate

2.  Ragnar Sigurdsson, Iceland  18 attempted passes, 78% completion rate

3.  Craig Cathcart, Northern Ireland   9 attempted passes, 78% completion rate

Taking the term ball-playing center back to a whole other level

This is where you begin to see the elite ball-playing center backs, defenders who are driving possession from midfield into the final third.

Baseline:  There have been 752 attempted passes & the completion rate is only 56% for all center backs in the tournament.  That’s why you can call these following defenders the elite ball-playing center backs given their success compared to their Euro 2016 peers.

Sergio Ramos, courtesy of David Ramos (Getty Images)

Top Five

1. Sergio Ramos, Spain   45 attempted passes, 92% completion rate    There’s Sergio Ramos….& then there’s everyone else.  He has been his usual omnipresent, dominating self yet again in Euro 2016.  The heatmaps from his three matches really show the influence Ramos had in driving Spain’s attack through the midfield & transitioning into the final third.

courtesy of WhoScored

2.  Jerome Boatang, Germanty   51 attempted passes, 71% success rate

3.  Gerard Pique, Spain   26 attempted passes, 81% success rate

4.  Aleksandar Dragovic, Austria   21 attempted passes, 76% success rate

5.  Fabian Schär, Switzerland   26 attempted passes, 69% success rate   At 24 years old & valued at €4 million, Schär has been one of the better center backs at Euro 2016.  He’s averaged 2.3 interceptions, 1.7 blocks, & six clearances a game for the Swiss (all team highs).  Couple the defensive output with an 89% completion rate on 202 passes & you have a player that may begin to get some attention on the transfer market after featuring with a middle of the table Hoffenheim club last season.

James Chester, courtesy of Srdjan Stevanovic (Getty Images)

Really, who let the the center back have the ball up here?

1. James Chester, Wales    9 attempted passes, 0% completion rate

2.  Jonny Evans, Northern Ireland   8 attempted passes, 13% completion rate   (only includes his play at center back)

3.  Richard Guzmics, Hungary    7 attempted passes, 14% completion rate

Remember you can find all of the passing stats for center backs here

You can follow Rangers Report on Twitter @TheGersReport

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