Can this new Rangers signing thrive in Mark Warburton’s system?

written by – Rangers Report 

In a recent post I attempted to identify the best ball-playing center backs in the group stages of Euro 2016 by not only looking at their overall passing numbers but where on the pitch the passes were going.  It was inspired by the thought that the best center backs for a Mark Warburton team would be called upon to be able to work the ball up the pitch.  Rangers like to build from the back & dominate possession with a short passing system.

Last season’s duo, Danny Wilson & Rob Kiernan, handled the role of being ball playing center backs quite well & were able to effectively handle being the first options of the keeper’s short passes.  Rangers commitment to this style of play & their consistently high possession numbers validate the job that Kiernan & Wilson did in this role.

Of course, their play wasn’t without some flaws & the worrying performance in the Scottish Cup Final against Hibs made signing a center back a rallying cry for many supporters.

Going into next season, Kiernan & Wilson will see competition for playing time from Clint Hill & Matt Crooks.  Crooks, who has spent most of his career as a midfielder, may not be more than cover for the center back position.  He hasn’t played in defence since the 2014-15 season & only played as a center back in 25% of his appearances that season.  In each of those games, he lined up as a center back when the team reverted to a 3-5-2 formation.

Clint Hill is clearly seen as the signing that will seriously compete for a starting role as a center back.  Given that, I decided to go back & break down his passing statistics from the last few seasons.

According to WhoScored?, Hill’s completion rate since the 2011-12 season is 73%.  For some context, that is nearly identical to Rob Kiernan’s results from his time with Wigan & Birmingham (72%).  However, these numbers are basically meaningless without looking at the types of passes that a player is making.  Are their passing rates being dragged down by too many long balls?  Are their stats padded by simply passing back & forth in the backline?  How many of their passes are actually driving the play into midfield, or even the final third?

I decided to apply the same system that I used to assess ball playing center backs from Euro 2016 to Clint Hill.

It should be acknowledged that this still will only provide a snapshot of Hill’s play.  I could only see visuals representations Hill’s passes from his time in the English Premier League.  In the past four seasons, Queens Park Rangers spent their time split between the EPL & the Championship.

Also, I decided to only track the results from matches in which Hill played center back.  This means that only two of his 15 starts in 2014-15 were included.  That season Hill was actually deployed as a left back for the bulk of that season (at least Lee Wallace finally has a back-up).  So, the last full season that I was able to look at was 2012-13.  I did not look at Hill’s statistics from the 2011-12 season largely since it was five years ago.

The following stats represent the 30 matches in which Clint Hill started at center back for Queens Park Rangers during the 2014-15 season (two games) & 2012-13 (28 matches).  All of the data is courtesy of FourFourTwo’s Statzone.

Clint Hill, courtesy of Alex Livesey (Getty Images)

Hill’s overall completion rate was 73%, which is consistent with his success rate during his time playing in the English Championship.  For some context, of the 61 center backs tracked from Euro 2016 – the average completion rate was 84%.  Obviously those results are skewed by world-class, prototypical ball-playing center backs like Sergio Ramos & Jerome Boatang, but it is still a reference point.  Hill’s completion rate would fall in the bottom 15% of the Euro 2016 center backs.

Now remember, overall completion rate tells us next to nothing.  For example, Boatang was ranked 21st among center-backs in pass completion rate during the group stages but that was largely due to Boatang’s heavy involvement in driving possession into the final third (which is a more difficult pass to complete then one in midfield).

Next, let’s breakdown Clint Hill’s passing effectiveness  from different areas on the pitch.

For the most part, Hill is  quite trustworthy on the ball in his own defensive third.  On forward & square passes beginning & ending in his defensive third he only had an 8% turnover rate on 90 passes.  The average turnover rate in Euro 2016 on these passes was 9%.  In the 30 matches tracked, Hill only had seven turnovers on forward or square passes in his own third & never more than one in any single game.  These do not include passes that end up outside of the defensive third.

This match against Arsenal from May 2013 was probably Hill’s best when it comes to passes within his own defensive third.  He was six for six on forward/square passes (two for two on back passes).  Given how close the pass is to the penalty area, turnovers here are often game changers.

courtesy of StatsZone
courtesy of StatsZone

Like I wrote last week, “looking at passes from the defensive third into the midfield 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. 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.”  This is especially true in Warburton’s system.

In the group stages of Euro 2016, there were 1,267 passes attempted that moved the ball out of their end into midfield & the average completion rate was 76%.  Clint Hill’s completion rate in the games tracked was 66%.  Even though the sample sizes differ, 80% of the center backs in the Euros had a higher completion rate.  Again, the Euro 2016 stats act simply as a reference point to provide context to Hill’s results.

QPR were a bad team in those years being looked at, but they also had the advantage of training together for hundreds of hours compared to national teams who only train together in short, isolated windows of time.

Is a progressive manager like Mark Warburton relying on a traditional center back as he prepares for the jump up to the Premiership?  It seems unlikely that Warburton’s going to tweek Rangers style of play drastically.  If that’s the case, Hill will have to be much better at moving the ball up the pitch then he was for QPR.

From that same match against Arsenal, you can see what happens when your center back can’t move the ball out of the defensive third.

courtesy of StatsZone
courtesy of StatsZone

You see that Hill attempted ten passes into the midfield from a location within his own defensive third.  Six of them were turnovers.  Given the location of those turnovers, there is little relief for the backline as the opponent, Arsenal in this case, can quickly relaunch their push into the final third.

Maybe you blame this on the quality of the two teams playing.  Arsenal finished fourth in the table, while QPR was dead last.  But, Hill did have games in which he was quite good at moving the ball into the midfield.  There weren’t many  as he had a higher than a 76% completion rate in only nine of the 30 games looked at.  Again playing for the worst team in the EPL probably was a significant factor in the results.

His best game in this area of passing was a December 2012 loss to Liverpool (who ended up finishing 7th that season & had the 5th best goal differential in the EPL).

courtesy of StatsZone
courtesy of StatsZone

Hill attempted six passes into the midfield from the defensive third & completed them all.  Most of them were short passes, which probably is the safest route for a defender like Hill.

The results don’t get that much better as we continue moving up the pitch.  When looking at passes that began & ended in the midfield, Hill’s success rate on 214 passes was 86%, which sounds high but actually is below average if you use the results from the Euros as a baseline.  Of the 3,079 passes attempted by the 61 different center backs in the group stages, the completion rate was 92%.  Hill’s rate would have him in the bottom 28% of center backs studied in the Euros.  Not terrible, but not ideal given the team’s emphasis on retaining possession.

This passing chart from a loss to Newcastle in May of 2013, showcases Hill’s worst game when it comes to passing in the midfield.  Even though he did connect on many passes, six turnovers on passes that began & ended in midfield can really backfire (especially given that as a defender you are now further up the pitch).

courtesy of StatsZone
courtesy of StatsZone

The last category of passes that I use to evaluate ball playing center backs is where the very best tend to shine.  These are passes from the middle third into the attacking third.  Of the 752 pass attempts of this type at the Euros only 56% were completed.  The center backs with a high volume of completed passes at a equally impressive completion rate were among the very best in the world:  Sergio Ramos, Jerome Boatang, Gerard Pique & they played for two of the best teams in the world.  Others had a high numbers of attempts but not nearly the success rate of the trinity just mentioned.  For example,  Austria’s Martin Hinteregger completed 18 passes from the midfield into the final third, but his completion rate was only 60% (Ramos’ was an ungodly 92%).

In the 30 matches tracked, Clint Hill attempted 94 passes from the midfield into the attacking third & only completed 22% of them.  This was clearly not part of his game.  He averaged 3.1 passes into the final third from midfield per match; center backs at the Euros averaged 10.4.

At the Euros, 89% of the center backs had a higher completion rate then Hill did in the games tracked.

The match in which he had the most attempts was against Norwich in February of 2013.  You can see that most of the balls came right when he entered the midfield & were actually just long balls.  Only two of the passes came from the offensive half of the pitch.  These type of long entries into the final third have a very low rate of success & is not the way Rangers liked to play last season.

courtesy of Statszone
courtesy of Statszone

The results from Clint Hill’s time in the EPL clearly show that he is not a top ball-playing center back & is closer to a traditional center back…a role that has become somewhat passé in modern football.  Of course, Scotland isn’t exactly a bastion of progressive football & maybe this is part of Mark Warburton’s plan to combat those team’s that cling to the traditional “a hope & a cross” style of play.

However, John Brewin’s look at the death of the traditional center back for ESPN FC back in 2013 highlighted some of the reasons why Warburton wants a ball playing center back in his system.

Brewin wrote, “A change in outlook on the game has precipitated change. Possession play has become of paramount importance. Teams able to play from the back have to defend less.”

“FIFA’s crackdown on tackling also lessens the usefulness of the traditional stopper whose job was to hit hard and ask questions later.”

However, he added that it’s not always easy to find players who can handle the role of a ball playing center back.  “Players capable of marrying defensive qualities with ease of possession are now very costly indeed, and highly coveted too.”

courtesy of SNS

The pickings were slim & maybe Rangers other needs outweighed any (lack of) success Hill had as a ball moving defender.  Rangers need experience on the backline & Hill has that in abundance.  He also has a reputation of being a strong defender.

Plus, maybe playing on a bad team really did skew those passing numbers.  Rangers are expected to challenge for a top spot next season & will likely continue their trend of dominating possession, even as they make the adjustment to a higher level.

Let’s see if there was any difference in the results when QPR did see more of the ball.  Of the 30 games tracked, Queens Park Rangers had a 50% possession rate or higher only 11 times.

Here is how his completion rates differ in those games compared to when the opponents saw the majority of the ball.

Type of pass 50%+possession Less then 50% possession
Foward/square passes in defensive third 8% turnover rate 8% turnover rate
Passes from def. third into midfield 77% completion rate 55% completion rate
Passes within midfield 86% completion rate 85% completion rate
Passes from midfield into final third 26% completion rate 20% completion rate
Overall completion rate 77% 70%

You can see that there is little to no difference in the success rate of the different types of passes…for the most part.

The one outlier is on passes from the defensive third into the midfield.  Your ball playing center back is subpar if he cannot get the ball out of his own area & do it with a short pass to a teammate in the midfield.

In the games in which QPR’s opponents dominated possession (which was the majority of the games tracked), Hill was woeful at successfully getting the ball into midfield.  But he did prove that in the games where QPR had the majority of possession,  that he can make that pass (his 77% completion rate is on level with the average rate from the Euros).

This is where hope creeps in for Rangers supporters.

As Clint Hill learns Mark Warburton’s system of playing the ball out of the back, the coaching staff should really concentrate on that first pass out of the defensive third.  If they can get the veteran to understand how to make that a rote breakout pass in Rangers system, then Hill should be fine.

He won’t be the ideal ball-playing center back but he can be serviceable.  Couple that with his experience & defensive acumen, then he may just be the upgrade that the team needs.

You can follow Rangers Report on Twitter @TheGersReport

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