We’ve used data and statistics to figure out who, out of those linked with the club, are the perfect fit.

Words by Guy Poxon | @GuyPoxon


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Aston Villa’s promotion this season was typified by the incoming of defensive reinforcements during the second half of the season, to complement Deane Smith’s attacking brand of football.

However, now that Villa are looking to replicate their previous defensive solidity in the Premier League, Dean Smith’s staff need to assess just how good their back line needs to be in order to cope in the world’s most competitive league.

Defending is a difficult thing to measure – how do you quantify a player’s ability to keep the ball out of the net? 

In a similar fashion to our comparison of Aston Villa’s strikers and targets, we’ve compared key performance indicators, across 23 different types of player statistics to Compare 44 centre backs from the Championship and the Premier League. The aim of this is to spot patterns between defenders in different teams, different leagues, and across different nations to see where some of the traits of a top defender can be spotted. 

Importantly, we want to see how similar Villa’s current centre backs and transfer targets are to the “Premier League Standard”.  

Using an algorithm, we have created six groups of players:

  • Comparing 23 different types of key performance statistics 
  • On average, over the 2018/19 season
  • For club and country, in all competitions
Please click the image to open the data in a new tab.

Group 1

This group consists of centre backs who have been instrumental defenders in their respective teams, and have dominated in aerial battles, too. These players came in the highest for goals scored and second for assists, probably as a result of their aerial dominance (where they came 2nd). They were also highest for Man of The Match awards and season rating, as well as highest for tackles, interceptions and clearances. 

While they provided the most key passes per game, they are also worst for the number of poor touches and dispossession per game. Looking at the centre backs in question you might say that they have been incredibly solid in defence this season, and bold going forward. But they do lack some technical ball-retention skills compared to the rest – this is supported by a very low passing accuracy of 70.3%.  

Fabian Schar
James Tarkowski
Sol Bamba

Group 2

This group included one of Villa’s reported targets; Ben Gibson.

However, unfortunately Gibson simply hasn’t got enough games on the board to “normalise” his stats in comparison to the other 40-odd players in this data set. This suggests that Gibson might be more of a punt, at least purely based on this season’s stats – Villa will of course have scouts who have monitored him, and possible access to richer data. But, for what it’s worth, in his five appearances he struggled to tackle and intercept. Plus, his passing percentage was low at 66.7%.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Group 3

This group is indeed very interesting because it seems to represent a sort of middle ground. Group 3 is medium across most stats, including aerial duals, Man of The Match, clearances, and number of passes. This group was second for passing %, and was rarely guilty of losing possession or taking bad touches. Combine all of this with a good disciplinary record and the lowest number of fouls and you have a group which performs at a decent level all-round, without being outstanding. 

Interestingly, James Chester alone sits in this group without any other Villa players or targets. For a player who was famously playing through the pain barrier, he still managed to make a great impact for Villa this season, and if he can maintain some fitness he may be able to offer an all-round quality which is different to what Villa currently have in the heart of defence. Even if he can only stay fit for a couple of spells, who knows how valuable that could be in the Premier League.

James Chester
Joel Matip
Maxime Le Marchand
Adrian Mariappa
Craig Cathcart
Tim Ream
Conor Coady
Mamadou Sakho
Issa Diop
Fabian Balbuena

Group 4

Just looking at the names in this group, it’s clear that Group 4 is the strongest cohort on paper, and these players top this study for appearances and minutes, assists as well as coming in second for goals. They boast the highest passing % and number of passes per game. They also tried the highest number of long balls, too; which suggests that these players can dominate defensively and in possession, but also look to open up a defence with a diagonal pass. 

Clearly, Villa won’t be signing a player of this calibre this summer, but it’s a helpful distinction between the league’s top centre backs and the rest. However, they came second highest for yellow cards received, and were punished with the highest number red cards – perhaps pushing the boundaries of centre back performance also comes at a (relatively small) cost. 

Van Dijk
Aymeric Laporte
Toby Alderweireld
David Luiz
Nicolas Otamendi
Sokratis
Harry Maguire

Group 5

If you’re looking at which players might deserve that next step up to the Premier League, this group of players seems to stand out in a number of performance indicators. This is mostly because they didn’t have many notable or obvious weaknesses – mainly, it was being 3rd highest yellow cards and second highest number of red cards which stood out as their main drawbacks. But as we’ve seen in Group 4, sometimes you need to live dangerously to push your boundaries and get to the highest level. 

The controversially-priced Adam Webster resides in Group 5. These players stood out for a high goal return (3rd), as well as the second highest number of appearances and minutes. They were highest for aerials won, second for Man of The Match awards and season rating. Defensively, they scored highest for number of interceptions and second for tackles.While they hold the attributes of very solid defensive players, it’s worth noting that they only managed an 81.1% (3rd) passing accuracy, and came second worst for being dispossessed. This is not to suggest that Webster won’t make a top centre back, but Villa will need to decide whether he will cope with the reduced time on the ball that he might have in the Premier League. 

Adam Webster
Liam Cooper
Pontus Jansson
Zanka

Group 6

This group includes Villa’s promotion-winning defenders: Mings, Hause and Tuanzebe. Looking at the Group’s weaknesses first, they committed a marginally high number of bad touches per game and scored only a 78% passing accuracy. Additionally, they were the 3rd highest for red cards as a collective.

However, like Group 5, these players did not have too many bad points to note. Despite taking more bad touches and having a marginally lower pass % than Group 5, this rarely resulted in them being actually dispossessed by the opposition – which some might argue is the most important trait out of those three. This group also made the 3rd highest number of key passes per game, which potentially explains why their passing accuracy was a little bit low – because they were trying to open teams up, which is also trait of the top defenders in Group 5.

Defensively, Mings, Axel and Hause were part of the group which had the second lowest number of fouls committed and second highest average clearances. As well as scoring a medium number of tackles and interceptions per game, they (unsurprisingly) also won plenty of aerial battles and contributed to a couple of goals. 

Tyrone Mings
Lewis Dunk
Terence Kongolo
Kortney Hause
Axel Tuanzebe
Timm Klose
Ryan Shawcross
Molla Wague
Liam Moore
Aden Flint
Ahmed Hegazi
Ben Mee
Nathan Ake
Willy Boly
Maya Yoshida
Jannick Vesterdaard
James Tomkins
Reece Burke
Jordy de Wijs
(Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

The £30,000,000 Question

We purposefully only included the Championship’s “better” centre backs to compare with a range of able centre backs from the Premier League. This is because, quite frankly, we wanted to see what traits and performance levels Villa might need to compete with the best defences in the top tier. Perhaps, comfortingly, James Chester and Kortney Hause do indeed share characteristics with solid Premier League names such as Matip, Diop, Coady, Dunk, Vestergaard and Ake. Meanwhile, the Championship’s standouts, Cooper, Jansson and Villa target; Webster, remain grouped with only one 2018/19 Premier League player – relegated Huddersfield’s Zanka. 

We are not suggesting for one minute that any of these players wouldn’t be excellent in the Premier League, but at least we can see that Dean Smith’s defensive setup reaps similar player patterns to some of the Premier League’s steady defenders. This also shows the difficulty Smith’s staff face – because even if you strip out all of the transfer negotiations and tug-of-war over fees, choosing a centre back to sign is still not a simple decision by any stretch of the imagination. 

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