The use of data in football is becoming more and more common every day, often to the point where at times it can be overwhelming and confusing. When looking at data, it can only hope to describe what has occurred. Still, oftentimes the interpretations of the data around football can become a bit fantastical.
Therefore, the aim of this data analysis is to show which holding central midfielders in the MLS were statistically at the top for the 2018/19 season. More specifically, which players stand out when compared to their leaguewide opponents in the same position. This analysis will investigate the key aspects of a holding midfielders’ role in an attempt to quantify the simple statistics. This will also explore defensive statistics, passing statistics, and lastly goal contribution.
Consistency and Availability
Arguably the most important statistic in football, or any sport, is availability. A player can only impact the game directly when they are on the pitch playing. As such, a list of the top 10 central midfielders based on games played and total minutes for the 2018/19 MLS season will indicate the players who had the greatest impact on their teams. Players were excluded from this group if they played in less than 17 games (half the season) as, again, the goal is to investigate players who were regularly available.
Above is the list of the top 10 players who met the requirements along with their age and club information.
Staying consistent with the idea of players being available to play caused the analysis to go one step deeper. While total minutes and games played are useful it seemed more important to investigate each player’s average minutes per game and see how different those values were.
Having this information allows us to see several useful pieces of information. The first is all ten of these players, except for the New York Red Bulls Cristian Cássares, averaged over 90 minutes per match (stats includes overtime matches), essentially telling us each player had a crucial role for their club and were utilised regularly. The Venezuelan youth international takes the roster spot once held by Tyler Adams, who moved to RB Leipzig of the Bundesliga. The next important piece is in reference to the averages for both statistics represented by the vertical and horizontal lines. This shows us that Cristian Roldan, Eduard Atuesta, and Jonathan dos Santos were all above average for total matches and minutes per match.
Next, we see 29-year-old Darlington Nagbe of the Columbus Crew at played the most matches at 36 with Roldan of the Seattle Sounders coming in second with 33. While six of the remaining seven played anywhere from 29-32 matches and averaged from 90-95 minutes per match. While this is not the final say it certainly shows us a clear picture which players, were able to contribute regularly during the season fit to play on matchday.
A large piece of a holding midfielders’ role is in their defending. While a large part of this job is working in tandem with a backline, there are a few individual statistics worth mentioning. For instance, the number of duels, meaning defending in 1v1 situations, and interceptions positive indicators of individual ability. The ability of a holding midfielder to intercept a pass is massive and typically is a product of their ability to read a football match. Anticipating the next pass or positioning their body to influence passes is a quality which is massive for a proper 6. Another crucial part of the job is winning aerial battles which play a huge part in helping a team win possession, defend against dangerous attacking chances and play a role in set pieces both for and against.
(note Rzatkowsi is represented by the purple circle)
With this in mind, we move toward the graph above. Running along the bottom we have average aerial battles per match (90min) and along the left is average defensive duels per match. Additionally, in the top right corner, we have a legend indicating the larger the circle for a player with greater average interceptions per match. Interestingly, while Cásseres, Sean Davis, and Marc Rzatkowski as the top three for both stats, Davis averaged the most interceptions. Newcomer to the USMNT, Jackson Yueill, along with the Columbus Crew’s Nagbe both averaged significantly fewer duels in both categories and Yueill had the fewest average interceptions at just over 2.27 per match. It’s important to note that while Yuiell was only in his 3rd professional season and could be expected to improve in those areas while Nagbe was in his 8th and therefore this is likely more indicative of his playing style.
Possession and Attacking
In most possession-based attacking style football clubs the role of 6 is to be the link between the defensive and midfield lines. While it seems simple in thought, the execution is much more difficult. It requires a constant analysis of where players are on the field and the available spaces to play. However, the difference in the top 6’s or holding midfielders is their ability to play forward and break lines accurately and consistently. Therefore, it’s imperative to understand the amount each of these players passes the ball and what direction those passes go. As an example, passing the ball 50 times in a match may be fantastic however if 48 times it is played backwards that player is not as effective in helping his team create attacking chances.
Here we see a full breakdown of each players average passes for the 2018/19 season. Each player is represented by their own name, whereas the colour and the types of passes are indicated by the different shapes and columns. The dotted line in each column represents the average accuracy for the group and allows us to see who was above and below for each category. Interestingly, Cássares and Rzatkowski are both lower than average in every passing accuracy category. Contrarily dos Santos of the LA Galaxy had the highest average total passes per match. And even more impressively his data shows him to be leading in pass accuracy for every category other than back passes where he sat near the middle of the pack.
Another set of impressive stats comes from Roldan, Matías Vera and Yueill as all show accuracy above the average across the board, the one exception being Yueill’s long passes which just narrowly misses the mark. However, he averaged playing forward 18 times per match which came second only to dos Santos at 19. Investigating the forwards passes more closely shows that both Yueill, dos Santos and Roldan passed the ball forward nearly 1 of every 3 passes. It’s a trait that’s useful in today’s game. While it’s important to build possession, the ability of a holding midfielder to pass forward and break lines ultimately plays a crucial role in a team’s ability to attack successfully.
While defending and passing make up likely 90% of a holding midfielders’ duties in the end, goals win games. Even though they may come rarely for players in this position it is still something which needs to be taken into account.
Here along the left side, we have the players total goals for the 2018/19 season and along the bottom is the expected goals or Xg (a metric created mathematically based on other player-specific attacking data). Still, when we look at this graph it is very clear who’s at the top. Roldan, Atuesta and Yueill are at the top for both goals scored and xG. Roldan was expected to score nearly three goals and scored six, putting him well in front of the group. Similarly, Nagbe, dos Santos, Rzatkowski and Cássares also all scored more goals than expected, which their respective clubs would have appreciated greatly. Still, as a defensive midfielder, goals scored would be considered an added bonus to the typical positional expectations.
This data analysis was created to better understand how the top holding midfielders in the MLS compare within a simple context. The top stats in sport are availability and fitness. From here, the investigation of these players’ defensive, passing and goal-scoring abilities should not be the end of the discussion. Football is a comprehensive sport and it must be understood that not everything within the sport can be quantified accurately. With this knowledge, it would be useful to help distinguish the type of player a team may be looking for or perhaps scouting against.
This analysis provided insight with several interesting takeaways. Throughout this analysis, the names that come up most often were Yueill, Nagbe, Cássares, and Roldan. The passing accuracy of Nagbe, Yueill and Roldan show their ability to influence a match while in possession of the ball. While Cássares, statistically, was not as sharp on the ball, his defensive metrics showed him to be a well-suited holding midfielder, influencing the game off the ball. His manager, Chris Armas, has even referred to the young Venavuelan as a “midfield destroyer”, much in the mould of Real Madrid‘s star holding midfielder, Casemiro. Overall, the youth of Cássares, Roldan and Yueill in their position, coupled with the analysis above, shows they have the potential to be even better. At the ages of 20, 24, and 23 respectively, the future is bright for all three and only time will tell if they can take the next step to become the MLS’ #1 holding midfielder.