As a nation, England have always prided itself on the centre-backs they have produced. The last few years have shown that England are very competent in creating chances and scoring goals, highlighted by the fact that England scored the second-most goals in European Qualification (37). Although, questions remain over England’s defensive capabilities. England only conceded six goals during the European Qualifiers, however, Gareth Southgate is clearly not comfortable with his choices, selecting four different pairings in the last 10 games.

This data analysis piece will look to evaluate Southgate’s options by focusing on key statistics he requires from his players. Players included in the analysis must have played at least 450 minutes in the Premier League. The data has been limited to players under the age of 30 to fit Southgate’s philosophy, and to limit the focus of the data.

Defensive Duels

As a key characteristic for defenders, we will begin with the number of defensive duels per 90 and the success rate %.

 

Gareth Southgate's England centre-back dilemma - data analysis statistics

The line in the graph shows the average for all players in the sample. The players who sit above this line win just over 66% of their defensive duels.

Manchester City centre-back, John Stones, has the greatest win percentage of defensive duels with 77.14%. Stones has only played 970 minutes in the Premier League this season, the lowest of all considered players. With Manchester City’s dominance in games this season, it is not unusual for Stones to engage in a low number of defensive duels (3.25 per 90).

Kourtney Hause, Aston Villa, has the highest number of defensive duels per 90 (6.84), for a player who wins more than 66% of their defensive duels. Hause’s partner Tyrone Mings has a very different approach, only engaging in 2.74 defensive duels per 90, but winning 71.21% of those.

After having a large price tag slapped to his name, Harry Maguire was under pressure to deliver for Manchester United. Maguire has brought that solidity to the defence which has been missing since the days of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić. Maguire has won 72.48% of his defensive duels and engages in 4.77 defensive duels per 90.

League leaders, Liverpool also have a representative in Joe Gomez, who has won 68.85% of his defensive duels, averaging 3.97 duels per 90. If we cross Stanley Park to Everton, we can also see that Michael Keane and Mason Holgate are way above the average, winning 71.90% & 70.77% of their defensive duels, respectively. Both defenders engage in a high number of defensive duels per 90, Keane 5.71, and Holgate 6.20 per 90. Holgate’s impressive transition to centre-back may provide further reasoning as to why Pep Guardiola has his eye on the youngster.

Two other centre-backs, both of whom have represented England at youth level, are Adam Webster and Ben Godfrey. Both players boast impressive statistics in their first season of topflight football. Webster has won 68.22% of his 5.37 defensive duels per game, and Godfrey winning 68.04% of his 4.43 duels per game.

Forward Passes

As football has evolved, the need for defenders to be comfortable with the ball has become a key aspect of the game. Due to England’s tendency to dominate games, Southgate has identified he needs players to use the ball efficiently and effectively. The graph below will show us the average number of forward passes per 90 and the accuracy % of those passes. The lines of the graph indicate the average forward passes per 90 and the average pass success %.

Gareth Southgate's England centre-back dilemma - data analysis statistics
Again, Manchester City’s, Stones leads the way on this one completing 90.63% of his 20.78 forward passes per game. This is unsurprising as Stones also has the highest pass accuracy % in the Premier League (94.82%).

The top right quadrant of the chart shows players who are willing to move the ball forward and do so successfully compared to their counterparts. Gomez also join Stones in this category completing 77.09% of 23.31 forward passes per game. Whilst Maguire completes 76.57% of 18.29 forward passes per game. The trend of high numbers of forward passes along with a high success % is expected for the ‘big’ teams such as Manchester City and Liverpool.

This high success rate is not, however, limited to the big teams as three players from the bottom six also fall in this category. Again this highlights, Webster’s and Godfrey’s excellent first seasons in the Premier League. Webster has the highest number of forward passes, attempting 23.57 per 90, completing 78.70% of those. Godfrey also connects with many of his forward passes completing 85.86% of the 18.41 he attempts per game.

Lewis Dunk is the only other player to fall into this category as he completes 79.29% of his 19.48 forward passes per game. Brighton have made nearly 15,000 passes this season, which is the fifth-highest in the league. Graham Potter has clearly placed an emphasis on using his defenders to use the ball effectively. This new approach may support Webster and Dunk and launch them into England contention.

The Final Five

Not every defender will excel in each category and specific players will be much better at certain skills than others. To narrow the selection down, we have chosen five individuals who stood out in the categories above. Below we will discuss some other statistics Southgate may be looking for to influence his decision.

Gareth Southgate's England centre-back dilemma - data analysis statisticsGareth Southgate's England centre-back dilemma - data analysis statistics

Gareth Southgate's England centre-back dilemma - data analysis statistics

Adam Webster – His first season in the Premier League has been exceptional, attempting the most forward passes out of any English centre-back (23.57 per 90). He is also a very competent defender winning over two-thirds of his defensive duels and completing a list topping 6.5 interceptions per 90. It would seem it is only a matter of time until he receives his first England call up.

Ben Godfrey – At only 22, Godfrey is pushing to become a regular starter in the England U23’s set up. He has had a very impressive start to his Premier League career, completing 85.86% of forward passes and blocking 0.87 shots per 90. However, the next European Championship may just come a little too early. Certainly, one for Southgate to watch in the future.

Harry Maguire – Maguire started every game in 2019 for England. Only one of the few players to score highly in every category above, winning 72.48% of his defensive duels and making 5.3 interceptions per 90. Maguire has also proven to be effective with the ball, completing 76.57% of his forward passes and attempting 7.8 progressive passes per 90. A player who will almost certainly be one of the first names on Southgate’s team sheet.

Joe Gomez – Often overshadowed by his defensive partner, Virgil Van Dijk, Gomez shows why Liverpool have been so solid at the back. Gomez shines very brightly in the offensive categories, attempting 23.21 forward passes per game, whilst completing 77.09% of those. This is further highlighted by the fact he attempts 10.5 progressive passes per 90. He is also very defensively sound, winning 68.85% of his defensive duels. Gomez now has an extra season to prove his worth before England get set to begin their European campaign.

John Stones – A real standout player when analysing data, wins an extremely high percentage of his defensive duels (77.14%) and is clearly a productive player with the ball, completing 90.63% of his forward passes. Questions will be asked of Stones’ proneness to injury and errors, something which may sit in the back of Southgate’s mind. If Stones can prove these issues are behind him, he has a real chance of claiming a starting place.

Conclusion

Of course, Southgate will not pick his team solely based on statistics. He will consider aspects such as leadership, trust, and, ultimately, who is available to him. The data suggest that England have a great choice of defenders to choose from. Thankfully, Southgate has an extra year to decide before his squad of 23 aims to bring football back home next Summer.

Todd Atkins