Digging through Data: Ep5 – Box to Box Midfielders

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Tempo Tactics

Continuing our exploration into how best to process data in FM, we need to fill the final two midfield slots in our side. The last episode saw the recruitment of the regista, the next step is to find the two box to box midfielders that will shuttle the ball between the central creator and wide players, as well as providing him protection in the midfield.

The essence of these midfielders is to be workhorses. I am not looking for playmakers, long-shot takers, dribblers or even tough tacklers. The midfield needs those who can break up opposition attacks, keep the ball moving with simple passes to the CDM, and hence unlock the opposition defence.

Winning the Ball

The first step was to find the player who will be most responsible for getting tackles in, while remaining conservative in his approach. Adjusting for 90 minutes played, the graph below shows those who have made the most tackles and made the most fouls.

The most sought-after players in this instance are those in the bottom right of the graph. High tackling stats, but minimal fouls conceded. Of those with the most tackles completed, and the most appearances (for more reliable data), Max Bird stands out as the main man. Even more excitingly, the very young Derby CM can do even more than just make successful tackles.

He ranks fifth in the shortlist for interceptions per 90 minutes, and yet again his counterparts in this metric have significantly fewer appearances. It seems that Bird is a consistent performer in winning the ball back for his team, which is precisely what we need in the centre of our midfield.

Short and Simple Passing

Both centre midfielders in this system will play roughly in the same manner. Making tackles, simple but accurate passes, and generally getting about the pitch to give more freedom to the other four creative players (plus the full backs).

Passing ability was the next metric to be analysed. Rather than finding assists, chances created or even key passes, the key was simply to determine which players made the most, and how accurate they were.

Statistics can be a lie. Reading this may make you think that Ryan Ledson, Matt Grimes or Han-Noah Massengo are excellent passers of the ball. They may be, but this graph doesn’t show that – it only indicates that they play many passes, and complete a similar amount. This could be achieved from basic two-yard passes to and from the defence or other midfielders, passes that you or I could play.

This metric would not be effective for finding a regista, but is perfect for finding our ball winning box to box players. A graph like this is only useful, however, if there is an anomaly. If there was a player whose completed passes stretched above everyone else’s, that would be the player for us – but there isn’t.

Final Piece of the Midfield Puzzle

To find our final midfielder, it is worth simply breaking down exactly what we want. A dependable player who we can rely on to make a pass and/or make a tackle. Lets look at success rates.

We can see that Krystian Bielik is one of the leaders in both respects, but once again Massengo catches the eye, as the best tackler but also high up the list for passing.

At only 18 (in game), the Bristol City CM could cost a pretty penny, but based on the available data, he is already operating at a high level. With room to grow and improve, he could become a key figure in this team.

Based on our analysis, Bird and Massengo are the key targets for the box to box roles, blending ball winning with ball retention. At a substantial financial outlay of around £30m for the pair it could be seen as a gamble, but if they continue to showcase this ability, they will surely succeed.