Botman, Aké, Adarabioyo: 8 of the most underrated defenders in Europe

Assessing active-defenders by the elite success rates only reached in 2019 by VVD, Upamecano, Matip, Boyata, Marcelo, and Varane.

If you want to read the article, keep going. If you’d rather listen, click below:

Assessing central defenders is a nightmare.

It mainly comes down to the paradox that top defenders tend to have less to do.

Here’s an overview of some defensive metrics for the 19/20 season:

Defensive duels are dominated by midfielders, aerial duels by strikers, and progressive passes allowed are mainly wide players.

The centre-backs in the image are generally playing for teams who had poor defenses last season. This isn’t a coincidence. They’re on the lists because their defenses were poor.

Boiling it down to per-90 metrics doesn’t solve anything either.

But maybe the answer is to just aggregate a larger number of metrics on a per-90 basis?

That’s kinda what Whoscored does - and their Premier League XI for this season so far puts Zouma and Vestergaard at the back flanked by Cash and Cancelo.

Surprising choices in defence, but well warranted in other ways. Everyone knows Whoscored puts a lot of emphasis on both dribbling and goals & assists. So Zouma, who has 4 goals so far, is not surprising at all. And Vestergaard has 3.

I do think they’ve both been excellent this season (as have the fullbacks) but it feels like they’re in the team partly for reasons not related to being defensively sound. Not that they have any problems in defensive metrics; Whoscored simply values non-defensive metrics more highly, in many ways for good reason.

What if we increase the sample size to the whole of last season?

Tarkowski, with 2 goals and 2 assists, isn’t too much of a surprise - being defensively busier than Dunk or Fernandez, the two other LCB options to have similar attacking output. (Surely VVD should be placed at left centre-back?)

But it is good they have VVD in there. Turning up a positive result that we all know is a fair reflection is a positive barometer for their methodology.

To reiterate the value of understanding good defenders, it’s worth turning to the shittiest sources. Someone like Mustafi famously looks better in the stats than he does on the pitch. Here’s a head-to-head put together by The S*n:

This shows some of the problems with assessing CBs on cherrypicked numbers. And it’s not easy to correct either - the official Premier League site has Mustafi down for only 1 or 2 errors leading to a goal each season. You can’t just filter out with that.

Any understanding of CBs must be aware of its own limitations, but I propose a few things as a basic workflow:

  • Looking at % success rates instead of total numbers

  • Placing this in the context of a broader array to identify limitations

  • Assessing the video to drill down into certain stats

  • Comparing against team playstyles and the roles the players occupy in their systems

Underrated defenders: How we made an unlikely shortlist

Because this is an intensely scientific affair, let’s kick off by explaining what we did.

Purpose

The goal was to figure out the two metrics most important for a defender (a centre-back, specifically) and map out player performance across them. The idea was to set a minimum number of minutes & a minimum number of each metric occurrences per-90 to clean the sample sizes.

Methodology

  • Minimum 500 minutes. Playing in the top 5 leagues. No position filters were used.

  • I took the 30 players with the highest aerial duels won percentage, with at least 1 aerial duel per 90.

  • I took the 30 players with the highest defensive duels won percentage, with at least 1 defensive duel per 90.

  • I then set high benchmarks for both metrics (top 3 percentiles) and took an extra cohort which performed highly for both metrics (one % over 70, the other 74) without being in the top 30 for either metric alone.

  • Then I removed any duplicate entries and double-checked the remaining entries to check my filters hadn’t been set too low.

Results

This graph is a little ugly but I designed it for Reddit, so I tried to put as much info into one image as cleanly as I could while making it accessible to r/soccer’s younger segments.

As you can see on the image, I ran this exact same test over other time frames to see what came up.

Over the previous season (19/20) 5 players showed up. Of those, 2 had impressive sample sizes: Kabak and Mukiele.

Over the previous calendar year (2019) 6 show up: VVD, Matip, Upamecano, Boyata, Marcelo, and Varane (who I missed off the image).

What I like here is that previous results look like this initial filter is useful in revealing top CBs. They’re the kind of results we’re hoping we’ll see.

Underrated defenders: Time for introductions

It’s worth pointing out that since I pulled these initial results, the numbers have changed slightly.

Rodrigo Becão has slipped off the list and Barcelona’s Araújo has jumped on, passing the 500-minute threshold. He has been added on the list accordingly.

Lionel Carole stats radar & overview (Strasbourg)

Safety personified and looks like one of the bargains of the list. Carole plays as a full-back so expect inflated aerial duel success rates. Involved in an average amount of defending, Carole’s success rates are crazy. He doesn’t give away fouls or possession, either. Add to that being a great dribbler without being an attacking powerhouse, and you’ve got Nathaniel Clyne 2.0 for a steal.

Berat Djimsiti stats radar & overview (Atalanta)

As his radar shows, Djimsiti is a great all-rounder. More than just the name of a nationwide gym franchise, Djimsiti adds a little more in attack than many others on this list. This is likely down to Atalanta’s direct style and tendency to press. His long pass % success rate, for example, is helped by hitting a good number of low through passes instead of just lofted balls over the top. No longer a secret, Djimsiti is still underrated.

Sven Botman stats radar & overview (Lille)

Botman scores very well on the key metrics we’re judging here, particularly in aerial duels where he has a very high volume sample size within which he’s maintained these strong success rates. I did an in-depth write up of Botman here, but the short is: defensively very powerful but at 20 years old his passing & pace isn’t top-level yet. Probably still underrated by the general public but maybe overrated by the highly-engaged fan who hasn’t watched him play.

Nathan Aké stats radar & overview (Manchester City)

We all know Aké is quality. What we probably didn’t expect is for him to show up in a list about aerial success rates. This season for City he has played quite a lot around the typical left-back positions, and been quite advanced - so he’s not been battling big number 9s as much. Bear it in mind. He’s probably not underrated or overrated. At this point I think, like Lewis Cook or James Ward-Prowse, he’s rated. But this is a scientific investigation so I can’t be leaving anyone out. Aké kills the defensive fundamentals, is safe as houses in possession, is an intelligent leader, and has the pace to play a high-line. The perfect defensive utility player for Pep.

Willy Boly stats radar & overview (Wolverhampton Wanderers)

Liverpool should offer Origi plus money for Boly. Is his radar great? No. Is his passing great? No. Is his pace great? No. So… maybe he won’t suit the system… but still. Boly is a defensive powerhouse and one of the best low/medium block defenders in the league, for my money. The confidence he adds to Wolves with his presence is terrific. I am being a little unfair to him though with his passing - a long pass accuracy rate of ~50% is good for a centre-back, and his long passes are longer than all but two in this list at an average length of 38m. I’m also being unfair to Wolves by only connecting him with a transfer - if they can keep hold of him, Coady, & Saiss, they’ll give their young stars like Neto (covered here) the space to make mistakes and grow.

Alexander Hack stats radar & overview (Mainz 05)

Hack is someone I hadn’t watched at all before embarking on this investigation last week. I blame him for my slow turnaround as I’ve had a lot more video to watch than expected. He’s defensively very solid, as his radar suggests. He also loves a good long ball. However, Mainz have 6 points this season and are below a historically bad Schalke in the Bundesliga table. So how much of this is the low-block-tinted glasses, where higher-difficulty duels are mopped up by DMs or other surrounding players? It feels like Hack is benefiting from the setup - but there’s definitely a good player in there too. Almost certain to see him signed by a newly promoted Premier League team over the summer for pennies.

Oluwatosin Adarabioyo stats radar & overview (Fulham)

A player I’ve been really excited by this season. His performance against Liverpool was tremendous and at 23 he has to be one of the most exciting centre-back prospects in the Premier League. To see him crop up in this investigation has made me a happy boy. Adarabioyo made it onto this list via the final cohort, so his % numbers are on the lower end - but don’t let that take anything away from him. His passing stats are levels above most on this list. While some others like Djimsiti have good numbers, and most players have similar completion rates to passes into the final third or into the opposition box, Adarabioyo has a more interesting passing range - exhibiting long and mid-range distribution with a combined accuracy rate of 70% (a good 20% higher than anyone else on this list).

So, why the disparity? Adarabioyo is as good at picking out a man in the final third or box as pretty much anyone else here. However, his rates are impacted by two other kinds of passes.

  1. Negatively by low completion % passes into the channels for runners to chase to relieve pressure when in a defensive phase and trapped in their own third.

  2. Positively by passes into spaces and gaps in the middle third, between the lines, or occasionally a kind of half-switch of play. He hits these with a high degree of accuracy and allows his team to build up and retain possession while reducing the pressure.

I can’t find a stat which properly measures the later, and I don’t know if it currently exists without encapsulating a bunch of other stuff. Perhaps that’s something for the actual data-collection focused stats folk who subscribe to figure out…

Araújo stats radar & overview (Barcelona)

Finishing us off is the least underrated defender on the list. This is a man who sneaks on the list last minute having only recently passed the minimum minutes threshold. Araújo is a monster in the air and his defensive duels are very solid scores too. Like you’d expect from a Barca youngster, he seems incapable of passing any substantial distance. Not because he can’t - he just chooses not to. We only see him hit a long pass in a panic, and it’s normally more of a clearance than a pass. Araújo is settling into the world of tiki-taka. He’s one of those defenders who plays at a prominent enough team that people will have their own opinion of him, but I’d say he looks like he has a very bright future ahead of him. Barca must be very pleased to have found a giant who’s good at rondos.

Is there a final winner? The ‘most underrated’?

I guess so. That’s kind of what the listicle format implies might happen.

If pushed, my most underrated award would go to Adarabioyo. Mainly because I don’t see people talking about him. But also because he has shown really high potential ability across a range of factors. I can’t pick out a clear weakness.

Moreover, Fulham have really kicked on this season and regularly have periods in games where they’re playing very attractive possession football. Adarabioyo looks suited to the low block when they’re under the cosh and looks fine spreading the ball about when they’re in a dominant phase.

All of this together makes me feel like the sky is the limit for Adarabioyo. If he can continue his progression then he could genuinely make his way to the very top of the game.

All data unless mentioned is from Wyscout.