Finding signal in the data
A lot is often made of the fact that Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk does not make many tackles. The Dutchman averages almost exactly one a game, less than every other central defender at England’s “Big 6” clubs bar one. Paolo Maldini famously said “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake,” yet – at least in England -it seems almost sacrilege to not talk about tackles when rating defensive players. Apart from a goal, the biggest cheer from Old Trafford to the Sunday parks occurs when someone puts in a crunching tackle; this display of aggression and bravery must surely be more common in better players?
Our analysis shows that there is no positive correlation between tackles made – adjusted for possession or otherwise – and player ability (as measured by our Player Model, which accounts for playing level and playing time – the two biggest factors for player value) for centre backs or full backs. Despite this, it is still a statistic that is often used to compare top defensive players: when Aaron Wan-Bissaka moved to Manchester United in the summer, the number of tackles he makes was his most talked about “attribute”, though rarely was it discussed whether volume of tackles has any correlation with player ability.
The same is true for how often a player is successful in the tackles he makes. Van Dijk’s tackle success rate is almost identical to Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip’s, while Aymeric Laporte, whose injuries this season seemed to significantly weaken Manchester City’s defence, has a lower success rate than both his regular centre back partners. The much-maligned Mustafi at Arsenal has not only made more tackles per match than any other Arsenal central defender, but has also won a greater proportion of them. We find the same lack of relationship with full backs, too.
As data becomes a more accepted part of clubs’ recruitment processes, identifying what is important becomes critical. There are plenty of statistics that do reveal truths about a player’s underlying ability, so in order to achieve an edge it is invaluable to look at the right numbers.
Performance data provided by StatsPerform