Hidden Layer: Fullbacks, Defensive Midfielders And Pro-Active Defense

Any excuse to run another photo of el Corazon in action is a good one. Today's excuse being a post about pro-active defense.

Last year in a 2-part "tactical preview" I suggested that the true shape of a "back four" team is actually a "W", taking into consideration the prevalence of the deep-lying central defensive midfielder, who in many applications has become almost a 3rd center back and revised the famous "libero" role of the past.

The basic premise is that the two center backs form the deepest layer in formation, with fullbacks taking up more advanced positions, and a CDM "lurking" to fill the gaps and reinforce the defense. These 5 players' average positions trace out a distinct "W" shape in many contemporary formations. It could easily be said that the fullbacks and CDM form a distinct band, which for example would turn a 4-3-3 into a 2-3-2-3, and a 4-4-2 into a 2-3-3-2. We have been more than willing to subdivide midfield into multiple bands, and even, to a lesser extent, forwards; but we have been oddly unwilling to more accurately define banding at the back of formations.

Okay, great... if we can begin to accept the fact that this phenomenon exists and begin to incorporate it into our thinking of the game, we need to begin to define what these players do. And I will try to get to that in a bit, but first...

Last season, when MLSsoccer.com begin to publish "chalkboards" with their match recaps, I was at first delighted and then actually intimidated with the opportunity to peruse so much raw data. It was, and can be, a lot to grasp, and much of it can be virtually meaningless with regards to the final result (there is a very good reason The Beautiful Game seems to buck the hardcore statistical analysis which can bog down so many other sports).

There was one trend I quickly begun to pick up on, and that was a sheer number of "trackable actions" or "touches" that Sounders fullbacks seemed to get. It shouldn't be any surprise the number of touches Osvaldo Alosno would get - that is his job, when you break it all down - but the team leader in touches for any given match was more likely than not a fullback, and beyond that it was very common for both fullbacks to be among the top three on the team in touches, joined by - you guessed it - the CDM, aka "el Corazon" Ozzie Alonso.

So what this band does, more than anything, is see the bulk of the action in any given match; at least as measured by OPTA tracking. Okay... so... what does this accomplish?

I had intended to make this a very numbers-heavy piece. Spending considerable amount of time building a spreadsheet where I recorded the top three Sounders in terms of trackable actions for each match, and tried to decipher things like pass percentage, percentage of trackable actions which were successful passes, analyzing a player's personal pass percentage delta against the overall team numbers.Here are some interesting tidbits:

-- In at least 28 of the 32 matches analyzed (all league matches, there were two for which I couldn't view the data) at least 2 of the top 3 in overall touches were the RB (usually James Riley), CDM (always Alonso), and LB (more often than not Tyson Wahl).

-- There was never a match in which none of these three positions were in the top 3 for trackable actions.

-- As for forwards, they were in the top 3 all of 4 times: home against New England, with Mauro Rosales and Roger Levesque (both forwards that day); at Vancouver (Fredy Montero), and at New England (the top three, in order were Nate Jaqua - yes, really - Levesque - playing as a RB - and David Estrada - playing as right mid.)

-- There were 7 instances where more than 50% of a top-3 player's trackable actions were successful passes. Five times it was Ozzie, and the Sounders were 4-0-1 in those matches (the one loss to RSL at home). The others were Riley (1-0 win @ Colorado) and Erik Friberg (3-1 loss @ Houston)

-- When forwards or midfielders, or Wahl, were in the top 3, far more often than not their personal passing percentage was more than 10% BELOW the overall team passing percentage.

-- Riley was regularly above average in terms of percentage of trackable actions as successful passes. Wahl was regularly below average in terms of that same metric.

-- If there is one thing my spreadsheet demonstrates it is how good Alonso is at passing.

-- The Sounders average possession percentage over the course of the 32 League matches analyzed was... drum roll please... 50%. (Well, 49.976 to be exact)

So.... what does this have to do with wins and losses? As it turns out, seemingly precious little. With the blizzard of data, there aren't any obvious correlations that jump out. When we beat Columbus 6-2, the Sounders attempted 345 passes with a 76% success rate. The top three in trackable actions that match were Wahl, with 107, attempting 56 passes with a 69.6% success rate; Lamar Neagle, with 102, attempting 44 passes with a 63.6% success rate; and Riley, with 98, attempting 51 passes with a 76.5% success rate. Now, this is just one match of 32, and I'm not asking for value judgments or conclusions to be drawn from any of this. But just for grins, lets look at the numbers a week later, in a 2-1 loss to RSL:

Riley: 187 actions, 110 passes at 76.4%

Rosales: 155 actions, 65 passes at 60%

Ozzie: 129 actions: 82 passes at 86.6%

Overall team: 467 passes at 80% (both solidly above average numbers for the team on the season)

As it turns out possession doesn't necessarily directly correlate to winning - although it certainly can't hurt. (it might be valuable at his point to check out this piece on how OPTA calculates possession)

If anything, possession very well may be a defensive tactic, built upon the premise that as long as you have the ball, they don't, which means by necessity they can't score. And herein very well may lie the real truth.

If we believe that the defense is split into these two bands of the "W," or in the bucket 4-4-2 a band of 4, then it is the primary job of the center backs to provide "reactive" defense, and the "libero" layer to provide "proactive" defense. If, on the whole, attacking is primarily proactive in nature, then defense is primarily reactive in nature. Read and react, and do so from the right spot and with adequate effort. These "liberos" are where the game transitions, and must be "proactively reactive" (at the risk of getting just a little too meta).

It's altogether a more complex problem than simply "can he defend and bomb forward when needed to provide the occasional cross?" When you dive into to complexities of The Beautiful Game, this search for simple definitions so often results in additional nuances. The fact remains, there is no, and will probably never be any, easy metric to help define the efficacy of this CDM/FB band. But the same reality exists for any position, quite frankly, with the possible exception of goalkeeper. The best we can do is attempt to better explain exactly what it is these players are being asked to really do in the match, and from there we can perhaps come up with a relative gauge to help improve team performance as a whole.

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