Stats: Fighting, and Winning (Duels, That Is)

Otto Greule Jr

We're digging into some defensive stats to prove what we already know: Osvaldo Alonso is the best ball-winner in the league.

Traditionally the only players that get any statistical love are attackers, who can tally goals and assists. But thanks to the wealth of Opta stats being produced for MLS, defenders can begin to get their due. We're still a long way from getting objective information about subtle (but critical) factors like defensive positioning, but at least we can keep track of events around the ball, like tackles and fouls.

You might have noticed during our 2012 player profiles during the offseason that we included a Net Duel Rate stat for each player. That's simply their count of Duels Won minus their Duels Lost per 90 minutes of play, but that raises the question of what a Duel is. It turns out that's kind of a grab bag of various events around the ball that involve two opposing players, and some of them make a little less sense than others, but for now I'll focus on the Duel stat as Opta calculates it.

If I asked 10 Sounders fans who they thought the league leader in winning Duels was, all 10 would answer 'Osvaldo Alonso' before I could finish the question and at least one would slap me for my impertinence in even asking. And they'd be right (even the slapper). Here are the top 10 players in net duel rate among MLS qualifiers (at least 900 minutes played) in 2012:

Rank Player Team 2012 Net Duel
1 Osvaldo Alonso SEA 4.65
2 Jay DeMerit VAN 3.35
3 Chad Marshall CLB 3.28
4 David Horst POR 3.12
5 Marvell Wynne COL 2.96
6 Aurelien Collin SKC 2.86
7 Stephen McCarthy NER 2.85
8 Eric Brunner POR 2.82
9 Drew Moor COL 2.74
10 Marcelo Saragosa DCU 2.73

There are a few interesting things to highlight here. The first is that not only is the Honey Badger the leader, he laps the rest of the league — the gap of 1.3 between he and DeMerit at #2 is equal to the gap between DeMerit and Tyrone Marshall at #22. The second is that he's occupying a place filled with central defenders. McCarthy is an occasional midfielder, as is Moor, but my understanding is both mostly played at center back this season. Which means the next player on the list after Alonso that isn't a center back is Kaka's best friend Saragosa at #10. Seattle fans don't need to be told that Alonso is a unique player, but this is rather stark statistical evidence.

Interestingly, the first player not a defender or defensive midfielder is Kei Kamara at #17, which seems a bit odd. Kamara isn't exactly known as a ball winner. That's another artifact of combining many events into the Duel stat. One of the factors is aerial duels, and Kamara wins headers. He wins them a lot, in fact. His 160 headers won is tops in the league, way ahead of his teammate Collin in #2 with 111.

Dueling Sounders

But back to the full Net Duel Rate, here's the list of qualifying Sounders:

Player Net Duel Rate
Osvaldo Alonso 4.65
Jeff Parke 2.43
Marc Burch 1.87
Patrick Ianni 1.86
Zach Scott 1.73
Jhon Kennedy Hurtado 1.36
Leonardo Gonzalez 1.24
Michael Gspurning 0.36
Brad Evans 0.24
Bryan Meredith 0.18
Adam Johansson -0.44
Mauro Rosales -0.83
Andy Rose -1.01
Fredy Montero -1.91
Alex Caskey -1.99
Alvaro Fernandez -2.25
Eddie Johnson -2.46
David Estrada -2.67

I've shaded the field players by position: red for defenders, yellow for midfielders, and green for forwards (apologies to the red-green colorblind). There's a clear progression from defenders at the top of the table to forwards at the bottom, which makes sense. To vastly oversimplify, defenders are tasked with regaining possession of the ball and attackers are tasked with turning that possession into shots, in difficult areas where they're likely to lose possession themselves.

But there are two positional outliers. The first is Alonso, who we've already acknowledged is a unique player. The other is Johansson, who has the lowest NDR among defenders and is lower even than formidfender Evans. That could be a result of the fact that as a fullback who runs up the line, he acts as more of a midfielder than a defender. Or it could just as well be taken as evidence by doubters that his defensive abilities leave something to be desired. The left-sided fullbacks Burch and Gonzalez are firmly among the other defenders, with Burch third highest on the team, though neither was nearly as offensively minded as Johansson.

Crunching the Swede

I mentioned before that Duels is a conglomerate of other stats. For example, it includes 'Take Ons', which involve running at and getting past a defender. So Eddie Johnson gets a Duel Won when he step-overs past an opposing fullback. And a foul is counted as a Duel Lost (and being fouled a Duel Won) though a fair number of fouls are tactically a good result for the fouler and fouling as an offensive player is part of the cost of doing business in the opposing box.

To help figure out what's going on with Johansson and help focus on defensive accomplishments we'll instead look at more specific stats: headers, tackles, and what Opta calls a 'Challenge' but I'll call getting Burned — when an opposing player runs by a defender (the opposite of a Take On, more or less).

Here's a table of those stats with Johansson, Burch, and Gonzalez as well as Ianni as a typical center back and Rosales as a typical attacking midfielder:

Player Tackles Tackled Net Header
Net Burned
Johansson 38 9 29 10 15 -5 17
Burch 45 6 39 9 8 1 6
Gonzalez 57 13 44 16 7 9 15
Ianni 21 0 21 23 11 12 3
Rosales 31 46 -15 6 20 -14 14

If Johansson's overall low Duel rate was due to his spending a lot of time in the offensive end, it would show up as a higher Tackled number. . not quite Rosales' 46, but higher than a typical defender. But in fact he was tackled no more than a typical defender, and less even than Gonzalez despite Leo playing almost 500 fewer minutes.

One factor is that his Tackle rate is not high, though not substantially lower than Burch's. A larger factor is that he has a negative rate of winning headers, though again he's in the neighborhood of Burch. And he got burned more than the other fullbacks, though only a few more than Gonzalez (this is where Burch excelled). In the end there isn't a single culprit, but instead Johansson being the weakest defender statistically by a small amount in each factor is magnified when they're added together into the combined Duel stat.

Net Possessions

To deal with some of the weirdness in the duel stat I'm going to migrate to a more defensively focused stat focused on possession change. A won tackle is a critical stat for a defender since it represents a change of possession from one team to the other. If we figure winning an aerial duel as moving from an unpossessed ball to possession for the player's team and therefore half a possession change, we can add the two together and get a rate. No surprises that Alonso still leads the league, though he's not quite as dominant as in Net Duels, since that includes fouls and Alonso has a magical ability to tackle relentlessly and still be fouled more than he fouls other players. But I'll do more work on Net Possessions as the season goes on. For now, we can just sit back and enjoy the work of the best defensive midfielder in MLS.

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