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Five’s a Crowd?

Assessing Newcastle’s Centre-Backs

In almost three decades of supporting Newcastle United, I can’t remember a time when we were so blessed in the centre-back position. We’ve had Woodgate and we’ve had Colo, but there’s never been a time when we’ve had five quality CBs at once!

In the context of the takeover now being all but confirmed, I want to find out who the best centre-back at the club is right now, and what might happen moving forward.

It’s a question that splits opinion among fans.

We’ve got Fabian Schär’s marauding runs and top-bin pile drivers, Florian Lejune’s 40-yard raking passes, Jamaal Lascelles no-nonsense leadership, Ciaran Clark’s goal-scoring form and Federico Fernández’s perfectly timed sliding tackles.

Each one of them brings something to the table, so let’s take a closer look.

Just a few points before we start:

  • All the stats used in this article are based on the current season and on a per 90-minute (p90) basis.
  • A quick word on Lejeune. He’s had horrific injuries over the last couple of years and has only managed 4.9 x 90 minutes this season so you could argue it’s an unfair comparison. I did consider using his stats from last season, but the world has changed. As harsh as it sounds, Lejeune might not be the same player he was before his 2nd ACL tears in the space of 12 months, only time (and games) will tell.
  • I’ve not included Paul Dummet as a CB because he’s more of a utility left-sided defender.

Defending

Thanks to the Pep Guardiola’s of this world we know the modern game requires more from a CB than just simply defending well. However, It’s still the most important part of their game and it feels like the best place to begin our analysis.

Before I started looking at the stats, I would have said Lascelles or Fernández were the busiest CBs in the team, however, it’s actually Fabian Schär.

On a per 90-minute basis, Schär makes the most intercepts (2.71) - significantly more than Clark (0.98), Fernandez (0.65) and even Lascelles (1.33). Schär often positions himself to cut out the passing lanes and he isn’t afraid to step up out of the defensive line to nick the ball.

Overall, the Swiss international completes 11% more defensive actions per game than Lejeune in second place.

However, It’s the Captain who comes out on top for the percentage of duals won per game, succeeding in over 60% of the duels he competes in.

He’s a big, strong lad and at 6’2’’ he knows how to use his strength well to win the ball back. The skipper makes the most ball recoveries, winning it back on average 11.9 times per game.

Passing

Building play from the back is a common tactic associated with some of the best teams in the world. This requires defenders who are good on the ball and have a touch of creativity.

Surprisingly (or not as may be the case) Lascelles has the best pass completion rate, even though he looks the most uncomfortable on the ball.

He does play a lot of short passes with over 65% being under 25 yards. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot to be said for knowing your limitations.

When it comes to passing under pressure, there’s a clear gap between Lascelles/Clark on one side and Schär /Lejeune/ Fernández on the other.

Lascelles and Clark have a better pass success rate, but they play most of their passes short and prefer to get rid of the ball before pressure has been applied. The others tend to be outlets for Lascelles and Clark and are more comfortable playing the ball under pressure and moving it up the pitch.

FBRef.com (where I got the data from) defines a progressive pass as “a completed pass that moves the ball towards the opponents goal at least 10 yards from it’s furthest point in the last six passes, or completed passes into the opponents penalty area. It also excludes all passes from the defending 40% of the pitch.”

On that basis, Schär (3.68) and Fernández (3.38) have been by far our most progressive passers from centre-back this season. Schär has played 6x more progressive passes per 90 than Lascelles (0.61) and over 2x as many as Clark (1.82).

Schär can play a wide-range of passes off both feet and uses the cross-field diagonal pass effectively to switch up play and set up attacks. This is something we’ve also seen Lejuene and Fernández do well over recent seasons. Fernández likes to pop up on the flanks from time to time, and he’s a great crosser of the ball when he gets into that position.

In possession

It started off well for Lascelles and Clark - they both have good defensive stats - but, as we look further into their all-round game, holes are starting to appear… and it only gets worse for them when we look at the possession numbers.

They make the least amount of touches and carries per game, whilst Fernández and Schär make the most.

Positionally, Lascelles and Clark take the most touches in the defensive areas of the pitch whereas Fernández, Schär and Lejeune carry the ball into the middle and final third on a more frequent basis.

You can see the difference in their style of play most clearly in the progressive yards traveled with the ball (the distance a player has moved with the ball, towards the opponents’ goal).

Schär is way out in front, travelling 123.42 yards per 90 minutes – a whopping 44% further than Fernández who is in 2nd place. Both players are comfortable bringing the ball out from the back and get their heads up, looking to release the pace of Almirón and ASM.

Schär is great with ball at his feet and can beat a player, which allows him to break defensive lines and create space for others to run into.

At the other end of the scale, Ciaran Clark has the lowest progressive ball carry yards p90 out of all the PL centre-backs (48/48), with Lascelles not far behind (43/48). Both players have limited ability on the ball and can get themselves into trouble if they over-play it – it’s better for them to lay the ball off to their more cultured colleagues.

Team Results

We can drill-down into the stats all we like (and I do like to) but, at the end of the day, football is a results business. A centre-backs’ main priority is to stop the other team from scoring and help the team win the game or, at the very least, avoid defeat by keeping a clean sheet.

Interestingly, Newcastle concede less goals p90 when Clark and/or Lascelles are in the starting 11; and concede more goals when they’re not. Conversely, when Schär is in the team we concede the most goals.

This translates to points per game - Ciaran Clark has earned 1.64 points per game (27% above Newcastle’s season average) whereas Schär has earned 1.15 (4% below).

Why is this? Well, the stats haven’t been adjusted to take into account the difficulty level of the opponent, so it may be Clark has had the easiest games. But it could just be that Lascelles and Clark fit into Bruce’s ‘system’ better and/or their leadership qualities help the team pick up more points when they’re playing.

So, WHO is Newcastle’s best CB?

Based on this season’s stats, this is how I would rank them:

  1. Schär
  2. Fernández
  3. Lascelles
  4. Clark
  5. Lejeune

I think a better question to ask would be: what kind of team do we want to be, and which players best fit that system?

Under Bruce our tactics seem to be defend as deep as possible and, when we do have the ball (which is only 40% of the time, 17th in league), pass it to Saint-Maximin and hope he does something with it.

It’s a regressive system which suits defenders like Clark and Lascelles more than ball-playing CBs like Schär.

Lascelles has been one of my favorite players over recent seasons because of his leadership (which is hard to quantify with stats), but he’s the least progressive CB in the PL in terms of passes per game and progressive yards travelled with the ball (Ciaran Clark doesn’t rank much higher).

Other English CBs like Lewis Dunk, Harry Maguire, Jon Stones and even Adam Webster (Brighton) are streets ahead of him in this area, and it’s these stats which mean Lascelles won’t be getting a call from Gareth Southgate any time soon, sadly.

What happens next?

When the takeover officially happens it’s highly likely we’ll appoint a new manager before next season; and hopefully someone in the mould of Pochettino or Nagelsmann.

If that’s the case, then I think Clark’s and Lascelle’s days at the club are numbered.

Progressive managers like Pochettino want CBs that are comfortable on the ball. They want them to be able to soak up a high-press, break the opposition lines to set up lightning-quick counters. Clark and Lascelles just aren’t suited to this type of game plan.

On the other hand, I think Schär would thrive in this type of system, so would Lejeune (if he can get back to the player he was before his injuries) and even Fernández.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the John Stones links grow stronger. He’s the most progressive CB in the league and, at 25, his best years are still ahead of him despite a troubled season at City. He may also be available for a cut-down fee.

Personally, I’d be sad if Lascelles leaves because we need leaders and he would be a good character to have around the dressing room during the initial seasons following the takeover. The guy literally chinned Mo Diame for slacking off in training, so any highly paid superstars coming in thinking they’ve got an easy life would need to think again!

It’s going to be interesting and exciting to see how it all unfolds. Regardless of which CBs stay or go, it’s been a pleasure seeing them in the black and white short and they will all be welcomed back with open arms in years to come.