In the first part of Building Twenty3 FC, we focused on a centre-forward, a box-to-box midfielder and a centre-back. This time around, we will be searching for full-backs and a defensive midfielder.
Again, we’ll be using Twenty3’s Advanced Metrics, a glut of visualisations from within the Analytics Toolbox and SkillCorner data to add further context to certain elements of a player’s profile.
As discussed in the previous piece, we want Twenty3 FC to be a controlled team on the pitch. We’re looking to dictate the tempo by owning the space and dominating the ball. The idea is to play an attractive brand of football in a 4-3-3 shape, pin the opposition in and create high volume for the goal threats.
The full-backs aren’t going to be the sole creators in this team but they are going to be key to how we look to build and sustain attacks. I don’t just want them offering an overlap. They need to be composed, confident and progressive in possession.
As this is a project, I’m looking for players aged 24 or under. However, I don’t want players who lack experience so in my search I have filtered out those who have not played a minimum of 4,000 minutes. I’m looking within Europe’s top five leagues but have also included the Eredivisie and the Championship. First up, I’m looking for a left-back.
Immediately, I discounted Theo Hernandez (price), Romain Perraud (still settling in at Southampton) and Anthony Caci (moving to Mainz at the end of the season). I then sifted through the rest of the list and identified two standouts.
Marc Cucurella and Caio Henrique. I felt like I needed a third option so got a little creative. Lloyd Kelly of Bournemouth can play at left-back but has spent the majority of his 6,200 minutes at centre-back over the last two campaigns. It would be easy to convert him back into a full-time full-back though, so he makes the list and he is who we will start with.
Lloyd Kelly, 23, Bournemouth
At 5ft10, he is a good height for a full-back. He competes for the most aerial duels of those players selected (4.08) and wins the highest percentage (66%). Granted, the fact he has primarily been a centre-back skews the comparison. Having someone who is aerially adept at left-back can only be a positive. You often see teams exploiting the back post area and this would be the case with Kelly in the starting XI.
He isn’t being targeted for that, though. It is just an added bonus.
The 23-year-old is used to seeing a lot of the ball and has attempted, on average, in excess of 50 passes per 90 over the last two seasons, finding a teammate 84% of the time.
What is encouraging with Kelly is that he has an expected assists average of 0.08. It shows his creativity, even as a central defender. His pass map shows the type of probing player he is, too.
The only concern, I guess, would be that – per SkillCorner – he is only covering 9.3km. The other two players he’s up against in this battle to be my left-back average in excess of 10km. Now, this is not to say he can’t cover that sort of ground, just that he has not had to at centre-back. However, if the stamina isn’t yet there, that would impact the adaptation period. So something to consider.
Marc Cucurella, 23, Brighton
The former Barcelona youngster only moved to the Premier League in the summer but the transition has been seamless. He has not struggled with the physicality and seems to be up to speed with the rigours of the English top-flight already – he has already racked up 2,000 minutes.
His injury record is flawless – another positive when looking at a player.
Despite playing as part of a back five, Cucurella does not shirk his defensive responsibilities and keeps himself busy. Of the three being analysed, he has attempted more defensive actions and more defensive duels on a per 90 basis.
He may only be 5ft6 but he puts himself about in the air, averaging 3.4 aerial duels with a success rate of 44%. Could it be better? Yes. Could it be worse? Definitely. I’m classing it as a positive.
Onto what he offers going forward.
Cucurella attempts more crosses (3.5) and dribbles (2.8) but fewer passes (40) than the other two players. He is more of a threat in the final third, though, with an expected goals average of 0.05 and an expected assists average of 0.10.
He is not heavily involved but when he is, he is progressive. The ex-Getafe man is influential in the opposition’s half and that is what we’re after, given we intend to dominate the ball.
Caio Henrique, 24, Monaco
Previously on the books of Atletico Madrid, the Brazil U23 international spent three seasons on loan in his homeland before moving to Monaco in 2020 and has since racked up over 50 appearances across all competitions.
Henrique is a set-piece expert and a genuine threat from, well, anywhere in the final third. He is just as comfortable hugging the touchline and attacking the byline as he is drifting inside and playing passes into the area from deep. In fact, he is probably at his most dangerous when positioned in that inside left area. Think Trent Alexander-Arnold but on the opposite flank.
The 24-year-old averages 46 passes per 90, 2.3 dribbles and 2.51 progressive runs. He has attempted three dribbles per 90 in Ligue 1, assisted 1.05 shots and has an expected assists average of 0.13.
He is 5ft8 but doesn’t compete for many aerial duels, though that could be something to do with the league he’s playing in. The other two on this list compete in England which is notoriously more physically demanding. But, again, just because he currently is not doing something does not mean he can’t.
This is possibly the most difficult one yet. All have strengths and weaknesses. All would suit McGuire-ball in some capacity and would bring something different to the starting XI. Having put a lot of thought into this, I think I would have to go for Henrique. A bonus to this selection is that he covers the most distance on a per 90 basis – 10.2km.
I almost went with Kelly because of the physical aspects of his game and on-ball ability, but I’m going to bank on the centre-backs and the defensive midfielder to bring that to the team. After all, I want my full-backs to be creative and Henrique’s ability from wide areas makes him the pick.
This search was identical to the left-back one.
I discount players who are simply out of our price range and those who have recently moved and not yet truly settled.
So Achraf Hakimi and Trent Alexander-Arnold are crossed off the list. Aaron Wan-Bissaka does not have the on-ball ability I’m after so he is discounted.
Max Aarons shows up well and the situation with Djed Spence makes him an intriguing prospect. The latter is currently on loan at Nottingham Forest from Middlesbrough. He has caught the eye of many in the Premier League and looks set to be on the move at the end of the season. He is attainable and viable.
With the third option, I am once again getting a little creative.
I’m looking at a profile more than a position. That is why I’ve identified Tyler Adams as a possible candidate, despite him not hitting the 4,000 minutes played threshold. Exceptions can and will be made.
He is who I’m going to start with.
Tyler Adams, 23, RB Leipzig
The USMNT international is highly versatile so convincing him to play at right-back might not be a problem. In the system, he will see a lot of the ball – perhaps even more than some central midfielders – and he will be integral to the way we look to play.
Adams is composed, press-resistant and incisive. He is an intelligent player who knows when to take a risk and when to play it safe.
Of the trio being profiled, he attempts the most passes (57) and has the highest pass accuracy (88%).
He reads the game well – racking up over five interceptions per 90 – and he is very switched on defensively – completing over eight ball recoveries per 90 in the Bundesliga. Adams is a front-footed, proactive player who will be perfect for the aggressive team I am looking to piece together.
The 23-year-old has an engine on him, too, averaging 10.5km per SkillCorner. Despite not being a traditional full-back, he ticks a lot of boxes for this specific role.
Djed Spence, 21, Nottingham Forest (on loan from Middlesbrough)
Spence would be a different sort of right-back. He is not heavily involved in possession – averaging fewer than 30 passes per 90 – but when he does have the ball, he makes something happen.
The 21-year-old has attempted 5.51 dribbles and 3.31 progressive runs in the Championship over the last two years on a per 90 basis. He also averages close to two touches in the opposition box and is involved in over ten attacking duels.
He very much comes to life in the opposition half. If you want the ball moved from A to B, he is the man to do it. Spence is also a bit of an aerial juggernaut, competing for almost four per 90. His hit rate is not the best, winning just 42% but you can definitely work with that.
It is safe to say that he is more of a traditional full-back. He marauds down the flank and causes chaos on the overlap. But he’s still so young and there is a lot of potential there that can be worked with.
Max Aarons, 22, Norwich City
Aarons is the perfect middle man. The majority of his metrics put him in between Spence and Adams.
For example, he doesn’t attempt as many passes as Adams but he does attempt more than Spence. He attempts more dribbles than the RB Leipzig utility man but fewer than Forest’s on-loan wing-back.
With Aarons, you kind of get the best of both worlds. He can play the part of a traditional full-back but then he has the on-ball ability that you have come to expect from a modern-day full-back.
He knows the Premier League, too. So that is another tick in his box. Per Transfermarkt, he has just two years remaining on his deal at the end of the campaign and this should, in theory at least, make it a little easier to negotiate with Norwich City.
After a lot of consideration, I went with Aarons. The idea of converting Adams did intrigue me but the acceleration of the Norwich City man combined with his metrics and his knowledge of the Premier League was too much to overlook.
His contract situation can be leveraged and there is a bargain to be had. At 22, he can fill the role for a decade. He is young enough to be developed into the perfect full-back for this system. It just felt like the perfect storm.
The glue that will hold the team together.
I don’t want a destroyer. I don’t want a deep-lying playmaker either. I need someone with both parts to their game.
Now, the system often dictates the output of a player. As I’ve mentioned previously, just because a player isn’t doing something does not mean they can’t do it. For example, a player might be in midfield for a team looking to play on the break. They have to sit deep and are tasked with putting out plenty of fires. Their defensive numbers would be sky high compared to someone playing in a possession-based team.
It does not mean they are better defensively, it just means they are busier.
This made it difficult to come up with criteria. So it was fairly broad – a minimum of 4,000 minutes, aged under 24 and playing across the top five leagues but the Eredivisie and the Austrian Bundesliga were also included.
I wanted to focus on certain areas – passes, aerial duels, ball recoveries and distance covered. In this instance, there wasn’t a minimum requirement. There wasn’t a maximum one either. It was just a case of looking at who performed well across the four metrics.
Aurelien Tchouameni, 22, Monaco
There is a reason the Frenchman is being linked with every elite club. He is a one-man wrecking ball who just so happens to be a creative menace when he has it.
His positioning, for someone so young, is superb. It is cliche but he sniffs out danger. He just knows where to be and when to be there. He is averaging almost 5.5 interceptions, he is recovering the ball on 11.2 occasions and racking up almost 14 defensive duels per 90 in Ligue 1.
In terms of aerial duels, he is attempting 4.22 and winning 66%. This particular metric is often overlooked. You need aerially dominant centre-backs but you also need that player ahead of them to be good in the air too. Given they often find themselves isolated across the width of the pitch, they need to be able to handle those long balls forward to target men. Fabinho, for example, wins in excess of 60% and he is vital to the way Liverpool play and key to helping them pin the opposition. I want that for Twenty3 FC and Tchouameni would give us that.
He gobbles up the ground with his long strides and averages 10.5km per 90 for Monaco. In possession, he is just as dominant, averaging 53 passes with an 88% success rate.
One potential issue is that he has played in a double pivot for Monaco and might need to adapt to play in a single pivot. The spacing is different as are the demands on the player. Give him time and I’m sure he’d be able to excel there.
Mohamed Camara, 22, Red Bull Salzburg
He is a bit of a wildcard because he doesn’t hit the 4,000-minute threshold. He’s simply too good to exclude, though. His stats are somewhat skewed due to the fact he plays for the dominant team in the league but that can’t be held against him.
He attempts 9.1 attacking duels and 6.8 defensive duels. He averages 5.2 interceptions and makes close to 12 ball recoveries per 90. He is everywhere for Red Bull Salzburg.
Camara is not the most active in the air, attempting just 2.4 aerial duels per 90 but he does put his 5ft7 frame to good use, winning 50% of his duels. The 22-year-old sees a lot of the ball and averages a little over 60 passes on a per 90 basis.
A slight concern might be how he makes that step up from the Austrian top flight, especially with his small stature. However, he is fairly robust and press resistant – completing 72% of the dribbles he attempts.
Ibrahim Sangare, 24, PSV
Sangare is a defensive behemoth for PSV.
He completes 82% of his defensive actions, wins 68% of his defensive duels and 65% of his aerial duels. The 24-year-old also racks up 6.5 interceptions and makes a remarkable 12.5 ball recoveries on a per 90 basis.
The Ivory Coast international has a see ball, win ball mentality. And he’s exceptional at it.
On the ball, he is just as ruthless. In the Eredivisie, he averages 70 passes and an 89% pass success rate. He is also a fairly progressive ball carrier, completing nearly 60% of the 2.45 dribbles he attempts.
In an ideal world, I would’ve had a three-sided coin and that could have made the difficult decision for me. I don’t have that though so I’ve had to stress over it for a while.
Ultimately, I opted for Sangare. The 6ft3 powerhouse is a package player, covering 10.9km distance per 90 too – the most of the trio. He has everything I want for that defensive midfield role and he is only going to get better. With Tchouameni, he would have to adapt to a single pivot. With Camara, I fear the physicality of the English game might be a bit too much for him in the short-term.
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SkillCorner metrics criteria: Players must have featured in 75 minutes or more in a minimum of ten matches. A per 90 average is then applied to this data.