Bringing the NFL to the Premier League, with Leander Dendoncker and data visualisations

At the risk of annoying fans of the other football, the NFL is quite a simple game to understand. You have big players who block, little brave players who run through them, fast players who can catch, and one player who can throw the ball. 

And then there are tight-ends. They line up on offence next to the big, hefty blockers, rather than with the fast receivers who line up wider. But tight-ends only block some of the time, and they often become additional receivers. They need to be big, strong, reasonably fast, and able to catch. It’s a bit of a weird position. Several notable current tight-ends played basketball in college.

I mention all of this because Leander Dendoncker might be association football’s first tight-end

Notionally, when the Belgian is on the pitch Wolves line up in a 3-5-2. But this is no ordinary and symmetrical central midfield trio, despite an average position that looks quite regular on the surface.

Wolverhampton Wanderers' average positions from the 2019/20 Premier League season.
Average player positions

Even though we don’t have data on the movements Dendoncker makes off the ball, we can infer them from what he does on it, by using the Twenty3 Content Toolbox.

Players will tend to make or receive passes in clusters; on the simplest level, a striker will receive a lot of passes around the penalty area when their team is attacking, but may also receive a large amount near the halfway line when their team is beginning a phase of possession from a deeper starting point.

Dendoncker’s movements — as seen through the general position and the further clusters of where he receives passes — are very different to João Moutinho, who plays on the other side.

On the visualisation below, the players’ average position is shown by the large coral player node, with the further coral dots representing the other places they often receive passes in.

If an arrow goes towards the main spot, then that teammate mainly interacts with the player in question in that area; if the teammate’s arrow goes to one of the smaller dots, the teammate mainly interacts with the player in that question in that area instead.

Passes received and movements network comparing Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielders João Moutinho and Leander Dendoncker.
Passes received and movements network

For Moutinho, we see that he shuttles forwards and backwards (which is where his main interactions with Wolves’ left wing-back and left centre-back happen respectively).

There’s also some movement across to the other side of the pitch, possibly sweeping deep when he looks to help the team build out from the back if they’re struggling.

Dendoncker’s movements could hardly be more different. He drifts centrally a little, but he also receives enough passes near the box for these to be flagged as individual receiving clusters.

Rather than being a conventional central midfielder, even more than a conventional box-to-box player, he breaks from the line to join the forwards.

It’s no surprise, then, that Dendoncker’s shot map looks like that of a forward, and not that of a central midfielder (save for a couple of particularly wild decisions).

Leander Dendoncker's shot map from the 2019/20 Premier League season for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

What makes the use of the term ‘tight-end’ for Dendoncker’s role apt is that, at 6’2” (188cm), the midfielder is a big unit, and five of his 12 shots inside the box have been headers. But although he spends an unusual amount of time up the pitch, he may not add much other than his presence.

Dendoncker’s passing is not incisive. His passing sonar (specifically as a central midfielder, weeding out the time he’s played at centre-back this season) shows a very small share of forward passes.

Each segment represents an angle with the player at the centre, and their size indicates the proportion of the player’s passes in that direction. The large downwards segment shows Dendoncker makes a fair chunk of his passes directly backwards.

Leander Dendoncker's passing sonar from the 2019/20 Premier League season for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The small segments at the top are the small share of forward passes, and the large amount of coral, representing unsuccessful passes, shows how few of these attempts come off.

We can see this in more detail on Dendoncker’s passing flow visualisation. The arrows represent where his completed passes from each zone go; by and large, they’re either sideways or very small, suggesting very short passes. The brightness of the zone indicates how many passes were made from there.

Leander Dendoncker's passing flow map from the 2019/20 Premier League season for Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The tactical role that Dendoncker plays, sitting normally in a line of three central midfielders but breaking off it in attack, is really interesting. There doesn’t seem to be another player — in the Premier League, certainly, possibly across Europe’s top leagues — playing in the same way.

It’s just a shame that Dendoncker’s performances perhaps don’t do it justice.

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