Football is and forever has been perpetually evolving, but things have really sped up over the last decade. Previously, roles were defined by positions. Everyone had a rough idea of what to expect from each area of the pitch. Now, though, one position can be, and regularly is, filled by a number of players all with different strengths and weaknesses.
There’s too much of a focus on positions when what really matters is how they operate within their role.
A perfect example of this is the debate surrounding Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. All three are right-backs, yet how they’re used differs dramatically from player to player. Despite this, many are often eager to proclaim that one of them is the best in the league. In reality, it’s impossible to compare them fairly.
The Reds have averaged 60% possession since the start of last season and Alexander-Arnold is their chief creator. It’s inevitable that he’ll see a lot of the ball. On a per 90 basis, the difference between the passes attempted by the Liverpool No.66 and Reece James looks minimal, but over a 38-game season, it’s a difference of over 300 passes.
That figure rises to 800 when you compare the scouse maestro to the Manchester United full-back. With this in mind, most possession-based stats will likely favour Alexander-Arnold, well, apart from passing accuracy. Like most creative players, the Liverpool man is loose in possession. He takes chances and this impacts his accuracy. The Premier League champions won’t mind that, however, as it’s part and parcel of that role.
Of the three, James has a higher pass accuracy with 86%. As you can see in the passing flow maps above, he isn’t as direct as his Liverpool counterpart. In his own half, Alexander-Arnold’s passes tend to be played forward whereas the Chelsea man plays it inside to his left. Frank Lampard doesn’t burden his right-back with being the man to advance the Blues forward.
In fact, James plays the fewest number of passes forward when looking at the three players. The 21-year-old also plays a lesser percentage of his passes forward, with just 24%. Alexander-Arnold plays 34% of his passes forward while Wan-Bissaka plays 35% forward.
At first glance, that may appear to be a surprising statistic. Manchester United are a counterattacking team, though, so it makes sense that their right-back is looking to get the ball forward as quickly as possible.
You can see it in their passes made networks. Wan-Bissaka plays more passes into the United No.10, usually Fernandes, whereas James plays more backwards to his defensive midfielder and his right-sided centre-back.
United’s desire to catch teams on the break also lends itself favourably to another Wan-Bissaka stat. There’s space for him to attack and he’s eager to beat players to create better opportunities for others. The former Palace man tops the list for dribbles attempted. James and Alexander-Arnold are passers of the ball, not ball-carriers. They’re also playing in teams who are possession-orientated.
Then there’s expected assists (xA). This metric is often used to show that Alexander-Arnold is the best of the bunch. As we touched upon earlier, Liverpool allow their right-back the freedom to take chances. It’s required in order for him to create. When looking at his crossing heat map, it paints a picture of a player picking out passes from an area commonly associated with Kevin De Bruyne.
He isn’t getting to the byline and just putting crosses into the area, his are more measured. James’ map isn’t too dissimilar but he’s often tasked with overlapping and this is why the majority of his crosses arrive in more advanced areas. Wan-Bissaka’s map looks like one you’d expect from a more traditional full-back. He isn’t getting involved in the play in deeper areas. He plays a pass forward and then offers the overlap.
The deeper the area the cross originates from, the more measured it can be. In theory, the more measured it is, the more dangerous it is. The delivery has to be spot on, but this goes some way to explaining why Alexander-Arnold is such a creative outlet.
All the graphics and visualisations in this article use Wyscout data and were produced in the Twenty3 Toolbox.
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