A fans perspective: Players should be evaluated on roles not their position

Fans have a tendency to evaluate a player based on the historical legends of a general position. For example, there has been much discussion about the need for Chelsea to sign a traditional defensive midfielder (DM) in the mold of Claude Makelele. The arguments for this reasoning tend to be that Premier League teams need a proper DM to win the title and the arguments tend to point to the past examples of this from title-winners who used the traditional DM role within their XI.

This is a fair argument, but there are confounding factors to it.

First, the Premier League has historically seen winners use some form of a traditional DM position because the game itself relied on this for many years. Of course, more teams are likely to win using a traditional DM when the Premier League has mostly been existent during the era of the game that evolved to have a traditional DM. However, the game always evolves. There is more to a position than a label. Importantly and ironically, what is commonly ignored by fans’ evaluations of players and positions, is the role a player occupies relative to the other 10 players on the field within the system of the manager.

For example, there is often a criticism of Jorginho that he is not a DM and that he is unskilled in the traditional aspects for defending. There are legitimate criticisms of this: his lack of pace to recover, his tendency to be beaten in 1v1s, and his lack of physicality and height/brawn to win aerial duals. The eye test tells us this, but many fans go much further and assert that he is useless in most aspects of defending that a holding midfielder should be tasked with, without evaluating the role he plays within the system he plays for.

Using numbers and stats is a useful way to analyze this narrative and sentiment among fans. The reason for this: Data is a wonderful thing that brings objectivity to what our eyes either cannot see or refuse to see. Using data can be incredibly informative with useful analyses gleaned, especially when measured comparatively on a percentile basis.

How stats and averages help to evaluate a players position and role.
How stats and averages help to evaluate a players position and role.

These charts show objective data. In a footballing sense, they show what your eyes may or may not see, because it is impossible for one set of human eyes to see every movement and every action of every minute of every match. In turn, this data and the charts help to remove subjective biases and therefore narratives. They strip it down to a common numerical currency for comparison.

There has been much pushback from many sectors of the footballing community on the usefulness of data and analytics due to the inability of data to fully capture every action that occurs on a football pitch. While data may not be able to fully encompass every action of every minute of every match, it is nonetheless useful in more than one way, and trying to discredit it based on the exceptions to the rule is faulty.

Furthermore, numbers, stats, and analytics are used in nearly every aspect of every action of every day of your life, whether you realize it or not. Every time that you flip a light switch, or drive a car, or use a microwave, data and science got you there. So, this argument that somehow football is the only thing that exists within a magical bubble that is isolated from data and statistical analysis to produce some level of insight and improvement, is farcical. You can debate the degree to which it is useful and how encompassing it is, but discrediting it is reductive and counterproductive.

So, what does data have to do with evaluating the role of a player? First, it can dispel myths about a player within a system based on what the eye test wants to see or fails to see. Second, it can be highly informative of a player’s output and how that fits in with the system they play in (i.e. a more defensive system spent with more time off the ball should produce greater defensive stats than a team that possesses the ball for 70% of the match). Finally, it allows for a greater examination of comparative roles and system fits that a player may have, and this final point is poignant considering it is the transfer season with new players linked to the club.

For example, the conversation on Declan Rice is that he is a traditional DM that will aid Chelsea in winning the Premier League because he will be the destroyer we lack. While Rice may be able to occupy this role, do Chelsea need this role? How does Rice fair as a traditional DM in a system that relies more upon this role at West Ham than at Chelsea?

This larger conversation on Declan Rice boils down to evaluating his data at West Ham within the system that David Moyes employs for his squad. He is a traditional DM and is used in that position as such for the Hammers. The system there is also off the ball significantly more than it is on the ball. Inherently, that means that Rice has more opportunities and chances for defensive actions and time spent pursuing defensive actions. So, how does the data compare to the often-maligned Jorginho in terms of defensive output and the role that a holding midfielder would occupy under Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 system that we just saw lift the Champions League?

NOTE: The argument below is based solely off the two systems that West Ham and Chelsea respectively used last season. Conjecture on what may happen in the future with a new system is beyond the scope and purpose of this article.

Despite Rice being granted more opportunities for defensive actions, he still produces less than Jorginho. The Chelsea man is on the ball about 65%+ of the time in matches and has significantly less time in the defensive third and middle third in defending transitions. What does this mean for Rice if he was to come to Chelsea?

It means that there currently is a system mismatch between West Ham and Chelsea, and thus there is a mismatch between the roles of each holding player in their position. There is a mismatch in how Rice is used relative to how Jorginho is used, yet Jorginho is producing more defensively with less opportunities to make defensive involvements. But, Jorginho is the one that is often criticized for being a borderline useless player in the defensive phases. This underlines how data helps us see what we refuse to see or cannot see with the eye test, and how important considering the system is when comparing players and their statistical output.

The data does not support the assertion that Jorginho is ineffective in the defensive aspects of being a holding CM, and when using context and time spent on the ball relative to time spent off the ball, it is clear the narratives surrounding the Italian midfielder are generally overstated and bordering on being categorically false.

As fans, what we need to do when discussing the potential usefulness of a player in the transfer market is to stop evaluating each position in every squad as the same. A DM at West Brom will not be used in the same way that a DM is used at Chelsea. This is because both clubs have diametrically opposite squads, roles, and tactics required for those roles within those squads. Each squad has a different profile for the XI, which requires different roles within that XI relative to the manager’s system.

All too often in modern football we try to think in historical, past terms. For example, a DM position is Makelele. When, football is chronically evolving. Just as all things in life are. An example of evolution in football is the shift that occurred in the early 2010s where the traditional No.10 role was almost all but phased out of the game due to the evolution of the holding 4-3-3 system, which effectively neutralized the No.10/CAM. A modern-day example of evolution in the game is the DM moving away from the destroyer role to a more overall dynamic midfielder on the ball, and the striker moving away from the traditional No.9 role.

So, what does this have to do with roles versus positions? It highlights several things. First, roles are adaptive and different amongst squads due to the different profiles of squads. Comparing players that play in almost entirely different systems is like comparing apples and oranges: it is a faulty comparison. Second, it is important to think about the system a player plays in, and that can be a big factor in explaining the data for one player versus another player. Finally, using data to extrapolate how and why a player may or may not fit into another team’s system based on a potential fit or mismatch for the role required is key. Therefore, fans should think more about the role a player is and is not good at, and whether they are truly needed for their club, and if they are, in what capacity and what role.

Declan Rice is a very good player and would add flexibility to the setup at Chelsea. However, under the system Tuchel used last season, there are potential doubts about which role he would occupy and his effectiveness at that role. The tactics will likely be altered in a way that accommodates a best role for Rice, and this underpins the entire point: it is faulty to think of how Rice was used at West Ham and blindly say that he will be used the same way at Chelsea.

Again, both clubs have different squads with different roles in different systems, so it is an apples to oranges comparison. If Chelsea stick with the exact same system and roles from last season, Rice may not be a consistent starter at first. In the long term, he absolutely would become a starter due to inevitable squad turnover and his own evolution and talent as a player, but to think that Chelsea need to play with 2 more traditional DMs in the 3-4-2-1 system is ignoring the roles within that system that just won the Champions League.

What I mean by this is that Chelsea never used two traditional DMs as the holding CMs, so why would they use that setup in the same system from last season? How would that alleviate the issues in attack? We need to start evaluating roles, the similarities, and differences in players’ roles, and how those would be used in the system we previously saw, and what systems could a player’s role potentially allow Chelsea to play in the future. This will bring out more informative and poignant discussions for how a player could be used based on the past season, as well as spark useful discussion of how the incoming player’s role could help to alter the system and what role the incoming player would have in that alteration.

Written by Travis Flock (@Crossroads_CFC)

Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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