The making of the Nathan Jones fullback

If you’re remotely clued into the Championship analytics world, you’ll have seen some truly excellent content looking into the full backs of the division. The two standouts have been the profiling every different fullback type in the league from Ram Srinivas and Matt Lawrence and a heap of radars from the always excellent Blades Analytics. With the importance of full-backs in Jones’ own system, I felt it would be a missed opportunity to not use such an abundance of quality resources to delve a little deeper into this pivotal position

Full-backs are the lifeblood of Jones’ system. Their role is akin to the wing-back in a back 5, in that they are the only designated wide men in the side and are responsible for providing almost all of the width in the attacking phase. This attacking responsibility sees a large contribution going forward from full-backs in the diamond system.

At Luton, full-backs Stacey, Potts and Justin have been responsible for 8 goals 17 assists in this league campaign and 9 goals 11 assists in the previous one. Luton’s full-backs contribution outweighs the output of full-backs/wing-backs in Championship sides who were noted for their reliance on these positions, for example: Norwich 3 goals 10 assists, and Sheffield United 7 goals 14 assists.

So, what does a Jones full-back look like stats wise? And how does that translate to their performance on the pitch? If we look at the radars for Justin and Stacey (as Potts has spent a great deal of the season absent with injury) we can see the archetypal full-back for Jones’ diamond.

Justic and Stacey Radar.png

Both are creative, ranking highly in expected assists (xA), successful dribbles and crosses or passes in and around the box; whilst being solid defensively, winning a fair number of duels. They are expected to: be solid defensively (although they are not heavily involved in counter-pressing in a manner of, for example, Andy Robertson); contribute to both counter attacks and more steady build-up play; and finally, be able to deliver in the final third when required.

Pass maps.png

These pass maps, from 11tegen11, indicate that Jones’ full-backs can play a variety of different roles depending on the opposition. They can be used to rotate the ball between the midfield diamond patiently waiting for opportunities, as can be seen against Accrington Stanley and to some degree against Coventry. Or alternatively, they can focus on delivery to the two strikers and number 10, as seen against Peterborough. They are also expected to move vertically up the line to support the attack (indicated by the arrows) but Justin’s unique skill set at left back often sees him appear anywhere on the pitch.

Returning to Ram and Matt’s profiling, the Luton full-backs can be classed as ‘Build-up oriented’. They are involved in all phases of play, from defence to attack and the transitions in between; they are “very dynamic with a high tendency to dribble past an opponent and even get involved in the opponent’s penalty area”. This is likely to be the profile that Jones and transfer team will be looking towards in their search for full-backs this summer. Before looking outside the club it is guaranteed they will look at the individuals they already have.

The Chosen One

Edwards Radar.jpg

Edwards is ranked as a ‘Direct & cross-oriented’ full-back meaning his stats profile indicates he is an old fashioned, defensively reliable, deep crossing full-back. This would suggest some concern for his role going forward, however, the half season under Rowett makes this profiling slightly misleading.

Edwards’ development under Jones has been phenomenal and a brief look through the stats indicates a greater volume of dribbling under Jones and, as I have previously discussed, a much greater final 3rd involvement towards the end of the season. Edwards looks set to enter next season as first-choice right-back, with Bauer (whose lack of appearances this season negate any value that could be gained looking into his numbers) or a new recruit providing cover. Because of this, I will limit the rest of this search to left-backs.

The Convert

McClean FB Radar.png

James McClean, 30
2018-19: 3164 Minutes Played, 3 Goals, 6 Assists

After shuttling through a variety of positions under Jones, including but not limited to striker, number 10 or his orthodox winger role, McClean spent a brief spell at the end of the season as a wing-back in Jones’ 541 diamond. McClean’s stats look as you’d expect a winger to look when put into a full-back radar.

He crosses lots, he dribbles lots, he creates… a bit, but boy oh boy defending isn’t entirely for him. This is hardly surprising from a player whose professional career has never seen him drop back into a wing-back/full-back role. His appearances in this position at the end of the season were of a quality enough to suggest it could be a new home for the Irishman, and a full pre-season focused on developing there could see a much-needed improvement in defensive output. Despite this it is unlikely that McClean solely will be entrusted with the role, Erik Pieters appears to have no future at the club, and Jones clearly has serious question marks lingering over Josh Tymon; so the likelihood is there will be some serious funds invested into the left-back position over the summer.

The Ex(es)

Potts Radars.png

Dan Potts, 25
2018-19: 1001 Minutes Played, 1 Goal, 1 Assist
2017-18: 4113 Minutes Played, 6 Goals, 4 Assists

It’s not much of a leap to suggest that if Jones is looking to replicate the profile of his full-backs at Luton then he will be interested in buying his full-backs from Luton. Stacey is the least likely, he is exclusively a right back and as discussed above Edwards’ seems to have that position nailed down. James Justin is one of the hottest talents in the Football League currently and if Stoke are interested it will be a matter of convincing him to delay an inevitable Premier League move by at least a year to join up with his former boss.

The other Luton full-back yet to be mentioned is Dan Potts. Injury problems have drastically limited his game time this season, he last completed 90 minutes in October 2018, and ultimately this forced Justin into the left-back slot. Potts is less creative than his Luton team mates and is slightly more of the traditional full-back style, focused on crosses into the box. His injury issues may reduce Luton’s asking fee and resistance to allowing him to leave but are also likely to mean Potts may be overlooked by Stoke’s transfer team or see him only as a rotation option.

The Impossible

Dasilva FB Radar.png

Jay Dasilva, 21
2018-19: 2215 Minutes Played, 0 Goals, 3 Assists

Dasilva is reportedly keen on a converting his loan move to a permanent one, with Bristol City equally keen to do the deal. It looks highly likely that such a move will come to fruition at some point this summer, but it is not yet a done deal. Dasilva excelled in League One last season with Charlton and has continued to develop with a strong season at Bristol in the Championship. He represents a more direct running option than the Luton full-back’s profiles, seeking to force defenders into retreat.

The ex-Luton youth player is comfortable with the attacking positions Jones would seek him to take up, completing more than a quarter of his passes in the opposition’s third. Dasilva’s touches in the opposition penalty area are perhaps a little low for the profile but that should be of no great concern as Bristol City’s full-backs are categorised by Ram and Matt as crossing heavy, suggesting a system based deficit; and secondly, his strong dribbling instinct and ability means he would be perfectly capable of drifting inside to become the all-action full-back Jones desires.

Dasilva is clearly a young athletic footballer, meeting Jones’ general requirements, and if there is any doubt over his move to Bristol Stoke should seriously consider swooping in and using some of their financial muscle.

The Wonderkid

Henry FB Radar.png

Rico Henry, 21
2018-19: 1165 Minutes Played, 1 Goal, 1 Assist

Rico Henry is the classic Brentford player. Recruited early, developed, and will be sold for a huge amount more than the Bees’ initial outlay on him. Stoke, and Jones, are familiar with him after he twisted Ryan Shawcross into a knot before slamming home with his weaker foot. His willingness to drift inside into space, as he did in this exact move, is a key element Jones looks for in his full-backs. Henry is the first of the players mentioned so far to be classified as build-up orientated, which is unsurprising due to Brentford’s style of play.

The progressive, fluid style of passing Brentford are renowned for is the goal for Nathan Jones; and recruiting players familiar with it is an extremely sensible policy. The only question mark hanging over Henry is injury problems, starting with a horrific knee injury which kept him out for well over a year and after recovering from this at the start of 2019 a foot injury meant he could not build any momentum towards the end of the season. Much like Dasilva, Henry fits the young athletic profile and at 21 his is of an age where Jones can more easily mould him into the type of full-back he wants for the diamond system.

The Inevitable One

Osborn FB Radar.png

Ben Osborn, 24
2018-19: 2917 Minutes, 1 Goal, 5 Assists

If Ben Osborn signs for Stoke City this summer, it will have a sense of inevitability to it. Osborn was linked with Stoke in the summer after our relegation to the Championship, and he was also linked with a move once again in January (with McClean supposedly going the other way) once Nathan Jones had taken charge. It would be surprising to not see rumours pop up again this season as Osborn perhaps nails the Jones diamond full-back profile more than any other player currently in the Championship.

Osborn is a creative ex-winger with a tendency to drift inside more than a normal full-back, he is not a high-volume crosser but when he does cross they tend to reach their desired target and most importantly he contributes most when in the oppositions’ final 3rd. Osborn’s ability to cover in centre midfield adds another mark in favour of the Forest man with Jones’ desires to keep the senior outfield playing squad to a maximum of 20 players.

His near constant rotation this season between left-back, left winger and centre midfield indicate a flexibility that comes from a certain level of tactical intelligence. This intelligence could be the tipping point that sees Osborn become a top target, as it will allow him to quickly adapt to the diamond system over pre-season and this is certainly something that will interest Jones.

Left-field solutions

It is almost a certainty that one left-back will join Stoke this summer, and highly likely it will be two. In the past three years or so Stoke have seriously struggled in the transfer market due to, more than any other factor, a failure to use the club’s resources appropriately. The transfer team have displayed an ability to uncover low-profile top-quality players, his name is Peter Etebo, but it appears that transfers become derailed when managers failed to adequately work with the team. In Jones, it appears we have finally nailed down a manager who wants as much information about potential targets as possible and will accordingly use the transfer team resources at his disposal. If there is any position that it is essential Jones nails the recruitment for it is most certainly left-back.

If you have enjoyed this more in-depth look please follow my new project on twitter @ExpectedKilns where I will be continuing to bring content similar to this piece all summer and into next season.

Tom Thrower

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