Progressive Centre Backs, Stoke City, and Liam Lindsay

Stoke have (had?) a problem. It was especially prevalent under Gary Rowett and presented significant problems to Nathan Jones in his first few months at the club. The problem was this: Stoke’s centre backs were not good enough passers to implement the possession-based style that both of the aforementioned managers attempted.

It wasn’t that they were likely to be caught in possession due to poor control or play team mates into danger with bad passes, it was a lack of ability and/or confidence to play penetrative passes or carry the ball forward. Without these progressive actions teams could adopt a defensive shape against Stoke safe in the knowledge that when the ball was with the centre backs there would be no disruption.

There would be no marauding Aymmeric Laporte runs from deep, nor would there be any David Luiz long balls in behind the back line. Teams had an array of options, from pressing high to patiently forming an organised block, to effectively set up against Stoke. And Stoke’s slow, ponderous, build up effectively made whatever option the opposition chose a more potent way of killing Stoke’s attack.

This probably explains Ryan Woods’ rather dramatic fall from deep-lying playmaker saviour to persistent “Has anyone seen him?” questioning at 2pm on a Saturday. As teams clocked on to the ineffective role Stoke’s centre backs played in possession Woods’ burden for advancing the ball increased.

The Cannock man was no longer laying the ball off to his ex-Brentford team mates; Mepham and Barbet, two of the best ball progressing centre backs in the Championship according to Wyscout’s metrics. Rather than seeing the ball advanced up the pitch Woods’ normal passing patterns simply saw the ball fired back at him, tripling the burden of advancing the ball he had at Brentford.

championship progression v length cbs

A drop-in confidence and suddenly Woods was a shadow of his former self and is now unlikely to play the key role many had hoped he would. The same was true for the defence. An inability to get the ball away from their own half saw an increased pressure placed on their defending abilities, which in turn led to a back four of former Premier League defenders perform at the level of a middling Championship one.

By January Jones had come in and hit the defensive panic button in the signing of Danny Batth. Batth would not be the progressive solution but provided a solidity and comfort to the defence which saw Shawcross and Bruno rise to acceptable levels once more and saw Stoke give away one of the lowest xG figures in the league since Jones’ appointment.

And that probably brings us round to June 2019 with Stoke City entering the transfer market. What did we need? A defensively reliable centre back whose comfort in bringing/passing the ball forward could disrupt the oppositions defensive shape.

So, start by looking at the Championship and specifically in the top right quadrant of the graph below. Players here are high in progressive actions (progressive passes and dribbles per 90 added together) whilst winning more defensive actions than their fellow Championship competitors. Whilst being wary of players who appear at the bottom of the above graph.

championship def act % vs progression cbs

Wyscout’s definition favours those who play longer passes, therefore if a player is playing a lot more longer passes (shown by the ratio of short/medium to long passes) they are likely to have more progressive passes that may not translate across well to Jones’ style of football.

There is a relative lack of options here: Webster has been linked with moves away from Bristol with astronomical fees; Van der Hoorn and Cooper are highly likely to be off limits due to their clubs’ respective lack of options; Mings is in the process of moving to Villa; Lenihan and Mulgrew could be worth the risk but Blackburn’s more direct style likely benefits their progressive numbers; and, Barbet’s defensive frailties’ are one big red flag, even as free transfer, and spells at left-back may slightly skew his progression numbers. So, what is the next alternative? League One of course.

league one def act % vs progression cbs

And what do we find here? Our new signing Liam Lindsay (and some bloke called Matt Clarke who we definitely weren’t interested in at all) in the exact place you’d want them to be in. Lindsay shines above all but Swindon Town’s Tim Broadbent (whose stats mostly come from a good spell in League Two but I didn’t notice that until I’d nearly finished this) in both Defensive Duels % Won and Progressive Actions.

league one progression v length cbs

Lindsay also sizes up well when looking at how long he plays the ball, with only Baldwin and Sarr playing more progressive passes without going longer more frequently. Lindsay’s relatively high short/medium to long passes ratio suggests he doesn’t spray it long, indicating the progressive passes he makes are made by carrying the ball further up the pitch.

This suggestion also passes the eye test when actually watching Lindsay play. He is comfortable picking the ball up in any scenario, often receiving the ball as Barnsley’s deepest player when an attack breaks down and calmly beating the oppositions press. Lindsay is also comfortable stepping out of defence with the ball against a deep sitting opposition in an effort to disrupt their defensive shape, creating space for his team mates.

He also has a variety of passing; from the long diagonal balls centre backs are increasingly expected to play, to driven through balls attempting to play team mates in behind, and even showing a cute little dink into the box. There is no fear from the young Scot to play the ball early if he believes the pass is on, as evidenced by the ball against Southend.

 

Lindsay’s addition to the side may have come too late for Ryan Woods’ time at Stoke, although there is yet to be any concrete rumours linking him with a move away from Staffordshire, but it looks to be perfect timing for Jones and the rest of the squad. Lindsay’s ability to provide a progressive option from so deep will not just solve Stoke’s slow laboured build up from the back problem.

Stoke’s opponents will not be able to be produce the simplistic defending plans that proved effective against the Potters last season. Lindsay’s deep passing will give managers another problem to deal with which in theory should stretch another area thin that Stoke can exploit. This increased passing ability from the back should allow Stoke to be more varied in the way they approach each game, with comfort in possession allowing the centre backs to be pushed high and a good long range passing making a deep sitting counter attack plan more effective.

With a heap of signings already through the door to join Nathan Jones’ Stoke revolution, and more to come, it appears that Liam Lindsay is the one with the most potential to make the Championship sit up and take notice.

Tom Thrower

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