It was former EPL legend, Claude Makelele, under Jose Mourinho’s instruction, in 2003, that ignited the importance of a ‘destructive’ central midfielder. He intelligently swept up any and every loose ball in front of the back line before distributing it to the more technical footballers. The concept caught the eye of many clubs and countries, so much so, that by the time of the 2006 World Cup, the majority of countries had their own destructive midfielder present in the starting XI. Why? It allows teams to spring quick counter-attacks or counter-presses and their combination of stamina and positioning permits his teammates to join more attacks.
Today, the role has evolved even further. Think Fabinho at Liverpool or Rodri at Manchester City. They fit our ‘destroyer’ player type, but they’re more than that. We consider them to be ‘deep-lying playmakers’. These players do the dirty work as well as playing a crucial part in the build-up phase. Moreover, they’re asked to succeed in offensive duels against their opposite number, push further forward and use their passing range to create chances and shoot from range. n
The report understands that the subjectivity basis comes with players playing for better teams, thus having a direct influence on their statistics. With that in mind, this data analysis will attempt to contextualise the findings in an endeavour to determine the conclusion. It will critically examine the data, suggesting who the best defensive midfielders currently competing in the Scottish Premiership are. It’s important to state that every player in this article has played a minimum of 1,000 minutes in the 2019/20 campaign.
Defensive third capabilities
In defence, the best defensive midfielders demonstrate a sound tactical understanding of the opponent’s patterns, awareness of the spaces that need covering, a vision to intercept, tackling succession and stamina.
In an attempt to quantify these skills, the analysis considers defensive duels per 90, successful defensive actions per 90 and percentage of defensive duels won as key performance indicators. The scatter graph above includes every DM that recorded at least a thousand minutes in the SPFL. The x and y axes will fluctuate, depending on the team’s ability. Thus, the evaluation of the perceived best defensively is based on the duels won percentage. In this case, it’s Rangers’ Steven Davis (70.63%) and Ryan Jack (70.75%) who catch the statistical eye, followed closely by former Hearts player Glenn Whelan (67.65%).
We shouldn’t disregard the ability to challenge for the ball in the air, especially in the SPFL. Useful in both defensive and offensive situations, a defensive midfielder capable of succeeding in this department is another box ticked for any manager wanting this in their team.
The bars depict the number of aerial duels per 90. The dots illustrate their win percentage throughout the season. Again, the amount may change depending on how the opposition played against them, or perhaps it wasn’t their role in the side. With that in mind, the evaluation is based on the percentage. Interestingly, Davis and Jack struggled here, despite their defensive quality. Instead, Motherwell’s Liam Donnelly (63%) and Hibernian’s Alex Gogic (62%), top the group.
Middle third capabilities
In possession, defensive midfielders have a huge role to play in every third of the pitch. In their defensive third, they’ll look to combine with the centre backs and full-backs to progress play out from the back. In the middle third, their primary role is to maintain possession. However, the best players can create from here with their versatile passing range.
Above, the stats reflect the passing accuracy of every defensive midfielder who clocked at least a 1,000 minutes of SPFL football. As we touched on, passing retention is crucial in this position. Therefore, the percentage of completion is the utmost relevant stat, but we must also consider the passes per 90. Why? The best teams have the most possession. Regardless, the top three in the bar chart both make and complete the most passes.
Important, yes, but quite vague in what it tells us about the individual. Delving deeper into their passing ability, let’s examine their range of passing.
It’s concerning that Davis completes only 51% of his long passes, despite attempting the most. Jack tops the list for most completed short-medium passes. Though similar to Davis’ long pass accuracy, it is not as detrimental to his team, because he attempts less per 90, thus, he loses possession fewer times. The two standouts are Whelan, with his 90% short-medium accuracy and 59% long passing accuracy, and Melker Hallberg, completing 88% short-medium passes and a massive 69% long.
Perhaps less common in the stereotypical defensive midfielder’s repertoire is the ability to eliminate opposing players by dribbling. It’s not an essential skill for the role in question, and even the top performers in this position are not renowned for it. But for curiosity’s sake, let’s have a look below.
Three candidates emerged when we examined offensive duel percentages, progressive runs per 90 and dribbling success percentage. They include Whelan, who excels at dribbling and offensive duels success (89%/52%); Donnelly, who does the same (65%/53%); and Jack, who stands out in all three of the categories (72%/53%/2.7 per 90).
Finally, defensive midfielders are asked to progress play. This is particularly important in the middle third, as it’s where most of the play happens.
Whelan is worthy of a mention here. He completes a solid 85% of his progressive passes and 73% of forward passes. But once again, Jack goes above and beyond. He averages 86% of his progressive passes, and an astounding 84% of his forward passes.
Final third capabilities
In the final third, they set up to counter-press. However, defensive midfielders are asked to be a bit creative too, which becomes evident when we examine the top defensive midfielders of the game. Let’s look at the best creative DMs in the SPFL below.
Having done so well with his distribution in the middle third, Donnelly misses out in a top-three spot from this location. His final third passes fall significantly short of others, as do his smart and through ball accuracy. Hallberg’s 67% through ball accuracy is worthy of a mention, but it’s the assured final third passing of Jack (63%) and Whelan (62%) that make them the best in this department.
With that in mind, let’s frequent ourselves with the outcome of these threatening passes below.
The outcome put simply, is that Jack, the player who completed the most final third passes, achieved the most assists (three). Another exceptional playmaker highlighted from this bar chart is Davis. His assist expectation was 3.66, implying that his vision to create and execute was better than any of the other DMs in the SPFL.
Lastly, DMs need to have the ability to score. Very few have shown an ability to shoot from distance, but when they do, you know you’ve got a gem. Why? Coaches will often drop a forward to include the destructive deep-lying playmaker when making substitutions, so they need to be able to shoot and make a difference in the final third when necessary.
The scatter graph above analyses uses shots to represent who of the SPFL defensive midfielders have an attacking mindset. It uses colour to represent the quality of those that do by displaying their goal conversion percentage. Two candidates emerge, not only in having an attacking mindset, but also the quality to score. They are Donnelly and Jack. However, it should be noted that the statistics suggest Livingston’s Marvin Bartley possesses the quality to hit the target and convert, despite his lack of shots. This may be due to his side not getting many chances in games, or because he is limited in how far forward he can go.
Using the statistics, let’s see the outcome of the shots.
Donnelly comes out on top with a huge goal tally of seven. Three of these goals came from penalty shots, but that should not be taken away from the player. That too is another useful quality to have as a defensive midfielder.
So, who stood out? Taking the number one spot this season was Jack. His most important statistics are below.
Above, Jack excels in every third both in and out of possession. He has mastered all the key performance indicators of a defensive midfielder. To reach the next level, the statistics would suggest he works on his productivity in the final third.
Next is Motherwell’s Donnelly.
He offers a more physical presence in midfield and a greater goal-scoring threat. However, his fundamental defensive performance indicators are not as high as others. Examples of this include defensive duels won and pass accuracy. If he does improve in these areas in the coming season, Motherwell will have a top defensive midfielder in their squad.
Whelan comes in third place.
You could rightfully argue this pick but the statistics show that he is the best of the rest from the 19/20 campaign. He does the dirty work well and maintains possession. However, his technical ability in the middle to final third exceeds many in Scotland.
This data analysis has attempted to increase the reader’s knowledge of the requirements of the modern defensive midfielder. Using that information, it has shortlisted the three best defensive midfielders from the 19/20 SPFL campaign.
It found that the essential skills of reliable defensive midfielders are a high defensive duel percentage and a good passing accuracy. That provides a solid basis to disrupt the opposition as well as to maintain possession. From there, it depends on the quality around them. The weaker teams look for physical DMs that excel in the air and long-range passing. In contrast, the stronger teams look for more technical players, ones that can create and shoot in the final third.
With that in mind, this piece concludes that Jack, Donnelly and Whelan were the standout defensive midfielders from the 19/20 SPFL season.