“You’re either a failed winger or a failed centre-back. No-one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville.”
Perhaps in 2013, when Jamie Carragher made this comment, there was some level of truth to it. Fast forward to 2020, and it sounds like an entirely dated quote. Why? Well, for starters consider Manchester City’s willingness to fork out £120 million on Danilo, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy. Secondly, full-backs are used as the extra men in attack (think Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson at Liverpool, Benjamin Pavard for France at the World cup, Alphonso Davies for Bayern Munich, the list is endless!). The fact is, the modern full-back is a unique blend of both a winger, centre back and midfielder. They must defend, distribute, create and finish.
In this data analysis, the statistics will help determine the conclusion. It will critically examine the data to suggest who are the best full-backs currently competing in the Scottish Premiership. It’s important to state that every player in this article has played a minimum of 600 minutes in the 2019/20 campaign.
World-class full-backs demonstrate competence in one-v-one defending, an ability to read the game and a desire to win back possession. Below are graphs designed to extract and highlight stats that are core to a good defensive performance.
The chart above includes 19 SPFL full-backs. To warrant a position on the graph, a player must have won at least 61% of their defensive duels. Therefore, those included above range from Hibernian’s Lewis Stevenson, with 61.19%, to Hearts’ Michael Smith, 72.39%. Also incorporated are ‘possession-adjusted’ interceptions (a method to calculate defensive statistics to take possession values into account), and successful defensive action per 90. It’s important to note, however, that the latter is manipulated by possession.
Astonishingly, it’s Hamilton’s Shaun Want that tops the list. This season he’s recorded the league’s fifth-highest defensive duels, winning 68.81% of them, but more impressively he completes on average 15.08 successful defensive actions and 8.59 PAdj interceptions per 90. Other mentions include Livingston’s Jack McMillan, who has put in some comprehensive defensive performances, and Celtic’s Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo, who has great enthusiasm to intercept. Furthermore, Smith, Callum Booth of St. Johnstone, Ryan Flynn of St. Mirren, and Borna Barišić of Rangers are included for their consistent defensive duel win percentages.
We shouldn’t disregard the ability to challenge for the ball in the air. Handy in both defensive and offensive situations, a full-back capable of succeeding in this department is another box ticked for any manager.
Above are the SPFL’s top five most successful full-backs in the air. St. Johnstone’s Scott Tanser comes out on top, winning 70.93% of his aerial duels. Appearing in the top five again is Want, 68.33%, whilst Rangers’ James Tavernier, 69.47%, and Celtic’s Anthony Ralston, 64.94%, feature again.
The most successful managers and players of the previous generation determine the tactical footballing biosphere. In 2006, we saw the peak of defensive-minded full-backs in Paolo Maldini and Cafu, but, as the years progressed, so too did the offensive roles of the full-backs. Guardiola’s 2011 Barcelona side encouraged Dani Alves to get into the box and shoot, maintain possession and create opportunities for their attackers to score. Following their success, along came Phillipe Lahm, David Alaba, Marcelo and Jordi Alba into the world of attacking full-backs.
Therefore, the modern attacking full-back has several roles to play when their team is in possession. Often full-backs are used as an outlet against opposing presses. Consequently, one such function is the ability to maintain and progress possession by passing.
The graph above attempts to objectively measure and rank the SPFL’s best ball-playing full-backs. It includes 19 players in total. To earn a position on the chart, a player must have completed at least 74% of their passes. Therefore, we exclude potential biases toward teams that control most of the possession. The players range from Aberdeen’s Shay Logan, with 74.01%, to Bolingli-Mbombo again, with 83.85%. Also included in these stats are completed progressive passes and passes into the penalty area.
In the top right corner are the three standouts; Barišić and Bolingoli-Mbombo, again, joined by Greg Taylor, also of Celtic. They all achieved an 80+% pass accuracy, as well as 80+% progressive passing and 50+% passing into the penalty area in addition to these other stats we have pointed out.
Honourable mentions go to Tavernier, who achieved 84% of his progressive passes, Aberdeen’s Greg Leigh, who recorded the SPFL’s most successful passes into the penalty area, with 60% of them successful, and Aaron Hickey of Hearts, and Celtic’s Jeremie Frimpong, for their exceptionally high passing accuracy statistics, at 82% each.
Another skill that accompanies every world-class full-back is the ability to carry the ball. If a full-back is technical enough to beat the opponent’s winger in one-v-one scenarios, then a whole plethora of opportunities open up to build an attack.
The graph above attempts to find the SPFL’s best ball-carrying full-backs. It includes 19 players in total. To qualify, a player must have won at least 46% of their offensive duels. As a result, we exclude potential biases toward teams that control most of the possession. Above, the players range from Hickey, with 46% to Ralston, with 61.86%. Progressive runs per 90 and successful dribbling percentages make up the x and y-axis.
Celtic teammates Jonny Hayes and Frimpong catch the eye initially; Hayes more so, as he demonstrated a 60.32% offensive duel percentage, as well as six progressive runs per 90. However, their massive total of progressive runs per 90 is because they play as wing-backs in a system that encourages them to do so. Another standout is Livingston’s Ricki Lamie. He won a solid 54.84% of his offensive duels, and, more impressively, succeeded in 88.89% of his dribbles.
This time, honourable mentions go out to Scott McMann (57.02%) of Hamilton, Ralston (61.86%), Tanser (58.24%) and Bolingli-Mbombo again (58.43%) for their impressive offensive duelling success. Additionally, Paul McGinn of Hibernian impressed with his dribbling ability (77.14%), whilst Barišić showed he could progress the ball consistently (3 per 90).
Finally, let’s examine which Scottish Premiership full-backs contribute to goals and assists.
The graph above shows every SPFL full-back that achieved at least two assists this season. The bars represent the total number of assists, whilst the circles represent their expected value. Joint-top, on six, are Rangers teammates Tavernier and Barišić, although it should be noted that Tavernier is a set-piece taker for the side. Interestingly, the statistics would suggest Tavernier over-performed, as his assists are higher than his expected value. In contrast, Barišić’s expected value implies that he underachieved.
Other honourable mentions go out to Andrew Considine (two) of Aberdeen, Marcus Fraser (two) of Ross County, and Jason Naismith (three) of Hibernian, all of whom achieved more than double their expected values.
The graph above shows every SPFL full-back that achieved at least two goals this season. Topping the list is Hearts’ Sean Clare, and Considine, with both scoring four times. Tavernier and Barišić also appear again. However, it’s Tavernier who is under-performing here (three), and Barišić over-performing (two).
Others worthy of a mention are Kilmarnock’s Stephen O’Donnell, and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair of Livingston, scoring three goals each.
Borna Barišić is perhaps the most all-rounded and consistent full-back in the SPFL this season. He boasts a 68.47% defensive duel win rate, 80.05% pass accuracy, 51.33% finding the target in the penalty area rate, 84.13% of passes accurately progressing play, 53.91% offensive duel rate, 70.31% dribbling success, three progressive runs per 90, six assists and two goals.
Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo has unfortunately been plagued by a knee injury this season, and we can only wonder how good a season it might have been for this man if he had played more. In his 14 league appearances, he amassed a 64.29% defensive duel win rate, 8.45 PAdj interceptions per 90, 83.85% pass accuracy, 53.19% finding the target in the penalty area rate, 83.24% of passes accurately progressing play, 58.43% offensive duel rate, 64.91% dribbling success and two assists.
James Tavernier excels as a set-piece specialist. He scored (three) and assisted (six); more than most full-backs in Scotland. Additionally, he triumphs in the air winning 69.47% of his aerial duels. However, he has been beaten by others when we analysed the in-game statistics. In summary, he achieved a 63.40% defensive duel win rate, a 75% pass accuracy and a 44.51% offensive duel rate.
In recent times, Scotland and the Scottish Premiership have become somewhat renowned for developing Europe’s finest full-backs. This piece looked to objectively determine the best performers from the 19/20 campaign. It found that Barišić tops the list as he has been the most consistent in all departments. However, one would expect a rebuttal, because such is the impressive depth of full-back quality in Scotland.
Whilst the top three from the shortlist belong to the most prominent teams, there are other teams with standouts of their own. Those include Hamilton duo Want (23) and McMann (23). Despite going down, they can look back and find some solace in their performances. Kilmarnock’s O’Donnell (28) as well as being a threat going forward, has a calm head in possession and is astute in defence.
Additionally, youngsters Frimpong (19), Ralston (21) and Hickey (18) have shown us their exceptional technical ability over this season.
We could debate the conclusion, as is right to do so. But one thing is for sure. The SPFL has and will continue to have some of the finest attacking full-backs in Europe, as this data analysis has hopefully proved.