This is part one of a two part series exploring England’s abundant options at right back. The first part presents a straightforward comparison between the 5 players most likely to be selected. The second looks at how these players might fit into Southgate’s tactical system.
For the purpose of this analysis, the focus is on the 5 players that are most likely to be selected for the Euros:
The best striker is the one that scores the most goals. The best defender is the one that prevents the most goals. A fullback’s role is more complicated than this. There is no set way to perform the role. Traditionally, the fullbacks were simply used as third and fourth centre backs, responsible for defending those wide areas. Expectations have changed since then, with modern fullbacks given responsibilities from set pieces to playmaking, as well as their defensive responsibilities. This complicates the task of picking a first choice England right back.
The following graphs capture the differences in these five players, highlighting their comparative strengths and weaknesses. The purpose of this is not to judge how good these players are, but to illustrate their playing style at club level. All statistics are per 90 & apply to all available club data from the 2020/21 season up until the 7th April 2021.
Alexander-Arnold and James are both heavily involved in attacking play. Alexander-Arnold is particularly adept at getting the ball into the danger area. He gets the ball into the 18 yard box more than the other right backs, but also more than Mo Salah, his capable team mate, who tends to play as a right winger. A late Alexander-Arnold goal earnt Liverpool a much needed 3 points last month. Alexander-Arnold’s attacking contributions aren’t a bonus for Liverpool, they are essential to the club’s success (as anybody that saw the corner being taken quickly will tell you!). Both Alexander-Arnold and James are willing to take shots themselves, as well as creating plenty for their teammates. Perhaps the best example of what James can offer in attack came in a 3-1 win against Brighton towards the start of the season, where James provided a goal and an assist.
Trippier also contributes a lot to chance creation, although he doesn’t take many shots himself, opting instead to set his teammates up in the box. Wan-Bissaka and Walker emerge as the least attack minded players, although Walker’s high number of final third carries indicate that he is involved in build up play. There will be more to say on that when we look at passing further down.
As for Wan-Bissaka, his profile more resembles a traditional, defensive right back. Arguably, Wan-Bissaka doesn’t contribute to attacking play because Solskjaer doesn’t need him to. Between Rashford’s speed in transition and Fernandes’ penchant for finding line breaking passes, United are already set up to make the most of their attacks. Wan-Bissaka is more helpful to his team when he’s shutting down pacey left wingers, as he did in a 2 nil win in the most recent Manchester derby. This picture is muddled when considering that his fellow fullback at United, Luke Shaw, makes several ambitious runs forward in a game, getting more involved in both build up play and in creating chances for his teammates. Luke Shaw is likely to start for England at left back, or at least to be selected into the squad. Understanding whether Wan-Bissaka’s style compliments or clashes with Shaw’s will be key to ascertaining if Wan-Bissaka is a viable pick for Euro 2020. This is a debate for the next issue.
I should begin by stating the obvious. Wan-Bissaka is the most defensive option of the 5 right backs. He completes by far the most defensive actions, with a particularly high number of blocks. Perhaps more surprising is James’ defensive contribution. He completes the second highest number of interceptions and blocks, as well as almost matching Wan-Bissaka in tackles won.Trippier also contributes a lot defensively, registering the most successful pressures and the second most clearances.
All five right back options press often, but for Alexander-Arnold and Walker, they don’t contribute much else defensively. This is expected of Alexander-Arnold, whose defensive mistakes are often placed under scrutiny. Walker’s low contribution is something to note, particularly when compared to his peers.
As Walker regularly starts in a City side that seldom concedes, we can presume that his lack of defensive contribution is not because Walker is an incapable defender. Both Walker and Alexander-Arnold have at points been in teams where a solid centre back pairing have taken on more defensive responsibility. In his Premier League winning season, Alexander-Arnold was playing with the ever reliable Van Dijk. This season, Walker has played alongside Ruben Dias, a player now becoming famous for his shot blocks, and a newly reformed John Stones. Further to this, as City and to a lesser extent Liverpool spend so much time in possession, they have fewer opponent attacks to deal with in the course of a game.
The below tables show the number of short, medium, and long passes completed by each of our 5 right backs per 90.
Unsurprisingly, Walker, a regular starter in Guardiola’s City side, tops the charts for passing. The two more attacking right back options, James and Alexander-Arnold also boast a higher number of passes. Alexander-Arnold’s accuracy is lower, particularly with his long balls, but he attempts more of them than the other options. Wan-Bissaka completes the fewest passes, and is especially disinclined to attempt medium or long passes.
The picture is much the same when looking at passes received. Once again, Walker comes out on top and Wan-Bissaka is the least involved. Again, this might be a reflection of the playing style of the clubs they're in. City spend the majority of their time passing the ball. United on the other hand are happier to sit back for large portions of the game before pouncing on an opposition's mistake.
The below chart shows the touches a player makes per game broken down by section of the pitch. Considering what we have learnt about these players so far, looking at their positions on the pitch is unsurprising. We see that defensive Wan-Bissaka spends a higher portion of his time in the defensive third, with Alexander-Arnold and James finding themselves in the attacking third more.
The majority of Walker’s touches come in the middle third, as expected for an ‘inverted fullback’, who moves into midfield to allow midfielders to push up the pitch.
Reece James’ comparatively little experience reveals itself here. He gets dribbled past and dispossessed more than his fellow right backs. He also commits more fouls.Trippier also seems to be a player prone to making mistakes, although he’s very difficult to dispossess.
Wan-Bissaka and Walker seem to have similar radars and both players look pretty reliable, albeit with Walker committing quite a few fouls and being dispossessed often. When it comes to ball control, Walker comes out particularly well, and, asides from Trippier, the other three all register a similar number of ball control failures. Wan-Bissaka looks to be very difficult to dribble past, further supporting his reputation as a brick wall defender.
Contrariwise, Alexander-Arnold’s main weakness is getting dribbled past. For all other mistakes illustrated here, he comes out well. This might be partially due to his lack of defensive involvement: if you attempt only a few tackles, you’re less likely to commit fouls.
We haven’t explored every element of play here, but the main components of a football match have been covered: passing, attacking, defending. We have started to paint a picture of each of these players and are beginning to understand the different elements of play that they could offer at international level. Alexander-Arnold is the most attack minded choice. James offers a lot in attack and defence, but comes with a propensity to make potentially costly mistakes. Wan-Bissaka is the solid defensive presence. Trippier emerges as a solid all-rounder, and Walker as a confident and reliable passer.
All of the details drawn out in this initial analysis will become more useful when looking at the traits that will best compliment England’s key players. There’s no point in starting Wan-Bissaka if England needs a right back that can create chances. Alexander-Arnold’s beautiful crosses are pointless if nobody is ever in the box to get a head on them. The next issue looks at how Southgate has used right backs in the most recent international breaks and how his defensive formation might look for the Euros. The issue will include a detailed look at England's reliance on set pieces and which of our right backs is best positioned to get involved in that side of things. I will also attempt to provide a descriptive analysis of elements of play that are difficult to capture in data, such as jockeying. All of this should help us work out which of our 5 right backs has the most to offer this summer.