In the recently concluded 2019-20 season of the Indian Super League, the majority of the teams organised themselves defensively in a back-four. ATK were the exception fielding three men at the back for the most part, while Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC experimented with it in the initial stages of the tournament only to find the going tough.
The sixth season of the ISL was also the first where the centre-backs weren’t just tall and imposing – some ball playing centre-halves also found their way into the playing XI. Players like Memo and Diawandou Diagne were repurposed as centre-backs to provide their team with a base to start playing from.
We looked up data on centre-halves playing in the ISL on various defensive parameters, adjusted it for possession and a couple of other factors and drew up what we’d like to call “Player Protractor” for each of these defenders. We also looked at each team individually and singled out standout performers and areas of improvement for the others.
Although stats for centre-backs aren’t a thorough evaluation of their capabilities considering they don’t provide a complete picture of their responsibilities, they do provide valuable insight into a team’s playing style and players’ individual attributes.
First off, let’s talk about how we we assimilated and analyzed the data:
Data Source for ISL Season 6 [2019-20]: SofaScore
Minimum Threshold (Playing Time): 500 minutes
Players analyzed using the following defensive parameters:
Passing Accuracy %, Passes Attempted, Dribbled Past, Tackles, Interceptions, Blocks, Clearances, Fouls, Aerial Duels Win %, Aerial Duels Involved, Long Balls Accuracy % and Long Balls Attempted.
-The four traditional defensive stats – Dribbled Past, Tackles, Interceptions and Clearances have been possession adjusted based on the argument that sides which tend to hold more of the ball will have fewer chances to rake up these numbers, whereas teams that are on the back foot more often will see it rise significantly.
-It is to be noted here that percentiles for ‘Dribbled Past’ and ‘Fouls’ were inversed. Hence, if the centre-back is highly rated in either of these two sections, it means he was dribbled past a fewer number of times or committed fewer fouls, and vice-versa.
-The shades of each of the sectors in our semi-circular bar graphs, or ‘Player Protractor’ as we like to call it vary according to the traffic signal colours with crimson red indicating 0 and lush green 10.
Adil Khan was a bit of a find for Hyderabad FC during Phil Brown’s tenure. After the change in the managerial setup, he started playing as a centre-back and did wonderfully.
The Indian international tops our ‘Interceptions’ and ‘Tackles’ section – although it can be argued that he played the least number of minutes as a CB amongst the lot and HFC faced weaker opponents towards the end of the season. As a defensive midfielder, he is known to be reckless and commits fouls aplenty, but while guarding the heart of the defense, he shows his conservative nature.
Gurtej and Kilgallon show a stark contrast in long ball accuracy while attempting nearly the same number of long balls per game. While Adil Khan and Kilgallon showed the highest accuracy at aerial challenges in the league, surprisingly, it was Gurtej who rose up more frequently.
A centre-back pairing of Adil Khan and Kilgallon could have been the answer to most of Hyderabad FC’s defensive problems.
NORTHEAST UNITED FC
Mislav Komorski was easily the best of the three NorthEast United FC centre-backs, with his European counterpart showing very few tinges of green.
The Croatian is a traditionalist, in the sense, he rarely likes to leave his position and go forward to make tackles and interceptions. Rather, he will hold back to block shots while committing fewer fouls.
Wayne Vaz, on the other hand, is poles apart from him. He will surge forward to make timely tackles and interceptions. However, he gets dribbled past or commits cheap fouls more often.
We will see that teams that did well defensively had a solid centre-back pairing. While Komorski rarely gave any reasons to complain, NorthEast United FC were undone by the lack of an able partner alongside him.
Unlike most of the Spanish managers, Antonio Iriondo preferred Jamshedpur FC centre-backs to punt the ball long and the wingers or strikers to chase it. This is evident by Memo and Tiri’s charts as they attempted the most number of long balls and got it accurate to a large extent. They even rank high in terms of attempted passes per game, but have lower accuracy.
Memo has made a smooth transition from a defensive midfielder to a centre-back and even surpassed Tiri on a couple of parameters. However, the Brazilian got dribbled past the most number of times per 90 minutes played in the league.
Joyner Lourenco, on the other hand, suffers from the same disease as Wayne Vaz. He goes ahead a lot, makes tackles and interceptions, but gets dribbled past very often.
KERALA BLASTERS FC
Kerala Blasters under Eelco Schattorie opted to play from the back with all three of their centre-backs averaging more than 50 passes (attempted).
Apart from passing the ball from the back, the trio also attempted a lot of long balls. However, they were largely inaccurate and were highly vulnerable in the air.
Raju Gaikwad is good in clearing up the ball, but takes a backseat in all other parameters.
Vlatko Drobarov is the only centre-back to have all three of his ‘Tackles’, ‘Interceptions’, and ‘Dribbled Past’ segments coloured in emerald green in the entire ISL. A rare quality which could see a lot of clubs chasing him.
Another team which opted to play out from the back was Odisha FC. Their centre-backs rank only behind those of Kerala Blasters and FC Goa in terms of passing accuracy. And like the representatives of Kerala Blasters, their command in the air is not so good either.
Diawandou Diagne appears to be the best among the three, although he played fewer minutes as a centre-back than the rest. The 25-year-old concedes fewer fouls and comes up with timely tackles and blocks. Given his age, he could prove to be a valuable player next season for Odisha FC.
Despite being the lead centre-back, Carlos Delgado’s numbers were very mediocre. Gaurav Bora too needs to buckle up as his low number of interceptions and tackles can put him out of contention.
MUMBAI CITY FC
Mumbai City FC‘s centre-backs left the job of building from the back to their full-backs and midfielders. While lodging long balls, Pratik Chaudhari found relatively more success than the other Indian centre-back in the team – Sarthak Golui.
Although used as a centre-back fewer times than Pratik Chaudhari, it was Sarthak who showed more promise. The India international shadowed his counterpart on almost all the defensive parameters and was one of the best Indian centre-backs in the ISL this season. However, due to the absence of a capable right-back, he had to play in that position more often.
Mumbai City FC’s leader in defense, Mato Grgic, showed no signs of complacency after jumping ship from NorthEast United FC. A partnership in the centre between Sarthak and Grgic could have solved most of the Islanders’ defensive frailties.
Apart from a couple of times when either Lucian Goian or Eli Sabia were unavailable, Chennaiyin FC stuck to the partnership of the experienced foreign duo to guard their defense. And both did their duties decently to guide the team into the finals.
The Romanian once again led the charts in terms of tackles and interceptions, but was found wanting as opponents dribbled past him more often. Goian’s number of blocks and clearances though didn’t disappoint.
Eli Sabia, on the other hand stayed put to his line and committed fewer challenges. As a result, all his numbers with reference to tackles, interceptions, and dribbled past are low.
The duo were proficient in the air and gave little opportunity for the opponents to sneak past.
Agus did a great job staying at the centre of ATK‘s defense, although his graph might suggest otherwise. Playing in the centre of their back-three system, the Spaniard rarely came out of his line and it resulted in him having a fewer number of tackles and interceptions. And, when the side needed long balls to be punted forward, he didn’t disappoint.
The Indian internationals, Anas Edathodika and Pritam Kotal, both came up with decent performances and racked up a good number of tackles and interceptions.
Despite winning the Emerging Player of the Season, Sumit Rathi appears to be the worst centre-back in the ISL as per the statistics. Playing in a back-three system that gets quickly changed to a back-five when in the lead sort of protects him and allows him to get involved less in the game.
None of the ATK centre-backs had high passing accuracy and Habas never really asked them to play out from the back.
Bengaluru FC stuck with the trusted duo of Juanan and Alberto Serran and the Spaniards guided them to the ISL semi-finals with disciplined performances. Both committed less defensive challenges, as a result of which they have fewer number of tackles and interceptions, and they got dribbled past fewer times as well.
A no-nonsense defender – Juanan shows good command in the air and commits fewer fouls. His long ball accuracy usually goes unnoticed – only Tiri, Memo and Carlos Pena rank above him in attempting more long balls.
Albert Serran, on the other hand, shows a better command on the ground with the ball. However, he is behind on most of the other parameters as compared to the rest of the foreign centre-backs plying their trade in the ISL.
While many credit FC Goa‘s passing rhythm to their winning the ISL League Winners’ Shield, they tend to forget that it all starts from the back. Both Mourtada Fall and Carlos Pena showed great passing accuracy, both short and long, and literally set the ball rolling for others to carry forward.
Mourtada Fall is every centre-back’s green-eyed monster, with his only weakness being committing frequent fouls. But overall, the Senegalese is head and shoulders above the rest of the defenders in the ISL.
Carlos Pena also does well and doesn’t lack significantly in any of the departments. Staying true to the Gaurs’ playing-out-of-the-back style, he will be missed at FC Goa after annoucing his retirement.
A lot has been said about the lack of game time given to Indian centre-backs owing to a lack of confidence in their ability and/or their lack of experience. However, players like Pritam Kotal, Sumit Rathi, Sarthak Golui and Adil Khan have shown that they are more than capable of doing a job there.
Tactical tweaks and injuries have also forced Indian players like Abdul Hakku, Raju Gaikwad and Pratik Chaudhari to take up responsibilities and they did not shy away from it.
Although Sumit Rathi did not light up the stats charts this season, him winning the Emerging Player of the 2019-20 season is a testament to his progress and his ability to follow the coach’s instructions – the mercurial Sandesh Jhingan had won the award in the inaugural season of the ISL in 2014.
It is still a cautionary tale though – despite decent performances by the Indian centre-halves, it must also be remembered that these players were usually used in a specific tactical role that brought out the best of their abilities.
The jury is still out to see if they can carry this form to the national team where they will not get the same level of protection.