Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis

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April 2022 marked the launch of our new Player Role Evaluation System, where footballers are assessed by what they offer a football team – taking into account relevant metrics for their position and role, and minimizing less important factors that may not matter in the grand scheme of their role. We identified thirty-two different roles that a footballer may adopt on a football pitch, that can then be conceptualized to better understand how to evaluate each player’s performance. This series breaks down each of the thirty-two roles, contextualizing the tasks, function and job description within each – that can allow us to better measure their performance, without solely relying on menial statistics.

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Defenders don’t always get the credit they deserve for their hard-fought role in stopping the opposition from achieving attacking success. That is precisely why a system like our Role Continuity Evaluation System works on so many levels, as we are able to adequately assess how a defensively minded defender performs, without worrying about whether or not they scored or assisted a goal. Within the system, we break down full-backs into three broad categories: ‘Inverted Fullback’, ‘Wing-Back’, and the topic of today’s article – the ‘Wide Warrior’. So with that, we explain the tasks, functions and role of a ‘Wide Warrior’ and outline some of the very best in the position in 2021-22.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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Similarly to our description of the ‘Shot Stopper‘, a ‘Wide Warrior’ is a full-back who hasn’t quite kept up with the modern trends associated with their position. Rather than relying on attacking threat and potency to make their name, the ‘Wide Warrior’ continues to be an ever-present at the back, doing their best work closer to goal. They excel at the defensive side of the game above all else, even if they may offer certain advantages going forward (like a wing-back), or in half-spaces (like an inverted fullback). Further, not only do they excel at the defensive side of the game, their manager has made clear intentions for that to be the most important facet of their role within the team, restricting their attacking height.

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A player like Matty Cash may possess tremendous crossing ability, but his role at Aston Villa is more about staying low and contributing to the defensive side of the game. Similarly, Kyle Walker performs well in possession as an inverted fullback, even occasionally galloping up the wing to contribute to City’s wide overloads. But when deployed, the main intent is for Walker to contribute to City’s defensive transitions. When out of the team, the Sky Blues often miss his extraordinary recovery pace. It’s worth noting here that City have also reduced their use of ‘Inverted Fullbacks’ in 2021-22, particularly in build-up phases, and particularly with Walker (Zinchenko remains the most inverter-y).

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On the other end of the coin, you can have a converted centre-back like Takehiro Tomiyasu, who by his own preference contributes very little to the attack, saving his energy sources for the defense. As we’ll come to discuss, all of these players would fall into our ‘Wide Warrior’ category, due to either their preference, or their manager’s preference for them to participate more prominently (or more vitally) to the defensive side of the game.

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As the antithesis to the ‘Wing-Back’, the ‘Wide Warrior’ type completes a high number of defensive actions closer to goal, and rarely ventures forward to join attacking phases. Often converted centre-backs, or full-backs playing in an already defensively-minded style of football, these players are far more likely to feature alongside their centre-backs in all phases of the game. That may mean they situate themselves as a third centre-back in build-up to attacking phases, and hold an important role in the team’s rest defense. Out of possession, they excel in aspects like tackling, intercepting, and defensive positioning. Statistics like tackle %, pressure %, pressures, tackles in the defensive third, and even tracking data like average positioning can therefore help us to quantify, measure and assess the ‘Wide Warriors’ of the world. This is to say that the best of the art not only hold a defensive motto, but contribute massively and successfully to their team’s defensive phases.

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Within this job description, you might be scratching your head to find full-backs who fit the bill. After all, most full-backs in the modern era would be better classified as wing-backs (so much so that we even thought about splitting that role into ‘Playmakers’ and ‘Goal-Scorers’). Nevertheless, the ‘Wide Warrior’ type remains alive and well.

QUINTESSENTIAL WIDE WARRIORS (FB)

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Undeniably a more rare player type in the modern game, ‘Wide Warriors’ still hold an important and special place to any manager’s plans. Even managers of top quality, high-octane teams prefer to have one more attack-minded full-back and one more reserved, which ensures this player type won’t be wilting away any-time soon. The problem for ‘Wide Warriors’ is in garnering the credit they rightly deserve. They’re not the flashiest of full-backs, and favour the “uglier” sides of the game.

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When searching and scouring for ‘Wide Warriors’, we’re looking for players with very little attacking contribution to their team. They may be solid and sound in possession, but their defensive role should come to mind when you first think of the player, even in an attacking system. They also need to have played the majority of games at either full-back or wing-back this season, excluding players who have played the majority of their matches as an outside-centre-back in a back-three. As an example, while a player like Lukas Klostermann evidently makes for an excellent emblem of the role when deployed as a full-back, he’s developed into more of a Ball-Playing-Centre-Half under Domenico Tedesco, and therefore doesn’t qualify.

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The crash-test dummy for this evaluation system – the Canadian Premier League – has seen a few stellar ‘Wide Warriors’ emerge in the opening weeks of the season. The top of the pile unfortunately happens to be the now ACL-torn Fraser Aird – who started off the season in fantastic fashion for his new club Cavalry. For holding a more reserved role in attack in comparison to his opposite-side full-back, Chrisnovic N’Sa also ranks highly within the system, and has also enjoyed a fantastic start to the season with second-place York. Atletico’s Miguel Acosta rounds out the CPL top-three when it comes to the player type, although he could see a change in role as the season progresses, due to his excellence in possession. But as much as I love the Canadian Premier League, I’m very aware that you are likely unfamiliar with the players I make reference to above. So with that, let’s delve into a few household names that signify the player type.

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When he first moved to Chelsea, Cesar Azpilicueta was essentially the quintessential ‘Wide-Warrior’. While he can contribute to the attack and deliver peaches of crosses, he’s better served utilizing his exceptional 1v1 ability in the defensive side of the game. He became more of a ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half‘ under the tutelage of Antonio Conte, but still holds more of a defensive role for Spain, as Jordi Alba gallops up the left wing on the other side. At his very best, Aaron Wan-Bissaka also perfectly typifies the role, saving his best work for 1v1 duels and timing of challenges.

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Takehiro Tomiyasu provides a fantastic modern day example, rarely venturing forward in Arsenal’s attack as Kieran Tierney or Cedric Soares roam forward on the other side. The same could be said of Matty Cash, where Aston Villa attack down their right side less than any other team in the Premier League (31%). Then you have players in defensively-minded systems, who have little room for error in successfully winning their wide battles. As a prominent example, Atletico’s pairing of Sime Vrsaljko and Reinildo exemplify the type of “warrior mentality” we’d be looking for in a perfect emblem of the role. Reinildo has become even more of a defensive presence in a back-three under Simeone at Atletico Madrid, but typified the role even going back to his league-winning LOSC Lille days. Joel Ward and Tyrick Mitchell at Crystal Palace also complete an extraordinarily high number of defensive actions, particularly in their team’s own third. This has continued even within a less defensively-minded style of play under Patrick Vieira.

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Delving into some of the other leagues around Europe, Piero Hincapié is someone who excellently fills in at centre-back when he’s not deployed as a defensively minded left-back at Leverkusen. Mehmet Zeki Çelik has become well-known for his tough tackling at LOSC Lille; while Juan Foyth and Emil Krafth provide useful examples of centre-backs converted into right-backs, allowing the left-back in their team to provide greater attacking gusto. Here we see that ‘Wide Warriors’ can be a mix of old and young, supremely fast or not all that quick, and even along a spectrum of solid in possession to fairly ineffectual. What they all have in common, above all else, is their defensive aptitude and defensive role. But before we fully come to that conclusion, let’s illustrate how ‘Wide Warriors’ are assessed.

MEASURING WIDE WARRIORS (FB)

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Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, with any tasks associated with a secondary role coming second. That means that ‘Wide Warriors’ are scored primarily on their defensive contributions (and decision-making), as opposed to focusing on in-possession facets of the game like we would with an ‘Inverted Fullback’ or ‘Wing-Back’. However, the attacking threat and distribution that the player type may provide can still earn them additional praise or reductions within our system, secondary to the cause.

1. DEFENSIVE IQ

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The sheer number of defensive contributions allows us to assess a player, but more vitally is their IQ – taking into consideration aspects like the timing and decision making behind their challenges and contributions. This includes…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
  • Positional awareness and positional discipline
  • Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
  • Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)
  • Leadership and organization
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By first assessing for decision making, we can then more appropriately analyze the statistics a defender may acquire in any given match. A player is given a score out of 10 in each category, using both statistical metrics and the eye test, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.

2. DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTION

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Wide Warriors are expected to contribute a high number of defensive actions and contributions on any given day, in any form. This includes their number of…

  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Aerial Duels Won
  • Aerial %
  • Clearances
  • Blocks
  • Pressures
  • Recoveries
  • Acumulation of a clean sheet

3. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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Wide Warriors are tasked with the defensive side of game, they must still be sound in possession, and capable of releasing their team from pressure. Their ability on the ball is therefore the third most important aspect, behind their main function of defending.

  • Passing %
  • Long passing % + switches of play
  • Progressiveness (progressive passes + progressive carries)
  • Involvement in build-up
  • Control (touches, miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)

4. ATTACKING THREAT

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Even though the tasks of a ‘Wide Warrior’ are focused on the defensive side of the game, the best of the art can still contribute occasionally to their team’s attack. This may include…

  • Crosses + crossing %
  • Passes into final 1/3
  • Key passes
  • Dribbles + dribble %
  • Shots + shot on target %
  • Shot-Creating-Actions
  • Progressive passes received

Again, the sheer number is often less important than the player’s success and/or timing of decision making when it comes to the attacking side of the game. In most cases, both are measured to better understand a player’s ‘IQ’ and ‘Contribution’ within the overall umbrella of ‘Attacking Threat’.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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Fullbacks may also be given additional boosts or retractions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…

  • Goals
  • Assists
  • Penalty kicks given away
  • Errors leading to shots or goals
  • Own goals
  • Red cards

While these metrics may affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.

So with that, based on the five key evaluation metrics, here are some of the very best ‘Wide Warriors’ in Europe’s top five leagues.

TOP 20 WIDE WARRIORS

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As the antithesis to the Wing-Back, any players with a consistently above-average accumulation of shots, goals, assists, progressive passes received, key-passes or shot-creating actions on a per 90 basis were excluded from our search. This helped to exclude Leipzig’s Nordi Mukiele, who has excelled more than expected within Tedesco’s attacking ideologies. But again, this doesn’t mean wing-backs can’t be included on our list. Both Timothy Castagne and Joel Veltman give their teams a defensive boost when deployed as a wing-back or full-back, as opposed to the attacking fluency of others in their team.

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So, after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both this season and the last 365 days, these are the best ‘Wide Warriors’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player TeamTackle %Pressure %Aerial %
1Kyle WalkerManchester City50.034.155.3
2Cesar Azpilicueta Chelsea46.328.659.3
3Takehiro TomiyasuArsenal61.533.051.0
4Diogo DalotManchester United60.030.664.3
5Tyrick MitchellCrystal Palace68.931.544.6
6ReinildoAtletico Madrid55.033.653.8
7Juan FoythVillarreal66.133.868.2
8Sime VrsaljkoAtletico Madrid66.731.967.2
9Mehmet Zeki CelikLOSC Lille56.432.165.7
10Matty CashAston Villa55.127.844.2
11Joel VeltmanBrighton47.430.761.9
12Ruben AguilarAS Monaco63.232.850.0
13Timothy CastagneLeicester City53.830.561.8
14Lukas KublerSC Freiburg57.131.256.6
15Kevin MbabuVFL Wolfsburg41.731.163.3
16Piero HincapiéBayer Leverkusen61.343.957.7
17Emil KrafthNewcastle United53.827.255.6
18Danilo SoaresVFL Bochum61.435.458.5
19Aaron Wan-BissakaManchester United38.428.438.0
20Pablo MaffeoMallorca55.631.453.2

First, it must be noted that far more statistics have been considered in this ranking than the three shown above, but all three are particularly paramount to assessing the ‘Wide Warriors’ of today. As most of these players play for higher quality, possession-based teams, their percentage points become particularly important, in comparison to sheer defensive values.

But we also must remember that some of the names listed above perform admirably in other facets of the game – such as Kyle Walker’s role as an ‘Inverted Fullback‘ in Manchester City’s system, or Cesar Azpilicueta’s excellence when deployed as a progressive, ball-playing centre-half for Chelsea. So with that, let’s explore those that most perfectly resemble the role of a ‘Wide Warrior’ itself, as opposed to other roles.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the top twenty names listed above, these are the most prototypical ‘Wide Warriors’. In order to rank high on this list, a defender should have lower attacking influence, higher defensive influence, and higher defensive success & IQ. If they play in an attack-minded team but still hold this defensive role, this holds even more weight, such as in the case of Arsenal’s Tomiyasu.

Among several attacking traits that we could have listed, we’ve gone for ‘Progressive Passes Received’ and ‘Crosses’, as they both not only nicely show a player’s attacking influence, but the relative height of their positioning in attacking phases. ‘Wide Warriors’ should generally have lower numbers in both categories, whilst possessing higher than average defensive traits like tackles and interceptions.

Rank #Player TeamTackle + Inter.CrossesProg. Pass Rec.
1Takehiro TomiyasuArsenal4.011.481.59
2Juan FoythVillarreal4.950.490.88
3Danilo SoaresVFL Bochum8.041.891.09
4Emil KrafthNewcastle United4.940.990.35
5Aaron Wan-BissakaManchester United4.871.111.86
6ReinildoAtletico Madrid4.270.481.13
7Piero HincapiéBayer Leverkusen4.820.670.92
8Tyrick MitchellCrystal Palace5.681.681.68
9Lukas KublerSC Freiburg5.211.311.74
10Sime VrsaljkoAtletico Madrid4.222.840.98

When looking at the list of ‘Prototypical Wide Warriors’, many of the standout contenders have played centre-back at some point in their careers, and the likes of Reinildo and Hincapie have filled in at centre-half regularly this season for their clubs. With a natural knack for defending, these players continue in a reserved role even when shifted out wide.

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Given his role as a defensively minded full-back in an attack-minded system, we’ve gone for Takehiro Tomiyasu as today’s ‘prototypical’ Wide Warrior. Capable of playing anywhere in the back-line, the Arsenal man almost plays like a third-centre-back in defensive phases. The same can be said of Juan Foyth of Villarreal and Emil Krafth at Newcastle United, who have the bodies and builds of centre-halves despite their positioning.

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Others that constitute as our ‘prototypes’ are often handed a defensive role by their managers due to their natural knack for defending and handling 1v1 situations. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is an excellent example of a player who started his career higher up the pitch as a striker, then became a winger, then ultimately landed first team action as a full-back under the defensive reign of Roy Hodgson at Crystal Palace.

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The natural trajectory for a player like Wan-Bissaka would be for him to possess some level of Gareth Bale influence from full-back, frequently joining in on the fun. But Wan-Bissaka has turned out to be the exact opposite, even at times struggling in possession of the ball and saving his best work for moments closer to goal.

It’s worth noting that even within our ‘Prototypical’ players, a few anomalies remain. Lukas Kubler plays primarily as a wing-back for SC Freiburg, but holds a slightly more reserved role to compliment Christian Gunter down the other side. Sime Vrsaljko stands out as the only unicorn to hit over 2 crosses per 90 in our ‘Top 10’, despite receiving less than 1 progressive pass per game. This potentially illustrates that even when he’s making progressive passes toward the penalty area, he’s doing so from a deeper, ‘defensively-minded’ position. Danilo Soares of Bochum also stands out as a bit of an anomaly, with over 8 tackles and interceptions per 90. How’s that for a warrior?

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All ends up, when studying the uniqueness of ‘Wide Warriors’ in a modern-game that relies so heavily on attack-minded full-backs, these are the players most worth scrutinizing over.

CONCLUSION

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Over the last few decades, full-backs have evolved from being the furthest down the pitch, to one of the highest and most important to any team’s attacking structure. Nevertheless, defensively-minded ‘Wide Warrior’ beasts still exist in the modern game, tasked with defending for their life and stopping the opposition’s wide players from achieving success. In holding a reserved role in their team, they often allow the opposite-side full-back to venture higher up the pitch, such as Tomiyasu’s role at Arsenal, or Foyth’s positioning at Villarreal. They’re not the flashiest of players, but still perform an integral role in allowing their teams to achieve both attacking and defensive success.


So there it is! Explaining our ‘Wide Warrior’ type within our Player Role Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all thirty-two roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

More in this series…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis

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