When it comes to achieving footballing success, each player on a team must work in harmony, co-existing to bring out the best in one another. The task of any manager is then to not only create an environment in which players feel that they belong within a greater scheme, but to give each and every player a clearly defined role that suits their assets. A player’s role can change by the match to suit the opposition or the particular game-plan, but modern day footballers will each have their own over-arching style of play and role within a team that suits their strengths, or even in many cases, erases their weaknesses. This is where our brand new Role Continuity Evaluation System enters the scene, identifying the various roles that players adopt on the pitch, and using that as a key metric to evaluate performance.
Back when this process began, we identified thirty-two different roles that a footballer could adopt over the course of a football match, that can then be conceptualized to assess performance, and over-arching team tactics. 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.Embed from Getty Images
Centre-backs are not always the flashiest of players, nor do they garner the greatest attention, even despite their importance to structuring and shaping the entire organization of the team. That is precisely why a system like our Role Continuity Evaluation System works on so many levels, as we are able to adequately assess the important characteristics to a player’s performance, while minimizing the scrutinization over less important facets of the player’s game. Within the system, we break down centre-backs into three broad categories: ‘Stoppers’, ‘Sweepers’, and the topic of today’s article – the ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’ (or BPCH for short). So with that, we explain the tasks, functions and role of a ‘Ball-Playing Centre-Half’ and outline some of the very best in the position in 2022.
JOB DESCRIPTIONEmbed from Getty Images
As the name suggests, a ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’ is a centre-back that excels in possession of the ball, from passing to long passing to carrying to dribbling. They can simultaneously exist as ‘Sweepers’ or ‘Stoppers’, providing another interesting asterisk to the role not found in many other positions. Unlike say a fullback or goalkeeper where we have created clearly defined separations and almost polarizations on a style scale, ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’ can also be ‘Stoppers’ or ‘Sweepers’.Embed from Getty Images
The key difference is that they perform their most integral role for the team in possession of the ball, which is often their preeminent strength used to help propel the team forward. Particularly essential to playing out from the back, the initial stages of progression, and what we call the “circulation stage” of build-up, BPCH’s excel in breaking lines, breaking pressing structures, and contributing to the attack. They exist almost like ‘Quarterbacks’ in NFL Football, responsible for kick-starting attacks from deeper positions. But that doesn’t mean they are always launching the ball left to right, switching play, spraying diagonals, and hitting the half-spaces for ‘Channel Runners’ to chase down. Instead, they also may be excellent carriers of the ball, progressively breaking lines when they have space to entice an opposition block to close them down, thus vacating further space in behind.Embed from Getty Images
This is where our quantification of centre-backs differentiates from the previous work of Andy Watson (a Blackburn Rovers analyst) who specified between ‘Ball-Playing’ and ‘Ball-Carrying’ centre-halves. As a well-known example, Joel Matip would be classified as a ‘Ball-Carrying Centre-Back’ within Andy’s system, and his partner in Virgil Van Dijk would probably be best categorized as a ‘Ball-Playing’ defender. While the distinction can be useful in the quest to identify player habits and traits (particularly when conducting opposition analysis), both carrying and passing fall under the larger umbrella of propelling the team on in possession and contributing positively to the attack. The most progressive of those ‘Ball-Playing’ defenders can then begin to breakaway from the pack, particularly ones who are consistently used to recycle the ball, restart moves, and change the point of attack.Embed from Getty Images
Going back to the ‘Sweeper’ / ‘Stopper’ debate, defenders in the modern age are becoming more difficult to quantify as one or the other. In possession-based teams that prioritize playing out from the back, it then becomes all the more useful to add this third option to the table, emphasizing the importance of the player’s role to attacking phases, more so than defensive phases as the responsibilities of a ‘Sweeper’ or ‘Stopper’. In creating balance within a team, it is generally best practice to incorporate one player who engages more like a ‘Sweeper’, particularly in supporting another player who likes to step out, be more proactive, and ‘stop’ the play higher up the field. But combinations of ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’ may both hold the same secondary player type. Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip would both be classified better as ‘Stoppers’ than ‘Sweepers’, even if both remain fully capable of sweeping. In that case, Alisson Becker remains the true ‘Sweeper’ in the team, as they create a high line of engagement and stop the play further up the pitch.Embed from Getty Images
Manchester City meanwhile also have a ‘Sweeper Keeper‘ supporting their back-line, but John Stones and Aymeric Laporte would also classify as ‘Sweepers’ in a one-or-the-other debate. In that case, this may be down to the importance of recovering in transition to stunt counter attacks for City, particularly as opposition clubs look to take advantage of the half-spaces and wide-channels in behind their ‘Inverted Fullbacks’. Liverpool on the other hand contend in more aerial duels as part of their high-line structure – a product of their energetic press right from the front of the defense. In both cases, despite their defenders holding both the same primary and secondary role within our system, they still excel alongside each other. This becomes all the more clear when you consider their role in possession in supporting the attack and kickstarting phases of possession.Embed from Getty Images
So when quantifying who constitutes as a ‘BPCH’, we’re looking for players on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to passing and long-passing percentages, carries and dribbles, switches of play, touches, and even flip-side spectrums like their number of times dispossessed. But using the eye test, we’re also identifying players who simply hold a more prominent role in possession for their team, whether or not reach those highs from a statistical standpoint. Cruz Azul’s Pablo Aguilar is a phenomenal example of a player in a possession-based team that constantly looks to spray long passes right to left, despite his relative lack of connection. He would still fall under the ‘BPCH’ category, as that is the preeminent function of his role within the team, Within this job description, I’m sure a host of other names spring to mind. So let’s get to the fun part – discussing some of the game’s ‘quintessential’ Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves.
QUINTESSENTIAL BALL-PLAYING CENTRE-HALVESEmbed from Getty Images
More than any other position article-ized so far, we assess and quantify centre-backs using the eye test. It’s all about establishing what a player’s main role in their team is first and foremost, and what strengths they exude in all phases of the game to accomplish more than another player in the same position. Of the three player types we’ve established for centre-backs, ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’ are the easiest to statistically quantify and establish. But even then, there’s no exact 100% foolproof science to it, no matter how much we may try to initiate one. For example, Marc Guehi, Jonathan Tah and Manuel Akanji are all exceptional ‘Sweepers’, but they also excel in possession of the ball – completing a high number of passes for their team. You can make the argument that players like Tah and Guehi are less progressive and forward-thinking than say Laporte and Matip. But then again, so are players like Marquinhos and Kimpembe of PSG – who touch the ball upwards of 80 times per game and have no choice but to be quantified in this category.Embed from Getty Images
When it comes to BPCH’s, we are generally looking for players that are not only active and involved in possession, but ones who are particularly fruitful in being “progressive”, “forward thinking”, and “attack-minded.” We are therefore utilizing the eye test to assess where a player first likes to take their touch and where they first glance after receiving possession. If their first look is to go forward and break lines, they are more likely to be assigned to our BPCH category. This becomes the case all the more when their passing, long passing, or touch numbers skyrocket to extreme heights in a possession-based team. But not all possession-based centre-backs are best suited to the player type. We’ve categorized Antonio Rudiger, Ibrahima Konate, Nico Schlotterbeck and Josko Gvardiol as ‘Stoppers’, even despite excellent possession numbers, in large part due to their bullish defensive style. Similarly, we settled on the likes of Fikayo Tomori, Marc Guehi and Maxence Lacroix as ‘Sweepers’, due to their excellence in supporting play in behind, often times alongside another more ‘Stopper-ish’ figurine.Embed from Getty Images
With that out of the way, let’s stop discussing what a BPCH is not, and move on to the part where we discuss who and what quantifies as a quintessential ‘Ball-Playing Centre-Half’. Again, we are looking for players who contribute higher numbers in progressive passes and progressive carries (ideally both), and have a high success rate when it comes to passing stats, such as long passing, passes into the final third, and switches of play. It’s helpful for players in this category to be part of possession-based clubs where they are likely to be targeted with a high number of passes, and to even contribute to the attack via underlapping and overlapping runs. But they don’t have to be adventurous. They can also be sitters, dictating play from deep.Embed from Getty Images
Aymeric Laporte is essentially the main man I personally think of within this category. He’s incredibly progressive, completes his long passes at an obscene rate, and remains one of the first players City look to when recycling play or circulating the ball. But he also ventures forward and seeks moments where he can make underlapping runs. He essentially ticks all the boxes. Bayern’s Lucas Hernandez is another one that immediately springs to mind, accomplishing all of the same feats as Laporte, but to a higher level when it comes to one particular category – his insurmountable number of progressive passes. Joël Matip is another that immediately springs to mind, for his role in constantly driving through the half-spaces and progressively carrying the ball up the field.
Then you have the dictators, the architects, the orchestrators if you will. These players typically play in the middle of a back-three, spraying diagonal passes right to left and holding some responsibility for dictating the tempo from deep. Sound like anyone you know? If you guessed Conor Coady, Thiago Silva or Lewis Dunk, then Bob’s your uncle! You’d be correct.Embed from Getty Images
In some cases, BPCH’s can even be the more robust aerial presences like Virgil Van Dijk or Harry Maguire, who excel most of all with the ball at their feet. It’s also a common one for players converted from other positions into centre-back, as they are often recruited into the role for their brilliance in possession. That brings to light examples like Lukas Klostermann (a former right-back), Marc Cucurella (who featured in our ‘Wing-Back‘ article), and David Alaba (a former jack of all trades).
In the Canadian Premier League, they exist in abundance, and not only in possession-based teams. We can even go to the far end of the spectrum and speak to players that play in low-possession, low-block, defensively minded teams. In some cases, you’ll get a Luke Singh from FC Edmonton, who’s role in the team is to be the defender pushing and driving the team on, spraying long diagonals and carrying the ball forward.
You’ll get defensive midfielders who swap in at centre-back and control the game from deep like Jordan Wilson or Alexander Achinioti-Jönsson. As previously noted, the role can even co-exist within the realms of a ‘Stopper’ like Dominick Zator, or a mopping ‘Sweeper’ like Thomas Meilleur-Giguère. The various fascinations of the role aid in its overwhelming openness to interpretation, and assessing against other roles becomes particularly crucial to qualification.Embed from Getty Images
The key is essentially this. All of the examples listed above provide perfect examples of players who may very well excel in the defensive side of the game. But they prefer to have the ball at their feet, working to do their best damage going forward. Even the BPCH’s that evidently love defending like Van Dijk and Thiago Silva do very little defending, helping to seamlessly qualify them for the role.
You will see more examples of quintessential ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’ as we move along, but for now, understand that they typically exist within high-possession teams, and typically teeter-totter toward being progressive rather than patient with the ball.
MEASURING ball-playing-centre-BACKSEmbed from Getty Images
Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, accompanied by a secondary role. Particularly imperative when assessing who quantifies as an ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’, we are using more than just data but the eye test, in assessing how and when a player picks up possession and contributes to their team’s attacking play. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they frequently pick up possession, and the success at which they progress the ball up the pitch. So with that, here is how we measure ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’.
1. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTIONEmbed from Getty Images
‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Backs’ must be sound progressors of the ball, and must a hold a high importance to their teams in possession. As a result, what they accomplish with the ball at their feet features as the preeminent evaluation metric for their performance on the pitch. This includes a range of statistical and non-statistical metrics for success:
- Passing %
- Long passing % + switches of play
- Decision making in supporting the build-up and progression
- Involvement in build-up (including importance, average position and movement)
- Touches + number of times targeted with a pass during build-up to progression phases.
- Control (miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
- Progressiveness (progressive passes + progressive carries)
As you can see, this category includes a range of easily identifiable on-the-ball metrics, without detracting from the eye test and the off-the-ball decision making processes of our centre-backs in question.
2. DEFENSIVE IQEmbed from Getty Images
As even ‘attack-minded centre-backs’ still hold imperative responsibilities in the defensive side of the game, we measure and quantify ‘Defensive IQ’ as the second most important facet to a BPCH’s game. As you’ve probably read in our previous articles along this series, we measure for ‘IQ’ and ‘decision making’ ahead of sheer numbers, as it more properly assesses how well a player performed their assigned tasks. For example, a BPCH that made only 1 tackle, but only had to make 1 tackle, may score higher than a defender who made two tackles but attempted five. We assess ‘Defensive IQ’ through analyzing…
- 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
The final three categories hold particular importance when assessing centre-backs. They must work together as part of a tandem duo, but also often times hold even higher-level responsibilities, such as leading and organizing the team; and making last ditch efforts and challenges. A player is given a score out of 10 in each ‘IQ’ category, using both statistical metrics and the eye test, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.
3. ATTACKING THREAT & IQEmbed from Getty Images
Since we want our BPCH’s to hold a particular importance in attacking phases, we measure for ‘Attacking Threat and IQ’ next, even above ‘Defensive Contribution’ on sheer number values. It’s worth noting that this does not include goals or assists, which are more atypical of all three centre-back roles – even BPCH’s. Instead, this category includes…
- Number of overlapping and underlapping runs in the opposition’s half
- Passes and carries into the final third
- Key passes + shot-creating-actions
- Dribbles + dribble %
- Shots + shot on target %
- Progressive passes received
- Decision making in attacking phases
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’.
4. DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTIONEmbed from Getty Images
Whilst what they do in attack for a possession-based team holds greater importance, our BPCH’s are still expected to win their 1v1 duels and contribute to the defensive side of the game. This includes their sheer number of…
- Aerial duels won
- Aerial %
- Accumulation of a clean sheet
Again, it’s worth noting that we hold ‘IQ’ in a higher regard. But sheer number statistics carry weight in establishing players who were particularly active on the day. They can also bring to light some essential facets of IQ, such as ‘interceptions’ or ‘recoveries’ which help to tell a partial story in uncovering a player’s anticipation and awareness.
5. ABNORMALITIESEmbed from Getty Images
Centre-Backs of any player type may also be given additional boosts or retractions for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…
- Penalty kicks won, or 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, let’s jump into what you’ve been waiting for – the very best ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.
TOP 20 BALL-PLAYING-CENTRE-BACKSEmbed from Getty Images
When assessing for ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Backs’, we’re searching for players who facilitate build-up, and play a prominent role in kickstarting attacking moves for their teams. In the table below, we’ve chosen to include three essential statistical categories that bring to light some of the better progressors, and those that are particularly involved in knocking the ball about. We’ve gone for progressive carries and progressive passes per 90 to demonstrate any slight differences in centre-backs who prioritize one over the other, and the number of times a player was targeted with a pass per 90, as a key indicator of importance to their team in all attacking phases.
It’s also worth noting that this list does not encapsulate the players best at being ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’; but instead, the best players who fall under this category.
So after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both the 2021-22 season, these are the best ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’ in the world at this time.
|Rank #||Player||Team||Prog. P||Prog. C||Target #|
|1||Virgil Van Dijk||Liverpool||3.06||2.91||60.7|
|2||Ruben Dias||Manchester City||3.97||8.95||74.2|
|3||David Alaba||Real Madrid||3.47||4.29||59.4|
|4||Aymeric Laporte||Manchester City||6.31||11.2||80.9|
|5||Marquinhos||Paris Saint Germain||2.74||4.87||66.1|
|8||Dayot Upamecano||Bayern Munich||5.81||3.33||76.7|
|9||Lucas Hernandez||Bayern Munich||6.90||6.64||73.1|
|10||John Stones||Manchester City||3.47||8.39||69.4|
|11||Presnel Kimpembe||Paris Saint Germain||3.60||4.72||69.3|
|12||Milan Skriniar||Inter Milan||2.23||3.06||52.7|
|13||Manuel Akanji||Borussia Dortmund||4.82||5.10||67.2|
|15||Gerard Pique||FC Barcelona||4.70||5.30||58.6|
|16||Alessandro Bastoni||Inter Milan||4.05||4.20||58.2|
|17||Harry Maguire||Manchester United||3.08||3.94||43.0|
|19||Victor Lindelof||Manchester United||2.25||2.79||38.4|
|20||Mats Hummels||Borussia Dortmund||3.11||4.44||61.2|
It’s worth reiterating again that the likes of Eder Militao, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Josko Gvardiol were ultimately classified under other categories, due to excelling in other areas of the game more than their in-possession nous. Meanwhile, others in this table could also be classified as closer to one of the other two player types. This is where we begin to establish a list of the ‘most prototypical’ BPCH’s, scrutinizing over the players that most perfectly exemplify the role.
PERFECT PROTOTYPESEmbed from Getty Images
Among the top twenty names listed above, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’. To rank high on this list, a player should boast a high influence in possession, particularly in having a progressive personality. They should spend the bulk of their time playing as a centre-half, with next to no variability in positioning and role between club and national team. Their statistics and role within the club should also be prioritized in a similar order to what we’ve established for evaluation, even if lacking in progressiveness. In illustrating this, we’ve highlighted three passing categories, including long passing percentage, passes into the final third, and total completed passes.
|Rank #||Player||Team||Long Pass %||Passes 1/3||Passes C.|
|1||Aymeric Laporte||Manchester City||87.8||10.1||86.1|
|3||Gerard Pique||FC Barcelona||65.0||5.56||78.6|
|4||Mats Hummels||Borussia Dortmund||68.0||3.01||78.2|
|6||Presnel Kimpembe||Paris Saint Germain||92.3||5.49||75.9|
|7||John Stones||Manchester City||84.9||6.05||73.0|
|8||Lucas Hernandez||Bayern Munich||73.0||7.65||78.5|
|9||Marquinhos||Paris Saint Germain||81.4||4.65||70.2|
Due to his excellence in ticking all the boxes, Aymeric Laporte ranks as our choice to best exemplify the role. Older heads that have been around for decades like Thiago Silva, Gerard Pique and Mats Hummels also rank at the top of the list, no longer possessing the legs to fulfill any other type of role. Then you have Marquinhos and Kimpembe, who possess the calmness in possession to both excel as the architects of attacking moves, and progress the ball more patiently. All ends up, when it comes to ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’, these are the players worth scrutinizing over.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Over the past few decades, centre-backs have only grown in importance to attacking phases and playing out from the back, becoming some of the preeminent quarterbacks for their clubs. Found most commonly in possession-based clubs, ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Halves’ can co-exist as either ‘Sweepers’ or ‘Stoppers’, but excel with the ball at their feet more than any other phase of the game. The likes of Aymeric Laporte, David Alaba and Lucas Hernandez illustrate fantastic modern day examples of the functionality of a centre-back playing such a crucial role in possession, and each could be deemed one of the most integral figureheads of their teams. As possession phases continue to evolve, the ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’ may only grow in prominence, becoming one of the most sought after roles in the footballing world.
So there it is! Explaining our ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’ player type within our 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
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis
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