Explaining the Stopper – Player Role Analysis

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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.

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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: the already examined ‘Ball-Playing-Centre-Half’, and the contrasting ‘Stoppers’ vs. ‘Sweepers’. So with that, today’s article is all about the modern day ‘Stoppers’, as we break down the tasks, functions and over-arching role of a ‘Stopper’ in 2022.

JOB DESCRIPTION

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The term ‘Stopper’ has existed within the game for decades. The traditional usage encourages the contrasting relationship between one centre-back who steps out, and one that sweeps in behind – the ‘Sweeper’. The modern game has evolved in such a way where centre-backs typically perform both roles simultaneously, and it’s rare to find clear-cut examples of ‘Sweeper-Stopper’ partnerships. In fact, I’d go as far to suggest that they typically exist more in back-threes in the modern game, with one clear-cut ‘Stopper’ angling higher than an obvious ‘Sweeper’ cleaning up the messes in behind.

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The relationship between Antonio Conte’s back-three at Chelsea in his title winning campaign provides a perfect example. Cesar Azpilicueta played more as a Ball-Playing Centre-Half, advancing up the field into the half-spaces and delivering crosses into the box. Gary Cahill meanwhile acted very much like a rock-solid ‘Stopper’, as David Luiz operated as the ‘Libero’ in behind – dictating the tempo of their build-up, whilst simultaneously remaining the deepest player to cover in behind for the other two. To some extent, that has carried on at the club with the trio of Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Rudiger. Rudiger, as we’ll come to discuss, is best classified under the ‘Stopper’ umbrella for his robust playing-style, and Thiago Silva frequently covers the spaces in behind as passes are played over the top.

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This is to say that the traditional usage of the term still very much exists in the game, even if to a lesser extent. There is no longer a dogma of “you must have one stopper and one sweeper” that exists in coaching circles. Instead, you must find the balance in player traits. That may mean one slower but extremely solid aerial presence is supported by one faster, astutely aware defender in behind. But the terms are generally considered “outdated”. That being said, we hope to bring them back to prominence, and illustrate the value in quantifying players within these “old school” roles, in helping us evaluate the specific tasks of each player on a pitch.

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So with that, let’s discuss the specific tasks of a modern day “Stopper”. As the name suggests, they are responsible for stopping the play, but that often comes higher up the pitch as they “step” out of their line and out of position. This can often be a risky move for any defender (see Harry Maguire), but when it works, it works in perfection in stunting play before the opposition are able to reach a sight of goal. If we hadn’t classified him as a BPCH, Harry Maguire would be the perfect example of a “Stopper”. He’s strong in the air, extremely robust in playing style, and actively wants to step out of line (often to his own peril) to win challenges higher up the pitch. The problem for Manchester United is that he is not supported by a “Sweeper” in behind, neither in the form of a fellow centre-back, or goalkeeper.

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James Tarkowski provides another excellent example. He’s strong in the air, comfortable winning any type of challenge, and endeavours to put his body in the way of absolutely everything. Here we see the function of ‘Stoppers’ as almost like ‘rocks’ or brick walls that shall not be passed. If Dwayne the Rock Johnson ever played football, we’re fairly confident he’d play within this player type. They want to bruise and batter the opposition into oblivion, and make the life of a striker difficult as they get touch-tight, follow their movement patterns, and put their body on the line. The ‘Sweeper’ on the other hand normally plays in behind, providing extra support if the ‘Stopper’s’ efforts fail to pay dividends.

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This means that ‘Stoppers’ typically excel in the air, have a strong sense of physicality, and a innate desire to contest in physical battles. Think Nathaniel Phillips, who we famously discussed at length on the old Futbol Masterminds podcast. The big man at the back is 6’3, physically adept, and most importantly, wants to put his head to absolutely everything. He’s like a brick wall, that would head another brick wall if one was standing in his way. It’s not as though Phillips can’t handle his own in possession. Throughout the past few years we’ve even said the same of Tarkowski – that there’s no reason to suggest he wouldn’t excel at a possession-based club. But the main role of both lads is to put their bodies in the way of anything and everything, typically before the ball even makes its way to the penalty area. Here lies the main difference between a BPCH and a ‘Stopper’. BPCH’s hold more of an attack-minded role, even if they still bear defensive responsibilities for their teams. In contrast, any ‘Stopper’ could be decent on the ball and capable of spreading nice passes, but their first and foremost function is more of a defensive one – focused on winning possession back primarily through their strength, physicality and aerial presence.

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But since both ‘Sweepers’ and ‘Stoppers’ hold that more defensive role, it’s worth noting the essential differences. When you think of some of the best centre-back partnerships throughout time, it’s hard to truly quantify who might have been more of the ‘Sweeper’, and who might have been the ‘Stopper.’ Think of Juventus’s success with their legendary pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. They’ve historically been praised for the balance they provide one another, but that balance exists more on a pendulum than on outright responsibilities. As Chiellini steps, Bonucci sweeps, and as Bonucci steps, Chiellini sweeps. They work in tandem to accommodate the positioning, movement and desires of the other, through their perceptions of ball, opposition, space and teammates (most prominently each other). The ‘Sweeper-Stopper’ debate is therefore one of the most difficult to quantify. In fact, the likes of Diego Carlos of Sevilla, Kalidou Kouliably of Napoli, and Mohammed Salisu of Southampton perform both simultaneously, as they adjust for their partner and the moment.

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In discussing the key differences, we’ve gone for characteristics like height and strength as important factors, in addition to statistical outputs like aerial presence, blocking ability, clearances and pressures/tackles in the middle third. ‘Stoppers’ should typically see their defensive numbers pop on the page, as ‘Sweepers’ may have particularly low defensive numbers. This can range from fouls and aerial duels won, to even aspects of the game that we would normally associate with ‘Sweepers’, like recoveries of loose balls or last-ditch challenges. The key is that they want to write their name on every 50/50, and are therefore expected to see higher peaks in defensive numbers across the board. A final key distinction is that they are far more likely to do the bulk of their defending with their back to goal. ‘Sweepers’ on the other hand may be more likely than ‘Stoppers’ to defend with their body facing the goal, such as chasing down a ball over the top or making a last-man tackle. In many cases ‘Stoppers’ won’t possess the pace to handle those kinds of challenges, and require someone else to take the stead.

So as we move along to more “quintessential” prototypes of the role, keep the likes of Phillips, Tarkowski, and even Maguire in the back of your mind. These players are often mocked for their robust, rugby-style of play, but what they offer their teams can be extraordinarily valuable when backed up by the right partner. None of the above would ever be quantified as ‘Sweepers’, and that’s an important distinction as the lines become blurry.

QUINTESSENTIAL STOPPERS

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When scouring for quintessential ‘Stoppers’, we’re essentially looking for defenders who tend to prioritize physicality when making challenges. By in large, they may be slower players that prefer to use their bodies to win 1v1 battles, rather than speed and skill. With this description in mind, I’m sure your mind instantly races to the Craig Dawson’s, Ben Mee’s and Dan Burn’s of the world. These are all examples of physically strong centre-backs that look to get their bodies in the way of absolutely everything. They don’t possess magnificent speed, and Burn aside, they aren’t all that progressive on the ball. But this doesn’t mean that ‘Stoppers’ can’t be progressive ball-playing defenders. Nico Schlotterbeck, Obite Evan Ndicka and Matthijs de Ligt provide three excellent examples of players who are fantastic in carrying or passing the ball forward, even advancing into the attacking half to contribute. But they hold a more defensively-minded role for their teams (yes, we’re sure about that), particularly in winning challenges before the ball finds its way anywhere close to the penalty area. These players provide a stark contrast to those older heads that operate in already defensively minded teams like Ben Mee, Craig Dawson and Jose Fonte. In those cases, the ‘Stoppers’ in question may make a higher number of challenges and defensive actions in their own defensive third. But again, it’s typically through physicality and strength that they contribute to their team’s success, and it’s typically done with their back to goal.

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Watching Euro 2022 today, I was immediately impressed by the raw physicality of Rahel Kiwic of Switzerland, and Stefanie van der Gragt of the Netherlands. Both provide examples of players who, through their imposing frames, prioritize the physical side of the game, and frequently step out of their defensive line to make challenges higher up the pitch. In the Canadian Premier League, big man Daan Klomp provides another great example, using his height and strength to contest aerial challenges. When deployed in a back-three, he will even step out to his own peril at times, requiring Karifa Yao more work to do in sweeping in behind. Andrew Jean-Baptiste provides the other best example, as someone who seemingly wins every 1v1 challenge, despite not possessing much in the way of pace. His positional sense and physical power to hold off any forward make him a brick wall impossible to bypass.

MEASURING STOPPERS

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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, accompanied by a secondary role. We utilize statistics to help measure performance, but go far beyond that to incorporate the eye test in analyzing player IQ, awareness and tactical understanding. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess their player positioning and movement around the pitch, the areas in which they make defensive actions, and the success at which they win back possession for their team. So with that, here is how we measure ‘Stoppers’.

1. DEFENSIVE IQ

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‘Stoppers’ hold more of a defensive role for their team, and are therefore measured first and foremost on what we call ‘Defensive IQ’. This includes…

  • Tackle % and decision making when tackling
  • Pressure % and decision making when pressuring (including when to step and when to stay in position)
  • 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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From the above categories, you can see a mix of statistical metrics, and seemingly non-quantifiable metrics that may require bias and personal opinion. But it’s important to note that even the so-called ‘non-quantifiable metrics’ utilize statistics as a basis, helping to reduce bias where possible, without discouraging the use of the eye test. A player is given a score out of 10 in each ‘IQ’ category, which is then averaged together to create an overall ‘IQ’ score.

2. DEFENSIVE CONTRIBUTION

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After we get IQ out of the way, sheer statistical numbers are still important to helping us assess player performance, particularly when assessing the level of proactivity of a ‘Stopper’. These defenders are expected to be active. They must engage in 1v1 battles, contest in challenges, and actively step out in stopping attacks before the opposition progress closer to goal. This may include…

  • Tackles
  • Interceptions
  • Aerial duels won + Aerial %
  • Clearances
  • Blocks
  • Pressures
  • Recoveries
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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.

3. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTION

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Regardless of role, centre-backs are essential to kickstarting build-up patterns, helping a team progress the ball up the pitch, and play-making from deep. As a result, even our ‘Stoppers’ must be sound progressors and help their team maintain control. This includes a range of statistical and non-statistical metrics including…

  • 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 the third most important set of traits and characteristics, a player who wins every challenge and performs their defensive tasks to remarkable heights will still accumulate a high player score even if their in-possession stats and IQ lack.

4. ATTACKING THREAT & IQ

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Since ‘Stoppers’ are often the strongest aerial presences on the pitch, they must also be able to contribute to the attacking end of the pitch. Goals remain an abnormality for centre-backs of any kind, but the best ‘Stoppers’ will actively recognize moments when they can contribute in the attacking half in the following areas:

  • 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’.

5. ABNORMALITIES

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

  • Goals
  • Assists
  • 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 ‘Stoppers’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.

TOP 20 STOPPERS

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When assessing ‘Stoppers’, we’re searching for players who perform a primarily defensive role for their teams, particularly in winning challenges and aerial duels. In the table below, we’ve chosen to include three essential statistical categories that bring to light some of the best at the art.

It’s worth noting that this list does not encapsulate the players best at being ‘Stoppers’; but instead, the best players who fall under this category based on our metrics.

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So after scouring the databases, and scrutinizing over statistics from both the 2021-22 season, these are the best ‘Stoppers’ in the world at this time.

Rank #Player TeamAerial %Press %Tkl + Int
1Antonio RüdigerChelsea 69.131.32.85
2Josko GvardiolRB Leipzig 62.337.15.34
3Matthijs de LigtJuventus68.141.12.69
4Nico SchlotterbeckSC Freiburg74.140.55.11
5Obite Evan Ndicka Eintracht Frankfurt63.238.14.07
6Willi Orban RB Leipzig 62.640.42.82
7James TarkowskiBurnley 68.736.04.14
8Sven Botman LOSC Lille 73.339.42.96
9Ibrahima KonatéLiverpool 71.926.73.82
10Mario HermosoAtletico Madrid68.538.63.09
11Dan BurnBrighton73.035.84.01
12Cristian Romero Tottenham Hotspur62.535.66.44
13Konstantinos MavropanosVFB Stuttgart81.845.35.58
14Boubakar KouyatéFC Metz70.635.26.66
15Nayef AguerdStade Rennais70.134.72.76
16Ben MeeBurnley71.335.83.04
17Craig DawsonWest Ham United64.833.72.61
18Alexander HackMainz 0565.040.84.96
19José FonteLOSC Lille77.232.62.06
20Nathaniel PhillipsAFC Bournemouth68.535.82.30

Highlight clips were assessed and analyzed for all players involved in the debate, taking into account the number of times they stepped to challenge with their back to goal, as opposed to swept in behind with their body running toward goal. Since aerial presence and aerial strength hold particular importance to ‘Stoppers’, we eliminated any defenders with an aerial win rate of below 55%, and re-quantified those players under the ‘Sweeper’ umbrella. In both cases – Bremer and Bonucci, the players were borderline in between the two roles anyway. It’s also worth noting once more that we’ve taken away the likes of Van Dijk and Maguire, who best fit as ‘Ball-Playing Centre-Halves’. So now before you get up in arms, here are some of the most ‘prototypical’ when it comes to the role.

PERFECT PROTOTYPES

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Among the top twenty names listed above, these are the ten most prototypical ‘Stoppers’. To rank high on this list, a player should boast a high influence out of possession, particularly in having a proactive mentality in stepping out and winning challenges, relative to their team’s control and dominance. In illustrating this, we’ve highlighted three important categories to a ‘Stopper’, including their pressures in the middle third of the pitch, their number of blocks, and their sheer volume of aerial duels won. Here is what we came up with!

Rank #Player TeamAerial W.Press Mid 1/3Blocks
1Nathaniel PhillipsAFC Bournemouth4.805.931.42
2James TarkowskiBurnley4.962.122.67
3Dan BurnBrighton4.744.162.26
4Craig DawsonWest Ham United3.372.092.16
5José FonteLOSC Lille2.951.971.39
6Ben MeeBurnley4.512.061.96
7Alexander HackMainz 053.964.091.65
8Nico SchlotterbeckSC Freiburg4.455.582.33
9Willi Orban RB Leipzig 3.983.442.21
10Boubakar KouyatéFC Metz3.654.262.74

In finding the most prototypical ‘Stoppers’, we’re looking for the dirtiest, ugliest, most physical of defenders, that do little more than defend and put their body in the way. Schlotterbeck and Kouyaté remain the only inclusions to strongly withhold traits of other roles (BPCH and ‘Sweeper’ respectively), but their numbers were simply too good to ignore. Our list makes the ‘Stopper’ look like a typically older, slower player, who’s become more about putting their body in the way than anything else. That’s perhaps not the prettiest and most elegant of roles in the game, but still incredibly valuable.

CONCLUSION

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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. But the ‘Stopper’ is still alive and well, providing an ‘old-school’, throwback approach to defending that relishes the physical side of the game. Every team must find the balance in their defensive unit, and sometimes that may mean deploying a rock-solid, proactive defender that can win possession higher up the pitch. It’s not the prettiest of roles, but when played correctly, ‘Stoppers’ can be absolutely imperative to a team’s success.


So there it is! Explaining our ‘Stopper’ 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
-> Explaining the Ball-Playing-Centre-Half – Player Role Analysis

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