Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statistics

Football in League Two may be a world away from the glitz and glamour of elite clubs like Liverpool and Chelsea, but it’s still a level that boasts plenty of individual talent. And after clubs in the division voted to curtail their season this week, you won’t be able to see any of the players in action for a while: unless they’re in the play-offs.

So, we’re going to dive deep into the League Two performance data to identify the division’s best performing full-backs, of what we can now call ‘last season.’ You’ll be able to gain an insight into who played well in 2019-20, as we use detailed statistics and graphs to bring you a data analysis.

Method

Fans who are familiar with English football’s fourth tier are more likely to be aware of the likes of Eoin Doyle and Nicky Maynard: the headline grabbers who are judged mainly on their goals. But how do you measure a full-back? It’s arguably the most varied role in football. Some managers prefer all of their defenders not to venture far past the halfway line, whilst others use them as one of their main attacking threats. So, in this analysis, we’ve looked at different metrics that cover every type of full-back.

In preparing the graphs, the filter used excludes players who’ve played less than 900 minutes. This is because players who’ve had limited minutes have a small sample size of data, which means the numbers can be skewed. For example, a full-back could have played only one game all season. But if they were outstanding in their only appearance, the chances are they’d be top of a lot of metrics, as they’re calculated either on a per 90 minute or percentage basis.

Players of all ages will be displayed on the graphs. However, when we pick out a few to study on my shortlist, we’ve focused on the younger players who performed well from a data point of view. Every player who we’ll look at in more detail is aged 25 or under, so they’re not quite at their peak yet.

The graphs will include anybody who has played at full-back and ranks above average in one of the metrics on it, so there will be a few players who have played more football in central defence, or on the wings.

Defensive solidity

Firstly, we’ll look at which players have been reliable options for their team defensively. We’ve done this by looking at two metrics: successful defensive actions per 90 minutes and the percentage of defensive duels won. A defensive duel is when a player attempts to dispossess an attacking player to stop the ball progressing. If the defender manages to stop the opponent from progressing the ball, the defensive duel is won. A “successful defensive action” can be a won defensive duel, slide tackle, or interception.

The scatter graph below shows us which players have ranked highly in these two metrics. The higher up and closer to the right of the graph a player is, the better their score. This principle will apply in every scatter plot you’ll see.

Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statistics

As you can see, Luke Conlan and Aaron Hayden average the most successful defensive actions per 90 minutes, with 10.81. It’s worth noting that Hayden has played the vast majority of his football in central defence for Carlisle, but he still ranks higher than any other central defender for this metric. He’s won an impressive 68% of his aerial duels as well. 

Context is key when it comes to any statistical analysis. Left-back Luke Conlan ranks highly in successful defensive actions per 90 minutes, but that’s partly down to the fact he’s tested a lot as a Morecambe player. The Shrimpers are second-bottom of the division, and only Newport County average less possession per game. He has won 56.7% of his defensive duels, which is below average for the league, so it’s more worthwhile to take a look at players who score higher in this metric.

Josh Cogley immediately stands out. The Crawley right-back, on loan from Birmingham, has won 71.43% of his defensive duels. He also averages 10.2 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes.

23-year-old Newcastle United left-back Liam Gibson spent the first half of last season on loan at Grimsby Town. He won 64.2% of his defensive duels, averaging 10.81 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes.

Ball progression

In the modern game more than ever, full-backs are expected to be comfortable in possession. Being able to move the ball forward for their team is a useful attribute. We’ve measured who the best ball progressing full-backs are, by looking at the number of progressive runs they make per 90 minutes, alongside how many progressive passes they average. 

A pass is considered progressive if the distance between the starting point and the next touch is:

  • At least 30 metres closer to the opponent’s goal if the starting and finishing points are within a team’s own half,
  • At least 15 metres closer to the opponent’s goal if the starting and finishing points are in different halves,
  • At least 10 metres closer to the opponent’s goal if the starting and finishing points are in the opponent’s half.

The same applies for a run to be considered progressive, but the starting point is the player’s first touch, and the finishing point is his last touch.

Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statisticsIn terms of progression through passing, the two players that stand out are Crewe Alexandra’s full-backs. Perry Ng, who captained the Alex to promotion, averaged a league-high 15.29 progressive passes per 90 minutes. The 24-year-old right-back also averaged 2.18 progressive runs. 

On the other side, 21-year-old Harry Pickering averaged 13.84 progressive passes and 1.36 progressive runs. Crewe were the most possession-dominant side in the division, and the two full-backs were vital in helping them keep possession and in starting dangerous attacks.

Elsewhere, Colchester United right-back Ryan Jackson plays a fantastic 13.19 progressive passes, and he ranks in a respectable place for the number of progressive runs he averages (1.39).

In terms of players who prefer to progress the ball by carrying it, Leyton Orient left-back James Brophy ranks the highest with 3.43 progressive runs. Although this is very impressive, it’s worth noting that he has actually played nine times on the left side of midfield. This could have affected the numbers as he’d have more license to carry the ball in that position. On the other hand, that very fact demonstrates his versatility. 

Cameron Pring also ranks highly in these two areas. The left-back spent last season on loan at Walsall from Championship side Bristol City. He averaged 3.4 progressive runs and 9.58 progressive passes per 90 minutes.

Creativity

Next, we took a look at the players who’ve been the most threatening in the final third. To do this, we looked at how many crosses they put in per 90 minutes, and how many expected assists (xA) they average per 90 minutes. Every shot is given an expected goal (xG) value, based on its probability of finding the net. So the xA value is the xG value of the shot that has been assisted.

Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statistics

Salford City left-back Ibou Touray has been exceptional in the final third this season. He averages a league-high of 0.23 xA, and he’s second in the division for crosses per 90 (4.6). 

Only Forest Green Rover’s Liam Shepherd averages more crosses (5.02), but he’s played a lot of his football at wing-back and on the wing. He also averages 0.21 xA.

Elsewhere, experienced left-back Chris Hussey scores high in both metrics. The Cheltenham wing-back averages 4.1 crosses and 0.16 xA. Walsall’s right-back Cameron Norman scores 0.16 and 4.23 for xA and crosses respectively.

Shortlist

After using these graphs, we’ve made a shortlist of the players who stood out. We focused on players aged 25 and under for this, to highlight players who may not yet be at their peak.

We took a couple of metrics that we’ve already looked at, and added some key ones in for full-backs, such as crossing accuracy and possession-adjusted interceptions. The reason we adjusted interceptions for possession was to ensure it doesn’t affect the numbers of defenders who play for less possession-dominant teams. This would flatter them in some cases, because if you play for a team that has less of the ball, you’re going to need to make more interceptions.

The metric used was interceptions per 30 opposition passages of possession, rather than interceptions per 90 minutes. 

To make it easy to see how each player ranks in each metric, we used percentile rankings. This gives each player a ranking from 0-99, based on how they’ve performed in that metric compared to other players in their position. Each score is a percentage rounded to the nearest whole number. For example, first on the shortlist is Crewe right-back Perry Ng.

Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statisticsHe plays the most forward passes per 90 minutes out of the full-backs in the league, so his ranking for this metric is 99. This means he scores higher than the other 99% of full-backs for this statistic. Basically, the higher the bar, the higher the score. This is a quick and simple way of measuring how well a player has performed, statistically speaking, in each area.

You can see that, as well as scoring high in forward passes, he also has a high success rate in defensive duels. He’s also intercepting the ball frequently, suggesting he can read the game very well. His crossing metrics aren’t great, but in a Crewe team who are patient and like to keep the ball, the onus is on finding the wingers for productivity in the final third. 

The Crewe captain would be a great signing for any League One or bottom half Championship side who look to play possession-based football.

Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statisticsOn the left side is the equally exciting Harry Pickering. An excellent ball progressor and dribbler, Pickering also attempts quite a lot of crosses (3.31 per 90). He’s also very solid in the defensive duel, with a percentile ranking of 84 for this. 

Like Ng, 21-year-old Pickering is a product of that notorious Crewe academy: a club that has produced the likes of Nick Powell, Ashley Westwood and Danny Murphy in previous years. It may be difficult for David Artell to keep hold of his talented full-backs in the summer, even though the Alex will be playing League One football next season.

Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statisticsSalford City fans will have welcomed the news of Ibou Touray’s contract extension. The 25-year-old extended his stay by another 12 months, and it’s easy to see why he’s so highly-rated. 

As well as averaging a lot of crosses and xA per 90 minutes, Touray is an exceptional dribbler. The Gambian international has a dribbling success rate of 67.54%, which is enough for a percentile ranking of 88. His crossing accuracy is pretty high at 34.43%, giving him a percentile ranking of 67.

The accuracy of his forward passing could do with some improvement. He only scores 55.91% in that area, which gives him a low ranking of 20.

Finding the best full-backs in League Two - data analysis statisticsBirmingham City right-back Josh Cogley spent the campaign on loan with Crawley Town, and he scores highly on quite a few metrics. He has a percentile ranking of 97 for successful defensive duels, and he combines that with an excellent crossing success rate of 48.65%. That’s a higher score than 94% of his fellow fourth-tier full-backs.

He’s not the best at taking people on, as his percentile ranking for dribbling is 21. His forward passing accuracy is pretty low, but it’s important to put that into context. Crawley average the fourth-lowest amount of possession per game, and their team passing accuracy of 71% is the third-lowest in the division. So in a more direct team, it’s quite difficult to have a high level of passing accuracy.

Conclusion

The fourth tier of English football may not be the most-watched division, but it certainly is home to plenty of young talent. The players we profiled are mainly young, and a lot of them will likely be playing in the higher echelons of the football league in years to come.