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Manchester United Central Defenders By The Numbers

In this post I will look at the performance of Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in the 2010/11 Premier League season using data gathered from the Guardian Chalkboards, but before I do so I feel the need to make a few points.

1. These numbers are not meant as a definitive measure of a player’s performance. Defending is a very complex art and it would be silly to suggest that it could be summed up with a few simple metrics. As is always the case, these numbers should be used to supplement the eyeball test, and in cases where the results differ from your observations they should be used as a test – is there a reason the statistic could be wrong? is there a problem with how the data is gathered? is it possible the statistic is right and I’m wrong? – to make sure your observations are sound. I will touch on this point again later in the post.
2. The sample sizes used here are very small so everything should be approached with the appropriate level of skepticism. The total minutes included for each player is as follows: Vidic – 3118, Rio – 1710, Smalling – 1037, Evans – 871.
3. I include in these numbers only minutes played at center back which means Evans and Smalling are missing some minutes they played at left back and right back respectively.
4. I have omitted from the data all passes made in the last ten minutes of the Blackburn away match since it was a highly unusual situation and to include those passes would pollute the sample with data that is not a true reflection of a player’s game.
5. I haven’t included Wes Brown’s minutes because he only played one match at center back.


Evans was the most active passer, completing on average 43/50 passes per 90 minutes. Vidic and Rio were next with 38/47 and 37/46 passes respectively while Smalling brought up the rear with 30/40 passes. Note however that Evans played a disproportionately large 61.5% of his minutes in home matches, so you would expect his passing numbers to be slightly inflated. Smalling played 45.5% of his minutes at home so his actual numbers may be slightly higher than they seem. Vidic played 48.0% of his minutes at home while for Rio the corresponding number was 52.6%.

In the graph above I have separated each players passes into forward, sideways and backwards passes. As you would expect each player plays the majority of his passes forward. Vidic is the most frequent forward passer with 62.3% of his passes going forward. Rio is close behind with 61.5%, Evans is third with 56.8% and Smalling last with 52.8%. When it comes to sideways passes Smalling is clearly ahead of the rest with 37.3% of his passes directed sideways. Evans, Vidic and Rio are all close together with 26.9%, 24.5% and 26.5% respectively. Smalling plays the fewest backwards passes, 9.8%, while Evans plays the most, 16.3%. Rio and Vidic are close together with 12.0% and 13.1% respectively.

The success rates of each player’s forward, sideways and backwards passes are shown in the graph below:

In addition to attempting the fewest forward passes Smalling is also the least accurate forward passer, completing only 60.7% of his forward passes. Evans is the most accurate at 77.2% while Vidic and Rio are very close with 71.4% and 72.0% success rates respectively. When it comes to sideways passes Evans, Vidic and Rio are all close, completing 96.2%, 95.2% and 96.1% of their sideways passes. Smalling is slightly less accurate at 91.8%. Each player’s backwards pass success rates are very high, as you would expect and hope.

Needless to say these numbers don’t tell us everything. For example they tell us nothing about the ratio of long, medium and short passes a player played. They also tell us nothing about how difficult each attempted pass was, or about how much pressure the player was under when they attempted the pass. This is where combining these numbers with your own observations from the eyeball test becomes important.

Defensive Actions

The graph above shows each player’s successful aerial duels, successful tackles, interceptions, successful clearances (both headed and non-headed) and blocks per 90 minutes.

Smalling was the most active aerial dueler, attempting 5.2 aerial duels per 90 minutes and winning 3.8 or 73.3%. Rio was the least active, attempting 2.7 and winning 2.0 or 75.0%. Vidic won 2.9 out of 4.3 attempted aerial duels for a success rate of 68.4%. The weakest in the air was Evans who won only 2.3 of 4.6, a success rate of only 50%.

On the ground Vidic was both the most active and most successful tackler. He won 1.6 of 2.0 attempted tackles, a success rate of 78.9%. The second most successful was Rio who won 76.0% of his tackles, 1.0 of 1.3. Evans won 1.0 of 1.4, 71.4%. The weakest tackler was Smalling who won only 58.8% of his tackles, 0.9 of 1.5 attempted.

Evans made the most interceptions, 3.6 per 90 minutes. Vidic, Rio and Smalling won 2.9, 2.4 and 1.8 respectively.

Smalling made 5.1 successful clearances per 90 minutes out of 8.8 attempted, a success rate of 58.4%. 68.3% of his clearances were headed. Vidic was successful in 5.0 of 9.7 attempted clearances, or 51.6%. 60.8% of his clearances were headed. Evans attempted 8.0 clearances per 90 minutes but succeeded in only 3.4 of them, a success rate of 42.8%. 64.9% of his clearances were headed. Rio attempted the fewest clearances, 6.9, and was successful in 3.6 of them, or 51.9%. 54.2% of his clearances were headed, 45.8% non-headed.

Smalling made the most blocks, 0.87 per 90 minutes. Vidic, Evans and Rio made 0.84, 0.72 and 0.42 respectively.

Smalling won and conceded 0.95 and 0.87 free kicks per 90 minutes. The corresponding figures for Evans were 0.93 and 1.24 and for Vidic 1.01 and 1.15. Rio won 0.53 but conceded only 0.16 – just 3 free kicks conceded all season.

On The Usefulness Of These Numbers

Are these numbers meaningful? Can we use them to answer questions like who is the better player, who performed better over the course of the season? Take Evans and Rio. Evans completed more passes, won more aerial duels, won more tackles, made more interceptions, made the same number of clearances and made more blocks. The logical conclusion then is that Evans is the better player, yet anyone who has watched Manchester United play could tell you that Rio is by far the better player, and was also much better over the course of the season.

These numbers alone are not enough to make judgments of relative worth and value, but that doesn’t mean they are useless. Used in the right context and as a supplement to the eyeball test they can have value. For example, knowing that Evans won only 50% of his aerial duels is valuable because we then know this is an area he has to improve on. I don’t need the stat to know that Evans is poor in the air – I can see that with my own eyes – but having the stat reinforces the point.

Goals Allowed

If simply looking at the stats isn’t enough to tell us who is the better player we need to find other ways of answering the question. One way is to look at how many goals a team concedes when the player is playing. While this method also has obvious flaws and limitations I decided to include these graphs anyway. The first graph shows how many goals the team allowed per 90 minutes when each player was on the pitch. The second graph shows how many goals the team allowed per 90 minutes when a certain center back partnership played. Even though they do gel well with the eyeball test I wouldn’t put too much stock in these.

For reference the number of minutes played by each partnership is as follows: Vidic/Evans – 673, Vidic/Rio – 1594, Vidic/Smalling – 851. Evans/Rio, Evans/Smalling and Brown/Smalling also played together this season but the sample sizes were so small they were of no value and so I omitted them.

Categories: Players
  1. applebonkers
    June 5, 2011 at 14:53

    Hi my name is Jimmy Magilton and I’m Johnny Evans’ PR. I would like to apply for a super-injunction for this article for the sake of my client.
    To speed things up how about £2000 and you change all the mentions of Johnny Evans in this article to Wes Brown?

    On a serious note good stuff. A stat from OPTA which reared its head in my copy of FourFourTwo this week was that Man Utd conceded 0 headed goals whilst Ferdinand and Vidic were on the pitch together last season. Impressive, even if Vidic threw in a few handballs of Van Persie’s head along the way.

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