In this data analysis, we will examine full-backs who, in the 2019/20 La Liga season, played for teams who finished in the bottom half. This analysis will focus on their attacking qualities only, as we seek to uncover some creative and productive talent that may have slipped under the radar this season. Statistics will be used from players who played over 900 minutes and made at least 12 league appearances this season. Important attacking qualities will be considered and observed in a bid to highlight which of the full-backs possess enough attacking prowess to be able to feature in a top half La Liga team next season.
No position has undergone such a fundamental shift in its play style since the turn of the century than the full-back. These traditionally wide defenders are now used extensively as attacking outlets, and sometimes to devastating effect. After an impressive season for Real Betis, Junior Firpo signed for Barcelona last summer for €18 million. In his 43 appearances for Betis, the Spaniard was involved in 12 goals. Through the use of data, we look for attacking full-backs of a similar nature who can follow the footsteps of Junior Firpo.
A progressive pass is a forward pass that attempts to advance a team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal. A progressive run is a continuous ball control by one player attempting to draw the team significantly closer to the opponent goal. Both of these are hugely important in outlining the attacking intent of the players in our dataset. We can consider those who aim to progress more frequently as more attack-minded and confident driving their team forward.
We will focus on five players for further inspection. Not all of them will be above average in both departments, but all can be concluded as players who can progress effectively.
Álex Moreno – the 27-year-old Real Betis left-back is way below the average of 8.257 progressive passes per 90 with 6.14, but he dwarfs the progressive runs per 90 average with 3.46, compared to an average 1.424. The Spaniard averages 1.25 more progressive runs per 90 than the next closest player in the dataset.
José Ángel – he has averaged an uninspiring 1.21 progressive runs per 90 for Eibar this season, however, the 30-year-old averaged a staggering 12.39 progressive passes per 90. When aggregated, this is by far and away the highest number of total progressions by any player in our dataset.
Lucas Olaza – the Uruguayan on loan at Celta Vigo from Boca Juniors has the second most total progressions. 1.22 progressive runs from 90 is below average, but a figure 10.82 progressive passes per 90 last season shows how confident he is with his positive distribution.
Joan Sastre – despite his Mallorca finishing 19th, Sastre, at 23 years of age, showed an assuredness to drive forward on the football pitch. He was above average last season for both progressive runs and progressive passes per 90, with 1.67 and 9.41 respectively.
Yuri Berchiche – the left-back possesses arguably the most consistent high figures of anyone. He is comfortably above average in both forms of progression and has the third highest total progressions from last season, with 1.9 progressive runs per 90 and 9.36 passes.
Although the number of crosses a full-back may put in is dependant on their team’s play style, an inspection of crosses is still relevant when discussing the attacking quality of a full-back. As they are frequently the players who are in the positions to put in dangerous crosses, an effective crosser can contribute heavily to their team’s chance creation. The graph below compares the crossing success rate and number of crosses per 90 of the players in our data set. For clarity, a successful cross is considered one in which the next touch is by a teammate.
As expected, there is quite a spread in the results. However, there are ten players who are above average in both their number of crosses per 90 and their crossing success rate. We can conclude that these players are good crossers of the football. We will focus on six of them for further analysis.
Toño – the Levante left-back has the second-highest crossing success rate in our dataset with 45.31%, and the highest of the players who are above average in both fields. This season, the 30-year-old averaged 3.37 crosses per 90.
Álvaro Tejero – with 4.09 crosses per 90 at a success rate of 42.25%, the Eibar right-back had another solid season. At just 24, he has plenty of time to develop this aspect of his game and has shown the signs of developing into an impressive attacking full-back.
Pablo De Blasis – the Argentinian has entered the twilight of his career. Despite playing as a winger for most of his career, the 32-year-old featured most frequently as a right-back this season and has clearly carried his crossing ability with him. The Eibar man put in 4.2 crosses per 90 this season at a success rate of 39.76%.
Raúl García – he averaged an impressive 4.71 crosses per 90 for Real Valladolid this season. A success rate of 38.57% proves that he can cross accurately as well as frequently.
José Ángel– having a third Eibar player on this list attests to their play style. However, it is José Ángel whose stats stand out the most. This season he put in 4.77 crosses per 90 at a success rate of 42.54%. It is no wonder that he has a strong xA of 2.99 for the season.
Joan Sastre – the Mallorca right-back has undoubtedly the best crossing figures. He is the only man in the dataset to have averaged over 5 crosses per 90 (with 5.08). The fact that he also has the third best success rate with 43.9% shows that his high volume of crossing was hugely effective this season.
Passes to penalty area
Attacking intent can be measured by the frequency at which players attempt passes into the box. The quality of these passes, measured by the success rate, can be used to analyse attacking output. A high accuracy of passes of this kind is to be desired, as they can create immediate danger and goalscoring opportunities.
Ten players both attempt and successfully execute passes into the penalty area more than the average player. We will consider five of these for closer inspection.
Emerson – with a success rate of 55%, no player in our dataset completes passes into the penalty area more accurately than the Brazilian. He also attempted 2.94 passes of this kind per 90 in his 33 appearances this season.
Álvaro Tejero – as well as crossing, the Spaniard is adept at finding passes into the penalty area. This season he attempted 4.15 of these per 90 at a success rate of 45.83%.
Pablo De Blasis – with 4.3 passes into the penalty area per 90, and succeeding 45.88% of the time, the Argentinian’s assist tally of 3 in La Liga for the season appears very modest.
José Ángel – having a third Eibar man on here again shows the directness of their attacking play. Yet, it is Ángel again with the standout figures of 4.91 passes into the box per 90 and a success rate of 47.1%.
Joan Sastre – the man who has played for Mallorca all his life features above both averages again, proving his attacking intent and success in executing such. His figures for passes into the penalty area are impressive, with a success rate of 49.33% for the 4.64 he attempts per 90.
xG and xA
A succinct and direct way to measure attacking output is to analyse the xG and xA figures for our players. Attacking output ultimately translates to goals and assists. Through its use, we can see how the players affect the game in close proximity to the opponent’s goal.
We can see that there are six players above both average lines, suggesting good expected attacking output from the six of them. Pablo De Blasis leads the pack with 0.12 xG and 0.13 xA per 90. However, we can attribute these figures to the fact that he occasionally plays on the wing. Behind him is Álex Moreno with 0.08 xG per 90 and 0.11 xA per 90. Joan Sastre also has 0.11 xA per 90, but his xG per 90 is 0.04. This is still above average however. With similar figures also are Jonathan Silva of Leganés and Betis’ Emerson. Both have an xA per 90 of 0.1. The former has an xG per 90 of 0.07, whereas Emerson’s is 0.06. Fran Gámez is the final player with xA and xG per 90 figures both above average, with 0.08 and 0.04 respectively. Vasyl Kravets’s 0.15 xA per 90 must also be noted.
Smart and Key passes
A key pass is a pass that immediately creates a clear goal scoring opportunity for a teammate who in turn fails to score. A smart pass is defined as a creative and penetrative pass that attempts to break the opposition’s defensive lines to gain a significant advantage in attack. Both of these offer interesting insights into the creativity of players and their ability to see gaps in the opposition lines.
Eight players appear in that top-right section indicating a good ability to make smart and key passes. Perhaps the best two players out of these eight are Emerson (0.56 smart passes and 0.59 key passes per 90) and Pablo De Blasis (1.01 and 0.4 respectively). The trio of Joan Sastre, Yuri Berchiche and Nacho Martínez all average an aggregate of over 1 smart and key pass per 90. Sastre’s 0.87 smart passes per 90 is the second best out of all players. Lumor, Jorge Miramón and José Ángel all deserve a mention for being above average in both aspects. Finally, Vasyl Kravets of Leganés averaged a very impressive 0.71 key passes per 90 alongside 0.36 smart passes (which is just below the average).
Successful attacking actions and deep completions
A deep completion is a non-cross pass that is targeted to the zone within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal. Plotting these against successful attacking actions per 90 help give a general idea of how well players fare whilst attacking and also their ability to pick out a pass in a dangerous area.
Nine players stand out in these categories. Álex Moreno has the highest successful attacking actions per 90 with 4.38 and the third highest number of deep completions per 90 of 0.88 to accompany it. The only man with over 1 deep completion per 90 is the Brazilian Emerson and his successful attacking actions figure of 3.32 per 90 is also solid. Joan Sastre and Pablo De Blasis are next with 0.87 and 4.02 deep completions, and 0.91 and 3.49 successful attacking actions per 90. The other five players in the top quadrant are: Lumor, Alfonso Pedraza, Yuri Berchiche, José Ángel and Toño.
After this analysis, we will now gather the top selection of players and compile a final shortlist of the best attacking full-backs in the bottom half of La Liga. After assessing the feasibility of them following the footsteps of Junior Firpo, we will briefly compare them to Firpo in the 2018/19 season.
From the analysis above, we are left with seven candidates:
Álex Moreno – he made 31 appearances for Real Betis this season and accrued four assists. With two solid La Liga seasons under his belt, top half clubs will more than likely be in for him as he has proved he can perform at the highest level.
Emerson – with nine goal involvements for Real Betis this season, the 21-year-old is a highly capable attacking full-back. Emerson was only on loan this season, and will be returning to Barcelona this summer. With an impressive season under his belt, he looks ready to compete for a spot a Barcelona.
José Ángel – The Spaniard has been a very steady performer for Eibar in La Liga for the past three seasons. He is 30-years-old though, and therefore unlikely to be invested in by a top half team.
Joan Sastre – The 23-year-old featured heavily in our analysis above owing to a solid first season in La Liga. He only played 19 matches for relegated Mallorca this season, but proved that he is at least worthy of a place in a La Liga team next season, perhaps even a top-half team.
Pablo De Blasis – Five league goal involvements for the little Argentinian this season affirms the attacking quality he possesses. Though, he is now 32 and showing signs of slowing down physically. His ability cannot be questioned, but his age will certainly deny him a move to a top half club.
Toño – His sixth season at Levante has been one of his most consistent yet. However, at 30-years-old, he will find himself in a similar position to that of José Ángel and Pablo De Blasis.
Yuri Berchiche – The Spaniard has played 68 league matches in the past two seasons for Athletic Bilbao and is an adept defender as well as an attacker. Though at 30, he is unlikely to gain a move, he certainly has at least a season left in him in which he could guide his club to a top ten finish.
Comparison to Firpo in 2018/19
We will now compare our final four players to Junior Firpo last season in order to gain an idea of whether they can perform at Firpo’s level, and therefore make the step up.
While Emerson and Firpo lead in assists per 90, the xA figures point towards Álex Moreno and Joan Sastre as slight favourites. With better finishers in front of them, it cannot be denied that their assist tallies for this season would be far higher than they were.
In terms of progressions, all three apart from Emerson have more than Firpo did in 2018/19. While Berchiche and Sastre stand out in the passing department, Moreno is the clear favourite for progressive runs.
While the five of them cannot be separated much on their forward passing accuracy, Sastre is by far and away the most accurate crosser, with Berchiche way behind and a 15% difference between the two.
Finally, all players this season had more successful attacking actions per 90 and a better dribble success rate than Firpo did in 2018/19. Moreno, Sastre and Berchiche have impressive figures in both departments.
While La Liga is home to many full-backs with excellent attacking abilities, few of them fit the bill to follow in the footsteps of Junior Firpo. However, upon comparing our final shortlist to Junior Firpo in his breakout season, we can conclude that the foursome of: Álex Moreno, Emerson, Joan Sastre and Yuri Berchiche all possess the attacking prowess to compete effectively at a top half La Liga team and maybe push for Champions League football. Using this data, we can point towards Emerson and Sastre in particular as exciting youngsters who we should watch out for in the future.