Evaluating centre backs with PFF data: who could make the move to the Premier League?

Centre backs play a crucial role in football, but evaluating their performance can be a challenging task due to limited data availability, lack of standard metrics, importance of context relative to their team, and the subjectivity of evaluation. However, a new dataset has arrived that is revolutionising the way we look at centre backs. In this article, PFF data is used to analyse centre backs in Ligue 1 and identify a potential top target for Premier League clubs in the summer.

When evaluating a player's performance, PFF player grades are an integral part of the process. The PFF player grading system evaluates every player for every event during a game. Each player is given a grade of -2.0 to +2.0 in 0.5 increments on a given play with 0 generally being the average or “expected” grade. PFF’s grading process is identical for each competition, giving us a tool to compare the quality of actions instead of just looking at quantities.

Defensive positioning

Positioning is perhaps the most critical aspect of a centre back's defensive acumen, but traditional on-ball event data does not directly measure it. PFF position grades offer a solution.

These grades evaluate a player's positioning by highlighting situations in which they are out of position, allowing the opposition to advance the ball or when a defender has lost track of their man while marking. The grades also consider the level of danger the opportunity the positioning allows, with positive grades reserved for “active positioning” such as stepping up to catch an opponent offside.

Player name Team Age
PFF position grades per-90
Marquinhos PSG 28 -0.26
Mattia Viti OGC Nice 21 -0.27
Benoît Badiashile AS Monaco* 22 -0.30
Dante OGC Nice 39 -0.30
José Fonte LOSC Lille 39 -0.34
Montassar Talbi FC Lorient 24 -0.37
Kevin Danso RC Lens 24 -0.39
Andreaw Gravillon Stade Reims** 25 -0.40
Alexsandro LOSC Lille 23 -0.42
Lilian Brassier Stade Brestois 23 -0.42

* Transferred to Chelsea on Jan 5, 2023

** Loaned to Torino on  Jan 31, 2023

The table lists the top-10 centre backs in terms of PFF position grades that played at least 500 minutes in Ligue 1 this season. The grades are calculated on a per-90 basis, since players can only receive positional downgrades while on the pitch.

There are players on this list that are either known commodities — Marquinhos and Benoît Badiashile — or too old to be considered by a Premier League club — Dante and José Fonte — which leaves us with an initial shortlist consisting of Mattia Viti, Montassar Talbi, Kevin Danso, Andreaw Gravillon, Alexsandro and Lilian Brassier.

Aerial duel performance

Another important piece of the puzzle when evaluating centre backs is their aerial presence. Winning an aerial duel in football is typically defined as touching the ball first but simply winning the duel does not always equate to a strong performance.

For instance, forcing the opponent to put the ball out of touch can also be considered a success in the air. The context of an aerial duel is also crucial, as the opponent's skill and physical attributes can have a significant impact on the outcome.

As an example, it would be unfair to expect Raheem Sterling to win an aerial duel against Virgil van Dijk but if Sterling was in an advantageous position to win a duel and still lose to van Dijk, Sterling still warrants a minus grade due to his favourable chance of winning compared to an opponent and not the disparity in size between the two.

Player name Team Age
PFF aerial duel grade
Alexander Djiku RC Strasbourg 28 93.3
Kevin Danso RC Lens 24 91.1
Axel Disasi AS Monaco 25 90.9
Mateusz Wieteska Clermont Foot 26 90.6
Joe Rodon Stade Rennais 25 90.3
Rasmus Nicolaisen Toulouse 26 89.8
Maxime Le Marchand RC Strasbourg 33 89.5
José Fonte LOSC Lille 39 88.7
Brendan Chardonnet Stade Brestois 28 88.1
Yunis Abdelhamid Stade Reims 35 86.9

The table lists the top-10 centre backs in terms of PFF aerial duel grades in Ligue 1 this season. Again, only players that have played at least 500 minutes are included. The only player on our initial shortlist that appears again is Kevin Danso, who makes it through to the next round as a player to have demonstrated quality in positioning and aerial performance.

Passing ability

Centre backs have a clear responsibility off the ball, but we cannot ignore their performance on the ball when evaluating them. For most teams, centre back’s passing plays an important role in the buildup. The PFF passing grade is an ideal instrument to assess their passing ability, since it takes into account the context of every pass attempt.

Player name Team Age
PFF passing grade
Jonathan Gradit RC Lens 30 79.3
Facundo Medina RC Lens 23 76.3
Sergio Ramos PSG 37 75.9
Marquinhos PSG 28 74.7
Tiago Djaló LOSC Lille 23 72.1
Kevin Danso RC Lens 24 71.8
Dante OGC Nice 39 69.1
Chancel Mbemba Olympique Marseille 28 66.8
Jean-Clair Todibo OGC Nice 23 64.1
Youssouf Ndayishimiye OGC Nice 24 63.7

The table lists the top-10 centre backs in terms of PFF passing grades in Ligue 1 this season, limited to players with at least 500 minutes on the pitch. We cannot rule out a style of play effect here, with RC Lens having three centre backs in the top-10, but Kevin Danso once again finds himself in the mix.

Block attempts

Other commonly used defensive metrics, such as the number of blocks, may not provide a comprehensive picture of a player's defensive performance. This is because the best defensive action in a given situation may not always be to attempt a block.

However, PFF addresses this issue by also considering the times when a player attempts to block and successfully does so. This allows for a more accurate assessment of a player's performance in terms of their blocking ability, because it puts blocks into the perspective of block attempts without incorporating events where no block attempt was made.

Player Team Age
Successful block percentage
Gerzino Nyamsi RC Strasbourg 26 60%
Julien Laporte FC Lorient 29 59%
Isaak Touré AJ Auxerre 20 57%
Mamadou Sakho Montpellier HSC 33 56%
Max Caufriez Clermont Foot 26 55%
Dejan Lovren Olympique Lyon 33 54%
Erik Palmer-Brown ES Troyes AC 25 53%
Sinaly Diomandé Olympique Lyon 22 52%
Jean-Charles Castelletto FC Nantes 28 52%
Maxime Esteve Montpellier HSC 20 52%

The table lists the top-10 centre backs with at least 500 minutes in terms of block percentage captured on opposition pass events in Ligue 1 this season. This time, Kevin Danso does not make the top-10: he is ranked 15th with a successful block percentage of 49%, still well above the league average of 42%.

Recommendation: Kevin Danso (RC Lens)

Considering four crucial elements to centre back performance, positioning, aerial duel performance, passing ability and block attempts, one name clearly stands out in Ligue 1: Kevin Danso of RC Lens.

Newcastle United have already been linked with a move for Danso earlier in 2023, with reported competition coming from LaLiga and Serie A clubs as well. Danso isn't out of contract until the end of the 2025/26 season, meaning RC Lens is in prime position to set a high asking price for him.

As we know, the Premier League harnesses the biggest financial punch within Europe when it comes to transfer budgets. So, could we see Danso swap Lens for Newcastle or another English club in the summer?

If you are a club professional and interested to see how you can use PFF data in scouting and recruitment, please reach out to [email protected].

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