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.
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.
PFF position grades per-90
|Mattia Viti||OGC Nice||21||-0.27|
|Benoît Badiashile||AS Monaco*||22||-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|
|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.
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|
|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.
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.
PFF passing grade
|Jonathan Gradit||RC Lens||30||79.3|
|Facundo Medina||RC Lens||23||76.3|
|Tiago Djaló||LOSC Lille||23||72.1|
|Kevin Danso||RC Lens||24||71.8|
|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.
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.
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].