English players have become premium assets in the transfer market. The cause may be the influx of foreign players or the small reserves of real British talent, but overvaluing our compatriots is not a recent phenomenon. A remnant of the ‘golden generation’, the English fans and media tend to hail the arrival of a new star as the saviour of the national team. I’m going to look over the coming weeks at those we overrate and those talents we neglect in order to try and objectively evaluate whether these players are good enough, underappreciated, or overrated. The first player I’m looking at is Newcastle’s Stephen Taylor.
I have a confession that I should make before we move forward with this analysis. I’m from the same area as Stephen Taylor. He went to the same school as my brother, I played for the same team he did as a youngster, albeit a few years behind him. I knew where he lived, where his parents lived and once went trick or treating to his house. Does this make me biased? Perhaps, but I have followed his development as a footballer with more interest than many.
I remember a training session as a youngster when Steven came down to watch. He was just breaking into the Newcastle first team and had played for the England Youth sides. He went on to captain the U-16s, U-17s, U-19s and U-21s but at 27 he has yet to make his full debut for the national team.
Some of this could be down to competition. If he were to have played for England at any point over the last few years he would have had to dislodge two of the best centre backs in world football in John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. Behind them there was also a plethora of defensive talent in the form of Sol Campbell and then Joleon Lescott. Now, or course, Gary Cahill and Ryan Shawcross are competing for the starting spot. Despite this, I believe that Taylor would be in serious contention for the shirt if it weren’t for injuries. I’m going to analyse his performance using statistical comparisons with some of the best defenders in the country and see if his performance actually merits the view I have.
Taylor is a classic centre half. His is the game of last-ditch tackling and powerful headed goals. So much so that he had the nickname ‘Hollywood’ on the north east coast. This is misleading, however, as Taylor also has some ‘culture’ in his play. This season he has completed 89% of his open-play passes. To give that some context, Ashley Williams has averaged 87% in a team which places a premium on possession, while Ryan Shawcross has only completed 66% of passes, albeit in a Stoke team which play a vastly different style. In fact it compares on a par with Kompany and Cahill and places him 20th for the entire league. His final third completion stats are on a par with Shawcross and Williams at 45%, slightly behind Kompany and Cahill who have around 55%. However, these players are a long way behind the most accomplished defender in this department: William’s team-mate Chico Flores, who has a staggering 73% completion on final third passes.
Although he currently compares well with his peers, a defender will never be judged solely on his passing or offensive work. This is where Taylor begins to excel. The minutes per possession won data shows that Taylor wins the ball back every 24 minutes (not including clearances and blocks). In fact he has won the ball back only 9 times fewer than Ryan Shawcross, despite having played less than half the minutes (965 to 2070). In context, Ashley Williams also wins the ball back every 24 minutes. However, Kompany is far ahead in this aspect, winning the ball back once every 15 minutes. This stat is more impressive when you consider that ‘minutes per’ defensive data tends to favour those in teams further down the league. This is due to the fact that the weaker teams have to face much more offensive pressure from their opponents and thus have more regular opportunities to clear, tackle and block. If anything this shows just how superior Kompany is at this moment since he stands head and shoulders above the field, even when the field favours his competitors.
A fairer measure of defensive capabilities is duel data. This examines every challenge attempted and every 50-50 aerial battle. The percentages which come from this data are much fairer since they value effectiveness and defensive skill. It doesn’t matter if the player has faced less pressure or played fewer minutes since it is about success rates. On the ground, Taylor has a 60% success rate, a better rate than Williams, Cahill and Shawcross and only slightly behind Kompany. However this comparison is deceptive. Although this looks like Taylor is an elite performer in this category, since he compares with some of the most consistent performers in his position, Ron Vlaar win ground duels 84% of the time, considerably higher t- han Taylor et al. Several defenders are higher than this group, including Carlos Cuellar (78%), Jonny Evans (74%), Phil Jagielka (73%) and Rio Ferdinand (73%), who make up the top 5.
Similarly, in the air there is a disparity between Taylor and some of the more elite performers. Taylor wins 57% of his aerial duels, slightly behind Shawcross (61%) and Kompany (59%) yet far behind Cahill who wins 73% of his headers. This is slightly skewed as Taylor competes more often than the other defenders in the air, and thus wins more often, yet still he seems to be statistically weaker aerially. His development shows a clear progression over the last 4 seasons in terms of his passing (up from 78%) and ground duels (up from 51%) yet his aerial duels and total wins suffer, perhaps as a result of injuries. He is also a clear goal threat, with 11 goals in his career; he is yet to find the net this season, however.
There is some argument to be made about consistency helping performance. Although Taylor seems to be relatively consistent across this season, barring games when he has been reduced to substitute appearances, there is always the concern that his performance may drop upon returning from a major injury. Should he be able to remain fit the consistency would surely help his performance, as we have seen in Jonny Evans.
Over the last few seasons Evans has nailed a more regular starting position for Man Utd (albeit aided by injuries to Vidic, Smalling, Jones and Ferdinand) and has raised his game significantly as a result of playing nearly every week. Taylor is very much in the ‘chasing pack’ behind the country’s top defenders. On his day he is as good as Shawcross and Williams, who have been receiving praise for their form over the last two seasons.
Unfortunately for Taylor there is one stat which he can’t compete in: minutes played. If he can manage to keep fit we may see another competitor for the England jersey, but if not he must go down as one of the unfortunate losses to English football, alongside Dean Ashton, Owen Hargraeves and even Jamie Rednapp. In Robin Van Persie we have seen that it is never too late to shake off the injury demons, and at 27 there is still some time for his narrative to change. I for one will be hoping he stays fit long enough to answer our questions.