Both West Brom and Southampton possess teams that are full of underrated or unheralded players. I have identified both as teams with criminally underrated players in the central midfield areas: Yacob and Mulumbu for West Brom; Cork and defensive stalwart Morgan Schneiderlin for Southampton. Within football circles all four players have impressed and we could well be seeing any one of these four make a transfer to big club this summer. But which of the two teams boasts the ‘best underrated central midfield duo’ in the English Premier League? Read on to find out which of these four players is suggested as a top 4 EPL club player.
Generally when we attempt to find an answer to such a question, we would compare the pairs on a statistical basis. This article however, will attempt to understand each of their roles or tactical expectations and then find the relevant statistics - unique to each pair.
Under Mauricio Pochettino, Southampton have altered their approach to when the team are out of possession and in stark contrast to that of West Brom, Cork and Schneiderlin are now expected to press high up the field in their 1-3-4-3 formation, increasing their chances of winning the ball closer to their opponent's goal and delaying the opposition’s counter attack (to allow players to fall back into position). Yacob and Mulumbu on the other hand, are instructed to fall back to their team’s deeper defensive state of 1-4-4-1-1, be patient and aim to block any play that attempts to get through the disciplined lines of four.
Each team has three formations they will employ during the course of game, which appear to be near identical. However, it is when each of the formations is used and their attitudes to how they should act within each state that offers an insight into not only how the teams differ tactically but how the roles of our midfield pairings differ in areas of the field.
Below I have included each of the three ‘states’ of each of the teams, with a brief description of the midfield duo’s roles and the team’s attitudes alongside the state.
Southampton and WBA’s “State One”
In both teams, ‘state one’ is employed only when the opposition have possession deep in their own half. This formation or ‘deep low block’ is employed as a method to force the opposition into making a mistake and makes it increasingly difficult for the opposition to get through and successfully find a position to get a clear goal scoring opportunity. In both teams the midfield duo take up near identical positions on the field and in both teams the central midfield duo are expected to mark the space they occupy and look to intercept or block anything that comes in their way. Therefore all four players should possess the ability to mark space and read the game - which statistically speaking - we can look at the number of interceptions. The only real problem with assessing the players’ ability to perform in this state is that one would really need to watch the game and assess their ability to read the dangers that approach them and analyse their discipline when marking the spaces required.
Southampton and WBA’s “State Two”
This is the state that both teams would go into when looking to play out form the back or it can be the “mid-state” between attacking and defending when out of possession (when the opposition aren’t threatening in the deep position of state one).
Here’s the problem: teams that play against West Brom are likely to be allowed to pass the ball around freely as WBA look to fall back into a deeper state. When West Brom fall into a deep state, they seduce the opposition forward and leave space for West Brom to counter-attack into - therefore the deeper, disciplined and more controlled low block is preferred to the aggressive pressing we see at Southampton.
Southampton on the other hand will be looking to intercept and press aggressively in these positions - we should therefore expect that the Southampton midfield duo to have made more tackles and interceptions in this third. Southampton’s midfield are also expected to be heavily involved in the build-up from the back, whereas WBA are often chasing the ball that is ahead of them in play. It would therefore be unfair to compare WBA and Southampton’s midfield to one another statistically in such a way (in terms of interceptions). We should expect a team that aims to counter attack to play more ‘key passes’ from this zone and therefore we should expect Mulumbu and Yacob to contribute in this area; however, there is a clear tactical approach that demands Mulumbu and Yacob to offload these duties to Morrison et al. At Real Madrid and Real Betis, the counter attacks are often started from these areas and the likes of Alonso, Casas and Benat are expected to contribute much more compared to the WBA duo.
Southampton and WBA’s “State Three”
For WBA, this state is only found when WBA are attacking and the central midfield’s roles are now split. Mulumbu is expected to drive on forward and look to regain possession if the ball is lost near him; Yacob on the other hand should look to analyse the play ahead of himself and decide whether to join in with the attack or wait for the opposition to try to break forward - it is here that Yacob needs to possess a great sense of positioning.
Southampton on the other hand, take up a similar formation but with far less defensive cover. Should Southampton lose the ball in an advanced position, Jack Cork is essential in preventing an effective opposition counter attack. Southampton may be more advantageous at going forward than WBA and this is reflected in the average player positions, but they also need to press aggressively to enable their own full-backs to drop back after losing the ball. In pressing aggressively they delay the opposition the opportunity to break forward against a minority number of defenders.
Therefore, both Cork and Schneiderlin should look to be involved in defending from the front as they have done in both of the other states. It should be expected that both the Southampton players to have made more tackles and interceptions than the WBA players - this is therefore a matter of tactics and not the player’s abilities to tackle or intercept.
In such an aggressive and attacking method of playing, Southampton’s midfield duo will need to possess the ability to tackle and intercept as well as playing short and often simple passes to near by creative players (Lallana, Rodriguez, Davis, Ramirez etc). I will therefore be looking at statistics relevant to these duties and roles. The statistics will need to be compared to other teams that employ a similar method of play of high and aggressive pressing: Athletico Bilbao, Barcelona, Liverpool, Spurs etc.
For West Brom however, the midfield may not perform as highly (statistically speaking) compared to Southampton’s - this does not necessarily mean that they aren’t as good. I shall be comparing WBA’s central midfield relevant statistics to that of other teams that are happy to sit back and then break on the counter attack: Guidolin's Udinese, Pepe Mel's Betis, Schalke and Real Madrid (all have fantastic reputations for their ability to counter attack and do not necessarily rely or focus on possession). In doing so we will see a fair measure of how good Yacob and Mulumbu are at fulfilling the roles asked of them.
I have included Cork and Schneiderlin’s overall statistics for this season to date and also their new and improved statistics since the arrival of the Bielsa-inspired Pochettino in January.
Given the roles of the players, I have arrived at the conclusion that the primary statistics I should be looking at are those related to tackling, intercepting, passing, being able to keep the ball and general blocking of the play (in the air). All four players concerned should possess the ability to break up the opposition and then retain possession for other team mates to look for the assists and goals.
HIGH PRESSING AND POSSESSION TEAMS
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COUNTER ATTACKING TEAMS
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From the statistical and tactical analysis it becomes clear that Southampton’s midfield duo are not only ‘the best of the underrated’ but since Pochettino arrived they have out-performed world-class midfields throughout Europe. It is also noted that Schneiderlin (aged 23) has run more miles per game than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues, intercepted the most balls and made the most tackles per game (for a midfielder). The biggest point to think about in terms of reading the statistics is to consider that those teams who are in the high possession and pressing category obtain such a high interception and tackle rate with less of an opportunity to do so - and before you begin to wonder whether Southampton are a team that can compete with the others listed in this category - 59% vs. Norwich, 67% vs. QPR, 59% vs. Newcastle, 55% vs. Wigan etc (this depends on which possession percentage method you use - the BBC stats show 58% vs. Liverpool etc). Either way, Southampton are a team that aim to conquer possession under Pochettino and the statistical comparison made in this article provides no real advantage for Southampton over the others in the same category.
So let us return to our original question. Who is the most underrated central midfield pairing in the English Premier League? The answer now appears to be simple: WBA’s are certainly underrated and now possess two midfield players who deserve to be playing in Europe and the top half of the EPL, but Southampton’s midfield duo compete with the very best and deserve more recognition. Schneiderlin in particular, has proved this season he could play the role he does for any team in the Premier League and has the quality to play Champions League football and in the near future he can certainly be considered a starting XI player for the French national team.
All statistics for EPL teams are from EPLindex’s detailed stats centre
All statistics for players abroad are from WhoScored.com
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