Leon Britton has, for nearly a decade now, been Swansea’s metronome, the heart of their midfield. More recently, he’s become something of the embodiment of their patient, passing style; a talisman of sorts through the tenures of Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and now Michael Laudrup. When Britton is at his best, the rest of the team plays well, and Swansea had a hugely impressive debut Premier League season with the diminutive regista at the helm. Despite playing a role often overlooked by the media, his national recognition shot up due to many correct – if somewhat sensationalised – stats, the most famous of which being that he had a better pass accuracy than Xavi at times last season.
However, there are a few signs that the Britton era could be drawing to a close. Not due to age – Britton turned 30 last September, but his calm deep-lying role is kind in terms of career longevity, as illustrated by the continued success of Xavi and Andrea Pirlo – or even due to a drop in form. No, Leon Britton’s problem is much closer to home.
Ki Sung-Yueng, a talented South Korean playmaker, arrived from Celtic last year for a fee rumoured to be around £6 million, and has set about making the regista spot his own. With on-loan Dutch midfielder Jonathan De Guzman first choice in the other central midfield berth for reasons of both quality and balance, Britton and Ki have been left to fight it out for the remaining spot. Though the former is an experienced, settled and apparently vital member of the squad, Ki has been making huge strides in his first season. Using an in-depth statistical comparison, we look at how they’ve fared against each other in the three most important areas of a deep-lying playmakers remit: passing, possession and defence.
First things first. A regista’s role is primarily to be a passer, a retainer of the ball and distributor of play. As such, passing should be considered first and foremost when comparing these two players.
It looks at first to be a pretty even contest, with each player beating the other at four categories. The detail in this is critical, however: with Britton playing more minutes (2533 to Ki’s 2037), it’s hardly surprising that he has played more open play passes – more accurate ones too – than his teammate. When we check the OPP Completion %, a statistic that effectively disregards minutes played, we see that Ki actually narrowly beats out Britton by 2%; that said, both figures are over 90% and thus abnormally high, with both players excelling in this particular parameter. Britton balances that loss out somewhat by being marginally more positive with his passing style. 30% of his passes go forwards compared to Ki’s 22, and he also passes backwards less often.
When it comes to using the ball effectively in offence, however, there’s only one winner. Ki has created a whopping 13 more chances from open play than Britton, and of those chances four of them were clear-cut chances, the type that are expected to be put away. Britton, by contrast, created no clear-cut chances, indicating that although his distributive skills may still be equal or even superior to Ki’s, the Korean’s vision and creativity leave him in the dust.
In terms of passing, Britton is more of a ball retainer, a player who keeps possession and leaves others to create the chances. Ki, on the other hand, is much closer to the archetypal regista, a player who values possession but also prioritises the creative use of the ball.
Whilst neither Britton nor Ki are known as – or required to be – midfield battlers, the position they play in naturally requires some defensive intelligence and tenacity. Top-class registas like Michael Carrick, Andrea Pirlo and Xavi are all masters of defending in a way that plays to their strengths, mostly by intelligent positioning and marking skills rather than brute force and tackling. Likewise, the Swansea duo are both required to put in a defensive shift.
Britton, having played more minutes, naturally has attempted more ground 50/50s than Ki, and the minutes-adjusted stat shows a much closer-run contest. Britton also has a very marginal advantage in his ground 50/50 win %. However, Ki not only attempts over twice as many aerial duels, he wins more as well. Given that Ki has over half a foot on his teammate this is hardly surprising, but it is interesting to note that in the aerial duels Britton does attempt, he fares decently considering his 5’5 frame.
In terms of the more vital defensive statistics, Britton not only attempts more tackles, he has a much higher success %. Ki’s 72.73% tackle success is relatively poor, and though this could be due to him getting acclimatised to the Premier League’s rougher style, he came from the SPL, a league hardly known for its finesse. Britton has always been known for his interceptions and marking, and as he has aged his skills have been honed by experience. He handily beats Ki in this particular parameter. Finally, with both making only a solitary mistake each, the ‘dribbled past’ stat shows that Ki somewhat surprisingly has allowed fewer opponents past him than Britton has, despite a lower tackle success rate.
Defensively, Britton is just about superior. As mentioned earlier, the regista role is often kind to veterans, partly due to the wisdom accrued through years of experience translating into a better appreciation of where to place oneself on the football field defensively. This is reflected with our two players here: Britton is willing to scrap to win the ball back and also positions himself well to intercept, whereas Ki – despite his larger frame allowing him to win more aerial duels – is less involved defensively.
Closely linked to passing is possession, since the two are nowadays nearly synonymous. With good passing comes lots of possession, and with lots of possession comes the opportunities to pass more. This section somewhat bridges the gap between the passing and defending sections, and looks at how often Britton and Ki lose the ball, as well as the more specific areas where they win it.
This final table of statistics is probably the least surprising of the lot. Following up what we gleaned about Britton being the superior ball-winner and Ki the better ball-player, learning that Ki gave away possession less and was dispossessed fewer times seems about right. Likewise, Britton’s superior performance in all of the possession winning categories is unsurprising, though it is interesting to note how Ki won more – roughly 60% – of his overall possession in the midfield third, compared to Britton’s 56%, perhaps indicative of the slightly more advanced role the Korean enjoys.
Leon Britton or Ki Sung-Yeueng?
Whilst both Leon Britton and Ki Sung-Yueng play in the same position with the same type of role, the way they interpret that role differs subtly but noticeably, and most importantly very effectively. Ki is undoubtedly a purer regista than Britton, a talented passer who enjoys a good range of vision which allows him to distribute the ball not only reliably, but dangerously as well. Where Britton is a solid passer, Ki can also attempt the spectacular as well as the mundane, which means that he can’t be left with time on the ball in quite the same way Britton sometimes can.
Britton, on the other hand, can draw on all his years of experience as well as a natural steel to his game in order to provide Swansea with an excellent defensive player. Whilst Britton may not be quite the pure passer Ki is, his all-round game means that he still offers a lot to the team, and his experience is surely invaluable to the club both on and off the pitch.
In all, it’s hard to claim that either player has the advantage over the other. Each performs a different but equally important role. With De Guzman likely going back to his parent club Villarreal following their return to the Spanish top flight next year, it is possible Ki might step up to take a berth alongside Britton at the heart of the midfield. Michael Laudrup favours verticality and rapid attacking when the opposition weaknesses are exposed, and Ki has shown that he could potentially have the tools to break down defences regularly. If De Guzman comes back on a permanent deal, Laudrup will have the luxury of three top midfielders with three differing skill sets and can adopt something of a ‘horses for courses’ approach.
Either way, it is unlikely Leon Britton has too much to fear; even after a decade of service, he is still Swansea’s midfield kingpin.
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