With the 2014 World Cup now glittering in the distance it is standard procedure for every football fan in England to select their own England squad. Their own formation. Their own route to glory. However, this time it seems slightly harder. England are not exactly blessed by world class squad depth, nor are they blessed with a world class starting XI. But, and this is a big but, the Three Lions are blessed with a potentially promising crop of young players who, if nurtured correctly, could turn into very competitive players for some very big clubs in the Premier League. This is what supplies the headache – who does Roy Hodgson take?
One of the areas in the England squad with the most question marks surrounding it is the central midfield position. Gerrard is a shoe in, he’s Captain and he’s probably one of England’s better players despite his age; Carrick, likewise, is one of England’s most technically gifted players and Lampard is probably going to get yet another crack at scoring that elusive World Cup goal. So that’s three experienced central midfielders already on the plane to Brazil barring yet another injury worry or another standard England, pre-World Cup catastrophe.
The question is who else goes? As mentioned previously, England have a decent crop of young talent to select from this time around and some of them have to blooded in this tournament. Four candidates for selection are Jack Wilshere of Arsenal, Ross Barkley of Everton, Tom Cleverley of Manchester United and Jordan Henderson of Liverpool. From the outside looking in, three of these players are having very good seasons – the other is Tom Cleverley – but what do the statistics say? Using statistics collated from WhoScored.com, Squawka.com and Opta I’ll be looking for clues as to who will be going to Brazil as things stand right now. I’ll be breaking this down into three main categories – passing, offensive and defensive stats – and from there I’ll discuss each statistic as we go to get a better picture of how each player is truly performing. It must be said that these players have been utilised to different levels and therefore the stats could look more or less impressive based on the amount of appearances they have made, for clarity the appearances made by each player are as follows: Jack Wilshere – 15, Ross Barkley – 16, Tom Cleverley – 14 and Jordan Henderson – 22. All stats used for this article were collected on the 20th January 2014 and are Premier League only.
The first statistic of note here is the amount of assists each player has achieved up until the mid-January point. Jordan Henderson has clearly excelled in this area and his partnership with Luis Suárez is very encouraging (good players play well together and all that). Five of Henderson’s six assists have been for the Uruguayan striker and that illustrates a great understanding – Hodgson will be hoping a similar partnership can be formed with Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney. Jack Wilshere comes in second with four assists which is good for this stage of the season but some way behind the league’s front runners such as Rooney, Özil and Gerrard. As you can see from the table above, Barkley and Cleverley are yet to create any goals for their colleagues this season – a potential worry, especially for Barkley who is probably the most attacking player of the four candidates. Key passes per game is also another useful metric to assess how players are doing in the final third. Jordan Henderson again leads the way with 1.9 key passes per game , followed (again) by Jack Wilshere on 1.5. Barkley averages one and Cleverley is again bottom with 0.4 key passes per game. This is a good way of seeing how often a player likes to get forward, the more time a player spends in the final third, the higher the chance of him playing a key pass to a teammate. This shows that Cleverley rarely gets forward whereas the other three clearly enjoy playing around the opposition’s penalty area.
In the third column we have average passes per game with Tom Cleverley standing atop this category followed by Jordan Henderson – the Liverpool man clearly ahead at this early stage of our comparison. This category tells us that Cleverley has a lot of the ball but that, sadly, he doesn’t really do much with it. The lack of assists and key passes tells us that a lot of Cleverley’s passes are made around the centre circle where there is often little pressure, like Carrick but less incisive and impressive. This theme continues into the next category with Cleverley on top again but the gap to Henderson suggests a lot of his passes are either backwards, sideways or unpressured. 90.2% pass completion is obviously impressive but it’s far too high compared to the other three who we know regularly get forward and link up attacks – it’s much easier to lose the ball the closer to the opposition’s goal you go. Barkley and Wilshere are close in this category at with the Everton man coming in at 84.8% compared to Wilshere’s 85.3% – Jordan Henderson’s pass completion comes in at 86.3%.
The fifth and sixth columns in our passing section deal with the types of passes our young midfielders are selecting. Starting with accurate through balls per game, we have Jack Wilshere ahead on 0.5 – not a surprise given that he plays in a team that loves to attack through the centre with pace. Jordan Henderson is once again second on 0.2, with Ross Barkley third on 0.1. I’m seriously not here to bash Tom Cleverley, I’m not, (I do enough of that on Twitter and this is genuinely as impartial as I can be) but the Manchester United midfielder again comes out bottom when it comes to a vaguely offensive passing statistic. Cleverley has made zero accurate through balls all season – this could be understood if you were the deepest lying defensive midfielder in the world but he’s not, he’s a general central midfielder by trade and you could argue he’s meant to be more offensive than Michael Carrick. Things improve slightly for Cleverley as he completes the most accurate long balls per game with an average of 4.4. Make of that what you will, some will see that as too many whereas others will see that as a good display of “quarter-back” play. Jordan Henderson is again second with 3.9 – similar opinions available there.
So, what conclusions can we bring from the passing section of our comparison? Well, Ross Barkley isn’t a great passer of the ball – yet. The Evertonian placed third or fourth in every category we looked at. Compare this to Jordan Henderson who possibly came out of this section with the best record and it makes grim reading – the Liverpool man placed top in two categories as well as finishing second in the other four categories available. Tom Cleverley obviously has an eye for keeping the ball ticking over but his lack of incision means he’s unlikely to get a place on the Rio-bound plane at this stage because the job of team metronome is already sealed by Steven Gerrard, with Michael Carrick also pushing for that role. The United man will have to turn that around in the offensive and defensive sections of this comparison. I think we can also see that playing in two of the league’s most incisive sides has helped Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson progress into very capable attacking midfielders – although it can also be argued that Henderson’s figures are most impressive given he’s played in every single one of Liverpool’s matches this season without his performances tailing off. As things stand, Wilshere and Henderson are on the plane – Barkley and Cleverley are not.
The first place to look when you’re searching for attacking based stats is the goals scored column. None of our players have really taken off when it comes to goals scored but nonetheless it remains an important part of their game – although they all need to improve this aspect of their game. At this point in the season Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley lead the way with three goals apiece. Jordan Henderson and Tom Cleverley are lagging behind on one goal apiece but this could all change in a couple of weeks so it’s probably best to wait until the season ends to judge this section of their comparison. A second important category to judge attacking players with is shooting accuracy – how well do our players use the ball when given the opportunity to shoot? At this point in the season, Wilshere is miles ahead with 60% of his shots hitting the target – a very good score. Tom Cleverley posts a decent 40% with Barkley ahead of Henderson on 38%.
The third column in this section is the dribbles per game category – this is extremely useful to see what type of player a person is. Whether they have the power to get past an opponent is an extremely useful tool or glaring weakness. At the moment it seems that Ross Barkley is the best at gliding past opponents whilst on the ball with the Evertonian attempting 2.8 dribbles per game. He’s followed by Wilshere on 1.7 dribbles per game. Henderson and Cleverley are much lower down the scale with the two of them attempting 0.6 and 0.3 dribbles per game respectively. It can be argued that Cleverley and Henderson are simply not that type of player – sort of Steven Gerrard-esque. It’s still great to see young players like Barkley embarking on tricky runs – it shows bravery and confidence, and also a hint of arrogance. Offsides per game isn’t really a huge factor for these kind of players (it’d obviously be more important if were were talking about strikers but these players will rarely be offside). Nevertheless, all four players are offside less than once every two games. Tom Cleverley is top here with zero offsides this season – illustrating how deep he’s been playing for Manchester United. Wilshere has the worst offsides per game with a figure of 0.3.
A much more important factor for any midfielder is how well they use the ball and how well they retain possession when under pressure. At present, Ross Barkley is dispossessed the most times per game – twice – whereas Jordan Henderson is the best with a loss of possession occurring 0.6 times per game. This shows us how well our World Cup hopefuls are keeping the ball – something England tend to struggle with when they enter the premier competitions, the game against Italy at Euro 2012 is the prime example.
If you ignore every statistic in this comparison this may well be the most important so pay attention to this one or just make sure you place some sort of importance on it. There’s a difference between a “chance” and a “clear-cut chance”. A chance is when someone has a shot at goal, it can be from anywhere – even if there’s only a 1% chance it’ll go in, it’s still a “chance”. A clear-cut chance (or CCC for those who have used stats before) is entirely different. If you’re presented with a CCC you are expected to score and if you don’t you’re either an awful player or the defence has done something fantastic. So, with this in mind, it’s absolutely imperative that an attacking midfielder should be making these CCC’s. At the moment, Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere are tied for first place with six CCC’s created for their team-mates this season. Ross Barkley has created just the one and Cleverley has made precisely zero. In all honesty, this stat can set apart the good and the great or the hopefuls and the players actually on the plane to Rio – if I was Roy Hodgson, I’d be taking my most creative central midfielders to give England any kind of hope of damaging the Italian and Uruguayan rearguards.
So, what important details can be taken from this section? Wilshere is clearly the best of the lot when it comes to attacking. The Arsenal man topped three of the categories and came second in one other. Tom Cleverley is extremely cautious on the ball with the lowest dribbles per game and no CCC’s created all season. I think Jordan Henderson excels again – showing us what a good season he is having – with two category wins and two more second places. Barkley shows his age with his inconsistency but, again, that arrogance and lack of predictability could give you something completely different in the last twenty minutes of a cup match. This factor could be particularly effective against fellow Europeans Italy who should struggle with the heat as much as England – the powerful, explosive Barkley could be useful in the final minutes of a tiring game. We can also safely say that Barkley and Wilshere are the best goalscorers at current, although many Liverpool supporters are baffled by Henderson’s lack of goals this season after a promising return from last season (5).
One question that arises from this section of the comparison is: what does Tom Cleverley do with the ball? His average passes per game stands at 57.9 but he is yet to create a CCC and his key passes stand at 0.4 per game. This all leads me to conclude that Clevlerley has next to no attacking input. As things stand, I think I’d take Henderson, Wilshere and now Barkley. Although Barkley’s stats are not brilliant, I think he has something different to the other three – the more strings Roy has for his proverbial England bow, the better.
A lot of people tend to look at tackles per game when it comes to statistically analysing the defensive qualities of a player, but a better way of looking at this aspect of the game is to see how many of the tackles are successful. At the moment, Jack Wilshere has the best tackle success percentage with 57% whereas the other three hopefuls are hovering around the same 50% mark – Cleverley just edging out Henderson and Barkley. The way these players defend could be an attraction for Roy Hodgson, if one can defend better than the rest then that player will also be in contention for a World Cup spot – probably as cover, but nevertheless, they’ll have a chance of being on the plane.
Another really useful tool for a defensive minded player is the way in which this player positions himself on the pitch. Simple positioning can stop an attack in it’s tracks and it seems Tom Cleverley excels in this area – the United man is currently averaging 1.7 interceptions per game (another telling sign that Cleverley is modelling himself on Michael Carrick, the elder United midfielder averages 3.5 interceptions per game). Currently none of the other three players are averaging above one interception per game – Henderson is sitting in second position with 0.9 interceptions per game whereas Wilshere is bottom with 0.5. These low averages point to Henderson, Wilshere and Barkley being more offensive than Cleverley which means Cleverley could force his way into Hodgson’s thoughts by being the most defensive of the hopefuls.
The third category we’re looking at as part of this defensive comparison is average fouls per game. None of these players are currently committing sins in this department but Cleverley is on top for the second defensive category in a row – he commits just 0.8 fouls per game compared to Wilshere and Barkley who commit 1.1 fouls per game. Henderson is second on 0.9. With each of the hopefuls so close together in this category there aren’t really any clear messages here – the more important statistic is the tackle success percentage. The next column illustrates how many clearances per game our young midfielders have been making. Now, this statistic can be warped if one team comes under more pressure than another. For example, Henderson is top of this category with an average of 2.3 clearances per game – this sounds great and it shows that Henderson gets through a lot of work during a game but it also shows that Liverpool are under pressure a lot of the time meaning he’s potentially more likely to make more clearances per game than say Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere – with the Londoners dominating most games they play in. Nonetheless this shows that Henderson is a very hard working player – not that the majority of people didn’t already know this.
Our final category in the defensive section of our comparison is the average amount of times our players are dribbled past per game. This is a very important stat which will show us how good our young guns are at facing up to the opposition and it will also tell us how solid they could be if England decide to defend the edge of their 18 yard box – as they did at Euro 2012. At this stage of the season, Cleverley is the player being dribbled past the most times per game suggesting he isn’t performing that well in terms of actual defending but is playing the deep midfield role as a deep-lying playmaker – his effectiveness in this position is there to be scrutinised, of course. At the other end of the spectrum, Jack Wilshere is currently being dribbled past the least times per game with his average coming in at 0.5 times per game. Barkley and Henderson are both under the one time per game boundary which bodes well for England’s defence. However it could be said that Cleverley is bound to have a worse time in this category because he’ll be fronting up to opposition attackers much more regularly as the other three are more attacking players.
So, what conclusions can we take from the defensive section of our comparison? Well, Jack Wilshere and Tom Cleverley both won two categories each which puts them highest in that respect. Whereas Henderson won one and Barkley zero. Barkley is clearly not going to give you anything defensively with his repertoire solely based on attacking talents whereas Henderson can give you both attacking and defensive qualities. Wilshere is somewhere in between Barkley and Cleverley – he isn’t going to sit back in a complete sense like Cleverley but he’s definitely got more defensive qualities than Ross Barkley – despite the Evertonian clearly having a height and strength advantage over the Arsenal man. Henderson definitely has the best engine of the four – with Henderson proving prominent in both the offensive and defensive sections.
There are a few conclusions to take from this comparison and I believe the most important one is that Henderson is a must for a place on the Rio bound plane. Henderson has shown this season – and the stats illustrate this – that he is versatile, consistent and hard working. He’s all these things and more with his injury record (or lack of it) speaking for itself. Henderson would be one of the fittest players in the England squad if he was selected and this is surely something the coaching staff should be thinking about with a World Cup taking place in South America.
Secondly, Jack Wilshere is essential. He’s come in for a lot of criticism in recent months but his football is finally doing the talking and young Wilshere has been one of Arsenal’s best players in a title chasing season that sees them top of the league in the middle of January. With three goals and good figures for key passes per game and CCC’s, Wilshere is probably one of England’s most creative players from open play – couple this with Steven Gerrard who is a real talent from set pieces and England have different options when it comes to creating chances.
Thirdly, Tom Cleverely hasn’t done enough to be included in the squad. England’s Euro 2012 squad had five definite central midfielders and then Oxlade-Chamberlain who could also play centre midfield. At present, Cleverley is behind Gerrard, Carrick, Wilshere, Henderson and Lampard (who we assume are travelling), as well as some fellow hopefuls such as Barkley, Barry and, should he hit form after his injury, Oxlade-Chamberlain. With these names in mind, how can Cleverley get into the squad? The United man isn’t good enough to be the second, or even third, man for the attacking or defensive areas of the midfield – barring a stellar second half of the season, he simply won’t be going.
The fourth conclusion to take from this comparison is that Ross Barkley could be a useful joker card for Hodgson to select. Unlike Walcott circa 2006, Barkley could be useful to the England squad as he will have had a year’s worth of Premier League experience. Despite Barkley’s tender years, the Evertonian has a lot of qualities that Cleverley is simply not showing. The young man has an eye for goal from both open play and set pieces, he has the ability to run at opponents at pace and he looks completely at ease with high pressure situations (using the November Merseyside derby as a prime example). In my opinion, I’d be taking Barkley, Henderson and Wilshere to the World Cup.