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Depth Chart Battles - Left Back

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There’s certainly a lot going on in Whitecaps land this week, and with plenty of questions to ask we’re going to keep posing them. Today let’s take a look at the Left Back position and who Craig Dalrymple’s best option is for the 5 game run in.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

While it’s certainly overdue, let’s resume our discussion about who the best options are for selection in the team. Last month I took a look at the depth options behind Kei Kamara in the striking role, and with 5 important games left in the 2018 regular season, let’s dive into another key area of the pitch at left back.

It’s no secret the ‘Caps have been struggling to keep clean sheets all season long. Across all competitions in 2018, the Vancouver Whitecaps have managed just three. Dismal reading for a team that going into the year would have been looking for defensive stability as one of its strengths. On the flip side, the attack has also proved equally inept at times, getting blanked 10 times so far this year.

While the latter piece may seem irrelevant, for a team that looks to cross the ball into the box as often as the Whitecaps, it is an important piece of their attack. After all, in the modern game going forward is as much of a fullback’s role as defending, for this reason I’m going to delve into what each player has offered going forward.

Given that there are two natural left backs to consider, I’m going to compare Brett Levis and Marcel de Jong. For added consideration, I’m also going to include Sean Franklin as it was suggested on Twitter earlier this week.

Defending

Let’s start at the back then and work forward.

Heading into the 2018 season, Marcel de Jong was the first choice left back of now former manager, Carl Robinson. The Newmarket native had waited patiently in the wings behind Jordan Harvey for his chance to take over, and at 31 years of age, was as ready as he was ever going to be for the starting berth.

To date, de Jong has played in 20 matches, starting 19 and coming in as a substitute once. He’s amassed almost 1400 minutes on the pitch (1382 to be exact), during which time he’s attempted 41 tackles, successfully winning 28 of them. Marcel has also intercepted a total of 37 balls, while making 44 clearances. On average, per 90 minutes that puts him at 1.82 successful tackles, 2.41 interceptions, and 2.87 clearances.

The other natural left back in the squad, Brett Levis, has played half as many matches and minutes as de Jong, featuring in 10 matches, coming in as a substitute once. In his 609 minutes played, Levis has attempted 21 tackles, coming out successfully in 17 of them. He’s also made 23 interceptions and 24 clearances so far in 2018. His averages per 90 work out to 2.37 successful tackles, 3.20 interceptions, and 3.34 clearances per match.

Lastly, for comparison purposes, as the other depth option in the squad (you’ll note I’m not including Juarez or Shea) is Sean Franklin. The American right back has featured in 11 matches, coming in twice as a substitute. Through 2018, Franklin has amassed 906 minutes on the pitch, attempting just 12 tackles, winning only 6 of them. That goes along with 12 interceptions and 27 clearances. His averages work out to 0.60 successful tackles, 1.19 interceptions and 2.68 clearances per 90 minutes.

Defensive Stats

Player Min. Att. Tackle Suc. Tackle Int. Clear Tackle/90 Int./90 Clear/90
Player Min. Att. Tackle Suc. Tackle Int. Clear Tackle/90 Int./90 Clear/90
de Jong 1382 41 28 37 44 1.82 2.41 2.87
Levis 646 21 17 23 24 2.37 3.2 3.34
Franklin 906 12 6 12 27 0.6 1.19 2.68
Numbers per FotMob.com and AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com

Based on game time, and averages, Levis is clearly producing more than either of his counterparts, at least by the numbers. While this may be because opposition teams are attempting to attack the left back position more as the season goes on, unfortunately that isn’t something that numbers will make sense of. That part is left down to the eye test.

From a disciplinary standpoint - something that the ‘Caps as a whole have struggled with this year - neither Levis nor Franklin have picked up even a yellow card, committing 9 and 12 fouls respectively. Comparatively, de Jong has been booked 3 times to go with 14 fouls, and of course conceded that painful penalty against San Jose at the end of August.

Attacking

Now, as I already mentioned, going forward is equally important in the modern game. In some instances in divisions around the world, a full back is often now considered to be a glorified winger. Think Kyle Walker, Ryan Sessegnon or Marcelo from the European game.

Much like the defensive numbers, there’s plenty of data that we can dive into to see how each of the three players has performed through 2018. Special thanks to AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com for their composition of this data. What I’m going to do is try to make some sense of it, and what it means for each player’s contribution to the team going forward.

What we’re going to use is total passes made, completion percent, expected completion of those passes, average distance and one that I find particularly useful, which is vertical. For clarification, vertical will show us if the average pass is forward, being a positive number, or backwards, indicated by a negative number. Sideways as I’m sure you can figure out, is 0.0.

Beginning with de Jong who has made 708 passes, with a total completion rate of 70.2%. Of the passes he’s made when weighted on difficulty and type, Marcel’s expected completion percent (xPass) is 69.3%. On the whole it works out to 0.9 passes he wouldn’t be expected to complete that he does successfully complete per 90 minutes.

On average de Jong is passing the ball 20.8 yards per attempt, with a vertical of 6.3, meaning that on the whole he is routinely looking to get the ball forward, and positively move the team up field.

Brett Levis has made 351 passes, completing 72.6% of them , against an xPass of 71.8%, good for the same 0.9 additional passes per 90 that he is completing. Unlinke de Jong though, Levis is completing slightly shorter passes on average, with 18.8 yards his average pass distance, and a vertical of 4.7. Those are still positive numbers, and similarly show that he is looking to move the ball up field as opposed to back across the line.

Lastly, we have Sean Franklin, who has made 391 passes and completed 77.2% of them. With an xPass of 73.8%, Franklin has completed on average 3.4 more passes over his expected pass percentage per 90 minutes. With an average distance per pass of 19.4 yards and a vertical of 5.2, Franklin’s advanced numbers look very positive on the whole.

Advanced Passing

Player Pass Successful % xPass% Score/90 Distance Vertical
Player Pass Successful % xPass% Score/90 Distance Vertical
de Jong 708 70.2 69.3 0.9 20.8 6.3
Levis 351 72.6 71.8 0.9 18.4 4.7
Franklin 391 77.2 73.8 3.4 19.4 5.2
Numbers per AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com

So what we see, is that Sean Franklin has actually been the more positive of the three, with Brett Levis and Marcel de Jong fairly similar numbers through their sample size. At least when looking at their overall numbers.

When we dive further, we can look at what each player has done in the final third alone, which will for the purpose of this, give us a better idea of what each player offers on the business end of the pitch.

Advanced Passing - Final Third

Player Pass Successful % xPass% Score/90 Distance Vertical
Player Pass Successful % xPass% Score/90 Distance Vertical
de Jong 107 67.3 58.9 9 22.4 1.2
Levis 68 73.5 66.8 4.6 18.4 0.6
Franklin 82 69.5 66 2.9 16.5 -0.2
Numbers per AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com

What this table can show us, is that in the final third, where fullbacks will predominantly be delivering crosses, Marcel de Jong is completing more difficult passes, with almost as much regularity in his completion percentage as Levis and Franklin.

Levis does hold his own, and of course has the highest pass completion percentage of the three in the final third of the pitch. While he may not have as many passes completed above his xPass percentage, that likely means he isn’t trying to force the ball into the box when he has the opportunity to cross.

Well that’s great and all you might say, but what about the things that actually show up on the stat sheet, or at least come close to showing up, like key passes and assists?

For the clearer to understand end products, that’s where Sean Franklin falls out. He’s certainly more a defender than an attacking type, despite his productive passing numbers. For ease and simplicity, here’s what we’re looking at for the harder numbers, such as successful crosses and long balls per match, key passes and assists.

Key Passes and Assists

Player Key Pass Assists Cross/90 LongB/90
Player Key Pass Assists Cross/90 LongB/90
de Jong 12 2 0.91 2.74
Levis 7 0 0.7 2.51
Franklin 5 0 0.3 1.89
Numbers per AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com and WhoScored.com

Between the three, de Jong and Levis complete more long balls, and far more crosses per 90 minutes. When considering the options, the two Canadian left backs have been far more likely to provide a pass that creates a chance for a teammate than Franklin.

In Conclusion

At the bottom line, we have to somehow draw a conclusion for what each of these things means to the ‘Caps for the rest of 2018. Based on what I’ve just worked through, it seems clear that Levis is a capable defender, even if his painful attempted back pass is still fresh in the memory. When you combine that with what he offers going forward, he’s a more balanced package than either of his counter parts, and still makes more tackles and interceptions per 90 than either of them.

While by the eye test might alone he may not be what some feel is the best option for the ‘Caps, by the numbers, Brett Levis deserves to hold his starting place, at least until the end of the season.

I’m more than certain a few of you will disagree, so please, feel free to join the conversation and let us know who you think should get the start at left back moving forward.