Redefining Central Midfield Classifications

Summary

As a data analyst some things about football have been difficult for me to understand. For example, what objectively makes a good central midfielder? More so, how do we categorize all the different types of central midfielders?

If you subscribe to today’s football media, you’ll read terms like “central attacking midfielder,” “central midfielder,” and  “defensive midfielder”. However, those terms imply physical position on the pitch rather than playing style. Other terms like “Box to Box,” “Deep Lying Playmaker,” and “Anchor Man,” have been introduced as a means to try to imply playing style. For example, the latest installment of SI’s Football Manager includes 27 different assignments for central midfielders.

But what objectively classifies an individual as a “Deep Lying Playmaker”? This is not to say answering this question subjectively is “bad.” However, the opportunity for me as a data analyst is to look at questions like this with an outsider’s perspective.

Rather than try to understand the subjective descriptors that are already popular in the media, I decided to answer the following question as objectively as I could: “What are the different types of central midfielders in Europe?”

My outcome is not perfect. And as always, it is not perfectly objective. Hopefully it provides a different angle in which to view the game. Please feel free to share any comments and/or thoughts you may have.

Methodology

To answer this question I needed data. For those of you who like working with football data, you know all the good stuff is very hard to come by. I can’t afford Opta data, but I do know how to write web-scrapers with python. Without going into too much detail, I used Selenium to build a web-scraper that pulls data from multiple websites. I then wrote more python code using pandas to clean and merge the dataset into a usable format.

I limited my dataset to the last 18 months of player game level data from the Top 5 Leagues in Europe: English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, French League 1, and German Bundesliga. I only included matches where a player started as a central midfielder. I only included players in my classification that had played at least the equivalent of 10 matches as a central midfielder (900 minutes).

From there, I decided on 25 features to measure the players on. The features span from attributes (eg. height, weight), to positional information (eg. standard deviation of vertical movement), to passing, defense, and shooting metrics. I have tried to include features that cover the majority of a player’s actions during the match. I have also tried to adjust my features to limit team style effects as much as possible.

However, metric selection is admittedly a subjective process that has its flaws. Team effects can’t be completely nullified and since I am scraping data, I do not have all the information I would like. For example, I don’t have data on player speed. It is fair to say my analysis does not cover every attribute of a central midfielder.

After I had my 25 features, I needed to determine how many different classifications of players I should define. Determining K, or the number of clusters, is a non-standardized task when working with clustering algorithms. Meaning, there are multiple ways to do it.

I frequently use silhouette scores. Simply put, silhouette scores measure how similar an observation is to the rest of its cluster, and different it is to other clusters. I ran silhouette scores 1000 times over my dataset to determine the optimum K value. For my dataset the optimal number of clusters was 20. Meaning, separating the central midfielders of Europe into 20 clusters maximizes the similarity of the players within clusters while minimizing the difference of players in different clusters.

Note, this means I am not optimizing the number of classifications for human readability. Sure it would be easier for our brains to have less categories and for each one to be more discrete. But that’s not what I see in the data.

After I had my K value, I ran the dataset of player features through a kmeans clustering algorithm. The result was 20 distinct clusters of players. Once I had my clusters, I simply compared the attributes of the players in the cluster to the overall population as a means to characterize the clusters.

Classifications

What follows is my classification of 20 distinct types of central midfielders playing in Europe. Some classifications are exciting, some less so. I have included 3-5 example players per classification. In some cases, I have also noted stand out young players (21 and under) who match the classification. Classifications are presented in positional rank from deepest to furthest up the pitch. Because I present the classifications in this way, you may notice some classifications are similar to the previous classification – don’t worry, they are! However, each classification has something that makes it different than the others.

Classification descriptions are meant to characterize the average of each cluster as a whole. Not all descriptors will match each individual player exactly.

All transfer estimate data is not my work and was sourced from transfermarkt.com.

Deep Lying Classifications (8 Types)

de-roon.JPG

Marten De Roon – Deep Lying Ball Winner

Classification 1: Screener – Ultra defensive minded midfielder who sits very deep, often right in front of the defense. Exceptional at breaking up play. Accumulates lots of tackles, but doesn’t win a high percentage of them. Doesn’t get forward up the pitch.

Positional: Sits very deep, doesn’t go forward

Rarity: ~1%

Exceptional: Tackle Rate, Interceptions

Strengths: Headers, Avoids Tackles

Weaknesses: Creating Chances, Forward Pass Accuracy, Long Pass Accuracy

Physically: Average

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Lorenzo Crisetig (Crotone), Vurnon Anita (Newcastle), Fabian Lustenberger (Hertha BSC)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €2.75 MM

Classification 2: Aerial Ball Winner Tall defensive minded midfielder who sits deep. Good at winning headers, and breaking up play via intercepting. However, is a below average tackler. Average passer who is rarely knocked off the ball, but offers little to no creativity.

Positional: Sits deep, rarely goes forward

Rarity: ~1.5%

Exceptional: –

Strengths: Headers, Interceptions, Ball Control

Weaknesses: Tackle Success, Creating Chances, Forward Pass Accuracy, Long Pass Accuracy, Shooting Accuracy

Physically: Tall

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Salif Sane (Hannover 96), Tobias Strobl (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Francesco Lodi (Udinese)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €3.1 MM

Classification 3: Limited Ball Winner – Strong defensive minded midfielder who sits deep. In contrast to the Aerial Ball Winner, the Limited Ball Winner is exceptional at breaking up play in all relevant categories. However, the Limited Ball Winner is a very poor passer of the ball and offers very little in possession.

Positional: Sits deep, rarely goes forward

Rarity: ~4.5%

Exceptional: Tackle Rate, Interceptions

Strengths: Headers

Weaknesses: Creating Chances, Short Passing Accuracy, Long Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy

Physically: Strong

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace), Lee Cattermole (Sunderland), Jan Kirchhoff (Sunderland), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Club), Rene Krhin (Granada)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €2.6 MM

Classification 4: Ball Winner – Balling winning midfielder who sits deep but significantly higher than the Screener. Like the Limited Ball Winner, the Ball Winner is exceptional at breaking up play. However, the Ball Winner isn’t as strong physically as the Limited Ball Winner, and is a much better passer.

Positional: Sits deep, rarely goes forward

Rarity: ~6%

Exceptional: Tackle Rate, Interceptions

Strengths: Headers

Weaknesses: Creating Chances, Long Passing Accuracy

Physically: Average

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Pedro Obiang (West Ham), Jérémy Toulalan (Bordeaux), Dominik Kohr (Augsburg), Marten de Roon (Middlesbrough), Pedro Mosquera (Deportivo La Coruna)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €3.0 MM

Classification 5: Defensive Dribbler – Defensive minded midfielder who sits deep. Only above average at breaking up play, but exceptional at recovering loose balls. Doesn’t get forward often but when does is a successful dribbler at playing his team out of trouble. Offers very little in the final third.

Positional: Sits deep, rarely goes forward

Rarity: ~1%

Exceptional: Ball Recoveries

Strengths: Dribbling, Tackle Rate, Interceptions, Headers

Weaknesses: Creating Chances, Final Third Passing Accuracy, Long Passing Accuracy, Shooting Accuracy

Physically: Strong

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Yann Bodiger (Toulouse), Marcos Llorente (Alavés), Adam Clayton (Middlesbrough)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €2.6 MM

Classification 6: Defensive Simple Passer – Strong possession minded defensive midfielder who sits deep. Good at winning headers, but average in breaking up play via tacking and intercepting. Doesn’t get forward often. Good simple passer and rarely turns it over.

Positional: Sits deep, rarely goes forward

Rarity: ~5%

Exceptional: –

Strengths: Headers, Short Passing Accuracy, Ball Control

Weaknesses: Creating Chances, Final Third Passing Accuracy

Physically: Strong

Fouls Opponent: Sometimes

Examples: Oriol Romeu (Southampton), Geoffrey Kondogbia (Inter Mila), Fabinho (Monaco)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €4.6 MM

Classification 7: Deep Lying Possession Passer – Physically small possession minded midfielder who sits deep. Good short passer and dribbler who rarely turns the ball over. Doesn’t create many chances, or get forward often. Average to below average at breaking up play.

Positional: Sits deep, sometimes goes forward

Rarity: ~6%

Exceptional:

Strengths: Short Passing Accuracy, Ball Control, Middle Third Dribbling

Weaknesses: Creating Chances, Shooting Accuracy, Tackle Success

Physically: Small

Fouls Opponent: Sometimes

Examples: Leandro Paredes (Roma), Jordy Clasie (Southampton), Lassana Diarra (Marseille), Federico Viviani (Bologna), Leon Britton (Swansea)

Youngsters: Assane Diousse (Empoli)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €4.0 MM

Classification 8: Deep Lying Controller – Exceptional passing midfielder who sits deep. Great passer in all possession passing categories, rarely turns it over, and is also a successful dribbler in the middle third. However, is fairly average at breaking up play. For how great the Controller is at keeping possession, he often has a poor final ball.

Positional: Sits deep, sometimes goes forward

Rarity: ~5%

Exceptional: Short Passing Accuracy

Strengths: Long Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy,  Middle Third Dribbling, Ball Control, Headers

Weaknesses: Creating Chances, Final Third Forward Passing

Physically: Strong

Fouls Opponent: Rarely

Examples: Xabi Alonso (Bayern Munich), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Grzegorz Krychowiak (PSG), Matías Vecino (Fiorentina), Casemiro (Real Madrid)

Youngsters: Mario Lemina (Juventus), Amadou Diawara (Napoli)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €8.4 MM

Central Classifications (8 Types)

coquelin.JPG

Francis Coquelin – Central Ball Playing Midfielder

Classification 9: – Box to Box Ball Winner: Central ball winning midfielder who covers lots of ground laterally and vertically. Good at breaking up play via tackling and intercepting. Below average passer.

Positional: Sits central, gets box to box

Rarity: ~6%

Exceptional: Vertical Ground Coverage, Lateral Ground Coverage

Strengths: Tackle Rate, Interceptions, Headers

Weaknesses: Short Passing Accuracy, Long Passing Accuracy

Physically: Tall

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Lars Bender (Leverkusen), Christoph Kramer (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Etienne Capoue (Watford), Asier Illarramendi (Real Sociedad), Cheikhou Kouyaté (West Ham)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €6.7 MM

Classification 10: – Box to Box Limited Ball Winner: Central ball winning midfielder who covers ground vertically. Exceptional at breaking up play via tackling and intercepting. Does not add anything to possession.

Positional: Sits central, gets box to box

Rarity: ~1%

Exceptional: Vertical Ground Coverage, Tackle Rate, Interceptions

Strengths: Lateral Ground Coverage

Weaknesses: Ball Control, Dribbling, Short Passing Accuracy, Long Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy, Final Third Passing Accuracy, Forward Passing Accuracy

Physically: Average

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Alfredo Morales (Inglostadt), Jérôme Gondorf (Darmstadt), Marco Crimi (Carpi)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €1.4 MM

Classification 11: – Box to Box Midfielder: Strong central midfielder who gets forward and is an accurate shooter. Average in most categories. Below average forward and final third passer.

Positional: Sits central, gets box to box

Rarity: ~6%

Exceptional: –

Strengths: Vertical Ground Coverage, Shot Accuracy

Weaknesses: Short Passing Accuracy, Forward Passing Accuracy, Final Third Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Dribbling

Physically: Strong

Fouls Opponent: Sometimes

Examples: Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Mauricio Isla (Cagliari), Emre Can (Liverpool), Corentin Tolisso (Lyon), Sebastian Rudy (Hoffenheim)

Youngesers: Franck Kessié (Atalanta)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €8.4 MM

Classification 12: – Box to Box Playmaker: Strong central midfielder who covers lots of ground vertically. Good at breaking up play via tacking and intercepting, but unlike other box to box midfielders creates chances at a high rate. Below average ball control, dribbling, and passing.

Positional: Sits central, gets box to box

Rarity: ~5%

Exceptional: Vertical Ground Coverage

Strengths: Chance Creation, Tackle Rate, Interceptions

Physically: Strong

Fouls Opponent: Often

Weaknesses: Ball Control, Short Passing Accuracy, Forward Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy, Final Third Passing Accuracy, Dribbling

Examples: Stefano Sturaro (Juventus), Vicente Iborra (Sevilla), Juraj Kucka (AC Milan)

Youngesers: Marc Stendera (Frankfurt)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €5.2 MM

Classification 13: – Central Ball Playing Midfielder: Physically strong ball playing midfielder who stands his ground in the middle of the pitch. Exceptional passer highlighted by his forward passing. Competent at breaking up play. Only weakness is doesn’t create many chances.

Positional: Sits central, rarely gets forward

Rarity: ~9%

Exceptional: Short Passing Accuracy, Forward Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy

Strengths: Long Passing Accuracy,  Final Third Passing Accuracy, Ball Control, Middle Third Dribbling, Headers

Weaknesses: Chance Creation

Physically: Strong

Fouls Opponent:

Examples: Mousa Dembélé (Tottenham), Nemanja Matic (Chelsea), Francis Coquelin (Arsenal), Kevin Strootman (Roma), Maxime Gonalons (Lyon)

Youngsters: Adrien Rabiot (PSG)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €9.1 MM

Classification 14: – Central Limited Possession Midfielder: Unspectacular central midfielder who covers a lot of ground laterally. Very good at controlling the ball and avoiding tackles. Usually physically smaller and average at breaking up play.

Positional: Sits central, sometimes gets forward

Rarity: ~6%

Exceptional: –

Strengths: Lateral Ground Coverage, Ball Control

Weaknesses: Long Passing Accuracy

Physically: Small

Fouls Opponent: Sometimes

Examples: Beñat (Athletic Club), Danny Drinkwater (Leicester City), Max Arnold (Wolfsburg), Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace), Leroy Fer (Swansea)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €5.6 MM

Classification 15: – Central Possession Midfielder: Central midfielder adept at ball control and passing. Smaller physically than the Ball Playing Midfielder, and not quite as good at passing the ball forward. Average at breaking up play and doesn’t create many chances.

Positional: Sits central, sometimes gets forward

Rarity: ~7%

Exceptional: –

Strengths: Lateral Ground Coverage, Ball Control, Short Passing Accuracy, Forward Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy, Final Third Passing Accuracy

Weaknesses: Chance Creation

Physically: Small

Fouls Opponent: Rarely

Examples: Lucas Biglia (Lazio), João Moutinho (Monaco), James McCarthy (Everton), Ander Herrera (Manchester United), Gabi (Atletico Madrid)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €8.0 MM

Classification 16: – Central Controller:  Exceptional possession midfielder in the center of the field. Very few flaws when it comes to passing and ball control. Unlike the Ball Playing Midfielder however, the Central Controller does not add anything when it comes to breaking up play.

Positional: Sits central, sometimes gets forward

Rarity: ~6%

Exceptional: Short Passing Accuracy, Long Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy

Strengths: Forward Passing Accuracy, Final Third Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Dribbling, Ball Control

Weaknesses: Interceptions, Tackle Rate, Headers

Physically: Small

Fouls Opponent: Rarely

Examples: Luca Modric (Real Madrid), Andrés Iniesta (Barcelona), Thiago (Bayern Munich), Julian Weigl (Dortmund), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €21.1 MM

Attacking Classifications (4 Types)

banega.JPG

Ever Banega- Advanced Playmaker

Classification 17: – Advanced Playmaker: Attacking midfielder who sits high up the pitch, but will track back to pick up the ball. Dangerous in the final third as he creates many chances and has an accurate shot. However, the advanced playmaker is tackled often and offers nothing defensively.

Positional: Sits high

Rarity: ~10%

Exceptional: –

Strengths: Chance Creation, Long Passing Accuracy, Shot Accuracy, Vertical Ground Coverage, Lateral Ground Coverage

Weaknesses: Tackled Often, Tackle Rate, Tackle Success, Interceptions, Headers

Physically: Small

Fouls Opponent: Rarely

Examples: Mario Götze (Dortmund), Éver Banega (Inter Milan), Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Isco (Real Madrid), Jonathan Viera (Las Palmas)

Youngesers: Alen Halilovic (Hamburger SV), Max Meyer (Schalke 04)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €15.0 MM

Classification 18: – Number 10s: The most dangerous type of midfielder, the Number 10 is second to none at creating chances and passing the ball forward. The 10 sits very high, and is almost a second forward, but will also track back to pick up the ball. Like the advanced playmaker, the 10 doesn’t add much defensively.

Positional: Sits high

Rarity: ~3%

Exceptional: Lateral Ground Coverage, Chance Creation, Forward Passing Accuracy

Strengths: Vertical Ground Coverage, Shot Accuracy, Long Pass Accuracy

Weaknesses: Tackle Rate, Interceptions, Headers

Physically: Small

Fouls Opponent: Rarely

Examples: Juan Mata (Manchester United), David Silva (Manchester City), Hiroshi Kiyotake (Sevilla), Mesut Özil (Arsenal), James Rodríguez (Real Madrid)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ 24.3 € MM

Classification 19: – Deep Lying Forwards: Attack minded midfielder that sits very high up the field like the 10s. Exception at creating chances, and an accurate shooter. Adds little else and can be seen almost as a second forward.

Positional: Sits high

Rarity: ~4%

Exceptional: Chance Creation

Strengths: Vertical Ground Coverage, Lateral Ground Coverage, Shot Accuracy

Weaknesses: Ball Control, Short Passing Accuracy, Long Passing Accuracy, Middle Third Passing Accuracy, Dribbling, Tackling, Headers, Incerceptions

Physically: Average

Fouls Opponent: Sometimes

Examples: Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea), Dimitri Payet (West Ham),  Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich), Josip Ilicic (Fiorentina)

Youngesers: Nadiem Amiri (Hoffenheim)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~ €9.9 MM

Classification 20: – Central Lying Winger: Attacking midfielder who ranges laterally from side to side. Exceptional at creating chances, and actually an accurate tackler. Below average short and forward passer, who fouls opponents often. Almost seems as if these are wingers playing out of position.

Positional: Sit very high

Rarity: ~4%

Exceptional: Lateral Ground Coverage, Chance Creation

Strengths: Shot Accuracy, Tackle Success

Weaknesses: Ball Control, Dribble Success, Short Pass Accuracy, Forward Pass Accuracy, Headers, Incerceptions

Physically: Average

Fouls Opponent: Often

Examples: Fabián Orellana (Celta de Vigo), Bernardo Silva (Monaco), Ricardo Álvarez (Sampdoria), Sadio Mané (Liverpool), Hatem Ben Arfa (PSG)

Youngsters: Malcom (Bordeaux), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid)

Average Transfer Estimate: ~  €9.6 MM

Please feel free to add any comments/thoughts about the results or methodology.

Note – All images were sourced using Google Advances Image Search option with image rights set to ‘free to user or share.’  If Google’s classification was incorrect and you would like your image removed please contact me an I will do so immediately.

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