A few weeks ago, inspired by Cheuk Hei Ho’s tweet showing a graph of MLS center back passing behavior, I looked at who were the best passing center backs in the Scottish Premiership. By looking at which defenders in the SPFL had both an above average total pass completion percentage and percentage of total passes that lead to a shot for their club, I could identify which of those center backs were the best in Scotland on the ball. In modern football across the globe, it seems that central defenders are required to contribute to their team’s attack more than ever. A ball playing defender is so vital to many of the best teams in the world, so identifying those defenders seems like a worthwhile exercise.
After publishing the article on SPFL center backs, I worked on compiling the same stats for Eliteserien to analyze the best passing central defenders in Norway. However when looking at the data, something immediately jumped out. While center backs in Eliteserien this season have completed a higher percentage of total passes of their colleagues in Scotland, 83% to 76%, they have completed a much lower percentage of passes that lead to a shot than center backs in the SPFL, 0.33% to 1.06%. To put context on this, every 1,000 passes a central defender in Eliteserien attempt, 3 lead to a shot while 10 lead to a shot by central defenders in Scotland.
When I saw this data, it was a bit surprising. Watching the league, it definitely seems most Eliteserien clubs prefer their central defenders to play the safe pass rather than play the ball out from the back. Yet, the disparity between stats for center back passing for Eliteserien and a league such as the SPFL was so stark, I had to double check to make sure there was not an error in the data somewhere. After double checking everything and confirming it was correct, I reached out to a few people inside Eliteserien. The general consensus was that in Norway the belief is that defenders should focus on defending and do not have the talent the play the ball.
There is evidence that Norway cannot develop a ball playing centerback is not true though. As a Celtic supporter, I get to see Kristoffer Ajer every week. Since arriving in Scotland, Ajer has been incredibly impressive. He has earned a spot in the Bhoys starting XI for both his defensive abilities and his ability to play the ball out of the back. He is the type of center back that fits perfectly in Brendan Rodgers system and it is due to his ability on the ball. The product of IK Start came up as an attacking player, but was identified that his future was in defense. He is now starting in Europe for Celtic and seems to be the center back of the future for the Norwegian national team.
(For a table of the passing stats for all of these players, click here.)
To find the best passing center back in Eliteserien, we filtered out any players who have appeared less than 500 minutes thus far. We can then find the average pass completion rate and percentage of passes that lead to a shot for an Eliteserien defender. When we look at the passing data for central defenders in Eliteserien (interactive version of the above graph available at that link), there are six defenders that complete a higher than average percentage of their total passes and a higher than average percentage of their passes that lead to shots. They are Luis Felipe Carvalho de Silva of Valerenga, Jacob Rasmussen formerly of Rosenborg, Jakob Glesnes of Stromsgodset, Vito Wormgoor of Brann, Andreas Eines Hopmark of Kristiandsund, and Brede Moe of Bodo/Glimt.
Most of those would be considered among the best defenders in Eliteserien, though there are a few surprises in there. Of course, Rasmussen has moved on to Empoli on the back of his reputation of being a complete center back. Carvalho and Wormgoor have been vital in their clubs this season. Hopmark has played a bit of midfield for Kristiansund this season and had only appeared in about 1,110 minutes of league action for KBK. It is interesting to note that half of the center backs here are not Norwegian, furthering the idea that center backs in Norway are discouraged from playing the ball out of the back and encouraged to play the safe pass.
While the majority of Norwegian football seems to be risk aversive when it comes to letting defenders build out from the back, the rest of the world of football has shown this trend does not seem to be going away anytime soon. With Norwegians like Kristoffer Ajer abroad or imports such as Carvalho and Wormgoor helping to lead their clubs to success in Eliteserien, there is evidence this approach can work in Norway with Norwegian players. With much of Eliteserien avoiding this approach, a team can take advantage of playing this way as an inefficiency in the rest of the league.
With the emphasis on ball playing center backs in football growing each year, this type of data can help to identify a player who can meet a club’s needs. If you are on the hunt for a ball playing center back, running these numbers can help identify targets. From there you have a list to give scouts to view and see if they have the defensive abilities necessary to compliment their passing ability. These stats are another example of how analytics can help a club make sure your resources are being used efficiently.