Picking the Ideal English Midfield Combination for the World Cup

While England may be very good at selling football, they’re not great at playing it. With only one World Cup win (in 1966; the competition took place in England) and a wonderful book about football that literally used to be called Why England Lose, England have a history of not doing well at World Cups.

Anyway, what about this year? They seem to have decent attacking firepower, with Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, and of course, Harry Kane, who’s probably the best striker in the world right now.

Their full-backs (or wing-backs, depending on the formation) seem to be very good too, with Kyle Walker, Danny Rose, Kieran Trippier, and (maybe) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in contention for a place in the starting eleven.

However, visible problems emerge when you look at England’s central midfield options. From a country with Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, and Frank Lampard, England now have to pick between players like Jake Livermore, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jack Wilshere.

So this is the problem I’m going to look at and try to find a solution.

What are we looking for?

By the looks of it, England manager Gareth Southgate seems really keen to use a back three for England, as these comments featured in The Evening Standard shows:

Southgate Back 3.png

With the 3-4-2-1 formation most suitable for England’s squad (too few good central midfielders and lots of good attackers), and the 4-2-3-1 formation being the best-possible alternative, England are going to need a midfield duo.

Midfielders playing in a midfield duo have to be good defenders in addition to being good passers, so a player who’s only good at one thing should be considered sub-optimal.

The Method

If you want just the results, feel free to skip this part.

From WhoScored.com, I copied down data for English central midfielders who had played more than 900 minutes in 2016-17 and 2017-18, and I added two other players who would be relevant to the situation (because they’re English central midfielders who haven’t played in midfield enough this season or last): Fabian Delph in 2014-15 and Harry Winks in 2017-18. I then decided to create two (crude and simple) ratings for defense and attack.

For the defense rating, I gave an equal weight to these two stats:

  1. Successful tackles + interceptions per 90 minutes
  2. Tackle success rate (with fouls counted as failed tackles)

…in such a way that the average English central midfielder gets a defense rating of 100. The exact formula is the following:

(Succ T+I/[Average Succ T+I])*50 + (Tackle Succ Rate/[Average Tackle Succ Rate])*50

As for the attack rating, I gave an equal weight for these four stats:

  1. Pass rating (a simple rating that I created that gives key passes p90 and accurate long passes p90 a higher weight than accurate short passes p90 and adds them all up)
  2. Ball retention rate (player possessions in which the player didn’t give the ball away/total player possessions)
  3. Key passes per 90 minutes
  4. Successful dribbles per 90 minutes

…in such a way that the average English central midfielder gets an attack rating of 100. The exact formula is this:

(Pass Rating/[Avg Pass Rating])*25 + (Ball Retention Rate/[Avg Ball Retention Rate])*25 + (Key Passes/[Avg Key Passes])*25 + (Succ Dribbles/[Avg Succ Dribbles])*25

I plotted these two ratings together with Tableau Public, and then used Tableau Public’s handy ‘Clusters’ option to create four clusters of English central midfielder seasons. Here’s the scatter plot:

England CM Options

The Results

As you can see from the scatter, Jack Wilshere is an outlier when it comes to both ratings. He’s the best English central midfielder at attacking, and the worst at defending. Apart from Wilshere, Fabian Delph in his 2014-15 season (the last season in which he played as a central midfielder for more than 900 minutes) and Jordan Henderson in his impressive 2016-17 season, where he showed off his skills as an energetic presser and good passer, stand out. Harry Winks, James Milner (when he plays in the center), Eric Dier, Jake Livermore, and Lewis Cook look like possible options as well.

The best way to combine these midfielders, in my opinion, would be to either use two good all-round midfielders or to combine a defensively-capable midfielder with someone who’s decent at attacking.

Personally, I’d go with a Henderson-Delph midfield or a Winks-Dier midfield.  Henderson and Delph are, according to my ratings, the best English all-round midfielders. They’re energetic box-to-box players who can pass and press well.

In a Winks-Dier midfield, there will  be clear roles for each midfielder. It will be the job of Winks to pass the ball around and progress it forward, while Dier can act as a destroyer. It’s worth noting, however, that Winks isn’t bad at defending and Dier isn’t bad at attacking.

That’s it. I hope I’ve presented a simple method for squad-picking that requires no math or coding skills but still gives good results. If you’d like to look at how these four players compare to other central midfielders in the big-5 leagues (irrespective of nationality), here are their player bars:

1. Fabian Delph

Fabian Delph 14-15.png

2. Jordan Henderson

 

3. Harry Winks

Harry Winks 17-18.png

4. Eric Dier

Eric Dier 17-18.png

 

 

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