As a Liverpool fan, I get caught up in lots of online debate about whether Lucas Leiva is a good defensive midfielder or not.
This post is not my attempt to answer that question, but rather a look at what constitutes a tackle won or a tackle lost, because this is one aspect of the Lucas debate that regularly gets brought up, as he attempts more tackles than any other player in the Premier League.
In my opinion people who use the figures don’t always understand what they actually mean in terms of football statistics (and I’ll happily admit I have been guilty of this myself in the past), so I think it’s important to try to clear it up from a general football analytics point of view; this post raises further questions, so certainly shouldn’t be viewed as definitive.
I reached out to my followers on Twitter, to see what they thought constituted a tackle won or a tackle lost, and here a few of the replies:
Tackle = any time when the defender attempts to make contact with a ball in possession of an opponent, dispossess vs fail.
tackle loss is a tackle where the possession is not back to the tackler’s team or out of play for the opposition
A tackle is winning the ball that is in possession of the opponent and gaining possession for your team. In my book.
Whilst it’s hard to gauge a consensus on what people believe tackles won and lost are exactly (and none of the above are entirely correct), it seems that a tackle lost is viewed as a bad thing, when in reality it’s not that clear-cut at all.
To get the actual definition of a tackle in a statistical sense, we need to defer to Opta, as they collate the information:
A tackle is defined as where a player connects with the ball in ground challenge where he successfully takes the ball away from the man in possession.
The above definition has immediately raised doubt in my mind. I suspect some people would view a tackle lost as missing the ball entirely, when in fact any tackle won or lost involves stopping your direct opponent having possession of the ball.
Therefore, isn’t any statistically registered tackle a good thing from a defensive point of view, as ‘won’ or ‘lost’ you’ve taken the ball from the opponent running towards your goal? To my mind, this is why the total number of tackles is far more relevant to any debate than how many are ‘won’ or ‘lost’. Opta continue:
A Tackle Won is deemed to be where the tackler or one of his team-mates regains possession as a result of the challenge, or that the ball goes out of play and is “safe”.
A Tackle Lost is where a tackle is made but the ball goes to an opposition player.
I’m starting to see why some central midfielders “lose” a lot of tackles, as they have very little chance of the ball going out of play (and thus enabling them to ‘win’ the tackle) from the centre of the pitch, so they have one fewer positive outcome to play with.
As a simple example, look at Lucas’ tackle map from the recent 2-2 draw with Swansea City.
Six of his seven tackles were in the central band of the pitch, including the three that he ‘lost’. Yet when you read the above definition, you realise that to ‘win’ the tackle he either has to put the ball out of play (which isn’t going to happen from where he generally plays) or perhaps one of his team mates needs to sweep up the loose ball (assuming he can’t simply start running with the ball himself).
Perhaps this explains why a lot of the top players in terms of tackle win percentage are full backs or wingers, as it is far easier for them to directly put the ball out of play with a tackle. The top ten for tackle win percentage in the Premier League last season (with a minimum of fifty attempted tackles) included Davide Santon, Armand Traore, Danny Rose, Jose Enrique and Luke Shaw. For a topical example, Dani Alves won the most tackles in the Celtic vs Barcelona match tonight.
Are these guys really the best tacklers in the league, or do they just play in wide areas of the pitch where the ball is more likely to go out of play, and so they can ‘win’ more tackles? The irony here is that these players ‘win’ a lot of tackles that immediately hand possession straight back to the opposition via throw ins; are these actually much better than ‘lost’ tackles?
Of course, in the defensive midfielder debate you could still compare tackle win figures amongst those players, and ignore the full backs. But as a lost tackle is one where the ball is initially taken from an opponent but the ball then goes to another opposing player, it strikes me that in many cases a tackler can be reliant upon his teammates covering near him and sweeping up the loose ball in order for him to ‘win’ the tackle; doesn’t really make sense when you think about it, does it?
Is Lucas a top defensive midfielder? I have no idea really, and I do have my doubts (not least as he is dribbled past by opposing players so frequently) but I certainly wouldn’t accept anyone using his tackle win percentage as a decisive measure either way.
Update: 2 October 2013
Following the publication of this blog post yesterday, it was very interesting to note here that Opta published an updated list of their definitions, which included the following regarding tackles:
Related posts you might like:
Lucas Leiva: Top Tackler – The Brazilian didn’t make or win the most tackles in the 2011/12 Premier League, but only due to a lack of playing time…
The Challenge Facing Jay Spearing – With Lucas now injured for the rest of the season, do Spearing’s stats suggest he can adequately replace the Brazilian?
Myths #1: Lucas Only Passes Backwards – Busting the myth of the Brazilian’s passing statistics.