Dejan’s Defending; The Look of Lovren

Dejan Lovren, Southampton’s Croatian centre-back who they purchased from Lyon twelve months ago, is the latest player to be strongly linked with a move to Liverpool.

As defensive stats are hard to make use of, as a lot of the important aspects of defending (e.g. positioning, anticipation, marking etc) aren’t measured (or at least, the data isn’t available in the public domain), I’ve looked at some stats in a slightly different way to try to get more useful information out of them.

Before we get to that though, let’s look at a few positives. In May, Bloomberg Sports unveiled their data driven list of the top fifty players in Europe’s top five leagues, and Dejan Lovren came in at number thirty-one, with only a handful of defenders ahead of him.

Whilst it’s not entirely clear how the scores were calculated, the Southampton centre-back must’ve been doing quite a lot right to get that high up the list. Based on data from the World Cup, Dejan Lovren is quick too.

Of the 235 players who featured for at least 270 minutes at Brazil 2014, the Croatian centre-back posted the joint-eighteenth top speed.

Lovren SpeedBefore we draw too much from this, I don’t know how it was compiled. For instance, a player might stroll around the pitch for 99% of the time, but do one lightning fast sprint and so log an impressive ‘top speed’. But even if that was the case with Lovren, this does at least show that he is capable of zipping across the turf when required.

Considering Liverpool’s playing style, which can at times be somewhat reckless, the following stat could be a small, but significant, reason as to why Brendan Rodgers is looking to sign Lovren.

The Croatian made a total of three successful last man tackles last season, which may not sound like many, but it’s more than the Reds’ four centre backs managed between them (Skrtel and Sakho made one apiece, but that was it).

As Southampton conceded the second fewest shots in the division, and averaged the highest possession too, Lovren presumably had fewer chances than Liverpool’s players to make such saving tackles, suggesting that he has good anticipation and recovery skills (and his aforementioned pace presumably came in handy too).

So let’s assume from here on that Lovren signs on the dotted line at Anfield; who will he partner in the team?

As the Croatian is right footed, and Liverpool brought in Mamadou Sakho at great expense for the left-sided berth last summer, my initial assumption was that Lovren would play on the right, and replace Skrtel.

But then again, despite being right footed, the former Lyon stopper has predominately played as a left-sided centre back, so perhaps he will partner Skrtel, and Sakho (plus Agger) will drop to the bench? I have therefore compared the stats of Lovren, Sakho and Skrtel to see what pros and cons the potential pairings might have.

One thing I definitely like about Lovren is the frequency with which he intercepts opposition passes; on a per game basis he was the eighth best player in the Premier League for this in 2013/14, and better than everyone in the Liverpool squad.

In the stats world, tackles and interceptions often get lumped together as a defensive output, but thinking about it, I would much prefer a player to intercept than tackle, as it guarantees he regains possession. A tackle can often result in the opposition immediately regaining the ball.

So here’s a little table of data sorted by interceptions divided by tackles (I/T), to see who wins the ball via positioning and anticipation more often than sliding in on the ground.

Lovren T and IAdvantage, Lovren, and we can also here see that he intercepts opposition passes more frequently than his potential colleagues did in the midfield third too. Skrtel has a slight edge over Sakho here, so perhaps he should partner Lovren if you were to base your decision upon this.

It’s therefore no surprise that the Saint performed well at pressing higher up the pitch and making ball recoveries too. This data suggests pairing Lovren and Sakho would be the way to go if this an attribute that Rodgers covets in his defenders (and I believe that it is).

Lovren Poss WinsIn my look at Emre Can’s stats, I looked at ‘fouls divided by tackles’. to see what the foul rate was for a selection of defensive midfielders; here are the three defenders that we’re investigating.

Lovren FoulsTacklesIt again seems that Sakho and Lovren would be the best duo based on this metric, as pro-rata they perform better than Skrtel at tackling rather than fouling. Not all fouls are attempted tackles of course, but I think this could be a handy little defensive metric for getting an idea at least.

I have spent a lot of time over the last year or so looking at where on the pitch things happen, mainly from an attacking perspective. Chances created and shots from inside the box are the most valuable as they are more likely to be scored, so I realised I could apply the same logic to defensive stats too.

For instance, an aerial duel inside the penalty area is far more important than one further up the pitch, as if the attacking team win it then it is likely to result in a shot at goal. This is also particularly relevant here, as Liverpool have long had an issue with defending crosses.

Lets break the information down. For starters, here are the players’ overall aerial duel win percentage and frequency.

Lovren All ADsMartin Skrtel leads the way by both measures, though not by a massive margin; he wins an aerial duel about two minutes more often than Lovren, and 8.6% more of them to boot, with Sakho a little further back. All three of them win more than they lose though, which is a good place to start. But how about if we focus purely on the penalty area?

Lovren Box ADsWow. Skrtel has both contested and won more aerial duels in the box than the other two combined, with the gap in win percentage growing to around 17%, and he is now also the only one of the three to win above half of his duels. It’s also somewhat alarming to notice that Lovren only won an aerial duel in the box less than once every five full games.

Remember how at the beginning I mentioned that defensive stats don’t usually take account of anticipation and positioning? Well, I think in this instance maybe they can. StatsZone also carries a statistic for headed clearances, so I was able to collate this data for specifically within the penalty area. After all, if you can find space to head the ball away without contesting a duel, then to my mind that is good defending. Let’s see what the figures show us.

Lovren Box Headed ClearancesI think I now know why Sakho’s aerial duel stats undermine his reputation for being good in the air; they don’t tell the full story. The players are sorted by the data in the final column, which shows how often they clear the ball in their penalty area with their head but without contesting a duel. In other words, how often does their positioning and anticipation enable them to clear the ball; Sakho and Lovren now have the edge over Martin Skrtel.

The Slovakian is still very much the king of the three when it comes to defending in it’s purest form; he both blocked more shots (thirty-seven to sixteen) and cleared off the line (two to nil) more times than they other two did put together last season. But from looking at these stats it wouldn’t surprise me if Rodgers plumped for Lovren and Sakho if the Croatian does finally move to Liverpool.

Please check out my articles on Liverpool’s transfer targets, and follow me on Twitter or Facebook. Scroll down to see the related posts for this article. Thanks.

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5 thoughts on “Dejan’s Defending; The Look of Lovren

  1. First class article. First time on the site and am very impressed with the statistical thoroughness and varying perspectives taken. Bloody good work!

    • Cheers! Yeah I’m optimistic he can do okay. He’s got recent Champions League experience too, which a lot of our squad don’t, so that’s no bad thing for the season ahead.

  2. Pingback: How will Liverpool win the league in 2014/15 | This Is Analysis

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