Using data and video scouting to find a replacement for James Tarkowski

The main source of Burnley’s continued spell in the Premier League has been built on a rock-solid defence, which gives them a platform upon which to build their attacks on and allows them to stay competitive in games. At the heart of this, in recent years, has been James Tarkowski, a man bought for absolute peanuts (315,000 peanuts to be exact) in 2016 as back-up, and then the replacement, for Michael Keane. However, given his form, I would not be surprised if he were to move on from Turf Moor, especially given Burnley’s need for investment in the rest of their squad. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to use data and video scouting to try and find a cheap(ish) player who could come straight in and start for the Clarets next season.

Before I go into finding a replacement, however, let’s have a quick look at what Burnley could potentially be losing.

A quick dashboard showing off some of Tarkowski’s key skills.

I know that pure statistics are not the best way to assess defensive quality, especially for a centre-back, but I feel like this visualisation highlights some of his best qualities. As the team set up in a low block, at least comparatively to other PL teams, it requires the centre-backs to do quite a lot of what I like to call ‘backs to the wall defending’: winning loose balls, defensive duels, balls in the air etc. This is because, once the ball has made its way into the final third, Burnley retreat to the edge of their own area, remaining compact and removing a lot of the space for players to receive in between the lines. This removes a lot of the decision making required by the centre-half pairing, although this can be undone by hitting them quickly in transition, preventing Burnley from recovering into their defensive shape. More information on Burnley’s defensive structure can be found in this Athletic article by Andy Jones from the end of last season (https://theathletic.co.uk/1903834/2020/07/03/burnley-defence-clean-sheets/), or in this video from a few years ago by Tifo Football.

Going back to Tarkowski, he excels at winning duels across the pitch, performing above average for defensive duels, aerial challenges and blocking shots. On top of this, he adds some ability to progress the ball up the field, although he is by no means Burnley’s main option in this regard. Therefore, his replacement needs to be someone with a similar ability to win the ball back in their own penalty area, whilst moving the ball forward to the strikers.

To find our James Tarkowski v2.0, I decided to scout exclusively in the Championship for players with over 1000 minutes this season. This is because it’s a division that Burnley have taken players from before with reasonable success (Chris Wood, Charlie Taylor, Josh Brownhill to name a few), and therefore I felt that it would be the most realistic option for them. I considered also looking at League One, but I felt that the players I could find there might not be ready for immediate game time in the Premier League, assuming they stay up, which I don’t think Burnley can afford when losing one of their key players. I also decided to only look at players under the age of 27. Burnley’s squad profile is enough to give anyone on Football Analytics Twitter an aneurysm, and therefore dropping the average age might not be a bad idea. It also might give them another sellable asset to make money on in a few years (in other words – good squad building!).

Only 3 players under the age of 28 have played over 50% of minutes for Burnley this season.

To start, we’ll look at the aerial ability of our centre backs. This is useful, not only for dealing for defending crosses, free-kicks and corners, but also gives Burnley a potential threat at the other end. So far this season, Burnley are the second-lowest scorers with 18 goals, so giving them another avenue from which to attack would be very helpful. Therefore, I included the number of headed goals scored as part of the visualisation.

Aerial duels per 90 vs Aerial duel win %, with size representing the number of headed goals scored.

From the first look, the players that stand out are Nottingham Forest’s Scott McKenna, Stoke City’s Harry Souttar and Derby County’s Matt Clarke, although none of these have registered a headed goal yet this season. If we were more interested in this metric, then the main names are Cardiff’s Curtis Nelson, Barnsley’s Michal Helik and Swansea’s Ben Cabango, all of which are also frequent aerial duellists.

Moving on to the next area, we want a defender who is strong in ground duels, specifically defensive ones. This is because Burnley’s centre backs are not covered by a player in front of them, and therefore will sometimes have to step up and try and win the ball, or at least slow down the attack. I also looked at the number of fouls committed per 90, as being too aggressive might give away chances for free kicks in dangerous positions.

Defensive duels per 90 vs Defensive duel win %, with size representing the number of fouls committed per 90.

We can see again that the players that stand out are McKenna, Clarke and Souttar, with Joe Rodon (now of Spurs), Ben Davies (now of Liverpool) and Helik also doing well. However, it’s fair to say that Helik does appear to give away a few more fouls than the other players mentioned.

The last area that I wanted to look at is the players’ passing ability, especially long range. Burnley play a very direct brand of football, aiming to isolate the opposition’s centre backs by playing long balls to their physically threatening strike force, hoping to force errors or win the second ball. Most of this progression is done by Ashley Westwood, although as I mentioned, giving Burnley a secondary passing player might be a good idea to prevent their game plan from being stopped at source. Therefore, I looked at the number of progressive passes made per 90 against how accurate they were.

Progressive passes per 90 vs Accurate progressive pass %.

The only player of the main three we’ve seen on every visual that stands out here is Harry Souttar, who not only plays a lot of progressive passes, but is also very accurate with them. Another honourable mention has to go to Ben Davies, who shows why Liverpool picked him up to solve their centre back crisis in January, although this means he is obviously not available for Burnley. Yoann Barbet of QPR and Paddy McNair of Middlesbrough also show their abilities here, but performing poorly in other areas has stopped them from being a real option for this role.

After going away and doing some video analysis, the standout player for me, and therefore my choice, is Harry Souttar. Although there were other options who did well in certain aspects, Souttar was the only one who performed consistently well in the areas I was focusing on. He was also helped by the fact that both Clarke and McKenna are both primarily left footed and would therefore be better replacements for Ben Mee.  

Souttar currently plays CB for Stoke who primarily use him on the right in a back three alongside James Chester and Nathan Collins. He’s currently 22, meaning he could be part of Burnley’s defence for the foreseeable future and, although he’s only playing in his first full season for Stoke after going on loan to Fleetwood last year, he’s already registered more minutes than anyone else in their squad this year, as well as earning himself a call-up to the Australian national team. As for his value, Transfermarkt has his price at around £3.15 million as of December 20th 2020, although it could be less as he’s going into the final year of his contract in the summer.  

The first thing that stands out about Souttar is his height. He stands at a gargantuan 200cm which obviously helps him aerially and makes him difficult to force off the ball. He uses this to his advantage when defending one-on-one, often trying to get himself between the opposing player and the ball, rather than making a challenge. The obvious disadvantage of his height is his lack of speed. Whilst he isn’t slow and can often keep up with attackers once he gets going, he can be found slightly flat-footed upon occasion. This is mainly an issue when he steps up to pressure an attacker, as a quick release of the ball will often leave him beaten.

The timing of his challenges is good and he has good range due to his long legs, often helping him block crosses at the byline if he slides across. His positioning is also generally good although he can often get caught out, especially if he has to react to things quickly. A good example of this is Stoke’s away game against Brentford this season.

Souttar is initially picking up Toney on the edge of the area. The Brentford player then sends a ball to Mbeumo who is making a run between the other two Stoke centre backs.

Although he stays with Toney, once Brentford win the header, he is slow to react, allowing Toney to move into space and get a shot away, leading to a Brentford goal.

These defensive lapses could be an issue if he makes the step up, especially since he won’t have the protection of an extra central defender in Burnley’s system, although I would have faith in Sean Dyche improve his defensive game if given the chance.

His last major strength is his long passing, which is absolutely fantastic, especially for Championship level. He has usually played one of two passes from what I’ve watched of him this season: a slightly lofted ball between the opposition centre back and full back, looking for a striker running into the channels, or a flatter cross-field switch, looking to stretch the play. The first pass especially is typical of what we’ve seen from Burnley in recent years, and I have no doubt that he would improve their ball progression significantly. In terms of shorter passing, he is reliable, if unspectacular. He can play a little too safe at times, which can put his team-mates under pressure, and I’d like to see how he does against teams that would exert much more pressure on the ball, as I feel he is too often unchallenged when making a pass in the Championship.

Despite these problems, I still think that Souttar is the best option for Burnley should Tarkowski leave. His positives far outweigh any of his competitors at Championship level, and the combination of his age and potential price would potentially give Burnley a bargain with high profit potential should he continue his form to the top tier.

All data taken from/video scouting done with Wyscout

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