Manchester City find themselves once again top of the Premier League, with the chance to retain the title for the first time in 10 years since Manchester United in 2008/09. However they also find themselves without Fernandinho, the only seemingly irreplaceable player in their squad that overflows with talent. Fernandinho has missed four Premier League games so far this season, the two at the end of December in which they lost and left the league title in Liverpool’s hands and the two most recent games which were both dominating 1-0 wins. Even if their performances were no worse off and just lacked some luck, no doubt there is nobody else in their squad who can do exactly what Fernandinho does.
Even Guardiola has commented that there is no doubt they will be looking to bring in a replacement:
“I think with the way we play we need a guy who has of course physicality, is quick in the head and reading where our spaces to attack are”Guardiola
In this post I will try to scout a replacement for Fernandinho using Statsbomb’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Event data. This is a small sample size, so will only include players and their performances in the World Cup. I will define some metrics that could be used to describe the type of player that would fit the role that Fernandinho plays and identify those players that performed best during the World Cup.
Guardiola talks about physicality, quickness of thought and reading where the spaces will be to attack. It is hard to quantify those qualities, however using adapting some simpler metrics could give a good shortlist.
We know that Manchester City will have the ball a lot and want to get the ball forwards to their more attacking players in attacking areas, relying on Fernandinho to progress the ball. Using Statsbomb’s passing events, with the start and end location in x, y coordinates, I have defined a ‘Progressive Pass’ to be one that moves up the pitch more than 10m. Players who have the ability to progress the ball forwards are desired. It could be argued that we also want to only include players who progress the ball from deeper positions so as to more accurately emulate Fernandinho’s role, however we have a small sample as it is and the ability to play progressive passes is what we are looking for.
Whilst lots of players are great at passing, what makes Manchester City so special and Fernandinho so hard to replace, is their ability or willingness to win the ball higher up the pitch. Check out a previous post in the link below where I show how many more times they win the ball back in the opposition’s half. In the same vein, using Statsbomb’s ball recovery event with the x, y location I create a count of times that a player has recovered the ball in the opponent’s half. This tries to emulate the ability to win the ball back quickly after losing it and pinning the opposition back.
The combination of progressive passes and high ball recovery is used as a proxy for the type of skills that Fernandinho portrays and can be used to get a shortlist of players that perform similarly. Looking at only the players who played positions considered as central midfield or defensive midfield, the top 10 is below.
One thing to note is that these are pure counts and not per game or per 90min. It would be worth taking a look at that to account for the differences in games and minutes played. For example, Croatia making the Final and Germany getting knocked out in Group Stage is a difference of four games, so Toni Kroos making it to 2nd on the absolute list is incredible.
Initially it looks like the list makes sense, players like Kroos, Modric, Rakitic are all players who you could see being able to play in a deeper midfield role. Mascherano is also in the same mould, even more so considering he has played at Centre Back most of the time for Barcelona and Fernandinho has begun to slot in there to bring the ball out.
Those players are all 30+ years old so no better than Fernandinho in terms of potential replacements. Granit Xhaka and Marcelo Brozovic are two that are just entering their prime midfield years at the age of 26. This is where it’s important to note that when scouting, context is important and large sample sizes are encouraged. Xhaka may have the progressive passing ability and love of yellow cards, but probably wouldn’t have the discipline.
This post has looked at outlining a way to narrow down a shortlist of potential replacements for Fernandinho, the methods can be used to find similar players for any player as long as you can identify what you are looking for. Ideally you would get a much larger sample size of games and could look at a player’s contribution per game or per 90mins to get a more stable shortlist. In the future I would like to look at some unsupervised methods which don’t require you to specify or create the similar fields as I have done here.
I have included the total passing heatmaps and the recovery maps of selected players; if you want to see any players specifically from the World Cup from any position then give me a shout!
Once again, massive shout out to Statsbomb for providing the free source of event level data, it’s hard to come by and even harder to collect so it’s much appreciated!