Tottenham’s Center Back Situation: An In-Depth Analysis of Spurs’ Current Center Backs and Rumored Transfers

Article by Ben Griffis

Spurs’ major weakness is their lack of a top-tier center back. So far this summer they have been linked with Lille’s Sven Botman, Inter’s Milan Škriniar, Bologna’s Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Sevilla’s Jules Koundé. This article details and compares each players’ 2020/21 statistics to shed light on which player Spurs should prioritize.

Tottenham Hotspur have had quite the roller coaster summer so far—and that’s only talking about the backroom staff. Spurs hired Juventus’ Fabio Paratici as their new Director of Football, a role which Spurs have needed for several seasons.

Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy is still in the market for a manager, having been close to signing both Antonio Conte and Paulo Fonseca before seeing both deals fall through. Before those two managers, Spurs were openly pursuing former manager Mauricio Pochettino, but his current club Paris Saint-Germain were not willing to let Pochettino leave after just 6 months in the job.

Fans are becoming more restless as the summer continues with unpopular links to managers like Nuno Espírito Santo and Gennaro Gattuso. At the time of writing, Nuno Espírito Santo appears to be the front-runner. However, the sentiment is that—if you can look past the managerial issue—Spurs should be in good standing for the summer transfer window as Fabio Paratici looks to make his first signings. Paratici has done his homework and understands that Spurs’ biggest positional weakness is their center backs, so he must prioritize signing a starting center back this summer.

The Current Center Back Situation

An aging Jan Vertonghen left for Benfica after the 2019/20 season and Juan Foyth was deemed not ready or good enough for the club and offered to Villarreal on loan. Foyth then won the Europa League at the end of the season, being one of the top performers in the final against Manchester United.

Davinson Sánchez hasn’t performed as well as he did in his first season with Spurs, is very error prone, and may leave the club this summer. Toby Alderweireld has slightly regressed as he gets older. And while Eric Dier was possibly Spurs’ most consistent center back of the 2020/21 season, he would have a hard time walking into the starting XI of many top-half Premier League clubs.

Joe Rodon was signed from Swansea on October 16th, 2020 and was limited to just over 700 minutes in the Premier League—and was signed after the Europa League squad registration deadline. Rodon’s statistics are promising, but Spurs have a track record of signing promising young players only to play them sporadically (Juan Foyth and Steven Bergwijn being recent examples).

The final center back at the squad, Japhet Tanganga, is a recent academy graduate who can also play right back. Tanganga has performed well in the first team, but has been set back by injuries in his first season and a half.

The following chart compares 12 select defensive statistics for Tottenham’s center backs this season, excluding Tanganga who didn’t play many minutes.

This article uses percentile rankings for most statistics, so a quick explanation is warranted. Each players’ performance in a statistic is compared to all other players’ performance meeting the criteria—for this specific chart above, that is players who are defenders in the Premier League and who played at least 700 minutes this season. The percentile ranking then allows us to see how well an individual performed, compared to these other players.

The 50th percentile is the median—the middle number if all numbers were ranked lowest to highest—of a statistic and is not terribly different from an average. Players above the 50th percentile in a statistic are better than half of the players compared against. If a statistic ranks as the 95th percentile, that is better than 95% of all the players compared against.

For example, Joe Rodon’s Aerial Win percent is 68.6% and the 81st percentile. This means Joe Rodon is better at winning aerials than 81% of all other Premier League defenders with at least 700 minutes this past season (hopefully this explanation is not too long).

Moving back to Figure 1, Davinson Sánchez was clearly the best Tottenham defender at tackling last season, with all three tackling statistics above the 75th percentile. A key weakness for Tottenham is that Dier and Alderweireld, their main center back pairing, were both very poor tacklers. Something to look at is Tottenham defenders’ consistently high ranking in number of clearances. Coupled with low tackling performances, we can infer that the low tackling numbers are not because of a lack of tackles needing to be made. The very high number of clearances tells us Spurs had lots of defensive work to do in 2020/21—and watching their games backs that up.

Joe Rodon comes out as Spurs’ best “passive” defender around the box, with consistently high percentile rankings in clearances, aerial win percentage, shot blocks, and interceptions—Rodon is very good at getting the ball away from the box.

Another issue arises when we look at Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld. There is no one “type” of defending they’re consistently ranking high in. Let’s call the tackling statistics “active” defending, and the next 4 “passive” defending, then the two pressing statistics as “press” defending, and the final 3 statistics as ball movement. Dier and Alderweireld are not high percentile in all of one type of defending or ball movement. That is a major problem, because Spurs can’t rely on either starting center back in any phase of defensive play.

Eric Dier is decent at all the passive defensive statistics except for interceptions, while Toby Alderweireld is good at successfully pressing the opposition even if he doesn’t press very often. So, we can see from this chart that Spurs need to improve on Dier and Alderweireld, and should prioritize either an “active” defender who is good at tackling or a ball-moving defender. Given Spurs’ defensive woes last season, a quality tackler is the biggest priority.

The figures below are show each player’s performance in 21 key statistics (first row for attacking statistics, middle row for midfield statistics, third row for defensive statistics), some of which are given in the radar chart above, and others which add more depth to our analysis. Each individual entry is the distribution for all comparable players, with the vertical line being the focal player’s performance. They are color-coded so that dark and light green are where a player performs at a high level, gray is relatively average, and orange and red are where the player is relatively poor.

For defenders, the third row of statistics is the most important while the middle row gives us information regarding how their ball-playing ranks against other defenders. A top-tier ball-playing center back should have many green statistics on both the second and third row.

Eric Dier did not perform well in 2020/21. Only 5 statistics are above the 50th percentile. He is not great at either defensive or midfield metrics.

Toby Alderweireld is more rounded than Dier and performs better in most metrics, however he only performs great in clearances and is relatively average in a further 5 statistics. Only 3 of 7 of these defensive metrics are above the 50th percentile.

Joe Rodon was much better than Dier or Alderweireld last season overall. Only two defensive statistics are below the 50th percentile. Further, he records a pass completion percentage better than 84% of other Premier League defenders with over 700 minutes, although he is not very good in other aspects of the midfield.

Finally, Davinson Sánchez records very admirable performances on many statistics, although two of his defensive statistics—interceptions and blocks—are very poor. He also records the highest non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes of any Tottenham center back this season.

As a final note before discussing the 4 primary targets, is that these charts don’t take mistakes or positioning into consideration. These are key aspects of defenders that are very difficult to capture with basic statistics. Davinson Sánchez may appear as the best current center back at Spurs, but he is prone to mistakes and poor positioning—key reasons he played little this season, despite his high percentile rankings in many statistics.

Overall, Joe Rodon comes out as the best center back currently at Tottenham. He was bought as a future prospect instead of an immediate fix, and his performances deserve a starting role next season, alongside whichever player Spurs sign. Alderweireld would provide a quality sub and rotation option, while Dier could fill in when needed.

The Potential Signings

At the time of writing, Spurs have been linked with Sven Botman, Milan Škriniar, Takehiro Tomiyasu, and Jules Koundé. All four players play in another Top-5 European league and are highly sought-after by other top clubs as well. Before looking at each player’s statistics individually, let’s look at how they compare to each other. This chart is similar to the one earlier, but ranks each player’s performance to other defenders in their own leagues—it is best to compare only within leagues.

Each one of these players would add an element to Tottenham’s current center back situation, however none of these players’ tackling statistics are ranked at a remarkable level. Škriniar is the best tackler of these 4 players, so if Spurs need a quality pure defender, Paratici should prioritize signing him.

Jules Koundé looks to be the best option for a ball-playing center back, followed by Škriniar—another reason to go for Škriniar over the other 3.

Takehiro Tomiyasu looks to be the most rounded option of these 4 players, which shows his versatility and ability to play both right back and center back for Bologna. Only two of his statistics are below the 50th percentile—tackles won (34th) and dribblers tackled (46th).

Finally, Sven Botman performs well in most ball movement and passive defensive statistics, but not in pressing or tackling statistics.

Taking this chart into account, Tomiyasu looks to be the best overall signing for Spurs, but Škriniar might be the best choice for a quicker fix of Tottenham’s defense. Further, Tomiyasu is 22 and Škriniar is 26, so Tomiyasu should only improve his performances. Škriniar should continue performing at his high level for a few more years.

Sven Botman and Jules Koundé are both very good ball-playing center backs and passive defenders, but Koundé records better performances in most statistics. Botman played in a great Lille side who had fewer challenges to make than most squads, so his tackling metrics could be biased and appear lower than his true tackling ability. Overall, however, these players’ performances are very similar, but Koundé is better than Botman in most statistics.

From these quick comparisons, Spurs should aim for either Tomiyasu if they want a young, rounded, versatile center back; or Škriniar if they want a top-class pure defender who is still good on the ball. Next down the line would be Koundé, and finally Botman.

Next, let’s look at each defender individually using the same charts as Tottenham’s players.

MILAN ŠKRINIAR

Škriniar has a few weaknesses in a few important defensive statistics, even though the other chart (with a few different statistics) shows his tackling ability compared to the other 3 players. Tackling is his best defensive attribute, and this chart highlights the other areas of defensive play where he needs to improve or have a partner who can perform well in the areas he is weak in.

Joe Rodon would be a great pairing for Škriniar, with most of Rodon’s weaknesses balanced by Škriniar’s strengths and vice versa. The chart below shows how well their statistics balance.

This comparison chart shows how balanced Spurs’ back line would be with Škriniar and Rodon. Tackling and presses remain an issue, but every other stat is covered at a high level.

TAKEHIRO TOMIYASU

Tomiyasu is, again, a very well-rounded defender with no major weaknesses. Only two defense and midfield statistics are below the 50th percentile, and he’s one of the best Serie A defenders in the air. Tomiyasu is still developing—as are Botman and Koundé—but his current game shows few signs of weakness.

Let’s see how Rodon and Takehiro Tomiyasu would pair together. This pairing is interesting because both players are very young, still developing, and shaping their game. The same goes for both Sven Botman and Jules Koundé.

Tomiyasu’s tackling is below the 50th percentile, which again could cause issues like with Škriniar. Tomiyasu, like Škriniar, records strong statistics in most areas where Rodon is weak. However, Tomiyasu is almost at Rodon’s level for Rodon’s strengths, unlike Škriniar. Tomiyasu would cover Rodon’s weaknesses while also backing up his strengths—something that’s important in a defensive pairing.

JULES KOUNDÉ

Jules Koundé was one of the best ball-playing defenders in La Liga last season, with all but one midfield stat—progressive passes received—below the 70th percentile. However, as we saw earlier, there were many better pure defenders than him last season. Only his aerial metrics are above the 50th percentile. Paired with the right defender, however, he would be an incredible weapon for Spurs.

The issue is that Spurs are in the market for a good defensive defender because of their current lack of solid defensive skills in their center backs. José Mourinho did not trust Rodon to play over Dier or Alderweireld, so it is possible Rodon isn’t ready to be a starter. However, based on his statistics and performances, it looks like Rodon should be the starter. Here’s how Koundé would pair with Rodon.

Similar to Škriniar, Koundé and Rodon cover each other’s weaknesses. Rodon could cover for Koundé to push up and be a ball-playing defender, especially with Rodon’s ability to clear the ball away from the box. However, Koundé is less able to cover Rodon’s strengths than Tomiyasu, and can’t cover for Rodon’s weaknesses like Škriniar.

SVEN BOTMAN

Finally, Sven Botman records inconsistent defensive statistics but good numbers in midfield. Botman is good in the air and at clearing the ball, but records very low numbers of blocks, tackles, and interceptions. Botman makes up for some of his poor defensive metrics with top passing metrics, like passes, completion, and progressive passes.

Now let’s see how Botman would pair with Rodon.

Overall, while Botman can cover for a few of Rodon’s weak aspects, he can’t cover as many as the other players. Further, Botman records much worse tackling numbers than Rodon, which could be an issue. Finally, Sven Botman can’t back up Joe Rodon’s strengths as well as Tomiyasu or Koundé.

While Botman is very young and still developing—as is Rodon—there would be some extra elements of risk in the short term if Paratici signed Botman instead of the other 3 players. Further, Botman paired with José Fonte at Lille this season and formed one of the best partnerships in European football. There is always some risk when signing one player of a strong partnership. It’s possible the two players make each other better than they are individually.

A Player Under The Radar? RC Lens’ Loïc Badé

A final center back I want to write about has not been rumored to be a Tottenham target, and only Liverpool showed slight interest in January 2021—but there has been nothing since.

Loïc Badé of RC Lens—the other surprise package of the 2020/21 Ligue 1 season—was one of the top center backs in Ligue 1 last season, and is still just 21. While he only has one season of top flight football under his belt after a free transfer from Le Havre last summer, where he played 7 matches in Ligue 2. Badé played over 2600 minutes in Ligue 1 last season.

Lens played in a back 3 last season, and Badé played mainly in the middle of the center backs but can also shift to the right or left side even though he is naturally right-footed. His statistics are very impressive, especially for just his first season of top division football.

This chart shows how well-rounded Badé is. He is especially good in the air, with only one player recording more aerial wins per 90 minutes (Metz’s Boubakar Kouyaté), and two players recording more clearances per 90 (Kouyaté and Saint-Étienne’s Pape Abou Cisse). This showcases his 6’3” (1.91 meters) and 190lbs powerful frame. Pairing with those numbers, he also wins two-thirds of his aerial duels, and is a great tackler who can also win interceptions.

Loïc Badé is also good in midfield, with good passing and decent dribbling and carrying statistics. Even though this was his first season in Ligue 1, he performed very well and was a key component in helping newly promoted Lens finish 7th, missing out on Conference League by one point.

Even though he is not a current target of Tottenham, he would pair extremely well with Joe Rodon (or any other Tottenham center back). Here is the chart showing the two players.

This chart really shows how Badé is not only very well-rounded, but how he excelled at most aspects of the game last season. He’s around the 70th percentile for the three tackling statistics, which is something Spurs currently lack, as do their rumored current interests.

In a back two, Rodon could stay back and defend the box while playing long passes, while Badé could push up and use both his tackling ability to break up plays and his ability to carry the ball and pass to start counters. Both players are very strong in the air, something Spurs have lacked in a center back pairing for a while.

Finally, with Nuno Espírito Santo looking like the likely appointment as manager (at the time of writing, that is), Loïc Badé is already used to playing in a back 3—Nuno’s preferred formation—after playing in one at Lens. Players always have to make transitions when switching clubs, but Badé’s experience in a back 3 would allow him to only have to adjust to a new team and league, rather than a new role and formation. We can say the same about Milan Škriniar since Antonio Conte employed a back 3 at Inter as well.

Final Thoughts

Of the four center backs currently linked with Tottenham, Paratici should focus on either Milan Škriniar or Takehiro Tomiyasu. Škriniar if Paratici is looking for an immediate shoring up of the defense, and Tomiyasu if he wants to bring in someone who will both improve the defense right away while being very promising for the future and is incredibly well-rounded. Jules Koundé is an impressive option for a ball-playing center back but could leave the defense in similar dire straits while defending. Sven Botman is also a risky signing, as his defending statistics are similar to Koundé’s. However, both Koundé and Botman are highly sought-after prospects for the future, while being top-tier options in the short run.

Finally, a player Spurs should look into is Loïc Badé. He is as well-rounded as Tomiyasu, but his statistics rank at a higher percentile than Tomiyasu’s. With the financial difficulties many French clubs are facing, he might be a cheaper option as well.

If Spurs play a back 3, Paratici should focus on which center back signing would pair best with Toby Alderweireld and Joe Rodon—Spurs’ best 2 current center backs. Tomiyasu is two-footed and has even played left back, so he should be able to play as a left-sided center back in a back 3, but he has limited experience in a back 3. Škriniar is already used to a back three, but plays on the right and is only right-footed. As Spurs need a center back comfortable on the left, Tomiyasu might be the better of those 2 options.

At any rate, Fabio Paratici has an incredibly important decision to make in his first transfer window at Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs have not had the best of luck signing the right players recently, but that’s precisely why Daniel Levy hired Paratici. Tottenham supporters will expect the most widely known and long-term issue to be addressed this summer, and Paratici looks set to move on Škriniar, Tomiyasu, Koundé, or Botman—and maybe he should look at Badé as well.

Luckily for Spurs supporters, Paratici has done his homework and is already targeting several top-tier, promising center backs before even landing in London. That’s a much different Tottenham than past windows, when deals seemed to be completed with just days left in the transfer window.

Header image source.

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