From Dias & Stones to Liverpool’s Pick ’n’ Mix: Centre-Back Partnerships in Review
A centre-back partnership: The backbone of any side, a base to build from, the players who celebrate blocking a shot as if they’d scored one. A consistent partnership always seems to be at the heart of any great side. So, what was the state of centre-back partnerships in the 2020-21 Premier League season?
We’ll focus on starting partnerships, meaning two or three centre-backs who started a match together, and answer questions such as who started together the most? Are two or three centre-backs more popular? And which team used the highest number of different partnerships?
Two or Three?
It’s good news for everyone who likes a traditional pairing: The two-player partnership still reigns supreme. 70% of all starting lineups had two centre-backs with six teams (30% of the league) lining up like this for every match. The only teams to play with three more often than two were Sheffield United, Brighton and Wolves.
Looking back over the past five seasons, there has generally been a steady decline in two centre-back starters. The major exception is 2017-18 which saw a big swing from two centre-back starters to three-at-the-back (hello Antonio Conte). However, with three-at-the-back devotees Sheffield United leaving the top flight, a two-man partnership rebound next season wouldn’t be surprising.
The Stalwarts and the Changers
A consistent partnership has always been viewed as the basis for a solid defence. This season’s most common partnership was Aston Villa’s Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings, who started 31 games together. No doubt Burnley duo Ben Mee and James Tarkowski will be disappointed to have lost their crown having managed one fewer start this season.
Premier League 2020-21 Centre-Back Partnerships:
(This is interactive, so have a tinker)
Meanwhile, the team forced to use the highest number of different partnerships – surprise, surprise – were the injury-struck Liverpool. Using 16 different partnerships, the most common of which starting just six matches, the Reds were undoubtedly hampered by the loss of Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk, who started 21 games together in last year’s title win. To visualise the extent of Liverpool’s woes, we can use an upset plot. The matrix of red squares shows us the different partnerships, while the top bars show us the games started together.
We’ve got upset plots for every single team in the Premier League last season. Take a look at the centre-back partnerships of your team by selecting it from the drop-down below menu:
Some Standout Stats
Let’s finish with some standout stats. We’ll only consider the most common starting partnerships for each side. Keep in mind the strength of the opposition could have a significant impact on these numbers, particularly those starting partnerships with a low number of starts.
It’s what defending is all about.
Of course, every goal conceded by a team is not the sole responsibility of their centre-backs, but they play an important role. Fabinho and Joël Matip (Liverpool’s joint-most common starting partnership in 2020-21) take the honour of fewest conceded – 0.38 per 90 minutes played. Expected goals against (xGA) better describes the quality of all shots conceded and, by this metric, Manchester City’s John Stones and Rúben Dias come out best with 0.78 xGA per 90. Argue amongst yourselves, Liverpool and City fans.
For the worst performers, West Brom’s Kyle Bartley and Semi Ajayi standout for all the wrong reasons with 1.96 goals conceded per 90 minutes, while Crystal Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyaté and Gary Cahill hold the honour for most expected goals against at 1.80 per 90 minutes.
Cheering a blocked shot like it’s a goal. It feels good. Especially if you’re Sheffield United, a club with very little else to cheer about in 2020-21. Chris Basham, Jack Robinson and John Egan blocked 2.8 shots per 90 – a remarkable 26% of all shots faced while they were on the pitch!
From a more on-ball viewpoint, Brighton’s trio of Adam Webster, Ben White and Lewis Dunk jump out. Even after considering there are three, rather than two of them, they top passes into the final-third (22.9 per 90 minutes) and score well in carry progress (292.2 metres carrying the ball up the pitch per 90 minutes). Clearly important to their team’s progression, it is a combination rarely seen to such high levels.
Finally, we’ve focused on the most common starting partnerships but this one deserves bending the rules. Davinson Sánchez and Toby Alderweireld gave away three penalties in seven starts for Spurs, which is some achievement.
So there’s a quick overview of centre-back partnerships in the Premier League this season. Three centre-back partnerships on the up, Liverpool ravaged by injury and, whatever you do, make sure you run at Sánchez and Alderweireld in the box.
Design by Matt Sisneros.
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