This weekend saw the Imps take the first tentative steps back to full fitness, with Joe Walsh playing 45 second-half minutes as we drew 2-2 with Blackpool.
It was a second half we actually won 2-1, and Walsh clearly impressed. In the current player ratings here on the site, he is scoring a 7.3, the fourth-highest of any player on the pitch. Since the turn of the year, the Imps have struggled a little at the back and the perception is that Walsh coming back will be a big help to us. Is that perception correct? Let’s see.
Firstly, the advantage of having a left-footed centre back playing on the left of the two cannot be undervalued, especially when playing out from the back. We mentioned it on Match Day Live (to be fair, Sam actually spotted it), but a look at Gillingham’s second goal in our 3-0 defeat shows why it is important. Have a look at Montsma’s last-ditch tackle on the video in the link. I’m not hammering him here by the way, but he has to come across with his left foot, not his natural foot, to make the tackle. A natural left-footer may well have reacted a split-second earlier and made the challenge. I might be wrong of course, but having a left and right footer certainly adds balance to the way we defend, as well as how we play out.
Whilst that is purely a positional thing, I also thought I’d have a look at some of the key stats from all three of our regular central defenders, Adam Jackson, Lewis Montsma and Joe Walsh. To be entirely fair, I am only counting matches in League One, so that the one-sided hammerings we dished out against the poor whipping boys of Bradford, Forest Green or Mansfield Town don’t cloud the numbers.
It is worth noting that in the league this season, Lewis Montsma has played 3064 minutes, Adam Jackson 2424 and Joe Walsh 1665. There is a lot to be said for consistency when it comes to the back four and injuries have made that a challenge. The numbers I use will work out the actions per 90 minutes, rather than a total, for obvious reasons. All stats are correct according to Wyscout.
A defensive duel, according to Wyscout, is not always just a tackle, but sometimes also a loose ball that two players contest. It is an important metric in being a defender in my eyes, as it shows how many times a defender wins the ball, turning over possession and stopping an attack. Of our three central defenders, Joe Walsh challenges more defensive duels per ninety minutes, averaging 7.03 per games. Lewis Montsma is next on 6.32, with Adam Jackson third on 5.42. It is worth noting that Adam Jackson wins 72.6% of his, with Montsma on 69.3% and Joe Walsh on 69.2%. There is actually very little in those numbers, successful duels per game range from 4.86 for Walsh to 3.93 for Jackson.
Very little ambiguity around this metric. An aerial duel is as simple as it seems, a ball in the air which is there to be won. There is little between Jackson and Montsma here, the Dutchman contests 5.93 per game, winning 54%, whilst Jackson contests 5.98, winning 59.6%. Ahead, again, is Joe Walsh, with 6.81 per game and a 54.8% success rate. To be fair to Lewis though, he didn’t play against Gillingham when we won 3-0, nor in the 2-1 win against Northampton. I’m not being facetious here either, 37 of Joe Walsh’s 126 aerial duels this season came in three games, Gillingham away and both outings against the Cobblers. That’s a big number, considering he didn’t make 37 in his first seven appearances for the Imps!
Adam Jackson played in three of those games too, twice against Gillingham and once against Northampton, contesting 42 aerials duels from a season total of 161 (26% of his aerial duels basically came in just 11% of his league starts). That leaves Lewis appearing just twice in matches against Gillingham and Northampton, making 27 aerial duels from a total of 234 (more minutes, remember). What I do find interesting is Lewis only made nine duels against Gillingham in the 3-0 defeat, only two of which were successful. To make matters worse, all seven that he lost out on were between the penalty box and the centre circle, key ‘flick on’ areas for the Gills. That wasn’t a good evening for Lewis, or the rest of the boys, but it is interesting from a stats point of view.
Plenty of metrics look at the core principles of defending, duelling for the ball and heading the ball away, but what of errors? Wyscout has a ‘losses’ column, which highlights when a ball is lost, and where on the field. As with any stat there is some ambiguity around what a ‘loss’ is, for instance if a defender plays a deliberate pass into a forward and out for a goal kick, it is counted as a loss. However, generally, it does offer an indication of the riskier defenders, I guess. Lewis is right at the top of the losses chart, with 8.22 per game, 53.6% of which are in his own half, Adam Jackson is next, he registers 6.5 losses per game, but with 62.35% in his own half. Once again, looking very good on the metric, is Joe Walsh, with 5.84 losses per game and 53.7% in his own half.
A clearance, an intended defensive action that may not result in the ball going to a teammate, is not a loss, but is equally as important to highlight here. The player with the most clearances per 90 minutes is, you guessed it, Joe Walsh, with 4.7 per game. Next up is Lewis, he makes 3.41 per game, with Adam Jackson third with 2.93.
If you had asked me six years ago how important it was for a defender to be able to pass a ball, I would have said ‘not very’. After all, Ben Futcher was a great player for our club, but I’m not sure he could pass it 20 yards in a straight line sometimes. This modern era of football we’re in dictates a defender must be a bit of a footballer and if they’re not, they end up somewhere like Northampton (sorry, Cian). Which of our current three first-choice central defenders come out on top here? I’ve only counted forward passes and passes into the final third, I’m sure you (and I) have little interest in knowing how well a defender rolls it to the side, or back to Alex Palmer.
In terms of forward passes, Adam Jackson makes the most per game, with 19.34. He also has the best pass accuracy of the three with his forward passes, 79.3%. Next up is Lewis, which surprised me as I thought he’d be top of the metric. He makes 18.39 forward passes per game with an accuracy of 74.1%. Last is Joe Walsh, 16.38 per game, three full passes less than Adam Jackson per 90 minutes, with an accuracy of 78.2%.
When it comes to passes into the final third, we’re upping the ante, are we not. Once upon a time, a defender passing into the final third meant an ‘up and under’, but not anymore, not on Michael Appleton’s watch. The player with the most passes into the final third? Obviously Lewis. He makes 5.82 per game, with an accuracy of 66.2%. Adam Jackson is second, 4.23 per game and 70.2%, with Joe Walsh third on 3.95 and 64.4%.
I deliberately haven’t included TJ in the numbers as he has only appeared three times at centre back in the league, totalling 216 minutes. He played the full game against Portsmouth at the Bank, then again away at Oxford, before finishing the Blackpool draw there. For balance, I have added his other central defensive outings into the stats (Crewe and Liverpool in the Carabao Cup, Mansfield, Man City U21s and Shrewsbury in the EFL Trophy) and looked at his numbers.
His defensive duels stand up, 6.33 per ninety from a total of 683 minutes in all competitions, and his win percentage is higher than all three of the others at 77.10%. Aerial duels is another matter, 3.95 per 90 minutes and 53.3% success rate, but remember which teams he appeared against – none really long ball. TJ is a decent player and I didn’t want to discount him from the article, hence this little reference.
Of the seven categories, I have looked at (defensive duels, aerial duels, losses, interceptions, clearances, passes into final third and forward passes), Joe Walsh ranks top in four, namely four of the defensive-minded ones. The split elsewhere between Jackson and Montsma is close, which suggest to me that whilst Joe Walsh is a first-choice centre back, the man who plays alongside him is likely to be up for debate.
Personally, if we’re up against a Shrewsbury, Gillingham or Northampton, I’d go for Jackson, whilst I think a team where much of the play will be about us building on the deck (Rochdale, Wigan, Ipswich) will suit Lewis Montsma. Having all three is a great position to be in, but the one who makes a significant difference, according to the stats, balance and my general opinion, is Joe Walsh.
It seems Michael Appleton agrees, as he said in this morning’s press conference: “I don’t need to go into too much detail on it but when we had the three experienced players of Joe Walsh, Adam Jackson and Liam Bridcutt, that little triangle allowing the young players to flourish around them, we went through a strong spell of not conceding goals and unfortunately we have not been able to have that for a long time.”
Soon Michael. Soon.