Battle of the Right Backs

Credit Graham Burrell

I’ve been dismayed of late, I’ll confess, readers.

Not just because we’ve had a tough start, but because I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Regan Poole. Some, in my opinion, is very unfair. I’ve seen comments along the lines of ‘if we didn’t change our full-backs in January, we’d have gone up’. That’s not true; we failed to go up because Hopper, Grant, Walsh and Bridcutt suffered injuries at crucial points. If anything, Poole helped solidify our defence as it meant TJ could play centre back and make the crucial block against Sunderland. That’s an isolated moment, but without Poole, we’d have looked even more threadbare. He has made mistakes, not least the penalty he gave away against Hull, but that wouldn’t have been enough to secure or promotion.

Those who like to get misty-eyed over the past have told me how much better some other Imps have been in that position, not least Neal Eardley. I’m a huge Eardley fan, always will be, and to compare the two isn’t entirely fair; Eardley was a seasoned pro, he’d been in the Premier League, and he had no real business in our division. It does make me laugh though; I recall now the doom-mongers telling me how he was going to Mansfield one preseason. Easy, isn’t it, to be negative and speculative?

Credit Graham Burrell

Anyway, whether comparisons are fair or not, I thought I’d throw together a bit of a chart showing the stats for right-backs at the club over the last few years. I’m going to pick five key attributes of a right-back, and find the stats for each player in that position, to give you an idea of where Regan Poole drops in. You have to remember this; some of these players played against League One footballers, others against players in the National League. They played under different managers and in different styles, so the numbers may vary a bit. Still, I hope that Regan (rightly) comes out in the upper percentages, proving that he isn’t the worst right back we’ve ever had, which is one crazy theory I’ve seen. I’d also point out that just as many people think Regan is a top player for us as I do. I like to try to back up my beliefs with stats.

I haven’t checked these stats before I’ve gone into the article either, so I could be left looking a bit of a mug! I’m going to feature Bradley Wood, Neal Eardley, Sean Long, TJ Eyoma and Regan Poole. I don’t think I’ve missed anyone significant out. The five attributes I’m going to pick are Successful Defensive Actions Per 90, Defensive Duels per 90 and % Success, Interceptions per 90, Passes to Final Third per 90 and Crosses per 90 and % Successful.

Credit Graham Burrell

For TJ Eyoma, I shall only include matches he played at right-back. I think most of the others were almost exclusively full-backs. Also, because of the way Wyscout works, I’ve selected key seasons for each, rather than their whole Imps career.

Are we all ready to go? This is the list of players, per season, with the minutes they played at right-back.

Player Season Minutes Played
Bradley Wood 2016/17 2752
Neal Eardley 2017/18 3588
Sean Long 2017/18 1750
Neal Eardley 2018/19 4182
Neal Eardley 2019/20 3416
TJ Eyoma 2020/21 2184
Regan Poole 2020/21 2103
Regan Poole 2021/22 1432
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Defensive Duels

Let’s start with defensive duels. There are three metrics under this heading; defensive duels, percentage won and actual numbers won. Let’s go to the stats.

Player Season Defensive Duels per 90 and % Success % Success Succesful Duels
Regan Poole 2020/21 8.52 60.30% 5.14
Neal Eardley 2017/18 7.07 67.70% 4.79
Regan Poole 2021/22 7.04 56.25% 3.96
Bradley Wood 2016/17 6.85 57.90% 3.97
TJ Eyoma 2020/21 6.82 61.50% 4.19
Neal Eardley 2019/20 6.24 67.10% 4.19
Neal Eardley 2018/19 5.98 67.60% 4.04
Sean Long 2017/18 4.89 67.40% 3.30

I’d say this is a strong start for Poole. However, you would expect him to be more under pressure in League One than perhaps one might have been in the National League, hence making more duels than anyone other than Neal Eardley in 2017/18. Whilst his percentage success rate was lower last season than any of our right-backs, he still made more successful duels per game than any incumbent of the right-back position since Danny Cowley joined the club. This season, he’s made more per 90 minutes than any other player and more successful per 90 than any other player as well.

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Losses Per 90

Here’s a nice easy metric for you; losses. This is a measure of how many times the ball has been lost, a misplaced pass or header, for example. You wouldn’t want to see yourself at the top of this list, as it would mean you give the ball away more than the other players. Hence arranging it in descending order.

Player Season Losses per 90
TJ Eyoma 2020/21 10.43
Sean Long 2017/18 11.37
Regan Poole 2021/22 11.44
Neal Eardley 2019/20 11.78
Neal Eardley 2018/19 11.81
Regan Poole 2020/21 11.85
Neal Eardley 2017/18 14.02
Bradley Wood 2016/17 14.22

Interesting that aside from TJ last season, five of the eight come without half a loss of each other. Poole is better this season than last, but his numbers are very similar to those of Neal Eardley in our title-winning season, and in our first season in League One. I do wonder if the two lowest scores are due to having a more direct approach, more errant passes, but on the whole this isn’t bad for Regan again. Of course, it does fuel those behind TJ, as he gave the ball away fewer times than any right back of the post-National League era.

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Interceptions Per 90

An interception is where a player stops a pass from reaching an opposition player or stops a ball’s flight by anticipating its movement when the opponent is shooting, passing or crossing. It’s a fairly crucial metric for a defender and one in which the higher number is better.

Player Season Interceptions per 90
Neal Eardley 2019/20 5.95
Bradley Wood 2016/17 5.24
Regan Poole 2021/22 5.15
Neal Eardley 2018/19 4.99
Neal Eardley 2017/18 4.97
Sean Long 2017/18 4.53
TJ Eyoma 2020/21 4.26
Regan Poole 2020/21 4.19

This looks both good and bad. Let’s look at those bottom two scores first; TJ and Regan last season. Whilst Regan making fewer interceptions than any defender doesn’t look great, it’s interesting that the same season saw another left-back make fewer as well. Something in the approach, maybe? This season, Regan is right up there, which would indicate we’re under the cosh a bit more. I guess that’s reflected in Neal being top of this metric in the first season in League One; we arguably came under more pressure that season than any of the past few years.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Passes to Final Third

I’ve just looked ahead at the results here, and, to be fair, there is something of a pattern. People have said Neal Eardley was a top passer of the ball, and so it appears.

Player Season Passes to Final Third per 90 % success Actual Succesful Passes
Neal Eardley 2017/18 11.49 55.70% 6.40
Neal Eardley 2018/19 10.29 60.00% 6.17
Neal Eardley 2019/20 9.48 62.50% 5.93
Bradley Wood 2016/17 8.25 49.80% 4.11
TJ Eyoma 2020/21 5.67 67.10% 3.80
Sean Long 2017/18 6.74 53.40% 3.60
Regan Poole 2020/21 6.76 51.90% 3.51
Regan Poole 2021/22 6.03 55.21% 3.33

It’s interesting to see the right backs from the last two seasons occupying three of the bottom four spaces here; again, perhaps a tactical approach more than anything? Also, let’s not forget that these stats include everything from League One to the National League; Neal’s worst season was when we hit League One. Mind you, I said I came into this article without prejudice, and I have – Regan’s passing this season has seen him hit fewer successful passes into the final third per 90 than any of our other right-backs. There’s not a lot in it with the bottom five though; not even a single pass per game.

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Crosses Per 90

We know who the king of crossing was, don’t we? The Postman, surely? That’s what the stats are bound to say.

Player Season Crosses per 90 % Success Actual Succesful Crosses
Neal Eardley 2017/18 4.34 48.00% 2.08
Neal Eardley 2018/19 3.7 44.20% 1.64
Sean Long 2017/18 3.7 40.30% 1.49
Neal Eardley 2019/20 3.11 36.40% 1.13
Regan Poole 2020/21 2.74 32.80% 0.90
Bradley Wood 2016/17 2.46 29.60% 0.73
TJ Eyoma 2020/21 2.16 25.80% 0.56
Regan Poole 2021/22 1.32 23.81% 0.31

There’s not a lot of doubt that Eardley was a top crosser of the ball, although his best seasons came in League Two. In League One, Regan this year and TJ last have registered the lowest numbers, which could be down to the quality of opposition. Regan’s numbers from last season aren’t bad, certainly comparable with Neal from the League One season, but the struggles this year are clear. He’s been able to get fewer crosses in than any other right-back since the National League days.

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This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of which right-back was best, there are a lot of variables to throw in there, but it does give some of you an overview. Regan Poole is a young player who has captained the side, and whilst those passing and crossing stats look awry, context is required. He is in League One, in a team a bit under it at times, whilst someone like Neal Eardley played in a title-winning team. However, the numbers do tell us a bit; Regan has more defensive work to do this season and has been less effective offensively as a result. However, he certainly doesn’t give the ball away as much as some of his predecessors, and he has to do more defensive work than any that have come before him, going back to summer 2016.