Liverpool is the next team on tap for a transfer shopping piece, but before we get to that, we need to do some more baseline work.

With regard to Liverpool specifically, they need

a)      A creative defensive midfielder.

b)      A good left back and maaaaybe a good right back too.

For today, I’m going to ignore the second need with a promise that I will come back to it. The problem here is…

There are many, many midfielders in Europe. They play all sorts of different roles, and the key performance indicators are much more diverse and complex than what we would pick for forwards or attacking midfield players. Hell, even the ones who play defensive midfield vary in role from destroyer to regista to box-to-box. Sooo…

What the hell does a good creative defensive midfielder or regista look like?


No no, not like that.

I mean what do they look like statistically?

*crickets chirping*

Okay then, that’s what we’ll figure out today.

Defensive Midfield KPIs
What stats do we care about for defensive midfielders? Tackles and Interceptions are a given (the defensive part of “defensive mid”), as is passing accuracy. Giving away the ball from a deeper position is bad, so high passing accuracy is a must.

Beyond that, things that might be important are offensive passing contributions (key passes, throughballs, but probably not dribbling), and then defensive context factors like how often a player is fouling, or being dribbled past. I haven’t done any detailed analysis to figure out exactly which of these contextual stats matter, but I will glance over them when looking at player stats to see if anything stands out as impressive or strange.

One stat that does matter for this role, perhaps now more than ever, is the ability to hit accurate longballs. Part of this is a tactical response to teams that press – you need a player in a deep-lying role who can hit your forward men with passes and start counterattacks. Another element is simply the need to be able to make longer, accurate passes due to field position.

Andrea Pirlo
Pirlo is the modern game’s prototypical regista. In fact, I find his stats somewhat difficult to wrap my head around. He does just about every single thing incredibly well. Except maybe run.


Tackling and Interception stats show he is moderately involved in breaking up the play, but his real value shows itself in the passing stats. He’s averaged 11 accurate long balls a game for as far back as I can see, while adding 2.5 Key Passes per90, .85 throughballs a game (down a bit this year, but Juve are even better than years past. In general, .85 will be near the top of all players in Europe), and completes passes at about an 87% clip. He even had a 13 assist season at age 32. The guy simply does everything incredibly well.

I ran a very rough similarity score over the data I have access to, and depending on what filters you use, seven or eight unique names show up as players who have come close to replicating Pirlo’s production in a season since 09-10.

The only name to appear on the list for three seasons is… Steven Gerrard.

Right. So Liverpool are basically replacing their own Andrea Pirlo (who is himself approaching 34).

No problem!

Another was Zonal Marking favourite, the incredibly underrated David Pizarro. He is unfortunately  too old for consideration, as is the retired Madrid legend Guti. Current Arsenal player Mikel Arteta also throws up a flag as a potential candidate, which is both surprising and fairly impressive. Finally, you get Luka Modric’s last season at Spurs before he moved to Madrid and

A couple of guys we will talk about as potential transfer targets for Liverpool tomorrow. Patience!

Sergio Busquets
If Pirlo is the prototype for the modern regista, than Busquets is the mould for the cultured midfield destroyer. He is the engine that made those amazing Barcelona teams function under Guardiola. His primary skills are breaking up attacks, recycling the ball to Barcelona’s attackers, and almost never making mistakes.

This is what Busquets’ destroyer production has looked like over the last 3.5 seasons.


Tackles + Int averaging around 5.5 per90, 4.5 completed longballs per game, and a passing accuracy that… well, that is probably fueled by the crazy Barcelona skew. Normal people on normal teams don’t complete 90% of their passes or more. At least I think they don’t. Let’s find out what the data says.

Not wanting to break the model concept, I plugged in the main Busquets KPIs of tackling, long balls, passing accuracy and the occasional key pass and found that there are many more Busquets type players in the data than there are Pirlos. Useful information, that.

Names who show up include Yaya Toure before he left Barcelona, Cambiasso at Inter, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes, Mikel Arteta (again?), Thiago Alcantara, and…

Joe Allen?

*checks data furiously*

Not just once, but twice? First at Swansea and then at Liverpool?


Tomorrow: I’ll run through a transfer shopping piece for players that Liverpool should be interested in, that play mostly in the Pirlo role.

Apparently Liverpool already have their Busquets.

Stats Appendix
P90 – Total minutes played in a season divided by 90.
NPG – Non-Penalty Goals
NPG90 – Non-Penalty Goals Per90
ShAcc – Shooting Accuracy (multiply by 100 to get the percent)
Sh90 – Shots per 90
SOT90 – Shots on Target per 90
GConv – Goal conversion rate. (Multiply by 100 to get the percent)

A90 – Assists per 90
GA90 – Non-Penalty Goals + Assists per 90. A better measure of overall scoring contribution.
Drib90 – Successful dribbles per90
KP90 – Key Pass per 90
TB90 – Throughballs per 90
Pass% – Passing percentage.

Tack90 – Tackles per 90
Int90 – Interceptions per 90




  • kyle

    Mikel Arteta is severely underrated, in my opinion.

    • http://na jair1970

      Damn right.

  • Rakesh Singh

    Very interesting article again. Looking forward to the followup, tomorrow.
    Would be interested to see how two of LFCs reported targets, M’Vila and Reges compare, along with Allen.
    Fascinating stuff 🙂

  • toshack

    And a bit surprising to not see Lucas show up in the Busquets stats. Becuase he has been injured during your stats period. Or just not good enough?
    Looking forward to tomorrow!

  • toshack

    And always a bit unsure about the Tackling stat. Remember Alonso being quoted in The Numbers Game saying that tackling is always a last resort when you have failed with everything else (or something to that effect). Just a thought.

  • DFFF

    Speaking of Alonso, how does he compare? He might not be the best tackler, but his (long range) passing and interception rate should be alright. But then again, I have no stats to back me up on this so what do I know….

    What I wonder is: how do things like the number of fouls and how often a player was dribbled past enter the equation? I’d wager those are pretty important aspects for a defensive midfielder. Likewise, what about dispossession numbers and turnovers (as Whoscored calls them)? Losing possession direct in front of your back line might be the ultimate sin for a DMC.

    If anyone has any thoughts on that, many thanks.

    • Jalal

      Those are interesting details to take into account. I really would have also liked to find out how Daniel Parejo at Valencia does in terms of the KPIs.

  • tonyt

    Just a general comment; Just found this site and love it!! Look forward to more articles, especially the goals+assist per 90 you allude to in the goal scorer articles.

    Always fan of Bill James, glad to see someone doing similar work in footy!

  • http://na jair1970

    Hard to quantify yes, but I feel Gerrard detracts from the rest of his teammates somewhat when he plays. He tries a lot of chancy through balls, demands set piece autonomy & whilst his numbers come up well, we saw how fluid & efficient Liverpool were when he was out recently. Now they have him back, first full game they ship 3 goals at Stoke, he misplaces 8 long balls but gets enough defensive work to rate well & of course, takes the penalty. Something about him being in there reduces the effectiveness of his fellow midfielders.

    In contrast, i’m not at all surprised Arteta comes out well.
    He missed 4 games in the middle of 2012/3 and they went 1-1-2 (Lost to Man City (H) Chelsea (A), drew with Liverpool (H) ), and the back end of 2011/12 he missed 4 games and they went 1-3-0.

    He simply has no equal in the Arsenal side & is an all round midfielder & perpetually underrated for being a former Everton player and being Spanish in an era where you don’t get caps even if you’re great.

    Even recently, he starts v Tottenham in the cup & they win in cruise control & he doesn’t v Villa and they stumble to victory.

    Their season is good but they are 9-3-1 in the league this year when he played (in any form), 4-0-2 when he hasn’t 25-7 GD compared to 16-12 without. He’s so important to them IMO but at 31, a replacement will be needed before too long.

    • HL

      Gerrard gives the ball away no more than Pirlo does.

      In fact, the analysis should be reversed…since Gerrard does what Pirlo does and more (he is more involved defensively). It shows just how supreme he has been as a player. He has basically played every position in midfield and been on par with the greatest in the position at playing them. It’s just incredible.

      • Santos L. Halpar

        Your numbers to show Gerrard gives the ball away no more than Pirlo? Just intrigued. Gerrard has looked a liability this year whos statistics are bolstered by bulls**t defensive bumps from his new role. Not questioning that historically he has been one of the very best (possibly of all time), I don’t believe that his stats over the past couple of years really pass the eye test.

        • HL

          It’s not really debatable. Both Gerrard and Pirlo pass at a 86-87% accuracy. Check if you’re unsure. The ‘eye’ test is a bullshit test on its own…which is why we utilise stats.

          Ironically, his passing stats have gotten better over the last couple years.

        • HL

          He also makes 2.5 tackles and 1.1 interceptions a game – which is more than Pirlo and quite above average. That he’s doing it and he’s almost 34 is quite remarkable.

  • B

    Fantastic article. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Thank you.

  • Vercingetora

    If Liverpool already have their Pirlo (Gerrard) and Busquets (Allen) perhaps that would explain Rodgers’s focus on an attacking center mid (Miktaryan) rather than a defensive one?

    Not to mention Lucas (@LFC) and Henderson (for England) having both played the defensive role rather well (I think) but i’d be interested in another stats analysis re them (hint hint).

    • tknutso

      Say it with me, everyone… Gerrard is nearly 34. Gerrard is nearly 34.

      • Zeb

        Just out of interest, what age Scholes fills the brief Ted?

  • John Frasene

    Great article, excited to see which transfer targets are suggested. Can you describe what qualifies as a long pass? Specifically, I’m wondering if both vertical and horizontal passes are considered. When thinking of admired defensive-minded playmakers like Pirlo, Pizarro, and Alonso, their incisive vertical passing is great but they also spread play from the center to the wingsl.

  • lkunku

    Selçuk inan from Galatasaray is what you are looking for i guess, but not a very good defender despite his work rate and he gets booked easily but his passing and creativity is as impressing as Pirlo. He made his team champion only by himself(well nearly) with great throughballs , most accurate long balls from deep and scoring with long shots and freekicks.
    He is the one you are searching =)

  • Josef

    Kyle and Jair touched on this already, but

    “Current Arsenal player Mikel Arteta also throws up a flag as a potential candidate, which is both surprising and fairly impressive… Mikel Arteta (again?)”

    What do you have against Arteta? He’s clearly good, as anyone who’s watched a few Arsenal matches could tell you. Honestly, everyone raves about Alonso but I’m not really convinced he’s better for Spain than Arteta would be, though of course Spain probably has plenty of younger people who could take the place of either.

  • Claus Moeller

    Great read. IMO, some very essential elements are missing to assess, a Competency profile for a defensive midfield; for example:
    – Ability to defending back four:
    – Speed and Pace
    – Maintain pressure on the opponent
    – Prevents opponent to: “Get face to the goal” – between the lines
    – “Giveaways” under pressure
    – Covers attacking runs and “Transitions”
    and Andrea Pirlo is far far away from that…
    Feel free, to read example of a Competency profile for a defensive midfield – Illarramendi vs Veratti. And a full Euro U21 Israel Final Scouting report.
    All stats made by:

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  • damn

    You’re completely delusional
    Pirlo sucks…and he ain’t World Class…most of those guys are better than him
    Pirlo=Garbage…and he was never World Class btw…not even in his Prime days with Milan

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