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Stats analysis - Who is Villa's best midfielder?

With Ashley Westwood out until January and Delph ready to re-enter the side, where does Villa's midfield stand now? Is Westwood the Second Coming of James Milner? Does Cleverley deserve a deal? Can N´Zogbia really be as terrible as he looks? Here's an in-depth look...

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In my analysis of the game against Leicester I made a point about how Villa would adapt to losing Ashley Westwood until January and whether anyone else was able to replace his role. In also suggested that Thomas Cleverley hasn't done enough to earn his place yet, something that Robert brought me up on.

Intrigued by this, I decided it was time to take a closer statistical look at how Villa's midfielders have been doing this season. Thus far the narrative has looked something like this -

  • Westwood - Villa's One Passing Midfielder, the heart of the midfield in Delph's absence
  • Sanchez - bit wobbly in possession but strong ball winner, physical presence
  • Cleverley - tidy, bit anonymous, needs to get up the field more
  • Richardson - meh
  • N´Zogbia - utter, utter rubbish

So how do the numbers compare with the narrative?

All numbers taken from Squawka.com, and based on per 90 minute totals

Keeping possession

First up, I had a look at the basic passing stats, total number of passes and total successful passes. Obviously the higher and more to the right, the better.

The narrative's not hard to read here. Westwood, Sanchez and Cleverley are almost eerily similar in their numbers and success rates in passing, clustered around the high 40s in total passes and low 40s in successful passes. (For context, high 40s is kind of average to middling in terms of numbers of passes - above 60 is excellent, more than 70 is truly exceptional). Richardson and N´Zogbia are way down the other end.

In terms of the narrative, the similarity of Westwood's numbers to Cleverley and Sanchez's is interesting - he is not particularly more prolific or accurate than the other two. N´Zogbia´s statistics are utter, utter rubbish. So are Richardson's, though I suspect he may be suffering from having played in several games where Villa played with very low possession. Overall, all Villa's main midfielders play their share in what passing game the Lions have, but neither Richardson or N´Zogbia look ready to step into the gap.

Launching the attack

I then turned to some statistics that may loosely be linked to more creative or attacking possession - passes forward and chances created (a pass that leads to a shot on goal).

Here the characteristics of the Villa midfield begin to reveal themselves more. Westwood both passes forward more and creates more chances than any of the other Villa midfielders. Sanchez passes forward often, but creates very few chances - probably a function of his preferred deeper position, but a sign that he is acting as a positive link between defence and attack.

N´Zogbia and Richardson's forward passes figures may possibly suffer from their advanced positions when playing as wide forwards where they may cut the ball back or lay it off - but their chances created figures are all the poorer if that's the case.

Cleverley sits somewhere in the middle. He has often been accused of being just a ‘ball carrier´- passing sideways and never looking for the incisive pass. To some extent the stats confirm this. He certainly plays the ball forward significantly less frequently than Westwood. However it's not so marked a difference that he could be interpreted as actually slowing down the Villa attack - and his chances created figures are middling not terrible.

Defensive midfield work

Finally I turned to the more defensive side, measuring tackles and interceptions.

And here is where we begin to see exactly how much work Cleverley and Sanchez are doing off the ball, and to some extent where Westwood is falling down. Sanchez is pretty solid in both areas, but Cleverley's tackling numbers are truly impressive.

Meanwhile Westwood's lack of tackles is a little worrying. At the base of a 4-3-3 he plays the distributor well but has defensive duties as well and is putting in very few tackles. This could just be a question of style - effective defending doesn't require putting in a challenge and his block numbers are quite impressive. However they are also inherently riskier and don't necessarily relieve pressure.

It would be worrying to imagine just how Villa would get a hold of the ball if Sanchez and Cleverley weren't putting in so much work in. If anyone was thinking that Richardson should be an adequate defensive replacement for either of them, these statistics strongly suggest otherwise and that both of them are at least a class above him.

N´Zogbia's numbers are utterly dreadful.

Conclusions

Overall it is clear that Villa have a midfield trio who have complementary strengths - but also significant individual weaknesses. All of them carry possession reasonably, though Westwood is the most likely to create a chance. Cleverley and Sanchez's defensive work makes up for Westwood's weakness in that area. I was wrong - Villa should definitely be aiming to keep Cleverley.

Beyond that midfield trio, things look bleak. Richardson may have suffered from being played in unfavourable game situations but he doesn't look able to adequately replace any single one of the midfield trio. N´Zogbia is utterly awful.

Delph's return will be interesting in regards to the dynamic established between the midfield trio - he should certainly provide more attacking thrust and slot neatly ahead of Cleverley and Sanchez. But after this point, he must work out how to incorporate all four effectively and how they create chances more regularly.