In modern football, the role of the holding midfielder or “the 6” has evolved just as much as any other position. Where previously the 6 was combative, hard-nosed and a no-nonsense defensive player, the modern game requires more. As the speed of football has increased has sped up, the role 6 has had to adapt to this. In modern football, a 6 must have the defensive qualities which make them tough defensively, both in 1v1 and team defensive situations. For the top clubs in the world, they must also understand how to control the game in possession and provide the passes which create attacking chances. Even in teams who look to counter, the 6 is often the player relied upon to pick out long passes and provide that initial pass in the transition to attacking sequences.
Therefore, in this data analysis, the goal will be to quantify those qualities which are necessary for this complete 6. In particular, this analysis will be investigating the top 6’s in Serie based on both the classic defensive qualities and modern attacking ones as well. However, it is important to note that when using these statistics, they do not provide the entire picture but they do give us an opportunity to compare players of the same position to one another. As such these comparisons will ultimately, statistically show who was the best holding midfielder or 6 in throughout the 2019/20 Serie A campaign.
The most important ability is, availability
Regardless of the quality of the player, if they are not fit to compete their impact in matches is minimal. Therefore, the number of matches played during the campaign is a crucial component and useful tool when comparing the best players. As a result, the graph above illustrates the number of matches played, as well as the average minutes played per match. Within this group of Serie A 6’s, this left 14 total players who were above the group average and, therefore, have made it on to the next round of analysis. The group average for minutes per match was 68 and the average for matches played in 2019/20 was 21. However, at the top of the group in minutes played was Brescia’s Sandro Tonali who’s been linked with a transfer to Inter to this summer with an average of 92 minutes per match and 35 matches played. Contrarily, the two players at the bottom of the group were Mato Jajalo of Udinese, with 26 matches played and an average of 68.5 m minutes played per match, and Mirko Valdifiori of SPAL, with 22 matches played an average of 68.6 minutes played per match. Showing a decent separation between those at the top of this group and those at the bottom in terms of regular match involvement and cumulative minutes throughout the 2019/20 campaign.
Defensive qualities of a true 6
The classic characteristics of a 6 are those of a defensive dynamo. A player who wins tackles in the air and on the ground, is strong and active in 1v1 duels and is able to cut out dangerous passes to prevent quality attacking chances from their opponents. Some of the qualities we can’t measure include the ability to keep a tight defensive structure and remain organised throughout a match as well. So understanding these limitations in the statistics and data is necessary to better understand the whole picture. Still, the stats for these quantifiable defensive events can be extremely useful in analysing which players are best in the traditional 6 characteristics.
Through the table above we can see the defensive statistics which showed the most variance between the group. Meaning that several other stats were looked at but these proved to be the most telling and showed the greatest differences within the group. Due to this fact, the four stats analysed above include aerial duels per 90 minutes, interceptions per 90 minutes, defensive duels per 90 minutes, and possession adjusted interceptions (PAdj). All of these stats are extremely vital in being an effective holding midfielder and, in turn, help negate attacking chances from the opposition.
Through this analysis, three players, in particular, stuck out. First was Ismaël Bennacer of AC Milan who’s stats were all above the average of the group with 5.1 interceptions per 90, 8.2 defensive duels per 90 and 6. 9 PAdj interceptions. Similarly, Marcelo Brozovic of Inter was also above average in three of the four categories with 5.1 interceptions per 90, 7.3 defensive duels per 90 and 6.7 PAdj interceptions. Lastly, coming in at the top of the group was 33-year-old former EPL and Liverpool player Lucas Leiva who was at the top in one of the four categories and came in second in the other three. Leiva’s defensive statistics are remarkable with 2.9 aerial duels per 90 (2nd), 6.1 interceptions per 90 (2nd), 10.1 defensive duels per 90 (1st) and 7.3 PAdj interceptions (2nd). As a result, Leiva is at the top of the group defensively with Bennacer and Brozovic both closely behind him.
The link between the defensive and forward lines
Perhaps the most important role after providing defensive cover and preventing opponents attacking chances is to be the passing link between defence and attack. The 6 regularly has the job of finding the ball in transition and either looking to begin a counterattack or provide the pass to alleviate pressure and maintain possession. Therefore, the next most vital qualities of a 6’s role are their ability to pass in the countless situations then encounter deep either in their defensive third or going forward in the opponents half.
With this in mind, the next aspect of this analysis investigated passing stats for the group. Looking holistically at the situations holding midfielders experience from passes into the final third, progressive passes forward passes, lateral passes and finally to total passes per 90 minutes. The total passes are important as it shows how regularly the player is on the ball and can give context as to why potentially a certain type of pass may be lower when comparing the players.
When analysing these stats, three players were above average in all 5 passes categories. Both Bennacer and Brozovic were included in this group at the top and, not unexpectedly, Miralem Pjanić of Juventus was the man who rounded out the group. Interestingly, of these three players, Pjanic came in 1st in four of the five passing stats with 11.3 final 3rd passes, 10.1 progressive passes, 21.7 forward passes, 25.4 lateral passes (2nd) and 66.4 total passes per 90 minutes. It is important to note that Juventus was often dominating possession in their matches this year and, as a result of that, Pjanic was regularly utilised on the ball as we can see from his impressive pass totals. Both Brozovic and Bennacer were close in each statistics when compared to Pjanic, however, Brozovic was the only player to outperform Pjanic with 28.7 lateral passes per 90. Still, when taking into account their defensive qualities in comparison to Pjanic both Brozovic and Bennaces outperformed him. It is also worth noting that Lucas Leiva also came in right behind these three players with three of his passing stats coming above the group average, showing his quality even at the post-peak age of 33.
The bonus stats
While traditionally, holding midfielders and true 6’s were not expected to score goals, in the modern game that’s not always the case. Attacking stats for these players is likely viewed by clubs as a bonus and comes second in priority when compared with defensive and passing abilities. However, with the data available attacking abilities and qualities are just another way for the top players to show just how much of a total footballer they are.
In particular, for this group, the attacking qualities are certainly not that of a traditional number 10 or even most box-to-box midfielders. Still, this analysis of attacking stats illustrates which of these players has a hand in creating and scoring goals for their respective clubs. At the top for these attacking stats was Brozovic, Pjanic and the 20-year-old Tonali. It is quite easy to see that Tonali is perhaps the most active in contributing to attacking chances and sequences as his stats are either first or second in every category. Most notably, he provided the most assists in the group with seven and came in second with 1.9 successful attacking actions per 90 minutes. Similarly, Brozovic came first with 0.7 touches in the box per 90, while providing three goals and one assist putting him in the top half of the group for those stats. Pjanic, on the other hand, provided five goals, one assist and his 1.3 passes per 90 were good enough for 3rd in the group. Bennacer was also able to show some attacking quality with 2.4 successful attacking actions per 90 putting him 2nd for that stat. Lastly, not unexpected, Leiva came towards the bottom of the group with no attacking stats above the group average likely an indicator of both his age and ability to be caught on the counter when committing to far forward.
The purpose of this data analysis was to these quantifiable metrics and apply them to see which 6’s are the most complete players in Serie A. While the style of play certainly has a role in these data and stats, the qualities which underlie them are still extremely useful. A modern-day 6 is asked to defend extremely well and utilised as a link between the defensive and attacking lines when in possession. For those select few who do have the opportunities to attack their ability to create scoring opportunities is an added bonus to the first two responsibilities. After this analysis, Brozovic of Inter was above the group averages in 12 of the 15 stats investigated. Placing him at the top of true 6’s in the Serie A in the 2019/20 campaign. Behind him came Bennacer with 10 and lastly Leiva and Pjanic with eight each. Therefore, based on this analysis Brozovic is “the 6” in Italy at the moment. We look forward to the 2020/21 campaign to see if he continues to display the same quality he’s shown in 2019/20.