Within the past decade, we have seen the common full-back role change, both stylistically and importance to the side. During this period, there has been a sharp twist in focus upon the offensive abilities of the full-back, with less emphasis laid upon their defensive duties. Italy is typically known for its defensive nuance, and this is translated into the way their clubs play football as well. Yet, in Serie A, we have seen the likes of Maicon burst onto the scene and become a key cog in a treble-winning side through his offensive ventures.
In his best season (at least attacking-wise)- the 2009/10 campaign where Inter won Serie A, Coppa Italia, and the Champions League- Maicon provided six goals and eleven assists as the Nerazzurri romped to victory under José Mourinho’s guidance.
Though, the Brazilian’s impact was two-fold, as his defensive numbers of that same season were within the top bracket too. In that 2009/10 season, he provided 2.5 tackles and 2.4 interceptions per 90 minutes, which goes to show his defensive importance as well during that season. Despite his unsuccessful stint at Man City afterwards, he is regarded as one of the best full-backs in the history of Serie A.
This data analysis will help us to highlight, through the use of data and statistics, the most underrated full-backs in Serie A. Our dataset consists of players who have mainly played as a full-back or wing-back, of any age and have accumulated at least 500 minutes in the league.
This data analysis could be used to help identify players who might be a smart pick-up for a side aiming to compete in European football (Europa or Champions League), and we will highlight the five most underrated players at the end of the analysis after exploring statistics concerning multiple key outputs which we have identified as being key to find the most underrated full-back in Serie A.
Progressive runs and passes
Modern full-backs are often key towards ball progression for their side. Whilst some systems encourage their full-backs to move in-field to join the midfield, other systems operate to exploit the width of the pitch and attack down the wings.
The first section of this data analysis displays our sample across two metrics which assess their ability to make progressions down the field either with a pass or a run.
Progressive runs are a good indicator of whether a full-back can carry the ball into more advanced areas, whilst progressive passes demonstrate the player´s ability to advance the team closer to the opponent’s goal.
Portuguese Mário Rui leads the full-backs in progressive passes with 15 per 90 minutes. He also has an above-average value of 3.26 progressive runs per 90. In an underperforming Napoli side, he has been one of the shining lights in his team this season.
Leading the way for progressive runs is Roma’s Leonardo Spinazzola with 5.28 per 90. Capable of playing on both sides of the pitch, in just over 900 minutes of league football, he has shown his coaches good reasons to play him in the starting XI more often than he currently is. It is worth noting that he has an average value for progressive passes at 8.99 per 90.
A player who ranks particularly high in both statistics is Juan Cuadrado. The 32-year-old Colombian 13.2 progressive passes and 3.82 progressive runs per 90. Although he has played further forward this season, it has been few and far between, with the majority of his game time coming from right-back.
A player who is arguably most suitable for the ‘underrated’ title here is AC Milan’s, Davide Calabria. Despite criticisms of his performances this season, he has an impressive 13.1 progressive passes per 90. His progressive runs value is less impressive though, at 1.85 per 90.
Finally, the unknown wildcard within the list, 27-year-old Stefano Sabelli ranks highly for his progressive passes at 12.32 per 90. He also has an average figure of 2.04 progressive runs per 90 additionally.
Good full-backs can also play their part within a back four as well as provide value with their offensive ability. Although elite full-backs are incredibly important in the build-up and the attacks, sides who are pushing for top six/seven spots within their respective leagues should use full-backs who can trackback and contribute defensively.
The following defensive metrics look to qualify our samples ability through an analysis of successful defensive duels per 90 minutes and defensive duels success rate. This section will help us to identify individuals who are either capable of producing high defensive output or efficient in their defensive actions. The latter is useful for sides who tend to keep possession and therefore do not produce high volumes of defensive output.
The player who leads the way for defensive duels success rate is Timothy Castagne of Atalanta, at 68.25%. As Atalanta like to keep possession, averaging 55.7% of the ball in Serie A this season, it is then understandable that Castagne has a below-average value of 7.51 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes.
Alternatively, the player who leads the way for successful defensive actions is Italian Biagio Meccariello, with 12.59 per 90. Playing for Serie A strugglers Lecce, he has been forced to stay back and do a lot of defending for his side. Despite the small sample size at just over 500 minutes of league football, he still only has defensive duels success rate of 53.97%, which is sub-standard.
Next up we have Giorgos Kyriakopoulos, the Sassuolo player on loan from Asteras Tripolis has been averaging 9.43 successful defensive actions per 90 with a 66.67% defensive duels success rate. He is above average in both regards but particularly shines in his success rate, which is second only behind Castagne for full-backs in Serie A.
The only recurring name from the analysis of progressive full-backs is Juan Cuadrado. In addition to his impressive ball progression numbers, he is also above average for both defensive metrics, with 9.28 successful defensive actions per 90 and a 66.21% defensive duels success rate. Again, it is his defensive duels success rate that is the more impressive of the two metrics here.
Lastly, Polish international Bartosz Bereszyński shines in both of these metrics. He wins 64.67% of his defensive duels and he completes an impressive 11.38 defensive actions per 90 as well.
We have now analysed some progressive and defensive data. Before we shortlist five underrated Serie A full-backs and analyse them in detail, we are going to reveal which full-backs are active in the final third. By looking at expected assists and crosses per 90 minutes, we can gather an understanding of which players are effective in their attacking contribution.
Cristiano Biraghi is the clear outlier concerning expected assists per 90 (xA per 90), his ability to create high-quality chances is unmatched. His xA per 90 stands at 0.26, which outshines his Inter teammates, despite his lack of game time by comparison. He produces a good figure of 5.7 crosses per 90 as well, but it should be taken into consideration that he does play largely as a wing-back, higher up the pitch than a typical full-back.
On the other side of the pitch, we have another one of Conte’s wing-backs in Antonio Candreva. The 33-year-old has had a new lease of life under the Italian coach, averaging 0.23 xA per 90 alongside more crosses than his wing-back counterpart at 7.22 per 90.
Croatian Marko Pajač deserves a mention, the Genoa wing-back on loan from Cagliari is above average in both metrics this season. Though, where he excels is certainly is the volume of his crossing, with 8.04 crosses per 90 which aids his xA per 90 of 0.16. Although it is worth mentioning that he has clocked in just under 800 minutes in Serie A this season, with the majority of those minutes being played at wing-back.
Last of all, it would be smart to acknowledge the final-third efforts of some full-backs. Leonardo Spinazzola came up when we discussed ball progression and again, he has some impressive statistics. His 3.71 crosses are just above average but his 0.18 xA per 90 stands as a very impressive figure for a full-back who plays typically deeper than the wing-backs listed above.
It is also worth bringing attention to Alessandro Florenzi who moved out of the league on loan to Valencia in January. He has the same xA per 90 figure of 0.18 but with fewer crosses per 90, at 3.05, bang on league average.
After examining every individual across the sample concerning their individual performances across each data metric I have managed to the following five individuals (darker blue = higher score).
Davide Calabria, right-back, 23 years old, AC Milan
It was mentioned earlier that Calabria was most suitable for the ‘underrated’ title and that is partly due to the criticism he has received this season. Whilst his attacking output is limited, the Italian has been excellent in ball progression this season, especially through his progressive passing per 90 where he ranks third in Serie A (13.10). Moreover, he is a good defender, even if Milan produce high defensive contribution across the board, his possession adjusted figures remain high.
Giorgos Kyriakopoulos, left-back, 24 years old, Sassuolo (on loan from Asteras Tripolis)
Giorgos Kyriakopoulos has made the switch into a European league look fairly seamless. He has impressed with the efficiency of his defensive duels, ranking second in the league for defensive duels success rate (66.67%), while also ranking very highly for his progressive runs per 90 where he is sixth in the league (3.47). At a good age, Sassuolo would be wise to take on the Greek permanently, if not, any club looking for a progressive and defensively assured full-back should look no further than Giorgos.
Juan Cuadrado, 32 years old, right-back, Juventus
The Colombian is the highest-profile name in this shortlist; however, many may not be aware of his successful endeavours as a full-back. Despite not taking set-pieces or playing as a wing-back, Cuadrado has a high a good xA per 90 of 0.10 and his attacking output is arguably his biggest ‘weakness’. He excels in ball progression, where he ranks second for both deep completions and progressive passes per 90 in Serie A (1.68 & 13.20) while also being very capable in his defensive duels as well.
Luca Pellegrini, 21 years old, left-back, Cagliari (on loan from Juventus)
The 21-year-old formerly of Roma has shown tremendous promise this season, although he is no exceptions to the flaws of many young full-backs in the game. He has a good figure of 0.13 xA per 90, though this comes from a proportionately high 5.38 crosses per 90, suggesting he has fine-tuning to make in his final third approach. Alongside good progression numbers, Juventus already have a good Serie A full-back on their hands at such a young age, although it should be said he is defensively weak.
Mário Rui, 29 years old, left-back, Napoli
The final entry, Mário Rui, might be saving the best till last. He ranks inside the top ten in every single metric above, apart from successful defensive actions per 90, where he still ranks 24th in the league. He blows any other full-back in the league out of the water with his 15 progressive passes per 90, in addition to an impressive 0.15 xA per 90 from 5.56 crosses per 90, in the build-up and the final-third, Rui has been excellent. Likewise, his defensive duels success rate is 64.84% which ranks sixth in Serie A, so he is efficient in the tackle too. Even though Napoli have suffered a poor season this term, Rui has managed to take his individual performance to another level.
Now we have a shortlist of players that have performed better than the general perception of their performances. Ranging from youth prospects to experienced veterans, this shortlist is compiled of five players that deserve to be scouted further by clubs who are battling for European football. Though we should understand as much as data is useful, an eye test may reveal what other factors are coming into play these players are contributing to play.
Despite this, we can see that Serie A has a good talent pool for full-backs, either for sides who play any style of football. There are many names listed throughout this piece who have gone flying under the radar this season, despite their excellent performance in one metric or numerous. Perhaps Serie A fans will not be seeing some of these names in the league anymore, as they are poached by other smart clubs in Europe.