In the modern age, there are probably too many job titles that fail to give…
Grading centre backs will always be much more of a challenge than grading attackers. They cannot be simplified down to goals or assists or be effectively helped by Expected Goals metrics. It’s more nuanced than that.
To be a good centre back in the Scottish Premiership you have to firstly do the physical things well. Dominating one-v-one against strikers, whether that be in the air or on the ground. These are things statistics can pick up fairly easy: we can measure a defenders duels with strikers, we can measure how effective they are in the air, we can measure how many interceptions they get, how many fouls they give away, passing percentages, etc.
What we can’t accurately measure at the moment are things like positioning, leadership and general game awareness. We need our eyes for those. So, combining statistics and the good old eye test, here are three contenders for the centre back spots in a team of the year. In no particular order.
Firstly, Scott McKenna. The Aberdeen defender was given his chance as part of Derek McInnes ringing the changes after a trouncing off of Motherwell in the cup and the pair haven’t looked back since. McKenna quickly established himself as the best defender in the Pittodrie side and when fit is one of the first names on the team sheet. McKenna’s performances have lead to his first call up to the Scotland national team in Alex McLeish’s first squad selection as manager second time around. But what type of player is he?
At 6ft 2in and built like Ivan Drago, McKenna physically looks like that one boy that “was never our age” in youth football. He’s a beast. He dominates in the air winning 69% of his aerial duels which compared to league leader Bruno Alves with 77% is impressive.
The 21-year old has shown a maturity way beyond his years this season. For a player with such an imposing frame it would be easy to purely rely on that. A bully as such, but McKenna has learned to pick his moments carefully. He doesn’t get involved with strikers as much as many defenders but when he does he’s effective. McKenna wins 28% of his defensive duels with strikers which should improve but isn’t far off the league leader of CBs who have played at least half the season so far. For someone so young he has made such few key errors in games this season. In fact of those that have played at least half the season he has the joint fewest with Christophe Berra.
Modern centre backs need to be good on the ball as well as off it. They don’t need to be Franz Beckenbauer but they need to be able to play. McKenna has developed an effective long diagonal but mainly keeps it simple and more importantly doesn’t put his goalkeeper in trouble by playing loosely. A contender for a team of the year spot and will likely be a mainstay in club and country squads going forward.
Next is Hearts captain Berra who has been absolutely pivotal to Hearts and the epitome of consistency in this season’s Premiership. A natural leader, Berra has dragged this Hearts team to a probable top-six finish and eight consecutive clean sheets at the turn of the year – which is a new Hearts’ record.
Berra is your traditional centre back; defends everything with his life. His positional awareness is outstanding and he’s consistently able to put himself in a position to make more blocks than Donald Trump’s twitter account. Dominating in the air, Berra has been involved in more aerial duels than any centre back in the league bar one and ranks 4th in the success of those in the league.
As previously stated, McKenna and Berra have the joint fewest key errors this season from CBs that have played over half the season. Whilst a key error is subjective, it’s pretty easy to pinpoint when it’s a defender or goalkeeping error. Berra by my records has played almost 3000 minutes so far this season and his key error rate per 90 mins is the lowest among any centre back in the league so far – going an average 11 games before making such a mistake.
Whilst his ability and performance have been on an exceptional level this season it’s the intangibles that sets Christophe Berra apart from any other centre back this season. The senior defender improves every member of the defensive line he plays with. John Souttar, who although gifted on the ball had been somewhat of a liability defensively, has improved his game no end beside Berra, leading to many spectators questioning Souttar’s exclusion from the Scotland squad. Berra makes everyone around him better. The best centre back this season and arguably a candidate for player of the year.
Finally we have Kipre. The central defender joined Motherwell in the summer after he was released by Leicester City and immediately hit the ground running. We weren’t even passed the month of August before Motherwell had tied him down to a contract extension and as such he was on his way to becoming a hero with ‘Well fans.
If you were building a physical prototype of a centre back, this player wouldn’t look too far away from that prototype. Kipre is around 6ft 4in, exceptional body strength and is faster than most central midfield players, never mind centre backs.
Statistically, 21-year old Kipre is an absolute demon. From those CBs with over half the minutes played this season Kipre ranks a close second in the rate of defensive duels won, first in total interceptions and first in interceptions per 90 mins. Sure, defensive metrics can be generated by what style of team you play on – for example, a team with little possession is likely to have high defensive numbers due to how often they are without the ball – but Motherwell rank around mid-table in ball possession.
More impressive than what Kipre does is actually how he does it. The Motherwell defender gets so many interceptions because he’s incredibly proactive. Defenders tend to win the ball from strikers, but Kipre makes sure he has the ball before the striker can control it. His quickness of mind and foot allows him to start attacks and transitions for Motherwell. At 21 years old Kipre has huge potential and will hopefully bring a decent fee should Motherwell want to sell him.