One of the most interesting factors of modern football is the breakdown of information available. The level of analysis and statistics have added real information to the opinions of football fans. If you follow the excellent SPFL Radar account on Twitter, or The Rangers Report, you’ll see plenty of information and numbers. They not only present the facts, they can shape opinions on players.
However, there can be a tendency to give that information too much significance. As with anything, stats have to be part of the discussion, but not the only consideration.
It’s with this in mind that I’d like to offer a bit of a deeper look into the statistics of Fabio Cardoso at Rangers. Opinions on him are somewhat similar among fans. He’s seen as poor in the air and not the strongest in a 1v1 situation. The statistics would seem to back that up. From 204 aerial duels, he’s won 63%. In a 1v1 defensive situation, he’s won 29%. Those seem like pretty damning figures.
And what does good look like? In the league, the highest percentage of aerial duels won is by Ajer at Celtic, with 80%. In terms of 1v1 defending, it’s also Ajer at roughly 37%. At 9 appearances and 762 minutes, Ajer isn’t too far away from Cardoso’s 10 appearances and 853 minutes (all stats are taken from Wyscout).
But there’s a fair bit those numbers don’t tell you. The first question I’d like to consider is – just where on the pitch are these events happening? If a defender won every header in the 18 yard box, but tended to lose most further up the pitch, the stats would look poor. In reality, there’s an argument that someone like that is doing a decent job.
To break down the numbers a bit, I’ve split the pitch into three zones. Zone 1 is from the goalline to around 25 yards out. Zone 2 is from 25 yards to just over the halfway line. That leaves Zone 3, which is in the opponents half. It’s somewhat simplistic, but serves to give some detail in this article. You would assume that losing headers or 1v1s in Zone 1 would be far more problematic than in Zone 3, for example.
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Using this, the stats break down as such:
Zone 1 – 101 events – 69% won
Zone 2 – 64 events – 65% won
Zone 3 – 39 events – 44% won
Zone 1 – 42 events – 33% won
Zone 2 – 8 events – 25% won
Zone 3 – 7 events – 14% won
The figures show a slight pattern. In and around the box, Cardoso performs a bit better than his average. Kristoffer Ajer mentioned earlier actually has higher percentages in Zone 2 (77%) than Zone 1 (72%), most likely due to him having played the odd game in midfield, or even that Celtic defend a bit higher up the pitch on average.
Whilst his figures aren’t the best, there is a little encouragement there. He’s clearly performing better in the areas of the park where winning headers and 1v1s is most required. There’s a lot of improvement needed, but it’s something to work with at least.
The second question, and the most important one – just what are these events leading to? Think about your time playing and watching the game. You’ll have seen many situations where you win a header, only for your team to lose the second ball and lose a goal. One such example for Rangers this season was at home to St Johnstone. Bruno Alves won a strong header, which fell to Alston outside the box, and he scored a cracking goal. Similarly, losing a header isn’t always a bad thing. You’ll never win every one, but sometimes putting pressure on a player will see them miss a chance or misplace a headed pass.
The same applies to 1v1 situations. You’ll have heard “put him on his weaker foot” far more often than you really need to over the years. If a defender stood up, forced a player wide, and the player than skewed a shot or cross, they’ve done their job. In terms of the stats, though, that would be deemed a lost 1v1. The events themselves don’t give a picture of what’s actually happening, and that’s why the stats can’t be the main focus for judging the player.
So to the aerial duels. I’ve broken this down into 4 categories. Whether you win or lose a header, you need your teammates to win the 2nd ball more often than not. You also have to ask just how many of the lost headers lead to something resembling a chance. I’ve looked at how many headers led to the opposition winning the second ball, or getting a shot at goal within a few seconds:
Won Header, 2nd ball lost – 23
Lost Header, 2nd ball lost – 13
Won Header, led to shot – 3
Lost Header, led to shot – 9
Of all the aerial duels, won or lost, only one has led to a goal. This was against Partick Thistle, when Cardoso lost the header, conceded a free kick and Thistle scored from this directly.
It’s worth noting that the loss of the 2nd ball is often in the opposition half, or the ball is quickly won back. From 204 aerial duels, Cardoso has had around a dozen which have given chances away. That’s a rate of 5%.
For 1v1 defending, I simply looked at how many shots came from players beating Cardoso, or even a weak challenge from him leading to a shot.
Won, led to chance – 1
Lost, led to chance – 8
The only situation which led to a goal in these events was against Hibs at home, when Simon Murray scored. Most of the situations which led to chances came against Partick Thistle in two games. Of 57 duels, 9 leading to chances is a pretty high percentage (15.8%). However, only one of those led to a goal, and many led to shots of no real danger.
Fabio Cardoso will be 24 in April, and is still very new to Scottish football. The way the game is allowed to be more physical here has taken even very experienced players time to get used to. He has obvious issues he needs to work on, but a closer look at some stats suggest there’s something to work with. Defending is, as they say, a team game. Defenders can take a lot of responsibility for something that other areas of the team have got wrong. For all his flaws, it’s too easy to just dismiss him based upon how many headers he wins or loses.
Rangers signed Cardoso to develop and sell on for a bigger fee in the future. It’s a model which requires luck and patience. Given everything, I don’t think either of those has been in huge supply for him. We may not get the chance to see this, but it would be interesting to watch his development and see how these situations develop over time.