The rule of thumb amongst coaches is to find a binary pairing in central defence.
Firstly and rather obviously, they need to be adept in carrying out the duties that a coach demands. But more importantly, they need to retain certain characteristics, the type which can dovetail successfully with a partner in crime.
The same notion also applies when teams play three center backs – each has to bring a different skill set that can complement the other. Ie your strength as a defender compensates for their weakness and vice versa.
In the early stages of the season, Bournemouth believed they had struck just the right balance. Lloyd Kelly and Gary Cahill forged a partnership, initially impregnable, until it reached a point where Kelly could no longer make up for Cahill’s defects and, again, vice versa.
READ MORE: Full-back wingers, switching 8s and diagonal runs – how Bournemouth came from behind to beat Stoke
Opposing teams were finding increased success and Bournemouth’s backline became brittle. Heading into January, Scott Parker needed to seek new ways of evolving the squad and sparking a turnaround in form. I have identified addressing the balance in defense as a primary course of action.
This season, Bournemouth have had two standout defensive strengths. A high press and an enviable ability to stop counter-attacks. Their defensive PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action) was just 6.83 – better than 91 per cent of all teams on StatsBomb’s database. Bournemouth would also marginalize shots from counter-attacks – under a shot per game (0.89) would come from defensive transitions.
These were two integral components in Bournemouth’s run of seven straight clean sheets away from home and conversely, providing a greater threat at the other end.
A higher defensive line pushed the team higher, whereby the midfield would squeeze and provide cover behind the forward’s press. The space between the lines were condensed and opposition teams found it difficult to isolate any of the backline. Given his lack of mobility from him, it was something that particularly benefited Cahill.
As Lloyd Kelly detailed to dorsetlive in November, Parker wanted his two center backs to take up positions inside the attacking half when they had the ball. This required the two center backs being comfortable enough to manage the space behind them, should the side lose possession. It was a risky strategy and relied on two things…
Cats and dogs.
Not literally, of course. But an offshoot to the concept of center back balance can be likened to your two favorite household animals.
What they do and how they inherently behave comes from their nature. If a dog sees a ball, they run after it. They momentarily lose all focus of the environment around and their one pursuit, their one ultimate goal, becomes the little round thing; it is see-ball-win-ball.
Back to football and Scott Parker required that type of defender. Pertinently, though, he only required one of them. Having two would provoke utter chaos. Instead, he wanted another central defender more cat-like – possessing a propensity to read what was in front and behind them. They had to be secure, quick, and instinctively monitor all the encompassing space.
This type of defender often stays in position until the opportune time strikes and they’re able to intercept. The growing issue for Parker during the winter was finding his cat and his dog from him.
Kelly, due to his pace and straight-line recovery speed, is adept at covering large spaces in a short amount of time. He is better equipped when the backline pushes high and he can utilize his pace from him, should the situation necessitate.
But with Cahill struggling due to several factors, such as a rib injury, form and general wear and tear, Kelly was being forced into a role he was not suited to. He was a cat who turned into a dog, if you want to labor the analogy. Cahill, who was growing increasingly aware of his lack of mobility, became hesitant in getting tight to forwards and regaining possession.
There was an understanding that if he got too tight, or lost his duel, he would then have to defend the cavernous, oceans of space behind him. This meant Kelly was forced to be the aggressor, with Cahill routinely taking a covering position.
Subsequently, Parker and the club’s recruitment staff monitored Phillips and accepted his attributes would align with Kelly’s. A younger, more physically imposing center back, Phillips was viewed capable of occupying higher starting positions, and if the ball was there to be won, there would be very little indecision.
The table below reflects Cahill’s defensive features and how he compares with other players on the database. As shown, Cahill is proficient in areas that do not involve direct duels (blocking, clearances) but falls discernibly short in pressures, tackles and interceptions.
For instance, his percentile for pressures, measured by Fbref, stands at 3. This means 97 per cent of central defenders in the database rank higher in this aspect. For a manager who is keen for his center backs to take up high starting positions (to lessen the risk of counter attacks), this was turning into a prominent issue for Parker.
Bournemouth’s match with Stoke was emblematic of the deviation in Parker’s thinking. Even when Phillips was unavailable due to illness, the Cherries boss opted for Chris Mepham. This was mainly down to Mepham being able to perform the identical remit as the Liverpool loanee. This allowed Kelly to remain the covering defender.
After early teething issues, where Stoke scored and Mepham got booked for attempting to win the ball in the attacking half, the pair settled and their brave starting positions eventually grounded Stoke down and backwards.
Phillips and Kelly are expected to remain Parker’s first-choice pairing for the foreseeable future. Below is the former’s percentile, which shows a front foot inclination. His pressure percentile for him is 86 (in stark contrast to Cahill’s 3), and he ranks highly across most duels, most notably interceptions.
Remember the dog? That is exactly it-* please note, we are n’t personally calling Phillips a dog, just his natural traits of him, in case there was any lack of clarity *.
Phillips’s returning presence is likely to see incremental improvement in Kelly, where the captain now has less of an onus to win the ball. Now, he can continue to be in the positions and defensive scenarios he’s best equipped to deal with.
What potentially got overlooked in the afterglow of Bournemouth’s breakneck deadline day was how Parker sought to not only obtain squad depth, but to correct shortcomings.
Nat Phillips brings experience, complementation to Kelly and most of all, a bit of dog.
Stay up to date on everything going on at The Vitality this season with DorsetLive’s FREE Cherries newsletters – enter your email address at the top of the page or sign up to our newsletters here