How to sound smart about your new 17-year-old centre-back
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On with the show. Liverpool’s reputation as a buying club has been bolstered by big-money, big-performance purchases of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson in the last 18 months. They even got a nice write-up in the New York Times magazine. The first transfer of the window is in the building… and it’s a 17-year-old centre-back from PEC Zwolle, Sepp van den Berg.
No, I hadn’t heard of him either.
But, now that he’s signed for Liverpool, there’s a lot of people who will be interested in finding out what he’s like, and so, basically, I’m going to learn about him in this edition of the newsletter, alongside all of you.
Friend of the newsletter Grace Robertson (who also has a great film and TV newsletter) tweeted Van den Berg’s StatsBomb radar chart when the rumour first got going [below]. For those unfamiliar with radar charts, the upper and lower boundaries of each spoke often represent around the top and bottom 5% levels for each stat, although having ‘high’ figures doesn’t necessarily equal high-quality.
Do not attempt to make any serious assumptions about his ability here, what centre backs do is hard to measure, but this is Van den Berg if anyone was wondering. pic.twitter.com/UCgQL9pFE1— Grace Robertson 🏳️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) June 25, 2019
Grace’s summary of the radar also seems pretty fair:
Seems an *active* defender, stylistically opposite to VVD and closer to Gomez.— Grace Robertson 🏳️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) June 25, 2019
So, he’s seemed pretty active on the ground (pressures, tackles, interceptions) although not hugely dominant in the air (aerial duels per 90 and the corresponding win percentage). The passing stats (completion percentage, xG buildup) seem fine enough that they’re not a red flag.
If I was going to delve even further into the stats before going to watch some video then I’d also want to look up:
- A sense of how high up the field he makes his actions
- A look at where his failed tackles and fouls come from; if he’s more prone to mistakes in certain areas
- With StatsBomb data, we’d be able to see what he’s like on the ball under pressure too
- Also with StatsBomb data, we can look at how two-footed he is (or isn’t), including whether he becomes more one-footed under pressure, and by how much.
You might’ve noticed that I wouldn’t look at his actual passing. Part of this is because I think that passing tendencies will likely be pretty dependent on what the rest of the team is doing, but how a player reacts under pressure is going to be more player-dependent.
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Anyway, with the radar chart we have some interesting information to go on, so now it’s time for video.
I was dreading the prospect of having to use YouTube highlight reels for this newsletter (which, by their nature, are skewed in what they present to you), so I was glad to find a PEC Zwolle vs Ajax match online that Van den Berg actually played in.
As it turned out, he played as a right-back for most of the game, although in the first half this sometimes turned into a right centre-back in a back five. That’s unfortunate given that he’s been signed/presented as a central defender, but we can still gauge some stuff about him from it.
For one, his concentration was admirably good. When Zwolle stuck with a proper back four, allowing the right-winger to stay forward a bit more, Van den Berg had to be constantly aware of an Ajax wide attacker or advanced full-back. It’d be easy to switch off, but the teenager was there, throughout the game, checking over his shoulder regularly*. (*there’s something semi-related to this though that I’ll come back to in a PS at the end of this post).
I’m not entirely sure how this will transfer to playing at centre-back, where forwards are closer to you and there’s a greater need to develop a sixth sense for where they are rather than turning your head fully, but it’s at least better than not checking his surroundings.
His footwork also looked pretty good in this game - light; fluid turns; very rarely caught in a spot where he had to turn on the pace in a straight line because he’d been slow in a previous turn. (Both of these things are a little hard to show in screenshots, otherwise I would).
Van den Berg’s positioning was sometimes weird though. Part of this may be Zwolle’s overall system/coaching; take this moment from 30 seconds in where Van den Berg doesn’t pinch in (no.1) to cover space that Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek (no.2) is running into (tracked by a Zwolle midfielder)
Van den Berg had a player lurking out of shot on Ajax’s left that he needed to be aware of, but it still seems somewhat unusual for him to be that wide.
This positioning quirk cropped up again in the lead-up to Ajax’s first goal of the game. Dusan Tadic, playing as a left-sided forward, drifted inside, into space between Van den Berg and the nearest centre-back.
This is Van den Berg’s man. But instead of following the man inside, he kind of holds his position as Tadic circles around him.
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This doesn’t just mean that there’s a distance between himself and Tadic, but that there’s a large gap between Van den Berg and his nearest teammate, and the Ajax forward has a lot of space to run into in the box with no defenders close enough to him.
The ball gets played into that area, Tadic causes trouble enough that the goalkeeper comes out, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar mops up with a tap-in. Had Van den Berg been closer to Tadic initially, the ball may not have been played at all (if the player on the ball decided the risk/reward balance wasn’t right), or he might have been able to clear up the situation before Huntelaar was able to.
Van den Berg was brought off in the 73rd minute as Zwolle tried to chase the game (which they ended up losing 4-1). By that point, my thoughts on the teenager are/were:
- Nice footwork. Would love to show examples but it’s a hard thing to capture in still images.
- Communication with his winger was decent. Judging by the positional adjustments the winger made after Van den Berg said something to him, it was decent advice too, which one would assume/hope means that the defender has good enough reading of the game to process it quick enough to communicate it to someone else.
- Looked a little like he could be physically pushed around, but he’s a teenager, so what do you expect.
- I have positional questions.
Of course, all of these things are after just 73 minutes, so these aren’t firm conclusions. Rather, I came into watching the match assuming he was decent (because Liverpool have bought him), and every incident nudges my mental needle for that skill either higher or lower, with the margin of uncertainty getting slightly narrower too.
But I’m still not satisfied.
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Let’s sign up for a free trial with our favourite ubiquitous video (and, of sorts, statistics) provider WyScout to check out some clips. I’d ideally want to check out:
- General positioning
- Centre-back-specific ‘sixth sense’ awareness, when strikers are drifting about around him
- Tackling choices and technique
- Other stuff is less important to me.
The positioning and awareness stuff is hard to gauge in these clips and sure enough I struggled to get much out of them. It struck me, though, how often he’s actually played at full-back (despite formation info often having him as centre-back). I wonder what his radar chart from earlier would look like when on a full-back template that uses full-back positional benchmarks for the stats.
Given the above, there also wasn’t a tremendous amount I could quickly gauge on the tackling (without this whole exercise becoming overly arduous). He looks like he has a decent reading of the game, although he was still sold a dummy because (I’m assuming) he’s young and eager to impress.
Step 1: Forward starts to come short
Step 2: Van den Berg commits, far heavier than he should do, and the forward darts the other way. Check out their exact opposite body angles, damn.
Step 3: Space.
I think a lot is still uncertain because he still needs to physically mature. He has that puppy-ish look that youngsters often do when they’re defending, when they go up to the back of opposition forwards but are pretty easy to hold off because they’re 1) pretty small, strength-wise, comparatively; 2) trying to nip away at the ball rather than wait because they’re eager to be active.
This ‘time will tell’ point seems like a good point to wrap things up, so let’s review what this whole experience was:
1) No knowledge
Literally ‘who is Sepp van den Berg’?
2) Check out the stats
Which made him look like an active defender, stylistically, but not one who was dominant in the air. Video backed up the former, although there are questions about how much of this high-level of activity is because of his time spent at full-back (a little, but he still seems fairly active anyway). Video also backed up the latter, although this is partly because he’s young.
The stats still left a bunch of questions about his game though.
3) Early lessons from video
I’m now pretty sure that Van den Berg has decent footwork, which is a nice base for any defensive player to have.
I think he has decent reading of the game: good enough to be a regular-ish player in the Eredivisie at 16 and 17; not good enough that it really stood out and hit me in the face. A good enough base, and will improve with coaching and game-time.
There are physical aspects that he needs to improve on and hopefully will as he physically matures. This isn’t a given, though. Being a good physical player is as much, or more, about knowing how to use the body than it is having the body.
My feelings on his positioning are that I would not like to comment. There were things that moved my mental needle downwards in confidence in him, but there weren’t enough incidents in what I watched for my margin of uncertainty to narrow much. In theory, Van den Berg could still be fantastic positionally. I can’t tell.
I’ve no idea what Liverpool have in mind for the kid. He’s played at full-back and has played minutes in a fairly major league, so he could be a good player to have around to fill in if there are injuries. Or maybe he’s just one to stick in the U23s. Or maybe he’ll go straight onto the subs bench. *shrugs*
(The *shrug* aside, those options are in my guessed order of likelihood).
Go forth and sound smart, Liverpool fans (or anyone else who wants to sound like they know more about Sepp van den Berg than other people). If you’ve enjoyed this and/or learnt from it, why not subscribe. This is the level of analysis you’ll get each week.
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Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.
*The thing I said I wanted to come back to.
There was a point in the Ajax match where Van den Berg kind of got caught out by his good concentration. Matthijs de Ligt is on the ball, completely unpressured, and Van den Berg has a man on his shoulder. As the defender turns his head to check, the player (Tadic, I think) starts on his run.
De Ligt also releases the pass, and Van den Berg is caught off-guard, both mentally and (although it’s hard to see here) physically.
This was the only time that the defender’s footwork went awry in the time I was watching him. And by the time that Van den Berg had got his balance back, a gap between the two had opened up (although it turned out that the pass wasn’t a very good one).
I didn’t raise this in the main body of the newsletter because I wasn’t sure if it was actually a mistake. Being aware of where the forward is is a good thing, but there’s also an argument that he should have altered his behaviour given that De Ligt was under zero pressure and could launch a pass at any moment. Keeping his eyes on De Ligt and reacting to his movement, rather than the forward’s, might have been a better option? I’m not sure. Let me know what you think.