“Ashley [Williams] himself has to be up there as one of the top three or four centre-backs in the league with the way he contributes every game, the way he leads the group, his experience.” – Garry Monk, 10/09/2015.
Garry Monk’s above comment responds and adds to the hype that recently built around Ashley Williams. In fairness to both Monk and his defender, the quote has generally been cut off after the word ‘league’, removing the qualifiers which make it a rather less bold claim. While Williams may deserve praise, though, it would be hard to genuinely include him within that group of top 4 central defenders in the Premier League.
There are undoubtedly many strong aspects to the Welshman’s game. His positioning is good, particularly when his team is in-possession and he is creating space to receive the ball, a vital aspect of play in Swansea’s system and in the modern game generally. Tied to this is his ability on the ball, which is perhaps better than you would expect from a man who looks so much like your typical muscular defender.
His awareness of what is happening around him is also definitely better than the average centre-back – he looks relatively frequently over his shoulder or at areas in his peripheral vision whereas other lesser defenders tend not to. This means he can improve his positioning relative to opponents and team-mates, anticipate threats better, and can communicate to his fellow Swans when there is a threat they should be aware of. It’s hard to tell without being on the pitch, and in training, with him, but his communication with his defensive unit seems good too, and was mentioned by Monk in his praise.
Consistency is also a factor, and one that makes it difficult to assess him against other players. While his upper ceiling of playing ability may be lower than others’, he plays nearer to it more often than many. Players like Chris Smalling will be better on their game than Williams on his, however those such as Smalling have a higher chance of being off their game than Williams.
However, his level may be best summed up in the following sequence of play, taken from the match against Sunderland this season. Both the ball and Ashley Williams will be circled in white throughout.
2) Here, Williams looks over at where the striker is (opaque white line). Simultaneously, the striker is making a diagonal run in behind him. However, Williams’ look comes too late, and at an inopportune moment.
3) As he turns, the ball has been played in behind him for the striker to run onto, although we can see that Williams, knowing what is behind him, has already started to run back and has not been caught flat-footed. In fairness to him, this is a very difficult situation for a central defender to be in.
This is the divide Williams straddles though. A significantly better player would have been aware of the run that the striker was making and reacted accordingly; a lesser player wouldn’t have looked at all and would have to work out what was happening while they were running back to goal, hampering how useful they could be in defending the attack.
For all his skills, Williams doesn’t quite have the positioning or awareness to put him right at the top. While he may be able to largely excel in the Premier League, particularly with a well-organised Swansea team in front of him, he would likely struggle against the more consistently higher quality of the Champions League (or latter stages of the Europa League).
He also has a tendency to stick tight to opposing forwards as they fall back into the space between Swansea’s defence and midfield. In itself there is nothing wrong with this, it is just a style of play and may even be a role given to him, however occasionally Williams gets dragged in when it is not the best option, as the next sequence shows, this time against Chelsea from this season.
4) Seeing Fabregas is about to play the ball, with Costa on his mind, Williams moves out towards the Chelsea striker. Behind him though, which he appears to be unaware of, Willian is making a diagonal run across the Swansea left-back.
5) As Williams has moved up towards Costa, he leaves the shaded blue space for Fabregas to play the ball into behind him, which Willian is duly running into. Williams has been dragged out of position by Costa, creating that space. In slight fairness to the Welshman, though, Fernandez probably should have moved slightly to his left as Williams moved out, to try and cover some of this space.
6) Unlike the Sunderland example, Williams, not knowing what was happening behind him, was left slightly flat-footed. Fortunately for him, the Swansea left-back was covering Willian’s run and came across to clear the ball.
Williams is a genuinely good defender, though perhaps not one as great as some quarters have been making him out to be. Has anything changed recently to warrant this sudden change in opinion? Judging from some game film from the end of the 2012/13 season, not really. He is largely the same defender there as he is now. Perhaps the recent success of Swansea and Wales has contributed to him getting noticed.
In all, he is probably a good central defender for 6th-10th in the Premier League table, with capabilities for playing higher up, though he would probably not be a regular starter. It would be interesting to see him play for a better team at a higher level, just to see how he would fit in, and it is probably a good thing for Swansea that he is 31, otherwise there may be more interest in him transfer-wise.
Does he deserve to be called a top 3 centre-back in the Premier League, or the best British CB as some are doing? Probably not. However, it’s very likely that he has gone underappreciated for quite a while, so let’s not complain too much.