Bumper centre-back analysis: Koulibaly, Rudiger, Ake, Gibson, Mawson

If you know what you’re looking for, there’s a lot you can tell about a player from a single game of football (crucially, if you know what you’re looking for, you also know what you *haven’t* learned about a player from a single game as well). As a celebration for my (now defunct) Patreon getting to the $20 a month goal, I’m doing a bumper analysis article on *takes deep breath*

–          Kalidou Koulibaly

–          Antonio Rüdiger

–          Nathan Aké

–          Ben Gibson

–          Alfie Mawson



Kalidou Koulibaly (vs Lazio, 05/11/2016)

The don. You watch this man and his cloud-like steps, swimming over the pitch’s green surface, and you realise why he’s been linked with Arsenal, Chelsea, and generally most of the big clubs in need of a centre-back. His good feet aren’t just balletic, but in this game they enabled him to adjust his body in relation to the ball in some potentially awkward moments in possession.

There were a couple of moments where he was just a little below the standard of an elite ball-player in possession – getting caught on the sideline once, and a couple of first touches which mostly, but not wholly, pushed the ball out of his feet and into a useful position to *do something* from there. However, there was also a fantastic moment where he drove with the ball into midfield and, seeing no immediate passing options on, jinked a little to one side to manufacture a passing lane through Lazio’s midfield line.

His positioning was very good in this game and gave no real indications that there may be any problems with it in other matches. You get a sense, with some players and some skills, that there’s a potential for it to go wrong; mistakes or imperfections may exist that didn’t rear their head in this particular spell of time. With Koulibaly’s on-ball skills, there was a small sense of this – a little bit of unfamiliarity with the ball, an odd mistake, and the fact that Lazio never truly put him under any great pressure in possession means that there’s still a question mark over how he’d perform when pressed.

But with his positioning, these doubts don’t figure (for me, anyway). It’s clear that his base-level of positioning is great (although it’s to be expected for players to have days when they perform a little below their best, so that might happen depending on when you catch him).

His awareness of what goes on outside of his immediate field of vision, however, is a little more suspect. There were a couple of moments in this match where a run was made in or near his blind-side and there were no indications that he was aware of it happening. Generally his good positioning covered his own back, but this won’t always be the case.

This isn’t to say that his awareness is bad. We’re evaluating Koulibaly against the marker of what an elite centre-back should be like, because this is the level which he is either at, aiming to be at, or thought to be at. It should also be noted that Lazio didn’t trouble this skillset too much, so there are moderate-to-small error bars on that.

If it seems like this evaluation has been underwhelming, that’s because the bar is set high. The mindset when watching him is ‘Is this guy world class and one of the best centre-backs in the world?’.

His passing is damned nice, though probably not truly elite for centre-backs and there’s still question marks (after this game) about how he’d react when pressed. His positioning is wonderful, and the control he has over his feet and body has all the beauty and flow of a courtly Regency dance.  

Antonio Rüdiger (vs Villarreal, 16/02/2017)

The man who could well be a Chelsea player by the time you read this played as the left side-back (what I’m going to call the wide centre-backs in a back 3 from now on) in this game, which is partly why I chose this game of his to watch. As a player who’s played significant minutes at both centre- and right-back at Roma this season, it seems likely that if he does join Chelsea, then his role in the starting line-up would be as one of these side-backs.

While I spoke in perhaps-too glowing terms about Koulibaly’s footwork, Rüdiger’s seemed to take a little bit of time to warm up in his match. It was a little heavy, a little slow – nothing major, but enough to be noticed – but by the time that 30 or 40 minutes had passed it seemed to be fine. While I was evaluating Koulibaly along ‘world class or not’ lines, Rüdiger’s at a younger stage of his career and no-one’s ever put him in that kind of conversation. It’s more ‘how certain am I that this guy is good enough to play regularly for Chelsea’ with him.

There was definitely a certain amount of slowness at the start of the game which you wouldn’t want in a top-level centre-back, and I’m not entirely sure exactly where it came from. Originally, it looked like slow feet, as his general footwork was a bit like a tired horse trotting over heavy ground – but then he put in some fluid turns of the body when needing to change direction quickly, so it may have been slow perceptive reactions as well/instead.


The first, the footwork, is probably less worrying *based on this game*. His footwork improved as the match went on and the match as a whole would at least give a relatively complete picture of his skill in this department. If it’s his general perception of the game, then that seems (I imagine) like something that’s harder to improve through coaching.

It’s likely that it was a bit of both, and some lapses of awareness of runners around him adds to some light worries about how he’d fare against truly top class attacking movement. Some of his troubles in this game (which, to clarify, were not major) probably came from Roma playing 3 at the back, as none of the back-line looked too comfortable there.

While this assuages, or contextualises, some of the fears around Rüdiger’s personal game, it’s still a relevant factor if he joins Chelsea, given that that’s likely to be the system he’ll be playing in (it should be noted that he was playing as the left side-back, the opposite side to which he usually plays, so he may fare better at right side-back).

(Brief sidenote: Since this was written and first available to Patrons, James Horncastle wrote an article in which he said that Rudiger prefers playing in this left side-back role, but that he hadn’t played there very much, so *shrugs*. Maybe he’ll grow into the role as he plays more of it)

While Rüdiger looks a little, well, like a central defender on the ball sometimes, he did show some genuine nous, a short pass under pressure chipped lightly and perfectly over a pressing opponent’s leg into the feet of a teammate a really nice little moment. If you’re anticipating your centre-backs being pressed then I’d probably design several possible out-balls into the system for him so that he didn’t get caught out, but he looks like he’d generally be fine, verging on genuinely good, on the ball for a team of Chelsea’s level.

On a more ‘proper defending’ note, he showed admirable restraint (well, skill) in moments where he needed to step up onto the back of a striker or harass an opponent to hold them up.

I’ve liked Rüdiger, with caveats, since I first watched him. He’s young, and good enough to play for a title-winning side if not good enough to be the main centre-back for a title-winning side.

Nathan Aké (vs Tottenham, 22/04/2017)

From one left side-back who could soon/have played for Chelsea to another, looking at Aké for Chelsea in the FA Cup. Aké is good enough to be a good buy for Bournemouth. That is not a difficult question. What’s more interesting is whether Chelsea made a good decision in selling him or whether he could have stayed around to fight for a place.

There’s a weird thing Aké does well, or did well on several occasions in this match. He was good at sidling straight up into the faces of opponents, a slow-approach shuffle, and closing down options until he’s close enough to tackle or block an attempted pass. It’s a little Venus Flytrap-esque, slowly, imperceptibly, suckering his prey in to make them suffer.

If you separate that weird little thing out into basic, component parts which can be transferred to other parts of the game, you’ve got footwork, positioning, reading the opponent, and maybe some freaky Kaa-eyes going on to mesmerise the opponent. Spurs didn’t really trouble Chelsea’s back-line in this game in the kind of ways that might cause problems for a centre-back’s positioning or footwork, but Aké seemed perfectly fine. There weren’t really any major green flags, but no real red flags either.


Kaa eyes – “Trussst in meee”

What he is, though, is a little rash. Sure, this is based on this match, but he looked generally level-headed enough to suggest that these were decisions he’d make outside of an FA Cup semi-final. There were numerous instances of going in a little too hot into the back of an opponent striker to stop them turning.

There was the penalty call (which TV images didn’t properly show the build-up to). From the images available, it looked like Alli fooled Aké by letting the ball roll across him on the edge of the box, receiving in the inside of the right-halfspace and moving into the corner of the penalty area. The ball is a little away from Alli, and would be there to prod away for a player who was in the position to prod it away. Aké wasn’t in the position to prod it away (quite), but went for it anyway.

He did get to the ball, but only after knocking the leg which Alli had intentionally placed (in a bit of an unnatural position) in between Aké and the ball. It wasn’t given, and probably fairly given Alli’s foul-buying-attempt mischief, but it was an ill-advised decision. In a similar vein, earlier in the game Aké tried to poke away a ball in the air from a starting position behind Harry Kane. It was, again, an ill-advised decision as the distances between him and ball were too large, and this time it was called for a foul.

As there are swings, so too are there roundabouts, and Aké showed some decent tackles, and a nice little technique with his near-leg foot to hook it away. (Sidenote: I think we’re seeing a rise in slide tackles made with the nearest leg to the ball. Usually, the natural technique is that the near leg folds up and the far leg is used to hook the ball away, but this leaves the possibility of the folded near leg taking out/being used by the opponent to win a foul. Defenders have started to slide tackle – in what looks very awkward – with their near leg, which I’ve previously covered in a video here).

Elsewhere, Aké’s a perfectly decent player on the ball, though when pressured he made a couple of mistakes. There weren’t many moments when he needed to showcase awareness of what was outside his direct field of vision, but there was a Spurs counter where he was completely oblivious to Christian Eriksen making a run behind him. You’d want to see more to better evaluate that particular skillset though.

He’s clearly a good signing for Bournemouth. Evaluating him against Bournemouth-level criteria, you’d definitely put him on the list to sign. For Chelsea, the rashness that’s there, the bad lapse of awareness, and poor moments on the ball under pressure which all happened in this match make you see why they may not have been too set on keeping him around given the rest of the centre-back depth they have.

He’s only 22 though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if it was suddenly discovered that Chelsea had put a buy-back clause into the contract when flogging him to Bournemouth. But it also wouldn’t surprise me too much, or it wouldn’t trouble me too much, if they hadn’t bothered.  

Ben Gibson (vs Chelsea, 08/05/2017)

A leftie. Competent enough with both feet that I didn’t notice until about 13 minutes into the game though. There was also a moment when, under considerable Chelsea pressure, he was very calm on the ball, and was perfectly functional in the rest of the match generally.

There were definitely some awareness problems, however. On several occasions, in checking over his shoulder for an opponent (which is good) he totally lost track of what was going on on the ball (which is less good), sometimes reacting to movement of the player off-the-ball that he was looking at when there was no way that the player on-the-ball was going to make that pass. In one particular moment he was slow to react to a pass being played because of this – it’s not so much genuine awareness as transferring his slightly blinkered vision from one area of the pitch to another, without adequately absorbing the information of what’s going on in the places that he’s no longer looking.

Along similar lines, he also got sold a complete dummy by Costa in the box at one point, which was just a little bit embarrassing, and not particularly promising when having to deal with good striker movement.


I need to introduce a new concept now (new-ish (maybe not new at all, but it seems relatively uncovered)) so bear with me for a brief second. Particularly in England where there’s a lot of backing off into a cohesive block, it’s important for a defender to be able to direct or manipulate a forward who is directly facing them. This is different from showing a forward down the line, where players are side on, though a similar concept.

Buffer Zone

I call this a centre-back’s buffer-zone, although some people may call it the area of access. It’s the space that a forward can’t, or doesn’t dare, move into for fear of losing the ball (hence ‘area of access’, as that’s where the opponent may be able to access the ball). For purposes of how I’m using it, in shepherding forwards, I prefer ‘buffer-zone’. For whatever reason – body positioning, footwork speed and balance, leg length, acceleration, looking scary – some defenders have a larger buffer-zone than others, and so can prevent strikers from moving towards goal, keeping them in a perpetual state of going side-to-side.

Ben Gibson did not seem to have a particularly large buffer-zone.

I wasn’t able to quite nail down why, but my educated guess is something to do with his body positioning – not quite being in the right position in relation to the opponent and not wide enough, as basic as that description is – footwork, and perhaps being sold by feints. Like I said, I’m not entirely sure on this one.

His footwork, throughout the match, started off being quite good, although seemed to get a little slower or laxer as the game got into its later stages, presumably as playing a whole match against Chelsea seemed to take its toll.

I have a sense that I may have come across as very condemnatory of him here. His footwork and positioning were generally pretty good, although somewhat sheltered by Middlesbrough’s system for their centre-backs. His awareness did not seem to be super, although probably not a whole lot different from what one would get from a lower-midtable centre-back. His passing is perfectly serviceable.

There have been various rumours about him moving clubs, and Boro have stuck a £25m price tag on him (although the journalists at the Leicester Mercury – Leicester being one of the clubs apparently interested – reckon that Leicester reckon that this asking price will fall towards the end of the window).

I’d want to watch more before making any firm comments about what I reckon clubs should do (shocking that average punters want to watch more before shouting at people in jobs, I know). He could certainly ‘do a job’ a little further up the table, or maybe as an infrequently used back-up. That’s as far as I’ll go.

Alfie Mawson (vs Liverpool, 21/01/2017)

For a game in which Liverpool scored twice, and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool at that, there wasn’t an awful lot which caused Mawson a lot of trouble. Paul Clement’s stamp on the side seemed to be clear, with a very well-structured midfield and defence out of possession, and compact between the lines as well.

His positioning and footwork seemed good on the whole, although there was one moment where he was rolled by Firmino letting the ball come across him, and struggled to catch up to the forward. In truth, he was slightly fortunate that Firmino didn’t decide to take a dive just inside the box, because there was just about enough contact in Mawson’s slightly desperate haranguing to give the ref something to think about.

There were a couple of problems, though very small, in keeping the defensive line bang-straight, although these were as much to do with the rest of the defensive line as it was to do with Mawson. It was also only really a noticeable problem in this game because it was against Liverpool, who, even though they didn’t majorly trouble Swansea’s centre-backs, still have the quality to amplify the jaggedness of a back-line. Against a lesser side this would have been less of a big deal (not that it should be ignored).

There was a point at which he had an ‘allergic reaction’ moment, stepping up to try and play offside when a) the pass was unlikely to be made b) he was ahead of part of his defensive line anyway and so wouldn’t spring an offside trap c) was slightly too slow/deep and, even when he had stepped up, would have been unlikely to have been playing the opponent offside anyway. ‘Allergic reaction’ because, like your hayfever, he was reacting to a false stimuli.


His awareness seemed pretty good for a guy who’s been playing on a bad Swansea team, only lacking noticeable once towards the end of the game and slow on another occasion. That said, Liverpool didn’t do too much milling and running around him and off him, so it is perfectly likely that his awareness might be shown up in other games. From this match, it seemed a decent enough base though.

He was a decent enough functional passer, although looked a little uncertain on the ball immediately after kick-off in the second half when being pressured by Liverpool players.

Parallels, or contrasts, will obviously be drawn with (or against) Ben Gibson – both are young(ish, in Gibson’s case) English centre-backs, both played for relegation threatened teams last year, and both are being rumoured with a move further up the table.

Gibson is presumably more gettable, the higher age lowering the price that his current club can reasonably push for, and Middlesbrough actually being relegated as opposed to Swansea, who merely very nearly were. Mawson also had a good tournament with England Under 21s, although he’s actually 23.

While I would want to see more to know whether Mawson truly belongs on a higher step to Gibson, the difference in age alone would make me edge towards Mawson on the evidence presented here. I think 23 is likely the back-end of the age range where a player is likely to improve meaningfully, and at 24 and above you’ve got to be a lot more choosy about the skills which you think can be improved upon.

Both certainly deserve to be in the Premier League, and at a club with more of a chance of avoiding relegation than the ones they’ve been at so far. It should be noted that both played in systems (for Mawson, under Clement at least) which were fairly protective of their centre-backs, so your mileage may vary on how they translate to other systems. Neither made any particular moves to step up and challenge forwards on the front foot very much, so you wouldn’t want to put them in a lower-level Otamendi role, for example.

Anyway. That’s been over 3000 words of centre-back analysis for you on five players at the heart of some of the major Premier League CB transfer rumours this summer. I have written about Virgil van Dijk and Chris Smalling (here and here) – two other big names who may possibly move – elsewhere, so check those out too.


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