On May the 25th, all eyes will be on Gareth Southgate as he will be announcing his 26-man squad for Euro 2020. Of course, biased football fans up and down the country will be distraught at not seeing their favourite players representing the Three Lions on the international stage.
One fanbase who have been dumbfounded by their lack of international representation is Brighton’s, with their boyhood star Lewis Dunk carrying all their hopes.
The 29-year-old has been one of the Seagull’ standout performers since their promotion to the top-flight in 2016/2017. Under Chris Hughton in his first few seasons of Premier League action, Dunk consistently showcased his ability to play in a deep block and formed a rock-solid partnership with Shane Duffy.
And now under Graham Potter, he has since proven his worth in a three-man defence, being the leading example in the heart of the all-English defence alongside Adam Webster and Ben White and showing that he is much more than simply a no-nonsense defender.
With only one international cap to his name, coming against the USA in 2018, Dunk’s chances look very slim But many Brighton fans are unsure why with the belief his form this season warrants former Crystal Palace player Southgate to bring him back into the squad.
But, does he deserve a call-up?
Using statistics from this season, let’s answer that very question.
All data used in this article is correct as of midday 14/05/2021. Data is taken from the official Premier League site.
In this piece, Dunk’s statistics will be compared with the statistics from five central defenders that were called up to England for their most recent 2022 World Cup qualifiers. They are Harry Maguire (Manchester United), John Stones (Manchester City), Conor Coady (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Tyrone Mings (Aston Villa) and Eric Dier (Tottenham Hotspur). All stats will be taken from the official Premier League site and will be from the 2020/2021 season, as in his opening press conference when unveiled as England boss, Southgate vowed to pick players based on form rather than reputation.
Each player will score points based on their stats in each metric. The best performing player will receive six points, the second-best will receive five points and so on, with the worst-performing player receiving just one point.
The 12 metrics chosen are based on defensive ability, passing ability and ability in the opposition box.
Firstly, it is important to note how many appearances each of these players have made so far this season. Although it is not considered in most of the statistics I use, it is important to remember throughout this article and it may justify some low scorers.
As shown, Stones and Dier have made markedly fewer appearances for their respective clubs this campaign. Since being brought back into Pep Guardiola’s first-team though, Stones has been a regular starter for the Cityzens and was pivotal in their upturn of form which has since seen them go on to win the Premier League. Dier, on the other hand, has been in and out of the Spurs team this season, may that be due to injuries, falling out of favour with the coach, or simply because there is better depth in that position. The versatility of Dier is also worth considering in these statistics as he has played as a midfielder this campaign too.
Arguably the most controversial of these metrics, so we will get it out the way nice and early. As a defender, scoring goals is, obviously, not the priority. However, with such great set-piece takers in the probable England line-up, having a defender that can score is something that must be taken into consideration.
In the goalscoring department, Dunk leads the table and scores maximum points thanks to his five goals this campaign. The Brighton-born defender would have been joint-first with Stones had he not scored against Wolves last week.
In joint-third is Maguire and Mings with two goals each, although the latter may feel slightly aggrieved as he has missed two big chances this campaign.
At the bottom of the pile sits Dier, who also has missed two big chances. One above him is Coady, who scored his first-ever Premier League goal this season against Manchester City, but that individual achievement doesn’t score him any bonus points.
A defence’s strength is best determined based on their clean sheet tally for the season. Although a clean sheet tally is accrued by all defenders and the goalkeeper on the pitch, one weak link in a backline will most probably leak goals and therefore it is still a worthy metric to determine whether Dunk warrants a spot on the plane.
Mings scores his first maximum points, with his side’s 0-0 draw with Everton on Thursday evening separating him from the joint-second pairing of Maguire and Stones. In just 20 appearances, Stones’ 13 clean sheets is a commendable tally.
Sitting in the fourth position is Dunk, whose defence has strengthened massively since Brighton boss Potter made the bold decision to replace Maty Ryan between the sticks with academy product Robert Sanchez, who has since registered 10 clean sheets in 24 appearances. And finally, in the same order as they sat after round one, Wolves’ 10 clean sheets this season mean that Coady takes 5th place and Dier’s involvement in just seven clean sheets means he picks up yet another solitary point.
It is no secret that England enjoy playing possession-based football against lesser teams. Therefore, looking at their Group D opponents for Euro 2020, Croatia, Czech Republic and Scotland, it is fair to say that how well a defender passes will be high on the priority list for Southgate.
Dunk has been praised for his passing ability this season in a system that prioritises keeping the ball in slow, steady build-up play. But, how does the accuracy of his passing hold up against the Three Lions regulars?
Stones pips Dunk to the top spot of passing accuracy with an impressive 93.28%, which could be a credit to how well and quickly City move the ball. But it may also be due to how City’s fierce attack force teams to drop deep and not risk pressing the centre backs, allowing the likes of Stones and his defensive partner Ruben Dias plenty of time to pick a pass.
In third place is Coady, who sits marginally above Maguire by 0.42%. However, Coady has made just 31 passes more than Dier who has played eight fewer games, which thus improves his chances of a better percentage as fewer passes mean fewer chances to lose the ball.
Considerably lower than the rest are Dier and Mings, with the latter having a 15.11% worse accuracy than first-placed Stones. If Southgate does want a defence that can play out from the ball and is confident with the ball at their feet then this stat certainly does not show Mings to best effect.
Similarly to passing accuracy, the direction of passes is certainly important for Southgate. Having a high passing accuracy is great, but the manager may be looking for a player capable of moving the ball into the midfield and starting transitions rather than simply passing it backwards or sideways.
On a polar opposite, Stones has the least amount of forwards passes of the six. He sits 57 passes below fifth-placed Coady and 164 below fourth-placed Dunk, who is surprisingly low considering how the Seagulls skipper usually kickstarts attacks from the back.
On this statistic and the passing accuracy stats, United’s Maguire has come out best of all. Despite the common misconception that the former Leicester man is a purely defensive-minded defender and quite clumsy with his feet, these stats prove them very wrong in comparison to his English teammates.
Maguire looks set to start for England in the Euros, and these passing statistics go a long way to justifying that decision for Southgate.
Amount of times dispossessed
Bar the goalkeeper, the centre back is, arguably, the last person fans will want to see dispossessed. Usually stood in front of the goal, losing the ball in such a key area is simply a recipe for disaster and will more than likely result in a clear-cut goal scoring opportunity. Therefore, the amount of times a defender has his pocket picked is a good indicator of how comfortable a player is with the ball at their feet and also moving forward with the ball.
Several first times in this table. Maguire scores his first solitary point and Dier scores his first big six.
Dier’s accomplishment is halved though as his record of only being dispossessed once this campaign is matched by Dunk who has the same amount of dispossessions to his name. Those statistics can be upgraded too as Dier has played several games in midfield this campaign, an area of the pitch where players are more likely to lose possession, and Dunk also steps into midfield frequently so the same applies to his statistic.
This statistic again falls in favour of Dunk who showcases his ability to play in an attacking side. Concerningly for Southgate his key defender, Maguire, has an obvious tendency to be dispossessed so in a role where he is expected to carry the ball out from the back then one would question his suitability for that position.
Now we transition into the traditionally crucial elements of a defender’s game, starting with interceptions. This metric will speak volumes about how well a player reads the game, positions themselves and their speed to pounce upon a loose ball. If Dunk is to compete with the internationally-proven defenders of Maguire and Stones then his stats in these defensive departments must hold up.
Dunk’s interceptions stats are credible but fall behind two, one being the expected Maguire and the other being Mings, who claims a solid five points. Stones only has 17 interceptions this season and, obviously, only receives a point to add to his tally. His low stats are most probably due to how City are so dominant in possession and he has no real opportunities to intercept the ball, but to average less than an interception a game suggests he is underperforming in this department.
Again, Coady and Dier fall to the bottom of the table. So far, it is justified that Brighton fans feel aggrieved that Dunk hasn’t received England call-ups instead of either of the pair. Furthermore, there will be plenty of other fanbases using the two defenders as a benchmark to question why their own English defender/s is being overlooked.
Any player on the pitch needs to be able to tackle, and they wouldn’t be a professional footballer if they couldn’t realistically, but this needs to be the forte of a central defender. There are many different types of tackles, ranging from simply stealing the ball from the feet of oppositions to sliding in from behind and hooking the ball back. In this metric though, they are all worth the same as we see which of our six have accrued the most tackles this campaign.
Another disappointing score for Stones in this metric as his average of 0.75 tackles a game sees him pick up his second sixth-place finish in a row.
One player who won’t be all too familiar with their finish on this scoreboard is Coady, who gains his first six points with 34 tackles. This may be due to how vulnerable Wolves have been this season as they adapt from a back five to a back four, with a greater emphasis on forwards rather than wingbacks who would formerly drop back when under the cosh.
Dunk is again in and amongst it, sitting one tackle below Mings and two tackles behind Maguire. Small margins that see the Seagulls captain collect three points. Again, in what is becoming a common occurrence, Dier is in the bottom two as his status as an England international comes under question.
Aerial battles won
For decades, the central defenders of England have been superb headers of the ball, with the most recent memorable partnership of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry excelling in the air. The ability to win a header and clear it is pivotal for defenders and this metric will be a key indicator of how strong the Three Lions are in that department. On the international stage, Maguire has been the man that has stepped up and taken responsibility when the ball has left the ground, but will his stats this season at club level show that? And how will Dunk’s stats compare?
Ironically, Maguire stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to aerial battles won. The former Hull City defender has registered 49 more aerial duels than his closest competitor, Mings.
Not even adding Stones’ aerial battles won to Mings score would overtake Maguire, and the same applies to Coady who surprisingly underperforms in this department.
Dier recoups some credibility with a third-place finish, but, without discrediting the finish, this may be due to playing some games in the centre of the park where opportunities to head the ball are more frequent.
Dunk is again let down by small margins as his 78 aerial battles won is just one less than Dier’s total, which has cost him yet another point. Brighton fans will be pleased to see that their claims do have substance to them as their captain has not finished last in any metric so far. Whether that will continue to be the case though remains to be seen…
Put simply, blocks stop goals. A defenders’ willingness to throw themselves in the way of the ball and prevent a shot at goal is a trait that only the best have, separating those who are prepared to do whatever it takes to win from the rest.
Even though England are expected to cruise through the group stage at Euro 2020, in the latter stages of the competitions they will be expected to defend more than they attack. The likes of France, Belgium and Portugal all have the talent to dominate games and in those scenarios, a central defenders enthusiasm to block the ball will come into play.
Rather unsurprisingly, the three defenders who play for possession-heavy teams make up the bottom trio. Manchester United and Manchester City have been the two best teams in the division this season, and Brighton have been incredibly unlucky throughout and their dominant displays don’t correlate with their points tally.
In fourth-place is Dier with a respectable 28 blocks this season, averaging over one per game, and one block above him is Coady.
The top spot goes to Mings, whose defensive stats are stacking up well. The trio of Emiliano Martinez, Ezri Konsa and Mings has been a solid unit this season, and his individual stats show why the Villains have the third-most clean sheets in the league this season (15).
Although there is just reason as to why Dunk has struggled in this department, his stats are not too indifferent to his teammates White (17 blocks) and Webster (15), showing that Brighton rarely have many shots to block per game.
Errors leading to goals
Any player can make a mistake, but one that leads to a goal is considerably worse than one that starts a counterattack, for example. Southgate will be keen for his defenders to be consistently good on the ball and not vulnerable to mishaps, therefore, the ideal candidate would be a defender with zero mistakes leading to goals in an entire season.
Dunk comes out on top in this metric without a solitary mistake leading to a goal to his name this season so far, and if he were to make one then it would be his first in two years.
Dier is the other player to have a pristine score for this statistic. Despite being typically clumsy and losing the ball in key areas, none of the 27-year-old’s mistakes this season have led to goals.
The other four have each made a single mistake this season that has led to a goal, which is quite remarkable given the amount of game time they have each had this campaign to date.
However, this metric does not count penalties directly conceded, which is arguably a mistake. Let’s see how the six fair in that department.
In an instant, Dier goes from hero to villain. The former Sporting CP player’s zero errors leading to goals loses its edge completely as he has made two penalty-worthy tackles so far this season, which is made all the more disappointing given he has made approximately six fewer performances than the rest (besides Stones).
Coady is the only other player of the six who has also given away a penalty this season, tripping Callum Robinson in the box against West Brom in November.
The rest all end the mistakes section with maximum points, with Dunk being the only player to score 12 points from the 12 available. If Southgate is looking for consistency then he needs to look no further, with Dunk’s stats capable of drawing the eye when compared to the most probable defensive partnership of Maguire and Stones.
Although the clean sheets metric showed how strong each player’s defensive unit is, it is also a key statistic to see how many goals each player has conceded when on the pitch. This will provide a balance to the clean sheet statistic because, for example, a defender conceding a goal a game will be looked at less favourably compared to a defender keeping a clean sheet every other game.
Impressively, Stones has conceded on average 0.45 goals in every performance. City’s rock-solid defence matched with their strength in depth to have high-quality replacements ready for when injuries strike go a long way to justify their strong record. And a long way to justifying Liverpool’s poor season so far, but that’s a story for another day.
Dier recoups some points after a poor showing in the ‘penalties conceded’ section, being on the pitch for just 32 goals this season, which is a credible record.
Despite their clubs being separated by 14 teams in the league table, Maguire and Dunk have both conceded 36 goals this season, scoring them four points each.
Mings score was surprisingly low in this department considering he received maximum points in the clean sheets score, which could indicate that Villa are more susceptible to conceding again once the first has gone in. Whether that is a trait that Southgate will want his central defender to have when playing in a European tournament.
This stat certainly shows that Dunk is in the right company amongst these international performers, his score in this department is as good as the most certain of the defenders set to play at Euro 2020 – Maguire.
But how does his stats show up overall? Is Dunk simply overhyped by Brighton fans? Or, does he truly deserve to be on the plane to Euro 2020? Let’s see.
Given his consistently praiseworthy statistics, it is no shock that Maguire tops our final leaderboard. The towering defender will inevitably one of Southgate’s first names on the team sheet at the tournament, and his great defensive and passing stats explain why.
Dunk and Mings then take the second spot with 51 points each. One of the defenders, both from clubs outside of the ‘Big Six’, should – based on this analysis – line up alongside Maguire at the Euros. Mings’ defensive stats make up the vast majority of his points and if he were to add goals to his game then he seems a fitting partner.
However, the final standings of Dunk will certainly please the Albion faithful. And much like their season, it is the fine margins that have prevented the defender from taking second-place to himself. If the academy product had just made one more tackle, won one more aerial battle or helped Brighton concede just one goal less then he would be the second-best defender of the bunch based on these metrics.
Stones taking fourth-place is disappointing given that many believe he is the likely candidate to play alongside Maguire. However, these metrics don’t suit a defender playing at a club with the quality of Manchester City, who hardly defend, lose the ball or concede due to their excellence in every position. Stones has played less than other players and so his stats may be less due to this factor too.
The bottom two places on the leaderboard are predictably filled by Coady and Dier, with the former’s one extra point preventing a joint-last place. Plenty have questioned throughout the season how the pair consistently sneak their way into England squads and, with this data in mind, it is clear to see why.
Coady has been pretty poor this season, but his statistics are not too indifferent to last seasons, with his 2019/20 stats being marginally better in only a few departments. With the formation that Southgate is set to play unknown, Coady may be an inclusion due to his ability to play in a back four and a back three. But so can Maguire, Stones, Kyle Walker (a likely inclusion at right-back), and Mings. And, most notably for this piece, Dunk.
Dier is an even more bizarre inclusion for England supporters, with his stats being poor for a defender and a midfielder, and on the surface probably not good enough to be considered as a player for one of the top nations. Southgate has said previously that Dier is in the mix for versatility, but now the squad travelling to Euro 2020 has grown from 23 to 26, surely England don’t need versatility? Of course, Dier’s experience could be a huge boost in the changing rooms given that he has played in a Champions League final and at the last World Cup, but it does make you wonder whether that is a good enough reason to prevent other inform defenders from travelling.
Many paragraphs ago, I asked ‘Does Dunk deserve an England call-up?’ and after looking at these statistics, the answer is an undoubted yes. Brighton’s captain has all the qualities of an international standard player; he is consistent, good with the ball at his feet and can defend very well. And no matter how Southgate sets his team up, may that be as a defensive five-back, an attacking-minded back-three, or simply a flat back-four, you could easily argue that Dunk should be playing.
So, yes Brighton fans. All your comments calling for Dunk to be on the plane are justified. He is more than good enough.
Of course, these metrics haven’t shown certain players (Stones) to best effect and this should be considered. But for a player like Coady, presumably picked for his great defending, he should be higher in my rankings.
There are numerous other defensive options that where the same analysis can be undertaken to determine whether they are good enough for the squad using these metrics, Ben Godfrey and Michael Keane of Everton, James Tarkowski of Burnley, Konsa of Villa, even Chris Smalling and Fikayo Tomori playing out in the Serie A. Whether their stats will hold up when compared to the select six is a different story, but for now – Dunk should be on the plane, Mr Southgate.