Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics
Source credit - Wyscout

French domestic football is one of the hottest breeding grounds in the world for the young footballers at the moment. Several youth academies in the country are run well in terms of identifying the talents at tender ages and providing a platform for them to compete at a high level to develop their craft. According to a study, France is the world’s second-biggest exporter of professional footballers, only behind Brazil, and it is evident from the fact that more than a quarter of the players who played in semi-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup had come through the French academies.

Keeping that in mind, we have created this data analysis report to partly identify the current state of the youth production line in the country. This report will focus on finding some of the best young defensive midfielders that are currently playing in Ligue 1. Because these findings are purely based on the certain important data and statistics and do not consider all the possible data, the report only serves as a starting point to identify promising defensive midfielders in Ligue 1. Detailed analysis of the players might be required in the future to understand their actual potential and style of play.

Selection criteria

Since this report is about finding young talents, we have only included players with a maximum age of 23 years. It is also important to know that every player in this analysis has played at least 900 minutes of football in Ligue 1 this season. This criterion is important to create a fair comparison among the players since a player who has played significantly lesser minutes than another player will have inflated statistics but it does not necessarily make him a better player.

The final criterion is to consider only those players that have significantly served the team at the defensive midfield position. Although it is impossible to find players that have only played in one position throughout a season due to the tactical flexibility of the modern managers, this report will only have defensive midfielders who have not withered away from their position for too long.

Final shortlist

Based on the filters mentioned above, the list of young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 was narrowed down to 15 players. For every metric that we used in this analysis, each of the players was assigned a normalized value between zero and one based on his statistic in that particular metric. This means that the best performing player for a particular metric was assigned the value of one while the worst performing player for the same metric was assigned zero. The remaining players were assigned a normalized value between zero and one. The following five players who had the highest total of all the metrics became our best candidates for this analysis. 

  1. Ibrahim Sangaré (Toulouse)
  2. Toma Bašić (Bordeaux) 
  3. Boubakary Soumaré (Lille)
  4. Aurélien Tchouaméni (Bordeaux)
  5. Eduardo Camavinga (Rennes)

Defensive ability

Back in the day, the major role of a defensive midfield player was only to be the second line of defence and do the dirty work to stop the opposition attack in the own half. However, the game has evolved over the years and so is the role of a defensive midfielder. Although a lot of emphases are now put on the ball playing and attacking qualities of a defensive midfield player, defending remains to be a significant aspect. Hence, we have created the following graph of three metrics that will give us an idea about the quality of these players on the defensive side of things.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics
Source credit – Wyscout

The x-axis shows successful defensive actions taken by a player per 90 minutes and the y-axis shows PAdj (Possession-adjusted) interceptions. PAdj interceptions are calculated by adjusting the number of interceptions made by a player based on his team’s possession. A player who plays in a team that enjoys more possession will naturally make a smaller number of interceptions than a player who plays for a team that enjoys less possession since the latter will have to do more defending the former. This, however, does not necessarily show who is a better defender out of the two. Hence, PAdj is calculated by adjusting the interception values of both players to the team’s possession. Besides, we have added the success rate of defensive duels in the colour, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. 

Sangaré comes out with the best figures from the graph. The Ivorian has the highest number of successful defensive actions (11.84) and PAdj interceptions (6.6). This is only natural since he plays for Toulouse, a side that has conceded the highest number of goals and finished last in the table. Having said that, his physicality wins him 63.39% of the defensive duels, which is an impressive number that shows his defensive solidity.

Tchouaméni and Bašić have been playing as holding midfielders for Bordeaux for most parts of the season. Tchouaméni’s 9.63 successful defensive actions and 58.24% defensive duel success rate falls shorter than his Bordeaux counter-part, who has figures of 9.73 and 64.36% respectively. However, Tchouaméni makes 6.32 PAdj interceptions, which is more than Bašić’s 4.77. It indicates that the Croatian defends higher up the pitch as compared to the Frenchman.

Camavinga’s defensive ability is evident from his 11.47 successive defensive actions per 90 minutes and 5.28 PAdj interceptions. Rennes conceded only 24 goals in Ligue 1 last season, only behind Reims. A lot of credit has to go to the French youngster, who has been handed such a crucial role for most parts of the season and hasn’t disappointed, being only 17 years of age.

Soumaré fails to impress in the defensive aspect of the game with 6.33 successive defensive actions per 90 minutes and 4.38 PAdj interceptions. These are the lowest figures amongst all the players from our search. The only defensive trait where the 21-year old shows decent numbers are his 62.71% success rate in defensive duels.

The following figure summarizes the graph. While the grades are normalized values between zero and one as mentioned above, the intensity of the colour in each section will determine the player’s ranking amongst the group for that section, with the darkest blue colour being the highest grade and the white colour being the lowest grade.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics

Ball carrying ability

Being the free man ahead of the backline, a defensive midfielder needs to be comfortable on the ball so that he can make optimum use of the possession to initiate the attacks or counter-attacks. With more and more teams now playing with high pressing and gegenpressing tactics, it is imperative that a defensive midfielder can dribble the ball out into space under pressure without losing ball possession. A possession loss in the defensive third may lead to conceding a dangerous goal-scoring opportunity for the opposing team.

Moreover, the modern defensive midfielders are seen to be assigned the responsibility of breaking the opposition midfield lines by making a bombarding progressive run towards the opposition thirds in attacking transitions or open play, Frankie de Jong of Barcelona being the perfect example. 

Hence, the following graph will illustrate which of the young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 are comfortable and confident ball carriers.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics
Source credit – Wyscout

In the figure above, the x-axis shows progressive runs per 90 minutes while the y-axis shows the number of times a player dribbles per 90 minutes. Once again, we have used colour representation, this time for showcasing the dribbling accuracy, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are.

Jean-Ricner Bellegarde is a clear outlier in the group. However, it must be noted that the RC Strasbourg midfielder has more often played in the attacking positions than the defensive midfield which influences this statistic.

Bašić and Camavinga are the most successful ball carriers from our group. The Bordeaux midfielder attempts 3.16 dribbles per 90 minutes. We have already seen in the defensive graph that the Croatian is more attack-minded than Tchouaméni in Les Girondins’ side and this graph illustrates this further. However, with only a 45.95% dribble success rate, Bašić often runs the risk of losing balls in the dangerous areas for the opposition to hurt Bordeaux. Perhaps this is something that the 23-year old needs to improve.

The Rennes midfielder, on the other end, makes 1.64 progressive runs per 90 minutes, only behind Bellegarde. Moreover, the 64.71% dribble success rate is very impressive and only Mamadou Fofana is ahead of him. However, he does not attempt a lot of dribbles considering that he plays in deeper positions and a potential loss would concede dangerous goal-scoring chances for the opposition. This shows his maturity at the mere age of 17.

Soumaré is seen making 1.18 progressive runs per 90, which is higher than average. His 53.85% dribble success rate highlights that dribbling is not his best of the strengths and hence, he rightly attempts only 1.8 dribbles per 90 minutes, which is lower than the average.

Sangaré, similar to Camavinga, is a very good dribbler with a success rate of 64.15%. Hence, he rightly opts to dribble the ball more rather than making a run to vertically progress the ball for his team. With 0.89 progressive runs and 2.06 dribbles per 90 minutes, the Ivorian sits on both sides of the average line in these two aspects.

With 0.58 progressive runs and 1.5 dribbles per 90 minutes with 57.14% accuracy, Tchouaméni sits in the lower-left box which indicates that ball carrying is not his best of abilities. Just because he does not carry the ball at his feet for ball progression doesn’t mean that he is not an effective ball progressing player. In the next graph, we will see that the Frenchman relies more on progressive passes than progressive runs for making vertical ball progressions for his team.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics

Just like the previous section, the above figure shows the results of the shortlisted payers in each of the ball carrying section.

Progressive passing

A defensive midfielder is a glue that holds together most of the modern attacking teams. In the current age where controlling possession and dictating the tempo higher up the field has become tactical trends, a defensive midfield player must have great passing abilities to be effective not only in initiating attacks from the back, but also making progressive passes to vertically progress the ball for the team.

Besides, the effectiveness of passing also plays a crucial role since an inaccurate pass from the defensive third may also give the opposition a chance to attack. Hence, the following graphs will determine the passing abilities of Ligue 1 young defensive midfielders.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics
Source credit – Wyscout

The above graph shows the total passes (x-axis) versus the progressive passes(y-axis) per 90 minutes. This is combined with the accuracy of progressive passes, which is represented by colour codes, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. This graph indicates the percentage of a player’s total passes that help his team to vertically progress the ball.

Even though Sangaré makes less than average progressive runs as established in the previous graph, he is very effective in vertical ball progressions through passes. Out of his 48.59 total passes, the Ivorian makes 8.93 progressive passes per 90, which is over 18% of his total passes. The Ivorian not only makes the highest number of progressive passes from our group, but he also has the best success rate of 81.74% in it. This makes him an ideal candidate for most of the modern teams who relies on the defensive midfielder to effectively progress the ball higher up the pitch. 

Next in line is Tchouaméni, who relatively makes more passes (49.89 per 90 minutes) than Sangaré, but his progressive passing rate of 8.76 is lesser than the Toulouse midfielder. Having said that, the graph indicates that the French youngster, like Sangaré, contributes to his team’s vertical play via progressive passes than runs. Having watched Tchouaméni play, he has the potential to improve his progressive runs and dribbles in the future.

Soumaré makes the highest number of passes amongst the other midfielders in the group. Although he makes fewer progressive passes (7.79) than Tchouaméni, his slightly high accuracy in progressive passes of 79.46% to the latter’s 79.34% indicates that the Lille midfielder is a better passer than Tchouaméni. Moreover, Soumaré‘s passing accuracy of 90.83% shows his reliability and exactly why Christophe Galtier trusts the Frenchman in front of his defensive line.

Camavinga’s low figures in both the metrics suggest that the 17-year old mostly relies on his on the ball abilities to carry the ball vertically. The Rennes midfielder seldom makes progressive passes and whenever he does, he is not too effective, having a 67.24% success rate. Having said that, the French youngster has huge potential in him and there is no doubt that he can improve in these metrics too.

We saw in the previous graph that although Bašić is not quite effective in his dribbling, he has the propensity to attempt dribbles and make vertical runs in attack. This graph tells us that he also makes a reasonable number of progressive passes when he is on the ball. Moreover, his accuracy in progressive passing is 80.26% which is impressive. Perhaps the Croatian must make use of passes more than runs during vertical progressions. Besides, a high number of passes and progressive passes from Basic and Tchouaméni explains Bordeaux s 54.1% possession stats for the 19/20 Ligue 1 season.

Long passing

Another tactical trend of modern football is to play a high defensive line to support the team’s high pressing without losing the vertical compactness between the lines. This high backline can be exposed by the opposition if the team has a defensive midfielder who can play accurate long balls behind the defenders for the runners to occupy a huge space behind the defensive line. Hence, in the following graph, we will try to identify the defensive midfielders who can be a great asset for teams who try to hurt their oppositions by exposing the high defensive line.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics
Source credit – Wyscout

Camavinga and Soumaré have largely impressive figures when it comes to long passing with the accuracies of 73.33% and 70.73% respectively. Both the youngsters make a smaller number of long passes per 90 but with such a high success rate, they can be very dangerous in transitions.

Sangaré seems to attempt more long passes (6.13) as compared to the rest of the members of our group but has comparatively less accuracy. The Ivorian is an intelligent passer of the ball and has the propensity to long whenever possible. As shown in the previous graph, the youngster makes a lot of progressive passes. A youngster, with obvious potential to grow, with 60.13% long pass accuracy making a decent number of progressive passes, as shown in the previous graph, is a useful asset to have for any top side.

Tchouaméni is a decent ball progressing player as we have seen previously. This graph indicates that although his long passing accuracy is above average (60.61%), he prefers to progress the ball via short passes. This is evident from the fact that the 20-year old only attempts 2.39 long passes per 90 minutes. Although Bašić makes 4.27 long passes per 90 minutes, which is more than the average, the accuracy of 58% indicates that there is room for improvement. 

The following figure is the combined result set of all the passing metrics used above.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics

Attacking ability

Due to the high pressing and high backline tactics, a modern defensive midfielder plays a crucial role not only in his own half but also in the opposition half. He generally gets involved in his team’s attacking phase of play by influencing the attacking thirds of the pitch. The following graph will highlight three important metrics to judge a defensive midfield player in the attacking side of things.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics
Source credit – Wyscout

The graph in the above figure shows the influence of the defensive midfielders in the final third that helps their team in creating goal-scoring chances. The x-axis shows the Key passes made by the players. According to Wyscout, a key pass is “a pass that immediately creates a clear goal-scoring opportunity for a teammate who in turn fails to score”. The y-axis shows the number of passes made into the final third per 90 minutes. The colour coding represents the players’ goal contributions, which is taken as the sum of xA and xG. The red colour indicates below-average, green above-average, and the intensity represents how close to the top/bottom they are.

Even though Toulouse is such a poor attacking side, Sangaré makes the highest number of final third passes (10.87) within the group. It seems that Toulouse relies a lot on their defensive midfielder to provide attacking opportunities. Moreover, we have already seen in the previous graph that the Ivorian has a propensity to play long balls forward and he does that with decent accuracy. These two facts indicate that most of Sangaré’s final third passes are long, which can be very useful against the opposition with a high defensive line. Most of his long balls also result in several key passes, which makes him second highest in that metric with 0.31 key passes per 90. Only if he can play on a top side, the Toulouse midfielder can have far greater influence in the goal contribution aspect for the team.

Although Soumaré makes significant influence in the final third with 10.22 final third passes per 90 minutes, only behind Sangaré in the group, his 0.07 key passes and 0.05 goal contribution per 90 indicates that Lille relies on their attacking players to dictate the final third. Having said that, having a player who can string in some important passes from the back can be useful for any side.

Bašić seems to be the most influential player when it comes to the attacking output, showing an impressive figure of 0.34 in key passes per 90 minutes. Moreover, his goal contribution of 0.26 is the highest in the group. The major reason for these figures from the Croatian is due to his excellent set-piece deliveries that have made Bordeaux the highest goal-scoring team in Ligue 1 in set-pieces.

While Tchouaméni has more than average final third passes, his influence is limited to the middle third of the pitch since he does not seem to make penetrating goal-scoring passes, as suggested by their low figures in key passes metric. One of the reasons for his high final third passes is the fact that Bordeaux plays a high defensive line tactic which allows him to be in the middle third and string in passes into the final third.

Lastly, Camavinga seems to have the lowest influence in the attacking third compared to the remaining players in our group. Combining this with his long passing accuracy, it indicates that the Frenchman might be made using a lot of long balls for switching the play rather than vertically progressing the play.

Finding the best young defensive midfielders in Ligue 1 - data analysis statistics

Let us give a brief description of our shortlisted players along with their strengths based on all the results sets mentioned above.

Ibrahim Sangaré

According to the total grades of our data analysis, the Toulouse man comes out as the best defensive midfielder in the Ligue 1. He has the best all-round ability amongst all the other candidates which is evident from the fact that he never fell below the third spot in any of the aspects. He is like a diamond in the rough team with the humongous potential to become one of the best defensive midfielders in the future. Although whether Toulouse will get relegated or not amidst the uncertainty over the relegation decision, the Ivorian is ready for a move to a bigger club. It will not be a surprise if a big club comes calling this summer for the 22-year old, who is valued at only over 10m dollars, according to transfermarkt.

Toma Bašić

Bašić has the second-best cumulative figure in our data analysis. He is really good with the ball and also in the attacking aspect of the game. The Croatian can be a good attacking asset for a team that is looking for a defensive midfielder who can be dangerous with the ball and in the final third. After a poor start to the 19/20 season, Bašić became a key part of Paulo Sousa’s Bordeaux. The youngster is excellent in the set-piece deliveries which has led to his team scoring the highest number of set-piece goals in Ligue 1 last season. Not only that, but he is also an effective ball progressing player and his physicality gives him an edge in the middle of the park. Bordeaux needs to improve their standings in the upcoming season or see the Croatian make a move for a bigger opportunity elsewhere. With the value of just 5m dollars, there will surely be a lot of mid-tier clubs asking for the 23-year old. 

Boubakary Soumaré

The 21-year old Lille midfielder is one of the most exciting talents in Ligue 1, so it is a no-brainer that he has shown up in our shortlist. Having said that, his excellent passing stats overpowers the other weaker areas that have given him the third-best cumulative points in our group. If he can improve on the defensive area, the French youngster can become an all-round defensive midfielder. The efficiency with which he has performed his role in the Lille setup is proof that he can be a vital player for most of the attacking clubs in the world. Valued at over 22m dollars by the Transfermarkt, he was recently linked with moves to Liverpool, Manchester United, and Barcelona. It will not be a shock to find the youngster at any of these clubs in the next season.

Eduardo Camavinga

The 17-year old wonderkid of Rennes is under constant transfer spotlight after Real Madrid has been reportedly showing interest in him. It is surely difficult to ignore the Spanish giants but it is a no brainer that the Frenchman will get more minutes to develop his game if he stays with his current club. According to Transfermarkt, the 17-year old is valued over 41m dollars, which makes him the most “in-demand” youngster in the world. From our analysis, it is clear that Camavinga is a defensive-minded midfielder who is excellent on the ball and a decent defender. However, he can improve his passing and attacking skills.

Aurélien Tchouaméni

Camavinga’s valuation might put Real Madrid off and divert their attention towards this 20-year old youngster, who joined Monaco in January 2020 before completing the rest of the season with his former club Bordeaux. Tchouaméni is valued at 17m dollars by transfermarkt which is not a huge amount considering the talent this young boy has. The ex-Bordeaux midfielder is defensively sound and a decent passer of the football. However, he can improve his attacking skills.

Conclusion

France keeps on producing world-class talents which makes it difficult to choose the best players. Although many others could have made the shortlist, there are only limited players that we can showcase in an analysis piece. 

Some of the choices that were left out are Alexis Blin (SC Amiens), Joris Chotard (Montpellier), and Lucas Tousart (Olympique Lyon). Renato Sanches (Lille), Benjamin Henrichs (Monaco), and Boubacar Kamara (Marseille) are also very promising and while they had more scores than some of our shortlisted players, the trio was not included since they have either played in more attacking or defensive positions than the ones selected for a significant portion of the season. These would also deserve proper scouting because they stand out in several metrics.