Premier League: After Joao Cancelo’s assist, who do the stats suggest is the best full-back?

Last weekend’s Premier League action demonstrated once again just why full-backs have become an integral part of sides who compete for – and ultimately win – league titles.

Current Premier League champions Manchester City had failed to break Everton down before Joao Cancelo produced what may prove to be the assist of the season with the outside of his right boot for Raheem Sterling to finish on the bounce.

The Portuguese has arguably been City’s standout player so far and notched his sixth assist across all competitions to go with his two goals with that sublime piece of magic. 

Manchester City’s Joao Cancelo provided an assist of the season contender at the weekend

Trent Alexander-Arnold (left) provided two assists as Liverpool eased past Arsenal at Anfield

Trent Alexander-Arnold (left) provided two assists as Liverpool eased past Arsenal at Anfield

Fewer than 24 hours earlier, Trent Alexander-Arnold created the chance that eventually saw 2019-20 winners Liverpool take the lead against Arsenal, with Sadio Mane heading home a superb free-kick from the England right-back to beat Aaron Ramsdale.

The 23-year-old then crossed for Takumi Minamino to score less than a minute after coming on, and speaking after the game he signalled his intention ‘to break as many records as I can’ and set an ambitious target of 20 assists for the season.

Chelsea – who currently sit top of the Premier League – saw wing-back duo Reece James and Ben Chilwell terrorise Leicester by charging forward at every given opportunity, and while the latter went off injured against Juventus, the former scored his fifth goal of the season.

They have been in inspired form for Thomas Tuchel’s men this season, scoring eight goals and laying on six assists altogether between them in all competitions this term.

But who do the statistics provided by Opta suggest has performed the best going forward as well as defensively? Sportsmail crunches the numbers to see which full-back has impressed most in the league so far… 

Chelsea duo Ben Chilwell (left) and Reece James (right) have impressed so far this season

Chelsea duo Ben Chilwell (left) and Reece James (right) have impressed so far this season

Attacking

Portugal star Cancelo may have produced the most stunning piece of individual skill at the weekend, but his numbers appear to be lacking in comparison to his competitors at Liverpool and Chelsea.

The Manchester City star has played more games (12) than Alexander-Arnold (10), James (nine) and Chilwell (six) in the Premier League this season.

But he is the only member of the quartet not to have found the net this season, with James leading the way on that front with four.

Two of his goals came within 12 minutes at Newcastle, while strikes against Arsenal and Norwich also put the Blues well on their way to victory.

James leads the way for goals scored between the quartet, having netted four league goals

James leads the way for goals scored between the quartet, having netted four league goals

In fact, James is currently Chelsea’s top scorer in the top flight for 2021-22, and only Christian Pulisic – who has scored twice in the Premier League this term – can better his minutes per goal ratio of 137 minutes among Tuchel’s men, while it is only bettered by 13 players in the entire league. 

Team-mate Chilwell is just behind James with three goals this season, the same number as Romelu Lukaku and Mason Mount, and only the latter sits in between the ex-Leicester man and James in terms of minutes per goal. 

Chelsea are currently sweating over knee issues Chilwell sustained in the midweek Champions League win over Juventus. At worst, he could miss the rest of the season and it would unquestionably be a major blow for Thomas Tuchel’s men.

Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold’s sole strike this season came with a superb free-kick in the Reds’ 3-2 defeat at West Ham before the international break.

It is therefore unsurprising to see James comfortably lead with a shot conversion rate above 33 per cent, a shooting accuracy above 83 per cent and a 100 per cent big chance conversion rate.

Ben Chilwell has also impressed, netting three goals and also recording an excellent xG

Ben Chilwell has also impressed, netting three goals and also recording an excellent xG

More remarkable however is that James’ four goals have come with an expected goals ratio of just 1.1, given that a player who consistently scores more goals than their total xG probably has an above average shooting and/or finishing ability. 

Chilwell also impresses given his three goals have come with an xG of 0.85, while at the other end of the scale, Cancelo’s failure to break his duck appears even more inferior comparatively given that his xG is higher than James’ at 1.68. 

James, 21, and Cancelo appearsto be the best dribblers , with a 75 per cent dribble success rate from the 12 the Chelsea man has attempted this season. Cancelo however has attempted 28 dribbles, 14 of which were successful.

The Man City star does however narrowly edge out James in terms of passing accuracy, and the former has played 964 passes compared to James’ 347.

Cancelo is the only member of the quartet not to score in the Premier League so far this term

Cancelo is the only member of the quartet not to score in the Premier League so far this term

Alexander-Arnold comes second for passes with 682, but his real dominance comes with regards to the creative side of the game. 

He has six assists already this term following his two against the Gunners, five of which – excluding setting up the aforementioned Mane header – have come from open play. Only team-mate Mohamed Salah and Manchester United’s Paul Pogba have more assists this term (seven).

He looks well on course therefore to match his Premier League record of most assists by a defender in a season (13), which he set in July 2020 and which broke his own record of 12 from the previous season.

And neither of his current assist and assist from open play statistics are dwarfed by his City or Chelsea counterparts, though James and Chilwell have also recorded an assist from a dead ball situation this season. 

Alexander-Arnold has scored once but he is out on his own for assists and chances created

Alexander-Arnold has scored once but he is out on his own for assists and chances created

However, Alexander-Arnold is an even clearer winner with regards to chances created. His 34 already this season are split exactly 50-50 between those created from open play and from a set play, but his 17 in the latter are a league high this term. 

That overall figure is also double that of James, his nearest competitor for chances created of the other three, while United midfielder Bruno Fernandes (38) is the only player to have created more in the entire league this season. 

Moreover, none of Cancelo, James or Chilwell even have half of the eight big chances Alexander-Arnold has created. Again only Salah (nine) has created more.

The mantle therefore – despite all the praise for Cancelo in an attacking sense – seems to be split between England internationals James and Alexander-Arnold. Who would want to be Gareth Southgate, eh? 

PREMIER LEAGUE ATTACKING STATS FOR REECE JAMES, BEN CHILWELL, TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD AND JOAO CANCELO THIS SEASON
Player Reece James Ben Chilwell Trent Alexander-Arnold Joao Cancelo
Games Played 9 6 10 12
Goals scored 4 3 1 0
Expected Goals 1.1 0.85 0.93 1.68
Shot Conversion Rate (inc. Blocks) 33.33 23.08 5 0
Shooting Accuracy (ex. Blocks) 83.33 66.67 46.15 53.33
Mins/goal 137 180 874 N/A
Big Chance Conversion % 100 0 N/A 0
Assists 4 1 6 3
Goal Assist from Open Play 3 0 5 2
Goal Assist from Dead Ball 1 1 1 0
Chances Created (inc. assists) 17 10 34 12
Chances Created from Open Play 16 6 17 11
Chances Created from Set Play 1 4 17 1
Big Chance Created 3 1 8 2
Passing Accuracy 85.88 82.9 82.11 86.41
Dribbles Completed 12 8 7 28
Dribbles Success Rate 75 37.5 28.57 50

Defending 

While Cancelo’s attacking statistics may not be quite as prominent as one would expect, he does to a certain extent make up for it heading back towards his own goal and appears to be more defensively involved than the others.

Only Chilwell at 53.23 per cent has a better duel success rate than Cancelo’s 48.46, which is impressive given the latter has been involved in more than double the duels (130) than his Chelsea counterpart (62). 

But none of the other three can match the 27-year-old Portuguese’s recoveries for City this season (69), while he has won 21 of the his aerial battles he has been involved in.

Chilwell has the best duel success rate having won 33 of his 62 individual battles this season

Chilwell has the best duel success rate having won 33 of his 62 individual battles this season

Cancelo has been involved in 44 aerial duels in the top flight this term, the next on the list is Chilwell with 17, demonstrating again how City also call on his defensive aptitude more than perhaps Chelsea and Liverpool do with their full-backs. 

The ex-Valencia and Juventus defender is also out on his own with 25 tackles won, although on the flip side he has also lost the most tackles with eight. 

That leads to Cancelo actually having the third best tackle success rate of the quartet, while Chilwell has managed the most clearances with 14.

Cancelo nevertheless is the outright winner when it comes to interceptions, with his 29 some 12 clear of Alexander-Arnold’s 17, while he has blocked five crosses this term in comparison to Alexander-Arnold and James’ two and Chilwell’s zero.

Cancelo meanwhile appears to dominate in the air, winning 21 of his 44 aerial duels this term

Cancelo meanwhile appears to dominate in the air, winning 21 of his 44 aerial duels this term

The Chelsea duo meanwhile are the only players to concede a penalty of the four, with James’ handball on the goalline at Anfield in the Blues 1-1 stalemate against Liverpool also making him the only one to have been sent off.

But James and Chilwell’s disciplinary record is otherwise very good, with the former only picking up one yellow card and the latter zero, while Alexander-Arnold has only been booked once too.

As mentioned previously, Cancelo’s increased involvement in defensive matters also works against him, having picked up three yellow cards.

Chelsea's James is the only member of the quartet to have been sent of so far this campaign

Chelsea’s James is the only member of the quartet to have been sent of so far this campaign

Those cards have resulted as part of the 11 fouls he has conceded, the highest of the full-backs being discussed, while opponents have dribbled past him on a dozen occasions so far this term.

So how do you assess the best defensively and perhaps overall? Cancelo appears in the top two for most categories but the statistics both work for and against him in defensive matters.

Despite not really being mentioned in this section, Alexander-Arnold appears in the top two for most of these categories, and combined with his clear superiority in terms of creating chances, he could make an argument as the most complete full-back.

Alexander-Arnold appears to be the best all-round full-back, shining in defence and attack

Alexander-Arnold appears to be the best all-round full-back, shining in defence and attack

However, neither can James and Chilwell’s goals be ignored, and few would debate the statistics are not representative of how much Cancelo – who has provided an assist in three consecutive games for City – has impressed this season.

Arguments could therefore be made for all four but what is certain is their value to their sides at both ends of the field.

One of City, Liverpool and Chelsea will be the champions in May, and while their respective forwards will undoubtedly draw the attention of the majority of the plaudits, these four will have contributed more than their fair share towards whatever silverware comes their way.  

PREMIER LEAGUE DEFENSIVE STATS FOR REECE JAMES, BEN CHILWELL, TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD AND JOAO CANCELO THIS SEASON
Player Joao Cancelo Ben Chilwell Trent Alexander-Arnold Reece James
Duels 130 62 55 55
Duels Won 63 33 26 33
Duel Success 48.46 53.23 47.27 60
Recoveries 69 32 67 24
Aerials 44 17 15 11
Aerials Won 21 7 9 4
Tackles 25 8 13 11
Tackle Success 68 37.5 69.23 90.91
Tackles Lost 8 5 4 1
Fouls Conceded 11 10 2 3
Blocks 1 0 2 0
Clearances 10 14 13 4
Interceptions 29 4 17 2
Yellow cards 3 0 1 1
Red cards 0 0 0 1
Penalties Conceded 0 1 0 1
Cross Blocked 5 0 2 2
Dribbled past by opp. 12 3 10 4

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