Tandems From the Top

N’Golo Kanté & Nemanja Matić

Before this season, no one knew it will pan out like this. No one knew Branislav Ivanović, John Terry, Oscar, Willian and, to the extent, Cesc Fàbregas will be the victims of a revolution. No one knew a neglected CFC son, Victor Moses, will get his chance in a Blue shirt. No one knew a prodigal CFC son, David Luiz, will do this well. No one was quite sure whether Chelsea turn out to be the genuine contenders. The one thing we absolutely knew about, though, was that 2014/15 Premier League champion Nemanja Matić and 2015/16 Premier League champion N’Golo Kante will work out well together.

And so they did – but a bit differently than media are portraying it. They are by no means prolific passers or strikers; their aerial prowess is also relatively sub-par (unsurprisingly: one half of this duo is 1.69 m tall). In fact, their complete and utter success this season revolves around stealing the ball from the opposition – an art that’s been perfected by Chelsea and led to countless goals this season, most recent example being Eden Hazard’s effort at West Ham just yesterday. Will this be enough to bring them success in the Champions League next season? Well – if they cannot make it work in UCL, no other CMs in England can.

Standout performance: Undoubtedly the 4-0 trashing of Manchester United, back in October – crowned in the second half with Matić’s assist for 3-0 and Kante’s goal for 4-0.

Game to forget: 1-1 draw at Burnley. It wasn’t a loss like 0-3 to Arsenal or 1-2 to Liverpool, but Matić got subbed off after 67 minutes and the duo contributed only one interception.

Mousa Dembélé & Victor Wanyama

One of the most interesting and overlooked players in the Premier League, Dembele has come a long way at White Hart Lane. Signed in 2012 as an attacking midfielder, he eventually evolved into a much more crucial, deeper role, leaving some of the offensive duties to the mercurial youngster, Dele Alli. This transformation turned Belgian into perhaps the most complete player in England, who not only averages 2.7 won tackles per game – he is also EPL’s second-best passer (91.6%, only behind John Stones) and fifth most prolific dribbler (3.1 take-ons per game, behind Traoré, Hazard, Zaha and Boufal).

Today, after the years of working with players like Tom Huddlestone, Étienne Capoue, Nabil Bentaleb or Eric Dier, Dembele has finally been paired with former Southampton stalwart, Victor Wanyama. And it’s been a fruitful cooperation ever since, as the Kenyan has brought even more physical prowess and resillience into it. Dangerous at set-pieces, Wanyama remains the indispensable player, having missed only 38 minutes of Premier League action this season. As for the top 6 CM partnership comparisons: he and his mate are #2 tacklers out there with nearly two challenges won per 90 minutes of EPL action.

Standout performance: Definitely 2-0 win over Chelsea that ended The Blues’ gargantuan, undefeated streak. They’ve won 8 tackles and 6 dribbles in it!

Game to forget: 0-2 at Anfield. All over the place in the first 30 minutes, the lads have been dispossessed four times and pretty much played off the park.

Fernandinho & Yaya Touré

Dinho and Big Yaya are the only top 6 midfield partnership without a new signing involved. This fact might seem as if it gave them the advantage of stability, but it’s actually the other way around: they’ve played the total least amount of minutes out of all 6 duos I’ve analyzed and probably wouldn’t even fit the description of a ‘partnership’ if it wasn’t for Ilkay Gundogan’s lenghty knee injury. Unsurprisingly, their stats are far from impressive: the only chart that they’re topping is clearances per 90 minutes (2.17) – the task that should not, by any means, be pivotal in Pep Guardiola’s passing-focused system.

Let’s not forget, though: in football, the level of players’ involvement depends heavily on the tempo and ‘volatileness’ of matches – something that Manchester City manager prefers to keep on a relatively low level. With over 60.8% possession (#1 in the league), the Citizens’ midfield simply isn’t urged to make as many challenges or commit as many fouls as the other teams. Which is perhaps why their clearance rate so high: because the vast majority of their opponents are using sharp, dangerous counterattacks – moves that need to be disrupted through the simplest means available.

Standout performance: A hard-fought, 3-0 win at Hull. Against the persistent opposition, they were patient enough and eventually got rewarded in the final 20 minutes.

Game to forget: Played together? None. However: Fernandinho will regret his red cards against Chelsea and Burnley – which both left Toure with a task of doing the job by himself.

Jordan Henderson & Georginio Wijnaldum

Three-man midfield is obviously fundamentally different than a 4-2-3-1 system – but one can safely assume that while Adam Lallana was aiding Liverpool forwards, it was down to Hendo and Gini to take care of the midfield duties. With over 4101 minutes already played this season (#2 in this comparison, only behind Kante and Matić), LFC lads have some right to feel jaded and to pull not-too-impressive numbers – but, in reality, their mediocre stats are also down to the labour-splitting between them and aforementioned Lallana. As it stands: the ex-Mackem and ex-Geordie are coming last in this comparison.

However – there is one thing that they seem to be doing best. It’s called ‘balancing things out between the attack and the defence’. That especially applies to the Dutchman, who used to be deployed as a winger for Newcastle, where he would disappear for months only to pop up with a brace or a hat-trick. Nowadays, with a goal or assist contribution every four matches, Wijnaldum looks like a solid CM fit, nicely complementing Henderson’s crisp ability to win challenges (#3 top tackler in the Premier League this season) and pick out the right pass (with average 86% accuracy). Could the next season finally be theirs?

Standout performance: 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge. Henderson has scored an absolute cracker; Wijnaldum has won 3 tackles and made 2 interceptions.

Game to forget: 2-2 home draw against West Ham. They both did pretty well in those painful defeats against relegation-tier teams, but this was a straight-up mediocre show.

Francis Coquelin & Granit Xhaka

Slammed by both media and the fans for their anonymous performance against Bayern Munich, Coquelin and Xhaka are the epitome of a duo born out of the neccessity. In normal circumstances, those two would be racing toe-to-toe with Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny for a starting spot – but since those three are either injured, travelling overseas or out of shape – the Swiss-French partnership is the best Gunners have to offer these days. And, to be fair to them: they are quite sound defensively, topping this comparison for both tackles won (2.41/g) and interceptions (2.5/g).

What’s clearly underwhelming about those two particular players together is their creative component. The least amount of shots (less than 1 per 90 minutes) and key passes (only 0.85/g) suggests less-than-ideal attacking contribution they have to offer. That, to a certain degree, undermines Arsenal’s typical way of playing, which is focused over controlling the game in the oppositions’ half and unleasing their offensive potential through the individual creativity. Perhaps converting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into a full-time central midfielder would be the move powerful enough to restore the attacking balance in this team?

Standout performance: 3-1 home comeback against Stoke. They’ve misplaced only 15 out of 150 attempted passes while winning 5 aerials, 5 tackles and 5 interceptions.

Game to forget: Definitely the last one. Completely outplayed in the first half, they were separated at the half-time, when Alexis replaced Coquelin.

Ander Herrera & Paul Pogba

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the Herrera-Pogba duo that dominates most of the stats in this comparison. They are easily the most frequent shooters (2.5 per 90 mins), most creative passers (1.51 key pass per 90 mins) and… the dirtiest central midfielders (roughly two fouls conceded per game – although that’s still not a very condemning ratio). The naked eyes’ impression pretty much confirms these numbers: whenever the Basque and the Frenchman were in the heart of the games together, United looked dominant – which, overall, resulted with 17 straight Premier League games without a single Red Devils’ defeat.

What’s more puzzling, though, is that it’s actually Herrera, who comes out on top in a comparison with his more reputable, world-transfer record holding teammate. Less than a year ago, the ex-Bilbao player was tipped to either leave Old Trafford or at least to fight a fierce battle for his spot with Morgan Schneiderlin, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Marouane Fellaini. Today – he is first on the team sheet with second-best interception ratio in the league (three per game) and ninth best tackle success (also three per game). That certainly weighs more than just 4 EPL goals from 83 (!) shots by Pogba.

Standout performance: 2-0 win against Watford. They’ve won 10 tackles between them, completed 157 passes and hammered Hornets from the start to finish.

Game to forget: No, not 0-4 to Chelsea – it’s actually a scrappy, narrowly-saved 1-1 home draw with Liverpool. Pogba was anonymous; Ander won his first tackle after 45 minutes.


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