Stats Beyond the Surface: Center Backs

In the third installment of this series, we look at what makes a good CB for your fantasy team and who could give you the most points from this position.

By Tony Maza

Center-backs are probably the players who most often get the short stick when it comes to fantasy football: their primary purpose is to defend, but they’re not like goalkeepers whose saves would prevent a goal, and they’re not really involved in the attack (at least for the most part).

Nowadays the DNA of a good center-back is based on their ability to clear the ball and start possession from the back as well as their passing range and composure under pressure. A prime example of this “modern” CB is Mapi León, from Barcelona; her defensive prowess is high, but she’s also more involved in the buildup than many other CBs.

So how do you use this info to choose the best center back for your fantasy team? Let’s break down what makes a great CB—and how to understand their most important stats—in two key sections: the defensive side and the attacking side.

The defensive side

There are five key components to defensive stats in football that translate to fantasy: tackles, interceptions, duels, goals conceded, and fouls/yellow cards.

The first three are pretty self-explanatory Duels refer to the moment when the ball is in a 50/50 situation, which could definitely happen with the center back in possession. If they successfully dribble their way out of pressure from a forward, that’s a duel won.

So your first step when looking for a defensively solid center back should be to find the players with high numbers in at least TWO of those first three stat categories. The outliers this season in tackles and duels, so far, are Kayla Sharples (80% of tackles won, 70% of duels won), Zoey Morse (83% of tackles won, 73% of duels won), and Vanessa Gilles (78% of tackles won, 67% of duels won).

Duels and tackles won in the NWSL this season

Vanessa Gilles is also in the top three in terms of clearances, with 49 so far, behind only Megan Reid who has 51, and Katie Naughton with 57. So far in this selection process, the Canadian center-back is a no-brainer pick for any fantasy team.

Next, we move to the other two stats on the defensive side of things: goals conceded and fouls/yellow cards. These are the stats you have to watch out for because they could lead you to earn fewer points even when you have good CBs on your team. 

The average of fouls committed in the current NWSL season between players in this position is 0.7 per game, so anything around this number should be good, and the lower, the better. The player with the most fouls up to the international break is Gemma Bonner with a staggering 2.3 fouls per game, followed by Kristen McNabb (2.0) and Ally Prisock (1.2).

The teams with more fouls committed and yellow cards in the NWSL this year

Our pick so far, Gilles, has 0.9, but it makes a lot of sense given that Angel City is one of the teams that foul more in the competition. Zoey Morse, meanwhile, is on par with 0.7. However, if you’re looking for sobriety and fair play points, you can always count on The Captain herself, Becky Sauerbrunn. Granted, she only played 2 games so far, but with 0.2 fouls per game(and 0.2 in the entire 2021 season), you’ll be set in the fouls/yellow cards department with her.

And now we come to the last step, which is goals conceded. The average in this 2022 period is to concede 1.3 goals per game, and all of our picks, tracking with their individual performances, play on teams that have conceded less than the average. The best team in this regard is OL Reign—backed by a great season from Phallon Tullis-Joyce—with 0.7 goals conceded per game, followed by the Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave with 0.8, Angel City with 1.0, and the Chicago Red Stars with 1.1.

With this process, you can single out a good bunch of center-backs that can help you add to the defensive points that your goalkeeper and full-backs bring to your team.

The attacking side 

This is an interesting thing about the NWSL (and it begs a deeper analysis), but the proportion of goals and assists from players in this position are very few compared to other leagues. 

Since the 2018 season, only three center-backs have scored more than twice: Katie Naughton, Abby Erceg, and Sam Staab.  All of them played more than 20 games each, so the proportion is really low. The assist numbers for center backs are also quite low, and Sam Staab also leads in that area with 3 assists, tied with Ali Krieger. 

To give some perspective regarding other leagues, also from the start of 2018, Leah Williamson has 10 assists for Arsenal and has scored four times, while Gemma Bonner has scored on five occasions. So what does all this mean for your fantasy picks? When it comes to NWSL center backs, you’ll get more mileage by focusing on the defense.

Conclusion

So focusing on the defensive side of things when it comes to center-backs is the way to go. It’s also a good idea to first look at the individual outliers in each stat, and then consider how their point-scoring ability will be affected by their context within their club. Paying attention not only to individual stats but also to team records and discipline will maximize your points when it comes to players in this position. Stick to this plan and your team in the NWSL She Plays Fantasy league will be all set in the back.

Next time, we move up the pitch to central midfielders, a fascinating position with many layers to explore!

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