Stats Beyond the Surface: Defensive Midfielders

In the fourth part of this series, we take a deep dive into how to make the best choice for your She Plays NWSL fantasy team. 

By Tony Maza

Defensive midfielders are probably your most critical fantasy piece in the middle of the park. Sure, creative players are the most flamboyant and tend to be the ones that catch the eye, but if you’ve read the previous articles from this series, you know that we’re all about balance over flash. 

So let’s go over the points you should pay attention to if you’re looking to build a balanced midfield for your fantasy squad, starting with the defensive side of things. 

Roles of a Defensive Midfielder: The Shields

In both fantasy football and real-life football, a good DM has the ability to protect the backline. That’s the line, the job description, the bread and butter of every No. 6. But you can defend in many ways; some defensive midfielders come out with more aggressiveness while others focus more heavily on reading the game correctly to anticipate the play.

Looking at what happened so far in the NWSL season, the players that pop out when we look for DMs with good interception numbers—aka anticipation of play, plus good positioning—are Jaelin Howell with 26, Danielle Colaprico with 23, and McCall Zerboni with 21.

But here’s the catch: All of these players are part of teams that concede a lot. Chicago has allowed 16 goals while both Racing Louisville and Gotham have allowed 18. That’s far from ideal when you’re thinking of maximizing your fantasy points.

Then comes the magic word: adjusted. With defensive numbers, a good measure to understand players’ performances in context is adjusted numbers, whether those are tackles, interceptions, or clearances. Why? Because teams that have less possession overall, have, as a general rule, a tendency to have more defensive actions. So they may look good on paper at first glance, but those defensive stats would be inflated.

So looking at adjusted interception numbers instead, the leader is Andi Sullivan from the Washington Spirit (6.06), Nikki Stanton from OL Reign (4.0) and after Howell, Colaprico and Zerboni we have Sophie Schmidt (3.31) and Cari Roccaro (3.29). Washington, OL Reign, Houston, and Angel City all come in below the average on goals conceded, which bumps their DMs up in the stats.

Midfielders with 5+ games, sorted by adjusted interceptions and recoveries.

The same idea applies for tackles, where the leader is Nikki Stanton (8.81), followed by Bri Visalli (7.42). But as a measure, tackles could also lead to more fouls—fouls mean yellow cards and we don’t want that in our DMs. So basically, look for good defensive numbers from your prospective DMs, but don’t forget to pay attention to the context.

Roles of a Defensive Midfielder: The Creators

Despite not being tasked with the full creation of chances for the team, defensive midfielders have to be tidy and secure with the ball. The first pass in any possession is absolutely vital. So when you’re looking at the offensive side of a potential DM, ask yourself: 

How is their passing accuracy? Do they pass forward or sideways?

The opposite happens to the defensive numbers: those on teams that don’t rely on possession have bigger numbers, but in this case, those who play on teams that want the ball more will have a bigger impact on your fantasy points.

So combining those passing numbers with duels won %, the top performers from teams that concede less are Quinn, Cari Roccaro, Denise O’Sullivan, and Taylor Aylmer.

Central midfielders with 500+ minutes, sorted by duels won and passing accuracy

So how should I choose?

To summarize, start off by selecting the teams with fewer goals conceded as a first filter (but don’t count out a good team that might be having a rough streak). Then, look at those teams’ defensive numbers and try to determine whether those stats are high due to lack of possession. And finally, choose the players who have good passing stats as well to bring balance to your midfield.

Who would you pick for your fantasy team? Next time, we are looking at creative midfielders, the ones that oldies like me call “No. 10s”.

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