Our left back has been an area for much discussion over the season with Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Jan Vertonghen and Kyle Naughton all occupying the position.
After playing virtually every minute last term, Benni was expected to continue in the role, but injury to the Cameroonian has seen both Vertonghen and Naughton fill in.
Assou-Ekotto is now back, but not necessarily restored to the position he once had on lockdown, despite saying Kyle Naughton was not a threat to his place. Jan Vertonghen has returned to his more accustomed role in the centre, but Benoit has often been overlooked for Kyle Naughton as Andre Villas-Boas’ left back of choice.
With six must-win matches coming up in the Premier League, who should AVB go with, Benoit Assou-Ekotto or Kyle Naughton?
Full backs in AVB’s system
The full backs play a large role in Andre Villas-Boas’ system, both with and without the ball.
When in possession, they are required to move up the pitch and assist their wider forward players. They have two main duties here. Firstly, they need to look to play balls through the opposition defenders to our wide players moving between the lines on the run. Secondly, if the wide player moves inside, then the full backs need to provide the width and look for passes played through the defence themselves. From here they can get in to positions to cross the ball or cut it back to a team mate.
Without the ball they are required to press up the field in order to force the opposition back in wider areas. They pinch in very tightly behind their wider forward players in order to decrease the space. In this way they can force interceptions and turnovers from either directly taking the ball or indirectly by the opponent kicking long downfield to clear.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Naughton defensively
If we take a look at both Kyle Naughton and Benoit Assou-Ekotto defensively we can see the differences in each player’s game and style.
|Mins on pitch
|Aerial duel attempt
|Aerial duel success
|Loose ball recovery
Benoit Assou-Ekotto prefers to try and intercept the ball, whereas Kyle Naughton is more of a tackler.
The Cameroonian will win the ball back through stealing and picking off misplaced passes and he also recovers loose balls well. The Englishman is much better at winning the ball back through challenges both on the deck and in the air. Kyle Naughton is just 1cm taller than Benoit Assou-Ekotto, but his frequency and win percentage in aerial duels is much greater.
Andre Villas-Boas’ system also requires the full backs to pressure the opposition. As a team, we win the ball back slightly more through tackling (20 per match), than intercepting (19 per match) due to our pressure game causing our full backs to engage with opponents. This should favour Kyle Naughton, however, we still win a lot of balls back through our pressure resulting in misplaced passes, which keeps Benoit Assou-Ekotto in consideration.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Naughton going forward
As mentioned earlier, the full backs on both sides are required to get forward and support their wide attacking players.
If we take a look at where both Assou-Ekotto and Naughton receive the ball on the pitch, we get some interesting differences.
|Mins on pitch
|Overall pass received
|Pass rec in oppo half
|Pass rec in final third
The objective of the full backs is to get in to the final third and support their wide player by either overlapping or by playing a pass through for him. We can see here that even though Kyle Naughton has received the ball more frequently overall, Benoit Assou-Ekotto has seen much more of it in the final third.
The reason for this is that whilst Benoit Assou-Ekotto is naturally left-footed, Kyle Naughton is a right footer playing on the left. This then has a knock-on effect for each player’s passing stats.
|Mins on pitch
|Overall pass accuracy
|Pass acc – oppo half
|Pass acc – final third
|Mins per cross attempted
Kyle Naughton is much more effective at retaining possession of the ball due to his higher completion percentage of passes in each of the zones. As we’ll look at in a second, this is due to the fact that he plays a lot more safer square passes as he comes inside on his right foot,
By using his right foot more often, Naughton attempts considerably less crosses, and even then, completes them at a slightly lower percentage.
If we take a look at both players on stats zone, we can see their differences. I picked two games at random against similar ranking opposition, Norwich and Sunderland, both away from home where both players saw a decent amount of the ball.
Kyle Naughton played against Sunderland and we can see how he received a great deal of possession in the opposition half, but he rarely makes it in to the final third. His passing also reflects his more passive nature on the left. A number of balls are played squarely back inside and the only incisive passes he plays for his wide player to get in behind are long balls through the channels. His only cross is a short one inside the area, which is blocked.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto got the start away to Norwich a couple of games later and we can see how much further forward he gets, echoing his increased passes received in the final third. There is also a slight difference in the angle of balls that he receives. Kyle Naughton took a number of square passes played to him, whereas the balls to Benoit Assou-Ekotto are more diagonal and forward in nature. This highlights his slightly more attacking intent to get forward.
The Cameroonian’s own passing does seem him play a number of square balls, but he attempts many more through balls in to or towards the area, as well as crosses.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto is much better going forward than Kyle Naughton due to him being naturally on his left side. As a result, he has an increased frequency for receiving the ball in the final third and his own passes played are more attacking in nature. Although Kyle Naughton completes passes at a higher rate, thus taking care of the ball, his passing is very often safe and square, rather than aggressive and forward.
Last season, Benoit Assou-Ekotto showed much better positioning in Harry Redknapp’s system. This term, both he and Kyle Naughton have struggled to play with the attacking dimensions Andre Villas-Boas requires, whilst also coping on the defensive end.
Nowhere was this better illustrated in than in our Europa League tie with Basel. Benoit Assou-Ekotto started in the first leg and was torn apart by the speed and direct dribbling of Mohammed Salah, especially on the Swiss side’s first goal.
Kyle Naughton has more pace, so he was brought in for the second leg to match up with Salah. Although he did a better job of staying with the flying Egyptian, he was caught up field trying to support Gylfi Sigurdsson as Moussa Dembele turned the ball over on Salah’s goal.
Both players have had difficulties with their positioning as they become accustomed to the role this season. Benoit Assou-Ekotto is an experienced full back, but has struggled to come to terms with what Andre Villas-Boas wants. Kyle Naughton should be more reliable given he doesn’t stray in to the final third as often, but he too hasn’t coped with his positioning.
Discuss: Benoit Assou-Ekotto or Kyle Naughton?
Both players have their strengths and weaknesses, but who should get the nod for our six crucial Premier League encounters, Benoit Assou-Ekotto or Kyle Naughton?