West Ham United players have been largely criticised and not praised for their performances and the club’s results so far this season, but there have been a few exceptions, stars that have defied the status quo to play well despite the team not doing so, overall.
One of these has been veteran right-back for Manuel Pellegrini’s side, Pablo Zabaleta, who wasn’t expecting to be starting before the campaign with the signing of Ryan Fredericks from Fulham, let alone be one of the best players after the third month of 2018/2019. Today, we are going to carry out a statistics-driven tactical analysis of the Argentine, finding out just how impressive his start has been and whether it is set to continue, with the numbers behind it.
Heatmap and Position
For the first phase of our analysis, we are going to analyse a heatmap and a positional map of Zabaleta this campaign, one that has been acquired from our good friends over at wyscout.com.
As you can see, the heatmap is positioned on the left in the graphic and the position map on the right, displaying that he has only been used in the right-back role by Pellegrini, the preferred position of his entire silver-plated career.
The heatmap shows us that age hasn’t stopped the defender covering an almighty amount of ground, running the wings each time he has taken the field, getting up to support attacks and getting back to defend counter-movements constantly, not bad for a 33-year-old.
Next, we have used Wyscout once more to bring you the below image, which consists of a block of Zabaleta’s primary general average stats from 18/19 thus far, next to another mini heatmap.
You can also see in the graphic the same stats for each of his performances in the two competitions he’s played in this term, Premier League and Carabao Cup, but we are just going to be focussing on the averages, for today.
The first stat we are drawn to is his total actions and the rate of success he has enjoyed in them per 90 minutes, being very active with 62.45 and achieving success in comfortably over 50 per cent of them.
He is yet to register a goal but contrary to Wyscout has racked up one assist this season, crossing for Felipe Anderson’s opener against Manchester United, which would account for a slightly higher assist average, he rarely is able to get a shot off on goal, hence his 0 expected goals rating.
His passing is one of the strong points of his game and his eye-catching pass success of almost 80% advocates for that, even 37.9% accuracy in the trickier longer passes is more than respectable, along with over three crosses per match, with an accuracy of 45%.
Crossing is certainly a strength for Zabaleta as he often finds himself high up the pitch on the wings and dribbling is also, completing 74.6% of his attempted dribbles, although he’ll be the first to admit he can improve on his duelling this campaign, both on the ground and in the air as the stats speak for themselves.
His excellent defensive capabilities, to add to the strong attacking side of his play, are displayed in the form of an average of 6.1 interceptions and under 10 losses per-game as he sees a lot of the ball, with 35.1% of his recoveries coming in the opposition half, meaning 74.9% come on his own, where he protects his goal with everything he has.
By giving his all at the back, not the best disciplinary record is a concession he has to make, with two bookings from six matches at an average of 0.31. However, you can’t let the poor disciplinary record blight what would be a set of excellent figures for any right-back in the PL from the man judged by many to be past his best.
For the third part of this statistical analysis, we are going to prove just how well Zabaleta has been performing this season by comparing him to statistically one of the top five right-backs in the league, Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold.
As you can see, we’ve used the Premier League official website’s fantastic Player Comparison tool to pit the veteran and the youngster up against each other by comparing defensive league stats from the first couple of months of 2018/2019.
It must be noted that Zabaleta has started two fewer matches than Arnold due to being behind Fredericks for three PL outings and as a result, played 167 fewer minutes.
The two stats at the top of the column are clean sheets and goals conceded, two that the England International comes out on top in, playing alongside arguably the better defence and contributing to two more clean sheets and conceding three fewer goals.
Zabaleta has made four times the number of blocks than Arnold has managed, however, and the images also tell us that he has made three fewer interceptions than the man 13 years his junior, meanwhile, just one fewer tackle.
It is a dead rubber when it comes to tackles won, both have come out on top in eight, with Zabaleta enjoying the better tackle completion rate in the race to find out who is the better defender.
The Hammer comes roaring back from his early losses in the head-to-head stats with three wins, completing double Arnold’s total of clearances, seven more headed clearances than his fellow right-back and winning a staggering 11 more aerial battles. Whereas, neither have a single last-man tackle, own goal, error leading to a goal or penalty conceded to their name, so far.
The two defenders both winning four defensive stats and being tied in five shows us that Zabaleta’s contribution in a faltering West Ham team still matches up to one of the rising stars of European football in a team that sit third in the league, despite him playing more minutes than him. An unbelievable feat for the Argentina legend.
In conclusion, our statistical analysis today has found that, by looking at his positional play, key stats and then comparing him to a “Big Six” player perceived to be a far superior defender to him, the former Manchester City man is continuing to show the rest of the football world that age is just a number.
The incredible thing for members of the Claret & Blue Army is that this imperious form is showing no signs of letting up for Zabaleta and has been a constant since he swapped Manchester for East London in spring 2016. With a contract extension on the horizon, who knows how much longer and up until what age the Premier League legend can keep on delivering and delivering at the highest level?