Breaking the Lines – Why Ball Carriers are vital to success and who to look out for

Let me set the scene, it’s Leicester vs Everton at the King Power. Leicester are 1 down however have started to take control of the 2nd half and are pressing forward, there’s a loose ball duel in center circle and ball breaks to Wilfred Ndidi. Now he has passing options ahead of him to release the ball early, but instead Ndidi drives forwards with the ball, bursting past Everton midfielders and carrying all the way to the Everton box where he releases the ball and it leads to the equaliser. No assist for Ndidi, No Key Pass/Chance Created but a huge role to play in the build up to the goal.

One of the key things you notice when you watch so much football is how ultimately the game is becoming similar at many levels. Due to the uniformity of coaching qualifications and desire to play “in a certain style” many games are now very structured out of possession. Sides who can consistently disrupt that shape and create space, or an even better word, chaos are likely to find themselves successful. Thereby having players who can consistently break defensive lines and blocks is a great asset, not just beating a man in a take on but being able to carry the ball large distances, especially vertically through the center of the pitch is a key quality teams should be looking to add to their squad. Having this ability to “progress” the ball up the pitch can open up opposition midfield and defensive shapes, creating space, time and more importantly overloads that can lead to good goal scoring chances. The hype and intruige around IMPECT’s “Packing” metric is a great example of the advantage of bypassing opposition players, IMPECT reasoning being the more players on the opposite side you bypass the more chance you have scoring goals and thereby winning games.

One of the key positions where a progressive ball carrier can be a huge influence is center midfield. Normally the distributors of the team, a player who can drive past opposition midfielders and attack the opposition defensive line with the ball at their feet is key to breaking down organised teams. Data on things like progressive carries/runs is varied from source to source, some measure distance gained in meteres, some record the number of carries per game and some track how many players of the opposition are bypassed. For this article i’ll simply be using a Progressive runs metric by Wyscout to highlight some key players. First let’s take a look at the top 5 EU leagues, all Center mids that have played more than 900 mins (10 full 90s) this season.

Pro runs

The names above are the top 20 players in Top 5 EU leagues for Progressive Runs p90 mins played. Probably time at this point to highlight what definition Wyscout give to progressive runs, here is the extract of their definition “A progressive run is a run of 30m that begins in the player’s own half and ends in their opponent’s half of the field; a run of 15m that begins in their own half and ends in the opponent’s half of the field; a run of 10m that begins and ends entirely in the opponent’s half”

Not particularly here to analyse the names on the graph, but i think we can all agree some of the names there make perfect sense if you were to say the words “line breaking midfielder” so overall the metric passes the eye test.

Now as an EFL man myself, i’m interested to see who might be the leading ball carries from Center midfield in the EFL, so i looked and found the below for each league starting with the EFL Championship

champ pro runs

League One

l1 pro runs

League Two

l2 pro runs

Finally some names to keep an eye on u21 from around Europe who could go on to be well known within the next 18-24 mths:

Adrian Fein – On loan at Hamburg from Bayern Munich

Riqui Puig – Barcelona B

Ryan Gravenberch – Ajax

Enock Mwepu – RB Salzburg

Orel Mangala – Stuttgart

Finn Becker – St Pauli

Bartosz Sliz – Lubin

Ball carriers, it’s the future of any successful team!




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