Why Chico is a very atypical Spanish centre-back
Last week, this column looked at West Bromwich Albion defender Jonas Olsson, subject to transfer interest from Queens Park Rangers. Stats Zone suggests that while Olsson is a decent defender, the secret to his game is that he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt actually do a great deal Ã¢ÂÂ he rarely tackles, and rarely intercepts.
This weekÃ¢ÂÂs topic is a centre-back with the opposite characteristics, SwanseaÃ¢ÂÂs Chico Flores. The Spaniard is an all-action, impetuous defender who gets involved whenever possible Ã¢ÂÂ Chico is in the Premier LeagueÃ¢ÂÂs top 10 for tackles, interceptions and clearances per game. Ã¢ÂÂIf I put on a team's shirt, I always defend it to the death,Ã¢ÂÂ he says.
While Michu was clearly SwanseaÃ¢ÂÂs most successful summer signing, Chico has also been a great buy. Besides, whereas Michu was highly-rated in Spain, and featured on many Ã¢ÂÂbest signingÃ¢ÂÂ lists at the start of the Premier League season, the purchase of Chico went somewhat under the radar. HeÃ¢ÂÂd enjoyed a decent season at Mallorca in 2011/12, but had previously struggled in Serie A with Genoa.
Chico (r) and Ashley Williams in action
Chico made his debut in a 5-0 victory over QPR on the opening day of the season, but he made his mark with a shocking high tackle on SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs Louis Saha in his third game, earning himself a straight red card. Although that challenge was horrendous, and his three-match ban caused problems at the back, it was at least representative of the way Chico plays Ã¢ÂÂ he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt duck out of a tackle.
The pattern of ChicoÃ¢ÂÂs defending in last weekÃ¢ÂÂs 0-0 draw against Everton tells an interesting story. His interceptions are almost always in the same zone of the pitch, 25 yards from goal, right-of-centre from his perspective (although against Arsenal in the midweek FA Cup defeat, he showed heÃ¢ÂÂs more than capable of playing to the left). Chico sticks very tight to his opponent, and likes to nip in front to win the ball cleanly.
His positions of tackles are very different, however. The zone reserved for interceptions saw no tackles whatsoever Ã¢ÂÂ and instead, Chico followed his man out towards the touchlines before tackling, or did so when forced to defend in deeper positions, inside the penalty box. This is a particularly extreme example of the separations, but itÃ¢ÂÂs broadly typical of his strategy.
ChicoÃ¢ÂÂs previous game, on New YearÃ¢ÂÂs Day against Aston Villa, told a different story. He again made plenty of interceptions Ã¢ÂÂ higher up the pitch this time, probably as a result of Aston VillaÃ¢ÂÂs cautious approach compared to Everton Ã¢ÂÂ but had significant problems with aerial duels. Many more established centre-backs have had problems against Christian Benteke, but Chico isnÃ¢ÂÂt an aerial specialist, winning just 48 of his 103 battles in the air this season; a rate of less than 50% is particularly poor for a centre-back.
Another recent match, the 0-0 draw against Reading, was another demonstration of ChicoÃ¢ÂÂs willingness to come out from his natural position, and make clearances in unusual zones. His 19 clearances occured in scattered positions inside his own half, including a high proportion near the touchline considering he's a centre-back.
When compared to West BromÃ¢ÂÂs Gareth McAuley, who played in the same position against the same opposition last weekend, the difference is clear Ã¢ÂÂ most centre-backsÃ¢ÂÂ clearances take place in a roughly vertical line, and donÃ¢ÂÂt stray outside the width of the penalty boxes.
A final factor to consider is ChicoÃ¢ÂÂs distribution. As a Spaniard, you expect him to be competent with the ball at his feet, but by the standards of his nationality (and for that matter club) heÃ¢ÂÂs actually inconsistent with his passing. His forward balls are frequently wayward, and heÃ¢ÂÂs panicky when closed down. When given time on the ball, he prefers to spread the play to centre-back partner Ashley Williams, who distributes the ball more positively.
So, Chico is actually a very atypical Spanish centre-back. HeÃ¢ÂÂs not overwhelmingly comfortable on the ball, but aggressive and keen to dive into challenges Ã¢ÂÂ although heÃ¢ÂÂs not reliable in the air. HeÃ¢ÂÂll always need a good covering defender alongside him, and with Ashley Williams adept at sweeping up behind, Michael Laudrup has built a fine centre-back combination, as well as a potent attacking unit.