Statistics can be deceptive. They’re often portrayed as absolute, objective fact, but amid an era in which the beautiful game seems to know far about how to create statistics than what they actually tell us, virtually any set of numerical evidence can be skewed and twisted to fit a preferred narrative.
Yet, statistics unquestionably have the capacity to surprise us. Critics say they’ll never be as reliable as the naked eye, especially in a sport as subjective as football, but they can also show us what the naked eye can’t – or, at the very least, what the naked eye doesn’t initially pick up. Liverpool’s Nathaniel Clyne provides a prime example.
The 25-year-old hasn’t exactly uprooted trees since moving to Anfield in summer 2015. He earned his transfer as Southampton’s swashbuckling right-back, finishing the 2014/15 Premier League campaign with the second-strongest tackle average per match of any defender in the division and two goals in 35 appearances – two returns that highlighted Clyne’s ability to impact at both ends of the pitch. Accordingly, Clyne became England’s resident No.2, notching up nine appearances throughout 2014 and 2015, and certainly wasn’t short of suitors when his St. Mary’s contract entered its final year.
But since his switch to Merseyside, Clyne hasn’t quite had the same effect. His two terms with Liverpool thus far can be described as decent if noticeably unspectacular. In contrast, he’s scored just once in 53 league appearances for the Reds and his tackle average has dropped from the dizzy highs of 3.5 per match in 2014/15 to just 2.1 this year. Consequentially, Clyne’s lost his place in the England setup to Kyle Walker – in the eyes of many, the only real candidate for the PFA Team of the Season’s right-back slot.
But scratch a little deeper and the statistics suggest Jurgen Klopp is probably as pleased as he can be with Clyne’s contributions this season, even if he’s been a permanent member of a backline that’s conceded the most goals of any side in the Premier League’s top seven. Klopp looks to his full-backs to get forward and provide with in attack, and the statistics show the former Crystal Palace youngster has consistently excelled in that regard.
Indeed, of all 17 right-backs to make more than ten Premier League appearances this season, Clyne ranks second for key passes (unconverted created chances) per game with 1.4, whilst only four fellow No.2s – Seamus Coleman, Kyle Walker, Antonio Valencia and Adam Smith – have been able to trump his two assists. He also ranks sixth for successful crosses per match, further highlighting the attacking threat he’s provided from wide positions.
But it’s perhaps Clyne’s all-round efforts in possession that truly stand out; in addition to ranking second for passes per game, he’s been dispossessed less than once every two games and comes 12th for unsuccessful touches with less than one per match. That’s incredibly impressive for a side who have as much of the ball as Liverpool, who come second in the Premier League for possession this season with 57.9%.
Clyne’s defensive efforts, in contrast, may seem a little underwhelming – particularly the significant drop in his aforementioned tackle rate. Adding together clearances, interceptions, blocks and aerial duels won, the right-back has completed less than five defensive actions per match this term.
But defenders always have less defending to do in possession-dominant teams, so perhaps a better barometer would be the mistakes Clyne has made. Impressively once again, just one of the 17 right-backs in question have committed less fouls than him per match this season, whilst he’s the only one yet to receive a yellow card – some going after 28 games.
Clyne may still struggle to catch the eye at times, especially amid the trend of marauding full-backs expected to operate almost as wingers, asked to both create chances and convert their fair share as well. But there’s no doubt Clyne has been effective this season and the statistics suggest he’s doing everything Klopp’s philosophy demands of him. Perhaps it’s time the 5 foot 9 full-back received a little more credit from both inside and outside of Anfield.