Thomas Partey, Idrissa Gueye and Wilfred Ndidi

One of the most underrated positions in football is defensive midfield. The role of a defensive midfielder has constantly evolved over the years.

Now, being combative and a tough tackler is not enough as most teams require their defensive midfielders to also contribute to attacking play.

Defensive midfielders are becoming more crucial to the functioning of systems in teams as they carry the ball, leading their team’s offence and strategically moving across the pitch to prevent the opponent any space to manoeuvre.

Over the years, defensive midfielders such as Sergio Busquets, N’golo Kante and Casemiro have been the front liners when discussions about the best in the position come up.

In Africa, three names have been consistent and relevant with regards to defensive midfielders.

Thomas Partey ( Ghana), Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria) and Idrissa Gana Gueye (Senegal) have been absolutely pivotal to the successes of their respective teams.

But who ranks highest and deserves to be called the best defensive midfielder from Africa?

Methodology

Club performance data of these players were gathered from the past three seasons (2017-18, 2018-19 & 2019-20).

The research was narrowed to clubs and the last three years because extensive statistics were not available for country and before 2017.

Three categories were used to measure player performance: Attacking Play, Defensive contribution and Technique.

Under each category, there were three subcategories.

Attacking play – goals, assists and shots.

Defensive contribution – tackles won, interceptions and dribbled past.

Technique – dribbling, expected assists and passing.

A player scored five points once they won a subcategory, three points once they came second and one point for placing third.

Essentially, this meant that the highest points a player could accumulate was 45 since there are nine subcategories.

Also, the playing field was level for all three players considering none has been inactive due to injury. In the past three years, Gueye has played 8,280 minutes for Everton and PSG, Partey has played 9,019 minutes for Atletico Madrid, and Ndidi has played 9,504 minutes for Leicester City.

Attacking Play

Often regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League, Patrick Viera emphasised on the need for defensive midfielders to also improve on their attacking play.

“The role of the defensive midfielder has changed. In the past, it was just about protecting the back four, but now you are asked to do everything: score goals, make assists and defend. Your team-mates need to be able to count on you.”

World class players have a variety of tools in their locker and having the ability to score and assist as a defensive midfielder is a plus.

Goals

Thomas Partey leads the way in terms of goals scored. The Ghana midfielder has a total of 11 goals in the last three years. Three of those goals were scored from a direct free-kick, another skill the 26-year-old possesses.

Due to the nature of Partey’s goals which are usually scored from outside the box, he is outperforming expected goals (xG) by 7.2 goals. His xG sits at 3.8.

Ndidi follows with five goals under his belt. The Nigerian should have scored more goals considering how he is underperforming his xG.

The Leicester midfielder has an xG of 6.6 underperforming by 1.6.

Gueye comes in third having scored three goals. Two of those goals were scored for Everton whereas the other was scored for his recent club PSG.

With an xG of 3.8, Gueye is slightly underperforming by a margin of 0.8.

In terms goal scored per 90 minutes, there is no difference in the order as Gueye comes in third with 0.03.

Ndidi scores 0.05 goals per 90 minutes and Partey scores a 0.11 goals per 90 minutes.

1st – Partey

2nd – Ndidi

3rd – Gueye

Shot accuracy

Goals alone sometimes do not tell the full story about a player’s shooting accuracy.

It is important to add context to the goals by providing the number of shots attempted as well as the ones on target.

Out of the three midfielders, Ndidi has attempted the most number of shots (126) compared to Partey’s 101 shots.

Gueye finds himself well behind with just 59 shots in three years.

Interestingly, those shots have been more accurate than Ndidi’s (15.9%). Gueye’s 25.4% shooting accuracy is only bettered by Partey with 27.7%.

1st – Partey

2nd – Gueye

3rd – Ndidi

Assists

Partey comes first with eight assists compared to Gueye’s six and Ndidi’s five.

The ability to create from deep is what makes the difference between standard defensive midfielders and world class defensive midfielders.

In Atletico Madrid, Partey assists 0.08 goals per match whilst Gueye and Ndidi assist 0.07 and 0.05 goals per match respectively.

1st – Partey

2nd – Gueye

3rd – Ndidi

Current Standings

Partey won all three subcategories in Attacking Play and as a result, leads with 15 points. Gueye sits second with seven points and Ndidi third with five points.

Defensive contribution

The primary duty of a defensive midfielder is to defend and that is breaking down the opponent’s play.

Tackles Won

Tackling is an art, one that has been mastered by Ndidi. 255 tackles in three years was enough to help bring Ndidi into prominence.

He currently averages 2.4 tackles per 90 minutes in Europe.

Although Gueye has 247 tackles, which is lower than Ndidi’s, the Senegalese midfielder edges it out with 2.7 tackles per 90 minutes.

Partey finds himself miles behind with 159 tackles won. Averaging 1.6 tackles per 90 minutes.

1st – Gueye

2nd – Ndidi

3rd – Partey

Interceptions

Sometimes defensive midfielders don’t have to tackle, their positional intelligence can help them easily intercept passes from opponents.

Once again, Ndidi and Gueye show their prowess with 222 and 191 interceptions respectively.

Thomas Partey comes third with 187 interceptions in the last three years.

The tiebreaker lies in the interceptions per 90 minutes. Ndidi’s 2.1 interceptions per 90 minutes slightly edges Gueye’s 2.0 with Partey averaging 1.8 interceptions per 90 minutes.

1st – Ndidi

2nd – Gueye

3rd – Partey

Dribbled past

This statistic gained popularity last season as Virgil Van Djik went 539 days without being dribbled past.

It is an important metric for defensive midfielders because they act as a shield in front of the defensive line.

Being dribbled past easily grants opponents easy access to the defence.

Ndidi has been dribbled past 176 times, with Gueye following with 129 times and Partey with 120 times.

1st – Partey

2nd – Gueye

3rd – Ndidi

Current Standings

Partey won one subcategory and finished last in the other two. But he still remains top with 22 points. Gueye sits second with 18 points after narrowly winning the tackling subcategory as Ndidi sits third with 14 points.

Technique

Given how defensive midfielders are involved in buildup play, there is a need for technical ability to help keep possession and start attacks.

Dribbles completed

Defensive midfielders often face the high press when leading their teams to play from the back.

Hence, it is necessary for them to be able to dribble through pressure and retain possession.

Partey does this better than the other two with the Ghanaian completing 134 dribbles. Ndidi trails with 73 dribbles and Gueye with 66 dribbles.

However, in terms of dribbles per 90 minutes, Partey still tops with 1.3 dribbles followed by Gueye with 0.7 dribbles and Ndidi with 0.6 dribbles.

1st – Partey

2nd – Gueye

3rd – Ndidi

Pass accuracy

Defensive midfielders in modern football help their teams transition from defence to attack.

Passing accurately is one way to help a team transition.

Gueye has attempted the most passes out of the three (5,315) with a pass accuracy of 86.9%, a feat not matched by any.

Partey comes second with a pass accuracy of 82.9% compared to Ndidi’s 79.6%.

It’s interesting to note that, Ndidi completed 71 short passes (a pass that travels fewer than 5 meters), the most out of the three.

Whilst Gueye completed 3,709 medium passes (a pass that travels between 5 meters and 25 meters), the most out of the three.

Partey on the other hand completed 871 long balls (a pass that travels more than 25 meters), the most out of the three.

1st – Gueye

2nd – Partey

3rd – Ndidi

Expected Assists

Creativity is also an essential trait a defensive midfielder must possess.

Most often, opposition in deep blocks require long through balls to catch them unaware.

Passes that directly lead to a shot are called key passes. Gueye leads in that regard with 63 key passes.

Closely followed by Partey with 60 key passes and Ndidi who has 41.

However, we also know that not all key passes create the same quality of scoring opportunity, and this should be reflected in how we value them.

Then comes, expected assists, a much better way to measure a player’s creativity.

Opta defines expected assists as “the likelihood that a pass will be a primary assist. The model is based on the finishing location of the pass, what type of pass it was and a variety of other factors. This model is not reliant on whether a shot was taken from this pass, so credits all passes, regardless of whether they result in a shot.”

Gueye once again leads the way with 5.3 expected assists in three seasons.

Partey follows with 4.1 expected assists and Ndidi manages 2.5 expected assists.

Coming first in key passes and expected assists shows how good Gueye is at creating chances for his teammates.

1st – Gueye

2nd – Partey

3rd – Ndidi

Final Standings

Thomas Partey came out as the overall winner with 33 points. With Idrissa Gana Gueye closely placing second with 31 points. Wilfred Ndidi finished third with 17 points.

Conclusion

These were narrowed statistics thought to be essential for a modern day defensive midfielder. The outcome does not necessarily measure the entire football ability of any of the players.

Also, these players play in different systems and do not play the same roles. Atletico Madrid play a counterattacking system and as a result, barely have adequate possession.

This may see Partey’s passing numbers reduce compared to Gueye’s whose passing numbers would be extremely high due to how PSG always attack.

Ndidi plays in a double pivot and may not have the responsibility of moving the ball forward as often as a Partey who usually starts Atletico Madrid attacks.

Another factor that cannot be measured is luck. Gueye’s assists numbers could have been higher if his teammates were more clinical.

In conclusion, these are three high-level players at the peak of their game and it is absolutely fascinating to have such three classy midfielders from Africa dominating European football.

The fact that Ndidi played the most short passes, Gueye played the most medium passes and Partey played the most long passes shows that they are all diverse and special in their own way.