On the face of it, ‘reserve left-back’ is not the most glamorous role that the game of football has to offer, but when listing Liverpool’s most glaring needs heading into this summer’s transfer window, a back-up for Andrew Robertson arguably sat atop the list.
Scottish captain Robertson was one of only two players in the Reds’ squad to play over 4,000 minutes in all competitions across the 2019/20 season. The other was Virgil van Dijk, who obviously plays a less physically demanding, energy-sapping position in the Jürgen Klopp system.
Essentially, with the reliance on Liverpool’s full-backs to bomb up and down their respective flanks, Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold would figure to be prime candidates for regular rotation. Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino have both favoured that approach with full-backs in recent years, but Klopp has never previously had the necessary depth to follow suit.
Neco Williams’ recent emergence has meant that the Anfield side no longer need to target another right-sided defender, but when either Williams or James Milner filled in at left-back this past season, it was apparent that Liverpool are less comfortable with a right-footed square peg in that crucial round hole.
Enter Kostas Tsimikas – an attack-minded Greek international who impressed for Olympiacos in European competition this season, and who Liverpool have now signed for a fee of £11.75million.
Unlike Liverpool’s recruitment team, I have not personally watched Tsimikas in-depth – although I was impressed by him in the Greek champions’ Europa League loss to Wolves last week. Like Liverpool’s much-lauded analytics team, however, I am very impressed by Tsimikas’ statistical performance from this campaign.
The old adage that a full-back should ‘know how to defend, first and foremost’ no longer rings true. In a modern 4-3-3, played by a team such as Liverpool who expect to dominate possession in most games, it is the two central defenders and the deepest midfielder who are asked to contribute most defensively, while the full-backs offer a creative outlet.
Everyone knows this to be the case for Klopp’s side, hence why Robertson and Trent have each recorded more assists than any other player in the Premier League since the start of the 2018/19 campaign. For this reason, my main concern with a reserve full-back would be their offensive ability. Especially as, barring injuries to the first-choices, Klopp will be most likely to deploy Tsimikas and Neco Williams in games where Liverpool would be expected to have less defensive work to do.
How does Tsimikas profile, then, in terms of offensive numbers?
By means of progressive dribbling distance (total distance, in yards, that the player has dribbled the ball forward) Tsimikas is on a different level to the rest of his team. His 1,611 yards is not only the best in the squad, but the only total over 1,000 yards of any player still registered with the Athenian side (Daniel Podence amassed that number before his January switch to Wolves, where he has impressed).
And amongst regulars in their side, the left-back averages the fourth-most touches in the attacking third, per 90 minutes. Essentially, Tsimikas is very comfortable carrying the ball up the pitch and does so often, just as Robertson does.
It also isn’t the case that Tsimikas’ output here just reflects Olympiacos’ dominance in the Greek league as these stats are only readily available from performances in continental competition, so those 1,611 yards equate to 156 yards per 90 minutes in European competition.
While Robertson boasts a ridiculous 193, Trent’s 160 is very similar to Tsimikas’ figure, and if you factor in that the English champions tended to have 16pc more possession in Champions League games than their Greek counterparts, Tsimikas would project to eclipse even Robertson’s total when playing in Liverpool red.Embed from Getty Images
As for what he does after the dribble, Tsimikas completed more crosses per ninety than any other Olympiacos player, and that figure was twice as many as the nearest competitor with multiple starts for the side. In fact, despite his side’s group-stage exit, Tsimikas boasts more accurate crosses than any other player in this season’s instalment of UEFA’s flagship competition, beating out second-placed Trent.
Moreover, by the metric of Fbref’s ‘progressive passes’ (passes in/into the opposition half that move the ball at least ten yards closer to the opposition’s goal), Tsimikas led his team in their Champions League fixtures.
To prove that these stats don’t just highlight the importance of modern full-backs, a more defensively-oriented comparison in Aaron Wan-Bissaka ranked seventh amongst Manchester United players with 1,000+ minutes in the 2019/20 season. While full-backs have the potential to perform well in this area, it is not always a certainty that they do.
Admittedly, Tsimikas’ assist returns do not impress as much as his ball progression stats.
Three in all competitions is not a bad return for a full-back, but not Liverpool numbers. His xA (expected assists) in European competition of 0.13/90mins would be the seventh-best figure amongst Liverpool players with 1,000+ minutes. Behind both full-backs, but admittedly not too far from Robertson’s total of 0.18.
Liverpool’s analytics team will have coveted a player with the attacking statistical profile to mirror the Reds’ starting full-backs, but to convince a player in such a bracket from a ‘top five’ European league to accept a back-up role could have been very difficult. This will be why Jamal Lewis was considered, and why Tsimikas has ultimately won out. For such a player to be accepting of that role, and be relatively affordable, Liverpool needed to look outside the major leagues.
Beyond that, it has always been strategy to buy younger players with sell-on value since FSG came to the club. At 24, Tsimikas has most of his career ahead of him.
When buying someone from a smaller league you need to be sure, however, that they really do stand out from those in comparable roles in that competition. The below graphic from Josh Williams, (@distancecovered on Twitter, a worthy follow,) shows just how far ahead Tsimikas is from a dribbling standpoint, where, of course, Sadio Mané’s willingness to venture inside and draw defenders inevitably opens up space, inviting any Liverpool left-back to dribble through.
As mentioned, this transfer becomes a whole lot safer when you consider the fact that Tsimikas has performed well against better clubs in European competition. WhoScored? rated him as the Greek visitors’ best player in their 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium in February.
I wish I could offer more in terms of having actually watched Tsimikas play, because statistics do have their limitations, and I believe that to be more notable when analysing defensive players. After all, Virgil van Dijk rarely makes tackles because he is about three plays ahead of the game.
If there is one statistical area, though, that I would have hoped to see Tsimikas perform well in defensively, that would be his interception numbers, as interceptions highlight speed of thought and often positional intelligence. Tsimikas leads all regular Olympiacos starters in that area in continental football this season. Perfect.
Liverpool’s recruitment has been the best in the world since Jürgen Klopp came to the club. In some ways, this correlation exists because the German’s coaching allows players to become the very best they possibly can be. But the flipside of this is that the players that have been provided to Klopp have been carefully chosen to be those of good value with the ability to perform the specific roles that Klopp utilises on-pitch. Tsimikas, it would seem, slots right into that category.
His success as a Liverpool player may ultimately be hard to quantify – to displace the best left-back in world football in Andrew Robertson seems a tough ask! Instead, the measure of Tsimikas’ success will be the regularity with which Klopp seems comfortable using the Greek, and allowing Robertson time to recharge.
And while the Scot has thus far had few injury struggles in his Liverpool career, if a spell on the sidelines were to strike the Scot it would appear to be less of the season-defining setback than we had previously figured, with Tsimikas now ready to step in.
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