Two of the best players for the top two clubs in the English Premier League this season have been their full-backs – João Cancelo and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Naturally, this has led to comparisons being made between the two of them and incessant arguments about who has been better.
Of course, there can be no objective answer, but we can certainly get a better idea by closely inspecting some of their data.
Before we do that, we have to give round one to the Portuguese international. He is the more versatile player, excelling at both left-back, where he has started 12 Premier League matches, and right-back, where he has started the other six.
Another thing we must do is understand their roles in their respective sides’ systems. Cancelo’s is easier to understand – he operates as an inside full-back in Manchester City’s 2-3-2-3 structure in possession, both on the left and the right.
From there, he has the freedom to either keep going forward in the half-space or more commonly drift out wide in the final third, which is why his heatmap for the season shows a greater involvement out wide in the opposition half.
Alexander-Arnold, meanwhile, has a more interesting role in Liverpool’s lopsided 2-3-1-4, where he starts behind the front line but makes forward runs both into the half-space and out wide in the final third depending on the positioning of the right-sided midfielder (who often drifts out wide).
His heatmap, therefore, looks a lot more like that of an orthodox full-back, although he does have an above-average presence in the half-spaces in the opposition half.
As far as basic possession-play goes, Cancelo has a greater and better involvement with 104.7 touches per 90 (over eight more than Alexander-Arnold) and a pass completion rate of 84.8% compared to the English right-back’s 76.1%.
This is easy to explain, as the ex-Juventus man has a more important role to play in his side’s build-up while more of Alexander-Arnold’s work is done in the final third, where touches are harder to come by and passes are tougher to complete.
Even then, the Liverpool man completes significantly more progressive passes per 90 than his Portuguese compatriot with 9.43 against 7.88 (note that StatsBomb’s definition excludes passes from the defending 40% of the pitch).
The 23-year-old full-back also shows up better in terms of progressive distance covered with his passing (which is a metric that does not discriminate between any areas of the pitch) as he averages 557.5 yards per 90 compared to Cancelo’s 445.5 yards per 90.
Looking at the event data, it becomes clear that most of Alexander-Arnold’s progressive passes originate quite close to the touchline around the edge of the attacking third.
Cancelo’s heatmap is a lot more scattered not just because he has played on both flanks but also because of how he tucks infield.
The 27-year-old full-back does a lot better in terms of passes into the final third, though, and this is again down to his deeper role relative to Alexander-Arnold.
This is why his average of 8.38 such passes per 90 is significantly greater than the Englishman’s 6.69.
Alexander-Arnold’s numbers are also a lot better in terms of receiving progressive passes because of his more attacking role, so his average of 3.89 is well over Cancelo’s 2.18.
In terms of carrying the ball forward, though, Cancelo and Alexander-Arnold are worlds apart.
This is one of the Portuguese international’s greatest strengths, which is why he averages nearly twice as many progressive carries as the Liverpool full-back with 10.5 against 5.54.
His 77.3 carries and 2.35 attempted dribbles per 90 are also well above Alexander-Arnold’s.
However, the English international similarly outclasses Cancelo in terms of creativity by doubling his tally of four league assists.
The Liverpool academy graduate’s underlying numbers are similarly superior as he has an xA tally of 6.8 which makes Cancelo’s 2.9 look quite ordinary, and he almost averages three times more key passes per 90 with 3.18 against 1.12.
Alexander-Arnold’s key passes come in various shapes and sizes, including crosses from out wide and in the half-space, cut-backs inside the box and set-pieces.
The 23-year-old Englishman also has one more goal than Cancelo (who only has one), but the latter is undoubtedly a more frequent shooter with 2.24 per 90 shots, which is noticeably greater than Alexander-Arnold’s 1.78.
All of their goals have come from outside the box, but the Manchester City full-back’s shooting has been responsible for more of his team’s goals altogether because two follow-ups from his shots have gone in.
Defending is far from either player’s primary responsibilities, but here we see that they closely match each other.
Cancelo has more tackles and interceptions this season with 4.58 per 90 compared to Alexander-Arnold’s 4.08, but the Liverpool right-back has been dribbled past on fewer occasions and has a slightly higher tackle success rate at 45.2%.
Unsurprisingly, the main takeaway from this analysis is that both Alexander-Arnold and Cancelo are superb players with different strengths.
They both have very unique roles within their teams’ systems, which is why directly comparing them and finding the objectively better player is impossible.
What we can do is enjoy two truly outstanding footballers playing some of the best attacking football we will ever see from full-backs.
Stats courtesy Transfermarkt, Opta via Vizz App and StatsBomb via Fbref.
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