The Evolution of Captain Cooper

In this article, Martin Riley looks over Liam Cooper’s development under Marcelo Bielsa and compares him to other Premier League centre backs…

Everything is all sunshine and daisies now. Leeds are back in the Premier League. They are sitting comfortably in 12th place. And they’re being managed by the managerial guru that is Marcelo Bielsa.

But cast your mind back a few years. The year is 2014. Leeds are being managed by David Hockaday having recently taken over from Brian McDermott. After a brief transfer embargo caused by David Haigh’s Sport Capital they are able to bring in some signings.

That summer saw a lot of transfers, both incoming and outgoing. Most that will live long in infamy and not fondly remembered. The likes of Giuseppe Bellusci, Souleymane Doukara (Thanks for the Thunderbastard, Duke!), Casper Sloth, Mirco Antenucci, Marco Silvestri, Billy Sharp, Edgar Çani, Nicky Ajose… the list goes on.

On top of this, we were treated to the sale of previous season’s Championship top scorer, Ross McCormack, and this deadline day treat from the Leeds Twitter account:

But of all the players involved in that season’s transfer window, only two have survived the slow march to the Premier League: Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi.

Liam Cooper. Oh Captain, my Captain. He’s been superb the whole time, right?

Well… no. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the player who became the recipient of the unfortunate moniker “League One Liam.” During his time at Leeds, he has received his fair share of criticism from fans and media alike from blunderous own goals to switching off and letting strikers do a number on us.

Of course, some of the criticism was earned. Some of it wasn’t, though. Yet here he is, 6 years on, with 198 league appearances to his name. He is the longest-serving player in the current squad and captain of a Premier League side.

If you were to say, all those years ago, that Cooper would have made this evolution from League One to the Premier League, I’ll bet not many Leeds fans would have believed you. But as things stand, Liam Cooper is well worth his place in the Premier League.

In this piece, I’m going to dive into some of the underlying numbers to see just how it was that Cooper made the evolution from League One to the Premier League.

The Defensive Numbers

Tackles

Cooper has always been strong defensively through his time with us, averaging 2.3 tackles per 90 minutes across all seasons. However, before Marcelo Bielsa arrived, Cooper was putting up 2 tackles per 90, which has jumped up to 2.7 since the Argentine arrived.

This may seem quite a small increase. However, across a 38-game season, this extra 0.7 turns into 26 additional tackles. That is an increase of 38.4%. Pretty impressive.

No doubt, this can be directly linked to the change of style the club has undergone since Bielsa took over. Playing a man-to-man system allows Cooper to be more proactive in his tackling, looking to close down players quickly, knowing that if he fails, the spare man in defence can assist him.

Attempting more tackles has led to Cooper winning more tackles per game. There has been an increase of 33% in the number of tackles he wins per game, rising from 1.6 per 90 to 2.1 per 90.

Despite the volume of his tackles going up, though, there has been a slight fall in Cooper’s overage tackle success rate: a drop from 78.5% pre-Bielsa to 75.61% post-Bielsa. However, considering Cooper was part of a Championship side that dominated possession across two seasons of Bielsa’s tenure, it should hardly be surprising that he was making fewer tackles since the Argentine arrived.

Aerials

Since Bielsa has been at the club, there has been a drastic increase in the amount of aerial challenges Cooper has attempted. Before Bielsa joined, Cooper had an average of 5.6 aerial challenges per 90 minutes. After Bielsa, he has 8.1.

Again, this is caused by a drastic change in style. Under Bielsa, Leeds try to dominate possession with the ball, and when out of possession, they will press and harry their opponents to try to win the ball back.

This often leads to teams trying to go long with the ball to bypass our press. Accordingly, Cooper has to work extra hard in this department. But despite the extra aerial work, there has been only a very slight decrease in his aerial success rate. This has gone from 62.95% to 61.98%.

As the best header at Bielsa’s disposal, Cooper has been given a good deal more responsibility in preventing opponents from breaching Leeds’ defence. His heading numbers reflect that and he is currently amongst the best in the division for heading metrics.

Clearances

The last defensive stat which has changed significantly is clearances.

This is an interesting one as it is one of the few metrics to reverse the general trend. Before Bielsa came along, Cooper had an average of 6.5 clearances per 90 minutes and after Bielsa this has dropped to only 3.4.

Now obviously, this is because Bielsa’s predecessors were masters of the defensive game and this has meant Cooper couldn’t keep up the same level of clearances due to how superior Garry Monk, Steve Evans, Darko Milanic etc.. were… Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Some people will look at stats and assume that, because a player produces more of a certain metric, it means they are better at said metric. This can be true, but clearances are a little different.

The way Opta defines a clearance is when a player kicks, heads or otherwise removes the ball from a dangerous situation without trying to aim for a particular player. The majority of clearances happen inside the penalty box.

Since Bielsa has been in charge there is something he has tried to eliminate or reduce as much as possible, which is, passes or crosses into our penalty box. Since we are facing fewer passes and crosses into dangerous areas, this means Cooper hasn’t had to do them as often.

On top of this, Cooper is now trying to play the ball out of danger rather than just lump the ball clear like he once would have done, thus sacrificing the ball and any possible attack.

On-Ball Numbers

Passing

This brings us on nicely to the topic of passing.

Passing isn’t something that many would have said was a strength of Cooper’s game before Bielsa strutted into Thorpe Arch (Yes, I like to envision him strutting).

First, let me show you the stats and how they breakdown both before and after Bielsa’s time at the club:

As you can see, there is a change in every aspect of Cooper’s passing game. He’s completing more passes and completing them more often. This is as much credit to Bielsa in the way he drills the players as it is Cooper adapting to the new system seamlessly.

Notice particularly the percentage of passes played long. Out of all the passes Cooper has played under Bielsa, 14.3% of them were played long. Before Bielsa, 23.42% were played long.

But despite playing fewer long passes percentage-wise, Coope has managed to complete more long balls per game. Under Bielsa, he has completed 4.26 long balls per 90 minutes. Before, this figure was only 2.57.

This is down to the overall increase in Liam’s passing volume. His overall passes has increased by 69.19% in volume. In a possession-heavy system, Cooper is shining brightly at the heart of defence.

Premier League Liam?

As things stand, Liam Cooper is a Premier League footballer. Breathe that in, folks. But is he matching up to the league standards? Do the stats show that Cooper is competing?

In the following visualisations, I am going to show Cooper alongside a collection of other central defenders in the Premier League to see if he is matching up or if he is coming up short. I am only comparing him with the centre backs for each club with the most appearances. There are 52 central defenders represented.

The above visual compares a number of stats of Premier League defenders. On the x-axis or horizontal axis we can see dribble duel success percentage. Cooper comes in at a very healthy 60%, putting him at 10th in the league.

The vertical y-axis shows tackles & interceptions per 90 minutes played (p90). Now, this is impressive: Cooper is top for this combined metric, which can’t really be argued with can it?

The visualisation also shows blocks per 90 minutes, represented by the size of the dot for each player. This season, Cooper has 1.57 blocks per 90 minutes on blocks on both shots and passes.

On this metric, Cooper is a little further down in the ranks at 30th which puts him average for the league, a long way short of the leader Dara O’Shea of West Brom. Shout out to Cooper’s fellow defender Luke Ayling who has 2.44 per 90 minutes.

It should be noted, though, that when it comes to only shots being blocked, Cooper is further up the rankings with 1.02 per 90 minutes which is good enough to put him at 16th.

The last thing the visualisation shows is Cooper’s aerial capabilities, indicated by the colour of the dot.

As you can see, Cooper’s is one of the few dots coloured purple. Cooper has won 5.09 aerial duels per 90 minutes. This puts him 2nd in the league with Burnley powerhouse James Tarkowski (5.36) the only player to have pulled off more.

Cooper’s aerial duel success rate stands at 21st in the league from 69.6%. Once again, this is highly impressive from Cooper.

Let’s move on to look at his on-ball performance, something central defenders are judged by more and more.

Here, Cooper’s dot sits somewhere in the middle of the pack here, which is true for a number of his passing metrics too.

On this graphic, progressive passing is represented on the horizontal axis. Progressive passes are passes that move the ball towards the opposition goal, rather than sideways or backwards. In this field, Cooper has 2.59 per 90 minutes, which is good enough for 25th.

The vertical axis represents final third passes per 90 minutes, which are, as they sound, passes into the final third of the pitch. In this metric, Cooper has 3.24 per 90 minutes and this places him 22nd.

I have also included pass completion rate in the colour of the dots. On this metric, Cooper has 88.9% pass completion which places him 12th, which is much more positive.

The final passing metric used in this graphic is passes completed per 90 represented by the size of the dots. In this section, Cooper has 60.83 which puts him at 14th.

One metric not covered in the above graphic is progressive passing distance per 90 minutes. Cooper has 390.65 yards per 90 minutes which is very good and puts him at 12th out of all Premier League centre backs.

Conclusion

Stats cannot tell us everything but they can tell us a lot. Cooper has changed a lot in his time with Leeds, most notably since Bielsa arrived. He is our current longest-serving player having played 210 games for the club.

So far he is holding up well with the rest of the league and the stats show this too.

Of course, Cooper brings other qualities to the club which stats can’t show: leadership the biggest among them. He has a very young yet very talented GK behind him in Illan Meslier. Cooper’s influence is vital for Meslier to keep a level head.

With all this in mind, Cooper has the making of a strong central partnership with Robin Koch or Luke Ayling, both of whose strengths complement Cooper’s very well.

So can we all finally say goodbye to calling Cooper ‘League One Liam’? It’s a massive sleight on a player who deserves more. He captained our club back to the top division of English football. Here’s to the future, Premier League Liam.

You can follow Martin Riley on Twitter here.

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