In a moment of frustration during last week’s podcast, I angrily proclaimed that I’d rather play Mike Williamson than Steven Taylor. It was less of an endorsement of the oft-criticized, immobile, passing-challenged Williamson than a dig at Taylor and his continued nonsensical antics and bizarre positional sense.
My comment drew some good-natured ribbing on Twitter from friend of the blog @LeeSibbald and podcast contributor @ToonArmyMIA, and our ensuing debate prompted fellow podcast contributor Phil Lavanco (@Lavanglish) to spend his day inputting names and scores into a spreadsheet that chronicled each Newcastle United game and center back combination since the club returned to the Premier League for the 2010-11 season.
That data (every Premier League match from the start of 2010-11 through the Aug. 31 win over Fulham, plus last season’s Europa League results; Phil decided to eschew domestic cup matches because of the mashed up lineups that tend to be deployed in them) would allow us to at least see how Newcastle had fared as a team with each player — along with anyone else — at center back over a substantial time frame. Before digging into the numbers, I told Lee, Barry and Phil, “basically we're arguing over two turds and debating which one looks tastier.” So which turd would turn out to be the tastiest? Follow me into the toilet bowl …
The most basic measure of a team’s success with any given player in the lineup is points collected. Simplistic, yes, but still worth examining. So without further adieu:
Much to my dismay, the combination of Fabricio Coloccini and Taylor has been more effective in securing points than the more-often-used (thanks to Taylor’s frequent injuries) duo of Coloccini and Williamson. Overall, Taylor also averages .09 more points per start at center back than Williamson.
Obviously that’s just a first glance at the turds, though. Let’s reach below the surface of the water and look at how each center back combination has performed in terms of goals for and goals against.
The overall numbers for Taylor and Williamson are incredibly close. Williamson’s average goals against is .013 higher than Taylor’s, while the unexciting big man (Seriously, does anyone actually know anything interesting about Williamson? He seems like the most bland player in the Premier League. Imagine if he grew a mohawk or something. Anything.) boasts an average goals for that is .1467 higher than Taylor’s.
True, 78.7 percent of Williamson’s starts have come next to Coloccini, compared to 61.8 percent for Taylor, but Williamson’s goals against is actually higher with the Argentine captain than in small samplings with Taylor, James Perch or Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
The biggest surprise is that Newcastle’s average goals for is higher with Coloccini-Williamson in the center than with Coloccini-Taylor. Taylor is better on the ball than Williamson, so it’s only logical to think that Newcastle would be able to build from the back and generate more scoring chances with Taylor next to Coloccini. Williamson can be a nuisance on set pieces, but he still has never scored since joining Newcastle, and Taylor had shown a nose for the goal before the past two seasons.
Still, the Coloccini-Taylor combo is a net positive in goals, while Coloccini-Williamson is just barely negative. Advantage, Stevie boy.
I know what you’re thinking, though — I want to know more about these turds! Show me more details! Well, alright. Let’s take a look at the highs and lows of all of Newcastle’s center back combinations: clean sheets and implosions.
I began this exercise figuring Williamson would look like the more steady player, and Taylor more volatile, mostly because that’s how they perform on the field. Williamson just plods along, while Taylor bounces between making a goal-saving block and hammering an opposing striker in the face.
But wouldn’t you know it, if we look at Williamson, Taylor and Coloccini, Big Mike is the player most likely to have been on the field for a clean sheet — and also for a total meltdown. Taylor, meanwhile, has the highest percentage of starts that result in one goal allowed or less. The Coloccini-Williamson combo has been central to some of Newcastle’s best victories in recent seasons — clean sheets at Arsenal in 2010-11, vs. Manchester United in 2011-12 and at Chelsea later that same season — but has had an alarming number of total collapses. Think at Bolton in 2010-11 or at Fulham, Spurs and Wigan in 2011-12.
Coloccini-Taylor, it would seem, is the safer play, while Coloccini-Williamson has the potential for the greater payoff. Weird. Or, to stick with my analogy, Taylor is your standard, multiple-wipe turd, while Williamson is the rumble in your bowels that might either result in a clean, no-wipe special or a piledriver that might plug the office toilet. Wait, I thought we were talking about the tastiness of the turds, you’re thinking. Thankfully, I don’t know what turds taste like, so I can’t come up with any metaphors. Sorry.
Of course, any stats are framed by one condition: the quality of the opposition. So let’s see how they compare when we look at strictly Premier League opponents.
On average, Taylor has faced opponents sitting one place better in the table than Williamson (also, poor James Perch!). So, to circle back to the first table, Taylor is picking up slightly more points against slightly better opposition. Seems straightforward enough, then.
And yet, when we examine how the various center back combinations have fared against the Premier League’s top five teams over the past three-plus seasons — Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham — Coloccini-Williamson has been Newcastle’s best bet for picking up points.
So what does it all mean? Which turd is tastiest? Taylor’s numbers when paired with Coloccini, both in terms of goals allowed and points gained, seem to give him the edge. It’s also worth noting that his overall numbers are slightly skewed by his disastrous partnership with Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa last season (18 goals allowed in nine games!). So, while I suspect Williamson’s clean sheets and performance against the top teams might surprise some fans, I’ll concede defeat on this one.With any luck, this debate will be rendered largely irrelevant this season: It’s still very early, but Coloccini and Yanga-Mbiwa’s partnership looks promising. Should Yanga-Mbiwa be unavailable, then Taylor deserves to get the call while Williamson sadly dreams of long, looping free kicks toward the back post. And what if Coloccini goes down? Then, we all run to the bathroom.