Freeman vs Baldock – the best headache for Wilder this summer?
Without doubt the most well-stocked area of our whole squad is the right wing back position (RWB). In our playing style the wing backs are in all likeliness the key players in the team, providing an outlet, creativity and having to work their balls to the wall on both sides of the game. It’s a demanding position in our style and no doubt that both George Baldock and Kieron Freeman will play a huge part this season. That said, a lingering question is beginning to crop up as the season draws closer: who will start at RWB?
Fans seem to be pretty clear on the strengths and weaknesses of both and even from an analytics perspective it is quite hard to argue with the debate put forward. Baldock is said to have the most pace in the team, be defensively solid (especially in 1v1 situations) and get himself into good attacking positions with his athleticism - but he also lacks end product in terms of goals, assists, chance creation and dribbling. Freeman on the other hand had an outstanding goalscoring season in our League 1 title campaign in 2016/17. He often drives into the box to either assist or score himself and he can beat a man with individual skill. However, in many fans eyes that season was all about Freeman’s attacking displays, and his defensive duties are considered suspect.
What’s that song again, “If you don’t know me by now” - well if you don’t know me by now (and of course you should) I don’t accept just what the eyes tell us. I want to delve into the numbers of the 2 players concerned. Admittedly it won’t be the fairest comparison, as Freeman missed most of last season due to injury. Many of his numbers will be from 16/17, but also includes the Championship games he was involved in either side of his injury in 17/18. That’s the caveat over, let us get into the stats.
George Baldock - performance breakdown
First up, George Baldock and his 17/18 season radar. I’ll talk more about radars and why I use them in another article, but essentially these are widely-used methods of viewing a player’s performance. Each section is a different stat category, and the red marking shows where the player (in this case, Baldock) registers on that scale compared to others at his position. The further the red reaches, the better (this is a good primer on what some of these stats mean if you’re not clear).
What is instantly clear here, and backs up the general opinion, is that Baldock lacks output from a creative perspective. His key passes, completed crosses and expected assist (xA) numbers are below par for the division as a whole.
It is a key weakness in George’s game, one which requires work. With his pace, strength and stamina, he has huge potential to be a PL wing back if he can improve his attacking output. Positives from this radar are that Baldock is one of toughest players in the league to dribble past in 1v1. More surprisingly, he appears to have above-average dribbling success numbers, surprising in the main because Baldock seems to lack a particular “trick” or “skill” to beat opponents and simply pushes it one way and goes the other. Nothing wrong with old school wing play of course and clearly it is producing good numbers.
My overriding feeling seeing this radar is that yes, statistics can be skewed, and that Blades fans watching Baldock last year will have noted how key he was, how he was always an outlet, available to have the ball, and how he ran until the final whistle in every game. At the same time though the numbers cannot lie and by an attacking wing back standards this is an average radar coverage at best.
Kieron Freeman - performance breakdown
Now we come to the 17/18 version of Kieron Freeman who was involved in only 10 games (normally my minimum limit for any statistical analysis). However, this amounted to only 749 minutes, and I wouldn’t normally consider anything under 1000 as meaningful – but let’s take a look anyway.
As you can see, Freeman’s radar coverage is much more positive on the attacking front. High numbers in crossing accuracy % and key passes show his ability to not only create but also be involved in combination passing moves. On the more negative side, Freeman’s defensive numbers are generally very low. United’s approach may not necessarily lead to high defensive numbers in general, but as a wing back on the front foot I would expect interceptions to be higher for both players. All in all for 10 games this is a good radar indicating a player who has high attacking output and quality but who needs work on the defensive side.
For comparison and to see the art of the possible, below is Freeman’s radar for the 16/17 League One title-winning season:
As an attacking wing back goes, this is probably one of the best radars you could hope to see. He showed outstanding output creatively with accurate and high quantity of completed crosses. Not only did Freeman produce quantity but he also produced high quality with his expected assists per 90 at 0.2 (note: there were some attacking midfielders in the league that season who didn’t reach 0.2 xA per 90!).
Interestingly, Freeman seemed to be very much on the front foot with his defending too, peaking at 3.3 interceptions per 90. That is one of the highest ratings I have ever seen for a player in that position. Reminder though – the radar above is for games in League One, a step below our current division.
Enda Stevens - performance breakdown
Finally, just for comparison, here is the radar for Enda Stevens’ 17/18 season. RANT ALERT: I don’t agree at all with Blades fans who seem to feel Freeman should play at LWB. In the first instance of that debate, I’d like to show Exhibit A, Stevens’ radar. This is a highly attacking coverage for a Championship wing back. Big numbers in expected assists, key passes, successful dribbles and aerial wins (yep, that one surprised me too). Enda also seems to engage and win a fair amount of tackles per 90, however his interception numbers are poor. Most negative is the fact Enda is one of the most dribbled past LWB/LBs in the league.
Conclusion - Baldock or Freeman?
In summary, have we answered the question of who should play at RWB, Freeman of Baldock? Probably not quite. Without a full season of Championship data for both it is hard to ascertain comparable levels of performance.
However, come Saturday 9th August who would I like to start against Swansea? I’d opt for Freeman. I think there will be times next season when we take a horses-for-courses approach based on style of opponent, or how we wish to approach certain games. In the Swansea game I imagine we will want to be all guns blazing. That’s why I would start Freeman, because he is the goal threat, the quality and the creator, even if most of the evidence for that comes from League One. However, let us not forget how enviable a position we’re in, and that holding two of the better RWBs in the division is a fantastic problem to have.