Having watched the boy from Bosnia again be his country’s most prominent and attractive player in the two Euro 2016 qualifiers of the past fortnight, some Evertonians are asking the question that’s the headline of this piece. Personally, I’ve been trying to work out what kind of player he is and the role he could potentially play in Roberto’s joga bonito-centric Everton side. One of the aspects of Martinez’s way of playing that’s been discussed at length elsewhere is ball retention and rotation, so I thought it’d be interesting to look at how Besic contributes to these aspects of the game.
Ball retention is the less remarkable of the two, given that the vast majority of deep midfield players at the top level of football these days have pass completion percentages of 85%+. Besic is no different, averaging 87% in the 2014 World Cup and 85% in the couple of Prem games he’s played for Everton (away fixtures at Liverpool and Manchester United). For comparison, Gareth Barry averaged 88% pass completion for those two league games.
For Bosnia, Besic plays in the ‘Barry’ position, being the first passing option for defenders and thus the midfield player that sees the most of the ball. Players in this position are expected to play mainly low-risk passes and lots of them. In the majority of teams these players complete the most passes, with the most influential usually amassing somewhere around 15% of their side’s total. In Italy’s World Cup campaign, for example, Pirlo completed dead on 15% of his team’s completed passes over the three games. For Bosnia in the same competition, Besic also scored 15%. Italy averaged 55% possession in their games, while Bosnia averaged 53%. Both Besic and Pirlo played every minute of each match.
To compare this with Barry, I picked three games from last season in which Everton enjoyed similar possession statistics. As it happened the best fixtures to match up in this regard included the home tie against Arsenal and the away game at Chelsea, along with the two-nil victory over Norwich in which Barry scored. Over these three games Everton averaged 53% possession, with similar possession stats for individual matches as Besic’s Bosnia in the World Cup. Over these three games, Barry accounted for 13% of Everton’s completed passes. Not significantly less than Besic for Bosnia, and I’m sure you could find three games over which he averaged 15%, but still worth noting.
Perhaps of greater consequence to a passing style of play that relies on ball rotation is the sheer number of passes players complete per game. Over Bosnia’s three World Cup games, Besic completed 212 passes in 270 minutes on the pitch, or 0.79 passes per minute (PPM). This was the sixth highest ratio of any player in the World Cup that played at least one full game, behind De Rossi, Pirlo, Gago, Lahm and Xavi. Not bad company. By contrast, over Barry’s three chosen games for Everton last season, he averaged only 0.56 PPM.
Why is this? Well, firstly, in proportion to the amount of time they spend in possession, Everton pass the ball far less than all those international sides. Besic’s Bosnia, for example, completed some 1412 passes during their three World Cup games, with 53% of the ball. Meanwhile against Arsenal, Chelsea and Norwich, Everton completed just 1261 passes, despite enjoying the same 53% possession average. Bosnia’s matches in the World Cup were against Argentina, Nigeria and Iran, less challenging fixtures than Everton’s three, so it could be argued that it was simply easier for Besic to pass the ball around against inferior opposition. Alternatively, it could be that Everton’s style of play is slower, with players spending longer on the ball before making a pass and utilising a greater amount of long passes that take more time to complete.
It’s difficult to tell how much of a factor one player is in a team’s passing numbers. Is Besic speeding up Bosnia’s movement of the ball, or is he just part of a national team that passes it around more than Everton? The only way to answer this question is to see how Besic does when he plays for Everton. In those two league games away at Liverpool and Manchester United, Besic completed 91 passes in 169 minutes, or 0.54 PPM. Barry also played in both of those games and registered 0.57 PPM. So it’s Everton then isn’t it. Or is it? Besic playing alongside Barry means he has a slightly different role to the one he plays for Bosnia, seeing less of the ball in deep areas and being expected to get around the pitch more. In the cup tie against Swansea he fulfilled a similar function despite Barry missing the game, with Gibson stepping into Barry’s position. It might be that given the opportunity to dictate play as the main midfield boss man, Besic would boost Everton’s overall passing numbers. We’ll have to wait and see on that one.
Of course, it’s questionable whether or not it’s even a good thing to pass the ball more often and there have been often justifiable criticisms of Martinez’s teams keeping possession but doing nothing with it. Likewise there have been many examples over the years of teams winning with small proportions of possession. Even for these sides though, number of passes is important. A small number of total completed passes per minute in possession is a good indicator of a defensive team playing aimless long balls. For a team that goes into every game aiming to have the majority of the ball, which is what Martinez wants Everton to be, frequent rotation of possession is vital.
To see how far we’ve already come in this respect, compare the 1261 passes completed last season versus Arsenal, Chelsea and Norwich to the 887 completed against Sunderland, Bolton and Wolves in 2010/11, again maintaining the same average 53% possession. Interestingly, across those games four years ago, Mikel Arteta completed a total of 151 passes from the controlling midfield position, exactly the same amount as Barry achieved in his three games. Arteta’s influence on that Everton side’s passing was thus greater even than Pirlo’s on Italy, as Mikel accounted for 18% of the team’s completed passes. Watching Arteta at his peak impress his style of play onto a previously insipid Moyes side was probably the most enjoyable part of that era, and although the change wouldn’t be so drastic, installing Besic as the new fulcrum of Martinez’s Everton could mark a similar watershed moment.