Player Analysis: James Tarkowski — England’s most overlooked defender

If Eric Dier can get into the England team, why can’t James Tarkowski?

When Southgate announced the latest squad for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, many questioned the decision to include Eric Dier. The player has neither played much for Mourinho’s side recently nor played well when called upon, which begs the question to his inclusion over the likes of Erzi Konsa or Phil Jones (just a joke). But nobody could be more aggrieved to the decision than Burnley’s James Tarkowski, who last received a cap in 2018. Tarkowski has formed an impeccable partnership with Ben Mee ever since the departure of Michael Keane to Everton in 2017. The pair has been integral to Sean Dyche’s side as they become the cornerstone to Burnley’s success and longevity in the Premier League over the past 4 seasons. The consistency and reliability of Tarkowski in particular, has attracted interests from the likes of Leicester and Chelsea, whereas West Ham got a £31million bid for his services rejected as recently as last summer.

Admittedly Burnley are enduring a rough season due to injuries and illnesses in this Covid-plague campaign. That said, Tarkowski has been an ever present in the defence and has largely been impressive and consistent in the league. When paired with Mee, the duo managed to help the team keep 8 clean sheets so far in the campaign including an impressive 1–0 victory at Anfield. The 6’1 defender exuberates calmness in the backline as well as possessing great technique as a ball playing defender. Now, Tarkowski is undoubtedly one of the league’s best center backs. The dashboard below shows Tarkowski’s importance to the Clarets this season when compared to other center backs in the Premier League.

Viz by Author

This analysis will cover Tarkowski’s performance with Burnley this season. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to FBref via StatsBomb.

“Football is played with the head. Your feet are just tools.”

- Andrea Pirlo.

In Tarkowski’s case, he may have taken this quote a little too seriously. The Englishman currently registers the most Aerial Duels won per90 amongst defenders in the Premier League with 5.11. Tarkowski also attempted the second most passes with the head in the league with 117, only Tomas Soucek has more with 120. To say Tarkowski is an asset in the air is perhaps an understatement.

Tarkowski winning a header against Watford (via Twitter @premierleague)

Tarkowski is able to register this number of aerial duels per game is partly due to Burnley’s playstyle but mainly a credit to his impressive awareness and positioning on the pitch. It always seems as if the ball is attracted to the magnet on his head, with every cross meeting the Burnley man with ease.

Burnley play with a standard 4–4–2, with the midfield and defence often playing a low block in an attempt to congest the midfield. This forces opposition to attack from the width, crossing balls to their respective attackers to pounce, something Tarkowski and co are adapted to deal with. A cut-back opportunity would rarely be an option as Burnley’s midfielders are tasked to track the runs of incoming attackers and block out the passing lane effectively.

Tarkowski generally holds a position around the front post to prevent attackers making near post run-ins. As the cross would come, he dominates the area and establishes a clean connection, normally with his head to get it away. In the game against Sheffield United, Burnley’s midfield and defence have occupied the width of the penalty box, leaving Sheffield no choice but to resort to crossing from wide areas. In this instance, Tarkowski positions himself between the near post and penalty area, anticipating the cross which does come in from the right, only to be easily dealt by the defender.

Tarkowski positioning himself in front of the near post, and winning the header comfortably

In their history making victory at Anfield, a similar scenario occurred where Liverpool were forced to resort to deep crosses to find the runs of Mane to pounce on. Tarkowski would hold up the same position, aware of the run to the back post made by Mane and heads it clear before the cross reaches the target for an attempt.

Tarkowski again in a similar position winning the header before reaching Mane

Although he hasn’t scored this season, his aerial threat is still something opposition should not take lightly for he has the abilities to make them count. This season, he has underperformed his xG of 1.6 but given time, meaning he should have gotten around 2 goals by now but missed chances and goalkeeping brilliance has denied him a goal thus far. In the game against Leicester, his header from 6 yards out was brilliantly kept out by Kasper Schmeichel.

Tarkowski unlucky to not score here

The Manchester born defender reads and anticipates the game really well. Being able to read opponents and force them into mistakes is perhaps a very underrated yet impressive feature in a defender’s game. Tarkowski seemingly gets a high number of clearances as well as blocked shots due to his excellent positioning and anticipation of where the ball is travelling. According to the dashboard above, Tarkowski is a very reliable defender in ensuring the ball does not end up at the back of the net by the means of clearing it as well as blocking it. The defender is placed amongst the topmost percentile in this metric, alongside partner in crime, Ben Mee and Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld.

In the draw against West Brom, Burnley got caught out by West Brom’s attack and found themselves chasing Diagne and Pereira through on goal. The latter somehow managed to miss his kick but Tarkowski kept his concentration and composure. Whilst positioning himself at the goal-line, anticipating where the ball would end up given the rebound. He ended up having to produce a goal-line clearance with his head in the end, saving Burnley an embarrassing result considering West Brom were with 10 men for the majority of the game.

Tarkowski with a goal-line clearance

Tackles are the bread and butter of defenders, make it right and you could prevent a certain goal, make it wrong however, and the team will get caught in transition or concede. In this high risk and reward scenario, Tarkowski chooses to only proceed to tackle when he knows he has a high chance of winning the duel. Hence why he only attempts 1.37 tackles a game in a 1v1 scenario but he would have a high tackle success rate of 68%. His tackles attempted per game are only slightly above the average, but this could be skewed due to the conservative playstyle Burnley approaches. The only player who has a higher tackle success rate is Kurt Zouma, but the Frenchman only engages in 0.41 tackles a game due to the high possession football Chelsea play. To give a better context, Alderweireld of Tottenham, who is also regarded as one of the Premier League’s better ball playing defenders over recent seasons, attempts 1.34 tackles a game but has a lower success rate of 54%.

When faced in a 1v1 scenario, Tarkowski would often go low and wait for a mistake committed by the attacker. Once a moment of indecision creeps in the head of attackers, Tarkowski would only proceed to win the ball with tackles. In certain scenarios, a loose touch may also invite the Englishman to a solid tackle, a no-nonsense approach that would surely play in the minds of opposition attackers as the game progresses.

In the victory against Sheffield, Tarkowski is being confronted by Brewster just outside the penalty area. The center back stood firm to ensure the ball doesn’t progress any further. Brewster made a poor and needless touch which presented Tarkowski to get the tackle in for the team.

Tarkowski waiting patiently for an opening to tackle Brewster

Again, McGoldrick’s loose touch at the defensive third of Burnley’s pitch invited the opportunity for Tarkowski to get a firm tackle in. Winning the ball cleanly and looking to help Burnley progress further up the pitch.

Tarkowski capitalizing on a loose touch of McGoldrick to win back possession

As a kid, Tarkowski was played higher up the pitch at Blackburn which meant he developed a great technical ability from young. As he grows older, he is shifted to the back line where he is excelling from the experiences he’s had from playing in various positions. He is calm and comfortable on the ball and is capable of carrying the ball out of the defence. This season, he has 0.04 carries into the penalty area per90, tied 6th amongst Premier League center backs. As such, he is a brilliant all-round footballer who can do everything. Well, almost everything.

Graph by Author

The logical reason for Tarkowski’s omission from the England setup would be due to his passing abilities. This is not to say the defender is a poor passer, as he has proved in his many seasons with the Clarets that he is an accomplished passer of the ball, but the playstyle of Burnley would mean the opportunity to do so is very limited and long balls are normally distributed by Pope this season.

Amongst Premier League center backs who have played a minimum of 15 games this season, Tarkowski’s average distance of progressive passes are below average with 207.4 yards, and the completion rate of his passes are not ideal with 72%. As I mentioned, this is largely due to Burnley’s style of play rather than Tarkowski’s abilities, where they are normally not required to dictate the play from the back as often as other teams. This season, he only attempts an average of 32.5 passes per90, one of the lowest amongst center backs, especially when the demand of a modern center back increases for other teams. That said, he still can produce great passes from deep when given the opportunity to do so. The pass against West Brom does highlight his brilliance when the team is given the opportunity (or rather, forced) to dictate the play from deep.

Tarkowski excellent cross-field ball

Nonetheless, Tarkowski has done more than enough to warrant a place in the national setup. Had it been a different manager with different philosophies, there would be no doubt Tarkowski would be on the plane to the Euros taking place in the summer. His all-round gameplay alongside his reliability has been integral to The Clarets for multiple seasons now and has certainly grown to become a leader in the dressing room as well. These are all great qualities to have in a player and having only 2 caps for England is rather mind blowing.

Tarkowski in an England shirt, will there be more? ( via @bein SPORTS)

At 28, the Englishman’s contract expires in the summer of 2022 and would likely be considering his future carefully, knowing that the next contract his signs would ideally be his biggest one in his career. In the meantime, Tarkowski would remain as Burnley’s most prized asset as they look to secure his signature in the coming months with a new ownership alongside a new vision for the club.

Twitter: @chunhang7



Aspiring Football Analyst | More Vizzes on Twitter @chunhang7

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