Dedryck Boyata is currently back in a talented Belgian national squad, completing a circuitous journey from Manchester City “wonder kid”, through loans, a move to Celtic, errors and injury then back in the Celtic 1st team.
The Manchester City Connection
Boyata signed for Celtic on 2nd June 2015, the first signing by Deila of that preseason. Ostensibly, Boyata was bought from Manchester City to replace the returning Sky Blues loanee, Jason Denayer. Virgil Van Dijk would not leave until the end of that transfer window, following Champions League exit to Malmo.
Boyata had been Manchester City Young Player of the Year at the end of the 2009/10 season, but appeared only 34 times for them over 6 seasons. He accrued a further 25 appearances for Bolton Wanderers and FC Twente, on loan. Capped by Belgium, aged 20, in 2010, he had to wait 5 ½ years for his second cap (ironically substituting in for Denayer) for the last four minutes of a friendly. He was deemed good enough to be awarded a new two year contract at Manchester City in 2014.
Boyata arrived at Celtic aged 25 for £1.5m having amassed a mere 60 senior appearances. There is a sweet spot for Celtic in sourcing undervalued players from less monied leagues – if a player is in his early 20s and has demonstrated form over 75+ matches then there is sufficient evidence to judge potential. Boyata did not fit that model – a player good enough to make a highly competitive Belgian squad, he had yet to complete a full season of professional football, yet already in his 26th year.
For the previous two seasons, Celtic had a settled centre back pairing. In 2013/14 Ambrose and Van Dijk had been the preeminent partnership in a side that conceded only 25 goals in 38 league games. Along the way, they had created a Scottish record of 1,256 minutes without conceding a league goal, in front of Fraser Forster.
During the 2014/15 season the on loan Denayer formed a powerful centre back partnership with the imperious Van Dijk. Scottish attacks struggled to best the pacy, powerful pairing, poaching a mere 17 goals in 38 league games. Unfortunately, Denayer was always going to return to Manchester City to try and win a squad place, and the clock was ticking down on Van Dijk’s Celtic career, that fate sealed by impending Champions League exit and the attraction of an English Premier League sized transfer fee.
Bad Form, or Bad Luck?
On arrival, Boyata was immediately pitched into the 1st team alongside Van Dijk for the crucial Champions League qualifiers. Two goals in those qualifiers, including the tie winning header to beat FK Qarabag 1-0, heralded a promising start as the tall, muscular Belgian managed 9 key defensive saves in the qualifiers against 5 defensive errors. In the qualifiers, he won 39 challenges, losing only 4. Unfortunately, the shakiest performance was away at Malmo on that dismal night, but that can be said for much of the team.
Despite a solid enough start alongside Van Dijk in the qualifiers, Boyata’s domestic form began to get ragged. On 15th August 2015, a comfortable 4-0 lead versus Inverness Caledonian Thistle saw Boyata achieve 100% passing up to half time. His performance turned on a series of 5 defensive and 1 critical error, leading directly to two Inverness goals. I have never recorded so many individual errors in a match in nearly three seasons of capturing performance data.
Van Dijk followed the gold laden path to the EPL soon after, and in time Sviatchenko and Simunovic were purchased whilst Boyata partnered a variety of centre back colleagues. Without Van Dijk alongside him, and with confidence being eroded, the season was punctuated by errors that crucially, seemed to get punished.
|29/08/15||St Johnstone||H||W 3-1||Mistakes by others but Boyata suffers conceding an own goal|
|12/09/15||Aberdeen||A||L 1-2||The key domestic match of the season and Boyata errors punctuate a poor team performance.|
|26/09/15||Hearts||H||D 0-0||Boyata’s missed challenge means Ambrose has no choice but to concede a Red Card foul to save a draw late on.|
|04/10/15||Hamilton Accies||A||W 2-1||Boyata gets too close to Kurtaj on a slippy pitch and is turned as Hamilton take a 4m lead. Redeems himself with equaliser.|
|22/10/15||Molde||A||L 1-3||A miserable night is set in motion on 11m when Boyata falls into a Molde trap as both full backs press on. A wayward pass allows a rapid break resulting in the opener. It got worse.|
|05/11/15||Molde||H||L 1-2||Boyata fails to press, then turns his back on Hestad’s shot to give Molde the lead.|
|08/11/15||Ross County||A||W 4-1||A simple pass is given away for a throw and 3 passes later it’s a goal for Ross County.|
|26/02/16||Hamilton Accies||A||D 1-1||Boyata appears to execute a perfect last ditch tackle taking ball then man. Craig Thomson was quick to see differently and he is sent off.|
|17/04/16||The Rangers||N||D 2-2||A silly free kick given away as an unfit Boyata tries to out skill Miller is eventually punished as TRFC score from the resulting set piece.|
Not all the incidents above have Boyata at fault, but in games against the big teams in Scotland, and in Europe, bad luck and mistakes plagued his first season. Making mistakes is one thing, being punished for them is another, and Boyata seemed to get punished for his mistakes and even the mistakes of others! No other player came close to Boyata’s 7 critical errors across the season. He started 41 games before a thigh injury saw him increasing hampered and finally injured from late April 16.
2015/16 Boyata By Numbers
In general, his performance data in 2015/16 compared well with his peers. For the purposes of this analysis his peer group is:
- Van Dijk
In most respects Boyata is the equal of his peers across the defensive metrics. His passing statistics are in line with his recent peers, he would rank in the middle.
Comparing Boyata’s performances to the peer group results in the following:
Regarding PEI% (maintenance of possession), he has the highest of the peer group at 83% – the next best is Simunovic at 82%. He had the best passing accuracy, with the next best being Denayer at 93%. He also actioned the most defensive saves – i.e. defensive actions that stopped a clear chance.
He had the lowest intercept rate (both volume and % successful – i.e. intercepts that maintained possession) amongst his peers – this may be an indicator of concentration / anticipation.
Having a low number of clearances is not necessarily a bad thing – his high pass success indicates a player who would prefer to pass it out from the back than hoof it aimlessly away.
Finally, his defensive error rate was second only to Ambrose and significantly higher than the next worst – Toure at 0.79 per 90m (there is an interesting statistical feature here that those players with high defensive save rates tend also to have high defensive error rates – I discussed this in Ineffable).
As an attacking force, the comparisons are:
His goal scoring rate is the same as Van Dijk’s (0.15 per 90m) from the 2nd lowest number of shots attempted, therefore with the highest shot accuracy. He also created more chances than his peers and is ranked 2nd in combined goals and assists per 90m.
Overall then, there was a player performing above or at least in line with his peer group. The outlier is in defensive errors. As injury ended his campaign and the Rodger’s reign began, uncertainty clouded Boyata’s Celtic career.
2016/17 Boyata By Numbers
Starting under a new manager injured risks a player being out of mind. And when Rodgers brought the experienced Kolo Toure on board, with Ambrose, O’Connell also getting game time in early matches, Boyata had to recover and watch, unsure of his future. Not available until late October 16, a nervy, error strewn game away to Kilmarnock in mid-November, albeit in a scrappy 1-0 win, saw Boyata discarded again, as Sviatchenko and Simunovic established themselves.
In the January transfer window an unattributed Daily Record article had him free to leave and possibly going to Anderlecht. Other reports had the devout Boyata apparently running the treadmill at 1am to gain a fitness edge.
Consequently, there was surprise amongst the support when Boyata lined up after the winter break in the Scottish Cup match away to Albion Rovers. He has maintained his place since completing twelve matches, even being substituted for the ceremonial 89th minute round of applause against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at home in the Scottish Cup.
As with his start to the 2015/16 season, Boyata impressed in his early appearances. He gave away only three passes in his first three appearances of 2017. He won his first 15 challenges. Headed winning goals followed in close, stuffy matches against Aberdeen and St. Johnstone at home. In an away game against St. Johnstone, an own goal marred a 5-2 win, but as I showed at the time, this was not Boyata’s fault as poorly positioned colleagues left him exposed marking two players:
But do the performance numbers indicate improvement?
As a supporter, if I could have given Boyata any advice as a player it would have been:
1. Find a way to mentally focus such that you cut down on defensive errors; and
2. Keep it simple in possession.
The performance data for the last twelve games, has Boyata comparing with his peer group as follows:
Boyata is currently delivering the most passes per 90m, and the most accurate pass success rate, of any Celtic player recorded over the last three seasons. This does not mean he is the best passer at Celtic, it means he is keeping it simple and not giving the ball away. Central defenders should not be attempting high (and rarely medium) risk passes. Consequently, his PEI is the highest I have recorded – analysing all his on-field actions, he keeps possession 87% of the time.
His challenges won per game is now low compared to his peers, but he wins 77% of them. His intercept rate is even lower than last season but he is 3rd most successful with them. The two previous statistics indicate to me a cautious decision maker who will only commit when confident of success.
Most tellingly he is now 4th in defensive error rate (for comparison the lowest is Sviatchenko at 0.44 per 90m). The fact his defensive save rate was previously the highest per 90m and is now the lowest may be an indicator of a player more circumspect, not rushing into rash actions. A well-positioned player does not need to execute so many last ditch defensive saving actions.
In a parallel with 15/16, after a confident start, mistakes have occurred. Most noticeably, a collective failure of defensive organisation, including a missed header by Boyata, against The Rangers allowed Waghorn through one on one with Gordon. Gordon saved with his feet – a mistake unpunished in stark contrast with fortunes last season.
Finally, in his last outing against Dundee, a mistake IS punished as a rash attempt to disposes El Bakhtaoui on half way resulted in him being turned – and this mistake was punished with a goal. Is 2015/16 about to be rerun?
There is, therefore, evidence of parallels with 2015/16 when a confident start was followed by periodic mistakes – and mistakes being punished. Yet there is also clear evidence of improvement: of doing the simple things well, of a more circumspect attitude, not diving in.
Boyata, in his 27th year, is being given the chance to become the player Manchester City and Belgium hoped he would seven years ago. Twelve consistent performances need to become twenty plus to see out the season. It’s down to you, Dedryck.