Changing of the Guard – Can Two Legendary Left-Backs be Replaced?

This summer has seen the Premier League departure of arguably the two leading left-backs in world football over the past decade. The exit of Patrice Evra and Ashley Cole will leave sizeable holes for Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, but our data reveals both teams may improve as a result.

Evra originally came to Old Trafford as back up for Argentine Gabriel Heinze, who had picked up the Supporters’ Player of the Year Award for the 2004/2005 season. The tenacious Frenchman, signed from Monaco, not only took Heinze’s place in the team but grew to become an integral part of a defence which won five league titles and a Champions League, eventually becoming club captain.

Patrice Evra

Cole has also been a cornerstone for club and country, making 229 appearances for The Blues after a controversial move from rivals Arsenal. Tough-tackling, reliable and quick; he is one of the few English players to be accepted in the ‘world class’ bracket, winning every major domestic and European trophy at Stamford Bridge.

Are the men chosen to replace the legendary left-backs up to the task? We analysed the performances of Luke Shaw (United’s summer signing from Southampton) and Felipe Luis (Chelsea’s new man from Atletico Madrid) and compared them with the figures produced by Cole and Evra for the 2013/2014 season.

ashley cole

The role of the modern day full-back includes almost as many attacking responsibilities as defensive, and in this respect both Luis and Shaw fit the bill. Evra (2.08 per game) and Cole (2.17) broke the opposition’s 1st defensive line markedly less than Shaw (3.88) and Luis (3.2) indicating the added penetration both teams might benefit from next season.

“Luke is the type of player who can play up the entire wing,” said Shaw’s manager at Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino. “He can attack and defend with equal ability.” It was a complement which could have easily been paid to Evra and Cole in their prime, but would the statement still apply to the veterans?

Luke Shaw

Looking at dribbles, again there is no contest. Shaw had 286 solo runs with the ball last season dwarfing the total of Evra (132), while Luis (137) also has the upper hand on Cole (51) in this respect. While Evra (4.83 per game) and Shaw (4.7) are both keen crossers, Cole (1.18) puts aerial balls into the box much less than his replacement Luis (3.8).


Build-up play is another area in which the new boys excel. Shaw’s 24.22% average of ‘good actions’ when building attacks bests the 14.98% of Evra, while Luis (24%) has a similar advantage over Cole (14.96%).

You might think the old guard would stack up better defensively than their offensively capable replacements – wrong. Some 22.7% of Shaw’s defensive actions with the opposition in control of the ball in a dangerous area were classed as ‘good’ compared to 18.4% of Evra’s. Meanwhile Luis’s 28% gets the better of Cole’s 16.2%.

There is no substitute for experience, but what Luis and Shaw lack in Premier League appearances, they certainly make up for in industry and effectiveness all over the pitch.

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