By Tim Penfold
Callum Cooke has been the standout player of the Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars era. His move up the pitch to the number 10 role has allowed him greater freedom to create and influence the game, and his absence through injury has left a gaping hole in the side and a deficit in creativity to make up.
The two joint managers have gone through many different options in his absence, with Charles Vernam, Gareth Evans, Danny Rowe, Kian Scales and most recently Clayton Donaldson taking up the central position behind the striker. However, with the exception of Donaldson’s impressive game against Colchester, this has mostly been unsuccessful, and the position remains a problem for the management team to solve.
However, there is one player in the squad who has, somewhat surprisingly, not been tried in that role. Billy Clarke has made a career out of playing the number 10 role, whether behind two strikers, as in Phil Parkinson’s diamond, or off a lone frontman.
He’s consistently created chances wherever he has been, and during the early stages of the season, under McCall, Clarke was one of the few bright sparks in our team – witness, for example, the collapse in performance after he went off injured against Leyton Orient. Despite this he has been relegated to the periphery under Trueman and Sellars, consigned to the right flank or the bench, and his performances haven’t been hugely effective.
This was entirely understandable when Cooke was available, but in his absence and with City struggling to create, it seems strange to leave the best available creator in the squad out.
Using stats available from Whoscored.com, we can see that despite being in and out of the side and out of position, Clarke has put up impressive creative numbers compared to the rest of the City squad. He averages 2.2 key passes (a pass that leads directly to a shot) per 90 minutes on the pitch, which is not only the highest in the squad but the 6th highest in the division (minimum 15 matches played).
When we filter down to his performances when played in the number 10 role earlier in the season, this figure rises to 2.7 key passes per game, which would put him 2nd in the division, albeit with a smaller sample size making comparisons less useful.
Some of this rise is down to the fact that Clarke was on set piece duty for much of the early season along with Elliot Watt, which does skew the figures slightly in Clarke’s favour. If we correct for this, then Clarke’s advantage over the rest of the squad lessens a bit, though still remains.
This is not the only successful measure of a number 10, but it is the main one – the position is, after all, primarily a creative one.
The other metrics favour Clarke a lot less – Cooke stands out in terms of ball retention, with a pass completion rate of 83% comfortably better than all of his competitors, and also gives the ball away a lot less whilst dribbling and in general play, while Charles Vernam has been the most prolific dribbler in the squad, dribbling around 50% more than the other options for the 10 role and with the highest success rate of all.
Cooke’s possession retention is particularly key for the more solid system that Trueman and Sellars favour, with his ability to keep the ball a lot while still creating a decent amount of chances meaning that City aren’t as exposed to counter attacks when moves break down.
But surely there’s only one stat that truly matters in football? All of these key passes and successful dribbles mean nothing if the ball doesn’t end up in the net at the end of it, so for a key attacking role we should just be looking at how many goals the players have actually been involved with?
It turns out that Clarke’s numbers look pretty good there too, though less so since his move out to the right hand flank.
His overall rate of scoring and creating goals is slightly higher than Cooke’s at 0.39 goals and assists per 90 compared to 0.36, and better than the rest of the number 10 options too – only Donaldson, at 0.34, gets above a 1 in 3 ratio for goal involvements.
Looking specifically at when Clarke has played at 10 rather than wide, his stats get better – scoring or assisting at a rate of better than one every two games.
This is not an argument to start Clarke ahead of Cooke – Cooke’s better ball retention and greater defensive ability mean that he’s a more useful all-round option in the role than Clarke, and his form since the change of management means that when fit, he’s a certain starter.
But with Cooke unavailable, the side struggling to create consistently and none of the alternative options making the place their own, Clarke surely deserves an opportunity in his best position.