Forensically watching an ordinary player: Dale Stephens

Date published: Monday 22nd January 2018 9:13

I’m here to write about an ordinary player. His name is Dale Stephens, he turned 28 in December, and he’s a central midfielder for Brighton & Hove Albion. If you type his name into the Football365 search engine, you get some news items from his time in the Championship, and a handful of references since promotion – the majority of which, I’m ashamed to say, are my doing. He’s not a household word.

First, the basic history. He was born in Bolton, and his first club was nearby Bury, then in League Two. He made his first mark at Oldham Athletic, featuring 60 times for the Latics in League One from 2009 to 2011. He then moved to Charlton Athletic, when he was an important part of the side that finished top of League One in 2011/12. Incidentally, he’s the only regular from that squad currently in the Premier League.

After over 50 appearances for Charlton in the Championship, he went to Brighton in the January window of 2014, but a few months later was sidelined by an ankle injury. He returned in February of 2015 and was soon a crucial member of the side: 45 appearances in 2015/16, then 39 in 2016/17, the promotion year.

Pretty ordinary, you’ll agree. But here’s a thing: in the summer of 2016, with only one year left on his contract, he put in a transfer request. Sean Dyche wanted him for second-time-promoted Burnley, and Stephens saw it as a chance to play in the top flight, and to go home to Lancashire.

But Brighton balked, even though the transfer fee was a reported ₤8m, a significant sum for a Championship side. They felt he was too good to sell. He publicly admitted his disappointment, but instead of pouting, he got down to business and helped his side gain promotion themselves. Last summer, happier than ever on the south coast, he signed a new four-year contract with the Seagulls.

So now he’s in the Premier League, what can we say about him? Let’s look at the stats. He’s one of only seven outfield players to have logged every minute of every game this season. And he’s not just filling a space: going into this weekend’s play he was in the top ten in successful tackles, the top ten in blocked passes, and the top 15 in interceptions.

The numbers also show that although Pascal Gross may be the man who makes the goals, Stephens is at the heart of the side. He’s by far the most prolific passer in the squad, averaging roughly 10 more passes per game than any other player. His 85.3% pass completion percentage is the best in the team as well.

Even better, he doesn’t just recycle the ball. Only one midfielder in the league (Jonjo Shelvey) averages longer passes. Analytics man Paul Riley, who’s done some of the most important recent work on passing efficiency, rates him among the best of those who don’t just play the safe pass.

But those are just numbers. Watch Stephens and you’ll see he picks his passes instinctively, with rarely a hesitation. He passes well in all directions, and is particularly good at the diagonal ball to the winger pushing up in attack. And although Brighton are a side that take their time, he’s always looking to get the ball to someone who’ll get it further forward.

What about those tackles, blocked passes, and interceptions, then? Well, he’s not N’Golo Kanté or Nemanja Matic, but he’s not Claudio Yacob either. If you watched last weekend’s game against Chelsea, you saw him get the frequent runaround from the Blues attackers. He was forced to foul more than usual to hold back attacks, but it was never unnecessarily rough. And even so, he managed more than his average in both tackles and interceptions.

Attack? Not much. He’s there to start the moves, not end them. In open play he almost never gets into the box. He has an assist from a set-piece, where against Newcastle his nifty downward header was turned in by Tomer Hemed. But the odds are pretty good it’ll be his last of the season. Still, if you watched that Chelsea game, you’ll have seen him moving the ball forward on a regular basis.

The best word for Stephens is reliable. Although like anyone else he has his better and worse games, you know what you’re going to get when he steps across the white lines. He’s playing for a side that may very well get relegated, but there’s a reason he’s played every minute of every game.

So, an ordinary player, but perhaps not so ordinary at that. And in fact there are no ordinary players: every member of every squad at every level has distinctive points of interest. Dale Stephens just happens to be the one under the magnifier here. But next time Brighton & Hove Albion show up on your screen, you could do worse than watch number 6. It’ll be more than an ordinary experience.

Peter Goldstein

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