Replacing Kal Naismith Using Data & Video
Kal Naismith’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the Luton Town defence. As Luton fans know, it’s Naismith’s contributions in possession that will be missed the most, with a centre-back possessing his qualities whilst also being left-footed usually coming at a premium that the Hatters can’t usually afford.
This article will use data and video to identify a replacement for Nasimith whilst taking into consideration Luton's significant budgetary constraints. Whilst information on valuations, transfer budgets and wages is limited, it is possible to discern the availability of players through contract expiry dates and the club's that they currently play for.
What is Needed to Replace Naismith?
Nathan Jones deployed a back three as his prefered system last season, predominantly using Naismith on the left of it whilst also using him through the middle on occasion. The demands placed on Luton's centre-backs out of possession are somewhat unique. Luton frequently defend player-to-player and that applies to the centre-backs, particularly the players on the left and right of the three who must constantly step out of defence to close players down between the lines. A great example of this was Naismith's job in the play-off semi-final to player-mark Daniel Sinani. Therefore, any replacement for Naismith must have the mobility to handle such a role.
A less unique feature of Luton's back three is the importance of the wide centre backs being competent 1v1 defenders in wide areas similar to those defended by full-backs in a back four. With Luton's wing-backs often being asked to press high up the pitch, this leaves the likes of Kal Naismith and Reece Burke 1v1 with an opposition winger. Once again, mobility is very important when filling this role.
In possession, Naismith was one of the best ball-progressing defenders in the Championship, so finding someone to exactly fill those shoes is extremely difficult. Here's a brief specification of the types of things to look for in a possible replacement:
Mobile enough to cover large spaces and mark 1v1.
Competently defend whilst isolated in wide areas against wingers.
Be either left-footed or a very good right-footed ball carrier (think Harry Maguire at the 2018 World Cup).
Competent ball progression from deep and able to support the wing-backs in the final third.
Taking Budgets into Account
Accurate information on budgets, wages and valuations is barely available in the public domain, so a sensible approach has been taken when identifying targets. For example, Ben Davies (Liverpool/Sheffield United) would totally fit the profile needed but obviously would not be anywhere near gettable for the Hatters. Here are a few other names that fit that category of being out of reach that would've been good fits:
Luke McNally (Oxford United) - likely too expensive
Murray Wallace (Millwall) - signed long-term contract
Matt Clarke (Brighton) - Wages & likely too expensive
Rob Atkinson (Bristol City) - likely too expensive
1) Yoann Barbet
Yoann Barbet is out of contract at QPR. Used mostly on the left of QPR's back three last season, he's a very good ball-playing centre-back playing in a system under Mark Warburton that demanded a lot in-possession from their centre-backs to play out from the back. The graph below shows how his ball progression numbers rank above average for the Championship.
This is backed up by the video, where he's frequently able to play out from tight situations whilst initiating moves with line breaking passes into advanced central areas. Whilst he doesn't support the wing-backs as much as Naismith did last season around the final third, he certainly has the technical ability for this to be encouraged.
Out of possession, Barbet does lack a bit of mobility and this is shown in his relatively low defensive duels won %. However, this is less important when placed in the context of Naismith's own low defensive duels win %.
Barbet was asked to defend man-to-man very often last season for QPR, a responsibility which he handled fairly well which makes him a good fit for Luton's defensive system whilst playing on the left of a 3.
Overall, Barbet would be a good fit for Luton's backline with his strong ability to progress the ball and experience playing in the Championship.
2) Jake Clarke-Salter
Jake Clarke-Salter played for Coventry City on-loan from Chelsea this season, and like Barbet featured mostly on the left of a back three in a system where the centre-backs were very important in initiating attacks with line breaking passes into feet.
Clarke-Salter is a very good athlete who is more than comfortable defending in isolated situations whilst having very good speed to cover behind the defensive line. Aerially he is much stronger than Barbet, with his forward passes more consistently accurate and his athleticism making him more effective in supporting the wing-backs around the final third. His above average success in offensive duels shows this strength in possession in isolated situations.
At the age of 24, signing him on a free would create significant resale value. However, there is likely to be a lot of interest in Clarke-Salter from other Championship clubs and clubs abroad, and therefore there is a possibility that wages will be an issue for the Hatters. Nonetheless, there is still potential for Luton to secure his services and he would present a superb pickup and upgrade on Naismith.
3) Naby Sarr
Naby Sarr is a very different style of centre-back. Defensively he is excellent - he defends 1v1 very well, is mobile enough to player-mark within Luton's style and defends the box very well. However, in possession he is nowhere near the same style as Kal Naismith or the likes of Yoann Barbet and Jake Clarke-Salter.
As shown in the scatterplot below, Sarr ranks as one of the league's best defenders in term of winning his defensive duels, also scoring highly for interceptions and blocked shots. Huddersfield's style of play is key a factor in these high numbers, with the Terriers being one of the lowest pressing teams in the league, defending deeper and more compact and therefore providing greater protection to their centre-backs.
By contrast, Luton were one of the highest pressing teams in the league, with their centre-backs therefore being less protected and having more space to defend in. I believe that Sarr would be able to cope with these added demands due to his proficiency in defensive duels and overall athletic ability.
However, in possession Sarr is a very poor ball progressor, struggling to find forward passes into feet on a regular basis. However, this could be masked by Luton's direct style of play, but signing Sarr would mean a significant downgrade in terms of the Hatter's ability to play from deep and support the wing-backs higher up in the way that Naismith did and Reece Burke currently does on the right.
Overall, Sarr would ensure that the 'basics' that Nathan Jones speaks of so regularly would be done properly, however that would be the limit of Sarr's impact and he would not fill the in possession role that Naismith executed so well.
4) Akin Famewo
Famewo left Luton to join Norwich in 2019, and would be available for a fairly modest fee given his contract is up in a year and he's unlikely to impact Norwich's first team anytime soon. As I'll outline, signing him would be a risk but it's one that I think is worth taking because he has the athletic and ball progressing qualities to step up to the Championship.
Famewo's defensive data shows up quite poorly but I think there are a number of key contextual factors that have resulted in this. Charlton's defensive structure ahead of the backline was quite poor at times and left Famewo very exposed. In addition, there was a very evident clear lack of clarity in terms of his role out of possession, particularly in terms of when he should step out of defence to close a player between the lines. This is a clarity that he would get within Luton's system that would improve him significantly.
Nathan Jones once described Famewo as a 'Rolls-Royce' and he still possesses those same athletic qualities. His recovery speed is very good and he covers behind really well. As a 1v1 defender he's better than the data suggests, showing good balance and mobility to shift his body position depending on what the player in possession does.
As previously noted, he does have some major flaws to his game defensively. One of these is that he's sometimes too late to react to runners darting across him, but this is something that I believe the Luton coaching staff can develop him in, using his very strong athletic qualities as a basis.
In possession he's much better and would be very effective retaining and progressing the ball in and around the final third at Championship level. He made a few key mistakes last season when playing out from goal kicks, however much like how Luton's defensive system would aid his performances, Luton's direct style of play and would ensure that these mistakes were eradicated.
Overall, Famewo would be a player that Luton can develop and add value to. He wouldn't immediately be ready for the Championship, but he has the base qualities to succeed at the level and fit Luton's defensive system.
Ranking the Options
Jake Clarke-Salter - Clearly the best both defensively and in possession, a good age and a very high ceiling. Fits Luton's defensive and offensive systems perfectly. Drawback is that there will be a lot of interest in him.
Yoann Barbet - Barbet is a really good ball progressor, has plenty of Championship experience and often dealt with player-to-player marking systems quite well. Drawback is his age and whether he fits NJ's mould of a 'hungry' type of player.
Akin Famewo - Another player with a very high ceiling like Clarke-Salter, but with many more flaws in his current game. Will take time to step up to the Championship but has enough good qualities to show that he would be a good investment.
Naby Sarr - Sarr is defensively better than both Barbet and Famewo but is very poor in possession and would therefore be a very different player to Naismith, setting Luton back going forward. At the age of 28 Luton would struggle to add value to him.