What was Ballard’s role last season?
Gary Rowett generally used a 5-2-1-2 form for Millwall last year, and Ballard almost always played as the right central defender of the defensive three. The defensive line was only obscured by two midfielders due to the nature of the formation/system, therefore the focus was on centre-backs to fill the gaps on either side of the halfway line out of their slots.
Millwall were neither a possession-based side (ranked 17th in the Championship with an average of 46 per cent possession) nor a pressing side high last year, usually sitting in a mid/low block and staying compact instead. This limited the space Ballard had to cover defensively behind and meant there weren’t many demands in possession, with Millwall usually playing wide before looking to progress through the full-backs.
Overall, Ballard was among the fourth best joint defense in the division conceding 45 goals during the season. Individually, he was just as impressive, with this graph by @ForeseeaBall on Twitter nicely summarizing his statistical profile, particularly excelling in defensive duels on the ground and in the air, and in his long passing numbers.
Front foot defense
Ballard’s greatest strength and attribute is his front foot defense. As mentioned, Millwall protect their defense with just two midfielders, so it is essential that centre-backs are able to move towards opposing players who are looking to receive in those spaces around and behind the halfway line.
Ballard is superb at this, adopting an initial lateral stance that allows him to quickly move his feet forward when he needs to jump out of position.
He is very aware of when to step up or down, using triggers such as loose contact or a closed body position to apply pressure.
Ballard is a very aggressive and strong tackler, often leading with his front foot and dueling using his body weight.
Aerial and physical capacity
Another strength of Ballard is how much he enjoys physical duels with opposing forwards. He will often get closer to his man and seek to impose himself physically, preventing him from getting fired.
Against physical attackers such as Elijah Adebayo of Luton, Dominic Solanke of Bournemouth and David McGoldrick of Sheffield United, Ballard performed well in his physical duels, both aerial and on the ground.
In terms of athleticism, Ballard is surprisingly fast considering his height and build, and is very rarely passed when dragged down the fairway.
Ballard also has a great forward leap and is strong in the air, especially under pressure, which will be extremely valuable in offensive and defensive set-piece situations.
Positioning and footwork
Perhaps the most impressive but less obvious part of Ballard’s game is his defensive positioning and footwork.
As mentioned, he adopts a lateral position to allow him to get out of his slot, but also to withdraw when situations warrant it. Ballard shows excellent awareness of when to drop and cover space behind him, especially when there is no pressure on the opposing player. Very rarely does a ball over the top fall behind him due to his ability to move his feet quickly and drop a few yards to defend a longer ball behind.
Another impressive aspect of his footwork is when pushed backwards by an attacker. Ballard positions his body to cut off obvious passes and force the player in possession into an area where he wants them to go, then shows great understanding of when to get out and make a tackle.
Awareness of penalties
Finally, in crossover situations, Ballard again shows excellent defensive awareness that allows him to defend his penalty area and six-yard area. He is constantly looking for opponents’ moves forward and, most importantly, he gives himself space in the box to react to those moves and take the right position. He’s also comfortable clearing the ball with his left foot, which helps him recover in situations where he can’t prepare.
While his forefoot and aggressive nature are a major strength of Ballard’s game, the downside to this is his tendency to mistime these aggressive defensive actions.
When Ballard comes out of his lunge, he often enters forcefully with his front leg. If an opposing player touches the ball first, it often leads to a foul or Ballard is fixed and unable to turn.
The players cleverly used Ballard’s front foot to defend against him by receiving with their backs quickly changing direction and turning away.
Passing forward and in possession
Another weakness in Ballard’s game is his forward passes on the ground.
Although he is more than capable of getting out of defense with the ball at his feet, when he has to throw a pass into the frontcourt his quality is often lacking, either bouncing it or weighing it badly/ directed.
In terms of playing through the midfield lines or wrapping passes into midfield from his wider position, these are not Ballard’s strengths and not something we can expect, although the requirements in possession under Alex Neil might be slightly different than under Gary Rowett. When it comes to his passing variations such as driven game changes, again it’s not something Ballard displays a lot.
Under pressure, Ballard will often look to just hook the ball into the channel instead of playing through or around the pressure (though you might say this is a better choice than a risky pass).
As a right-back in a three at Millwall, he also often closes many of his angles with his first touch, usually taking it towards the touchline rather than midfield. Taking that touch to the sideline doesn’t open up the field for Ballard and can massively limit his options in possession at times.
However, Ballard is a very sensible decision maker with the ball at his feet, takes few risks and usually plays into his near back or back through defence. His short passes are very precise and are able to open up his body to quickly play into his wing-back and get around/over the pressure for the first time.
Although he sometimes panics under pressure as above, he is capable of playing through the front line of an opposition press if there are options available.
Although his passes lack variability, his long ball float in the channel and behind is excellent, especially when the opposition fail to press and give him time and space. This pass often transforms the opposing backline and is a good attribute if you have runners in space.
Although he is often long when pressed, his cut ball in the front line is also generally accurate.
Runners on his back
One of Ballard’s biggest weaknesses is against fast combinations around the box and runners over his shoulder.
Ballard has tremendous difficulty turning and defending against these types of moves and shows a slight lack of awareness in these situations of what is going on behind him, with his forefoot and aggressive nature being exploited by the opposition in examples below.
Overall and how will it fit in?
The main question in the new season is whether Alex Neil will be looking to use a back five or a back four (the most likely answer being both depending on the opponent). Luckily, Ballard seems perfectly suited to both of these systems and appears to be an excellent company.
He is above all a very good defender both inside and outside the penalty area, he is an excellent defender on the forefoot, a hard tackler and very strong physically and aerially. He also gives us the athleticism that Danny Batth and Bailey Wright don’t have, plus he’s a sensible decision maker in possession (but not a big forward passer on the court).
If we use a back four then it will be interesting to see if Ballard changes his aggressive forefoot style due to the space he will need to cover as opposed to when he typically played in a three for Millwall ( although he played in a four against Bournemouth in the clips above and changed his approach very little).
He has a few weaknesses in his game, such as off-shoulder movement and his tendency to panic under pressure, but these are relatively minor issues that he has plenty of time to address at just 22.