What was Ballard’s role last season?
Gary Rowett typically utilised a 5-2-1-2 shape for Millwall last year, and Ballard almost always played as the right centre-back of the three defensively. The defensive line was only screened by two midfielders due to the nature of the formation/system, therefore that was massive emphasis on the centre-backs having to plug the gaps either side of the midfield line by stepping out of their slots.
Millwall were neither a possession-based (ranked 17th in the Championship with an average of 46% possession) or a high pressing side last year, generally sitting off in a mid/low block and staying compact instead. This limited the space Ballard had to cover defensively in behind and meant there was not many requirements in possession, with Millwall typically playing wide before looking to progress through the wing-backs.
Overall, Ballard was part of the joint fourth best defence in the division conceding 45 goals across the season. Individually he was just as impressive, with this graphic by @ForeseeaBall on Twitter nicely summarising his statistical profile, excelling particularly in defensive duals both on the ground and aerially, and in his long passing numbers.
Ballard’s biggest strength and attribute is his front-foot defending. As mentioned, Millwall’s screen their defence with only two midfielders, therefore it is vital that the centre-backs are capable of stepping out to opposition players looking to receive in these spaces around and behind the midfield line.
Ballard is superb at this, adopting an initial side-on position which enables him to shuffle his feet quickly forwards when he needs to jump out of his position.
He is very aware of when to step up or drop off, using triggers such as a loose touch or a closed body position to apply pressure.
Ballard is a very aggressive and strong tackler, often leading with his front-foot and snapping into duels using his body weight.
Aerial ability and physicality
Another strength of Ballard is how much he enjoys physical duals with opposition forwards. He will often get tight to his man and look to impose himself physically, preventing them from getting turned.
Against physical forwards such as Luton’s Elijah Adebayo, Bournemouth’s Dominic Solanke and David McGoldrick from Sheffield United, Ballard handled himself well in his physical duals, both aerially and on the ground.
In terms of his athleticism, Ballard is surprisingly quick given his height and build, and is very rarely outpaced when dragged wide into the channel.
Ballard also has a great leap and is strong aerially especially under pressure, which will be hugely valuable on both offensive and defensive set piece situations.
Positioning and footwork
Arguably the most impressive yet less obvious side of Ballard’s game is his defensive positioning and footwork.
As mentioned, he adopts a side on position to allow him to step out of his slot, but also to drop off when the situations warrants it. Ballard shows excellent awareness of when to drop and cover the space in behind him, especially when there was no pressure on the opposition player. Very rarely does a ball over the top drop in behind him due to his ability to quickly shift his feet and drop a few yards to defend a longer ball in behind.
Another impressive aspect of his footwork is when he is driven backwards by an attacker. Ballard positions his body to cut off and obvious passes and force the player in possession into an area he wants them to go, and then shows great understanding of when to step out and make a tackle.
Penalty box awareness
Finally, on crossing situations Ballard again shows excellent defensive awareness which allows him to defend his penalty box and six-yard area. He is constantly scanning for the movements of opposition forwards, and importantly he gives himself space in the box to react to these movements and take up the correct position. He is also comfortable clearing the ball with his left foot which helps in recovering situations when he can’t get himself set.
Although his front-foot and aggressive nature are a major strength of Ballard’s game, the drawback of this is his tendency for mistiming these aggressive defensive actions.
When Ballard steps out of his slot, he often goes in with force with his leading leg. If an opposition player gets a touch on the ball first, this often leads to a foul or Ballard being fixed and unable to turn.
Players have used Ballard’s front-foot defending against him intelligently by receiving with their back to him by quick changing direction and turning away.
Forward passing and in-possession
Another weakness of Ballard’s game is his forward passing on the ground.
Although he is more than capable of driving out of defence with the ball at his feet, when he has to release a pass into forward areas his quality is often lacking, either bouncing it in or poorly weighted/directed.
In terms of playing through midfield lines or wrapping passes into the midfield from his wider position, these are not Ballard’s strengths and not something we can expect, even if the requirements in possession under Alex Neil might be slightly different than those under Gary Rowett. In terms of his variation of pass such as driven switches of play, this is again not something Ballard displays much of.
Under pressure, Ballard will often look to just hook the ball into the channel as opposed to playing through or around the pressure (you could argue this is a better choice than a risky pass, however).
As the right defender of a three at Millwall, he also often closes a lot of his angles down with his first touch, typically taking it towards the touchline as opposed to towards the middle of the pitch. Taking this touch towards the sideline doesn’t open up the pitch for Ballard and can sometimes massively limit his options in possession.
However, Ballard is a very sensible decision maker with the ball at his feet, takes little risks and typically plays into his near wing-back or back across the defence. His short passing is very accurate, and is capable of opening his body up to play quickly into his wing-back and around/past the pressure first time.
Despite at times panicking under pressure as above, he is capable of playing through the first line of an opposition press if there are options available.
Although his passing does lack variability, his long floated ball into the channel and in behind is excellent, especially when the opposition fail to press and give him time and space. This pass often turns the opposition backline and is a good attribute if you have runners into space.
Despite him often going long when pressed, his clipped ball into the forward line is also generally accurate.
Runners off his back
One of Ballard’s biggest weaknesses is against quick combinations around the box and runners off his shoulder.
Ballard massively struggles to turn and defend against these type of movements and shows a slight lack of awareness in these situations of what is going on behind him, with his front-foot and aggressive nature being exploited by the opposition in the below examples.
Overall and how will he fit in?
The main question going into the new season is whether Alex Neil will look to use a back five or a back four (the most likely answer being both depending on the opponent). Fortunately, Ballard appears to be brilliantly suited to both of these systems and looks to be a great piece of business.
First and foremost he is a very good defender both inside and outside of the box, he is excellent defending on the front-foot, a hard tackler and very strong both physically and aerially. He also gives us the athleticism which Danny Batth and Bailey Wright don’t possess, as well as being a sensible decision maker in possession (albeit not a great forward passer on the ground).
If we do use a back four, then it will be interesting to see if Ballard alters his aggressive front-foot style due to the space he will have to cover as opposed to when he typically played in a three for Millwall (albeit he played in a four vs Bournemouth in the above clips and altered his approach very little).
He has a few weaknesses to his game such as movements off his shoulder and his tendency to panic under pressure, however these are relatively minor issues that he has a lot of time to address being only 22.