One of the brilliant elements of football analytics is the narratives the performance numbers can sometimes throw up. In League 1 this season, we have one of those situations where the numbers are throwing out very interesting results. One of my areas of interest is to look at creative/progressive midfielders in the EFL. I want to find those players who progress the ball into key attacking areas or conversely build attacks and create from the middle of the park. League 1 has thrown up a wonderful fusion of some renowned old heads performing outstandingly and some up and coming potential stars, all posting exceptional numbers for the league in many key passing metrics, but who are the names that come out on top?
This analysis is based on all Centre midfielders in League 1 (that’s CDM, CM or CAM) who have played 500 minutes or more and played the majority of those minutes in 1 of those central midfield positions. That criteria bought up a list of 98 players to analyse.
I decided to group some key midfield passing statistics into 3 distinct criteria categories; Progressive passes per 90, Dangerous passes per 90 and Chance creation quality. Progressive passes per 90 is made from combining the sum of the following statistics for each player; Forward passes per 90 and passes to final 3rd per 90. Dangerous passes per 90 is made up of through balls per 90, Passes to penalty area per 90 and Deep Completions per 90 (passes made within 25m of opposition goal). Finally, the final category, Chance creation quality, is made from taking a players expected assist per 90 value and dividing it by their key passes per 90 (passes that lead to a shot) to give us a value of how much quality their shot assists actually are on a per 90 basis. As anyone who likes stats knows, not all shots are created equal. A key pass (shot assist) will give the same credit to a player if the pass assists a shot from 35 yards or from 6 yards. While a key pass is valuable, it’s even more valuable to look at the how dangerous those key passes were in setting up a chance. We can use expected goals methods to do exactly that.
For anyone who doesn’t quite yet understand the concept of expected goals or expected assists here’s a primer I wrote earlier this year:
It’s about as basic a methodology as you can imagine to design, I am not trying to break the curve of new concepts here, but I am trying to combine some key components to a passing midfielder that should be analysed and bucket them in different ways.
The results – Shit a brick that can’t be right?!
NOTE: The red line above indicates the league average for all 98 players for the progressive passes rating
Confession Time, I am a Sheffield United fan. Sometimes that can be a help when writing about teams and players that my team does not compete against. In this instance that has come back to haunt me because the player with the most progressive passes per 90 is Michael Doyle. Now, I liked Doyle at the Blades, he was a battler and a captain who always gave his all for the club, a real role model. However, a progressive passer I did not think he was! The 37 year old has been magnificent for Coventry this season, holding together an engine room with the extremely talented Tom Bayliss and pulling strings to help Coventry look like a potential promotion contender. Another ex-Blades name worth mentioning is the man in 2nd in the above graph. Ben Whiteman is someone whom was highly thought of at Bramall Lane. His move to Doncaster has worked perfectly thought giving him the minutes and platform to perform exceptionally for a side that are perhaps performing above expectations. Whiteman’s contribution to that has been solid, providing thrust and drive to a team that has a solid attacking output. Alex Mowatt of Barnsley also shows up well here, which is no surprise to me as Mowatt is a quality player of some calibre who has the quality to run games at this level. One of the other very interesting names on this list is young Herbie Kane also on loan at Doncaster Rovers. Kane has come to my attention many times this year as an all action box to box midfielder but the above also shows how forward thinking and creative his passing is, a real gem of the future to watch out for.
Dangerous Passers per 90
So to the ones who play the passes to the areas that matter. Above is the top 30 of 98 players for “Dangerous” passes per 90, again the red line indicating the average from all the 98 players. Before we study this graph my instant impression was “okay, so some new names but hold on a minute there’s some repeat names from above, surely these players are the ones to highlight”. Indeed we will in a second. For now let us look at the “new” names on this list. At no 1 is Tony Andreu. No surprise he is high considering his role as a CAM in a team which has a clear passing style, but still worth a big mention for his undoubted vision and creative instincts. Remember, this metric is made up of 3 different statistics, Passes to opposition penalty area per 90, through balls per 90 and deep completions per 90. Andreu tops the charts in Deep completions per 90 and is 2nd in the passes to the opposition penalty area category. Andreu isn’t just a creator, his style can help a team to control possession in deep opposition areas, allowing them to build offensive moves and control the tempo and balance of a game. The 2nd name on that list is one of the most under rated players in the EFL. At 37 years old James Coppinger is still producing outstanding performances.
Coppinger tops the list of players for passes to opposition penalty area. Coppinger’s first thought when he receives the ball is to look up and play into the strikers or dangerous areas, his technique, delivery and final ball are of the highest level. The final name I want to bring up here is Sam Finley at Accrington. Plucked from non-league football, from AFC Flyde, Finley is the epitome of what Accrington under John Coleman is all about. Quality and value. Finley is another who display’s excellent vision and is a very forward thinking passer, getting the ball into key areas as often as he can.
As stated above, some players appear on both visuals, so to see who are the more complete passes of the ball I have produced a graphic showing the top 20 players for combined progressive passes and dangerous passes per 90. However, naturally players do complete more progressive passes than dangerous ones, that’s just the nature of the area of the pitch those passes are played in. Therefore I added a caveat to the combined scoring whereby at least 15% of each players combined score must have come from dangerous passing (I am after all wanting those player’s who build the play but in the most creative manor)
Combined Progressive & Dangerous Passes per 90
Now we have to get quite serious about Herbie Kane. Here is a player on his first “real” senior club loan and the numbers show his impact is absolutely outstanding. Kane progresses the ball forwards and to good areas from deep, he presses well, battles well and above all else plays passes into danger areas more regularly than most. If Kane continues this kind of form and contribution is undoubted he will be coveated by Championship clubs and Perhaps even higher.
Another 2 names on the above list I want to point out are Tom Bayliss and Joe Aribo. Bayliss’ name is not exactly a surprise here. Anyone who has seen the Coventry midfielder play will have seen the undoubted ability Bayliss has, he is destined for big things. What this list does go to show is exactly what Bayliss does so well. He is a creative passer, someone with the vision to open up play from any area of the pitch. The fact he scores so well in the dangerous passes category shows his ability to play balls into the right areas. Bayliss is also an exceptional dribbler and can break lines when he drives with the ball. Any Championship team would be remiss to not look at Bayliss in the summer window. Aribo is someone I wrote about briefly last year. He is an exceptional all round talent, wins a high amount of his individual battles and with this breakdown he looks like he has progressed his creativity and passing even further. 2 outstanding young midfielders who are ones to watch.
What about the players who’s passes create good chances?
The above graphic shows those players who on average play the highest quality passes that lead to chances (i.e. the best chance of scoring from their passes that lead to an effort on goal)
Sam Finley clearly having a hell of a season at Accrington as spoken about above. Plenty of words describing things above so just a look at some of the “younger” names on that list, J.Thompson at Blackpool, Dru Yearwood at Southend and Shandon Baptiste at Oxford show there is some serious up and coming talent in League one!
Hopefully this has been a solid exercise into the best performing passing midfielders in League 1!