EFL Championship – Who are the Pass Masters?

I recently wrote an article on EFL L1 Central Midfielders. The piece investigated which players progressed the ball to the final 3rd the most, which players who played the most dangerous type of passes and which players contributed the highest quality passes (in terms of chance creation). That analysis threw up some less well known names and some unsung heroes of their teams, so I thought it would be a good idea to continue that investigation into the EFL Championship. I love the Championship. It’s simply chaos and follows no rhyme or reason generally, however it’s also a league which is full of exceptionally talented players contributing greatly to their teams’ progress. I’m also fascinated by finding value in players beyond the standard statistics that most football fans recognise. This analysis will attempt to do just that.

Methodology

As per previous in the L1 piece this analysis is based on all Centre midfielders in the Championship (covering CDMs, CMs and CAMs) who have played 700 minutes or more and played the majority of those minutes in 1 of those central midfield positions. That criteria bought up a list of 66 players to analyse.

Again I have grouped the same midfield metrics into certain categories that can highlight the players best at a certain role; Progressive Passes per 90 (Combination of forward passes per 90 and passes to the final 3rd per 90), Dangerous passes per 90 (Sum of through balls per 90, passes to penalty area per 90 and Deep completions per 90) and finally Chance creation quality (which is made from taking a players expected assist per 90 value and dividing it by their key passes per 90)

This article does use the expected assist metric and therefore anyone who is reading my content for the first time may not yet fully understand how expected goals or expected assists metrics work, so here are 2 primers I have wrote this season explaining exactly what they are.

https://www.uptheblades.com/latest-articles/2018/9/11/expected-assists-analysing-chance-creation

https://www.uptheblades.com/latest-articles/2018/8/22/explaining-expected-goals)

That’s about it basically. With this analysis I am not breaking new ground but I do hope fans of Championship clubs and frequent observers will see players’ names in a certain category and think that the numbers agree with their perception, with the odd surprise too! After all numbers are nothing if they don’t both throw up the obvious examples and also give us some insights our eyes miss.

The Results

Progressive Passes per 90 – Excuse the Bias!!

Players in the top 25 of this category are the ones are exceptionally effective at the getting the ball forward and in good offensive areas from midfield. They are likely to be the team’s deepest lying playmaker and the ones who often receive the ball first from the defence in linking the play to the forward areas. The top 25 names are shown in the graphic below along with the league average from the list of 66 players included.

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Confession time, for those viewing this for the first time, I am a Sheffield United fan. As a blade the name on the top of that list makes perfect sense to me. Oli Norwood has been a complete revelation since signing for Sheffield United. His range of passing, its incisiveness and accuracy are huge part in the Blades having another successful season. Josh McEachran is a name that many fans will know. Currently plying his trade with Brentford, McEachran broke through into the Chelsea squad when he first came onto the scene and many high hopes were placed on him. I think even he would agree he has not lived up to those early expectations but with Brentford allowing Ryan Woods to leave to Stoke this summer, McEachran has stepped up to the plate in a double pivot with Lewis Macleod. Brentford’s form and McEachran’s form have both dropped off recently but the numbers suggest it’s still been a mightily impressive start for the young Bees star who leads the league in passes to the final 3rd. Matt Grimes is another who deserves some words. Grimes is one of many players at Swansea who have stepped up and benefitted from the club’s relegation from the Premier League. Head Coach Graham Potter has had an outstanding start to his Swans life with some expecting results to be much worse, especially given the apparent lack of transfer activity following a mass exodus of players. However, players like Grimes have been given the opportunity to step up and it’s a chance he has taken. An athletic, all action midfielder Grimes is technically excellent and is proving to be an outstanding link man in this Swansea side that play through the thirds in a very attractive style. Grimes leads the league in forward passer per 90 which is no surprise given the vertical passing style that Potter tries to implement. Honourable mention for Barry Bannan too, who has been utterly outstanding in a pretty average Sheffield Wednesday side this year. He is the absolute fulcrum of that side, with his incisive passing, ability to keep the ball under pressure and get the ball into dangerous areas a huge key for Wednesday if they are to turn their season around.

Dangerous Passers per 90 – Yorkshire loves a danger pass!

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Naturally this metric will throw up more offensively minded midfielders (i.e. CAMs and more forward thinking CMs). Not limited to this role though as some of the names show due to their appearance in the previous metric and this one. Apparently in Yorkshire this season players who like a killer pass are well in stock. The top 4 play for Leeds, Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday respectively. The 2 names at the top of this list do not surprise me at all. Samuel Saiz is sheer class on the ball. His creativity and vision are well ahead of the most of the division and his impact can be seen by how far above the league average for this metric he is. Saiz leads this list for passes to the Penalty area per 90, proving his effective output matches his technical ability. Mark Duffy is pretty much in the same bracket. The key creative influence in a Sheffield United team that depend on him to provide the spark to break down defences. I don’t want to be biased throughout this piece but a shout out has to go to John Fleck too who has consistently been one of the divisions better and more progressive passers over the last 12-18 months. His inclusion in a recent Scotland squad is not without reason.  Barry Bannan deserves huge praise again, for his combined inclusion in both the top 5 of both Progressive passers per 90 and Dangerous passers per 90. This goes to show how incredibly effective and important Bannan is, not only does he progress the ball to attacking areas he also makes the passes that count towards the key danger areas where shots can be taken from, in particular with Bannan as he leads this whole list of 66 players for through balls per 90. One of the names high in that top 25 whom I rate extremely highly is John Swift. Swift is another who broke for the Chelsea academy setup and moved on to Reading with high hopes of success. Swift has been very unfortunate with injuries in the last 2-3 years often missing large sequences of games and never really having the opportunity to play at a high level consistently. With Swift though the talent cannot be questioned, he is exceptional technically, a great ball striker and has vision to match. Bersant Celina is one of the many no 10’s high on this metric and one of the more known creative influences in the division with the talent to progress much higher if he continues this consistent output of quality. Final mention to a name the country seems to have most interest in within the Championship, Mason Mount. Mount has pretty much everything in his locker to be a successful no 8, he has goal threat, strikes a ball superbly, can offer quality and creativity in the build up to chances and his dynamism and energy play a huge part in Derby’ s style under Frank Lampard. He will only get better as the season progresses.

Combined Progressive Passes and Dangerous Passes per 90

The eagle eyed of the audience will have noticed that some names appear on both lists, surely these are the players to recognise as they are the ones doing well in many categories. With that in mind let us take a look into the overall combined numbers for these two metrics, with the only caveat being that I will only include players that play at least 15% of their combined score from dangerous passes per 90. I generally want to find the most creative influences and therefore that metric provides a more related output.

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Barry Bannan and Oli Norwood are bloody excellent passers of the ball.  They are so far ahead of the division on this combined category it’s not even funny. The 3rd name on the list is a very intriguing young player. Liam Kelly has broken through ranks at Reading in the last 24 months steadily and without much wider attention. A technically gifted ball striker with the style of a real playmaker, Kelly has clearly upped his game this season. In a poor Reading side, Kelly has managed to make himself a real hive of quality and effectiveness in the midfield area. I feel as though now is the time to also bring up Mortiz Leitner. The German is the heartbeat of a Norwich side which has been quite possibly the most impressive in the whole EFL this season. Leitner is a pass master, constantly recycling the ball to Norwich’s more offensive players however his inclusion in the top 5 of the combined metrics graphic adds an element of awe at how Leitner manages to be so efficient in possession while still being highly productive on a creative front. One more name I want to mention on this list is Joe Williams. Many of my future pieces will be focussed on players in the EFL U24 who are performing exceptionally and look set to have a bright future from a recruitment perspective. Williams is high in that category. To rank this well while playing for a struggling Bolton side is hugely impressive. The man on loan from Everton might just be one to watch if this kind of form continues.

Finally – Chance Creation Quality

This final category/metric looks at the quality of a player’s contribution from those midfield positions in terms of creating chances. It takes a players xA per 90 and divides it by that player’s key passes per 90. My only caveat was that all players in the list would be filtered so that only those performing at or above the league average from my list for key passes per 90 would remain. Simply put this is because a player may only create 0.7 key passes per 90 but those few chances are of high quality, while this is valuable information I am mainly trying to ascertain those that can add quality creativity and on a consistent basis. Also note that both xA p90 and Key passes p90 DO include set pieces.

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The name that comes out on top is certainly a shock. Mo Besic has shown the quality he has at times this season and is going some way to rebuilding his very good reputation after a below par spell in the PL at Everton. His contribution to this Boro side cannot be ignored, currently operating at an xA per 90 of 0.32 (highest in this list of 66 players) Besic is providing the goods for a Boro team built on solid foundations. I feel like I can’t mention Mark Duffy or Oli Norwood anymore, but the sheer fact Norwood and Barry Bannan appear in all 3 metrics in the top 25 goes someway to explaining how they are quite comfortably two of the better midfielders in the division. One player I do want to highlight is John Mcginn. The young Scotsman arrived at Villa Park with a burgeoning reputation North of the border but without much attention in England. That has changed significantly. Quickly establishing himself as one of the better creative centre mids in the league, Mcginn has had a very impressive start to life in England. He is another who is technically excellent, a wand of a left foot and possess a great delivery from either open play or set pieces. Mcginn is 5th in this top 25 for Key passes per 90, a consistently high 2.2 key passes per 90. His 0.25 xA per 90 is also good enough for 5th highest overall, but to give some context anything over 0.2 xA per 90 in this league is exceptional performance level and well within the top bracket of creative midfielders. Lewis Macleod was mentioned earlier in this piece in relation to Josh McEachran, however it appears it’s Macleod who does more damage in terms of chance creation. Another who held a big reputation at Rangers and until this season hadn’t really kicked on. Indeed Macleod has the joint 2nd highest xA per 90 from this list of players and is highly involved in the final pass of many Brentford attacking moves. Final call for Daniel Johnson at Preston too. Johnson is a player I have long admired and wanted my team to recruit. He is exceptionally creative, with balance, dribbling skills, pace and a great eye for a pass. He is also very much involved in the build up to good chances as the above shows and he is certainly one who should be looked at if any team in the top half of the league wants more creativity for the 2nd half of the season.

That’s a wrap Folks! Don’t feel the need to summarise much, the results are there for all to see. This league is full of some of the most technically gifted players who also possess great desire to push on to higher levels. Some of the performances being produced by the players highlighted in this piece is of the highest quality and I genuinely believe many of the highlighted would cut it in the Premier League. As always, you just have to simply love the EFL for the action it throws up!

Thanks for reading!

 

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