Ranking each Premier League team's most important player during build-up play in 2019-20 using data analytics: Part 3
Ask anyone the name of the first human to ever walk on the moon. There’s a high chance they’ll know the answer to that. Ask them who the second human was. The answer to this question? Not so much. This analogy holds water even when it comes to team sports.
In football, for example, attackers that finish the move are the ones that are glorified, more often than not. Not the one that made the defence-splitting pass, not even the guy with the assist, but the guy who tapped the ball into an empty net. Come to think of it, the players that make the final pass before the goal is scored are recognised too, to an extent. But what about those players who were vital in the build-up to the goal?
Often overlooked, these players don’t receive the same accolades their attacking counterparts receive, but there’s probably a good reason for it. How do you quantify their contributions to a goal? It’s not as black or white as a goal or no goal, or, assist or no assist.
Sure, as humans, by virtue of the complex brain we possess, we can attribute some value to it. But you can’t possibly quantify their contribution consistently, repeatedly, and in an unbiased fashion for every pass completed in every game played.
This is where xGBuildup comes in handy. Although it has its own inherent flaws, it does a good job in identifying and highlighting the players that are important to a team’s build-up play. xGBuildup came into existence due to xG or expected goals.
xG is so important today that it has become part and parcel of the way players and clubs alike, are incentivised. As mentioned in the video below (view from 15:15 to 16:29), players and coaches are now getting incentivised on their expected goal tally, instead of their actual goal tally, by a few forward-thinking clubs.
This way “Clubs are rewarding the process, rather than the outcome” according to Omar Chaudhuri, the Head of Football Intelligence at 21st Club.
So now (hopefully!), you understand what xG is and why it’s important, but what about xGBuildup. How is that calculated, you ask? It’s actually really intuitive.
Let me explain using an example. Let’s take the goal Christian Eriksen scored against Manchester United on 31st Jan 2018 (Video for the goal starts at 0:48 in the tweet below). It was the 3rd fastest goal in PL history (the ball hit the back of the net 10.54 seconds after kickoff).
This is how the ball progressed. Mousa Dembélé kicked off the proceedings and passed the ball back to Vertonghen who optimistically lobbed the ball towards the United penalty box. Harry Kane headed the ball into Dele Alli’s path who backheeled it towards an onrushing Eriksen, who slotted home the ball from just outside the 6-yard box.
In other words, the ball progressed like this –
Dembele => Vertonghen => Kane =>Alli (assist) => Eriksen (goal).
Let’s assume that the expected probability of the goal being scored under those particular circumstances (i.e. from that distance, angle etc) by Eriksen is 0.4 or in other words, the xG of that goal is 0.4.
Formerly, only Eriksen would have been rewarded with an xG of 0.4. But now, xGBuildup can reward the players who were involved in the build-up to this goal (or for that matter even in the build-up for any passage of play that just ended up in a shot)
In this passage of play, every player involved other than the player who provides the assist and the player who scored, is rewarded. That is, in this case, Dembele, Vertonghen and Kane are all rewarded with a 0.4 addition in their xGBuildup tally. According to StatsBomb, xGBuildup can be calculated in the following manner:
1. Find all the possessions each player is involved in.
2. Find all the shots within those possessions.
3. Sum the xG of the shots
4. Assign that sum to each player, however, involved they were.
As illustrated in the example of Eriksen’s goal above, xGBuildup is found for every shot taken by a team. Therefore, if 6 players are involved in a passage of play that ends up in a shot, the 4 players that are involved in the build-up before the assist and the goal, will get rewarded with the xG of that shot.
Hopefully, this example helps in understanding xGBuildup and its value as a statistical metric. (This statistical metric can be used by teams to smother their opponent’s attacks by marking their most important player, during their build-up play, out of the game. This can have a lasting effect on the game, as Jorginho himself has admitted more than once)
But using the raw xGBuildup metric without normalising it over 90 minutes does not make any sense. This is because xGBuildup value for a player who has been on the pitch for a longer time will tend to be greater. So, to level the playing field, we can divide a player’s “xGBuildup” value by his “Total Minutes Played” value to get xGBuildup/Total Mins. After this is done, we can multiply this value by 90 to get xGBuildup/90 or xGBuildup Per 90 minutes
xGBuildup/90 = (xGBuildup/Total Minutes Played) * 90
18 out of the 20 clubs before the start of this game-week had played 21 games in the EPL. That’s a maximum total of 1890 minutes (21*90, excluding extra time). To make sure we don’t encounter any outliers or players who weren’t regularly involved, any player who appeared for his club for less than 800 minutes (out of a possible 1890) was excluded from this list. This means that all the players in this list have at least 800 minutes under their belt this season
So here it is (the teams appear in alphabetical order). Listing every Premier League team’s most important player during their build-up of play in this season
#11 Manchester City – Rodri – xGBuildup Per 90: 0.807
Having been snubbed by two of their primary midfield targets for their rivals in the summer of 2018 (Jorginho and Fred), Manchester City were quick to act the next time around, acquiring midfield patroller Rodri. They needed to reduce their over-reliance on the ageing Fernandinho, but did that really happen?
They’ve gone from being too dependent on Fernandinho to being too dependent on Rodri, but that’s more because of Rodri’s qualities than their desperation. Rodri’s unassailable influence on Manchester City cannot be overstated and a few stats can help comprehend just how important he has been for them.
Rodri has put up some astonishing numbers this season. He has the second-highest pass % (95%) for medium length passes (passes between 5 and 25 yards) for any midfielder in the PL. He also has the highest pass % (89.8%) for long balls (passes longer than 25 yards) by any player in the PL this season.
To top it all off, since 2014/15, only Danilo (0.867) has had a higher xGBuildup Per 90 (over a season) than Rodri has this season (only players with more than 1200 minutes over the course of a season were considered).
Pep adores Fernandinho and lets everyone know that he does. 3 months into his Manchester City reign, he said that 'If a team had three Fernandinhos, they would be champions'. Since City hired Pep, only Sterling has played more minutes than Fernandinho has. So replacing him wasn’t going to be easy.
But Rodri isn’t an ordinary player. Sid Lowe shed some light on Rodri’s mindset when he said, ‘The decision to leave Villarreal and join Atlético, a club with a footballing identity seemingly opposed to his (Rodri) was deliberate: he wanted to learn from Diego Simeone, developing qualities he lacked, and his (Rodri) adaptability was summed up in a stat: the player who completed the most passes became the player who completed the most tackles.’
#12 Manchester United – Jesse Lingard – xGBuildup Per 90: 0.369
Jesse Lingard’s career progression has been akin to an unceremonious false dawn. This unfortunate road down the blind alley has been tough to watch even for neutrals, let alone those United fans that had come to expect grand things from the then-youngster.
Now 27-years-old, Lingard has been sidelined by Ole, playing almost the same number of minutes as Daniel James, although he’s been available for almost twice the number of games James has been available.
Although he has the highest xGBuildup Per 90 for his team, that’s mostly due to the fact that his team take such a large number of shots. Over the first 21 EPL games, Manchester United took 313 shots whereas Tottenham Hotspur took only 252. Now even though Spurs had a much lower shot count than United, Spurs’ Tanguy Ndombele had a much higher xGBuildup Per 90 (0.408). This isn’t to say that Lingard didn’t have any influence on his team at all, but it’s not as much as the data shows or as much as is expected of him.
Over the last 3 seasons, Lingard lies at a lowly 59th position for xA per 90 in the EPL (this includes his most productive season, the 17/18 one; otherwise his rank would be much, much lower). Lingard has also been criminally underperforming his xG metric, as is visible to the naked eye. He has scored only 11 goals when xG predicts that based on the chances he had received in front of goal, he should have scored 14 goals.
Based on the metric used in this article, (when we consider only the players who have played more than 3000 minutes over the 97 PL games we get 268 players) Lingard is 17th last in this list. That is, only 16 other players have been worse in front of goal than him. The likes of Christian Atsu, Alvaro Morata and Benteke appear below him. Unless there is some drastic turnaround in his form or involvement in the side, things look bleak for the United academy graduate.
#13 Newcastle United – Jonjo Shelvey – xGBuildup Per 90: 0.202
Out of the 296 outfield players that have made more than 9 appearances for their side, only 10 of them made more accurate long passes per game than Jonjo Shelvey. After scouring the data a little more, we notice something else. Most of the players that top this list usually pass a lot anyways and these long balls make up only a small percentage of the total passes they make. What stands out is that a large % of all the passes that Shelvey makes are long.
He averages 4.5 accurate and 4.5 inaccurate long balls a game. That’s 9 long balls per game out of the 33.6 passes he averages a game. That’s 26.8% of all his passes. That’s huge!
To give you context and help you understand why Shelvey is so important to Newcastle’s buildup, let’s sort the PL players for most accurate long balls made. Then we select only the Top 50 of those players. Now we divide each players ‘Total Long ball passes attempted’/’Total passes attempted’.
Once this is done, we realise that in the PL only Fabian Schar (also a Newcastle United player) has a higher % of ‘Long Passes/Total Passes’ than Shelvey has.
Although not relevant to this particular list, Shelvey has been finishing some extraordinarily difficult chances. He has scored 5 goals from an xG of 1.06 goals. That is, he’s massively outperforming his xG metric, scoring goals which historically have a low probability of going in.
Across the 5 major leagues this season, only Messi (of course), Depay and Immobile have been outperforming their xG metric more ruthlessly than Shelvey (Refer to this article to understand the stat in more detail)
#14 Norwich – Emiliano Buendía – xGBuildup Per 90: 0.330
Emiliano Buendía has performed impeccably this season. He has completed 2.14 passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes. That’s the 5th highest in the PL (for all players with more than 720 minutes). It’s actually the highest by any player who is not playing for Man City or Liverpool.
He has the 3rd most key passes per 90 in the PL, only behind the phenom Kevin De Bruyne and Pascal Groß. Astonishingly, he also completes 0.53 through balls per 90 on an average, 5th highest in the PL. By the way, he just turned 23 last month.
He has successfully completed 4.01 dribbles per game, coming in at number 4 in the PL. What’s more, he has taken no time to acclimatize himself to the rigours of the toughest league in the world. Before the start of this season, he had just 7 games in a top-flight across the 5 leagues, and his quick habituation to the PL is testament to his talent.
Playing in a team that is in the relegation zone in any league is no easy task, but instead of being bogged down by the way things have gone around him, Buendía has really been a silver lining in Norwich’s dark cloud.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Buendia is poached by another PL club if Norwich City go down come the end of the season. Buendía will have many players to look up to when it comes to forging a reputable career after being relegated with a club. Just ask any of Georginio Wijnaldum, Andy Robertson or Xherdan Shaqiri
#15 Sheffield United – Enda Stevens – xGBuildup Per 90: 0.290
“Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” Many people will relate to this but no one more so than Enda Stevens. Rather, no one more so than Stevens before Sheffield United got promoted to the PL. His is a story worth hearing.
Enda Stevens appeared for Aston Villa in the PL as a 22-year-old back in 2012, but as he later admitted, he didn’t have the hunger or determination to be a footballer at the highest level. What followed was a string of loan spells and a descent into the 4th tier of the English football. The Premier League rarely gives you a second chance, but it did for Stevens, and he’s not let it get away this time.
Only 7 outfield players have played every minute this season, Stevens is one of them. That’s not it! He also has the 3rd highest successful dribbles Per 90 for a defender, beaten to the first spot by Seamus Coleman and Ricardo Pereira. For that matter he’s also been very successful at his dribbles, completing 76% of them. Coleman has completed only 70% of his whereas Ricardo only 58%. In addition to that, he also averages 2.4 tackles per 90, most by any Sheffield player.
He’s been important when it concerns their build-up play as well (no wonder he tops the Sheffield list for xGBuildup Per 90). He averages about 1.32 successful passes into the penalty area per 90 minutes. That’s the 4th highest by any defender in the PL with more than 900 minutes (92 defenders have more than 900 minutes under their belt this season). Stevens can also boast of completing 0.9 short key passes per 90, highest on the Sheffield team.
This is the end of Part 3 of this 4 part series. To reiterate why recognising the unsung heroes of teams is long overdue, here is what Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the moon had said when he was asked how it felt to be called the second man on the moon.
“But after years and years of being asked to speak to a group of people and then be introduced as the second man on the moon, it does get a little frustrating. Is it really necessary to point out to the crowd that somebody else was first when we all went through the same training, we all landed at the same time and all contributed? But for the rest of my life I'll always be identified as the second man to walk on the moon.”
Published 24 Jan 2020, 16:19 IST