This time, we will focus on the best young central attacking midfielders (number eight/ 10). Just like the previous analysis, we have based our analysis purely on selected data and statistical analysis. Hence, the results of this report merely form a foundation to identifying promising talents. To fully understand the playing style and potential of these players, their detailed analysis might be required in the future.
Once again, the conditions for selecting the players are similar to our previous report. To qualify, a player must be of age 23 or under and must have played at least 900 minutes of football in Ligue 1 last season. The minutes’ criterion is important to create a fair comparison among the players since a player who has played significantly fewer minutes than another player will have inflated statistics but it does not necessarily make him a better player.
Finally, it is important to consider only those players who have contributed to their teams significantly from the attacking midfield positions, mainly as a number eight or a number 10. Since we are focusing only on attacking midfielders, we will not be using any defensive metrics in this analysis to judge players.
Final selection and graph plotting explanation
Based on the filters mentioned above, the list of young central attacking midfielders in Ligue 1 was narrowed down to 34 players. For every metric that we used in this analysis, each of the players was assigned a normalised value between zero and one based on his performance in that particular metric. This means that the best performing player for a particular metric was assigned the value of one while the worst performing player for the same metric was assigned zero. The remaining players were assigned a normalised value between zero and one. The following five players who had the highest total of all the metrics became our best candidates for this analysis.
- Houssem Aouar (Olympique Lyonnais)
- Renato Sanches (Lille)
- Jeff Jason Reine-Adélaïde (Olympique Lyonnais)
- Angelo Fulgini (Angers SCO)
- Aleksandr Golovin (AS Monaco)
Ability on the ball
Modern football has seen an evolution in the role of an attacking midfielder. Contrary to the conventional box-to-box playing style where a midfielder would arrive late in the box, a lot of the attacking midfielders now seem to drop deep constantly. One of the reasons is to create a swift buildup from the back by maintaining a numerical advantage in the deeper areas, with the full-backs now allowed to push higher up the field during possession. Another reason is that nowadays, most of the lower-ranked teams adopt the tactic to defend deep with numbers. During such a situation, it is important to have the creative midfielders drop slightly deeper to create spaces in the opposition half. This is exactly what David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne do in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Hence, an attacking midfielder needs to be comfortable and skilful on the ball. The following graphs will assist us in finding midfielders with these qualities.
In the figure above, the x-axis represents progressive passes while the y-axis shows progressive runs per 90 minutes. We have added colours to represent the success rate of the players’ progressive passes, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. The graph depicts their behaviour on the ball and the action they choose to make vertical ball progression.
With 3.28 and 3.25 progressive runs per 90 minutes respectively, Reine-Adélaïde and Aouar are well above the rest of the players in this metric. However, both the players have a relatively low rate of progressive passes (Reine-Adélaïde’s 4.57 and Aouar’s 5.24), which is a clear indication that the young Lyon duo relies more on their ball-carrying abilities than passes to make vertical progressions for their team. While it is obvious that the figures will improve as they develop, they could perhaps think about choosing the passing option more often, especially with their impressive success rate in progressive passes of 82.61% (Reine-Adélaïde) and 83.47% (Aouar).
Renato Sanches seems to have a balanced approach when it comes to progressing his side vertically. The Portuguese man makes 2.5 progressive runs (fourth-highest in our group) and 7.72 progressive passes (fifth-highest) per 90 minutes. The Lille midfielder does have the propensity to drive the ball forward by himself at times which can lead to a possession loss or turnover that can prevent a potential goal-scoring opportunity. With 83.82% accuracy in progressive passes, the Portuguese boast impressive figure there but he has the potential to improve on that.
Similar to the Lyon duo mentioned above, Fulgini likes to make more runs than passes during ball progression. With 2.64 progressive runs, he is the third-best player in this figure. The Angers midfielder makes 6.31 progressive passes per 90 minutes. Considering his relatively low accuracy of 78.63% in progressive passes, it seems that the 23-year old is right to choose a run over a pass.
Although Golovin scores more than the average figures in both the metrics, he still trails the other four candidates. The figures of 2.39 progressive runs and 6.44 progressive passes per 90 minutes can be because the Russian constantly drops deep to defend for his side which reduces his attacking output. With that said, the midfielder can perhaps improve his progressive passing accuracy, which is currently 79.49%.
Apart from the above metrics, we have identified a few other metrics that can help us understand the players’ ball-playing capabilities in detail. The following bar graph shows the additional metrics like dribbles, offensive duels, and successful attacking actions per 90 minutes. The success rate of dribbles and offensive duels are measured by colors, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. The color representation in successful attacking actions determine the rankings, with green as the first and the red being the last.
Once again, Aouar impresses with the highest attempted dribbles (6.71) per 90 minutes. While the success rate of 55.48% is decent, it can be improved in the future. Moreover, the Frenchman has the highest number of successful attacking actions.
Sanches’ low dribbling success rate (44.76%) again points to our previous conclusion on the Lille player that he must choose to take the passing route more often than carrying the ball by himself.
The lowest success rate (37.87%) of Reine-Adélaïde in offensive duels shows an aspect that the youngster must improve. Having said that, the Frenchman has decent numbers in successful attacking actions.
Fulgini and Golovin are very good dribbles with success rates of 54.90% and 54.72% respectively. Once again, Golovin’s low numbers are influenced by his defensive contribution towards his team.
The following figure summarises the graph. While the grades are normalized values between zero and one as mentioned above, the intensity of the colour in each section will determine the player’s ranking amongst the group for that section, with the darkest blue colour being the highest grade and the white colour being the lowest grade.
Quality of passing
The attacking midfielders are generally the playmakers whose responsibility is to influence the attacking play in the opposition third by providing killer balls in and around the penalty box to create goal-scoring chances. Having said that, modern football tactics are all about creating and exploiting spaces in the opposition half. This allows the central midfielders to either drift into the wide channels to create space in the centre for another team-mate or to make a line breaking through pass towards an overlapping full-back.
To be a top-quality midfielder, the quality of passing is pivotal. Hence, the following graphs will showcase the passing abilities of the players from our data set.
The first graph of this section is used to identify the passing quality of the players in the attacking third. The x-axis represents the final third passes while the y-axis shows the passes made to the penalty area per 90 minutes. This time, the colours represent the number of key passes made by players per 90 minutes, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are.
Sanches boast the best figures with 3.07 passes into the penalty area which is highest amongst all the 34 players. He also makes 0.45 key passes per 90, which is the second-highest in the graph. Moreover, the Portuguese make 8.12 final third passes, only behind Aouar from our group. These figures indicate that Sanches likes to influence the 18-yard box more often than the other players.
Aouar boasts an impressive figure of 8.58 final third passes per 90 minutes, which is the highest amongst the shortlisted players. Having said that, his relatively low figures of 2.09 passes into the penalty area, and merely 0.07 key passes indicate that the Frenchman’s influence inside the box is not as much as Sanches’. This may be because the 22-year old drifts into the wide spaces more often to either link up with the left-back or make a cut-back from the edge of the box to take a shot at goal which reduces his impact from the central areas of the pitch.
Golovin (2.8) and Fulgini (2.48) have the second and the third highest passes into the penalty area respectively. Moreover, both the players have almost similar (0.27 and 0.29 respectively), but relatively low key passes per 90 minutes. The duo is also closer to the average line when it comes to final third passes (Fulgini’s 6.47 and Golovin’s 5.9). These figures show that both the players like to influence the attacking play from higher up the pitch.
Aouar’s Lyon counter-part Reine-Adélaïde has the lowest figures (5.6 final third passes vs 1.89 passes in penalty box per 90 minutes) when compared with the other four candidates. However, the darkest green dot highlights the fact that the Frenchman makes 0.7 key passes per 90 minutes, which is the highest amongst all the young players in our data. It shows that the youngster is generally productive whenever he chooses to make a killer pass in the penalty box.
Just like the previous section, we have identified some more metrics that will help us understand more about the passing abilities of these players. The metrics are deep completions, smart passes, forward passes, and total passes per 90 minutes. Once again, the success rates of smart passes forward pass, and total passes are measured by colours, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are. The colour representation in deep completions determines the rankings, with green as the first and the red being the last.
Aouar attempts 1.73 smart passes per 90 minutes, completing 52.5% of them successfully. A smart pass is a penetrating pass that breaks the opposition defensive lines. It is not the easiest of the passes to make and it requires a high level of intelligence and ability. Hence, even at 52.5% accuracy, it is one of the best in Ligue 1.
While Aouar’s smart passes numbers are impressive, Sanches dominates the chart in all the remaining metrics. His 1.59 deep completions per 90 minutes is the most impressive figure. Reine-Adélaïde attempts the highest number of smart passes but he can perhaps improve the success rate, which is currently 44.44%. His overall passing accuracy of 88.07% and a forward pass accuracy of 78.18% are pretty good. Although Fulgini attempts a lot of forwarding passes and passes per 90 minutes, their success rate is a concern. Golovin impresses with his deep completions of 1.57, which is only fractionally less than Aouar’s.
Just like the previous section, the following figure shows the results of the shortlisted payers in each of the ball carrying section.
Behaviour inside the penalty box
The evolution of the attacking midfielder role means that the attacking midfielders are no longer tasked to only provide the passing support to the wide players and the strikers. While it remains to be an important aspect as seen in the previous section, modern football has added several other dimensions to their game. One of the important changes has been the rise of their direct contribution in scoring goals for their teams because now the strikers also tend to drift from their positions to create spaces inside the box which an attacking midfielder can occupy. This is exemplified by the introduction of the False 9 role for the strikers.
Hence, in this section, we will look at the behavior of the players in the 18-yard box as well as their direct goal contributions for their respective teams.
In the graph above, the x-axis represents the total shots taken per 90 minutes while the y-axis shows the touches inside the penalty box per 90 minutes. The colours represent the shots on target in %, with red being below-average, green above-average, and the intensity representing how close to the top/bottom they are.
Aouar takes 1.99 shots per 90 minutes, which is the highest figure amongst the other players in the graph. Moreover, he takes 2.03 touches inside the 18-yard box. Fulgini takes 1.83 shots per 90 minutes with 44.12% accuracy. The Angers midfielder takes the highest number of touches inside the box (2.1) amongst the shortlisted players, and only behind one other player amongst all the 34 players. Golovin takes 1.82 touches in the box and takes 1.53 shots per 90 minutes. From the values of these three players, it is evident that they like to get into the penalty box more often than the others.
Sanches take 1.7 shots per 90 minutes which is the fourth-highest amongst all the filtered players. However, he takes only 1.3 touches inside the box which is relatively lower than the previous candidates. It indicates that the Portuguese might be taking more shots from outside the box than from the inside, which is also justified by his low shot accuracy of 33.33%.
Finally, Reine-Adélaïde falls on either side of the average line for both the metrics. While he takes 1.09 touches inside the penalty box, his shots per 90 minutes are merely 0.6. It indicates that the Lyon midfielder looks for an assisting pass to the strikers more often than taking a shy at the goal by himself from inside the box. His high number of key passes seen in the previous section also shows the same thought. Having said that, the 22-year old stands out when it comes to shooting accuracy. 66.67% shots on target mean that the youngster is very productive when he is in front of the goal.
The following figure demonstrates the xG and xA values of the players which shows the players’ direct goal contribution. These figures are influenced by the players’ actions showed in the previous graph.
In the buubble graph shown above, the size of a player’s bubble represents his xG value and the intensity of the colour represents his xA value.
Fulgini has the largest bubble which means he has the highest xG value (0.18) amongst the other players in the group. It is natural for the 23-year old to be on the higher side of xG because he takes the highest number of touches inside the box, as seen in the previous graph.
Amongst the shortlisted candidates, Sanches has the highest xA value of 0.21 per 90 minutes. In the passing graph, we have already seen that the Lille midfielder makes the highest number of passes into the penalty area. Hence, his high numbers in xA as well as key passes is not a surprise.
Reine-Adélaïde is next in line when it comes to the xA metric. We have already seen the behavior of the Lyon midfielder inside the box in the previous graph and hence, the figure of 0.18 expected assists per 90 minutes only reaffirms out thought.
In terms of the combined xA and xG values, Golovin tops the char with 0.14 xG and 0.17 xA per 90 minutes. We have seen in the previous graph that the Monaco midfielder not only takes more touches inside the box but also attempts more shots on goal. These metrics influence his expected goals value. We have also seen in the passing graph that the Russian attempts a high number of passes in the penalty area which contributes to his expected assists figure.
Eventually, while Aouar has 0.14 xG per 90 minutes, his number in xA is relatively low (0.09). Similar to Fulgini, Aouar’s high xG value is only natural since he takes a lot of touches inside the box and attempts the highest number of shots from our group.
Let us give a brief description of our shortlisted players along with their strengths based on all the results sets mentioned above.
Aouar is the best player amongst the shortlisted players when it comes to ball-playing abilities. He is a skilled ball carrier with great dribbling quality. Not only that, but the Lyon midfielder is dangerous inside the box and he is only behind Fulgini when it comes to combining all the metrics that we selected in the previous section. With a smaller number of total passes and forward passes per 90 minutes, it is evident that the 22-year old does not drop into deeper areas and rather stays high up the field for the most parts of a game. The Frenchman is one of the most highly-rated youngsters in Ligue 1 and the valuation over 54m dollars by the transfermarkt shows the hype around him.
Despite producing the highest xA value amongst the other players, Sanches is still the worst-performing player inside the box according to our results. Most of it is because of his 0 xG value. While the Portugal international is a decent ball carrier (only behind Aouar), he is the best midfielder amongst our group when it comes to passing ability. The 22-year old was once touted as the next big thing in football but unfortunately, he couldn’t justify the expectations. Having said that, the midfielder has had a very good season behind him in a bid to resurrect himself as one of the most exciting talents.
Jeff Jason Reine-Adélaïde
Reine-Adélaïde has been impressive since switching from Premier League to Ligue 1. The former Arsenal player plays relatively deeper than his Lyon counterpart Aouar. The youngster has a propensity to carry the ball from the deep by himself. However, he wins fewer offensive duels which are a concern since losing possession in deeper areas is never healthy for a team. Having said that, the 24.5m dollar rated midfielder is a very good passer of the ball which is evident from his passing success rate. Moreover, he is also seen making accurate line-breaking passes which can be a threat to any opposition.
The Angers attacker has similar traits as Aouar. Just like the Lyon midfielder, Fulgini is also a very skilled dribbler of the ball. The 23-year old also likes to dictate the tempo much higher on the field like Aouar which is why he is dangerous inside the penalty box. In fact, according to the chosen metrics, the youngster is the most dangerous player inside the box amongst the other players.
The FIFA World Cup 2018 sensation is one of the coveted youngsters in the world and hence, the decision to join Monaco seems to be the correct one due to the club’s history of developing talents over the years. One of the reasons why Golovin does not score very high numbers than the previous four candidates is the fact that the Russian is also involved significantly in the defending side of things. Despite that, the youngster has the highest goal contribution tally (4 assists and 3 goals) amongst the others.
Overall, this analysis gives us a fair idea about the promising young attacking midfielders that are currently honing their crafts at Ligue 1. While the shortlisted players stood out with their final values, few others were close but were left out because either they played in positions other than the number eight/ ten for significant portions of the season or they were selected as the best defensive midfielders. One such example is Mathias Pereira Lage from Angers who has played as a right-winger for most of the season. Another one is Toma Bašić who was considered as one of the best defensive midfielders in our previous analysis.