This article is an attempt to give quantitative and visual insights on the best playmakers in European club football, with focus on their vision, i.e. their ability to find/create passing lines through and behind the opposition defense and create goal scoring chances. The analysis is focused on the 2017/18 season and takes into account domestic games in European top 5 leagues as well as UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League games. The data used here are provided by Stratabet and since it’s the end of the season, I’d like to thank them for providing free access to detailed football data, which is something uncommon in the football world.
Obviously, not all goal-scoring chances are the same and have the same difficulty in being created. On the contrary, the observed difficulty range is particularly wide, and it includes chances created by a simple lateral pass in front of the goalkeeper and chances created by a through ball that penetrates the opposition defensive line. Of course, it’s very difficult to take into account all the parameters and variables that influence the degree of difficulty in creating a chance. In any case, insight about a player’s vision can be drawn even from simple data. Here we’ll focus on those keypasses (keypass is the pass that precedes the shot) that have a verticality of 10m or greater, i.e. those keypasses where the ball has advanced for 10m or more between the position from where the pass is made to the position from where the shot is taken. Let’s call these “forward keypasses”.
This is far from a perfect metric but I believe it gives useful information on a player’s vision and playmaking skills. Fig 1 shows the separation of forward keypasses from other keypasses, taking Manchester City’s midfielder David Silva as an example.
The above definition doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the keypass has penetrated a defensive line or that creating such a chance has a certain degree of difficulty but that’s the best I can do for now. Data about the position of the opposition players would considerably increase the quality of this metric. Also, in many occasions, third passes (the pass previous to the keypass, also called “penultimate passes”) are much more important than keypasses but I don’t have location data for those, hence, they are not included here.
In overall, we have 32,449 open play chances in the 2017/18 season, which, according to their verticality, are distributed as shown in Fig 2. As previously mentioned, our focus are those chances/keypasses on the right of the 10m verticality line (12,343 forward keypasses).
These forward keypasses are distributed among 2,342 players, which means that basically every player sooner or later managed to create one. Typically, the average number of forward keypasses created by a player is just above 5 and the number of players who have repeatedly created such chances is very limited (Fig 2). Clearly, there are no hundreds of playmakers with unlimited vision out there. The list of players with most forward chances (see also the chart in Fig 3) is topped by Lionel Messi, with 55, Christian Eriksen is 2nd with 49, then the top 5 is completed with De Bruyne (48), Cesc Fàbregas (47) and Dimitri Payet (45).
The chart in Fig 4 shows a list of the top 20 players with most forward keypasses, ranked by the average verticality (vertical ball advancement). The list shows also the verticality of each of the forward keypasses these players have made and, as we can observe, there is a lot of variety among these players.
Despite reflecting a player’s abilities/limitations, this is also a consequence of a player’s position on the pitch and team tactics. To illustrate, let’s have a look at forward chances created by Lionel Messi and the young french midfielder Tanguy Ndombele (Fig 5). Playing deeper and with less goal-scoring duties, allows Ndombele to create deeper and more vertical chances. This difference can also be observed at the position of those rug lines on the left of each football pitch.
Beside the variation in verticality, a considerable variation in lateral ball movement (horizontality) is also observed among the players in our data set. The chart in Fig 6 shows the average vertical and horizontal ball movement for all the players, considering their forward keypasses only. The variation on both parameters here is more visible. Generally speaking, having a considerable horizontal ball movement is not a good indicator of a player’s vision, since some of the passes with high horizontality are basically crosses.
Fig 7 shows the forward keypasses made by two very distinct players: Luis Alberto, whose keypasses are dominated by verticality, and Douglas Costa, whose keypasses are dominated by horizontality. I suppose, part of those chances created by Douglas Costa are classified as crosses and, without trying to downplay their importance, crosses is not what we are looking for here.
The chart in Fig 8 is a visual interpretation of the forward keypasses for each player (sequentially added), expressed in terms of verticality and horizontality. Each line here represents one player and it’s composed by joining his forward keypasses one after the other. Players with most forward keypasses appear on top and players with relatively high verticality appear on the left.
Present here are the usual suspects, top midfielders from top European clubs (Cesc, De Bruyne, Eriksen), some new entry (Ndombele, Milinkovic-Savic) and Messi. Of course, after scoring 600+ career goals and winning his 5th European Golden Shoe, it’s completely normal to also be the best playmaker in the world.
This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.