It’s the creative players that make the game so great, getting the fans – the most important people in football! – off of their seats and roaring.
The likes of Cantona, Özil, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ji Sung Park have all played major roles in their sides’ attacks over the years. But, now, we’re seeing a new generation of creative players come through from across the pitch.
So who are the most creative players in the Premier League currently? Are they sitting ‘in the hole’ behind the striker like Rodriguez, controlling the centre of the park like De Bruyne, or proving resourceful from out wide like Robertson and Alexander-Arnold? Our resident statto Ben takes us through his thoughts.
Rodriguez and the ‘Number 10’ tole
Going back less than ten years, there were no shortage of number tens in world football. From Mesut Özil at Arsenal to Bryan Ruiz at Fulham, every club had a special someone sat behind one or two strikers that attempted to control proceedings. At one point, these tens were the most important creators in the team. During the 2015/16 season, Mesut Özil was at his creative best creating 28 big chances and his heatmap shows how he was given free reign to roam behind the striker.
Özil was not the only ten operating that season. Christian Eriksen had 13 assists but both players would find their importance short lived as teams started to demand more from their players all over the pitch. Özil has fallen so far that he was not included in either of Arsenal’s squads this season and Eriksen managed two assists in 20 games last time out before moving to Inter Milan where he has been less than impressive.
Some players have adapted to the new regime; one of those is Everton’s James Rodriguez. After spells at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Rodriguez has found a home on Everton’s right flank. He has not had a bad time, hitting eleven assists on his way to a Bundesliga title in 2018, but failed to adapt to the teams evolving style. He had to be content with just 13 starts the following season as the German club moved Thomas Müller into the attacking midfield role with Serge Gnabry operating from the right flank. Müller would primarily drift out to the right and allow Gnabry to operate on the right side of the penalty area and this was something Rodriguez was unable to do; he found himself unable to break into Bayern’s team on a regular basis and he returned to Real Madrid for the 2019/20 season.
It is still early in the Colombian’s Evertonian career but he has shone in Merseyside. He has created six big chances and has 2.7 key passes per game – both highs for his team – but what is interesting is that he has done it playing wide on the right and drifting inside rather than being given a free role like a traditional ‘ten’. Rodriguez works flawlessly to link the e midfield and attack and create chances for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison. Richarlison in particular is interesting because, like Rodriguez, he starts on the flank, and his role is likewise not confined to wide positions. It is, however, vastly different as, whilst Rodriguez looks to fill pockets in front of the defence, Richarlison is more direct and offers more support to Calvert-Lewin up front – the Brazilian international registers 7.3 penalty area touches per game, 5.5 more than his South American counterpart and this brings us to a new and interesting trend in player roles.
Liverpool’s asymmetrical fullbacks
There is no doubt that Liverpool are an excellent side with an excellent manager but they got a little bit lucky when finding their style. They sold Coutinho to Barcelona in a time when his position as a 10 was dying out, and injuries to a plethora of right-backs allowed Trent Alexander-Arnold to enter the stage a little sooner than the club had perhaps been planning.
The Brazilian had created seven big chances in 13 games and was Liverpool’s most creative outlet, playing in the hole. After he left, they began to rely more and more on their fullbacks to create width and chances, with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold sitting second and third on the big chances created list for the team the following season and first and second the season after that.
Liverpool drop main striker, Roberto Firmino into the role in front of the defenders, allowing Salah and Mane to find space in the area that he has vacated; this creates a narrow passage of play where Robertson and Alexander-Arnold can exploit space on the flanks. The average position maps, courtesy of FPL Scout, show how Firmino generally takes up a position deeper than both Mane and Salah allowing them to be a constant threat to their opponents penalty areas. Mane averages 6.2 touches per game in the opposition’s penalty area and Salah 9.5; the difference between the two is no accident, either. With Salah pressing further forward, Alexander-Arnold becomes much more involved in the build-up earlier than Robertson who puts in the majority of his crosses after lengthier build-up. The Scot averages 8.7 more passes per game than Alexander-Arnold who attempts 10.1 crosses per game to Robertson’s 5.8. The pair have a similar number of touches per game with Robertson having five more on average (69.2 to 64.2) but what each fullback does with it shows the game plan which Klopp has carefully curated.
Liverpool are not the only team to expect different results from their fullbacks. Everton too utilise Lucas Digne differently to whomever is filling in for the injured Seamus Coleman and the former Barcelona man has 2.1 accurate crosses per game and 0.4 successful dribbles per game compared to Coleman’s (who has played the majority of games at right-back) 0.2 accurate crosses and 1.3 successful dribbles per game.
Pep Guardiola is also famous for insisting that his players have different roles, he needs one player on each flank to create width and this can come from one of the fullbacks and a winger or a mix and match of both. Tottenham also look for vastly different things from their fullbacks with Aurier or Doherty being much more of an attacking threat than Regulion on the left. how teams employ their fullbacks tends to vary from team to team but one thing is clear: symmetry is a new trend in football and it is here to stay.
De Bruyne as a ‘Free Eight’
Another player that has survived the ‘ten’ culls was David Silva. The midfielder will go down as one of the best midfielders of the decade but it was only his versatility that saved him from seeing out Pep Guardiola’s revolution.
In Manuel Pellegrini’s reign, between 2013-2016, the attacking midfielder created an average of 3.22 chances per match and was easily the best creative outlet in the league. When Pep Guardiola came in in the summer of 2016, he set about changing the way Manchester City would play, implementing the ‘tiki-taka’ style had worked so well at Barcelona. Silva would drop into a midfield role alongside Kevin De Bruyne. This may have halted Silva’s individual creativity but allowed the Belgian to be an equal partner. De Bruyne went from playing around the more central Silva to playing more alongside him in.
The changes were almost instantaneous under Pep and the following season, we can see how the pair’s roles had adapted to play alongside each other and both are playing as a ‘free eight’. The differences are subtle but Silva having less of the ball on the right flank and De Bruyne having more of the ball in central areas, shows how Silva’s role was adapted to include De Bruyne. Along with this, the fact that Silva was taking five extra touches per game but was down nearly 12 passes in the final third shows how he was able to adapt to this new position.
De Bruyne has florished in this role, becoming the leagues primary creative force. He has created five big chances so far this seaon. Impressive, but far off the standards he has set himself; he created 33 the season before as City pushed for a second place finish. This season they are sat in mid-table and one of the reasons for that could be that Guardiola hasn’t successfully replaced Silva. Sergio Aguero has only two appearances this season and he manages to sit joint second on City’s creative list with two big chances created. City need to replace Silva if they are going to persevere with the free-eight roles as they are falling dangerously close to ‘end of an era’ talk.
Assist kings Son, Kane, Grealish and Fernandes
There are many different systems that allow for a creative role in the Premier League. United are both a breath of fresh air and an outdated throwback by employing Bruno Fernandes in the ten role behind the strikers – he has created six big chances this season; Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish has been in superb form given a similar role to Rodriguez as the creative fulcrum on their left-flank but with a little more freedom to get into the box as a goalscoring threat; but the man that leads the assist charts at the moment is England captain, Harry Kane.
Spurs have abandoned the notion of playing behind Kane and, whist this may be bad news for the likes of Eriksen and Alli, it has been superb for left winger, Son. The slight tweaks in Son’s game have seen his goalscoring potential rise and his almost telepathic understanding with Harry Kane has been a joy to watch. Son has a brilliant ability to time his run to perfection and use his pace to get in behind. He trusts Kane to be able to put the ball into an area where he can run onto the ball and use his pace and direct approach to create a goal scoring opportunity; his hat-trick goal against Southampton is the perfect example of this. Here, Kane drops into the hole left in front of the back four and Son is already off; the former Leverkusen man starts on the left, uses a diagonal run to stay on side, latches onto Kane’s ball into space, and finishes calmly past McCarthy in goal. The play is simple but the execution superb and demonstrates Son’s more direct role as an inside forward.
But are there any other players you would add to this? Outside of the Premier League, in the Championship or leagues One or Two, are there any creative players worth a shout in their league’s respective future articles?
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