This article will use data analysis to determine the best creative midfielders in the EPL this season. Whilst well-known players from the top clubs will be included, the focus will be on players outside the biggest clubs. It will analyse EPL players who are classified as a midfielder, midfielder/forward or forward/midfielder on fbref.com who have played at least 1000 minutes this season. This ensures that we only look at players with a decent amount of pitch time, thereby making their data more robust.
No age filter has been applied but players under 23 are plotted as green dots on the scatter plots for easy visual comparison with more experienced players. The average EPL midfielder ratings for each metric are displayed on the graphs as dotted lines, allowing us to easily observe above-average performers.
A range of different statistics will be utilised and a shortlist of players will then be produced to be recommended for further scouting.
Goals and assists
The first metrics we will look at are the simplest: which midfielders have scored the most non-penalty goals (npGoals) and assisted the most goals per 90 minutes.
Predictably, Kevin De Bruyne is way ahead of his peers in terms of assists. Two of De Bruyne’s Manchester City teammates, Riyad Mahrez and David Silva, follow him in the assist charts, and Mahrez leads the way for scoring rate for EPL midfielders this season. It comes as no surprise that Manchester City midfielders rank the highest for these metrics given their expansive style of play and dominance in most matches.
The next names in the list for assists per 90 may surprise a few: Norwich City’s Emi Buendía, West Ham’s Pablo Fornals and Leicester City’s Harvey Barnes. 21-year-old Barnes also fares well in scoring rate, but it is two other youngsters and EPL rookies who follow Mahrez in this metric, with Bournemouth’s on-loan Harry Wilson ahead of Watford’s summer signing, Ismaila Sarr. The more experienced trio of Dele Alli, Ayoze Pérez and Roberto Firmino is amongst less experienced players such as Jack Grealish and Mason Mount in the group who are above average for both goals and assists per 90, without particularly excelling in either category.
Expected assists and key passes
Whilst the actual goal and assist output for each player is important, it can skew the data for players in struggling teams who may create plenty of chances that their teammates don’t convert. To compensate for this, we can analyse the expected assists (xA) per 90 for each player, which evaluates the quality of chances each player creates regardless of whether it was finished by their teammate. If we plot xA against key passes per 90 (passes which led to a shot) then we can build a picture of players who create opportunities through their passing ability.
Again, De Bruyne is far ahead of anyone else for both metrics. However, whilst Mahrez is a clear second for xA per 90, Brighton’s Pascal Groß has the second-highest key passes per 90 in the EPL this season, slightly ahead of Buendía and Leicester City’s James Maddison. All three of these players have higher xA and key passes per 90 than Manchester City’s David Silva and Bernardo Silva. Buendía and Maddison are the best under 23 players in this regard by some distance. Grealish again is above average in both departments. This graph shows the importance of using these metrics to highlight creative players in weaker teams, who might otherwise fly under the radar.
Final third and penalty area passes
Completed passes into the final third and penalty area are also important in assessing a player’s ability to contribute to attacking play. The graph below displays the results of plotting these metrics.
The completed final third passes metric is dominated by central midfielders: Jorginho, Mateo Kovačić, İlkay Gündoğan, Granit Xhaka, Mattéo Guendouzi, Jordan Henderson and Harry Winks all rating highly without completing many penalty area passes. The completed penalty area passes metric favours more attacking midfielders, as would be expected, with the Manchester City trio of De Bruyne, Mahrez and David Silva leading the way. Buendía performs well in both metrics, suggesting good midfield involvement whilst also affecting play at the top end of the pitch. Grealish, Barnes and Groß also perform well for penalty area passes, along with West Ham’s Felipe Anderson, Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha and Bernardo Silva.
Shot and goal creating actions
Two slightly more detailed metrics that can be used to identify players with high involvement in creating shots and goals are “shot creation actions” and “goal creation actions,” which are defined as “the two offensive actions leading to a shot or goal” on fbref.com. Unlike xA and key passes, which only assess passing, these metrics include passes, dribbles, shots leading to another shot and fouls won. It, therefore, gives a broader picture of several attributes used in chance creation.
It is Mahrez who leads the way (ahead of De Bruyne) for goal creating actions per 90, with similar shot-creating actions per 90. Behind them are some now-familiar names: Maddison, Grealish, Buendía and Groß all posting excellent numbers for shot-creating actions (more than David Silva). In contrast to the xA passing data shown previously, Grealish outperforms Groß and Buendía here, suggesting he is better at utilising attributes other than passing to create shooting chances. Barnes rates highly for goal creating actions (ranked fourth overall in the EPL) and is also above average for shot-creating actions. A new name, Brighton’s Leandro Trossard, is also well above average for both metrics, performing better than Mesut Özil and similarly to Bernardo Silva.
Open play vs dead balls
An important aspect to consider when using shot and goal creating actions is whether these actions come largely from open play, set pieces or a mixture of both. The scatter plot below allows us to explore this by directly plotting shot-creating actions from open play passes against shot-creating actions from dead ball passes.
This identifies a few set-piece specialists in the upper left quadrant, such as Gylfi Sigurðsson, Robert Snodgrass and João Moutinho, who are all average or below average for shot-creating actions from open play passes but well above average for shot-creating actions from dead balls. Maddison and Groß display the best numbers in the EPL for shot-creating actions from set-pieces, whilst still being above average for shot creation from open play passes. Buendía shows a mixture of being creative from both open play and set pieces (rating higher than players such as Özil and Christian Eriksen for both), whilst Grealish posts very strong numbers for creating chances from open play passes this season, surpassed only by the Manchester City trio of De Bruyne, Mahrez and David Silva.
Progressive carries and passes
Progressive metrics can also be utilised to identify players who exert a positive influence on their team in an attacking sense, either through progressive carries (measuring the number of yards a player moves the ball with their feet towards the opposition goal) or progressive passes (the same measure achieved through forwarding passes).
Whilst progressive carries and passes aren’t necessarily creativity metrics, they do provide information to us on an individual player’s style of play. The upper left quadrant (high progressive passing numbers, low progressive carry numbers) identifies players such as Oliver Norwood, Luka Milivojević, Jonjo Shelvey and Rúben Neves who generally play as deep-lying playmakers.
In contrast, the bottom right quadrant (low progressive passing, high progressive carries) highlights the dribblers, exemplified by Allan Saint-Maximin and Wilfried Zaha. (In case you were wondering where Adama Traoré is: he is, rightly or wrongly, classified as a forward in fbref.com’s database and is therefore excluded from this analysis. He averages 302.7 yards in progressive carries per 90 minutes, which would place him just off the end of the x-axis of this chart!)
Players situated in the upper right quadrant are above average in both disciplines. Top performers in this regard are Kovačić of Chelsea, De Bruyne and Arsenal’s Guendouzi. Interestingly, Buendía also lies in this region of the graph, again suggesting he is a good all-rounder and a good progressor of the ball via his passing and dribbling ability. Grealish resides in the strong progressive carrier, average progressive passer category (in keeping with his strong performance in the shot-creating actions metric) whilst Maddison relies mainly on his passing ability to progress his team up the field.
Fouls suffered and fouls suffered leading to shots
The following scatter plot looks at the number of fouls suffered per 90 against the number of fouls suffered per 90 which led to a shot. Again, whilst not a direct creativity metric, it allows us to identify players who can dribble effectively in dangerous areas, a useful attribute for a creative midfielder to have in their skillset.
Grealish stands out as the most fouled midfielder in the EPL, whilst also drawing the third-highest number of fouls per 90 that led to a shot. Maddison has suffered the most fouls leading to a shot per 90, which is interesting considering his slightly below average progressive carries per 90. It could be that Maddison only chooses to dribble in what he or his manager would class as the right areas: high up the pitch in areas within shooting range. This is something that could be determined through further scouting. Diogo Jota of Wolves, Mahrez, Sarr, Wilson, Southampton’s Nathan Redmond and Buendía also draw well above the average number of fouls per 90 that lead to shots, suggesting effective dribbling skills in advanced areas.
Based on the analyses performed above, the following players are of interest and warrant further scouting:
Emi Buendía – the Norwich City man performs strongly in various metrics, most notably in xA per 90, where he is behind only De Bruyne and Mahrez, and key passes per 90, where he ranks third for all EPL midfielders this season (behind only De Bruyne and Groß). He has completed more penalty area passes than any player outside of Manchester City and ranks sixth in the EPL for shot-creating actions from open play. In addition, he ranks 11th for progressive carries and eighth for fouls suffered leading to a shot, highlighting he has more to his game than his excellent passing ability. To rank so highly in various categories is all the more impressive considering he plays for the EPL’s bottom side. A notable weak point is his goals tally: he is yet to open his account this season. This could be a consequence of playing for a relatively weak side, but it is something that should be investigated with further scouting.
Jack Grealish – the 24-year-old Aston Villa captain is supposedly attracting interest from numerous clubs, and it’s easy to see why based on this analysis. He ranks sixth for key passes per 90, fifth for completed penalty area passes per 90, fourth for shot creation actions per 90, sixth for goal creation actions per 90, second for progressive carries per 90 and third for fouls suffered leading to a shot. He posts excellent numbers across the board and his seven goals and six assists (for a side sitting 19th in the table) show he has end product to match the impressive underlying numbers.
James Maddison – the Leicester City midfielder ranks fifth for xA per 90 and fourth for key passes per 90. He is behind only De Bruyne and Mahrez for total shot-creating actions per 90 and has created more shots from set pieces per 90 than any other EPL midfielder this season, whilst still being easily above average for shot creation from open play. He also tops the rankings for fouls suffered leading to a shot per 90, demonstrating his willingness and ability to dribble in dangerous areas. He made his England debut in November and could be set for many more if he keeps producing these sort of numbers.
Pascal Groß – the 28-year-old Brighton midfielder is second only to De Bruyne for key passes per 90 this season and fourth (behind De Bruyne, Mahrez and Buendía) for xA per 90. Groß is second only to Maddison for shot creation from set-pieces whilst still posting above-average numbers for shot-creating actions from open play. He is below average for progressive carries per 90 but above average for progressive passes per 90. His actual goal and assist output is on the lower side with two goals and four assists this season but, like Buendía and Grealish, he is performing in a weaker side only two points above the relegation places.
Harvey Barnes – 22-year-old Leicester City midfielder who has announced himself in the EPL with six goals and six assists this season. He only has one real standout statistic, but it’s a good one: his goal creating actions per 90 is the highest for EPL midfielders outside of Manchester City players (only De Bruyne, Mahrez and David Silva are ahead of him). For other metrics, he ranks above average without being particularly outstanding (11th for completed penalty area passes per 90, 20th for shot-creating passes from open play per 90). However, his good end product and excellent goal creating actions data at a young age warrant further scouting.
Notable mention: Leandro Trossard – the Brighton midfielder is in his first season in the EPL and has found pitch time slightly limited due to injuries. However, he ranks ninth for xA per 90, 10th for shot-creating actions from open play passes per 90 and seventh for goal creating actions per 90. Given he has had injury problems and this is his first season in English football following his move from Genk in the summer, the numbers suggest he is one to keep an eye on in the future.
This article has identified six players outside the traditional top clubs who are amongst the best performing creative midfielders in the EPL this season. These players are all at a good age and, in some cases, rank highly for various creative metrics despite playing for teams at the foot of the EPL table. This data should be followed up by further scouting via video and live analysis but acts as a good starting point to shortlist high performing creative midfielders.