I Analyzed Over 700 Players: The Best Ball Advancers and Finishers
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When I’m watching a match, there’s two stats that I have started to really look for to judge a player’s impact on a match:
Touches in the box
Today, we’ll look for players that progress the ball up the field, while also pop up at the end of moves in the penalty box.
What Do These Stats Mean?
We’ve gone over touches in the box before, but if you’re new around here:
A touch in the box is simply how many possessions a player gets in their opponent’s box
Progressive passes on the other hand are a little more complex.
Simply put, a forward pass is one that attempts to advance their team significantly closer to the opponent’s goal.
Here’s a quick example.
There’s a bit of a difference between a “forward” pass and a “progressive” pass though. It’s a bit buzz-word-y, but it’s important to know the difference.
What makes a regular forward pass a progressive pass is the distance between the passer and receiver, and their location on the field.
To qualify as a progressive pass, the distance between the starting point and the next touch is:
At least 30m closer to the attacking goal, if both passer and receiver are in the defensive half
At least 15m closer to the attacking goal if the start and end point are in two halves
At least 10m if both players are in the attacking half
The reason we have a difference between a regular forward pass and a progressive pass is that a progressive pass does more to move the team up field.
Why I Think These Are Important
I like to look for these numbers for a few reasons.
Firstly, progressive passing is one of the most underrated assets in the sport (in my opinion).
It’s usually done by the best attacking ball-users in the game, and often players that are the creative hub for their team.
It’s also a skill that can translate into any side. Every team needs someone who can progress the ball up field.
It’s eye catching, and a good ball progressor is key to any good side.
However, some of this is dependent on a player’s role in their team. For example, Paul Pogba is a great at moving the ball vertically. However, that hasn’t been his role the past 12-months or so.
The reason I combined this with touches in the box, is that’s where a lot of the action takes place that directly leads to a goal. Most goals and assists come from inside the penalty box - so getting touches there is key.
Basically. I’m thinking that the players that get a lot of touches in the box and a lot of progressive passes will be some of the absolute best in the business.
I’m not expecting to see too many number 9s to be at the very top, they don’t get deep enough to play progressive passes. Nor am I expecting the best CMs to get enough touches in the box.
I’m not expecting to see many wingers either. The rage these days is to try and cut the ball back in, or invert and play balls inside.
However, the best all-round attacking players will make themselves pretty clear.
So, to look into these numbers a little more, I took all the players in attacking positions that play in the top five leagues around Europe, and saw how they compare on a per/90 basis this season.
I also removed anyone who has played under 500 minutes, to try and eliminate small sample sizes, or the player that comes on for five minutes and makes a few passes, exploding his per/90 numbers.
That gave me about 770 players in total.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. That is a fucking lot of players.
I was going to include them all, but that was a little too much raw info for my Excel spreadsheet to manage, so I narrowed the list down to the top 500 players.
This got rid of anyone who didn’t average at least one touch in the box per 90.
Now, there’s an awful lot of names on this graph. 500 to be exact…. and you won’t be able to read them all.
But, that is kinda the point.
I want you to see how much the very best guys stand out.
And don’t worry, there’s going to be other images zoomed in on the parts of the graph I want to focus on.
To make it a little easier to look through, I’ve divided the graph into quadrants.
Those in the blue box are in the top 10% (of the 770, not just the ones listed on the graph) of progressive passers
Those in the red, are in the top 10% for touches in the box
Those in the gold are in the top 10% for both
You should be able to click the image to get a closer view though.
Now, let’s take a look at the areas of the graph that I find the most interesting.
The Golden Child….ren
There were only five (or maybe six, depending on how accurate my box drawing is) players that were in the top 10% for both touches in the box and progressive passes.
Here they are (with links to their cards on eBay)
Now, looking at this, there’s a few things that I take away.
First, I’m glad that this test passes the Messi rule. Even in his advanced years (and in what would be a bit of a down year), he’s still doing so much around the ground and in the box. Just imagine how Lionel Messi would go here during his peak.
Neymar is a superstar and offers a lot more around the ground than people give him credit for. He’s a great passer along with being a great dribbler. It’s just that his passing won’t make the ESPN top plays of the night.
Jack Grealish and Thomas Müller may surprise a few people. But to me, it’s pretty clear that they’d be in and around this area. Muller does a great job of roaming around and finding space during the buildup and then popping up in the box. Grealish is a stud and has been everywhere this season. I think he’s still incredibly underrated. I fucking love both of these players, so seeing them here made me smile a lot.
Rodrigo (Leeds) and Pablo Sarabia (PSG) are usually coming off the bench, so there’s not a whole lot to take away from this. I’d be interested to see if they were still in the top 10% if I did this in six months time. I personally doubt they would be.
The Close To Gold…. So, Silver?
There were a bunch of guys who were super close to getting into the gold zone being in the top 10% for both.
Some of my picks are:
Jadon Sancho: Interesting to see Sancho on this list. Another who is having what many would call a “disappointing” season but still offering a lot.
Jack Harrison: Doing well for a Leeds side that are all-out attack. I don’t think it’s a shock that two Leeds players have been listed already seeing how they play
Achraf Hakimi: I’m looking forward to seeing him at Inter long-term
Dani Olmo: Having a great season and does so much around the ground
Enis Bardhi: Bloody good and overlooked young player. 25 years old, and also a wicked free kick taker.
Dries Mertens: Been underrated for a long time, but at 33 isn’t really hobby relevant
Christopher Nkuku: He’s always doing well in these lists
Dejan Kulusevski: There was a lot of hype at the start of the season, but don’t sleep on him. He’s quality.
Also, it’s important to know that Christian Pulisic would have been in this image if he qualified minutes-wise. Which makes sense, the only real knock on Pulisic is health.
Those Who Get The Ball In The Box
These are the players that are getting a lot of the ball in the
Kylian Mbappe is almost an outlier in every number-crunch.
Serge Gnabry gets a lot of ball in the box
Erling Haaland is getting a lot of touches in the box, but isn’t offering too much else around the ground passing-wise. Granted, it’s not really his role to do so.
Supreme Ball Movers
When looking at the players who move the ball up-field, there’s a few things to realize.
For starters, a lot of defensive players (CDMs, and Fullbacks) tend to do pretty will with progressive passing numbers. I did try to filter them out for this experiment but some made it through due to their time in in central midfield or on the wing.
Just because a player gets a lot of progressive passers, doesn’t mean that they’re putting forward eye-catching displays that’ll translate to the hobby. Mario Verratti is a good example of this.
In general, there’s a lot of noise in this part of the graph. I’ll break it down to be more hobby-relevant below.
Jonjo Shelvey gets shit on a lot, but he’s always been a great progressive passer. He’s not hobby relevant, but he is way too good to be a meme.
Cesc Fabregas only just qualified for the 500 minute barrier, but he’s still getting it done at Monaco. A forgotten modern legend.
Kimmich is probably the best CM in the world right now, so seeing him here as a leading progressive passer isn’t a surprise
Bruno Fernandes is having a great season and is the main man at Man United, it seems like most of their attacking threat comes as a result of a Bruno pass. A great progressive mover of the ball.
Kevin De Bryune isn’t having the season that we’d expect. However, he’s still in the top 10% in progressive passers and gets into the box quite a bit too.
Curtis Jones is balling out this season. His passing, and progressive passing, is insane for a 19-year-old. He’ll have to be the rookie of the 20/21 sets. Fingers crossed he makes the Prizm checklists.
As mentioned before, fullbacks like Federico Dimarco always do well in progressive passing numbers
There were some interesting results looking at this.
The very best at both progressive passing and getting touches in the box are dangerous players. Having guys like Messi and Neymar lead the pack are a sign that the numbers chosen are the right ones
Game paly dictates a lot. There were a lot of Leeds players doing well in this chart, and that directly relates to the break-neck pace, intensity, and all-out attack that they play with. There’s a lot of forward movement.
The best out-and-out strikers don’t get enough progressive passers. Which does make sense, as they’re likely the ones who are supposed to be on the end of these passes. However, Zlatan is averaging about seven progressive passes per 90 minutes which is crazy to think about.
If I wanted to do this again to check which forwards are dropping back to create chances with progressive passing, I’d filter out all other positions. There’s no way a forward can go head-to-head with a central midfielder when talking about forward passes.
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