The Best Two Way Premier League Players
Looking for players that contribute on both sides of the ball is often a difficult task. Separating out tactical responsibilities from player abilities, and individual shortcomings from schematic ones is always hard. Does a player not track back because he’s lazy or because he has instructions to remain high up the pitch? Does a midfielder keep passing it sideways because he cannot pick a forward pass or because the manager’s approach calls for conservative possession?
With that in mind, I looked at a collection of players that excelled at two very specific things. I wanted to find players who both applied lots of pressure on the defensive side of the ball, and also were instrumental to their team bringing the ball into the attacking third. The idea was to focus on role rather than position, although for the most part looking at deep progressions and pressures will yield midfielders and wingers. Then, filter out great passers who are defensive liabilities (hello Granit Xhaka) as well as defensive destroyer specialists (with apologies to Mo Diame).
There are, so far this season, 36 players in the Premier League who have played 300 minutes or more and are averaging more than 20 ball pressures per 90 minutes. There are 64 players who are averaging over 5 deep progressions per 90 (deep progressions measure how often a player brings the ball into the final third either by any means). There are, thanks to the round number gods, exactly ten players who appear on both lists.
James Milner and Naby Keita
It’s no surprise to see a large chunk of Liverpool’s midfield featured here. The team is built on taking the ball back and relentlessly working it forward to the front three. Milner is averaging 22 pressures and 12 deep progressions while Keita is on 21 and 10. The two have incredibly similar numbers across the board with Milners slanted slightly to the defensive side of the ball while Keita is taking up more advance positions in and around the penalty area somewhat more. So, while their possession adjusted tackle numbers are virtually identical, Milner has 2.82 and Keita 2.79, Milner has a bunch more interceptions, 2.61 to 1.24 while Keita is taking more shots per game 1.88 to 0.72. Regardless these two are absolute midfield machines for Liverpool and the engine that drives their attack forward. Milner, in particular, at 32 years old is a wonder to behold.
Jesse Lingard and Fred (Fred?)
Somewhat surprisingly, Manchester United are the only other team to have two players on this list. They’re also the two most active defenders, the only two players on the list averaging over 25 pressures per 90 (both are between 25 and 26). For Lingard, the stats fit well with is overall reputation as a grafting winger, equally happy checking back and bombing forward. Also, since he’s frequently playing with two more attack minded players across the front line, it makes sense that he’d be the one tasked with dropping deeper to help with ball progression.
Fred is the surprise. He hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire over his first few months at the club. But, the man knows how to intercept a pass, and is competent at bringing the ball forward with his feet. His passing leaves a lot to be desired, but he does just enough on the attacking end to get onto this list while contributing quite a bit when it comes to harrying opponents all over midfield.
Alli stands out on this list because not only is he a capable ball progressor who is, for the first time, doing tons of defensive work, but he’s also a scoring machine. His expected goals per 90 this season is a whopping 0.50, almost double anybody else on this list. It’s not that he’s taking a lot more shots than other players. Half the players on this list, including Alli take between two and two and a half shots per 90 minutes. But Alli’s shots have been great ones. His xG per shot is 0.22, nobody else is above 0.12. It’s hard to capture Alli’s role this season effectively. Is he a midfielder?
An attacking midfielder?
Both? Neither? Whatever he is, he’s doing work.
After beginning the season as a starter, Mkhitaryan has ended up as the odd man out as Unai Emery tries to cram as many attackers as he can onto the field. It’s possible he should rethink that decision. The Armenian winger is the only member of Arsenal’s attacking squad that both puts up robust attacking and defending numbers. His ball progression numbers aren’t actually that impressive, but that’s because they’re also almost an afterthought to his game. Playing in a side that frequently features both Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka, Mkhitaryan is the third most important transition player. He’s also contributing 2.5 shots and over a quarter of an expected goal per match. Impressive numbers given that, again, he’s supporting more prominent attacking players in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette (or both). Mkhitaryan specializes in being the third best attacking player on the field at absolutely everything. Which is an extremely useful role to play.
It’s interesting that Bernardo Silva is the only Manchester City player here. It’s hard to run up the defensive stats, even pressures, when your team always has the ball, see also the absence of Kante, N’golo. Wilfred N’didi is a defensive machine who does just enough ball progression from deep to get on the list. Idrissa Gueye does the same for Everton. And Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is having himself a heck of a season.