The rules are simple. The players have to play for a team outside the top six. They have to have played at least 1000 minutes. They have to lead the league (among players outside the top six) in some statistical category that we track (or be behind only another player on this team). And, finally, the team has to be, in some sense or another, realistic. No Garth Crooks nonsense here. Let’s see, if using those stringent criteria, we can come up with some sort of cohesive team that wouldn’t be an embarrassment to field week in and week out.
Keeper – Lukasz Fabiankski
This one’s easy. He’s the best shot stopper outside the top six in the Premier League. He’s also the second most aggressive keeper in the Premier League when it comes to collecting balls in his area, coming for the ball 1.5% more than an average keeper might. In other words, he good.
Forward – Ashley Barnes
Wait what? Burnley’s Ashley Barnes? Yep. Dude has 0.43 xG per 90 this season. I don’t make the rules. I mean, I did make the rules, like less than 200 words ago, but nevertheless! Ashley Barnes.
Wingers – Felipe Anderson, Ryan Fraser
Ryan Fraser is just an absolute assist machine. His 0.26 expected goals assisted is tops outside the top six and eight overall. He doesn’t do a lot of different stuff, but the thing he does do, is get into lethally good crossing and cutback positions to feed the striker. It’s a skill that is hard to find outside the top six teams.
It’s cheating a little bit to put Anderson on the right and Fraser on the left when Anderson has played on the left all season, but I’m doing it anyway. Anderson plays more open play passes into the penalty area than anybody with 2.36 (including the top six only David Silva, Xherdan Shaqiri, Eden Hazard and Kieran Trippier play more). Also Anderson is going to do a little bit (or a lot) of basically everything else on the pitch to make this team good. On a team that’s built to be scrappy (and, like, we’re starting Ashley Barnes up top here, scrappy it is) Anderson’s defensive contributions will be essential. He averages over three combined tackles and interceptions per game.
Midfield – Idrissa Gueye, Pascal Groß, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg
This three man midfield can do it all. Gueye is the defensive linchpin and his presence mopping up behind his two midfield partners will free them to do a lot of the more aggressive things they’re quietly very good at. He leads the entire Premier League with 4.06 possession adjusted tackles. Nobody else is even close. Ander Herrera at Manchester United is second with 3.66.
Next to him are two players who are both very effective at applying defensive pressure in midfield and at moving the ball forward. Groß is the more active presser. He’s second in the league with 33.86 pressures per 90. A great number, but one which technically doesn’t qualify him for this team. We get to smuggle him onto the team for his crossing though (which Ashley Barnes will surely be thankful for). He completes 1.77 crosses per 90, the second most in the Premier League (only Kieran Trippier is ahead of him) and he completes them at a 54% clip which is truly impressive. Groß and Juan Mata at Manchester United are the only players completing over 0.75 crosses per 90 who maintain a completion rate of over 50%. But while the crossing is definitely a nice bonus, it’s the pressing that we’re really here for.
The missing part of the puzzle is how does this team move the ball up the field. Right now it seems like Felipe Anderson is going to be all by himself picking the ball up from defense and trying to wriggle his way up the wing. But, not to fear, that’s where Højbjerg comes in. The vast majority of players who rack up a lot of deep progressions play for the top six teams. Højbjerg is the exception. He leads the non-six group and, along with Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy is one of only two players outside the big six in the top 20 in the league at progressing the ball up the field from deep. His 8.27 deep progressions per 90, with a healthy assist from Groß who averages 6.42 should provide the team enough creativity on the ball to keep things ticking.
Center backs – Michael Keane, Steve Cook
Things break down really quickly when trying to do fun but ultimately pointless data experiments with defenders. So here, have Michael Keane and Steve Cook the top two players outside the top six in the league in possession adjusted clearances. They have 5.99 and 5.92 clearances apiece. Does that make them good? Probably not. Does that qualify them for this silly little team? You bet.
Fullbacks – Lucas Digne, Florent Hadergjonaj
As with center backs, fullbacks are simply impossible to actually evaluate statistically. So who knows if this will work at all. Lucas Digne has seemed mostly fine with Everton this season and he’s a big part of their attacking approach. He’s right behind Groß in completed crosses per 90 with 1.55 completed crosses per 90, so…yay? And speaking of crossing! A whole 73% of Florent Hadergjonaj’s passes in the final third are crosses, that’s the highest in the league, so please welcome your new right back.
Put it all together and what we’ve got is a starting 11 which emphasizes denying the opposition control of the midfield, moving the ball upfield quickly and then crossing smartly. Also, there are a couple of defenders. It’s all so crazy it just might work.