Statistically unusual players in the early games of the Premier League season
There are a lot of players in the Premier League. Generally speaking, to reach the top flight of English football, most of them are quite good. We're quite used to generalised qualities at this point. Fullbacks who can overlap, inverted wingers who can cut inside and shoot, defensive midfielders who can win the ball back aggressively. But there are some players who just do things differently to everyone else. This might not necessarily be a positive or negative thing, but here are six individuals who have statistically stood out as unusual so far this season.
Of all the players to feature in central midfield this season, only three, Ross Barkley, Tanguy Ndombele and Kevin De Bruyne (interpreting “central midfield” loosely here), have made more successful dribbles per 90 than John McGinn. Only McGinn’s Villa teammate Jack Grealish has won more fouls per 90 than the Scotland international. So we know what it is that he does. But on the other side, no central midfielder is making fewer passes per 90 than McGinn. This is someone who seems to choose to dribble and thus draw fouls over passing the ball at every possible opportunity.
When McGinn does pass the ball, he isn’t shy about pinging it, with the seventh longest average pass length of any central midfielder. It’s clear in his sonar just how direct he’s willing to go.
Or alternatively, he’ll carry it, with the third longest carry length in the position. He’ll do anything except the obvious option of keeping it simple and making a pass. This might be because he’s playing with Grealish, natural playmaker extraordinaire. It could simply be that it’s just his natural game. His application and desire to run is the kind of thing that catches the eye of fans, especially in the UK, and it’s hard to argue he’s not a useful player for Villa. He does have this very obvious, somewhat bizarre limit, and Dean Smith needs to construct his side accordingly for it. Unfortunately for McGinn, one would imagine these limitations make the bottom half of the Premier League his ceiling, with a better side that dominates possession unlikely to want to have to tweak the midfield balance to fit him in. For now, though, Villa fans should enjoy the things he does and worry not about his lack of passing.
Mohamed Salah has attempted 18 passes inside the box so far this season. That’s the most of any player in the division. Wilfried Zaha and Jamie Vardy are next up with 17 and 13 each. If I told you the next player was a fullback, you might think of Liverpool’s pair of Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, or possibly someone like Oleksandr Zinchenko. You probably wouldn’t expect it to be someone who featured so irregularly for West Ham last season.
Ryan Fredericks looks a fairly average right back by most other measures. He’s not a hugely active defender, and he’s not progressing the ball up the pitch that well until it gets into the box. The player this is somewhat reminiscent of is Sead Kolasinac. Last season, Kolasinac consistently put up incredible creative numbers by getting forward and delivering cut backs to Arsenal’s talented attack. Fredericks isn’t creating at such a rate yet, but the potential seems to be there. Of course, the other side of Kolasinac was his inability to cover such ground that he could provide a threat in the final third without leaving his side horribly exposed. That Arsenal felt the need to buy Kieran Tierney shows just how little Kolasinac’s unusual skills were seen as helpful in the end. Fredericks may have the advantage here of being a much better athlete. He has the speed to cover much more ground than Kolasinac, to get into the box and still potentially recover defensively if the Hammers get caught out. We’re dealing with a small sample size here, and this is something that could easily drift away as the season goes on, especially if Manuel Pellegrini wants to tighten things up at the back. But Fredericks might have the toolkit to be a very interesting, very adventurous right back who can be an important cog in West Ham’s attack.
When Graham Potter arrived at Brighton, the expectation was that he would change the style of football. The attacking emphasis would be greater, he’d move to a system with three at the back, and defenders previously accustomed to hoofing it would be asked to play more football. The assumption was that new signing Adam Webster, a centre back extremely comfortable taking risks, would be the poster boy for this shift. It was not expected that Potter would make Dan Burn the key player in his new defensive system.
If you’re moving to a back three, having a left footed defender like Burn is always a bonus, especially when he even played occasional left back minutes at Wigan. What we’re seeing so far from Burn is someone extremely comfortable moving forward. While we’re dealing with small sample sizes here, no other centre back in the league gets close to his 0.8 open play passes into the box per 90. Similarly, he leads the division’s centre backs in open play passes in the final third per 90. And it doesn’t stop with his passing range, also posting the most frequent attempted dribbles, though with fully half of them not coming off, he should probably slow down on that front. The wide centre back roles in a back three can often be slightly strange hybrid positions, neither centre back nor full back. Perhaps unexpectedly, Burn is interpreting the role in a particularly expansive manner.
So you’re a promoted side that decides to stick with your progressive brand of football in the Premier League. You’ve also decided to keep the budget down and avoid splashing out on expensive signings. What you need is one of your central midfielders to really step up and progress the ball at an even better rate than last season, while at the same time working harder defensively than before.
After failing to make the grade at Borussia Dortmund before bouncing around Stuttgart, Lazio and Augsburg, Moritz Leitner has become the hard working creative central midfielder that makes Norwich tick. In the entire league, only Harry Winks is putting up more deep progressions per 90 than the German. Aymeric Laporte and Robertson are the only players with more carries per 90 than Leitner. And even after the ball is worked into the final third, he’s still among the top 20 players for passes within that zone. For a team with only 50% possession. Norwich are more an interesting team this season than they are good, with the side needing to hope their fourth worst expected goal difference in the league will be enough to see them right. When they work the ball into dangerous areas, though, they’re a delight to watch, and Leitner is absolutely a key player in making those situations happen.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Dominic Solanke has been bad at scoring goals. And this isn’t even a situation similar to his time at Liverpool where he just wasn’t finishing good chances. His 0.19 xG per 90 is nothing other than poor, especially compared to what his teammate Callum Wilson is doing. But that’s not the end of the story for Solanke. Only two players in the Premier League are managing more pressures per 90 than the Bournemouth man. What’s more, no striker (if we discount Wilfried Zaha and Gerard Deulofeu on the grounds that they are not really strikers) is making more deep progressions per 90 than Solanke. He’s working hard for the team by closing down opponents, then receiving the ball in deep areas to progress it forward. While playing as a striker.
Does it matter that he’s not scoring more? In terms of public perception it seems to. Solanke will be “shit until he scores loads” in the court of public opinion. But in terms of Bournemouth’s system, it’s not obvious that this is a problem. Playing in a front two with Wilson, the more important role is to ensure that the strikers do not become isolated or the midfield gets exposed. Solanke is ideal for this, and should be able to do the role at a higher level than Joshua King.
Ok, but what if someone was doing a lot of the things Solanke offers, while also scoring goals? Meet Sebastien Haller.
No striker (again, discounting Deulofeu because he isn’t one) is making more open play passes per 90 than Haller. Only Solanke is putting up more deep progressions. He’s exerting a very respectable 20.11 pressures per 90. His shot volume is on the low side, but when he gets them, boy does he get some good ones.
Haller combines the all round play of a striker who typically wouldn’t score a lot of goals with the shot profile of a pure poacher. It’s a fascinating package of skills and West Ham can consider themselves to have a real gem here.