Atalanta's Josip Iličić is having a season nobody but Lionel Messi can touch

By Flavio Fusi | January 10, 2020

Atalanta's Josip Iličić is having a season nobody but Lionel Messi can touch

At the beginning of this season, I wrote that we should all be grateful to Gian Piero Gasperini for letting us admire Josip Iličić's best season ever. An undoubtedly gifted player who, until last season, had not been able to fully express his immense talent to finally blossomed, albeit at a mature age — not uncommon for attacking players in Serie A.

In the past, Iličić has been hampered by a seemingly endless string of minor injuries. The aches and pains often limited him both in games and in training, so much so that his teammates gave him one of the most hilarious nicknames in European football: “Grandma”. Perhaps his mercurial character hindered his performance and development. After all, the only thing he hates more than fantasy football is warm-up exercises.

Yet, after an infection in his neck lymph nodes forced him to miss two months and meditate on his retirement from football, Atalanta's number 72 came back in September 2018 with renewed enthusiasm and the desire to enjoy playing football while making it enjoyable for everyone’s watching him. 

With Iličić as their most skilled player, Atalanta went on to earn a place at the Coppa Italia final and the first Champions League qualification in their history. Iličić’s influence went far beyond his 12 goals and 7 assists, and in my opinion, he was the bona fide MVP of Serie A in 2018–19.

At 31 years old, his tenth season in Italy seemed to be his career season, the one that would definitively consecrate him in the history of the competition as well as in the hearts of Atalanta fans, who in a recent poll named him the best player in the history of the Dea with almost 80% of the votes. A place he already deserved unquestionably: The Slovenian is one of three players who scored at least one goal and served up at least one assist in each of the last ten Serie A championships, and the league's 9th top goal-scorer of the decade with 79 goals, an enviable haul considering he is not a pure striker.

It seemed unimaginable that the Slovenian fantasy player would raise the level of his game even higher, offering performances unparalleled in Europe. In StatsBomb's database, Iličić's 2018–19 season had a statistical output comparable only to that of Lionel Messi and Neymar, but in the 967 minutes he has played this season he has — incredibly — managed to make another leap forward (Iličić plays a hybrid role between a striker and a trequartista, but I chose the attacking midfielder radial template because I believe it is more explicative)

To put into context what Iličić is doing this season, let’s start with shots. He averages 5.03 shots per 90 minutes, more than anyone else in Serie A this season, Cristiano Ronaldo excluded (the Juventus striker averages 5.44 shots per 90) and a 26% increase in comparison with last season.

It is extremely rare for a player to average so may shots. Over the last couple seasons (2019–20 included), only two players have averaged at least 5 shots per 90. They are, unsurprisingly, Ronaldo and Messi (Harry Kane did so in 2017–18) Apart from sheer volume, what is interesting is that Iličić has increased his shot volume without compromising the overall quality of his attempts — quite the opposite. The Slovenian’s current open play xG per shot average is 0.126, an increase of 31% compared to last season’s 0.096. Don't get me wrong; 0.126 xG per shot is not an extraordinary average, but it represents a significant improvement for a player that was and still is a trigger-happy shooter who attempts 2.8 shots from outside the box every 90 minutes. 

He can still refine his selection, but an average of 0.55 is enough to lead Serie A in xG per 90 among players with at least 900 minutes played. He is one of just 11 players in the top 5 European leagues to reach that value this season. Iličić has already scored nine goals, three goals shy of his career-best last season.

That’s a little more than three more goals than expected, not a huge overperformance, especially given the historical rhythm at which Atalanta’s offense, which is on pace for a 100+ goals season, is performing. The side have scored 48 goals so far, the highest total achieved by any team at this stage of the season since Fiorentina in 1958–59. He has also almost doubled his touches into the box (from 7.00 to 12.57) and therefore his reputation as a goal-scoring threat.

An analysis of Iličić's creativity reveals the stellar results don't change. The former Palermo and Fiorentina player leads the league in xG assisted per 90, too. And widening the perspective to the European level, only 8 other players in the big 5 equal or exceed Iličić’s output of 0.35 xG assisted. Considering he averages “just” 0.28 assist per 90, he has recorded fewer assists than expected so far.

The Slovenian is top of the league in open play key passes, creating at least 0.54 more chances on average than any other player in Serie A (his teammate Papu Goméz is second with 2.25). Thomas Müller is the only player in Europe to average more open play key passes (3.04 per 90) than Iličić. 

His passing happens where it matters, and it does so at an exceptional rate. Iličić leads the league in passes inside the box (and is one of just 8 players in the big 5 averaging at least 1 pass inside the box per 90) and his 2.42 open play passes into the box per 90 are good enough to make the top 15 across European leagues.

Iličić’s stats surely benefit from playing for a crazily good offensive team, but on the other hand, Gasperini’s scoring machine’s performances are also dependent on him. Atalanta average a league-best 1.76 xG per 90, while Iličić’s contribution, measured in terms of xG chain (the xG of possessions a player is involved in starting from open play) is 1.55. This alone accounts for how important the attacker is for his team’s offensive developments.

Successful dribbles are basically the only statistic where “Grandma” Josip didn’t improve in comparison to last season. He has always been a high-risk, high-reward decision-maker, a trait reflected by a success rate of 59%. Still, he completes 3.35 dribbles, which is enough for third-best in the league. 

Combine his high volume of shots with his high volume of dribbles, and you get a very exclusive group. Messi is the only other player to top five shots and three dribbles.  This list summarizes how Iličić is playing by presenting the main per 90 underlying stats and revealing his rank in the 2019–20 season.

  • 1.12 Scoring contribution (1st)
  • 5.03 Shots (2nd)
  • 0.84 Non-penalty Goals (1st)
  • 0.55 Non-penalty xG (1st)
  • 0.28 Assist (14th)
  • 2.79 Open-play key passes (1st)
  • 0.35 xA 1st (1st
  • 1.01 Passes inside the box (1st)
  • 2.42 Passes into the box (5th)
  • 1.09 xG Build up (2nd)
  • 1.55 xG Chain (1st)
  • 8.38 Deep progressions (10th)
  • 54.36 Carries (10th)

Do I need to write that Josip Iličić is currently the best player in Serie A? Well, if that's not enough, here's a nice little bonus. According to his data biography Messi has never finished a season averaging 5 shots, 3 successful dribbles and 2.5 open play key passes. Iličić is currently averaging 5.03 shots, 3.35 successful dribbles and 2.79 open play key passes. Not too shabby.