I left off yesterday promising to do statistical shopping for players with profiles like Andrea Pirlo and Steven Gerrard. I did this because Joe Allen – yes, that Joe Allen – actually profiles similarly to Sergio Busquets and is already on the Liverpool roster.
This isn’t to say that Joe Allen is as good as Busquets. He probably isn’t. But when he plays a football match in the English Premier League, the stat machine spits out numbers shaped like Busquets, almost as if it were a statistical Madame Tussaud’s.
It’s unlikely that they need a second Busquets at Anfield, but another Andrea Pirlo is always welcome, so that's what we're shopping for today.
As noted yesterday, it’s harder to find players in the Pirlo mould than the Busquets one. Aside from Gerrard, the tight filter on Pirlo’s key performance indicators only left me with six other players of interest across the big five European leagues. Two of those are definitely too old (Guti, Pizarro), a couple are definitely not moving (Arteta, Modric), and the other two we will talk about in a minute.
First, some rules.
1) We are searching for players 28 or under. You can get away with having a slightly older limit here because this role takes a bit less of a physical beating than forwards and the like, and the age curve for midfielders runs longer. This role is a mix of thoughtful as well as physical.
2) We are shopping for Liverpool. Despite my #secretfan status of this team and their approach, they would be unable to lure first team starters away from huge clubs. We’re shooting for realistic midseason targets here, so not ones that cost £40M or play for Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. We’ll save that sort of shopping for the summer time.
One of the things that makes the shoes of Pirlo and Gerrard so hard to fill is that they are good at almost everything. We are shopping for players who can tackle, have a high passing accuracy, hit accurate long balls regularly, and still have the ability to rack up key passes (or in layman’s terms, to play passes that put their teammates in good shooting positions). Regardless of potential, there are very few players that actually do this.
To help add to the talent pool, I loosened the key pass requirement a little. The players below still post very good numbers, but are not quite as good on the offensive end as Pirlo.
One filter I did not decrease is the long pass stat. The reason for this comes from how Liverpool play. You really want a long passer to distribute the ball quickly to the wings, where Sturridge, Suarez, and Sterling will likely be waiting. Fast transitions are a huge deal for LFC now, and a midfield general who could even improve that area over current personnel is a requirement.
Target Number 1) Ivan Rakitic
I go on and on about needing a Pirlo-type player and the first target on the list is an attacking midfielder with 8 goals and 6 assists? Snake oil!
Trust me, there’s a point to this. For starters, go to Rakitic’s WhoScored page and look at the positions. He doesn’t always play as an attacking mid for Sevilla this year. Additionally, Rakitic was one of only two players to fully match the similarity score test for his 2011-12 season, before I loosened the filters. He is perfectly capable of playing deeper in the midfield and still producing fantastic numbers.
Only 25, Rakitic is extremely versatile and capable of producing all across the midfield. This is incredibly useful for Liverpool, as it would let him fill in for a number of different, more limited midfield players currently on the squad.
Coutinho is out and you need someone to play in the hole? Call the Rac Attack! Stevie G is knackered and in need of a rest? Call the Rac Attack! Henderson takes a knock and you need a player who can run and do basically everything in midfield? Rac! Attack!
Most people likely view his attacking midfield production as the thing that makes Rakitic most valuable. My perspective is, due to the paucity of players capable of playing a deeper playmaking position at his exceptional level, that will be Rakitic’s most useful long-term role for almost any buying club.
Verdict: Rakitic is having another great season, but it’s almost certainly time for him to move to a bigger club than Sevilla, either now or in the summer. He’ll also only have a year left on his contract in June, and so all of the leverage will be with the player.
The actual cost will be an interesting one – most clubs in Spain are known to have money problems, and good attacking midfielders aren’t that hard to find in Europe. Deeper lying mids, however, are much rarer and more expensive. Given the contract situation, f he gets valued like an attacking mid, then £13-16M probably still makes sense. In reality, I could see him still having a lot of value even beyond £25M.
Target Number 2) Luca Cigarini
This past summer when I was writing about interesting players under the radar, I discovered Cigarini and described him as a “poor man’s Andrea Pirlo.” That was back before I had multiple seasons of data, and also before I understood just how rare players who produce like Andrea Pirlo actually are. “Poor man’s” doesn’t seem nearly as apt now that I’ve done the research.
This is a player who is so underrated, the first highlight video for him on Youtube is six years old!
Cigarini is the other guy who matched the similarity scores before the filter was loosened, and he has three seasons so far of Pirloesque production. Of the players we are looking at, he also generally has the highest tackling numbers, but his passing accuracy has suffered a bit while playing at a lesser team (Atlanta).
He had an extremely hot start to the season this year and was tied for the league lead in assists with Totti for quite a while, but has hit a dry patch. That said, he’s still tenth in the current WhoScored rankings for SerieA and the only midfielders above him at the moment are Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba.
Directly below him are Kevin Strootman and Miralem Pjanic. Cigarini is for real.
Verdict: Cigarini was allowed to make a permanent move to Atalanta this season, as Napoli decided they were not interested in full ownership of the player. This was baffling to me at the time, and given Napoli’s struggles in central midfield, is even more baffling to me now. Any team looking for a deep-lying midfielder that can disrupt opponent attacks as well as make great attacking passes, should be looking at Cigarini.
TransferMarkt also lists his contract as up in 2015, which means there will only be a year left on it this summer. He’ll be 28 at that point, but as noted above, this is a role where players can still thrive into their early 30s. He’s also probably cheaper than Rakitic (and definitely would have been last summer) because you have to be a crazy football hipster or data geek to care about some random guy who plays for Atalanta.
Target Number 3) Ever Banega
People who pay attention to La Liga know who Ever Banega is. The stories that come with Banega are already legendary, and he’s only 25. According to Sid Lowe, back in 2010 Valencia tried desperately to get rid of Banega, but no one wanted him. Six months later, he was their best player.
Banega is… complicated. He’s also really good at football. Though he moves around the Valencia midfield quite a bit, his best role is probably as a defensive or central midfielder. Back in 2011-12, he put up these numbers in a fairly shortened stint.
The problem is that his defensive stats haven’t even come close to that the last two years. Seeing stats like that drop off after a major injury would give me serious pause in buying a player with such a colourful history. It might be that the stats have dropped off due to a role change, but there’s a statistical red flag right there someone would need to override to make this a buy.
However, there’s another Valencia player who has produced very well this season.
Target Number 3.5) Daniel Parejo
Originally part of the Real Madrid youth system, Parejo first appeared extensively in La Liga for Getafe. Valencia bought him in 2011 for a rumoured 6 million Euros, but seemed to quickly fall out of favour. Still only 24, Parejo has seen quite a bit more playing time in the last two seasons, and this year has put up these stats.
Tasty! Defensive numbers last season were similar, but it’s the key pass numbers that have pushed him into consideration. It’s an open question of whether he can continue this for an entire season, but Parejo is young enough that he’s still improving, and his past production wasn’t far enough removed from this that I’d be worried about a huge drop off.
Verdict: He’s signed until 2016, so there’d be no player leverage for a move, but he’s practically unknown as well, meaning he could go fairly cheap. Valencia signed him for 6M euros or so – a move in the £10M pound range could be possible. It’s a gamble, but not a huge one in my opinion.
Replacing Andrea Pirlo or Steven Gerrard is hard.
Out of 14-15000 midfielder seasons across the Top 5 leagues in Europe since 09-10, we ended up with a single digit number of guys who fit the stats profile.
Statistical production doesn’t provide the final verdict on any player, but they do provide a really good starting point when doing transfer shopping, especially when you have some idea of the production you are trying to replace.
The first step is finding interesting targets.
The second step is spending an awful lot of time getting to know those players on film, and learning whether they are good risks or not.
If you are looking for the full package of production and also looking for players who can be fixtures in a midfield for the next five years, I’d make a run at the players listed above.
However, there are other young players I would definitely take a closer look at if you want to loosen your offensive creation requirement. Guys like Udinese’s Allan (23) or Feyenoord’s Jordie Clasie(22) should be intriguing options for the right team.
But for Liverpool - right now - these would be the ones.
Data This is the list of potentials I looked at when compiling this piece.
(Click for a larger version)
Notice Vidal putting up jawdropping defensive numbers at Leverkusen at age 23, on his way to becoming one of the most complete midfielders in the world. Eternally underrated Borja Valero is there (now at Fiorentina), as is Bayern’s Tony Kroos (all of 22 that season). Then you hit the current season with Parejo, Fran Rico (no clue), Moutinho, Cigarini (again), and PSV’s Stijn Schaars(30) highlighted. I would place a fairly large wager that Moutinho has looked this good for years, but there isn’t any Portugal data in the public sphere to prove it.
P90 - Total minutes played in a season divided by 90.
NPG - Non-Penalty Goals
NPG90 - Non-Penalty Goals Per90
ShAcc - Shooting Accuracy (multiply by 100 to get the percent)
Sh90 - Shots per 90
SOT90 - Shots on Target per 90
GConv - Goal conversion rate. (Multiply by 100 to get the percent)
A90 - Assists per 90
GA90 - Non-Penalty Goals + Assists per 90.
A better measure of overall scoring contribution.
Drib90 - Successful dribbles per90
KP90 - Key Pass per 90
TB90 - Throughballs per 90
Pass% - Passing percentage.
Tack90 - Tackles per 90
Int90 - Interceptions per 90
Note for Mike Goodman and Nikos Overheul: Have you stopped trying to break your own arms by patting yourselves on the back about Rakitic yet?