What I really like about NBA analytics is that you can use statistics to try to rank, in a more or less unbiased manner, the 5 to 10 best players in the league. Most reasonable people would likely agree with those rankings. It's a personal concern of mine that we can't do the same with football, where defensive and offensive roles are split because of the different nature of the game roles as well as the varying reliability of offensive and defensive statistics. Nevertheless, I often find myself wondering who the best players in Serie A are. Selecting the best offensive players is an easier bet, as individual attacking numbers can provide the analytics to support the top 10. Obviously, like any ranking of this kind, this is a subjective selection, but I hope you can agree with me in principle. I've been wanting to do this for some time, and since we're heading into the decisive part of the season the time seemed right. Before presenting my choices, I'd like to share the simple criteria and assumptions I considered:
- This list is based solely off of what’s happened this season
- Players are in no particular order. You'll find the choices that seemed most obvious at the beginning, but being ranked fourth or ninth won't make much difference.
- The best players play in the best teams; as such, the list features many players from the league’s top 5 teams.
- I considered players who played at least 60% of total minutes, or at least 1080 minutes. This criterion excludes credible candidates like Arkadiusz Milik or Luis Muriel.
- The best offensive players perform above average and so tend to overperform their expected goals and/or expected goals assisted. However, as we're only at mid-season, the samples are relatively small, and variance can play a relevant role in individual performance. Therefore, to take into account both these considerations, I measured over/under performance as the difference between players' actual scoring contribution and expected scoring contribution and excluded every player with a value smaller than -0.10. This didn't really rule out any of the players I had in mind, but it was still a relevant aspect.
With these factors in mind, I'll present five players today and five on Monday. Enjoy!
Josip Iličić, Atalanta
I wrote about Iličić in my last column, and I can confirm it now: Josip Iličić is perhaps the best player in Serie A and so he must be the first player to be featured in this list. The Slovenian leads one of the most productive offensive units in league history and, together with current top goal scorer Ciro Immobile, is the only player in the league with a scoring contribution above 1.00. He tops, or is at least in the top five, of nearly all Serie A individual offensive leaderboards. I'm still amazed that he’s over the 95th percentile in xG (97th), shots (99th), touches in the box (99th), open play xG assisted (97th), fouls won (96th) and in the 90th percentile in dribbles in the attacking midfielder template. Although Atalanta have only collected one point in the last two games, he scored another fantastic backheel goal, even if it didn't help his team get the better of SPAL. Messi is the undisputed god of football, but Iličić is the lazy and unconscious demigod of Serie A.
Ciro Immobile, Lazio
I still have Higuaín's hat-trick against Frosinone stuck in my head, particularly that incredible overhead goal that was the then-Napoli striker's 36th goal in 35 games, breaking a 66-year-old record. It was May 2016 and I honestly didn't expect to see another Serie A striker capable of breaking that record. Or at least I didn't expect to see one so soon. Ciro Immobile is making me reconsider. After featuring in 19 of Lazio's 20 games, the striker has scored 23 goals. Making a fairly simple calculation to forecast his scoring average in the remaining matches, Immobile could close his -season with as many as 44 goals. He is, therefore, another no-brainer for this list. Obviously, the fact that he scored 9 out of 10 penalties attempted inflates his scoring average and raises concrete doubts as to his real chances of breaking the record, yet Iličić (0.81) is the only player to have a higher non-penalty goals average (0.76) than Immobile. So far Immobile has been a relentless finisher, so much so that he has a non-penalty goals/xG ratio of 1.71, an extraordinary number that will be difficult to keep throughout the season. Yet one neglected aspect of his game this season has been his creative contribution. Immobile served 5 assists to his teammates; among Serie A strikers only Higuaín (0.26) averages more open play xG assisted per 90 (0.21). Immobile is having a career season and could easily beat his record of goals in one season (28). Italy fans will want to see him maintain those numbers going into 2020, as Italy will play all its Euro group stage games in his home stadium, the Olimpico.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus
When in early December I provocatively asked on Twitter whether Cristiano Ronaldo was one of the top 10 players in Serie A, I had more than a few doubts about his status. He had just scored his sixth goal of the season, a penalty against Sassuolo, but he didn't seem to be as sharp as he was in his younger days, or even his younger older days. CR7 had scored less than his expected goals would have made you think until then and above all, he appeared to be limited by some physical issuess, which is exactly the problem you'd expect with a player who will turn 35 in less than two weeks. Any doubts were swept away by his performance in the next 6 league games, in which he scored 10 goals in total and confirmed once again that he is part of that small group of athletes able to remain at the very top even when their ID card seems to recommend thinking about retirement. Actually right now he seems to be in the better shape he has ever been since he arrived at Juventus in the summer of 2018. With the Champions League just around the corner, he hit his peak of fitness at just the right time. Maurizio Sarri had said he wanted to help Cristiano break new records and so he completely freed him from any defensive responsibility. Ronaldo is 5th in the league in non-penalty goals (0.62 per 90) yet he is practically non-existent when Juventus doesn't have the ball, to the point of being in the 1st percentile in pressure regains and eventually in the 0th percentile in pressures. In actual fact, the Juventus no. 7 is a luxury that few teams in the world can afford in modern football, but this is the tax to pay to enable him to still be one of the deadliest strikers in Europe today.
Romelu Lukaku, Inter
Antonio Conte wanted Lukaku at all costs, and the Belgian couldn't wait to make himself available. It took over €65 million, the highest amount ever paid by Inter, to snatch him from Manchester United, but the forward immediately established himself as one of the best strikers in Serie A, silencing those who had criticized his purchase and probably causing more than a few regrets to Ole Gunnar Solskjær, whose attack is shorthanded and underwhelming in his absence. After playing every match so far —19 out of 20 from the first minute — Lukaku has scored as much as Ronaldo if we exclude penalties (11 non-penalty goals). He also shares with Ronaldo the number of touches in the penalty area and the very poor contribution to team pressing. Nevertheless, he has been integral to Inter's success so far, and it will likely be he that deserves the credit should his team keep Juventus away from the scudetto. Luis Alberto, Lazio Lazio and Inter are the only teams capable of threatening Juventus' dominance, and Lazio are still the only team in Europe to have beaten the Bianconeri this season, and to have done so twice, in the league and in the Italian Super Cup. If Immobile dominates the top-scorer rankings, Luis Alberto is the best in Serie A at providing assists (9) and has accumulated the most xG assisted (5.49). Together they are the two most important players on Simone Inzaghi's team. Since he arrived at Lazio from Liverpool, the growth of the Spaniard has been exponential. Inzaghi tailored the no. 8 role for him, from which he manages much of the ball progression and the chance creations for his team. There are few players in Europe who have his Zidanesque touch and who can pass like him, finding openings even where there are none. His through-balls are a sight to behold, and I'd go so far as to say that if tomorrow the alien race in Space Jam returned to Earth to challenge the Looney Tunes to footgolf instead of basketball, Bugs Bunny would probably knock on Luis Alberto's door. We'll be back on Monday with the final five players on the list.