Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Dear Premier League footballer,
It’s the time of year when you need to select your choice for PFA Player of the Year. But you’re stuck. You know who the frontrunners are (according to SkyBet), but you just can’t differentiate between their skillsets. You probably don’t usually rely on analytics too much in your decision-making process, instead preferring the eye test and gut instinct. But maybe you’re just not sure this year, and you’re willing to try something new. Allow us to give you a stats overview of the cases for and against the current frontrunners.
The bookmakers’ favourite for the award clearly has some things going for him.
He leads Liverpool in non-penalty goals and assists this season. Player of the year awards aren’t doled out on the basis of average performance, but he leads Liverpool per 90 minutes as well. And he’s doing this without a huge overperformance of expected goals. Here at StatsBomb, we often make fun of players who've sent in too many punts from long range, so let’s be clear that this is what very good shot selection looks like for a wide forward. There’s almost no fat.
The case for Mané is pretty straightforward. Liverpool are almost certainly the title winners, and Mané is their best attacker in goals and assists. But surely there are arguments to be made; for example, while he might be top at Liverpool, he is not the most explosive scorer in the league (we’ll get to him). And the argument that you, Premier League footballer, might make is that Liverpool are not about individuals, but the collective. In which case, many are arguing for…
The player that embodies Liverpool's team spirit. And my, what a difference a few months can make in the numbers. Jordan Henderson started the season on the right side of Liverpool’s midfield three, with Fabinho in the deeper role. His performances were well short of his best. Henderson interpreted the number eight role as one in which he would get high up the pitch, but then lacked the athleticism to recover from those positions. The numbers speak for themselves.
Then injury struck. Fabinho picked up a knock near the end of November that saw Henderson return to the deeper role. He’s looked better than ever since, growing into more and more of an orchestrator for the side. Liverpool’s deepest midfielder is, strangely, the one given the greatest licence for expansive passing, and Henderson has utilised that well.
But the case people are making for Henderson isn’t really about this so much as soft factors, particularly leadership qualities. And you, Premier League footballer, probably have a sense of this that can't be shown through sats. Really, the only thing that could seriously dent Henderson’s credentials is if his injury lasts longer than the reported three weeks.
Kevin De Bruyne
If he doesn’t win it this year, you can sense it becoming one of those obscure bits of trivia everyone’s surprised by. “Wait, Kevin De Bruyne NEVER won Player of the Year!?”
De Bruyne leads the Premier League in non-penalty goals and assists with 23. Fifteen of those have been assists, meaning he needs five more to equal Thierry Henry’s record in that department. But even if he doesn’t, we’re talking about some playmaker. Best in the league in total xG assisted (nearly double that of second-placed Riyad Mahrez). Best in the league in total open play passes into the box. Best in the league in total deep progressions. If a player dominates the scoring metrics like this, there should be little doubt to his being the frontrunner. The main case for De Bruyne is that if you think creating is as important as scoring, he should be your man.
Virgil van Dijk
Well, he won it last year when Liverpool didn’t win the league, and with the Reds actually about to get over the line this time, why not again?
In truth there isn’t a great statistical case for the Netherlands captain. Liverpool look a worse side defensively than their numbers showed last year. Their xG conceded per game has risen (0.95, up from 0.77). Liverpool have relied on Alisson more than ever this year. Statistically, analysing centre backs is an infamous minefield, so it’s hard to point to a number and say “This is why Van Dijk is good”. Defending is a collective art, and individuals often have such different responsibilities that it’s hard to assign individual credit or blame. Purely to the eye, it looks like Van Dijk was a little better last year, when Liverpool sat ever so slightly deeper and he could afford to be a little less aggressive. In the understandable desire to praise Liverpool, it feels like Van Dijk would be more a pick by default than on merit.
He’s a shoo-in for the Young Player of the Year award, but can he take both?
Alexander-Arnold plays such an unusual role that the radar doesn’t really do him justice. Last season, he set the record for Premier League assists from a “defender” with 12, and this year he’s already equalled that number. His underlying performance is better, too, with 0.30 xG assisted per 90, building on last campaign’s 0.22. If you want to see how much he’s doing things beyond expected from a normal full back, here are all his crossfield passes.
The case for Alexander-Arnold is that he’s redefining his position in a way no other Premier League player is. Of course, you can take the view that positions are social constructs and this is irrelevant to judging his abilities as a footballer, but he’s certainly in contention.
Another one whose season can be broken into two parts. Salah legitimately looked to be in a slump at the start of this season. As Joel Wertheimer wrote for StatsBomb back in October, “He does look somewhat less explosive than he did the last couple years, not turning the corner in the box with the same gusto”.
But after that? He caught fire. Since late October, he leads the Premier League in xG plus xG assisted.
Salah likely suffers in the standings due to his 2017–18 breakout season. He holds practically every individual award for a season he’s unlikely to ever outdo. But he really is playing very well at the moment. Mané’s improvement has seen the side become a little more balanced between both flanks than in past years, when the side was overwhelmingly tilted towards the former Roma player, but that’s not a reflection on his performance.
A Proposed StatsBomb Wildcard: Sergio Agüero
Surely the best player ever to play in the Premier League and not win the individual award. Sergio Agüero has missed long stretches of this season and still sits only one goal behind Jamie Vardy and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the Golden Boot race. He has more non-penalty goals and assists per 90 than anyone in the league.
If Agüero is able to stay fit between now and the end of the season, there will be a real case to be made to crown him the year’s outstanding performer. Of course, you, Premier League footballer, have to decide before then. But with Agüero expected to leave Manchester City in 2021, time is running out for him to win the award.
Stats of Interest
You know who’s been really good since the start of 2020? Like, one of the best players in the league good? Dominic Calvert Lewin.
Back in November, I mentioned here that Jamie Vardy’s finishing seemed out of this world good and almost certain not to continue. And not to brag, but since then, well…
When you think of high pressing teams in England, your mind probably doesn’t go straight to Burnley. But StatsBomb’s pressure data currently has them with the third highest defensive distance in the Premier League. They continue to be fairly unique in their style.