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Who Really is England’s Best Midfielder?

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With yet another international break beckoning, debate will likely hot up again with regard to Gareth Southgate’s squad – in particular Aston Villa star Jack Grealish. In the last set of internationals, Grealish was used sparingly by the England boss, starting only one of the three fixtures, in a man of the match performance against Wales. However, this performance earned him nothing as he failed to start in either of the following two games against Belgium and Denmark, as Southgate instead elected to start Mason Mount in the position Grealish would usually feature in both other games.

The decision taken by Southgate sparked a debate amongst football fans on Twitter, with many feeling Grealish was hard done by. I used stats* to have a look at the potential players who could start in England’s more advanced midfield position, and to find out how they compare. For each stat in which an individual player excels (has better stats than the four others) they will gain points, between 0 and 4 with 4 being the best, that will be put into a final table.

The players I’ll be investigating have all been given previous appearances in Southgate’s England side, and all continue to be in contention for the advanced midfield role. Chelsea’s Mason Mount, Manchester City’s Phil Foden, Leicester City’s James Maddison, and Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli are the four players in contention with Aston Villa’s club captain for the same spot in the side.

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Ball Retention

One thing a midfielder in this position has to be able to do is carry the ball. They become the link between midfield and attack, and occasionally drop deeper to also become the link from defence to midfield. Ball progression and possession retention stats help to give an idea of the player’s ability to help the side keep possession and link or continue the play.

In the absence of this type of player, a side may struggle to keep the ball well in positive areas, which usually leads to issues with chance creation. The stat can, however, be distorted. For example, a player that attempts more dribbles is likely to lose the ball more than one who simply choses to move the ball on to their teammates.

Player NameJack GrealishMason MountPhil FodenJames MaddisonDele Alli
Possession Lost p/9016.414.213.512.713.7
Take-Ons p/903.01.42.81.10.0
Successful Take-Ons %66.750.060.066.70.0

As this table shows, Jack Grealish gave possession away more than any other selected player, with his 16.4 posession losses per game, 2.2 losses more than the next worse in Mason Mount. It comes as no surprise that Grealish loses the ball more, as his tricky style of play sees him attempt riskier ball progression, displaying the highest take-ons p/90 stat of the selected players. James Maddison has an impressive 12.7, which is 3.7 lower than Grealish, displaying his ability to keep possession much better and more effectively than his four rivals, although his take-ons per 90 is significantly lower.

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The possession lost stat, however, may not be the key as a creative link doesn’t have the primary job of retaining possession in the team, and for Southgate this aspect of possession football can come from the deeper lying midfielders – the likes of Harry Winks, Jordan Henderson, and Declan Rice.

Goal Scoring

In this investigation I used non-penalty goals (NPG), shots per90, and shot accuracy to display the goalscoring threat held by these advanced midfield players. As with most players, goals and assists define the attacking efficiency and purpose of their game. Clearly, the more goals they score, the more productive they are in helping their team to win games, and the more of a threat they can be to opposition.

Player NameJack GrealishMason MountPhil FodenJames MaddisonDele Alli
xGp900.430.110.360.100.33
NPG4.001.002.001.000.00
NPG/900.700.200.500.600.00
Shots p/901.701.801.902.202.80
Shot Accuracy %70.0055.6062.5025.0050.00

Jack Grealish comes out on top this time, with a very impressive 0.7 goals per 90 minutes, massively outperforming his xG/90 of 0.43, and a fantastic shot accuracy of 70%. Four of the five players also outperform their xG/90, which is a testament to the quality finishing on show. At the other end of the spectrum, Dele Alli flatters to deceive, displaying the lowest NPG of the group having not scored a single goal so far this season, who is the only player to underperform his xG/90, while also having taken the most shots per 90 with 2.8 – proving his production in the final third is some way off his competitors, and lending to the fact that Gareth Southgate chose to exclude him from his latest squad.

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James Maddison and Mason Mount each shine with their shooting from distance, with their respective one goal each this season coming from outside the area, while Foden and Grealish appear more lethal from close range, with both of Foden’s tally, and 3/4 of Grealish’s coming from within the area.

Passing Ability

As I mentioned before, one key metric of an advanced midfielder’s game is the number of assists they get. This can be combined with a number of other stats including chances created, passing accuracy percentage, and forward passes, to build up an idea of the creativity of a player. This is probably the most important aspect of the game from a player in this role, ability to keep the game going, move the ball into attacking areas, and feed the strikers with ample opportunities.

Player NameJack GrealishMason MountPhil FodenJames MadissonDele Alli
Assists p/900.700.200.000.000.00
xA/900.480.230.050.060.05
Chances Created p/902.902.200.701.101.40
Passing Accuracy %79.5385.1186.1390.3682.05
Crossing Accuracy %25.0038.460.0050.000.00
Forward Passes p/9011.9015.008.006.9013.70

Grealish leads the way yet again when it comes to assists, outperforming his xA/90 by 0.22, compared to the other players who all meet their respective xA/90s. Grealish, however, drops off when it comes to all round passing stats, as he has the lowest passing accuracy of the group, and the third highest crossing accuracy. James Maddison is the most efficient passer, with both the highest pass and cross accuracy, but most of his work seems to be away from the penalty area, as displayed by his lack of assists.

Other Underlying Stats

There are other roles of midfielders and influence they can have which fails to fall into one of our previous categories, these will be tallied here and accounted for in the final verdict. These include on the ball influence such as winning duels.

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Player NamesJack GrealishMason MountPhil FodenJames MaddisonDele Alli
Touches p/9061.970.259.665.368.2
Fouls Won p/904.21.40.73.72.8
Penalties Won1.00.00.01.00.0
Aerial Duel Success %78.650.045.50.033.3
Ground Duel Success %57.052.950.047.680.0

More touches p/90 displays how much the player is able to get on the ball and dictate the game, touches are counted when a player makes a meaningful action with the ball, for example an attempted pass, shot, or dribble – this is an aspect of the game in which Mason Mount excels. Winning fouls and penalties can be crucial for dragging teams up the pitch and providing an extra edge in set piece situations. Jack Grealish also wins the vast majority of his aerial duels which is massively impressive for a player of his stature and in his position – but may also be a result of not challenging for as many duels as other players. This is key as it can ease pressure on the back line and keep the team dominant on the ball and impose themselves on the pitch.

Final Verdict

Each player is awarded points for each individual stat in which they excel. The best of that stat will earn four points, and the worst will earn zero. Any stat which is zero, will also earn no points. These are then added up to see who, statistically, is England’s best advanced midfielder.

Player NameJack GrealishMason MountPhil FodenJames MaddisonDele Alli
Ball Retention86652
Goal Scoring1671388
Passing Ability16185117
Underlying Stats16103910
Total Points5641273327

So our investigation shows that in order of best to worst, Southgate’s best options are:

  1. Jack Grealish – 56 Points – The Aston Villa star takes the victory here, by a whopping 15 points. With the highest points total in ball retention, goal scoring, and in the underlying stats category, Grealish really does walk away with this investigation. It begs the question, what does he have to do to earn a start under Southgate?
  2. Mason Mount – 41 Points – The latest gem out of Chelsea’s academy production line, Mason Mount has been a favourite of both his club manager Frank Lampard and on the international stage for Southgate’s England. Mount excelled in passing ability stats and was second best behind Grealish for the majority of the other tested statistics.
  3. James Maddison – 33 Points – Leicester’s set piece master is third on the list, and didn’t stand out as the best in any of the grouped stats, however impressed with regard to passing ability and in the specific stats within the group such as his passing and crossing accuracy.
  4. Phil Foden/Dele Alli – 27 Points – A somewhat disappointing display from each of these players, which justifies Southgate’s sparing use of the two in recent times. Dele Alli in particular was dropped from the squad as England faced Wales, Belgium, and Denmark due to “footballing reasons” and it appears Southgate was right to do so. Foden’s stats come as somewhat of a surprise due to his increased involvement in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side, but nonetheless are very uninspiring.
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As much as these stats are accurate and display who has been the most influential player in their position, there has to be some allowance made due to small sample size of the current season, as we are only six/seven games in. However, Southgate has always maintained that players will be selected based on their form and performances, rather than any previous reputation.

*All stats are taken from the current 2020/21 season, and are provided via Squawka, Opta, and Understat, up to date to 02/11/2020.

Written By: Callum O’Connell Sub-edited By: Henry Jennings

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