Hello one and all, and welcome to the 2018/19 Premier League All-Stats XI!
(To be clear, this is a pun on ‘All-Stars’. Every good pun needs an explanation attached, right?).
I recently acquired access to a treasure trove of Opta stats for the Premier League. Needless to say, I’ve spent a silly amount of time since then bustling through them, sniffing around everything from your run-of-the-mill xG and xA to aerial duel win percentage, minutes per chance created, and total touches in the final third. Eventually, I figured that I should probably make a column out of it all.
Generally speaking, the names you’d expect to dominate each category do indeed dominate. Van Dijk’s defensive metrics are off the charts, Salah is an incredibly high-usage attacking threat, and Aubameyang is an ultra-efficient killer in the box.
Just briefly, here are a few quick stats to demonstrate said dominance:
- Van Dijk has committed to 34 one-on-one tackles this season. He’s won 33 of them. In 2,755 minutes of Premier League football, one person has gotten by him with the ball. He’s also won 77% of his aerial duels, second only to Harry Maguire of players to play over 2,000 minutes.
- Salah has taken the most shots of any non-striker this season, with 104. Pogba is second, with 87, good for a 17-shot difference. Salah’s shots have hit the target only 48.1% of the time, which is nearly 6% less than Raheem Sterling, and a full 12% less than Anthony Martial.
- Unsurprisingly, Salah leads all non-strikers in xG, with 17.13… and he’s scored 17 goals. By contrast, his teammate Sadio Mane has an xG of 11.52, and has also scored 17. Mane has outperformed his xG by 0.7 more than any other non-striker this season.
- Aubameyang has had 181 fewer touches in the final third than Sergio Aguero. He trails Aguero by only one goal (on 20 fewer shots) and two assists, and has created two more chances.
Of course, we already know those players are great, and they get plenty of attention. In this article, I want to show love to some of the most underrated players in the Premier League.
To that end, I’ve picked a starting XI of stats-friendly, underappreciated all-stars. Only one is from a top six club, only two are over the age of 30, only two cost £20 million or more, and five of the 11 are English.
The All-Stats XI will be lining up in a 3-5-2 with attacking full-backs:
(You love those kits, don’t you?)
A few quick notes:
- Percentages have been rounded up or down to the nearest integer
- Players must have played 2,000 minutes to qualify – roughly equivalent to 22 full games out of the 31 to have taken place so far
- Unless stated otherwise, this applies to players compared to my selections too. I.e. if I say “Player X is third in the league in shot conversion percentage”, this means “…compared to other players with at least 2,000 minutes”
- Transfermarkt valuations are in euros. Currently €1 = £0.86
Without any further Freddy Adu, let’s get started!
Lukasz Fabianski, West Ham
Signed From: Swansea City, £7 million
Transfermarkt Value: €4.5 million
Pound-for-pound, considering the teammates in front of him, Fabianski has been the best keeper in the Premier League this season.
Poor Lukasz has faced by far the most shots on target of any keeper, with 160 in 31 games. For reference, De Gea has faced 134, Leno has faced 105, and Ederson has faced a mere 68. He’s saved a whopping 121 of those, with his 74.4% save percentage 3rd behind Alisson and Lloris.
A few other keepers from mid-table-and-below clubs have had good seasons too, such as Rui Patricio and Ben Foster. Again though, we must take into account some of the dross Fabianski’s had in front of him, and the gung-ho tactics his manager is renowned for. With these factors considered, Fab’s my pick.
Honourable Mention: Neil Etheridge, Cardiff.
—A Quick Aside—
Briefly, on a semi-related note… has any club had a higher volume of quality goalkeepers passing in and out in recent years than Arsenal? I mean, since the bizarre three-year commitment to Manuel Almunia, admittedly.
For reference, their last five starting goalkeepers have been:
- Bernd Leno – very good
- Petr Cech – 1st or 2nd best keeper of the Premier League era
- David Ospina – starting for Napoli and Colombia
- Wojciech Szczesny – starting for Juventus and Poland
- Lukasz Fabianski – arguably the best keeper in the league this season
While Arsenal are great at recruiting keepers, however, they’re terrible at getting money for them. Fabianski left on a free; Szczesny – the anointed successor to Gigi Buffon – went for a mere €12.2m; Ospina has a €4m option; and Cech’s retiring after this season.
All pretty interesting, no?
Ben Chilwell, Leicester City
Signed From: Academy
Transfermarkt Value: €22.5 million
#EnglishProspect Ben Chilwell is one of several homegrown youths on this list who look like they might actually live up to the hype, and he’s quickly become an integral part of Leicester’s strong, young core.
Based on his attacking numbers alone, Chilwell is already as big of a threat as the most famous full-backs in the league. He’s taken 1,301 touches in the opposition half this season, behind only Andy Robertson, Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso. He’s attempted the 2nd-most take-ons, and has won 57% of those. For reference, Danny Rose has won 50% of his, Robertson 56%, and Alonso 55%. He’s also created the 4th-most chances of any defender.
(It’s worth noting that Chilwell’s pal on the opposite flank, the 25 year old Ricardo Pereira, also ranks highly in these lists).
As you’d expect from a 22 year old, Chilwell is far from being the finished article. He’s not as accomplished on the defensive end as he is going forward, and particularly needs to work on his one-on-one defending. He’s won only 59% of his tackles this season, which is miles behind the likes of Azpilicueta (79%), Robertson (72%) and teammate Pereira (67%).
His crossing has also been mediocre. While he’s put in the 7th-most crosses of all defenders, he’s only completed 16% of those. That’s not awful – Robertson is down at 14%, for example, and Alonso’s at 11% – but it’s certainly something to work on.
That said, considering his age, and the fact that this is only his second season as a starter, I’m giving Chilwell the benefit of the doubt. One thing’s for sure – he’s got a huge amount of potential. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that Man City are reportedly going after him with everything they’ve got (…which is a lot):
— Foxes of Leicester (@FoxesofLCFC) March 20, 2019
Honourable Mention: Lucas Digne, Everton.
Sol Bamba, Cardiff
Signed From: Free Agent
Transfermarkt Value: €900k
Bamba’s recent season-ending knee injury was particularly disappointing for me, considering he’d been one of my precious few Fantasy Premier League heroes of recent weeks. That said… the real-life implications are probably more important. Get well soon, Sol.
Big Bamba might have been part of the league’s 3rd-worst defence, but it sure as hell wasn’t his fault. He’s got the 6th-highest aerial duel win percentage of all defenders this year, at 68%, and has won the 5th-most tackles in the leauge. He’s actually made the most interceptions out of any defender, with 82 (a hefty 13 more than Huddersfield’s Zanka), is 4th in blocks, 5th in clearances, and hasn’t made a single error which directly led to a chance.
Cardiff have had by far the least possession in the league this season, averaging a paltry 39.6% per game, meaning their defence has been put under a colossal amount of pressure. Bamba has stood up to the challenge brilliantly. He’s had a bizarre career, coming through the PSG youth academy before stints at Hibs, Leicester and Trabzonspor (to name a few). At the ripe old age of 34 though, he’s proven beyond any doubt that he can bring it at the highest level.
Honourable CB Mentions: Shane Duffy, Brighton. Ben Mee, Burnley. Michael Keane, Everton.
James Tarkowski, Burnley
Signed From: Brentford, £3 million
Transfermarkt Value: €13.5 million
I think Tarkowski is generally still seen as an #EnglishProspect… so I was actually surprised to learn he was 26. He’s already spent a decent chunk of his career working his way up the leagues, first with Oldham in League One, and latterly with Brentford in the Championship.
He might not have the experience of Bamba, but I see a lot of similarities in their 2018/19 seasons. Both play for defences who’ve shipped a ton of goals (59 for Burnley, which is 2nd-worst in the league). Both face a huge amount of pressure due to their manager’s tactics (Burnley have averaged 44% possession, have the 2nd-worst pass completion percentage in the league, and have conceded the most shots per game by far). Both have dealt with trying situations brilliantly.
Tarkowski has been a colossus in the air, winning the 5th-most aerial duels with the 4th-highest success rate. He’s also been solid on the ground, winning 76% of his challenges, leads the league in blocks, is second in clearances, and has only made one error leading to a chance. He’s been a threat on the other end too, winning the 5th-most headers on attacking set pieces, and scoring three goals (tied for 3rd-best among defenders, behind Bamba and Shane Duffy).
I don’t think Tarkowski will ever play for a top six club, despite his Englishness. Mostly, that’s because he simply doesn’t fit the modern game – his 69% pass completion percentage is far below the required standards nowadays. His interception numbers are strikingly low too, considering how little time Burnley spend with the ball. Still, he should have no problem starting in the Premier League for a long time to come.
Declan Rice, West Ham
Signed From: Academy
Transfermarkt Value: €31.5 million
(Yes, yes, I know Rice is playing defensive midfield this season. He’s starting at centre-back for me and moving up into defensive mid when we’re attacking. Don’t worry, I’ve got it all worked out).
Irish English youngster Rice has made a heck of a name for himself in the past couple of seasons. He only made his debut in August 2017, and has already amassed 54 Premier League appearances for the Hammers, with 43 of those being starts. His steadying presence in defensive midfield has been vital for a shaky defensive team.
Rice has completed 86% of his passes this season, which is very good for his age. Most importantly, it also gives my All-Stats XI a way to play out from the back – not the biggest strength of either Bamba or Tarkowski.
He’s been aggressive defensively too, attempting 126 tackles this season and winning 86 of them. Those numbers would place him 2nd and 3rd respectively among defenders, or 5th and 4th among midfielders. Basically, he’s not afraid to get stuck in. Most excitingly, he’s second in the entire league in total recoveries this season (a ‘recovery’ is when a defender regains possession for his team, one way or another, allowing them to begin an attack).
As with Ben Chilwell, we can excuse some of Rice’s shortcomings by his age. He’s okay in the air, but not great, winning 60% of his aerial duels. That’s good enough in midfield (Matic has won 65%, for example, Xhaka has won 57%, and Fernandinho has won 53%), but would need to be improved if he moved back into defence again.
Given his height (6’1), he’s also been surprisingly ineffective from set pieces, having only 8 headed attempts from them all season. Again, that would be fine if he was just a centre-mid, but compared to other people his height – i.e. centre-backs – it’s underwhelming. Of course, he did still manage to tuck this one away nicely:
— West Ham United (@WestHamUtd) January 15, 2019
(Bloody Arsenal defence grumble grumble still can’t defend set pieces after all these years grumble grumble)
While I have a couple of quibbles, Rice is still very young, and has already gained an absolute ton of valuable experience. Ultimately I see him as a Laporte-esque ball playing centre-back. He’s got the body and commitment to battle defensively, his passing is already good, and he’s won 74% of his take-ons this season.
Unfortunately for Hammers fans… it’s highly unlikely they will be able to enjoy the fruits of said development. I’d be pretty surprised if he hadn’t been gobbled up by one of the Big Six four years from now.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Crystal Palace
Signed From: Academy
Transfermarkt Value: €22.5 million
I absolutely love Wan-Bissaka.
This time last year, I’d never heard of him. Now, he’s one of my favourite players in the league. Even if we leave aside some of his ludicrous statistical numbers, I simply love watching him play. He’s lightning-fast, skillful, and dominating his flank seems to be a personal mission in a pleasingly old-school way.
Just look at the aggression and commitment he plays with defensively:
Okay, let’s get to the Premier League statistics. Remember, this guy is 21 years old, and had played all of seven Premier League games coming into this season.
- Opponents have attempted to take on Wan-Bissaka 119 times this season (2nd-most among defenders). He’s won an absolutely stupid 93% of those battles. That’s second in the league after Van Dijk (who’s attempted 85 fewer tackles). Again… 119 tackles attempted, 111 tackles won.
- He’s joint-4th in interceptions, with 60… despite playing right-back. All of the other top-five players are centre-backs… obviously.
- He’s committed zero errors leading to chances. For comparison, Azpilicueta has three, Walker has two, and Trippier has two leading directly to goals.
The big but here, unfortunately, relates to his attacking. Wan-Bissaka’s offensive contribution is essentially non-existent. He certainly gets past defenders well enough, with his 65% taken-on rate – on 69 attempts – comfortably superior to that of Walker, Bellerin, Alonso, Digne, et al.
Unfortunately, nothing happens after he’s got past the defender. He’s created just 11 chances in 27 games, which is a shockingly low number. Alexander-Arnold has created 32 in five fewer games. Deandre Yedlin has created 27 in the same number of appearances. Diogo Dalot has created two more than AWB, in 1,746 fewer minutes. His cross completion percentage – 22% – isn’t actually that bad. The problem is that he hardly ever crosses it, attempting only 46 deliveries all season. 10 starting full-backs – all with comparable appearance numbers to Wan-Bissaka – have put in 100 or more crosses (and only five of those had better success rates).
AWB’s dominance on the defensive end shows that he’s certainly not lacking for confidence. If he can transfer this confidence into the attacking side of his game too, he could easily become the best full-back in the league. Accordingly, the absolutely constant transfer links to the likes of Arsenal (please lord) are entirely unsurprising.
Honourable Mention: Ricardo Pereira, Leicester City.
Wilfred Ndidi, Leicester City
Signed From: Genk, £17 million
Transfermarkt Value: €31.5 million
Another of my favourite players to watch in the Prem. Every time I’ve seen Leicester this season, Ndidi has been the player who most frequently caught my eye. His game is remarkably mature for a 22 year old, and he’s a fantastic athlete:
🔎@Gerry_Taggart took a closer look at Wilfred Ndidi’s performance on the Weekend Review…
— Leicester City (@LCFC) February 20, 2018
Replicating Kante’s production in defensive midfield was obviously impossible… but Leicester gave it a bloody good go with Ndidi, one of the most underrated players in the EPL. Here’s how he ranks in the major defensive Premier League statistics, among all midfielders:
- Tackles Won – 1st
- Aerial Duels Won – 2nd
- Interceptions – 3rd
- Recoveries – 1st
- Clearances – 4th
Not bad, huh?
One of the reasons he ranks so well in these counting stats is that he’s always available. Out of a possible 2,800 minutes this season, Ndidi has played 2,758 (the most of any midfielder). Being able to know that a player is good to go all game, every game, every single week is a dream for any manager.
Ndidi’s attacking metrics are certainly nowhere near as impressive, but that’s not his game. His job is to protect the defence, and threaten whenever possible from dead ball situations (he’s also 1st among qualified midfielders in headers won at set pieces).
With Kante shifted upfield this season, his supersized replacement at Leicester has been the league’s dominant defensive midfielder.
Honourable Mention: Idrissa Gueye, Everton.
Philip Billing, Huddersfield
Signed From: Academy (Previously Esbjerg academy, Denmark)
Transfermarkt Value: €6.3 million
Like Ndidi, the enormous Philip Billing has been a titan in defensive midfield this season.
While his counting stats in the Prem are inferior to the Nigerian’s (he’s played 568 fewer minutes), his percentages for both aerial duels and tackles are better. In fact, he’s been absolutely dominant in the air this season, winning 75% of his 114 aerial duels. Brighton’s Davy Pröpper is a distant 2nd, on 68%. Billing is also 5th in total interceptions, 3rd in blocks, 3rd in headers won at attacking set plays, and has made 0 errors leading to chances or goals all year.
Billing’s attacking contribution is almost non-existent. As with Ndidi, though, that’s not what he’s paid to do. With this pair of giants screening my defence, my aggressive wing-backs and front three are free to wreak havoc on the other end.
Honourable Mention: Luka Milivojevic, Crystal Palace.
James Maddison, Leicester City
Signed From: Norwich City, £20 million
Transfermarkt Value: €27 million
It took me a while to come around to the Mad Dog. Frankly, I thought it was a classic case of #EnglishProspect-induced hysteria. Here’s what I wrote in the Leicester section of my first Premier League power rankings of the season:
James Maddison (not to be confused with James Madison, fourth president of the USA) has gotten all the attention so far. I’m a bit lukewarm on him, and not simply because he’s apparently a world-class prat. He’s got good technique, but the final ball’s not there for him yet, and his set piece deliveries are inconsistent. I know he’s got three goals, but two of those were fluky as anything.
And one week later…
I’m keeping a close eye on Maddison in this game.
— Full 90 Football (@Full90Footie) October 6, 2018
I felt the same way the next few times I watched him, but I have to admit that – at some point over the course of the season – Maddison has flipped the switch, and become vastly more effective. In fact, outside of the Big Six, he’s probably been the best playmaker in the league this season:
- Madison has created more chances than any other player in the Prem, and is 4th in big chances created. While he’s only got 6 assists, his xA is actually 7.33
- He’s completed a solid 81% of his passes in the final third
- He has an outstanding 34% cross completion percentage
- Crucially, considering he’s been entrusted with the keys to the offense, he doesn’t give the ball away. His take-on percentage is a fantastic 74%. For reference, David Silva’s is 64%, Pogba’s is 63%, Bernardo Silva’s is 56%
- He leads the league in successful corners, and is joint-2nd for free kicks scored (2)
I’ve got very few complaints about Maddison’s game now. Considering the way he started the season (in a bad way, from my point of view), he’s made an incredible amount of progress in only a few months. His shooting could use some work (his shot accuracy stands at a mediocre 33%), but – through his creativity – he’s still finding a way to threaten defences consistently. The ceiling for Maddison is absolutely sky-high.
Honourable Mention: Ryan Fraser, Bournemouth.
Raul Jimenez, Wolves
Signed From: Benfica on Loan, €3 million. Buyout clause = €38 million
Transfermarkt Value: €22.5 million
Jimenez’s arrival was one of the lower-key Premier League summer transfers, which isn’t surprising considering he was coming off a spell at Benfica in which he’d averaged less than one goal every four games. He scored only once in his opening four matches for Wolves too, at which point I wrote him off with a “meh”.
Shows what I know.
Since that underwhelming quartet of matches, Jimenez has gotten himself 11 goals and 6 assists. He’s scored against Spurs twice, Chelsea twice, and Everton three times. He’s been the driving force behind Wolves’ FA Cup run too, having scored in all three games he’s started, including against Liverpool and Manchester United.
He’s far from being a complete forward. His shot accuracy is lackluster, and he’s completed a mere 51% of his take-ons. Still, as the assist numbers suggest, he makes up for these deficiencies with a team-oriented approach. He’s 3rd among forwards for chances created, joint-2nd in big chances created, and joint-2nd in assists.
If Jimenez’s buyout fee really is €38 million… I doubt Wolves will stump up for it. That seems a bit steep. He has offered ridiculous value for his €3 million loan fee though, and in cost/production terms, he’s undoubtedly been the Fantasy Premier League MVP this season (not that he’s made one single appearance for my team, Public Emery. Again, shows what I know).
Honourable Mention: Joshua King, Bournemouth.
Roberto Firmino, Liverpool
Signed From: Hoffenheim, £29 million
Transfermarkt Value: €80 million
Boo! You’re breaking your own rules! Booooo!
Settle down there, at the back!
Firmino is the most expensive player on this list by some distance, and plays for the best team, so he’s comfortably the most visible player on this list… but I’d hardly describe him as a ‘superstar’. What he is, though, is underrated.
Firmino got a lot of buzz last season, but I’d say the popular perception is that 2018/19 has been a down year. He certainly isn’t being talked about as much. Perhaps that’s because Mane’s performances in particular have been so eye-catching. Perhaps it’s because Van Dijk has been so spectacular. Perhaps it’s because Firmino has been underwhelming in Europe (2 goals and 0 assists in 6 Champions League games). Perhaps the thrill of Liverpool being involved in a rare genuine title race has overshadowed all of their individual performers somewhat.
In terms of the big numbers, Firmino is actually on course to almost match what he did in the Prem last season. Across 37 appearances in 17/18, he got 15 goals and 7 assists. Across 30 appearances in 18/19, he’s got 11 goals and 5 assists.
The brilliance of Firmino, though, can more easily be seen in his underlying stats, which show what an outstanding creative force he is. He’s 5th among all Premier League forwards in chances created, and 4th in big chances created. Despite nominally being a centre-forward, he’s really Liverpool’s chief playmaker.
Perhaps nothing illustrates how vital he is to Liverpool’s attack more than his involvement numbers. He’s received the most passes of any forward in the final third by a margin of 95, and completed the most passes in the final third by a margin of 97. The distances between him and the second guy – Aguero, in both cases – is just silly.
Considering how much he gets the ball, his possession retention stats might be most important of all. He’s attempted the 5th-most take-ons of any forward this season, and won a stupendously good 71% of them. For comparison, Aguero has won 56%, Zaha 51%, Kane 51%, and Aubameyang 47%. His Mins/xA (minutes per expected assist) – another stat in which he leads all forwards – is 107 minutes lower than the guy in 2nd-place, Zaha.
Mane and Salah are both tied for 2nd-top scorer in the league, with 17 goals apiece… but they’d be nowhere near that mark if it wasn’t for Firmino. Liverpool might have based this title run on their defence, but let’s not forget that they have the 2nd-best attack in the league too. Firmino is the most important piece of Liverpool’s attacking unit, and – after Van Dijk – might be their most important player overall.
One thing’s for sure – there’s certainly no forward in the league quite like Roberto Firmino. He’s the best at what he does, and it’s not even close.
Honourable Mention: Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace.
Your 2018/19 All-Stats XI
I thoroughly hope you had as much fun reading this article as I had writing it. Sure, I threw a whole lot of numbers at you… but it was called the ‘All-Stats XI’, what did you expect?!