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Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League One

More often than not, successful teams at any level have a talented midfield player capable of making major contributions consistently. This rings true in the EFL League 1 – a strong midfield unit is crucial to any club, whether they’re chasing promotion or fighting against relegation. While every position holds its importance, the job of a midfield requires such a wide variety of skills, in both defence and attack.

This data analysis will provide a look at the midfielders competing in League 1 for 2020/21 campaign, with an analysis of their statistical data from 19/20, to see which midfielders will be amongst the best players of the season, come the end of the campaign.

Methodology & Criteria

To provide a fair analysis of centre midfielders in League 1, specific criteria was set. In terms of individual requirements, players involved played 2500 minutes or more during the 2019/20 season, according to our data. Players have only been involved if they are playing League 1 football for 2020/21 (players who played League 1 last season but have moved to another league or returned from a loan spell are not included). Finally, in terms of positional requirements, players who played the most of last season as a central midfielder (including defensive and attacking midfielders) are included – players who are naturally wingers or full-backs, for example, but played a few games in the middle, aren’t involved.

When considering the clubs involved, it is strictly the clubs who are in League 1 for 2020/21 – 19/20 clubs who were promoted or relegated from the division are excluded, but close who came down from the Championship, and up from League 2, are included.

In terms of providing a fair assessment across a variety of skill areas, this analysis will look at three key areas – defensive work, on-the-ball talent, and attacking contributions. This allows us to see which players stand out in winning the ball back for his team, which player possesses the best talent when working with the ball at his feet, and which player offers the most in attacking situations.

Defensive Work

In the modern game, it is practically a standard requirement for players of any position to have some form of defensive quality, especially for midfielders. They are the unit responsible for protecting their defence, stopping the opposition from progressing an attack as soon as possible. The first graph below looks at the average number of successful defensive actions per 90 minutes for each player, next to their success rate through the season within defensive duels. This allows us to see how each player contributes as a whole in terms of defensive actions, both on average per game and throughout the season.

Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League 1

Standing out immediately is Oxford United’s Alex Gorrin. The Spaniard leads the way in terms of successful defensive actions per 90, with an impressive 14.62, with only Ben Sheaf – on loan at Doncaster Rovers in 19/20, but at Coventry in 20/21, who sits with 13.16.

When looking at the win percentage of defensive duels, Portsmouth’s Ben Close is the superior man, with 70.52% – an impressive rate to keep up over a campaign. Coming close to him with a similarly impressive rate is Crewe Alexandra midfielder Ryan Wintle who won 69.37% of his duels last season.

Perhaps a result of playing a variety of attacking roles alongside a midfield duty, Plymouth Argyle’s Danny Mayor has worrying stats to his name in these areas, especially when you consider Plymouth were in League 2 last season. Mayor recorded a success rate of 52.94% in defensive duels and completed just 4.18 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes. 

Getting involved in tackles is not the only important part of a midfielder’s defensive game. Being able to read the game, to anticipate an opponent’s pass and stopping it from reaching its target is a crucial skill to have. Not only does it often cause a turnover in possession, but can be instrumental in setting up a counter-attack.

Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League 1

Several players in the selection recorded impressive interception numbers last season, and once again, Oxford’s Alex Gorrin shines through. With an average of 7.31 interceptions per 90 minutes, they were showing exceptional defensive consistency. Players like Tom Naylor (Portsmouth; 7.15) and again Ben Sheaf (6.1) also displayed an ability to act as an interceptor for their respective teams last season.

We again see the impact of Danny Mayor’s attacking midfield responsibilities as he comes in with just 2.15 interceptions per 90. Players like Max Power (Sunderland; 2.9) and Sam Finley (Accrington Stanley, 2.63) also suggest that they don’t get as involved defensively.

On-the-ball Talent

Arguably the most essential skill of a central midfielder is the ability to produce positive actions on the ball. From passing to dribbling to being able to defend the ball from opponent challenges, the next two graphs provide an analysis on some on-the-ball aspects for the midfielders—the first looks as how they perform while they are carrying the ball. More precisely, their dribble success rate for last season, as well as their success rate within offensive duels – the act of winning a duel when still in possession of the ball, effectively defending the ball from a tackle.

Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League 1

MK Dons midfielder Jordan Houghton is the notable player within these metrics. The former Chelsea youngster leads the way in offensive duels, winning a desirable 58.33% of his battles when he had the ball. He also came in a close second for dribble success too, having completed 72.73% of his runs – only bettered by Max Power, who recorded a success rate of 73.68%.

Alfie Jones, who will ply his trade for Hull City this season, recorded a good success rate of offensive duels (55.56%) and he will look to continue the good form as he did last season for Gillingham Town.

Former Liverpool youngster Jordan Williams perhaps gives his new club Blackpool some cause for concern if they expect him to be contributing in this area. Williams, who was at Rochdale last season, recorded a 27.27% success rate with dribbling, and 33.33% when it came to winning defensive duels. Though he is a more defensive-minded midfielder, this is undoubtedly an area he will look to develop in the near future.

This next graph provides an analysis of the players’ passing abilities. We take a look at their overall passing accuracy, as well as the accuracy with forward passes, as there tends to be more pressure on a player making a forward pass than a backwards or lateral pass.

Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League 1

There are several players with an overall accuracy rating that surpasses 80%, which is to be expected of a central midfielder. Former Sheffield United and current Fleetwood Town man Paul Coutts leads the way with 89.03%, a stat which highlights the calibre of player he is. Jordan Williams, who struggled in the last graph, impresses here, with an overall accuracy of 88.3%, showing that he is much more comfortable in passing the ball than dribbling.

In terms of forward passing accuracy, once again, Ben Sheaf’s name pops up. His 2019/20 season on loan at Doncaster Rovers allowed him to demonstrate a number of qualities he has developed over the years via Arsenal’s youth set up. Sheaf, who still had an impressive overall accuracy rate of 85.93%, leads the way his rate of 78.09% with forward passing. This shows his quality and confidence in building attacks via passing, rather than just passing for the sake of keeping possession. Coutts and Williams’s names deserve another mention as they both have decent percentages with forward passing – 75.68% and 74.84% respectively.

A couple of names are in the mix when it comes to those who don’t boast impressive passing stats. Sam Finley will be less than happy with his passing accuracy rate of 68.44% and his forward pass accuracy rate of 56.47%. Similarly with Callum Reilly of AFC Wimbledon, who’s passing accuracy and forward passing accuracy come in at 68.18% and 54.36% respectively.

Attacking Contribution

The final section of this data analysis is where we will assess the attacking value each midfielder adds to their sides. Across three different graphs, areas like passing in dangerous areas, attacking actions, and goal contributions will be zoomed in on. The first of the three offers a continuation of the previous graph – looking at their passing in more attacking scenarios. 

Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League 1

Danny Mayor, who struggled defensively last season according to our data, sets the ultimate example with his impressive accuracy rates for both passes into the penalty area (76.81%) and passes within the final third (77.21%). These are incredibly impressive numbers as it shows composure, vision, and technical talent to supply passes in attacking zones consistently. Yet again, Ben Sheaf holds impressive numbers, with accuracy ratings of 62.69% (passes into the penalty area) and 75.5% (final 3rd passes). 

There is a cluster of players who don’t particularly boast ground-breaking data but hold numbers than suggest they are better than average within the passing department. Ben Whiteman (Doncaster; 57.69% for areas passes; 71.85% for final 3rd passes) and George Dobson (Sunderland; 56.25% and 73.76%) lead that cluster, showing they have the required quality to provide for their team consistently.

Despite having an arguable average accuracy rating for final 3rd passes with 61.26%, Tom Naylor’s passes into the penalty accuracy rate rank the lowest of this selection of players (25.49%).

This next graph shows how players performed in attacking sense in total. This is where we get a stronger idea of which players are more responsible for attacking contributions, rather than looking at which players attempted to contribute but came up short.

Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League 1

Danny Mayor’s attacking influence could be pivotal for Plymouth in 2020/21 if he is only able to perform consistently like he did last season. He is away ahead in the average number of successful attacking actions per 90 minutes with an impressive 5.62 – a number that nobody gets close to. Sam Finley is closest, with 3.81, showing he can be effective in attacking situations.

While having a low number in this section doesn’t necessarily point to a weakness in attack, players like Seamus Conneely (Accrington Stanley; 0.49), Alfie Jones (Hull City; 0.81), Chris Lines (Northampton Town; 0.85), Alex Gorrin (Oxford United; 0.56), Tom Naylor (Portsmouth; 0.81), and Jordan Williams (Blackpool; 0.31) all averaged less than one successful attacking contribution per match.

The final graph to be discussed comes down to pure numbers in front of the goal. While it is not the primary role of a midfielder to score, and in some cases, create goals, being able to provide goals and assists is a desirable trait for a midfielder at any level.

Data Analysis: Finding the best central midfielders in League 1

We can instantly see Lincoln City’s Jorge Grant leading the way with 8 goals and 2 assists, an impressive number of contributions for a midfielder – something he will look to continue this season in League 1. Cameron Brannagan impresses in both areas with 5 goals and 3 assists, something his club Oxford United will want more of this season. Some of the top assist providers last season in the division were Ryan Edwards (Burton Albion; 5), Ben Whiteman (5), and Ryan Watson (Northampton town; 7)

Like the previous graph, a lack of goals or assists does not mean the midfielder is not of great value to their team. However, there are some players who contributed very little in this area – Alex Gorrin and George Dobson are just two examples. Jordan Williams, who has demonstrated his ability in other areas, will definitely want to improve on his zero goals and zero assists from last season.

Conclusion

If this data analysis has proven anything, it’s that there are a number of important factors to consider when we are debating the quality of a centre midfielder. While a player can still be successful for their team without ticking multiple boxes, there are certainly a few players who offer numerous benefits to their teams. Ben Sheaf’s name occurred time and time again as he shows us he is a competent player both defensively and on the ball, really displaying that Premier League youth academy pedigree at Doncaster last season. Oxford’s Alex Gorrin showed that he is one of the most reliable central midfielders on the defensive side of things, while Danny Mayor holds many impressive stats to his name in attacking areas. Alfie Jones and Ben Whiteman are two examples of being talented in several areas – without achieving the top marks in a particular field. Perhaps the biggest take-home lesson from this data analysis is that there is an array of midfield talent in League 1 to look for this season – whether they’re an anchorman or a playmaker, or anything in between.