Major League Soccer 2019: Statistically Best Attacking Players – data analysis
As we move forward in our MLS statistically best players in the 2019 MLS league, we now arrive at the wingers and midfielders. In this mini-series, I have covered goalkeepers, full-backs, and centre-backs. From there, we moved onwards to central defensive midfielders.
Before we start analyzing the wealth of attacking talent in the MLS, we need to lay down some contextual references.
In the start, I picked a formation of 4-2-3-1 in which to include all these players. The reasoning was that it allowed me to be symmetrical and find the best attacking and defensive players. With our introduction to the attacking trio, I will solely be focusing on the attacking aspects of the players. Simple defensive metrics will be considered but in this analysis, attacking metrics will have most of the attention and emphasis.
Many players, in the MLS, play interchangeably between the attacking midfielder position and the winger position and as such, both positions will be considered and I will be picking the best three players out of these positions. Just like in the teams of Bayern Munich and Manchester City where players shift from wingers to attacking midfielders, the same occurs in the MLS. Instead of strictly defining the positions, I will consider them in the same context to show you. However, in the background, I will keep the positions in hindsight.
In addition, this data analysis acts as a scout report that narrows our options in recruiting and scouting. It is not meant to act as the definitive guide to the best players in the MLS. Simply, this data analysis’ goal is to roughen up the diamonds and show some gems that people hadn’t considered. To do this analysis, I only have chosen to analyze those players who played more than 20 games in the MLS 2019 season to ensure that our players who are actually consistent and not recording insane statistics from a sample size of 55 minutes.
Analyzing MLS’ attacking midfielders and wingers
Since these players are more inclined to be creative and attack the goal, we’ll start with some basic exploratory analysis with xG – expected goals – and xA – expected assists – to get a figure of the more goal-inclined players and more creative players.
Here we see xG per 90 on the x-axis with xA per 90 on the y-axis. The clear goal-hungry player is Carlos Vela who averages an astounding 0.75 xG per 90. In addition to that, he is a very high xA per 90 making him lethal on both sides. Additional names include Ilsinho who ranks himself with the highest xA per 90.
Having marked which type of players are more goal inclined and which are more indirect play inclined, we’ll divide the analysis into analyzing creative play and shooting play.
A good analysis is to look into third assist and second assists per 90. Second assist is the pass before the assist while the third assist is the pass before the second assist. Higher second assists generally mean more direct involvement while higher third assists generally indicate more creative and indirect play.
Diego Valeri marks himself out as one of the best second assisters. In addition to this, Valeri also records a high number of third assists per 90. This tells us that not only does Valeri record high interplay that leads to goals but that he is also involved in the deeper attacking build-up play. Similar midfielders like Valeri include Lodeiro and Jordan Morris of Seattle Sounders who record high third assist per 90 but lower second assists per 90.
Memo Rodríguez ranks himself as one of the best second assisters in the league indicating his very high and successful involvement in the ending stages of the attacking actions. However, he records very low third assist meaning that his actions normally occur in the ending actions. Similar to Rodríguez, we see Vela who performs similarly.
Up top, Alex Muyl shows himself as a midfielder who drops deeper than most attacking midfielders, helping the attacking build-up play grow.
Here we see a more nuanced analysis into the passes of these midfielders. I have chosen to analyze passes that are the most indicative of attacking creativity. In this view of final third passes and passes to the penalty area, we see two evident outliers: Sebastián Blanco of Portland Timbers and Alejandro Romero Gamarra of New York Red Bulls. The duo rank the highest in final third passes per 90 and passes to penalty area per 90.
Below these two outliers are the more recognizable names in the context of the attacking midfielders: Pozuelo, Carles Gill, and Lodeiro.
Clearly these rank of midfielders play a lot of passes that not only advance their team into the final third but that advance their team members inside the penalty area – the area where most of the attacking action occurs.
Understandably, more goal-inclined midfielders like Vela don’t show themselves as strongly since they are involved on the end of the passes to the final third.
Here we see deep completed crosses and deep completions per 90 analyzed here. These two metrics measure crosses and passes that put their teammates within 20 meters of the opponent’s goal.
In this area, we see a nice variety in the attacking midfielders. Blanco, up at the top, rules deep completed crosses per 90 with the highest number of crosses that put his teammates within 20 meters of the goal. Blanco does this with a high number of deep completions per 90 as well making him a quite an adept midfielder. Cristian Espinoza does the same as Blanco albeit without a high number of deep completions per 90.
Flipping perspectives, Ilsinho, Gamarra, Vela, and Gill record high deep completions per 90 which indicate that these players are more involved centrally while the likes of Blanco tend to get involved highly through the wings as well. That means that these players are more likely to play as a central attacking midfielder while the likes of Blanco and Espinoza are going to play more often as wingers or wide midfielders.
The last important metric that I am going to show is analyzing how progressive these players are.
Here we see progressive runs per 90 versus progressive passes per 90. Progressive runs are characterized as runs which advanced the team towards the goal while progressive passes are characterized as pans which advanced the team towards the goal significantly.
Here we see Blanco, Gill, and Gamarra rank themselves out with high progressive passes per 90 which indicates that these midfielders are less mobile and advance the team through their passing. Other players like Héctor Villalba and Ilsinho showcase their more mobile status.
This analysis ends our creative analysis of these midfielders. We’ve seen those who are more mobile and contribute creatively while others contribute creatively through their passing with some going through the wings and some through the centre.
Now we’ll start our goal-inclined analysis of the midfielders that try to measure those players that are more direct.
Here, I have analyzed shots per 90 versus touches in the box per 90 with the shot on target percentage in the colouring of the dots.
We see here, as expected, Vela standing out in all three metrics – high touches in the box per 90 with high shots per 90. In addition, Vela does this with a high accuracy percentage as shown by the green colour. This indicates that when Vela get himself in the box, which is a lot, he shoots a lot and a lot of those shots end up on target. This makes him dangerous and is probably the reason why Vela recorded an astounding 34 goals.
Similar players include Alberth Elis and Diego Rossi, Vela’s wing-partner at LAFC. These types of players are more direct and are successful with their shots as shown in their green colour. Our more creative players are now somewhere in the middle which makes sense as they are more inclined to be involved before the shot takes place and not actually taking the shot.
After this comprehensive analysis of creativity and shot-taking abilities, we come to the final list of players for further analysis: Gamarra, Lodeiro, Blanco, Gill, Pozuelo, and Vela.
Picking the best attacking trio in the MLS
Before we start on further analysis, let’s take a concise look at just why I chose these players.
Here I have an indexed view of the most important passing metrics that measure creativity. This will tell us where are our group of six lie in the nuanced passing metrics.
Here we see the indexed view of forward passes, final third passes, passes to the penalty area, and smart passes per 90. Our group is highlighted in blue and we see that the players consistently rank the top and do it with high frequency. Of course, there are other statistics that I took to narrow down my focus however these are the most important and most significant metrics in my decision process.
Next, I’ll provide an indexed view of the shooting metrics for these players.
Here we see metrics that measure more of how direct a player is: touches in the box per 90, xG per 90, dribbles per 90, and crosses to the goalie box per 90.
In this view, we see some part of our group – Vela and Blanco – rank highly in the metrics measuring touches in the box per 90 and xG per 90. We do not see that much of a great performance in the metric of dribbling, however, we see Lodeiro and Blanco perform highly in the crossing metrics.
Clearly the group of players are not only inclined greatly creatively but also add a great amount of goal threat. This confirms our selection of these players in the first place.
Let’s now look at the passing, shooting, and defending metrics of these players.
Here I have passing metrics that measure all spectrums of creative passing. The colouring of the statistics measures the accuracy of these metrics. Right off the bat, Gamarra stands out as an adept passer as he constantly records above-average in the passing metrics with mostly good accuracy rates. Similarily, Lodeiro performs excellently in almost all of the statistics with great accuracy rates. Similar to Lodeiro and Gamarra are Pozuelo and Blanco who all perform decently in most statistics with good accuracy rates.
Gill and Vela don’t particularly show themselves as the best creative passers within this group.
Moving away from the creativity angle, I focus on metrics that are more direct. In these metrics, Vela shines through without an exception as we see with the blue bar. Lodeiro and Blanco show themselves as being very good at crossing as we see their above-average performance in crosses to goalie box per 90. Blanco shows himself as being the closest to Vela with above-average performances in touches in the box per 90, shots per 90, and dribbles per 90. Pozuelo shows himself as a great performer here as well with high performances in the shot on target percentage and shots per 90.
Finally, as promised, I look at the defensive statistics. Quite clearly, Lodeiro performs the best in these statistics with high accuracy rates in the defensive statistics as well. Similar performance is shown by Blanco who, while not as good as Loediro, performs similarly well in the defensive statistics with good accuracy percentages.
After looking at the options and rechecking all the metrics, my statistically best attacking trio of the MLS is Nicolás Lodeiro, Carlos Vela, and Sebastián Blanco. Lodeiro is the best creative attacking player in the league with high performances in creative statistics. Vela marks himself out in the goal-scoring department with exceptional statistics all around. Finally, Blanco represents the best of both departments with high performances in creative metrics and shooting metrics.
Looking at the more general metrics confirms our choices. Only three attacking players in the MLS had an xA of 10 – Lodeiro, Vela, and Blanco. Looking at the Goals Added metric from American Soccer Analysis, Blanco and Vela are included their best eleven of players who add the most goals in their positions. Goals Added is defined as “how much a play improves that possession’s probability of ending in a goal and how much it reduces the other team’s chance of scoring on the next possession”. In this context, Blanco tops as the leader on the left-wing at a Goals Added (G+) of 4.0 while Vela tops the right-wing with a G+ of 9.0.
Simply put, both Blanco and Vela were the most goal-productive wingers in the league which confirms the selection process that we underwent through here. Lodeiro, while not popping up on the Goals Added analysis, shows up on the xA analysis recording the second-highest xA in the league with an xA of 11.19. Vela tops the xA analysis with an xA of 11.21 however the difference is so negligible, we are allowed to say that Vela and Lodeiro topped the assist charts.
In terms of the goal-scoring department, Vela tops with an xG of 26.24 – higher than every other attacking midfielder or winger.
Clearly, our choices are well justified and we can conclude, Vela, Blanco, and Lodeiro are the best attacking players in the league with Blanco and Vela occupying the wing positions as they are wingers and Lodeiro occupying the central position.
As seen in this data analysis, we made use of data and statistics to find the best attacking midfielders and wingers in the league. Our attacking trio that will complete our 4-2-3-1 is Sebastián Blanco of Portland Timbers, Carlos Vela of LAFC, and Nicolás Lodeiro of Seattle Sounders.
These three attacking players add the best creativity and goal-mouth action and are their teams’ creative juice. In the next series of this analysis, we will conclude with analyzing the best strikers and finally constructing the statistically best team in MLS.
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