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Data Analysis: Identifying 5 central midfield targets for Aston Villa

We are now a matter of days away from the end of the winter transfer window and there are some sides who are still actively looking for opportunities to strengthen their squad. One of the most active teams in the top flight of English football over the next few days are Aston Villa who are looking to strengthen their group of central midfielders before looking to push up the Premier League table. The winter transfer window is typically a difficult market in which to recruit as teams do not want to lose their better players when there is so much left to play for, this is of course combined with the fact that signing a replacement player once you sell a first-team player is difficult at this time.

Typically clubs will want to concentrate their business in the summer when there is more time for squad building and to assimilate players into your squad. There are though specific exceptions to this general rule and one of the main exceptions comes when a club has changed manager and therefore need to change the structure of their squad in order to add players that are better suited to the new man’s preferred style of play. At this point, we should add that this difficulty in terms of having to change focus in terms of recruitment can be avoided by clubs having a clear succession plan in terms of appointing managers who fit a specific template in terms of style of play that is controlled at board (or sporting director) level. That is not quite the case for Aston Villa, however, as they have moved on from Dean Smith to Steven Gerrard. This, of course, goes some way to explaining why the club have already added Lucas Digne and Phillipe Coutinho in this window.


The other issue that surrounds recruitment in the January transfer window is, of course, value. The general belief is that it is difficult to find value in the market at this time of the year but in truth that is not quite true. Value within football tends to be based on the valuations on transfermarkt and I would wager that a lot of people reading this do not quite understand just how much trust is put on these valuations by clubs and agents across the world. In truth though the concept of value in the market is more nuanced than that single figure. Value is very much based on the economic principle of supply and demand and with the short time frame of the January transfer window those principles are enhanced and the emphasis is on the buying club having to pay a premium in order to get a player who has been playing regular football so far this season. The selling club on the other hand have to factor in whether they can replace those minutes within their squad or whether they would then have to enter the market themselves. That process alone pushes the price of a player up.

CM options for Aston Villa

Moving on to the core of this article now we are going to consider central midfield options for Villa with a number of criteria in place to filter down our data set. We are considering players from the top 5 European leagues along with the top flights of Austria, Belgium, Portugal and the Netherlands. We are concentrating on younger players with a maximum age of 24 and on players who have played at least 600 minutes so far this season. All data is from Wyscout.

Recruiting a central midfielder is actually one of the most difficult things to do in football because there are so many different roles within that area of the pitch. As such we will take a balanced approach and recommend a set of players that could fit different roles for the club.

First of all, we will consider goal threat from midfielders by using a combination metric of goal contributions per 90 compared to expected goal contributions per 90. This is a metric that is simply created by the combination of goals per 90 and assists per 90 (for goal contributions per 90) and expected goals per 90 and expected assists per 90 (for expected goal contributions per 90).

This allows us to build a picture in terms of which players are most effective in the final third and when we look at the data set that we are using we can see that the likes of Lovro Majer, who has been impressing in his first season at Rennes, are standouts in this regard.

One of the first picks that we have for Aston Villa, if they are looking for a central midfielder who will provide a goal threat is the 21-year-old Turkish international Orkun Kocku, a. player who I have already written about for this site. The young midfielder is currently contracted to Feyenoord in the Eredivisie and he has established himself as a regular at club and international level. His goal contributions per 90 of 0.40 are obviously very strong and the fact that his expected goal contributions per 90 are slightly higher on 0.48 suggests that there is still room for those metrics to meet in the middle.

Next up we will look more closely at central midfielders who create threat when accessing the opposition penalty area. As we look at another combination metric in penalty area entries, created by combining crosses per 90 and passes to the opposition penalty area per 90, and then expected assists per 90. As an aside it is better, in my opinion, to use expected assists as opposed to assists as this removes the variable of the player who has been ‘assisted’ being able to finish the chance.

This time we are pulling in three of our five midfield options with Orkun Kokcu once again performing well with 3.82 penalty area entries per 90 and 0.29 xA per 90. Next, we have the 20-year-old Austrian central midfielder Nicolas Seiwald of Red Bull Salzburg. This has been the Austrian’s breakout season in the Salzburg midfield after Enock Mwepu left to join Brighton in the summer.  So far this season Seiwald is averaging 5.79 penalty area entries with an xA per 90 of 0.13. Finally, we have the 23-year-old Swedish international midfielder Matthias Svandberg of Bologna who is averaging 3.70 penalty area entries per 90 with an xA per 90 of 0.10.

Now we will look at midfielders who are progressive with their passing styles as we compare the bread and butter of a midfielder’s game with passes per 90 and then consider the % of passes that are played that are labelled as progressive. Obviously here we are looking to identify midfielders that move the ball into dangerous areas of the pitch for their team.

Once again we have Orkun Kokcu featured with the Turkish midfielder averaging 68.89 passes per 90 with 15.07% of those being labelled as progressive. Next, we move to the bottom right of the graph to look at Matthias Svandberg. His passes per 90 are below average, but Bologna are not a very possession heavy side, on 30.78 per 90 but his progressive pass % of 16.93% is still strong. Then we see another midfielder come into the shortlist with the 24-year-old Ivorian midfielder Ibrahim Sangare featuring. Sangare is a midfield player who is made for the premier league with an outstanding physical profile although his ability on the ball and game intelligence are often underrated. He is averaging a high level of passes on 73.38 passes per 90 with 14.24% of those being labelled as progressive.

Now, let’s look at which midfield players are effective in both phases of the game as we compare defensive duels per 90 with progressive actions per 90, a combination metric that takes into account progressive passes per 90 and progressive runs per 90, to show which midfielders are a box to box type.

Ibrahim Sangare is the standout player in this group from our shortlist with 7.99 defensive duels per 90 and 12.40 progressive actions per 90 showing that he is effective in and out of possession for PSV. We can also see that Orkun Kokcu is on the bottom right of our graph with 5.22 defensive duels per 90 but 12.32 progressive actions per 90. He is far more comfortable in possession of the ball than he is against the ball. Finally, we have the fifth player from our shortlist is the 21-year-old French midfielder Maxime Caqueret who has 9.05 defensive duels per 90 and 7.83 progressive actions per 90.

Finally, we will look, again, at which midfielders work hard against the ball while also progressing the ball through the thirds for their team as we look at possession adjusted interceptions and the forward vs progressive pass ratio for our data set. Ibrahim Sangare is again on our graph with 8.26 possession adjusted interceptions per game and a forward vs progressive pass ratio of 48.33%. This means that 48.33% of his forward passes are considered to be progressive. Then we have Nicolas Seiwald with 11.36 possession adjusted interceptions per game and a forward vs progressive pass ratio of 52.46%.


Of the five players that we have shortlisted in this article, I would be drawn more to a straight choice between Ibrahim Sangare and Orkun Kokcu as a central midfield option for Aston Villa. If Gerrard wants to add another attacking option from the midfield then Kokcu would have the edge but for a more well-rounded option Sangare is ready to come in and run the midfield for a top-6 Premier League team now.