Data Analysis – James Maddison or Jack Grealish: England’s next playmaker
This Premier League season has seen the rise of two young, English playmakers driving forward their teams in the league. Both James Maddison and Jack Grealish have had outstanding campaigns so far, with Leicester City and Aston Villa being the beneficiaries, respectively. Their form has led to calls for one, or even both of them, to be included in England’s squad for the upcoming Euro 2020 tournament, which has of course now been postponed to next year on account of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the number 10 role doesn’t really exist in England manager, Gareth Southgate’s preferred system of the 4-3-3. Maddison has received one cap earlier this season when he came off the bench during England’s 7-0 defeat of Montenegro, while Grealish is yet to be capped. It looks increasingly likely that only of these two will make it to the national team squad for Euro 2021, and in this tactical analysis, we will attempt to determine which of them it should be.
At first, before diving into the tactics and all that, we will take a look at both players’ statistics from this season. Only appearances in domestic competitions have been considered, and all statistics are from Wyscout.
The Leicester City playmaker, who had been heavily linked with Manchester United last summer, has scored 9 goals and made 5 assists this season, which gives him a goal involvement (goals + assists) of one every 206 minutes. His goals have come from an xG of 6.33, while he has 5 assists against an xA of 7.78. These numbers show that while he has done well to outperform his xG, his teammates have let him down to some extent when it comes to finishing the chances he has created for them. He has a decent pass success rate of 84.73%, especially for a midfielder playing in an advanced position, and now we shall break down these passes to try and determine just how creative and attacking a player he is.
Maddison has made 2.06 through passes per 90 minutes this season and played 2.78 long passes per 90. This shows that he does not try to force the issue in terms of Leicester’s attacking play too much, but is also a function of the fact that the Foxes have been a far more possession-based team under Brendan Rodgers, and so the opportunities to play such passes would be fewer than in a counter-attacking side. He is still a reasonably progressive player with his passing, as the fact that nearly 30% of his passes are made forward, shows. His true attacking ability is shown by the fact that he plays 7.27 passes per 90 into the final third, and 2.90 passes per 90 into the box. Maddison is thus a player who keeps things ticking over in the final third of the pitch, but does not refrain from playing a ball into the box when the situation presents itself.
In terms of dribbling, Maddison makes about 3.68 dribbles per 90, with a 60% success rate. These are decent numbers, but are not prodigious. He also makes about 1.3 progressive runs per 90 minutes, with 2.3 touches of the ball in the box in the same time frame.
Where his defensive work is concerned, it is interesting to see that he makes 1.75 interceptions per 90, and 4.33 recoveries per 90, with over 51% of those recoveries occurring in the opposition half. This shows how well he fits into Rodgers’ pressing schemes off the ball. Lastly, while he loses the ball 11.14 times per 90 minutes, only about 23% of those losses occur in his own half, showing how he usually is high up the pitch and thus making his losses of possession less likely to immediately harm his side.
We will now conduct a similar analysis of Grealish’s numbers, before a comparative analysis of the two players is made.
In terms of goal involvements, Grealish has 9 goals and 6 assists this season, but from fewer minutes played, giving him a goal involvement rate of one every 178 minutes. His xG total is 5.88, while his xA is at 5.97. So he has also outperformed his xG by a significant amount, but his assists are broadly in line with what they should be. Grealish’s passing stats show a pass accuracy of 83.89%, which is again good for an attacking midfielder, and now we shall take a deeper look into his passing numbers as well.
Grealish has made just 0.8 through passes per 90 minutes this season, with 2.25 long passes per 90. This is slightly surprising given that Aston Villa have been a counter-attacking side against most of their opponents this season, and thus one would think that Grealish would have more than ample opportunity to play such passes on the counter-attack. 28% of his passes are made forwards, while he makes 3.77 passes into the final third and 3.16 passes into the box per 90 minutes. These numbers demonstrate that Grealish is a reasonably effective attacking force through his passing, but his true strength will be shown in the next section.
Jack Grealish attempt nearly 6.8 dribbles per 90 minutes, with a 57% success rate. Thus, Grealish is a far more aggressive dribbler, and is pretty good at it too. He prefers to drive at opponents directly with the ball at his feet than make penetrative passes. This is also seen in the fact that he makes 4.54 progressive runs per 90, with 3.3 touches in the box.
He is also hard-working off the ball, as shown by the 2.19 interceptions and 3.60 recoveries he has made per 90 minutes this season. 64% of those recoveries have been in the opposition half, showing his aggressive positioning and his contribution to Aston Villa’s defensive efforts immediately after losing the ball. He himself loses the ball 10.59 times per 90, with 28% of those instances occurring in his own half.
So what do the numbers tell us? Grealish has had a better goal involvement rate this season, even though the goal and assist numbers for both players are almost identical. In terms of passing, both players have good pass success rates, but Maddison is the better player in terms of progressive passes – he plays a higher proportion of his passes forward, and also makes far more passes into the final third than Grealish. However, the Aston Villa man makes slightly more passes into the box. This is probably due to the difference in their playing styles – Maddison stays slightly deeper and looks to affect the game in the final third through his passing, while Grealish is a dribbler, and he usually picks the ball up in deeper positions before driving forwards and then passing it on if an option presents itself. The two players’ respective dribbling stats show this – Grealish attempts almost twice the number of dribbles as Maddison. Grealish is a far more dynamic player in possession, as the two players’ progressive runs numbers show, as well as the fact that he has more touches in the opposition’s penalty area. The fact that Tottenham were linked with him and tried to buy him a couple of seasons ago makes sense, as they have tried to bring in a player who could break the opposition’s lines through his dribbling. Their eventual purchase of Tanguy Ndombele from Olympique Lyon shows this.
These numbers can also be simplified and compared in the form of the following charts, which are taken from Wyscout and show each player’s strengths as compared to the other players in the Premier League who play in their position –
It would also be instructive to have a look at both players’ heat maps for this season, to gain some more context into these numbers –
Both players have largely operated in the middle and final third of the pitch, but as the maps show, their core areas of influence are slightly different. While both have favoured the left flank, Maddison has been a lot more central, while Grealish has been wider. Maddison has been used as the central playmaker by Rodgers, often as part of a twin playmaker system alongside Youri Tielemans, while on the other hand, Grealish has played out wide on the left flank for a large portion of the season, and this can be seen in this images. This also explains the disparity in their passing and dribbling stats – Maddison, as a central playmaker, is tasked with providing the killer pass and breaking down defences with his passing, while Grealish has naturally dribbled a lot more given his position on the flank. Of course, these roles are a result of their natural skills and strengths; it is because of Grealish’s superb dribbling ability that he has been able to play out wide with such success, and it is a similar case for Maddison and his playmaking skills. Nevertheless, the differences in their positioning make an absolute decision on whom to pick over the other a lot more difficult and subjective, and more reliant on England’s tactics.
So, having looked at both players’ from a statistical and positional point of view, which of the two should England take to Euro 2021? In my opinion, both players should be part of the squad, as they provide different skill-sets and are not necessarily replaceable with each other. Maddison has the ability to break down deep-lying defences with his passing ability, while Grealish can break opposition lines with his dribbling skills and runs on-the-ball. In the current England set-up with a 4-3-3, however, Maddison would find it harder to make it into the starting XI, as he has far less effective playing as a central midfielder than a number 10. Grealish, however, has played in that left-sided central midfield role for Villa, and his dribbling ability would be an asset from such central areas of the pitch. He could also move out to the flank and play as a winger as well, where there might just be a spot open due to Marcus Rashford’s injury issues. Grealish is the more dynamic player, while Maddison is better suited to teams having a monopoly on the ball and looking to break down defences through possession and passing. England, under Gareth Southgate, will not have a majority of the ball against the likes of Spain, France, Germany or Belgium, while even against weaker nations, Grealish’s unpredictability on the ball would be a better option than Maddison’s creativity, at least from the start.
Thus, in conclusion, while ideally, both players should be in the squad, realistically, it looks like Jack Grealish would be a better fit for Gareth Southgate’s England team, as he can play in a couple of positions and would slot into the side without the need to change the system. Maddison would make an excellent option off the bench, but is probably not the right fit to come into the starting XI unless the formation was changed.