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Data Analysis: Four players that are similar to Manchester City’s Jack Grealish

This is the second in a series of articles that I will be writing for the website that shows how we can use data and data profiling to identify potential targets in order to improve a squad.

Last week I wrote a piece identifying four players who were similar from a data perspective to Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool. This week I will be slightly more topical in looking to identify four players that profile in a similar way to Jack Grealish who is now, of course, of Manchester City following his £100M move from Aston Villa.

I feel as though I need to be clear from the start, however, that when I talk of data profiling and finding similar players I am not suggesting that these players are exact Jack Grealish replicas. Instead, these players have similar skill sets and produce similar outputs.

It is also important to stress from the outset that I would never consider signing a player, or indeed suggesting that a club sign a player, if I had not also extensively video scouted the player. Data is a fantastic tool and one that is integral in any modern club’s recruitment network but it is only a part of a bigger picture. Data allows you to cut through a lot of the noise around football and if you are clever in your implementation of metrics then it can allow you to be very specific in your process but video and live scouting are also important.

As a part of Total Football Analysis we offer clubs, players and agencies a consultancy service and a large part of that is built around the use of data and video scouting to provide shortlists of players that fit a specific profile. To do this we make use of a tool that we know as xGOLD. This has been custom-built in-house to streamline the use of data in the identification of talented players. In order to create the shortlist for this article, I have used xGold to identify four players that best meet the profile of Grealish. From there I have created the profiles that you will see in this piece using my own bespoke dashboards in Tableau. Given that we are still at the early stage of the European season, if any games have been played at all!, we will be using data from the 2020/21 season with all data found in Wyscout.

Jack Grealish, 25-years-old, Manchester City and England

Last season, whilst still playing for Aston Villa, Jack Grealish finally emerged from being a player with considerable potential to being a player who I would label as being world-class. He played 2362 minutes in the league for his boyhood club and the quality and consistency of his performances were nothing short of astounding. His role for Villa tended to see him play on the left side of the attack where he could pick up possession in dangerous areas before affecting the game for his side.

Grealish is the embodiment of a modern attacking player. His movement profile can see him drop towards the ball in order to receive or to move away from the ball carrier in order to position himself in a pocket of space between the lines of the opposition defensive structure. He is comfortable receiving under heavy pressure where his touch and presence of mind allow him to create separation from opposition players. It is when receiving in those pockets of space where he is able to take a positive first touch, however, that Grealish is at his most dangerous.

Interestingly, for a player who was such a dominant attacking threat for his team last season, Grealish actually has a good balance in terms of his data between the three areas that I tend to look at for wide players. His attacking metrics, of course, stand out but his passing and progression metrics are almost as good while he also shows some defensive output.

The charts above perhaps need some context before I continue, On the left side, we have percentile bar charts that show a player’s performance in metrics that we believe are key to the position in question. The longer the bar, the better the performance and these metrics are based on all players that played in the players league and position over the course of the 2020/21 season, as long as those players played at least 350 minutes. On the right, we see the raw per 90 data in order to add some more context to the bar charts.

Let’s start with Grealish from an attacking point of view. He is an elite ball carrier who averaged 8.08 dribbles per 90 but with a staggering success rate in those dribbles of 70.75%. Such was his advanced positioning in the attacking phase for Villa, however, we also saw Grealish average 5.72 touches in the opposition area and 1.94 shots per 90 with 0.23 goals per 90 from 0.15 expected goals per 90. In the passing and progression section of our profile, Grealish averaged 6.59 progressive passes per 90, 4.23 passes to the final third per 90 and 3.81 passes to the penalty area per 90. He averaged 0.34 assists per 90 from 0.34 expected assists per 90.

The above gives us a strong notion of the strengths of Grealish’s game. Now, we can move on to the shortlist.

#1 Christos Tzolis, 19-years-old, PAOK and Greece

At the time of writing, Christos Tzolis is reported to be on the brink of signing for Norwich City from PAOK. If this does turn out to be the case then Norwich will have pulled off another impressive deal having also signed Milot Rashica and Billy Gilmour (on loan).

Tzolis is the great hope of Greek football despite his young age and his performances over the last two seasons in the Greek top division have been impressive. Over the course of the 2020/21 season, he played 2,195 minutes. His data profile is slightly different to Grealish’s in that he is not as much of a dribbler but he does show a lot of promise in terms of occupying and progressing the ball into the penalty area. In the attacking section of our data profile, we see that Tzolis averaged 4.35 dribbles per 90 with a 50.94% success rate. He also averaged 5.17 touches in the opposition area with 2.67 shots per 90. He also carries a goal threat with an average of 0.25 goals per 90 although his expected goals per 90 point to an overperformance in this area with 0.33 xG per 90.

His passing and progression metrics are skewed towards his involvement in the final third where he averages 2.58 passes to the final third per 90 with 3.32 passes into the penalty area per 90 and 0.16 assists per 90 from 0.19 expected assists per 90.

His defensive output is also reasonably although Tzolis is rarely expected to track back and defend in deep areas.

#2 Emanuel Vignato, 20-years-old, Bologna and Italy

This is not the first time that I have written about Emanuel Vignato for this website. I have previously written about his potential and talent in a magazine piece not long after the Italian/Brazilian winger had moved to Bologna from Chievo Verona. Vignato is no stranger to headlines, however, having previously been linked to a big-money move whilst still a teenager with Barcelona credited with significant interest in a double signing of Vignato and his younger brother Samuele.

Vignato is such an interesting attacking player because he encapsulates the best parts of both sides of his heritage. He is tactically and technically sound but he has the flair and vision that we would generally associate with a young Brazilian footballer. Although he is capable of playing centrally or from the right I imagine that his future will see him play from the left-hand side in a similar position to Jack Grealish.

His carries are lower than those of Grealish with 4.73 dribbles with a 62.32% success rate. He tends to be at the most effective outside of the areas when finding creative passing lanes that access the penalty area to create opportunities for teammates. This is shown in his 1.78 touches in the opposition area and 1.44 shots per 90. He is less of a goal threat than Grealish, at least from a direct perspective, with 0.07 goals per 90 from an xG of 0.12. His passing and progression metrics however are fantastic. He averaged 9.59 progressive passes per 90, 5.62 passes to the final third per 90 and 3.63 passes to the penalty area per 90 with 0.27 assists per 90 from 0.26 expected assists.

Vignato has impressed at Bologna and is likely to be the target of bigger clubs very soon.

#3 Alan Velasco, 19-years-old, Independiente and Argentina

Alan Velasco is a 19-year-old Argentinean wide player of playmaker who is currently contracted to Independiente in the Argentinean top-flight. Velasco is a player who is rapidly emerging as one of the most exciting and interesting attacking players in South America. Interestingly, given the shifting situation in British football following Brexit out information suggests that Velasco would be eligible for a GBE permit to allow him to play in English football. Reader, take note if you are currently working for an English side with ambition.

Velasco is similar to Grealish in that he is a superb ball carrier. At the time of writing, he has played 900 minutes this season and he is averaging 10.4 dribbles per 90 with a 54.81% success rate. Other than ball carrying, however, the rest of his data profile points to a player who impresses in terms of his ball progression and creativity. His goal threat is virtually non-existent although he does average 1.8 touches in the opposition area per 90 with 2.1 shots per 90.

He also, however, averages 2.9 passes to the final third and 2.9 passes to the opposition penalty area with 0.5 key passes per 90. He is a player who thrives in the tight spaces of the final third where he can collect possession before shifting the angle of attack intelligently through creative passing options.

#4 Rayan Cherki, 17-years-old, Lyon and France

This one comes with a large caveat given the relatively low sample size. Cherki only played 787 league minutes last season for Lyon but given that he is only 17-years-old I am sure that we can forgive that. Cherki is a player with enormous potential who has been spoken about in scouting and analytical circles for some time now. I would expect that this season we will see Cherki take on a larger workload in terms of minutes at club level.

In terms of his attacking output, Cherki is again an excellent ball carrier who averaged 12.01 dribbles per 90 with a success rate of 59.05%. He also had 3.43 touches in the opposition area per 90 and 2.17 shots per 90. He also has a goal threat with 0.11 goals per 90 from an xG of 0.22. He also carries a significant threat in terms of ball progression and creativity with an average of 5.72 progressive passes per 90, 3.55 passes to the final third per 90 and 3.55 passes to the penalty area per 90. He also averaged an impressive 0.34 assists per 90 from 0.20 xA per 90.

Cherki is a young player but one whose attacking and creative profiles suggest that he may well meet the potential that many people have thought that he has for so long.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that replacing a world-class talent like Jack Grealish is a monumental task for a club like Aston Villa. Interestingly, however, their chief executive Christian Purlow released a video explaining to fans the circumstances around the sale of Grealish to Manchester City. In that video, Purslow made reference to the fact that it may not be possible to find an exact replacement for Grealish and instead two or even three players could be signed in order to replace the outputs and the metrics that made Grealish such an important player for Villa.

This is where data profiling comes in as a part of the recruitment process. Finding players who replicate parts of the whole and who could be available for a much cheaper price are a large part of the way that a smart team runs its recruitment department.

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