Finding the best central midfielders in Serie B – data analysis
The rising profile of Brescia midfielder Sandro Tonali has come as no surprise to followers of Italian Football, ever since his emergence in 2018, the Italian has been frequently compared to Andrea Pirlo. It’s an easy comparison to make: they are both natives of Lombardy who began their careers at Brescia, both occupying the role of a deep-lying playmaker – more commonly known as a ‘regista’ within Italy.
Sandro Tonali at 18-years of age played 2,913 minutes of football for Brescia in the 2018/19 season, chipping in with 10 goal contributions (three goals, seven assists) as the Leonessa were crowned champions and secured passage back to top-flight football.
The Italian was on the radar of every top team in Serie A, despite this the Italian stayed with Brescia and it is only now that the midfielder looks likely to make a move away from the Stadio Mario Rigamonti this summer, with Juventus and Inter showing major interest.
This data analysis will help us to highlight, through the use of data and statistics, the best central midfielders in Serie B. Our dataset consists of players who have mainly played in the centre of midfield, aged 25 or under and have accumulated at least 500 minutes in the league.
This data analysis can be used to help identify players who could have a similar impact to Sandro Tonali, we will highlight the best five players at the end of the analysis after exploring statistics in relation to multiple key outputs which we have identified as being key to finding the best central midfielder in Serie B.
Progressive runs and passes
Central midfielders are the link between defence and attack. They literally strengthen the team in its core and are characterized by constantly being in a position to receive and pass the ball, with a view to progressing it forward.
The first section of this data analysis displays our sample across two metrics which assess their ability to make progressions down the field either with a pass or a run.
Progressive runs are a good indicator of whether a midfielder can carry the ball into more advanced areas, whilst progressive passes demonstrate the player´s ability to advance the team closer to the opponent’s goal.
Italian Matteo Ricci leads the midfielders in progressive passes with 12.02 per game. The former AS Roma midfielder has become a standout player for Spezia this season.
The leader in progressive runs is Salernitana’s Sofian Kiyine with 4.71 runs per game. It should be noted that Kiyine does often play as winger so his numbers will be slightly inflated. He has an above-average value of 8.21 progressive passes per game.
A player who also stands out in this list is Samuel Gustafson. The 25-year-old Cremonese player who ranks highly in both progressive passes and runs. He has 8.73 progressive passes and 2.16 progressive runs per game.
Lowly ranked Cosenza’s Jeremie Broh also stands out from the sample, the 23-year-old former Parma youth player has 8.25 progressive passes and 2.19 progressive runs per 90.
Finally, Mattia Vitale of Frosinone completes the list with 8.42 progressive passes and 1.94 progressive runs.
Good centre midfielders can dribble into open space, turn well, and beat players in 1v1 situations, a centre midfielder with good dribbling abilities can make them devastating. The opposition will often allow them space for the fear of getting too tight will leave them open to being dribbled past, this creates more time for the player to look up and deliver a pass.
The next section of this data analysis looks to quantify our samples ability through an analysis of dribbles per 90 and dribble success rate. These metrics will help us to identify individuals who often attempt to move past members of the opposition and are efficient at maintaining possession.
The stand out performer in relation to the above data visualisation is Sofian Kiyine of Salernita, his 9.26 dribbles per 90 combined with his above-average success rate of 63.91% leaves the midfielder with a successful dribbles per 90 rate of 5.92, this is almost two successful dribbles higher than the closest midfielder in relation to this output.
Next up we have Jose Machin, the Parma player spent the first half of the season on-loan with Pescara where he was averaging 6.97 dribbles per 90, with a success rate of 55.72% leading to a total of 3.93 successful dribbles per 90.
There are three other players who on average accumulate over three successful dribbles per 90 and they are Giovanni Crociata (3.7) of Crotone, Tomasso Fantacci (3.3) of Empoli and Francesco Deli (3.2) of Cremonese.
We have already looked at the midfielders’ ability to pass the ball forward. To further investigate their attacking contributions, we are looking at their deep completions per 90 and final third passes per game. We have opted to add a further dimension to this analysis by inserting another data metric (expected goals + expected assists), this dimension allows us to indicate individuals who add quality in relation to their contributions in the attacking third. This is indicated by the colour of the dot, with the red dots representing the players whose contributions possess a greater threat to the opposition.
Mattia Vitale and Jose Machin are clear outliers in relation to this data set, their ability to have an impact on the game in the attacking third is head and shoulders above the rest of the sample.
Mattia Aramu, the 25-year-old from Venezia has shown his ability in delivering a high volume of dangerous balls into the penalty area across the season, this has helped the Italian create 14 big chances across the season in Serie B.
Scotsman Liam Henderson deserves a mention, the Empoli midfielder on loan from Hellas Verona is performing above average in relation to both metrics. However his mid-range expected goal contribution rating would lead you to believe the quality of his deliveries, this is reflected in Liam only creating the single big chance creation across the season and averaging one shot per game.
Finally, it is worth bringing the attention of Francesco Deli to your attention, despite his deep completions per 90 being below average due to Cremonese having one of the lowest possession figures in Serie B, averaging 45.9%. The midfielder has a high expected goal contribution thanks to an expected goal value of 0.3 per 90, this credits the midfielder’s ability in relation to getting on the ball in the box in high-quality scoring situations.
After scoring every individual across the sample in relation to their individual performances across each data metric I have managed to decrease the sample to the following five individuals, note the darker the blue the higher the individual scored against each metric.
The 22-year-old on loan from Serie A SPAL has been a stand out performer for his side Frosinone. The midfielder sits second in Serie B in relation to average passes per 90 (64.75) highlighting his importance in keeping the side ticking over. Vitale, originally from Juventus’ youth academy is also effective in the final third, leading the league in relation to deep completions and ranking second in relation to shot assists, a well-rounded player who certainly looks like he will return to SPAL next season.
The Moroccan is one of Salernitana’s leading goal-scorers in 2019/20 contributing with eight goals where he has adopted a similar position which Luis Alberto plays, the mezzala role for his parent club Lazio. The midfielder has taken the league’s second-highest shots with 60 to date, which would suggest that the 22-year-old isn’t your traditional number ‘six’. With his 9.26 dribbles per game, Sofian is better described as a hybrid ‘eight’ who operates in more advanced positions.
Jose Machin played 1,730 minutes for Pescara this season, impressing with the number of passes he was able to receive (23.1 per 90), highlighting the former Roma youth players’ awareness, considering his preferred advanced position on the cusp of the attacking third. Machin, a competent dribbler of the ball doesn’t shy away from his defensive responsibilities, averaging 2.41 recoveries in the final third, seeing him ranked 11th in the league.
The 22-year-old formerly of Milan has had a positive impact for Crotone this season, influencing the game in the opposition’s half. Like Kiyine, Crociata has taken a high volume of shots (56) which has resulted in him scoring five goals from an expected goal figure of 2.73. The midfielder is confident on the ball, reflected in his high dribbling figures, Crociata will enter into a lot of offensive duels per game, his contributions in this department have helped Crotone complete on average 27.6 dribbles per game, ranking them in third place in the league in relation to this action.
The final entry, despite not getting a mention for standing out across any of the data analysis sections above Giulio Maggiore was consistently performing above average in all areas and has snuck in via the back door when carrying out an overall analysis. The 22-year-old of Spezia has provided five assists this season, the fifth-highest in the league. The midfielder who best operates from the right-side of centre midfield would make an excellent box to box midfielder, he has made 42 recoveries in his own third over the past year along with 35 in the opposition’s third. Maggiore is an excellent ballplayer, he enjoys spraying the ball out from midfield and has an impressive pass accuracy, particularly in key areas of the pitch. This makes the Italian an integral player for Spezia who on average complete the second-highest amount of passes 434 per game.
So now we have a small shortlist of players that have shown either good potential or great output and they deserve to be scouted further to see where their strengths and weaknesses are on the pitch. It is important to remember that data is not the only contributing factor to influence a team to submit an offer for a player, there are many other factors which come into play.
Despite this, there is no doubting that Serie B has a great talent-pool in relation to players that are flying under the radar, the above names could become more familiar to Calcio fans in the not too distant future, this has been proven in the meteoric rise of Sandro Tonali.