Major League Soccer 2019: Best Under 25 attacking midfielders – data analysis
With the MLS nearing its comeback, this space of time presents itself with the opportunity to have a look at some of the younger players. While the league has been looked as a league where many veterans go to “retire”, the past years have seen an emergence of young talent from the American continent.
The likes of Paxton Pomykal are the torchlight of young players that are lighting their way in the tunnel that is the MLS. In this data analysis, using data and statistics, I will analyse and find the best under-25 attacking midfielders in MLS.
Before we get on with the data analysis, it is important to layout some context. Normally, I choose players who have played more than 20 games to analyse, however, seeing how few young attacking midfielders are there with credible numbers, I have decided to enlarge the cutoff to more than 10 games.
In addition, unlike most positions, attacking midfielders like Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne and Juventus’ Paulo Dybala are rarely involved in defensive activity due to the nature of their position. As such, I will not be considering defensive metrics and only prioritising passing and attacking metrics in this analysis.
The way this analysis will work is that I will first analyse the age-pool of under 25 attacking midfielders and then look at the chosen ones in the larger pool with more veteran and established attacking midfielders like Carlos Vela and Nicolás Lodeiro.
Looking at the age pool
We’ll start by looking at the more standard data analysis before we delve deeper.
Here I have assists per 90 versus xA per 90. This gives us an indication of the attacking players who record high expected assists which gives credit to the players’ indirect play. Contrasting their actual product, assist per 90, illuminates those players that not only record high expected numbers but actually perform – hallmarks of the best players.
In this aspect, Alejandro Romero Gamarra stands out from all the attacking midfielders by a big degree. He records an xA of 0.30 – the highest among U25 attacking midfielders – and 0.17 assists per 90 – again, the highest in his age pool. This underperformance on his expected assists is expected because Gamarra is 25 years old and just going into his prime. Ezequiel Barco, 21 years old, marks himself as having the second-highest xA per 90 at 0.23 and the fourth-highest assist per 90 at 0.14.
However, the starlets of this bunch are Efraín Álvarez and Jesus Ferreira who, at 18 and 19 years old respectively, put a respectable xA per 90 and overperform it greatly.
Not all attacking midfielders play the same – some are involved in the deep buildup while others are involved more in the box. To analyse this, let’s take a look at second and third assists per 90 in this age pool.
Here we have third assists vs second assists per 90 with xA per 90 being coloured in the data points. Second assists indicate more attacking positions as you have to play close interplay to record second assists. Third assists indicate deeper attacking styles as a third assist is the pass before the second assist.
LA Galaxy’s Efraín Álvarez and Emerson Hyndman make their presence known as the most versatile attacking midfielders. Álvarez records the highest second assists per 90 at 0.16 – tied with Hyndman – at the age of 18. The youngster couples that with 0.16 third assists per 90 which points to the fact that Álvarez is involved in the close link-up play but is also involved in the buildup. The more experienced Hyndman shows his quality by recording the highest second assist per 90 in the age pool and the highest third assists per 90 at 0.23.
Barco and FC Dallas’ Paxton Pomykal show themselves to be more attacking inclined while Albert Rusnák and Brenden Aaronson show themselves to be more inclined to aid the attack through the deep. Aaronson is particularly special as he records good second assists per 90 and third-highest third assist per 90 at the age of 19.
Following this look into assists, it’s time to look into the advanced passing metrics which can gives us more clue than standard data analysis.
Here I have shown a dot chart of various attacking metrics. We’ll start from the obvious – Gamarra is clearly the outlier in his age pool. He consistently records the highest statistic in each metric here and does so by quite a mile.
Following Gamarra, the more older players like Luciano Acosta – who just turned 26 – dominate the advanced passing metrics. A surprising outlier in these graphs is 21-year old Djorde Mihailović who repeatedly ranks third in many of these metrics.
We’ve looked at assisting and the more technical aspects a lot. Let’s switch to the more goal-hungry side of things to see these midfielders from a different perspective.
Here we have one of the best metrics to look at goal opportunity. At the bottom, there are touches in the box per 90 while shots per 90 are graphed on the y-axis. This representation allows us to see which players get into the box more and actually make use of their activity in the box.
Great goal-hungry players usually record high touches and high to above-average shots per 90. In addition to those metrics, it is also important to know the shots on target percentage so that we know how many of the shots actually go towards goal.
In this aspect, the U25 midfielders are a mixed bag. However, notable players are Paul Arriola and Barco who record high touches in the box with average to above-average shot-taking ability and are decent at keeping them on target. Gamarra and Ferreria are another set of players who show themselves to be good in the box but just enough as they are near the averages.
Progressing into the theme of goal-activity, it also pays off to look at how progressive the midfielders are.
Here we have progressive runs on the y-axis and progressive passes per 90. Gamarra pulls himself out of the crowd by recording the highest progressive passes per 90 at 11.6. On the flipside, Barco stands as the most active attacking midfielder with the most progressive runs. Pomykal and Acosta also mark themselves out as those who combine a great mix of the two measures of progressiveness.
Finally, let’s look at measures of directness. We see metrics like deep completions, deep completed crosses, dribbles and offensive duels per 90.
Yet again, Gamarra stands out in deep completions and deep completed crosses meaning that he is the best-attacking midfielder that puts his players within 20 meters of the goal either via crosses or simple passes. Other notable players in these two metrics are Barco, Pomykal, and Alvarez.
On the flip side, Alexandru Mitriță ranks the best in dribbling and offensive duels – ie 1v1 scenarios. Right behind him are Acosta and Barco as the best-attacking midfielders who can properly take on their markers.
After having taken a look at the attacking midfielders, I have chosen these four as the best: Alejandro Romero Gamarra of NY Red Bulls, Ezequiel Barco of Atlanta United FC, Paxton Pomykal of FC Dallas, and Efraín Álvarez of LA Galaxy. These choices are driven from the statistics and also the age.
With that out of the way, let’s look at each one specifically and try to figure out the specific playing styles of each player.
Closer Inspection of the Selected Ones
Firstly, we will have a look at the shooting ability of our selected players.
Here we have the metrics that record shot-taking and goal-scoring ability. The best performer here is Barco who clearly shows his goal-scoring ability. This leads to the conclusion that Barco is more involved towards the end of the attacking actions to make the final pass and arrive late and shoot. The other midfielders show some affinity to goal-scoring but none like Barco.
The next step is to look at the more direct metrics that measure crossing and taking on a man. This gives us another perspective of our midfielders.
In this perspective, Gamarra and Álvarez show themselves as the midfielders that are very similar. Both cross the ball into the box with high frequency and are not the best at taking their man on as seen with their sub-par performance in dribbling and offensive duels.
Barco is not a crosser but is rather excellent taking his man on while Pomykal is a healthy mix of an attacking midfielder who crosses and one who takes his man on.
Finally, let’s look at the passing metrics that made these attacking midfielders stand out. Obviously, Gamarra shows his amazing quality by overperforming in every metric by a mile. Álvarez and Barco perform similarly in the passing metrics with great performances in metrics that are more close to the action – passes to penalty area, deep completions, final third passes, and through passes. On the other hand, Pomykal is involved in the action of the attack and in the buildup play as we see with his performances in general metrics like passes per 90, progressive passes per 90, and forward passes per 90.
With those specific metrics out of the way, let’s look at how our midfielders fare against the matured and older players.
Firstly, I will look at how these midfielders perform in the various attacking and passing metrics. Our selected midfielders are highlighted in red while the rest of the league is shown in grey.
Following on our trend, Gamarra ranks as the top dot in various of the graphs here. Pomykal generally ranks above-average in the metrics with the exception of some and that is primarily because he, at FC Dallas, doesn’t play as the final midfielder but rather alongside a slew of wingers.
Barco and Álvarez display the trend of being mostly similar as they rank near the top of many of these metrics and often interchange positions but the trend remains similar.
As we can see, our attacking midfielders are some of the best you’ll find in the league. Barco, Álvarez, and Pomykal are all 21 years old or younger and so for these players to be above-average or average in a league dominated by more mature players is a testament to their ability.
Next up, we have the traditional measure of xG and xA for attacking midfielders. Here we see a clear separation in our midfielders. Barco marks himself out, as we saw before, as a more goal-inclined midfielder – putting metrics similar to Pozuelo and performing better than Carles Gill. Gamarra pulls himself in the creativity-inclined direction and this was an obvious separation due to his outstanding performance in passing metrics.
On the other hand, Pomykal and Álvarez rather underperform in their performance in these statistics. However, this does not mean that they are bad as we have seen. Rather they need some time to get accustomed and develop as Pomykal is only 20 and Álvarez is 18 years old.
Finally, we’ll finish with a nuanced look at shooting. As we’ve seen in the past metrics, Barco is the most goal-hungry midfielder out of the four and removes himself from his pack. In the league context, he stands relatively average but that is to be expected due to his age and room for improvement.
In conclusion, we’ve seen that our best under 25 attacking midfielders, Barco, Álvarez, Pomykal, and Gamarra, show themselves to be the best in their age pool and perform strongly among the more experienced, matured, and world-class players like Carlos Vela and Lodeiro.
Barco is an attacking midfielder who gets the goals while Álvarez is a similar player like Barco with less emphasis on scoring and more emphasis on creating. Gamarra is a creative maestro who stands as one of the league’s strongest creative midfielders while Pomykal represents a very good mixture of creativity and directness.