1. Introduction

The 60th Monthly Report presents the methodology of the CIES Football Observatory for the comparison of the technical performance of players in a statistically objective manner and applies it to footballers in 35 domestic leagues of UEFA member associations. The data used was produced by the company InStat. It refers to the 2020/21 season (or 2020 for the summer championships) up until the 7th December.

The report details the basic principles of the statistical approach developed and presents the rankings in the different areas of the game taken into account for each of the 35 leagues examined. It also unveils the best performing U21 footballers playing outside the five major European championships. Only footballers having played at least 540 championship minutes (with injury time) were included (450 minutes for the U21 rankings).

Figure 1: study sample (2020)

2. Methodology

The starting point of the approach was to classify the technical gestures of outfield players in different areas of the game. Among all game actions, we have selected the most important for one’s team to win from both an offensive and defensive standpoint. The composite indicators thus developed combine as much as possible the volume of actions carried out (productivity) and their outcome (efficiency).

From a defensive point of view, the rigour indicator highlights the players most able to prevent their adversaries from creating chances through a strong presence in duels. The ability to not make mistakes was also included in the calculation. This domain showcases footballers who are most gifted in terms of marking and relies on qualities such as physical strength, timing and concentration.

Also when it comes to defending, recovery measures the ability of players to minimise their adversaries’ chances through intercepting their passes or taking possession of lost balls. This area of the game highlights footballers who are most skilled at anticipating the opponents’ offensive intentions, and requires qualities such as positional awareness, tactical intelligence and stamina.

The third area, distribution, concerns players who are particularly adept at keeping the ball moving. This aptitude is of key importance insofar as it allows teams to dominate the game. As for individual qualities associated with this area of the game, we can notably put forward the technique, the game vision and the ability to keep calm despite opponents’ pressing.

From an attacking point of view, take on measures the ability of players to challenge successfully their opponents. Without players who are able to create an effect of outnumbering, teams struggle to create opportunities. Aside from technical ability, the skills required to excel at take on notably are risk taking, explosiveness and cunning.

Chance creation designates the ability of players to put teammates in a favourable shooting position. This area foregrounds players who are most adept at the final pass. In addition to skills already mentioned like technique and vision, chance creation requires further specific abilities such as creativity, swift decision making and instinct.

Finally, shooting measures the capacity for players to shot accurately at the opponents’ goal. In football, a sport where goals are in short supply, having players who are able to take advantage of opportunities is an aspect of the utmost importance. Apart from the above-mentioned attributes, shooting requires skills such as precision, self-composure and power.

Figure 2: areas of the game for the technical analysis of performance

Figure 2: areas of the game for the technical analysis of performance

3. Results

The method developed was applied to footballers having played at least 540 minutes (including injury time) during the 2020/21 (or 2020) season up until December 7th in the 35 leagues for which we have access to in the InStat database. This chapter presents the lists of the best footballers for each of the six areas of the game covered in our methodology.

For rigour, the three top values among all players have been measured for two big-5 league footballers, Willi Orban (RB Leipzig) and Berat Djimsiti (Atalanta), as well as for the Austrian Gernot Trauner (LASK Linz). Another Austrian Bundesliga player, Dominik Baumgartner (Wolfsberger AC), figure in the top 10 overall rankings, alongside Celtic FC centre back Shane Duffy.

Figure 3: best players in rigour, by league

As for recovery, the best absolute scores were recorded for two German Bundesliga players: the German full international Leon Goretzka (Bayern Munich) and the Bayer Leverkusen captain Lars Bender. The two best performing players in recovery outside of the five major European leagues are Gabriel Appelt (Benfica) and Adam Maher (Utrecht).

Figure 4: best players in recovery, by league

In distribution, players from teams whose style of play is based on possession are unsurprisingly at the top of the rankings. The highest value overall was measured for Idrissa Gueye of Paris St-Germain. The Senegalese outranks Sergio Busquets (Barcelona) and Toni Kroos (Real Madrid). The top score outside of the big-5 has been recorded for Alan Patrick (Shakhtar Donetsk).

Figure 5: best players in distribution, by league

When it comes to take on, the Wolverhampton winger Adama Traoré stands out. In the overall rankings, the Spanish full international is ahead of Lionel Messi (FC Barcelona) and another over-30 year-old player: Hatem Ben Arfa (Bordeaux). Two players from the Russian top division are in the top 5: Chidera Ejuke (CSKA Moscow) and Daniil Lesovoy (Dinamo Moscow).

Figure 6: best players in take on, by league

As for chance creation, our approach allows us to highlight the outstanding performances of an extremely talented young player: Dominik Szoboszlai (RB Salzburg). The Hungarian international outranks the Belgian Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City), as well as the polyvalent Argentinean from Paris St-Germain Ángel Di María.

Figure 7: best players in chance creation, by league

When it comes to shooting, the highest values for the first part of the 2020/21 season were measured for two very experienced players: Zlatan Ibrahimović (Milan) and Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich). The Malian striker from RB Salzburg Sékou Koïta has the top score for players outside of the big-5 European leagues, ahead of Pedro Gonçalves (Sporting CP) and Adam Armstrong (Blackburn Rovers).

Figure 8: best players in shooting, by league

4. Conclusion

The methodology developed to measure as much objectively as possible the performance of players in different areas of the game is particularly useful when it comes to scouting. We present below the top ten lists of players born in the 2000’s for each of the game domains studied. In this case, the playing time threshold to be included in the rankings has been set at 450 domestic league minutes.

Nathan Collins (Stoke City) stands out when it comes to rigour. The Irish centre back seems destined for a great career. He should soon receive his first call for the senior national team of his country. Collins outranks another player from a second division championship, Andrea Papetti (Brescia), as well as the very young Croatian talent Joško Gvardiol (2002) of Dinamo Zagreb.

Figure 9: the top ten U21’s in rigour, outside the big-5

A Malian top the rankings for U21 players not yet active in the five major European leagues: Mohamed Camara. The RB Salzburg midfielder is brilliantly following on the footsteps of other top footballers trained in the academies ran according to the precepts of the French maestro Jean-Marc Guillou. Among the numerous JMG pupils notably are the Touré brothers, Yaya and Kolo, as well as Amadou Haïdara and Diadie Samassékou, who also started their European career at RB Salzburg before to move on into the big-5.

Figure 10: the top ten U21’s players in recovery, outside the big-5

At the head of the distribution rankings for non big-5 U21 players is a 2002-born great talent: Ryan Gravenberch from Ajax. The Dutch midfielder ranks ahead of another Champions League player, Marcos Antônio from Shakhtar Donetsk, as well as of the very promising Nail Umyarov from Spartak Moscow. The latter should soon make his debut in the Russian national A-team. Mohamed Camara is well ranked also in this area of the game (4th).

Figure 11: the top ten U21’s in distribution, outside the big-5

The Georgian Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has the highest score in take on for U21 players outside of the five major European championships. The only big-5 league player born in the 2000s with a greater value is the Ivorian full back of Torino Wilfried Singo. Currently loaned to Desna, Mykhailo Mudryk ranks second. He will probably soon get a chance to return to his owner club: Shakhtar Donetsk.

Figure 12: the top ten U21’s in take on, outside the big-5

Alongside Mohamed Camara, RB Salzburg employs another potential future football crack: Dominik Szoboszlai. The Hungarian stands out from a chance creation perspective. According to persistent rumours, many big clubs such as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are on him. Two first class Ajax talents complete the podium: Antony dos Santos and Lassina Traoré. Angel Gomes ranks fourth. Signed last summer for free by LOSC Lille from Manchester United, he is currently on loan at Boavista.

Figure 13: the top ten U21’s in chance creation, outside the big-5

Finally, the top score in shooting for players born in the 2000s not yet active in the big-5 was recorded for the Englishman with Nigerian descent Noni Madueke (2002) from PSV Eindhoven. Antony dos Santos and Lassina Traoré are on the podium in this area of play too, just ahead of the talented Ghanaian Kamaldeen Sulemana from Nordsjaelland and the Slovenian Aljoša Matko from Maribor.

Figure 14: the top ten U21’s in shooting, outside the big-5