3 ways to judge creativity in football

Assists are a false economy yet they’re used as a way to judge creativity when, in truth, it is a metric solely reliant on the finishing ability of a team-mate. 

For example, a two-yard pass prior to a 50-yard slaloming run and finish counts as an assist. Another player could pick someone out in the area with an incisive, perfectly weighted pass only to see the opportunity go to waste and they get nothing for their efforts. 

Now, the former is an extreme example, but you do regularly see a player make a simple pass before a team-mate does something extraordinary. That can happen on multiple occasions throughout the season to really bulk out those assist numbers. The creative tag is then bestowed upon that player and the narrative is pushed. 

We feel there are better ways to judge creativity. 

1. Expected Assists 

It can’t be long before this particular metric starts to be used by the mainstream media. Expected assists (xA) helps paint a better picture of the chances created. It also separates those players who really are creative hubs from those who are fortunate enough to be playing alongside team-mates who are finishing at an absurd rate. 

Take Harry Kane, for example. The Spurs forward ranks first for assists in the Premier League this season with 10, but he’s 20th for expected assists (xA). Granted, he is more of a playmaker for Jose Mourinho’s side, but the England captain has benefited from Heung-Min Son being on the hottest of hot streaks. 

Leandro Trossard has three assists to his name, though his expected assists total is closer to double that (5.5). Brighton have famously struggled to turn their dominance into goals this season and this has had an impact on numbers. Players are underperforming vs. expected goals and expected assists. 

Another player who has suffered because team-mates haven’t made the most of the opportunities he’s carved out for them is Eberechi Eze.

Eberechi Eze pass map for the 2020/21 campaign.

The 22-year-old has registered two assists this term, but his xA currently stands at 4.3. It might seem minimal but over the course of a 38-game campaign, using his current averages, it’s a difference of 4.6. 

2. Shots assisted 

In one-off games, this isn’t the best metric to use as it can fall into the same trap as assists – a random pass can result in a shot. However, over large periods of time, this can be used to help identify creative players. 

Shots assisted rankings graphic for Premier League players during the 2020/21 campaign.

The only surprise name amongst the top five in the Premier League is Pedro Neto. He is an outlet for Wolves, though, and a ball-carrier for Nuno Espírito Santo’s side. The 20-year-old picks the ball up, takes players on (he ranks second for dribbles attempted in the English top-flight) and then finds a team-mate. 

The other four are players who are widely regarded as the playmakers for their respective teams. They all make things happen on a regular basis, thus highlighting the fact they’re creative. 

3. Passes into the final third 

This metric is overlooked, primarily because it doesn’t always result in a shot, but a key part in a team’s build-up is getting the ball into the final third. Virgil van Dijk is the poster boy for this. 

He rarely assists and barely registers anything in the xA department, yet Liverpool have made the Dutch centre-back a key cog in their attack. His ability to ping passes from the defensive third is a weapon for the Premier League champions.

He might not always find a team-mate, but these balls create counter-pressing moments. Jurgen Klopp once said that gegenpressing is the best playmaker; van Dijk’s passes play a huge part in the Reds being able to press high up the pitch and create transitional situations. 

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