While most eyes are fixated on the goal scorers, the successful teams have a special player contributing to the build-up.
The soccer world is fixated on scoring. We love Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. We appreciate what Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang do. Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa grab the headlines in the Premier League, and often left by the wayside is the art of the passer.
I’ve discussed the new holding midfielder and their responsibilities as that passer, and that plays into the discussion of how these players orchestrate the symphonies that are the Premier League’s best attacks.
It is no coincidence that the league’s top four passers are on the top teams — three of which belong to the league’s top three teams, and the other to the sixth. Those four players are each integral to the success of their teams, but in different ways.
1. Jordan Henderson, Liverpool—1,097 Passes
This is new territory for Liverpool’s skipper, as he has rapidly grown into his role at the base of Jurgen Klopp’s midfield.
His pass total has already bettered that of last year’s (914), and in four fewer appearances (though that season was injury-riddled). To put it into further perspective, in 37 appearances in the 2014/15 season, Henderson compiled 2,132 passes. He’s already completed over half of that, and in just over a third of the amount of appearances.
In his new role, Henderson acts as Liverpool’s safety blanket — the player everyone looks for when in trouble. When in possession, he comfortably controls the ball and looks for an outlet. He is gaining a reputation for only passing sideways and backwards, but that is far from the truth. Henderson has 735 forward passes this season, 85 more than anyone else. He has also added three assists to his one stunning goal at Chelsea, reminding supporters of the player who supplied nine assists from midfield two seasons ago.
Henderson makes Liverpool tick in Jurgen Klopp’s up-tempo system, allowing the attackers the freedom to roam because Henderson is always in the right spot. He is always prepared to receive a pass and cycle the ball, and stays firm on his defensive duties. He leads the league in passes because of this, and has been instrumental in Liverpool’s hot start this season.
2. Fernandinho, Manchester City—921 Passes
Much like Henderson, this is kind of a surprise. Fernandinho has always been a holding midfielder, but never like the kind Pep Guardiola has molded him into.
Fernandinho isn’t flashy. In fact, he leads the league’s top passers in zero categories. His completion percentage is 86, and he has 14 chances created and just one assist — nothing to write home about. But, compared to last season when the Brazilian played 33 games in the Premier League, he is halfway to just about every statistic through just 13 games, highlighting his development under Manchester City’s new manager.
Fernandinho is Pep’s Sergio Busquets at Manchester City. He is similar to Henderson in the way that he is often available for a pass, but he is not so often directly involved in the attack. Rather, he is a link between City’s back line and their attackers, facilitating ball movement in a possession-heavy attack.
He won’t post the assists or chances created of Henderson (and others to be named later), nor will he cover as much ground as other holding midfielders (again, to be named later), but Fernandinho’s contributions are vital to Manchester City.
Fernandinho’s game by numbers vs. Burnley:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 26, 2016
3 chances created
3 tackles won
3 aerial duels won
1 assist pic.twitter.com/Gni79zFsll
3. N’Golo Kante, Chelsea—857 Passes
We’ve known Kante as an engine, a guy who covers a lot of ground. However he was not a passer, especially on a Leicester City team last season that won the title with a counter-attacking style of play.
Now, after his sale to Chelsea, he is becoming a well-rounded midfielder under new manager Antonio Conte. Like Fernandinho, Kante isn’t an attacking player. He scored a goal in Chelsea’s thrashing of Manchester United thanks to some hapless defending, but that won’t happen too often. No, Kante is perhaps a blend of what Henderson and Fernandinho do.
The Frenchman, as mentioned before, never stops running. That puts him in the Henderson category, as he covers all areas of the pitch to be available for a pass. But, he is also in the Fernandinho region of play, where he links up the defense and attack for Chelsea. Unlike the first two passers, Kante plays in a two-man central midfield, alongside Nemanja Matic. Matic, who thrived in a base role under Jose Mourinho two years ago, surprisingly turned distributor, rattling off six assists already.
Kante’s style of play is different, more for the eye to see than for the stat sheet to display. However, his new role under Conte has turned him into one of the premier passers in England, all while maintaining his defensive work-rate and production.
N’Golo Kante has made more interceptions (36) than any other midfielder in the Premier League this season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 1, 2016
New team; still covering ground. pic.twitter.com/QVQCMdm4AK
4. Paul Pogba, Manchester United—850 Passes
With Pogba, we have a different animal altogether. The most expensive player in the world, the man is capable of playing the no. 6, the no. 10, and anywhere in between. He has received much criticism for his play to start the season, but it is all too harsh. People expect the most expensive player to score goals, but what Pogba does is similar to the previous three midfielders.
Pogba did a little of everything at Juventus, but mainly played as their chief creator. He registered eight goals and 12 assists in Serie A last season, but those numbers do little to equate to what he does for sixth place Manchester United right now.
At United, Pogba has played a wealth of positions, but is perhaps beginning to find it working as almost a no. 8, in a hybrid of the attacking and defensive positions. It does not necessarily show on the scoresheet, as two goals and one assist in the league through 1,080 minutes does not reflect well on the price tag, but Pogba is doing his job as pass master at Old Trafford.
In 12 appearances compared to 35 for Juve last season, Pogba is still over a third of the way to matching his total of chances created. Meaning no matter where he is in the midfield, he is still setting up opportunities to score. That is mainly due to his new role with United: everything goes through Pogba. Whether it is the first pass out of defense or a pass cycling the ball around the 18-yard box, it is Pogba there to receive it, and pass it on.
*All Statistics via Squawka.com, stats up-to-date entering Saturday’s action
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