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Team Performance

The Daring Process of Kevin De Bruyne

By: STATS LLC

How STATS Ball Movement Points Show Manchester City’s Midfielder Has Been the Most Dangerous Creator in Europe This Season

Kevin De Bruyne’s 67th-minute strike in a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge wasn’t just an aesthetically impressive example of fast-tempo football – it was arguably the most important goal to be scored in England so far this season. It distanced Manchester City from title holders Chelsea entering the international break and gave the 26-year-old his first Premier League goal of the campaign against the club that sent him to Wolfsburg.

That finish, as pretty as it was, isn’t the main reason we should praise De Bruyne’s efforts for the Premier League leaders.

Even in that six-match goalless stretch to start the season, you weren’t going to hear many supporters complaining about De Bruyne’s form the way one might if Sergio Aguero went through such a drought. Nor will you in the week following his inclusion in the Ballon d’Or 30-man list, from which fellow City creative David Silva is somehow once again conspicuously absent.

De Bruyne has been directly involved in four of Manchester City’s 22 Premier League goals. His goal – which featured the Messi-esque combination of build up and finishing inclusions from a pretty one-touch layoff to Gabriel Jesus before getting it right back on the run for a two-touch 20-yard left-footer to the upper corner – and three assists works out to an 18 percent involvement from the goal-and-assist perspective. It’s not a particularly high rate, and on a personal level, it’d be his lowest in three seasons with City.

But that’s precisely why KDB’s start to the 2017-18 season can act as one of the most relevant contemporary examples of why there need to be better metrics in football. Now settled into a deeper central position after the tinkering Pep Guardiola went through with his creatives in his first season in charge, De Bruyne is still generating all sorts of threat. He’s always been the type of creative midfielder who gains praise for his passing ability and his field awareness. He makes work difficult for defensive players with his precision, and his ball movement is rarely lacking ambition. It’s now measurable with ball movement points, which reward the process in a way traditional binary metrics such as successful passes fall short.

And, through seven matches, BMP shows the Belgian has evolved into the most dangerous playmaker in Europe with his globally overlooked club teammate not far behind.

First, a quick rundown on BMP, which we’ve used a few times before when discussing transfers and how key players are contributing to the top-five European leagues. BMP is a metric that considers every involvement a player has in a possession to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never quantify. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes and weighs the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he’s generated passes to lead to – or defend – one shot.

Yeah, that’s ambitious. So how is this done? The process assigns objective value using massive amounts of historical league data to express the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player based on zones of the pitch. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+ dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.

Got it? Good. Back to KDB.

First, the basics. In 2015-16, his seven goals and nine assists among Man City’s 71 goals amounted to 22.5 percent involvement. Last season, his six goals and 18 assists out of 80 Man City league tallies amounted to a 30 percent involvement. At that level, this season’s inclusion looks like a regression.

It’s not. While Guardiola experimented last season, De Bruyne’s 7.62 oBMP still managed to place second in England behind Mesut Özil (9.00). The season before, Manuel Pellegrini’s last, his 4.14 oBMP ranked 16th in England, and that came behind teammates Yaya Toure (4.82 in eighth), Silva (4.60, 10th) and Fernandinho (4.32, 13th). Özil (10.95) led then as well. For the sake of comparison, La Liga’s leaders last season were Lionel Messi (7.52) and Toni Kroos (5.97).

Onto the current term. It’s of course very early in the season and this is a tight pack, but now consider this season’s oBMP rankings across Europe’s top-five divisions in league play. Of the top 20, 11 are midfielders, and plenty don’t have the goals or assists to display their true value:

(Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

De Bruyne is leading, but he’s also the only player to separate himself from the next best player by any considerable sum. Project that 2.29 mark out over a 38-game season, and he’s looking at a 12.44 oBMP that cruises past his own marks from the past two seasons and even Özil’s. And right behind him is his teammate, who again hasn’t been given any love by the Ballon d’Or brass despite consistently creating on elite levels among the world class.

It follows that these players must have a pretty impressive oBMP+, meaning they are ambitious and effective with ball circulation in the attack – they find the channels and play a mean through ball, or they consistently deliver that low, bending cross that makes centre backs trip themselves. It also follows that they may have a considerable oBMP- because of the number of chances they have to craft opportunity, but they’ve got to limit that to exist as a leading creative player. For example, Alexis Sanchez ranked fourth in oBMP+ last season (10.66) but first in oBMP- (-5.01), so his wastefulness drops his net oBMP (5.65), which was not only a considerable margin behind teammate Özil but also Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka (5.92).

Now keep in mind BMP does not take into account finishing, which STATS quantifies by calculating expected goal differential (subtracting expected goals from actual goals). That’s where players such as Radamel Falcao (plus-5.8), Paulo Dybala (+4.7), Ciro Immobile (+3.5), again Messi (+3.4) and Mathew Leckie (+3.1) have distinguished themselves this season.

Maybe you can see where this is going. We’re going to write more in the coming weeks and take this a step further by quantifying the value of overall offensive contribution. But when you focus solely on the process of getting the ball to those finishing players in positions to succeed, right now there’s been no better creative than De Bruyne.