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Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Costly Set-Piece Specialist? Maybe Not for Everton


Using STATS’ Advanced Metrics to Show the Move Presents the Midfielder with a Chance to Prove He Can Be a Playmaker at a Club with a More Possession-Based Style

By: Kevin Chroust

It’s true that two of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s nine goals last season came on free kicks and three came from the penalty spot. It’s true that of his 13 assists, eight came on set pieces. It’s true that Fernando Llorente is 6-foot-4 and Wayne Rooney is 5-foot-9. It’s also true that Sigurdsson is probably too far into his prime to ever be Mesut Özil.

You’ve read all of this elsewhere in the days after his move to Everton.

But calling Everton’s £45 million signing of Sigurdsson money spent on a set-piece specialist is a bit shortsighted. Dead-ball goals, assists and teammate physique aren’t necessarily the most well-rounded ways to measure whether Sigurdsson will fit in the run of play at Goodison Park. The rest of Swansea’s starting XI didn’t move with him, so it’s necessary to also consider club playing styles he’s more likely to be a part of under Ronald Koeman rather than the Swansea managerial mashup he’d experienced since rejoining the club in 2014-15. It’s also necessary to consider his own distribution aptitude.

First, the highlights. They’re there to suggest Sigurdsson in his mid-20s became the player he rarely was with Tottenham, and they go beyond his Europa League dreamer from 50 yards on Aug. 24 against Hajduk Split. If you haven’t already, do yourself a favour and watch it:

Against Manchester United on April 30 as Swansea scrapped for a much-needed away point to fight relegation, Sigurdsson sets up for a 24-yard free kick in the 79th minute while trailing 1-0, sees a defender leave David De Gea’s line, and immediately placed the ball in the back of the net in the precise position of the departed defender. The Swans got that point because of it.

Against Sunderland on May 13 as Swansea tried to secure safety, there’s Sigurdsson’s long ninth-minute free kick dropped into the box just out of reach of the charging keeper on the head of Llorente to give the Swans an initial lead in a 2-0 final.

From the run of play, there’s his two-touch heal pass to Martin Olsson in the 69th minute to set up an equaliser against Burnley on March 4.

Those are contributions that are obviously identifiable as valuable to anyone with football sense, and it’s now quantifiable. STATS measures players’ team point contribution, which factors in objective value to such plays, much like expected goals. Sigurdsson contributed 5.4 points last season, which was right at his expected points (xP) of 5.5.

What might be more telling here is while Sigurdsson’s point contribution ranked 31st in the Premier League, it accounted for 13.2 percent of his team’s points in matches he played. That wasn’t far behind some pretty impressive names among players who appeared in at least half of a single club’s fixtures, and it was ahead of notable others. It’s also interesting to consider how many of Everton’s transfer window signings were similarly impactful for their clubs last season.

So it’s very possible Swansea would not be a Premier League club this season had he not been there.

But the key counterpoint to his performance in the run of play might be that ball movement metrics don’t speak as well for Sigurdsson as certain elite attacking midfielders. STATS’ data-science team is able to leave behind often-misleading binary metrics of passes completed and assign objective value to distribution based on pass risk and reward.

Similarly, they’ve brought ball movement points into analysis, which is broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+ dBMP-). These metrics use machine learning to assign an objective value to every involvement a player has in a possession to credit or discredit decisions with the ball, measuring how dangerous a player is with ball circulation by relating it to the probability of a shot happening later in that play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he’s generated passes to lead to one shot.

Looking only at his positive offensive involvements, Sigurdsson is impressive, ranking eighth last season among a truly elite bunch of Premier League creatives.

But bring in his negative involvements, and his 3.4 net oBMP levels out considerably to 33rd. Comparatively, he’s nowhere near the top four of Özil (9.0), Kevin De Bruyne (7.6), David Silva (7.6) and Eden Hazard (7.2).

The leaders in those categories, however, at least have an opportunity to play for clubs that attack. Not only do they attack, they attack with possession. This is where things get interesting in evaluating the opportunity before Sigurdsson under Koeman. On one hand, the attacking systems those elite players are a part of makes it impressive that they’re able to limit their oBMP-, meaning they make relatively few adverse decisions with the ball while attacking. On the other, there’s the argument that Sigurdsson’s Swansea surroundings didn’t give him the opportunity to do so.

Everton are not Manchester City or Arsenal, but they also aren’t a club struggling to avoid the drop each April and May. Swansea have been in that defensive role in the table, and it’s reflected in their playing style.

According to STATS Playing Styles, which measure a club’s time spent in specific styles compared to league averages, Swansea operated far less frequently in possession-based styles such as build up (minus-21 percent), fast tempo (-15) and sustained threat (-10).

Everton, meanwhile, were at least slightly above the league averages in all three categories while also counter attacking more frequently.

That might not be a significant enough change to turn Sigurdsson into Everton’s version of Özil. But before concluding Sigurdsson is little more than a dead-ball wiz, let’s first give him a chance to be the playmaking midfielder at a club that operates at or above possession-based norms in the Premier League.

That opportunity could come with the new-look Toffees. It’s less of a long shot than a 50-yard dreamer.