Following a European season which will be remembered for remarkable comebacks, a pulsating two-horse race for the Premier League title and the emergence of a young Ajax side who came within touching distance of a Champions League final, various members of the OptaPro team have singled out their standout players of 2018/19.
The players chosen are a mix of emerging prospects and established pros, with each profile including data insights to help explain why they have stood out.
Ben Mackriell, Head of OptaPro
David Brooks (Bournemouth)
The Premier League is a tough place for creative players. Defenders are quick and dynamic putting pressure on your every touch, which makes the speed of decision-making equivalent to that of a fighter pilot. Therefore, imagine coming into this environment on the back of only nine starts and four full games in the Championship in your first year of senior football – a tough ask.
David Brooks has more than risen to this challenge, seamlessly fitting into a Bournemouth side that ranked second in the Premier League in direct speed but with a significantly more possession-based style than the other long ball dominant teams appearing in the top five. With Brooks drifting into inside right and central final-third pockets, the sequence graphics below highlight how effective Bournemouth were at creating shots from these areas of the pitch. Brooks was involved in 4.2 shot ending sequences per 90, ranking him fourth in their squad.
Brooks finished the season ranked 10th of Premier League wide midfielders with 13 involvements in goal-ending sequences, an impressive output for a young a player in his first full season of senior football. This is further supported by his ranking of third in this metric in comparison to U21 wide players in the Top 5 leagues. We may well be seeing the start of yet another impressive career for a Welsh wing wizard.
Tom Worville, Senior Data Analyst
Nicolas Pepe (Lille)
Nicolas Pepe enjoyed a breakout season in a Lille side that qualified for the Champions League in 2018/19. Responsible for a third of Lille’s goals this season, only Radamel Falcao has been responsible for a higher proportion of his side’s goals (39%).
Pepe’s 22 league goals have come from good underlying xG numbers, albeit nine of his goals have come from the spot – only lagging Luka Milivojevic (10) in the top 5 leagues. Pepe is something of a double threat, notching 11 assists in the league. An exciting player to watch, Pepe has been the topic of transfer speculation over recent months.
Simon Davison, Consultant – UK and Netherlands
Martin Ødegaard (Vitesse, on loan from Real Madrid)
Ødegaard is only 20 years old, yet it feels like he has been around forever – in many ways he has!
He started his league career with Stromsgodset back in 2014 when he became the youngest footballer to ever play in the Norwegian top flight. He was transferred to Real Madrid in January 2015 and after a few months became their youngest ever debutant at 16.
Due to his emergence at such a young age, he is a world-famous name but it is this season where he is really standing out in terms of his on pitch performance. In 18/19 he played 85% of all available league minutes for Vitesse, generally playing right midfield or right wing and across all competitions delivered 11 goals and 12 assists.
His overall contribution to Vitesse’s attacking output was excellent. He created the most chances (122) of any player in the league and ranked 4th for Big Chances (22). Ødegaard had a total of 541 passes in the final third, which was nearly double the amount of any other Vitesse player. When he was on the pitch he had 22% of his side’s passes in the attacking 3rd, delivered 43.5% of their through balls and created 32.4% of their chances, which all emphasises how important he was to the team going forward.
The graphic below show Ødegaard’s chances created and his desire in the final third to play the ball into dangerous areas in the box.
Ødegaard was involved in 1720 sequences, which was the most of any Vitesse player and 7th overall within the Eredivisie. Across the Eredivisie he was ranked high for a range of other sequence metrics – his individual brilliance on the ball and ability to create chances is backed up by his number one ranking for sequences he started which lead to shots and goals.
Wherever he ends up next season then his side can expect someone who likes to be involved in possession, looks to play forward in the final 3rd, excellent set piece delivery and an ability to put the ball into dangerous areas to create a lot of chances for the team.
Jerome Lebatard, Consultant – France
Ibrahima Niane (FC Metz)
Metz’s Senegalese striker Ibrahima Niane scored 13 goals in all competitions this season, including 10 in Ligue 2, outperforming his xG (11.56). No other player aged 20 or under at clubs operating in the big five European countries’ second tier leagues scored more goals.
Niane featured in 33 league matches, with 20 of those coming from the bench. Half of his goals came as a substitute, which emphasises the impact he made when coming on with his pace, dribbling skills and finishing.
I first became aware of him in 2015 when I saw him playing for Generation Foot in a tournament in Senegal. He was named in the team of the tournament and impressed a number of European scouts who attended.
Next season he will play in Ligue 1 and it will be interesting to see if he can get into the same goalscoring positions against better quality opposition. As shown by the large circles on his season shot map, we can see he was able to get away a lot of high-goalscoring probability shots in the box, both centrally and from wider angles.
Denis Ivanov, Consultant – Eastern Europe
Denis Cheryshev (Valencia, on loan for Villarreal)
Cheryshev was the first Russian to progress through Real Madrid’s youth set-up to the first team, and despite being invited to play international football for Spain, is now proving to be a vital player for Russia, scoring nine times for them in the past eighteen months. Although he missed a number of matches this season as a result of injury, his performances for Valencia when fit have been the strongest in his club career to date.
Operating as a winger looking to hug the touchline on the left-hand side, he ranked second in Valencia’s squad for chances created (1.95 per 90) and whilst his total assists for the campaign amounted to two, his total season xA output of 5.6 suggests the quality of his distribution in attacking areas was better than his actual total suggests. He was also the most productive player in relation to cross output (5 per 90), targeting Rodrigo and Santi Mina in the air.
Valencia have an option to buy Cheryshev this summer but irrespective of where he plays his football, his challenge for 2019/20 will be to stay fit and nail down a place as a first-team regular for consecutive seasons, something which has so far eluded him in his top-flight career.
Andy Cooper, Senior Marketing Coordinator
William Saliba (Saint Etienne)
France appear to have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young central defenders, with Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara and Dortmund’s Dan-Axel Zagadou both featuring regularly during 2018/19. During the final few weeks of the season, we saw another exciting prospect emerge in the shape of Saint Etienne’s William Saliba.
Capped at every level for France from U16-U20, Saliba made his first-team in September, aged just 17. He went on to make 15 further appearances, including three at right back, often deputising when Neven Subotic and Loïc Perrin were injured. He started in six of his team’s last seven matches, with four clean sheets, helping them secure fourth place and a spot in next season’s Europa League.
Saliba has recorded more tackles per 90 (2.26) than any other Saint Etienne defender this season, with a 50% success rate. He also recorded more interceptions (1.9) and recoveries (6.2) than the league average, as well as a higher than average duel success (63.5%) and aerial success (59.6).
In possession, when playing at centre back he has tended to keep his distribution simple, recording the lowest volume of passes into the opposition half of any Saint Etienne defender. He mostly played sideways to his defensive partner or into central midfield, however when he did go long he enjoyed the highest passing accuracy, 59%. With Subotic likely to depart in the summer, he is definitely one to keep an eye on next season.
Part two of this blog, featuring a further six players, will be published on Wednesday.