No matter where you are, sometimes someone will lean in and announce, “there’s only one stat that matters, and that’s goals.” It may be frustrating to a connoisseur like you, but in a sense they’re right, we *do* decide games on goals. It’s 2020 of course, so some entire divisions have been decided via points per game, but all being well, the current Premier League season will be completed on the pitch via the classic goal method. So knowing who is the most effective creator of chances for your team should be interesting for fans and managers alike. How much can we deduce about a team’s style and success from the identity of their most creative player?
The graphic below shows each Premier League team’s best creator and how they have fashioned chances in 2019/20, split into four buckets: open play passes (red), corners (blue), open play crosses (orange) and indirect free-kicks (grey). Some familiar faces like Kevin De Bruyne and Trent Alexander-Arnold are present, but there are some lesser-spotted names too. Some are gliding open play visionaries, some are training-pitch honed set-piece machines. There’s no right way to play football, just successful and unsuccessful outcomes. The 20 players here can at least hold their heads up high and say “I’ve done my bit.”
Man City/Kevin De Bruyne
The king in the north. De Bruyne will spend summer ‘20 trying to surpass 20, aka Thierry Henry’s Premier League 2002/03 record of 20 assists in a single season and the numbers suggest he has every chance of doing so. 96 chances created is 21 more than any other player in the division this season, and he has a nice spread between open play passes, corners and crosses. Try to avoid giving away free-kicks in dangerous places against Manchester City and De Bruyne will just cut you apart in open play. There’s no escape, just the knowledge that the 90 minutes will eventually elapse.
Leicester City/James Maddison
In 2018/19 Maddison became the first Premier League player from a non-Big Six club to create 100 chances since Dimitri Payet in 2015/16 and although the current campaign hasn’t been as standout as that one, the Leicester man is still on course to match or beat that figure. His importance from corners and free-kicks is evident in the chart, and he has crafted more than twice as many chances as the next highest Leicester man (Youri Tielemans, 37), including eight away at Crystal Palace, the most by any player on the road in 2019/20. Maddison may only have three assists this season but don’t believe the narrative that he has had a bad campaign. There’s room for improvement yes, but from a level that’s already consistently high.
Remember when people said left-footed players were more creative? Remember when people said defenders were there to defend? Well there’s a lot of creative right-footers in this list so far, and here comes Trent cutting you open from the back. Holder of the Guinness world record for assists by a defender in a single season (12 in 2018/19), Alexander-Arnold has already matched that total with nine games to go and operates a zone of mass creation down Liverpool’s right flank. A phenomenon.
Norwich City/Emiliano Buendia
It’s not been the return to the Premier League that Norwich were hoping for, but having the fourth-most creative player in the division is at least something. Buendia’s numbers are dominated by open play passes and, in particular, deliciously weighted through balls. No player has created more chances in a single match than Buendia’s nine against Wolves in December although, frustratingly for him and the City fans, none of them were converted by a teammate. Nevertheless, in the spiritual home of mustard, Buendia has made a difficult campaign easier to swallow.
Aston Villa/Jack Grealish
Like Buendia, Grealish has been playing for a newly-promoted team who may well go straight back to the Championship. Having said that, there’s little to no chance that the Aston Villa man will be playing in the second-tier next season. Grealish’s effectiveness from open play is the closest anyone else on the graphic gets to Kevin De Bruyne so it’s no surprise that there is a queue of suitors outside Villa Park ready to sign him, even if his team do the opposite of his socks and stay up.
Moutinho gets less love than some of his Wolves’ teammates and that isn’t really fair. He doesn’t have the goal threat of Raul Jimenez, the speed of Adama Traore or the occasional propensity to score astonishing long range goals like Ruben Neves, but the Portuguese veteran is the bleeping heart of the operating system at Molineux and the numbers here confirm that. Owner of the neatest split between open play, free-kicks, crosses and corners on the chart, Moutinho has provided more long threads than an evening on Twitter.
FPL players were alerted to Digne’s creativity in 2018/19 and although he’s been less heralded this season, under the radar he’s arguably been more effective. A reliable corner and set-piece taker, he’s the lethal supply line powering the Everton aerial threat offered by Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
In his debut season in England, 2017/18, Groß scored or assisted 45% of Brighton’s goals. He also scored the club’s first direct free-kick goal and is surely their most consistently effective signing of the Premier League era. As is often the way with players who are massively involved in both their club’s chance creation and responsibility for scoring, you suspect Groß would look even better in a team with more reliable finishers.
2019/20 has all been about Frank Lampard’s youth revolution at Chelsea, with Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic and Tammy Abraham getting praise for their attacking contributions. So it’s mildly amusing that their most creative player, by the numbers, has been the club’s fourth-oldest player and one who looks certain to depart Stamford Bridge once the season has been completed. Willian’s versatility has seen him create chances on the left, on the right and in the centre. No-one can doubt the Brazilian’s ability or consistency, but not even perfectly judged whipped balls can defeat the march of time.
Frequently cited as one of the most effective dead ball specialists in the division, Ward-Prowse has unsurprisingly created the majority of his chances from corners and free-kicks. At least some of them have actually been converted this season; last season the Southampton man created more chances with providing an assist than any other player in the Premier League.
Had the delay in restarting the Premier League lasted much longer, Deulofeu could have set some sort of record for only missing one game with a cruciate knee injury, having been carried off in Watford’s sensational 3-0 win over Liverpool on February 29. The Hornets will miss him in their remaining games, though, as he provides something few others of their players can, namely a genuine ability to run with the ball and create chances via little slipped balls in the final third.
Burnley are not generally synonymous with young players but Dwight McNeil is a huge exception to the rule and is arguably the biggest talent to come out of the club’s academy for a long time. His chance creation pattern is the most unique of any of the 20 on show at the start of the piece because he creates the majority of his chances from crosses. “There are no out and out wingers in the game anymore.” Yeah there are: Dwight McNeil.
12 months ago it would have been no surprise to see Fraser as Bournemouth’s chief architect, given that his assist/goal relationship with Callum Wilson was one of the most effective production lines in the Premier League in 2018/19. Neither player has performed as well this season but the Scot is still plugging away with a nice mix of dead balls and open play runs. Bournemouth are in more danger of relegation in the next few weeks than they ever have been in their time in the top-flight, and without Fraser in good form they could well be doomed.
Sheffield United/Oliver Norwood
Oliver Norwood guided both Brighton and Fulham up to the Premier League but didn’t get a chance to feature in the top-flight for either side. He tried again with Sheffield United and, along with nearly all of their players, has not been found wanting on the biggest stage. Norwood doesn’t actually have an Opta-defined assist yet to show for his creativity but that’s mainly because his team don’t actually score that often, they just win matches instead.
There’s no way around this. Arsenal are lower down in this list than you expect and Mesut Özil is a lot higher at Arsenal than you expected. The days of Özil carving the Premier League open and getting 19 assists (2015/16) are long gone, with Özil having only two this season (matching his total from the previous campaign) but even as his cutting edge recedes, that crescent zone around the penalty area is still a dangerous area to let the German have the ball. Oh, and he takes quite a few corners, which helps.
Like Oliver Norwood, Fred is yet to record an Opta-defined assist this season but few Manchester United fans would argue that he isn’t the most unanticipated success story at the club this season. He has failed to create a chance from open play in only three of United’s Premier League games in 2020; having a freshly unboxed Bruno Fernandes darting around in front of you certainly helps, but let’s celebrate the rise of Fred nonetheless.
West Ham United/Robert Snodgrass
At one point this season Robert Snodgrass was the highest scoring current Premier League player never to have scored more than once in game, and then he went and registered twice in West Ham’s calamitous 3-3 draw with Brighton. Never the most fashionable player at a club who spend big if not always wisely, Snodgrass is nonetheless the most creative player at London Stadium this season. Only six of the 33 chances have been crafted in open play but the Hammers are deeply embroiled in a relegation battle so you take what you can get.
Newcastle United/Jonjo Shelvey
Until very recently, Newcastle under Steve Bruce were the most cautious team in the division, their manager reasoning, not entirely without evidence, that not letting in many goals is a better route to survival than trying to score them. As such, there haven’t been any Newcastle players dominating the chance creation scene, with Jonjo Shelvey the only person to break the 30-chance barrier. Even so, his chance creation map is a fairly bleak spread. It’s been a long season for every Premier League side, but probably feels even longer at St James’ Park.
Tottenham Hotspur/Son Heung-Min
It’s arguable that if your most creative player has also found time to do three weeks of national service during that same season then it hasn’t the most productive of campaigns, but then 2019/20 is the first to contain a huge break for a global pandemic so that’s possibly unfair on Tottenham. Even so, Son’s 30 chances created is the second lowest club-best total among Premier League clubs (#SLCBTAPLC). Tottenham spread their creativity around with Serge Aurier, Lucas Moura, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Harry Kane all in the 20s, but even so, it’s surely an area Jose Mourinho wants to improve on.
Crystal Palace/Wilfried Zaha
And so we come to Crystal Palace and Wilfried Zaha. The Eagles are relatively safe in 11th as the league restarts, but only Newcastle and Norwich have scored fewer goals than Roy Hodgson’s team this season. Scoring just isn’t what happens in this part of south east London. The prized jewel at the club is Zaha but after scoring 10 goals last season and failing to secure a move away in the summer, the Ivorian has scored only three times this term. While he is Palace’s most creative player, the fact that all but three of the opportunities he has made have come from open play illustrates the problem the club faces. Zaha is an excellent Plan A, but when it doesn’t work for him, there’s not really much else to fall back on.