Ebere Eze (Queens Park Rangers)
The first of the three Championship talents who appear destined for the Premier League is Queens Park Rangers’ 21-year-old midfielder Ebere Eze.
The highly coveted England U21 international has flourished under Mark Warburton’s dynamic, attacking system, establishing himself as one of the leading performers in the Championship in 2019/20, notching up 12 goals and eight assists. No player currently 21-years-old or under has more goal involvements in England’s top four divisions this campaign than Eze.
However, his career was somewhat of a rollercoaster before settling in west London. Eze, released by Arsenal, Fulham, Reading and Millwall, has had to work hard to shake-off the tag of ‘luxury player’ and establish himself at the professional level. After signing for QPR in the summer of 2016, Eze, a player with insatiable promise, was still too early in his development for a place in the first team.
It was the 2018/19 season that saw Eze finally flourish. He featured heavily under Steve McClaren, playing a part in each of the first 29 league games in that campaign. Eze racked up 3,186 minutes, equating to 77% of the total minutes available, and his 42 league appearances was the most by a QPR player aged 20 or under in a season since Terrell Forbes in 2001/02.
When comparing his numbers from the last two Championship campaigns, there has been an exponential growth in Eze’s development across all aspects of his game. Although he had appeared regularly in 2018/19, factors such as team shape, style of play and physical conditioning contributed to inconsistencies in his form with Eze underperforming in his expected goals projection (4 vs 5.7), whilst creating just one goalscoring chance per 90 minutes.
In 2019/20 he is now the jewel in Warburton’s team, dictating the tempo and direction of attacks with his exceptional ability to dribble with the ball and create space for others – a coveted trait well-suited to the Premier League. Eze has completed the most take-ons (111) and has been fouled the most often (89) in the whole Championship this term.
Eze has also overperformed his expected goals (12 vs 10.9) and expected assists (8 vs 6.3) projections in 2019/20, owing to marked improvements in his decision making in the final third and also with a little help from his strikers improving their finishing. In fact, six of Eze’s eight assists for QPR this season have arrived in open play (2nd most for the club in 2019/20), whereas last term he registered just three.
His transition into a much more efficient and dynamic player is further illuminated by the fact he has created 70 goalscoring chances; the most of any U21 player in the Championship this season.
A deeper look into Stats Perform’s advanced metrics only furthers the notion that QPR’s star player is ready for the next step in English football. Within Warburton’s fluid 4-2-3-1 system, Eze (174) has been involved in the most open play sequences that ended in a shot for QPR (8th highest in division), with 20 of those sequence involvements ending in a goal – a total that amongst midfielders is only bettered by Fulham’s Tom Cairney (21).
Only Nottingham Forest’s Ben Watson and West Brom’s Matt Phillips (6) have started more open play sequences that ended in goals in the Championship this season than Eze (5), which is three more than he managed last term. When looking at secondary chances created – the number of shot-ending sequences in open play where a player makes the pass to the player who created the chance – Eze has provided 42 in 2019/20; 17 more than in the previous year, further showing his importance in QPR’s attacking unit.
A composed individual on the field, Eze’s relationship with the ball is reminiscent of Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish. His languid running style and exceptional close control makes him deceptively difficult to dispossess just like Grealish.
If his statistics are anything to go by, Eze is well positioned to transition comfortably to top-flight football. Whether that is with QPR or with a Premier League team willing to take a chance on him, it is paramount it is a side willing to embrace his mercurial skills. Young English talent comes at a premium, but this is one talent many clubs will be anxious not to let get away.
Saïd Benrahma (Brentford)
For many years now, Brentford have been at the forefront of talent identification, unearthing hidden gems from across Europe using their own statistical scouting model put in place by owner, Matthew Benham. In recent years, the Bees have signed and sold players for huge profits to Premier League clubs, notably Neal Maupay, Ezri Konsa, Chris Mepham and John Egan.
The continued success of their scouting model has seen them boast one of the most dangerous attacking sides in the Championship (joint-top scorers with 64 goals), with winger Saïd Benrahma, the latest in a long line of players destined to make the step up into the Premier League.
The 24-year old Algerian, who spent his career in France before moving to Brentford in the summer of 2018, has established himself as one of the most valuable players in the Championship. Benrahma’s capacity for the unpredictable makes him a delight for fans to witness. He is no stranger to a nutmeg and has the vision to turn defenders, showing speed of thought not unlike that seen in the Premier League – a nightmare for any Championship defender.
Since the start of last season, Benrahma has provided more assists than any other player in the second tier of English football (21), while his total of 165 chances created is second only to Leeds United’s Pablo Hernandez (187).
Since his debut for Brentford in August 2018, the tricky Algerian has registered 41 goal involvements in league competition, the joint-highest at the club (20 goals, 21 assists). In fact, he is the only player in England’s top four tiers to reach 20+ for both goals and assists in this period.
When comparing his two seasons in the Championship, it could be said that his underperformance in his expected goals during the current campaign (10 vs 11.4) represents a downturn in his attacking efficiency, but in many ways his output in 2019/20 has been more successful at supplementing Thomas Frank’s tactical structure. His expected assists from open play (9.1) is a league-best total and suggests the quality of chances being served for his teammates are of a high standard.
In comparison to 2018/19, this season Benrahma is creating more big chances (0.33), winning the ball back more often (5.3), having more touches in the opposition box (5.9) and also winning more fouls in the final third (0.7) per game. His ability to draw the attention of opposition defences in dangerous areas creates space and opportunities for his fellow attackers Ollie Watkins (22 goals) and Bryan Mbeumo (14 goals).
Diving deeper into the advanced metrics, Benrahma’s influence as one of the dominant attacking forces in the Championship is clear. When looking at the carries metric, defined as a player travelling with the ball for five metres or more, Benrahma ranks in the upper echelon in the division. The winger has embarked upon 656 carries: the second highest total in the Championship and the most by an attacking player.
He has racked up a sizeable 7,688 metres in distance travelled when carrying the ball (11.7 metres per carry), showing an aptitude for shifting his side’s position on the pitch and putting pressure on the opposition.
Importantly, Benrahma is not just running down blind alleys when travelling with the ball, there is substance to these wilful endeavours. The Algerian has created an impressive 24 chances and five assists following a carry – the joint-third and joint-second highest figures in the competition respectively.
When analysing all positions across the Championship this season, Benrahma is the player most involved in their team’s open play shot-ending sequences (56%) – a testament to his importance to the Bees and his willingness to be the catalyst to their high-powered attack, whether that be supplying the chance or taking the shot at the end of the move.
From the data, it is apparent that Saïd Benrahma has the technical ability and output to test his skills in the Premier League. With Brentford nestled in the play-offs, there’s a strong possibility the Algerian’s dream of playing top-flight football in England could come true sooner rather than later.
Kalvin Phillips (Leeds United)
Since Marcelo Bielsa arrived in West Yorkshire in the summer of 2018, Leeds United have become a club transformed and transfixed on attaining promotion to the Premier League. Leeds have not ended a single league matchday outside of the top-six under Bielsa and are currently top of the Championship with nine games to go.
After falling short in the play-offs last season, when Leeds achieved their highest points tally in a campaign (83) since winning promotion from League One in 2009/10, Leeds have persevered with Bielsa’s tactical philosophy in 2019/20 – and to great effect. Since August 2018, they have dominated possession in all but three league matches, averaging 64.6% overall. In the top two divisions of English football, only Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are averaging a higher percentage during the same period (67.1%).
In Kalvin Phillips, Bielsa has a defensive midfielder he can rely on in the middle of the park to orchestrate proceedings. Phillips’ variety of skills means he is not only the defensive linchpin but is the cog that gets the attacks moving too. In the current Championship campaign, Phillips has initiated 46 open play sequences that have ended in a shot for Leeds, the most at the club.
Under the guidance of Bielsa, Phillips’ awareness of the game has improved dramatically. His positioning on the pitch has shifted over time from a box-to-box midfielder, to a defensive screen in front of the back four who acts as the catalyst for attacks. Phillips averages 56.3 passes per 90 in 2019/20, compared to 37.5 per 90 in 2017/18.
Phillips has shown increasing levels of tactical discipline, including being able to slot in as a central defender. His acumen to be in the right position to cover his teammates and hunt down the ball has earned widespread acclaim and watching glances from the England manager Gareth Southgate. Owing to the lack of depth England possess in defensive midfield, it will not be long before Phillips is mentioned once more in international circles.
The 24-year-old Leeds-born midfielder is the chief instigator in stopping the opposition in the middle of the park, with Phillips winning possession back more often than any other Leeds player under Bielsa (546) – which is also the fourth highest total in the Championship during the same period.
Prior to Bielsa’s arrival, Phillips positioned himself as more of a box-to-box central midfielder, notably scoring a career-high seven times in 2017/18. However, his reputation as a keen tackler has always shone through in the data. Since the start of the 2017/18 season, Phillips has made more tackles than any other Championship player (307), ahead of Massimo Luongo (301) and Maxime Colin (256).
The only blot on his defensive work during 2019/20 so far was his straight red card away to QPR in January. However, his fouls per 90 have decreased from last season (1.6 to 1.4 in 2019/20), while he has won 55% of duels this campaign, a single season-high for him at Championship level.
In possession of the ball, Phillips has demonstrated a wide range of passing well-suited to a higher level of football. Not only is he able to keep it simple with snappy, short passing, he has also completed more long passes than any other Leeds player this season (163 total – 5.4 per 90). His tendency to switch the play out wide is the perfect transition for Leeds to beat the press and launch attacks, while his total of 46 passes switching flanks is the most for Leeds this term. Impressively, it is the third highest total overall in the division, only Stewart Downing (65) and Paul Gallagher (55) have managed more, despite Phillips missing six matches.
The depth of his passing ability has affectionately seen him labelled the Yorkshire Pirlo by the Leeds fans. In fact, Phillips has created 60 goalscoring chances for his teammates in 2019/20 – his best total in a league season. His technical ability is further demonstrated by his work at set plays, registering 51 chances created, which is the most by a Leeds player in the Bielsa era.
In 2019/20, Kalvin Phillips has been an integral creative source for Leeds, despite playing in defensive midfield and centre back. His expected assists projection is notably higher than in the last two campaigns, while only two Leeds players have posted higher xA per 90 ratios this season. Had the quality of the finishing been of a better standard then Phillips’ assist total may well have been a career-high – although there is still time for him to attain that this season.
Last summer, Leeds were rebuffing the advances of Premier League clubs looking to acquire the services of their talented midfielder and managed to persuade Phillips to commit to a new long-term deal in September. With Leeds sitting top of the Championship, in pole position to return to the top-flight after a 16-year absence, Phillips could well be realising his dream of playing Premier League football with his boyhood club. The 2019/20 campaign has seen Phillips become a more polished footballer, which will stand him in good stead as he looks to take the next step in his career.