After a fourth-place finish in the 2018 World Cup, the England national team will be looking to capitalise on the expansive talent available for Gareth Southgate. With the European Championships being postponed to 2021, the English manager gets more time to get his tactics sorted. This is not an easy job. With the likes of Harry Kane, Jadon Sancho, and more to choose just for the forward line, Southgate will have some tough decisions to make in the coming year. In this data analysis, we will go through the midfield players available to England and create a shortlist of the best options for the Three Lions next summer.

Midfield Structure

The formation favoured by England has certainly changed since their World Cup loss to Croatia. In that game, Dele Alli appeared alongside Jesse Lingard and Jordan Henderson, the latter taking up a more defensive role. Since that game, Southgate has tried a multitude of different players in the midfield at different times. There has also been a notable shift in formation, from a back-three lineup to a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Against Croatia in the Nations League after the World Cup, this change is evident. Southgate started in midfield Barkley, Dier, and Delph. Dier played at the centre of the three, Delph on the left, and Barkley on the right.

Finding the best midfielders for England - data analysis statistics

In this picture, the roles of each midfield player are evident. Barkley (furthest left above) can push forward in a more advanced role, as he does at Chelsea. Dier and Delph meanwhile serve as deeper lying midfielders to facilitate possession. While Dier mostly stuck to his role deep and centrally, Delph would push forward on occasion.

Finding the best midfielders for England - data analysis statistics

Here, Dier gets the ball in space unpressured, so Delph pushes further up the field to create more options for the team. The starting full-backs for England are likely to be Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell, two offensive-minded players. Southgate may look to provide midfielders who can provide defensive cover for the full-backs when they make forward runs. With this information in mind, we can set some parameters for the use of the data in this analysis:

  • At least 900 minutes played during the 2019-2020 season
  • Qualifies to play for England from the big five leagues
  • Ideally one or two defensively capable midfielders with one offensively oriented midfielder

Defending

We will start with defending statistics: in the following plot, possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 (PAdjI) and possession-adjusted tackles per 90 (PAdjT) are the values on each axis. The size of the dot relates to the tackle success rate for the player. Football Reference does not provide a possession adjustment, so it was calculated manually with the help of the Wyscout Glossary. The black lines represent the average for midfielders in the big five leagues.

Finding the best midfielders for England - data analysis statistics

An interesting name leads the way in PAdjI per 90: Dale Stephens. The 31-year-old from Brighton manages 2.16 PAdjI and 1.49 PAdjT per 90, but he wins tackles at only a 52.59% rate. The standout in both categories is Declan Rice from West Ham. The young holding midfielder achieves an outstanding 1.81 PAdjI and 2.07 PAdjT per 90 with a tackle success rate of 72.9%. In addition to these two, the Liverpool duo of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jordan Henderson impress with 1.8 and 1.57 PAdjI per 90, respectively. Henderson combines this with an above-average PAdjT of 1.96. Harry Winks from Tottenham, like Oxlade-Chamberlain, underperforms in terms of PAdjT but garners an above-average 1.57 PAdjI per 90. Will Hughes and Nathaniel Chalobah from Watford boast higher than average numbers for both statistics. However, the latter barely qualifies for analysis at 930 minutes.

Ball Progression

Next, we will look at the ball progression abilities of England midfielders. The following graph plots progressive passes per 90 against the completion rate of long and medium-range passes. Progressive passes as defined by Football Reference include passes that advance the ball at least 10 yards further to the opposition goal from its furthest point in the last six passes and passes into the penalty area. Long and medium-range passes include passes 5 yards or longer.

Finding the best midfielders for England - data analysis statistics

The leader in progressive passes per 90 is James Maddison with 8.15. He is below average in terms of long and medium-range pass completion percentage, but this can be partially accounted for by his more offensive role at Leicester City. His long-range passes would be attempted into more risky areas of the field. Once again two Liverpool players come up second and third in progressive passes per 90, Jordan Henderson with 7.27 and James Milner with 6.83. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old Milner cannot be considered as he retired from international football in 2016. Henderson also completes his long and medium-range passes at a stellar 85.5% rate. The top two in terms of long and medium-range passing are Harry Winks and Ross Barkley. Each player manages a respectable number of progressive passes per 90 while completing their long and medium passes at a higher than 88% rate. English youngster Jadon Sancho also appears in this chart, but he would likely appear on the wing for England.

Chance Creation

Moving further up the field, we will now look at the chance creation capabilities of English midfielders. The chart below places Key Passes per 90 (KP) and Passes into the opposing Penalty Area per 90 (PPA) on each axis.

Finding the best midfielders for England - data analysis statistics

The two standout performers in either category are Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish. Excluding the former, the Aston Villa captain puts up 2.2 PPA along with 2.56 KP per 90. James Maddison leads the way in KP per 90 with 2.88 to pair with a decent 1.51 PPA per 90. His Leicester City teammate Harvey Barnes provides 1.34 KP and 1.73 PPA per 90, both numbers above the mean. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ranks third in terms of PPA per 90 but produces a below-average number of KP per 90 with 1.03. Ross Barkley of Chelsea comes fourth in KP per 90 at 2.03 and sixth in PPA per 90 at 1.63.

Goal Creation

In the final section, we will look at a chart that compares each English midfielder’s xG and xA output.

Finding the best midfielders for England - data analysis statistics

The most dangerous in terms of xG is Manchester City academy-graduate Phil Foden at  .39 xG per 90. The next two most productive are Harvey Barnes and Dele Alli, each with .35 xG per 90 and slightly above average xA of .16 and .11, respectively. James Maddison leads the group in xA (again excluding Sancho) at .24 per 90 to go with a slightly above-average xG per 90 of .17. Ross Barkley and Jack Grealish are two in a similar category as Maddison – high xA with slightly above-average xG per 90. Two interesting names who rank highly in either xG or xA are Theo Walcott and Jesse Lingard. Each of these players played under 1300 minutes this season, so their contributions should be taken with slight scepticism.

Final Shortlist

Finding the best midfielders for England - data analysis statistics

We said at the beginning that ideally there would be two midfielders capable of covering defensively for the full-backs to go alongside one creative midfielder to support the offence. Declan Rice is the clear choice for outright defensive duties. Harry Winks provides an alternative in a more defensive role, providing much more adept ball progression than Rice. Jordan Henderson provides significant versatility, producing high numbers in defence and ball progression statistics. Henderson also makes contributions in the final third, though to a lesser extent. The two offensive options are James Maddison and Ross Barkley, each providing very similar stats in each category, although Maddison provides more progressive passes than Barkley.

Conclusion

This data analysis provides five solid options to go in the midfield for England next summer. England has a wealth of young prospects who will inevitably grow throughout the coming twelve months. With the talent that they boast, they are certainly going to be a fun team to watch in the future.

Sources

Pictures: game footage via English national team YouTube

Statistics: StatsBomb via Football Reference

Noah Swan