This question was submitted by Taylor B.
Thanks for the question, Taylor! As data becomes a bigger part of how we talk about soccer, I think it’s super helpful to think about which statistics can help us learn more about players. Looking directly at central midfielders, there are a number of different stats that I use when I’m trying to get a better grasp of a player’s skillset and style of play.
First, we can use expected goals (xG) and expected assists (xA) to at least partially gauge a central midfielder’s involvement in and around the goal. Are they moving into a lot of shooting positions? Are they creating a lot of chances? Those are the sorts of questions that xG and xA answer.
If a central midfielder’s xG and xA are high, there’s a good chance that you have a pretty attack-minded player on your hands. Take Austin FC’s Alex Ring as an example. According to FBref, Ring is in the 83rd percentile among midfielders in MLS for non-penalty xG+xA per 90 minutes. He’s making things happen in Josh Wolff’s attack.
Contrast Ring with Daniel Perreira – the No. 6 in Austin’s midfield – and you can see that Perreira’s xG and xA numbers are much lower. That makes sense, given that Perreira is asked to sit deeper and conduct play.
Another couple of stats that I’ll use to evaluate a central midfielder is “progressive passes” and “progressive carries”. Depending on where you’re getting your data, the definitions for these two stats will change slightly, but the idea is the same across the board. These two categories help determine how much a player moves, or progresses, the ball up the field. More defensively inclined central midfielders often have lower progressive numbers, while more offensively inclined ones tend to have higher progressive numbers. Staying in Texas, the Houston Dynamo’s Coco Carrasquilla has really high progressive carries and passes, which tells me that he’s great at helping his team move from one end of the field to the other.
To close us out here, I’ll also highlight some of the classic defensive stats. Things like pressures, tackles, and interceptions can help us understand how involved a central midfielder is when their team doesn’t have the ball. Those stats don’t give us a full defensive picture – and they also don’t tell us if a player is actually good at playing defense – but they tell us something about a midfielder’s defensive activity level. Unsurprisingly, Tyler Adams’ pressure numbers are extremely high, while his goal contributions numbers are low. Down the road, once we start to get more and different kinds of data, we’ll be able to better evaluate players’ defensive ability.