World Cup: Expected assists and three creative breakout stars

May 30, 2014

(ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images)

Statistics for measuring creativity in soccer are limited. Perhaps the most often cited one is “key passes,” but it is a rough measure of creative impact. The final pass before a shot is taken is always logged as a key pass. In my earlier piece on Chris Wondolowski, I showed how expected goals can be a better measure of the quality of a striker than his raw goals scored or shot totals. The same is true for creative players. Expected assists, using the same methodology, can help us to identify the players who create the best chances for their teammates.

In the English Premier League last season, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard totaled the most KP, well ahead of Manchester City’s David Silva. But Hazard’s key passes were heavily weighted to shots from outside the box, while Silva assisted many more shots inside the danger zone.

silva_hazard

Silva’s key passes add up to about nine expected assists, best in the league, while Hazard’s only sum to about seven.

Both men will be going to the World Cup, Hazard as a starter for Belgium, and Silva as a likely substitute for defending champion Spain. Hazard’s numbers suggest the 23-year-old may be one World Cup away from his best performance. Silva, by contrast, could easily break out and dominate this Cup if he gets the chance. With so many creative midfielders packed into Spain’s side, he may see limited minutes, but the Premier League leader in xA can do some amazing things on the ball and will be a man to watch when he gets into the game.

To find two more possible breakout stars, I applied the same methodology to La Liga. Which players have the best xA per 90 minutes this season in the top Spanish league?

la_liga_xa

I have highlighted here the Argentine Ángel Di María and the Croatian Ivan Rakitic. Di María’s numbers lap the field. With 0.44 xA per 90 minutes, he has a rate of expected assists more than 50 percent better than nearly anyone else in La Liga. If Argentina goes deep into this World Cup, and if Lionel Messi has his first dominant international tournament, look behind him for the man pulling the strings. It is likely to be Di María.

Di María has the advantage of playing a similar role for his club side as he will play for Argentina. For Real Madrid, he plays behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, using his pace and technical skill to get free and then hit them in stride with perfect passes. For his national team, Di María will play as the most withdrawn of an attacking four that features three scorers perhaps even better than his teammates on Real. To his left will be Messi and Sergio Aguero, and up top Gonzalo Higuain. We have already seen how Di María can dominate a match when he is tasked with picking out a final ball to great attacking teammates. The Argentine is perfectly poised for a big World Cup.

My third breakout creative star is Rakitic. While the Croatian midfielder does not lap the field as does Di María, his numbers might be even more impressive in context. The other four in the above chart play for the giants of La Liga, either Barcelona (Neymar and Fábregas) or Real Madrid (Isco and Di María). Rakitic, toiling for fifth-place Sevilla, nonetheless managed a season that was the creative equal of his more storied competitors.


He will likely be paired with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric in Croatia’s highly skilled midfield. In contrast to the tidy, refined brilliance of his teammate, Rakitic is a showman, always looking for a more audacious pass. Already this year he’s had a fast break overhead flick (above) and a 40-yard volleyed through-ball. When the World Cup opens with a matchup between Croatia and Brazil, it is not one of the Brazilians who is most likely to pull off the spectacular. It’s Rakitic. For Croatia to pull of an upset, they will need Rakitic in the center of the action. He is a man to watch.

Data supplied by Opta unless otherwise noted

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A.

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Neil Greenberg · May 30, 2014