Josh Hobbs builds a Premier League team of the season using TransferLab.
With the domestic season over in Europe’s top five leagues, teams of the season have been doing the rounds. Sky Sports pundits, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville caused plenty of discussion about their picks, not least for the inclusion of Phil Foden.
Of course, nobody could deny the youngster was fantastic. But the fact is, he played fewer than half of the available minutes over the course of the Premier League season. Should a player that played that few minutes really be in the team of the season?
Analytics FC asked me to enter the Team of the Season battlefield using TransferLab’s ‘Best League XI’ function to pick a Premier League team, something I was only too happy to do.
In order to avoid the Foden controversy, the filter is set at a minimum of 2000 minutes. That pushes players beyond the 50% threshold.
I have chosen to show the three best players in each position with a 4-3-3 formation. The profiles in each position are shown on the image:
I’d like to think that this passes the eye-test pretty well. There are one or two interesting ones and notable omissions but I will touch on these as I run through the team.
In goal, we have one of the signings of the season, Emi Martinez.
After impressing at the end of the 19/20 season, there was no way the Argentine could go back to being a back-up and he was subsequently signed by Aston Villa.
In the end, he played every game of 20/21, keeping 15 clean sheets as Villa were a vastly improved side defensively and ended up comfortable in 11th. This was no small feat given that they only survived on the final day of the 19/20 season. Martinez’ role in their season can’t be overstated.
Transfer Lab has not distinguished left and right centre back roles, so the top three centre backs are all in the right-sided role, as you will see by their scores.
It’s notable that Footballer of the Year, Ruben Dias, isn’t the top rated centre back. However, some of what Dias has brought to Manchester City isn’t the type of thing that statistical algorithms are never going to pick up. Those ‘intangibles’ of leadership and organisation, particularly of a defence which was floundering before he came into it, are extremely hard to quantify. Even without accounting for those, TransferLab picks him up as a top three performer in the position.
It’s also impressive that Kurt Zouma and Cesar Azpilicueta come out as the top three, given that Chelsea were struggling defensively under Frank Lampard. Thomas Tuchel’s tactical system has been built on a firm defensive base and all those he has utilised in his back three have thrived.
Joao Cancelo coming out on top at right back isn’t surprising at all, given that he was one of the top performers for the title-winning side, playing one of the most tactically interesting roles in the division.
Just look at the heatmap on his TransferLab profile. This is not the heatmap of a normal full back.
The Portuguese defended as a fullback and did that well as shown by his percentile rankings for defensive metrics. However, he acted as a pivot in possession, as explained by Pep Guardiola himself.
In this video, you can see him receiving the ball from Ruben Dias in the centre circle, moving it on and then continuing to act as part of a double-pivot with Rodri:
From his profile, we can see that he ranks highly for progressive passing. The thing with Cancelo is that his progressive passing is very different to the norm for fullbacks. These would primarily be played up the line, but due to him inverting centrally, they are often line-breaking passes through midfield.
In this video, he comes from his right back position to drive forwards beyond the centre circle and pass into the feet of Ilkay Gundogan:
Possession is ultimately lost by Phil Foden but you can see what kind of dangerous situations Cancelo is able to cause by performing this role.
He’s certainly deserving of a place in the team of the season as Guardiola utilising him in this manner was one of the factors behind City’s dominance in the league.
On the other side of the pitch, Luke Shaw is rated the highest as an all-round fullback and it’s very hard to argue with this. He had a tremendous season for Manchester United and his form was rewarded with a return to the England squad after a couple of years away.
However, I want to briefly focus on the third best left back, Fulham’s Antonee Robinson:
Although Fulham were relegated with three games to go, the US international proved that his future is at the top level. Aside from his adjusted pass accuracy (the ratio of successful passes to expected successful passes) ranking in only the 13th percentile, his profile looks more like a player playing in a team competing at the top of the league rather than a team that were relegated.
He performs most notably in ‘Carries (quality)’ where he ranks in the 89th percentile for fullbacks in the league. Here is an example of his ability to drive forwards and how that brought value to Fulham’s attacks:
Look how Robinson was able to break pressure, outmuscle his opponent and carry the ball forwards with speed before delivering a good cross into the box.
Although he’s only been at Fulham for a season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be picked up by another Premier League team.
The defensive midfield position is where we have perhaps our most notable omission, given that many of the teams of the season in the media have featured Thomas Soucek in this kind of role. However, as the profile I have selected for this role is ‘Defensive Midfield – Holding,’ the kinds of things that he’s good at aren’t as important.
The big thing that Soucek has brought to West Ham is a goal-threat, picking up 10 for the season, both from arriving late into the box and from set-pieces.
As you can see from his profile, the Czech international is just above average as a defender—apart from in the air—whilst offering little in possession. Without his goals, there’s no way he’d be in the conversation for team of the season.
Meanwhile, although Rodri doesn’t offer the attacking output to Manchester City, he is adept as a defender and excellent in their build-up play, making him the standout pick for the defensive midfield role.
In the box-to-box midfield role, we have Mason Mount, after a stellar season for the Chelsea youngster.
Although he played a similar amount of minutes in 19/20 (2,867 in 19/20 compared to 2,890 this season), there were questions over whether he would have played so often if he wasn’t ‘Lampard’s favourite’. This season he showed he is the real deal.
Mount was used in a variety of roles; sometimes in midfield, sometimes as an attacking midfielder or even on the left. He finished the Premier League season with 6 goals and 5 assists at a rate of 0.17 and 0.15 per 90.
As you can see from his profile, he is an all round creator—a ball-carrier and creative passer, though not much of a long passer.
He’s also starting to score the kinds of goals the best goalscoring midfielders do as he has picked up the art of ghosting into space in the penalty area:
According to TransferLab, Mount’s defensive numbers are decent. His tackles and interceptions are just below average and his 1v1 defending (quality) standing out in the 82nd percentile for midfielders in the Premier League. However, the profile used doesn’t touch on his defensive work-rate, which is exemplary.
It was only ever going to be Bruno Fernandes in the attacking midfield role. Manchester United’s main man has a profile score of 96 in the attacking midfield ‘playmaker’ role, scoring above the 90th percentile for passes into the box, touches in the final third, through balls and progressive short passing.
All of these metrics are ‘quality’ based, so are not simply determined by volume but how these particular actions contribute to the team’s expected goals. Fernandes is one of the most relied on attacking players in the league, in this regard.
Brighton’s Leandro Trossard deserves a mention here, as the third highest performer in this role.
The Belgian ended the season with 5 goals and 5 assists in a side which famously struggled to put the ball in the back of the net. Chance creation was never a problem for the Sussex based team though and Trossard was a huge part of their ability to continually make chances, with his touches in the final third and passes into the box (quality) both above the 80th percentile.
If Brighton can sign a genuine goal scorer this summer, Trossard is the perfect player to provide them with plenty of opportunities.
Again, the top performer on the right wing is no surprise at all. In fact, the first choice in the final three positions just aren’t really up for debate.
Mo Salah hit over 20 goals in the league for the third time in four seasons, scoring at a rate of 0.47 non-penalty goals per 90 and ranking in the 97th percentile for all forwards in the Premier League for ‘expected goals (open play)’ with a value of 0.42. As well as that, he brought creativity, with his 0.13 expected assists per 90 putting him in the 82nd percentile of forwards.
However, Salah has been one of the stars of the Premier League for a number of seasons now. The second highest performer on the right wing was Leeds United’s Raphinha, playing in the Premier League for the first time after signing from Stade Rennais for the bargain price of around £18m.
Leeds scored more goals than any promoted team in a 38 game season in the Premier League and the Brazillian winger was a huge reason for this, contributing 6 goals and 9 assists.
Of course, Patrick Bamford scored 17 goals. Raphinha, though, was the primary chance creator, both in open play and from set-pieces. His expected assists of 0.13 per 90 puts him in the 85th percentile for the metric. His stand-out metric is ‘dribbles (quality)’. He is in the 94th percentile, showing that few in the league contributed to the team’s expected goals more than he did by dribbling.
See here how he created a big chance for Tyler Roberts by taking on two Southampton defenders, allowing him to get cut back from around the byline, rather than aligning in a cross from wide:
As I said at the beginning of this piece, almost every pundit for Sky Sports selected Phil Foden in their team of the season.
He certainly finished the season spectacularly and looks like he’ll be a World Class player for years to come. However, it’s hard to understand the lack of Jack Grealish in those teams, given that he put up absolutely ridiculous numbers this season in terms of creativity and played 569 minutes more than his England teammate. You only have to look at how Aston Villa dropped away from a European challenge to finish 11th after Grealish picked up an injury that cost him three months of the season.
Looking at his profile, he could hardly be any more impressive:
He’s perhaps the one player who added more value to his team’s attack than Bruno Fernandes to Manchester United. He performs so well in almost every metric that it’s hard to pick one out to mention but it’s worth mentioning his ‘adjusted pass accuracy’ as ranking in the 98th percentile for this metric whilst being as creative as Grealish is almost unheard of. Highly creative players typically give the ball away a lot.
There will perhaps be speculation about the Villa star again this summer, although he is tied to a long contract. One thing is for sure though, his attacking output would improve almost any team.
If he’d stayed fit all season I think he’d have been in the conversation for footballer of the year, let alone team of the season.
It couldn’t be anybody else other than Harry Kane really, could it?
Whilst Spurs were disappointing, he had a monster season on a personal level, finishing with 23 goals and 14 assists. This meant he was top of the tree for both.
The underlying numbers were very healthy as well, as TransferLab puts him in the 84th percentile for expected goals from open play and the 88th for expected assists:
After Spurs ultimately finished well below the Champions League places, Kane has made it known that he wants to leave this summer. He may well end up being too expensive for even the richest teams but after a season like this, somebody could be tempted to part with the cash, even with the financial state of football being what it is.
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