Manchester City capped one of the most dominant seasons in English top-flight history by wrapping up the Premier League title with five games to spare.
Pep Guardiola’s side have dropped jaws and inspired gasps throughout 2017/18, and it’s no surprise to see the Etihad’s brightest stars figuring prominently when analysing the campaign’s most creative individuals.
The champions are on course to set a new record for goals scored in a single Premier League season, a feat made possible by the prolific chance-conjuring skills of the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané, David Silva and PFA Player of the Year favourite Kevin De Bruyne.
The Belgian playmaker has been magnificent this term, elevating his performances to become one of the finest players in world football.
The 26-year-old, signed from Wolfsburg in 2015, has thrived as a ‘free 8’ in Guardiola’s 4-3-3-cum-4-1-4-1 system, leading the Premier League assists chart with 15, just five off Thierry Henry’s record of 20.
Indeed, the top three assist makers this term are all City players, with Sané (12) and Silva (11) ranking just below De Bruyne. However, the champions aren’t quite so dominant when it comes to expected goals assisted (xA).
The xA metric uses historical shot data to apply a value to each chance-creating pass based on the likelihood of its subsequent shot being scored. Where registering an assist relies as much on the scoring player, xA is a good way of judging the quality of a chance created, regardless of what the shooting player does with it.
As the above graphic shows, De Bruyne, as is the case with actual assists, is top of the pile for expected goals assists per 90 minutes (xA90) this season, but Sterling is the only other City player in the top five.
Despite having scored 30 goals fewer than their cross-city rivals in 2017/18, Manchester United‘s Alexis Sánchez and Anthony Martial make up the rest of the top three – perhaps José Mourinho should consider fielding the pair together more often as discussed here.
The xA metric is arguably the most comprehensive single measure of creativity available, but it is not the only one.
In recent years, the notion of ‘big’ or ‘clear-cut’ chances has become more prevalent, used to denote a scoring opportunity that has a stronger-than-average chance of resulting in a goal.
The ability to consistently create such chances is valuable. And the reason some players may figure highly when ranked by big chances created and not xA, or vice versa, could be that their xA score is racked up by the accumulation of lots of average- or low-quality chances, rather than by creating fewer higher-percentage opportunities.
He may have been deemed surplus to requirements at Old Trafford in January, used as bait for United to land Sánchez from Arsenal, but Armenian attacker Henrikh Mkhitaryan remains a capable chance creator, topping this metric with an average of 0.65 big chances created per 90.
The usual suspects – De Bruyne, Sané and Silva – are sandwiched between Arsenal stars as Mesut Özil completes the top five.
The key passes metric doesn’t discriminate between the ‘quality’ of chance a player creates, instead treating every pass that leads to a shot equally. Therefore it is not the most instructive tool for analysing a player’s creative powers, but it does give an idea of which players are most regularly able to pick out a team-mate within sight of goal.
And although the Stamford Bridge side’s title defence has flopped badly, Cesc Fàbregas and Willian have also proved to be capable creators, perhaps highlighting Antonio Conte’s continued need for a top-class striker in light of Àlvaro Morata‘s struggles since joining from Real Madrid.
Using all three of the above metrics in conjunction, and applying a descending points score to every player in the top ten for each – the highest-raking player gets ten points, the second-highest nine, and so on – it’s no surprise that De Bruyne is top dog with 22 points.
But he shares that distinction with Özil, who, while not topping any one metric, consistently performs highly across all three to match the Belgian’s score. Maybe that new contract was money well spent for Arsenal after all.