Bannan, Freeman and Grealish- Comparing three of the EFL Championship's creative midfielders
Updated: Jan 9, 2019
Recruitment in midfield
In the summer of this year it looked as though Jack Grealish would be on his way to North London to be part of Tottenham Hotspur's manager Mauricio Pocchetino's young squad. Aston Villa fans, myself included, feared the worst and come August the 9th our worst fears were realised and Spurs bid £25 million. With Villa under huge financial pressure it looked as though Grealish was off but Spurs were told in no uncertain terms that he was not for sale, at any price. Had Daniel Levy and Co acted earlier they would have got their man or so Steve Bruce had claimed however Grealish eventually signed a new five year deal effectively doubling his wages but of course the pessimist in me says it is more than possible this is to merely increase his value for next year, I hope i'm wrong.
So to the point of this article. I have heard whispers on social media and seen a few snippets in the written media around the possible return to Villa Park of Sheffield Wednesday's Barry Bannan.
This made me wonder that if ever that rumour ever became a possible reality would Bannan add anything to the squad? I think the answer would be well probably not. Of course there are a few others i could have analysed and stuck in this article Duffy at Sheffield United amongst others.
Another player I coveted in the summer, and who I put forward for a move to Aston Villa, and also who I have admired for a long time now is QPR's Luke Freeman. Third last season in overall assists with 12 and with an xA of 13.01 (Bannan and Grealish didn't even make the top 30 in xA last season)
I have wrote about and analysed Freeman for a few years now right back to his Stevenage days in 2011 and believe it or not he is still only 26.
Freeman, in the 17/18 season, produced his best numbers to date with 12 assists and 5 goals (16/17 season- 5 assist 4 goals and in 15/16 6 assists and 1 goal) so is Freeman getting better with age? Well, yeah. It still puzzles me as to why he doesn't seem to get a better gig than QPR (no offence meant).
So lets compare the three players mentioned above and stick em all in a wonky table for ease of reading.
Numbers wise we can see for Jack Grealish the season of 2015-16 in the EPL and Villa's first season in the Championship following their relegation doesn't make for great reading. Injuries played a part of course but as he reached the season of 17-18 Grealish picked up albeit gradually with 4 assists. His numbers still weren't as we would have expected from a talent such as his though.
Bannan produced and followed a similar path to Grealish the past three seasons with some low numbers assist wise bar a half decent return in the 16/17 Championship season with 7 assists and beating an xA of 6.07 in which he played 44 games but his goal return has been consistently poor. The season of 15/16 saw Bannan give a return of 2 goals and 2 assists in 38 games backing up that point.
Former Bristol City man Luke Freeman had a good season last year with a huge return of 12 assists from an xA of 13.01 showing there was probably more to come from him especially given he also had an xG of 8.41 and scored just the 5 goals. Freeman played just the 26 games for QPR and Bristol City in the 16/17 season and still produced 5 assists again with an xA of 7.5 and scoring 8 goals exceeding his xG of 3.95 massively. The changing of clubs in the season shouldn't be underestimated of course if you think these numbers are a tad low.
The present day
Given some teams have only played 16 or 17 games in the Championship this season there is a relatively small sample size to go from but be that as it may it will give us a peak into a window of what these three attacking midfielders can offer longer term now we have looked a bit at a small part of some of the numbers they have produced in the past few seasons.
I feel, as i'm sure most scouts and recruitment analysts will do also, that being able to receive and carry the ball into the final third and the danger areas in and around the box is a vital asset for an attacking midfielder to have. Its a big part of their play especially when playing as part of an attacking midfield three in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 shape as we have seen with Dean Smith's Aston Villa at points at the start of his tenure.
So i wanted to look at the successful dribble rates of the three players i talked about above and where they tend to pick the ball up from and their ability to create opportunities from these dribbles.
First up Luke Freeman.
QPR usually play in a familiar 4-2-3-1 formation with Freeman operating on the left of the midfield three and looking at the graphic above that i have produced that seems pretty clear. A success rate of 81% is well up there that much is clear and with a Total Non Penalty xG of 1.76 (he's scored 2 goals) and an Total xA of 1.95 and 1 assist Freeman is on the right path again in a performance wise mixed season under a Steve McClaren led QPR side.
In regards to a few other measures I use in a simple, straight up AM template I've stuck them in a radar with per 90 unit samples and it would be interesting to stick these numbers in a AM/Winger template to see how they stack up for variance.
Just to be clear I REALLY LIKE LUKE FREEMAN! And if he turned up at Aston Villa I wouldn't be disappointed as he can play anywhere across a midfield three and on the left or right of a front three cutting inside or taking defenders on down the flanks and he can take set pieces so whats not to like? The fact that he is a VERY similar player to Grealish is the only issue but good players can always be accommodated in a team no matter what anybody tells you.
Anyway enough of the Luke Freeman love in lets see how Barry Bannan stacks up.
To put it nicely, he doesn't. Stack up that is. Bannan, as i mentioned at the start of this article, has earned plaudits from some fans and EFL television pundits alike but I just don't see it personally. Admittedly Bannan's Wednesday team are scoring goals with a current NPG total of 20 and an xG of 19.84 (my last count on xG and xGA is about a week out forgive me) it seems Bannan's lack of contribution may not be being missed after all but Wednesday have also conceded 26 goals and with an xGA of 22.6 (only Preston have a worse record) could this explain Bannan's issues going forward as he is maybe having to fulfil a lot more defensive duties? Possibly but maybe we are clutching at straws on the Scotsman's behalf. His success rate when dribbling with the ball is low but as we can see he doesn't seem to attempt that many anyway. C'est la vie as they say.
When we compare Bannan's stats on the radar with Freeman's and Jack Grealish's he is down on pretty much every measure. Although he is still a decent midfielder I think Bannan had his time at Villa Park and there is no need to go back from his or from Villa's point of view if indeed, which I doubt, has ever been the case.
Super Jack Grealish
Maybe its age, maybe its just that he is that good but Grealish is starting to again find the form of last season playing in a struggling Steve Bruce side.
The sheer amount of dribbles attempted let alone the successful ones that are documented in the graphic above is enough to rival that of an above average Premier league AM let alone a fellow Championship one like Freeman or Bannan.
Unlike Freeman this season Grealish has usually been deployed in the Aston Villa team behind a central centre forward, usually Chelsea loanee' Tammy Abraham, in a 4-4-1-1 formation and not on the left of a 4-3-3 however Grealish does tend to drift out more to the left hand side and cut back inside on to his favoured right foot. He also has the highest success rate of all the three players mentioned with 84%.
Grealish's assist numbers haven't quite hit the numbers he or Villa would like as yet but as the season progresses they probably will and we can see from the first table that his numbers in the areas detailed have improved year on year and progression in a player is what drives recruitment.
I guess my overall point is that if Villa end up losing Grealish and if they were to look
to recruit from the Championship and if they don't get promoted and if... well they could do a lot worse than taking a good look at Luke Freeman.