In the last 20 years, football has been evolving with more emphasis on transition play, speed and less strength. One position severely affected is the attacking midfield position. As this changes has occurred, attacking midfielders have had to adopt a set of skills that includes blistering speed, dribbling proficiency, ability to pick out teammates on runs and the ability to score frequently.
Whether as a central playmaker, winger or support for the front men, these players make up one of the key positions on the pitch.
Here is a look at just a handful of the midfield dynamos who have been impressing this season and what has made them so effective.
This list is based on
1. Influence on their team’s attacking play
2. Creativity + Eye Test
3. Statistical performance compared to European counterparts
10. Emiliano Buendia (Norwich)
Norwich have had a horrible season so far yet, one of Europe’s most impressive players this season has been in their side. Buendia has had a wonderful season in a side that will be forgotten and will most likely be relegated by the time the season is concluded.
Although not usually starting in the attacking midfield zone, he has constantly drifted in there to influence play for Norwich and open up opponents. He has delivered 71 open play passes leading to shot attempts (4th in the league), with an xA of 6.9 (4th in the league), while playing 52 passes into the penalty area.
9. Jack Grealish (Aston Villa)
Aston Villa would be in a lot more trouble if they didn’t have Jack Grealish. Simply put, he has been excellent for them. His direct running and creativity have been very important all season.
Question marks over his professionalism have been flagged up after the recent fiasco in which Grealish crashed his Range Rover after attending a friend’s party and driving back at four in the morning. Despite this, stories about the player being courted by the country’s biggest clubs in England persist.
So far, he has played 102 open play passes leading to shots (2nd in the league), with an xA of 5.1 and 56 passes into the penalty area. No player in Europe’s top 5 leagues has carried the ball for a longer total distance this season than Grealish (11,751).
8. Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig)
Ever since their promotion to the Bundesliga, Marcel Sabitzer has slowly but surely become an unsung hero for RB Leipzig whilst remaining under the radar and quietly going about his business
After he moved to RB Leipzig, Ralf Rangnick felt a move into midfield would benefit him more and with the team set up in a narrow 4-1-2-1-2 formation, Marcel Sabitzer had to adapt. And adapt he did, the Austrian midfielder was converted from a hardworking, goal scoring attacking midfielder to a tempo dictating, deep-lying right-sided Mezzala.
The Mezzala is a roaming central midfield playmaker who operates in the half spaces and is a made up hybrid of a central midfielder and winger.
In a truly memorable season for Leipzig, he has held his own and provided influence when needed in the final third both in creation and scoring. He has played 73 open play passes leading to shot attempts (4th in the league) with an xA of 3.6 and 50 passes into the penalty area (highest in the league). He has also scored 15 goals in all competitions.
7. Martin Ødegaard (Real Sociedad)
It is a little over five years since a teenage Martin Odegaard signed for Real Madrid. Odegaard visited a number of Europe’s elite clubs before opting on a transfer to Real from Stromsgodset in January 2015 and was unfairly written off as he failed to feature in the first team until the final day of the season.
But not all players develop at the same speed and after a season-and-a-half at Heerenveen and another at Vitesse Arnhem, the midfielder has been a revelation in seven superb months at Real Sociedad, racking up seven goals and eight assists in 28 appearances for the Basque club
The Madrid loanee has set La Liga on fire this season. Ødegaard has excelled in so many things that have helped Sociedad rise to fourth in the league.
His on-the-ball decisions and ball-carrying have particularly been a delight. He has played 69 open play passes leading to shots with an xA of 5.4 (2nd highest in the league), as well as 68 passes into the penalty area (3rd in the league).
6. Dimitri Payet (Marseille)
After missing out on winning the 2018 World Cup with his country following an injury suffered in the Europa League final, Payet’s career appeared to perhaps have run its course.
After recording 23 assists in all competitions that season, his total fell to less than a third of that last season, and he had not scored in the league at the start of the current campaign in nearly 11 months.
Injuries played their role in limiting his effectiveness last year, and the growing status of Florian Thauvin as the team’s attacking focal point also dimmed Payet’s star considerably.
This year appeared to be more of the same; Payet did score a couple goals, but after he unwisely was sent off against Montpellier, earning him a four-match ban, upon returning from that suspension, Payet has been instrumental and is back to, if not his best as his 33rd birthday approaches, certainly in the discussion for this season’s best attacking player outside of the capital, alongside Monaco’s Wissam Ben Yedder and Lyon’s Moussa Dembélé.
Marseille have had a surprise season in Ligue, rising to second place in a season when they were expected to badly struggle. Central to that has been Payet without whom they have lacked any creativity against opponents, often looking clueless in attack.
Payet has been extremely influential in his ball carrying, exquisite passing, direct dribbling and even game winners. With an xA of 7.1, Payet has played 45 passes into the penalty area (3rd in Ligue 1) and 65 open play passes leading to shots (3rd in the league). His set piece deliveries have also been pivotal for Marseille.
5. Luis Alberto (Lazio)
No player has created more big chances than Luis Alberto in Serie A this season (16). With Lazio mounting a surprise title challenge, Alberto has been one of the key figures to drive it, ensuring that Ciro Immobile has been well supplied in attack.
The Spaniard is a free kick and set play specialist. Corner kicks have been designated to Alberto as he has the technique to send the ball into the right areas. When the ball is at his feet, he possesses great dribbling ability coupled with a neat first touch, and he’s also able to bring the ball down with his chest smoothly, and with apparent ease.
An ability to pick a pass is one of his biggest assets as he’s able to move the ball around the pitch in a composed manner, and finds his teammate in stride. It allows him to move the team forward in transition, aiding swift counterattacks.
He has played the most open play passes leading to a shot attempt (100) and has the highest xA in the league (7.6). He has also played the most passes into the box (65). He has also been key for Lazio through his ball-carrying, evidenced by his 11,294 total carry distance (2nd highest in Europe’s top 5 leagues).
4. Papu Gomez (Atalanta)
Across the last four seasons in Serie A, there have been 19 examples of a player getting at least 10 assists in a campaign. Gomez is on the list four times, and the only man who has achieved the feat for every season from 2016/17 onward.
2019/20 is the first of those campaigns where he has got more assists than his underlying performance would suggest too. Where he lies just ahead of Luis Alberto in expected assists, he’s second only to him in Italy for finding colleagues in the opposition penalty area.
Atalanta have been absolutely breathtaking in attack this season and Gomez has been a huge factor in that. With 87 open play passes leading to shots (2nd in the league), an xA of 6.2 (3rd in the league) and 65 passes into the box (joint highest in the league), it is clear why Atalanta’s attack has flourished.
Papu takes up key positions and invades spaces in attack that help to open up opponents. With him leading their attack, Atalanta have done some outrageous goalscoring.
3. Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich)
He has been called many things in his illustrious career to date, but only two words do him justice: world class.
To label Müller as anything else because he can look a touch ungainly would be like downplaying the Tyrannosaurus Rex’s regal pre-historic standing on account of its short arms. Players don’t chow down on 116 goals and 144 Bundesliga assists, polishing off eight Bundesliga titles, five DFB Cups and the UEFA Champions League along the way, without being top of the food chain. It’s just not possible.
Much of the Müller debate stems from his somewhat abstract position on the football pitch. The homegrown Bayern hero is a square peg that can’t be pigeon-holed, championing a style that has been leaving pundits and opposition players alike scratching their heads for over a decade.
He is neither pure centre-forward, second striker, attacking midfielder nor winger – but a little bit of all four and much more besides. In his own words, he is a ‘Raumdeuter’ (space interpreter/ instigator/ invader).
The German has returned to his best form for Bayern this season. Sitting just behind Lewandowski, Muller has roamed through that area to devastating effect, leading to him creating 24 big chances (2nd highest in Europe’s top 5 leagues).
So far, he has played 75 open play passes leading to shots, with an xA of 9.3 (3rd highest in Europe’s top 5 leagues) and 50 passes into the penalty area (highest in the league). What Muller has lacked in dribbling and direct running, he has more than made up for with his creativity and how he has used the ball for Bayern.
2. Angel Di Maria (PSG)
Di Maria has been in the form of his life for PSG. No player has created more big chances than him in Europe this season (40), in all competitions.
He has played the most open play passes leading to shots in the league (98) and has the highest xA in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season (14.3). When PSG have needed someone to consistently supply the frontline, Di Maria has made himself visible with his creativity and direct running into half spaces with the ball.
1. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
De Bruyne has had a wonderful season for Man City. He possesses numerous qualities and in all areas of the pitch. His ability to create goalscoring chances from accurate deliveries is perhaps unrivalled – he can reach the smallest spaces behind an opposing defence with passes or crosses that are so powerful that defenders and goalkeepers struggle against them. Any attacker already committed to a forward run would thrive on such deliveries.
In the Premier League, he has created the biggest chances (23). He has also the most open play passes leading to a shot attempt in Europe’s top 5 leagues (114) and has the second highest xA (13.4) as well.
No premier league player has played more passes into the box than him this season (88). He is deservedly the frontrunner for the Premier League Player of the Season. He has also been excellent in the UEFA Champions League.