Creativity is vital in football. Often games are won and lost due to a player’s individual quality in the final third, whether that be by threading a perfectly weighted pass or running at defenders with the aim of supplying a teammate for a finish.
It is no surprise that some of the most sought after players in the world are those who can create a chance out of nothing for their team. Especially in Europe, players who can beat a man and tee up a teammate come at a premium.
Some of the most expensive players in the history of football can be described as creative players. This was none more evident than in 2017 when Paris Saint-Germain paid a world record fee of €220m for Brazilian maestro and playmaker Neymar.
More recently, wide creators Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho joined clubs on either side of Manchester for fees of £100m and €85m respectively. Clubs across the world clearly value creativity.
The same can be said in the A-League. Creative players have always been among the most revered in the A-League, but the importance of these players have arguably come to the fore in the most recent few seasons where technical maestros have taken out the league’s MVP award, the Johnny Warren Medal, in five of the last six seasons.
It feels as if almost every A-League Men club has a top quality creator in the final third.
In fact, some of the A-League’s top creative talents appear to simply roll off the tongue. When thinking of these types of players, last year’s Johnny Warren Medal duo of Ulises Davila and Milos Ninković immediately come to mind. So too does Western United’s Italian virtuoso Alessandro Diamanti who led the league in assists last season.
Although it is often difficult to quantify creativity, these attackers all share common traits. All of them are adept at beating their man 1v1, can play decisive passes in the final third and have an intangible and innate confidence in themselves, a je ne sais quoi.
However, in many respects, the eye test is not the best mechanism of evaluating an individual’s creativity. Given the importance of creative attackers, it is no surprise that there are advanced data metrics aimed at quantifying this previously unquantifiable trait.
How does one measure creativity in football? The answer may not be as simple as one would have you believe.
One way of measuring creativity is by observing players’ ability to play decisive passes and run with the ball. This can be represented on a scattergram (a graph in which two variables are plotted along two axes) through the data metrics of penetrative passes and progressive runs.
Defined as a pass that a player makes that begins outside the opposition’s box and ends in the opposition’s box, penetrative passes can be used to determine a player’s ability to make creative passes in the final third.
Progressive runs are dribbles that finish closer to the opponent’s goal than it started and can be used to measure creativity in the sense of a player being able to carry the ball forward and engage in 1v1 situations with defenders.
The scattergram below represents an array of A-League Men players’ data for these respective stats – all of the stats are taken per 90 minutes for overall fairness and all players featured in over 1000 minutes in last season’s A-League season to ensure there is adequate sample size to make assertions with the data.
If one was to take this scattergram as a perfect representation of creativity, Macarthur FC signing Craig Noone would reign supreme far ahead of the competition. Western United’s Alessandro Diamanti features highly in progressive passes per 90 and progressive runs per 90 yet still pales in comparison to Noone.
However, this scattergram solely measures volume as opposed to quality and success of these runs and passes.
As such, it can be argued that this data has an inherent bias towards players that receive the ball more than others and play riskier passes that may not always meet the desired target.
This explains why centre-forwards Jamie Maclaren and Bruno Fornaroli feature towards the bottom left of the scattergram – they simply do not touch the ball enough during a game to have the same volume of penetrative passes or progressive runs as free midfield players like Davila, Diamanti or Troisi.
Therefore, when measuring creativity, one must ask themselves whether the quality of creation is as important as the volume of creation (as measured in the above scattergram).
When analysing the data above through a critical lens, it can be said that the data can be taken with a grain of salt because it does not take into account the quality of runs or passes. After all, should a player be considered wholly creative if they lose the ball or get dispossessed whenever they attempt a creative action?
With this in mind, it is also important to acknowledge this exact data when measured by success rate instead of volume. The below scattergram measures the success rate of penetrative passes with the success rate of progressive runs, ensuring that only the quality instead of volume of creation is being measured.
Using the scattergram above, we can see that there is less spread amongst the sample space’s data which is represented by the fact that the players are grouped more closely together.
Interestingly, Maclaren and Fornaroli are the two players with the highest penetrative pass success rate, despite featuring among those who produce the least amount of these passes. Therefore, it can be said that when centre-forwards like Maclaren and Fornaroli get the opportunity to tee up a teammate, they are more than capable of doing so.
This scattergram also gives a clearer indication of why players like Ninković and Diamanti are often revered as the league’s most creative – they simply lose the ball less than other players when attempting creative actions.
Given that both record a reasonably high volume of creative actions (as demonstrated in scattergram 1), it makes sense that fans would regard these maestros as among the most creative players in the A-League Men.
Therefore, when measuring what fans describe as aesthetically creative, using quality instead of volume is perhaps the best indicator, especially given that most followers of the A-League Men see Ninković, Davila and Diamanti as among the league’s best creators.
It must be said though that measuring creativity entirely on quality instead of volume is inadequate. A player like Jamie Maclaren should not be considered among the league’s most creative players. His volume of creative actions is simply not high enough to justify this opinion. When he attempts creative actions, he often produces quality, but this in itself is not a wholeheartedly adequate measure of creativity.
As such, the best way of measuring creativity is by using data that takes into account both quality and volume of creative actions. While this is difficult to comprehend at first, it can be easily quantified by plotting chances created and expected assists (xA) on a scattergram.
Football analysis company Opta defines chances created as assists + key passes where a key pass is “the final pass or pass-cum-shot leading to the recipient of the ball having an attempt at goal without scoring”. It goes without saying that when measuring creativity, chances created should be taken into account to measure volume.
When plotted on a scattergram next to expected assists – defined as the likelihood that a given pass will become a goal assist – there is a relative balance between quality and volume of creativity.
The graph below represents this data.
Using this data, which measures quality and volume of creativity, Diamanti and Noone reign supreme once again.
While some may perceive this data to not be indicative of creativity, given that it does not include data that measures players’ dribbling ability, this trait should not be conflated with creative play.
For example, Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne is regarded as possibly the most creative player in the world, yet he does not often look to dribble and beat players 1v1, rather, he prefers to use incisive passes to tee up teammates.
Creative play should primarily be defined as players’ ability to make passes that eventuate in goalscoring opportunities for their teams. Creativity also should not be restricted to open play.
The scattergram above includes players’ abilities to create from a dead ball which is markedly important in football given that over 28 per cent of goals in the A-League Men last season came as a direct result of a set-piece. The likes of Diamanti and Sydney FC’s playmaker Luke Brattan are experts at creating from a dead ball and creating chances from set plays.
Therefore, it can be argued that the scattergram above is perhaps the best representation of creativity in the A-League. This data yields arguably surprising results given that widely respected playmakers Davila and Ninković do not feature as highly in this measure of creativity as one would expect.
With that said, however, players like Ramy Najjarine and Andrew Nabbout should be more respected for their ability to create high quality chances at a high volume.
So what conclusions can we draw from this data analysis? Craig Noone is the most creative player in the A-League Men?
Possibly. Perhaps even probably.
However, it must be said that not all conclusions pertaining to creativity can be made using data. As aforementioned, players like Ninković and Davila possess a certain je ne sais quoi which makes them so riveting and entertaining to watch. The data does not necessarily suggest that these two stars of the league are not creative, rather, their creativity can be difficult to quantify using this data due to their intangible characteristics.
In the case of Ninković, this may be his movement off the ball which draws players towards him and opens space for teammates. This unique intelligence and game understanding is almost impossible to quantify with data.
Ultimately though, using data can be an effective way of measuring creativity in the A-League Men, particularly when it is surrounded in appropriate context.
Regardless of opinion, the data certainly points to Noone and Diamanti as among the A-League’s most creative players, and perhaps they deserve more respect from supporters for their ability to produce quality in the final third.
Image Supplied: Macarthur FC