Analyzing Europe’s best ‘Progressive Pass Receivers’

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Disclaimer: This is NOT a sponsored post. But anyone who’s read my analyses over the past few years will know that I’m a massive fan of the football data and statistics website FBRef. Powered by StatsBomb, FBRef is a free to use site with loads of data from footballing leagues around the world, including detailed scouting reports, a nifty ‘Player Comparison Tool’, and practical statistics that can’t be found anywhere else. So with that, today, I break down the underrated value of one of my favourite FBRef stats – a lesser known thing called ‘Progressive Passes Received.’

WHAT ARE PROGRESSIVE PASSES RECEIVED?

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One of the recent trends in all the discussion surrounding data has been to detail the vast array of “progressive” characteristics of a footballer. From progressive passes to progressive carries to total progressive distance, analysts like me are constantly scrutinizing over how forward-thinking a player on the ball.

But, as you know if you read the introduction, there’s a lesser known stat that also assesses an incredibly valuable “progressive” quality. FBRef’s ‘progressive passes received’ metric takes into consideration how many times a player receives a forward pass, that either moves up the field a total distance over ten yards, or into the penalty area. Narrowing it down even more, the statistical value only accounts for passes that were made in the final 60% of the pitch, i.e. passes that are typically closer to the opponent’s goal, rather than one’s own.

While you may think that on-the-ball actions tend to be more important in a match than off-the-ball actions, you’d be horribly incorrect in thinking that. In fact, just last week in ‘How I watch football matches for tactical analyses‘, I detailed how off-the-ball actions account for about 97% of what a football player does on a pitch. The problem with studying off-the-ball actions can be seen in the name itself. It’s incredibly difficult to quantify these accomplishments, beyond basic tracking data like distance covered and average position. With a fun stat like ‘progressive passes received’ FBRef has found a happy medium within a quantifiable on-the-ball event, that cannot exist without the hard work that a player has done off-the-ball to put themselves into position. That, inherently, is part of its charm.

THE VALUE OF PROGRESSIVE PASSES RECEIVED

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On the surface, the statistic in question may seem a little rudimentary. After all, it doesn’t tell us what a player did with the ball after they received it – only that they accomplished the basic principle of controlling a progressive pass into their path. However, it gives us detail into a plethora of off-the-ball actions, and even makes inferences toward a player’s overall importance to their team. By assessing this stat, we gain insights into a player’s awareness of space, ability to pick up advantageous positions to receive, and even how much of a focal point they may be for their club. But again, we’re talking even more in depth here – about “progressive” passes. It’s not just a sheer number of passes received in space, but passes that were more difficult to pull off, having travelled greater distance and closer to goal.

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Since the metric also takes passes into the penalty area into consideration, it nicely gauges how well a player is able to find space inside some of the most dangerous areas on a football pitch – including the most dangerous of all – the penalty area. Understanding this can give greater context into why a player might have a higher xG, goal total, chance creation number, or simply any other attacking stat that benefits from being in good attacking positions.

LEADERBOARD

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Like any attacking stat, players toward the top of this particular leaderboard will typically play for some of the best, goal-scoring, free-flowing, possession-based teams around. But as we’ll find out, that’s not always the case. Here are the top ten superstars in Europe’s top five leagues for ‘Progressive Passes Received’ per 90.

Note – in our data search we have included only players with at least ten ‘90s‘ (total minutes played divided by 90 = more than 10), as seen on FBRef.

RankPlayerClubProg. Passes Rec.
1Kylian MbappeParis Saint Germain13.7
2Oihan SancetAthletic Bilbao12.0
3Mohamed SalahLiverpool11.9
4Duvan ZapataAtalanta11.8
5Christopher NkunkuRB Leipzig11.6
6Sadio ManeLiverpool11.4
7Memphis DepayFC Barcelona11.4
8NeymarParis Saint Germain11.4
9Inaki WilliamsAthletic Bilbao11.3
10Thomas MullerBayern Munich11.1
See the full leaderboard at FBRef.

Some of the candidates toward the top of the list, given their overall ability and importance to their team, are unsurprising. The likes of Salah, Mbappe, Mane and Nkunku have completely dominated their respective leagues and their respective opposition teams this season, while being the most important (or one of the most important players) to their team. Thomas Muller meanwhile has made a career around his self-proclaimed nickname of ‘Raumdeuter‘ – loosely translating to ‘space interpreter’, highlighting his impeccable positional sense in the final third. These are clearly not your ‘Average Joe’s’. In fact, when it comes to the quality and status of the players involved, eight of the top ten have featured in this season’s UEFA Champions League.

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But there are a few other surprise names, such as Athletic Bilbao’s pairing of Inaki Williams and Oihan Sancet (we won’t blame you if you haven’t heard of the big Spaniard). Bilbao may only sit 8th in the La Liga table, but they’ve accumulated the 4th most progressive passes (900) through their forward-thinking, vertical approach. Nevertheless, Marcelino’s men haven’t had the lion’s share of the possession in their matches (48%), nor do they have a long-ball approach to balance it out (17th for long passes out of 20 teams). What this potentially tells us is that whenever Los Leones move the ball into the opponent’s half or closer to goal, they are looking for Sancet and Inaki Williams in particular, and that these two players have a habit of picking up advantageous positions to aid their team in that process. Given that many of the other names on this list are wide forwards, we could cross-check tracking data to assess the types of positions these players are picking up. The suggestion would be that they may be moving wide into half-spaces, rather than just receiving with their back to goal in central areas.

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Again, looking at the other names on the list, Sancet and Williams are obvious anomalies inside the top ten. But when examining the top twenty, we get a few other interesting names and faces popping up in the data.

RankPlayerClubProg. Passes Rec.
11Vinicius JuniorReal Madrid10.9
12Zlatan IbrahimovicAC Milan10.9
13Karim OnisiwoMainz 0510.6
14Leroy SaneBayern Munich10.3
15Kevin GameiroStrasbourg10.2
16Arnaut DanjumaVillarreal 10.0
17Giovanni Simeone Hellas Verona10.0
18Angel di MariaParis Saint Germain9.92
19Wissam Ben YedderAS Monaco9.88
20Alassane PleaBor. Monchengladbach9.86
See the full leaderboard at FBRef.

While it’s again unsurprising to see high-flying left-wingers like Vinicius Junior and Leroy Sane rank highly, just about every other name on this list could be classified as more of a surprise. 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic clearly still provides his team a natural focal point when deployed, despite his incredible age. Wissam Ben Yedder also provides another interesting case, having featured prominently in our analysis of some of the best centre-forwards when it comes to pressing from the front. Clearly Ben Yedder doesn’t only excel at positioning himself during defensive phases, but also marvelously well when possession changes hands. Monchengladbach‘s Alassane Plea raised the biggest eyebrow on my face, given Adi Hütter‘s torrid time so far with the German giants. This however suggests that Gladbach are working the ball into dangerous areas for one of their star players to receive in space often enough, but perhaps that they are struggling to then convert that space finding into goals.

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Mainz’s Karim Onisiwo is another surprise name toward the top, considering Mainz have accumulated an abysmal 44.8% of the possession in their matches this season (13th out of 18 Bundesliga teams). Without much else in the way of genuine goal threat, Onisiwo has become something of a ball magnet for his team – the player they always look to when they want to make something happen. With magnificent strength and shielding power, Oniswio is also incredibly capable of playing with his back to goal and warding off challenges from players, which makes him an even more attractive target.

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Then there’s the Dutchman Arnaut Danjuma Groeneveld, who’s made a name for himself at Villarreal this season with his exceptional dribbling power and goal contribution. An incredibly two-footed player who comes alive in the final third, Danjuma has become something of a focal point in Unai Emery’s highly progressive attack. The Villarreal man, like Karim Onisiwo, plays many of his matches off the left-side, which is another common trend. Twelve of the twenty players we listed would be classified as “wide forwards” more so than “centre-forwards” or “number-ten’s”, and the vast majority of those wide-men tend to play off the left (Mane, Mbappe, Neymar, Vinicius Jr., Sane, and Nkunku, among others). This fits with the game’s tendency to involve a more left-sided-approach, whereby most teams in Europe’s top five leagues have a slight preference for the left over for the right (we hypothesized several reasons for that fact in our October edition of the Monthly Magazine).

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With all this in mind, we can infer several things about our progressive pass receivers. Firstly, the data suggests that wide forwards are, in most cases, the key danger men on a football pitch. The likes of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Erling Haaland, and Cristiano Ronaldo failed to make the top twenty despite their obvious quality, suggesting that their teams tend to work the ball through other attackers first. Meanwhile, ‘number ten’s’ often have reputations for being the ‘creative’ ones on a football pitch. However, it tends to be more difficult for teams to progress vertically into these types of players. This is further exemplified by the fact that the only ‘attacking midfielders’ to claim a spot inside the top twenty – Thomas Muller and Angel di Maria (who himself is more of a wide man) – shift into wide areas or half-spaces to receive the ball more often than central channels.

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One of the other most fascinating inferences from this data is the fact that you don’t need to play for a high-flying attack-minded team to place high when it comes to ‘progressive passes received’. Focal points like Oihan Sancet and Karim Onisiwo placed high on our list, despite the lack of possession from their respective clubs. While it clearly helps to be the key man in a world beater (like PSG’s Mbappe or Liverpool’s Salah), you can still surpass the Lewandowski’s and Ronaldo’s of this world if your team funnels attacks into your path often enough, particularly if you’re someone who adopts wide positions in that process.

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This isn’t to say that Robert Lewandowski is an unimportant piece to Bayern Munich’s puzzle of an attack. Such a statement would be ludicrous, especially when the big Pole’s value is actually quite good (9.05). However, this is to say that other teams may guide their attacking play into a specific player more often. What the player and the team do from there may not be to the level of what Lewandowski could achieve, but still incredibly valuable in the grand scheme of “progressing” up the field. That’s because receiving passes in dangerous positions correlates exceptionally well to just about any other attacking stat, from xG to chance creation. Don’t believe me? Just look at the likes of Mohammed Salah, Christopher Nkunku and Thomas Muller, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

conclusion

When it comes to data in football, we often hear the same statistics used over and over again, even if they have no real impact on how a football match played out. One lesser known and lesser used stat that could be useful for clubs to examine in greater detail is ‘Progressive Passes Received’. The metric allows us to understand a player’s importance to their team, their awareness of space, and their ability to lead their team toward a fruitful attack. While it doesn’t necessarily tell us what a player accomplished following that touch, the PPR function does give several key inferences that many other on-the-ball actions simply don’t allow.


So there it is! Analyzing Europe’s best ‘Progressive Pass Receivers’, including a detailed explanation into the value of this underrated stat. Be sure to check out more of our Data Analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite using the links below. Thanks for reading and see you soon.

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