We are now in the home-stretch of our thousand-piece puzzle to break down the various roles that players adopt in a football team. The goal of this series has been to identify how clubs achieve balance within their ranks, by creating a team of players who hold varying roles. We therefore break down the twenty-five player roles that footballers adopt as part of our Role Continuity Evaluation System, identifying the unique job descriptions, metrics for evaluation and the best of the art in 2022 for each category.Embed from Getty Images
Today’s article is all about the ‘Creative Link’ – forwards who add flair via a creative edge, playing almost like a ’10’ instead of an out-and-out centre-forward. Here is everything you need to know about our unique player role – the ‘Creative Link’.
JOB DESCRIPTION & KEY PERFORMERSEmbed from Getty Images
Creative Links are quite similar to our attacking midfielder persona – the ‘Creative Ten’. The main difference is that they play up front, and typically conduct more of their play with their back to goal in linking up with their teammates. You could call them a ‘False 9’, a playmaking centre-forward, or something between a ‘9’ and a ’10.’Embed from Getty Images
As ‘creativity’ becomes the most imperative aspect of their role, this does not mean that they are never tremendous goal-scorers in their own right. As we’ll come to discuss, some of the best goal-scorers in the game play that deeper, creative role for their teams. The difference and discrepancy lies in the areas of the pitch that they pick up possession and enact their brilliance.
Creative Links are therefore players that not only ‘create’ for others, but remain capable of driving forward with the ball, playing the simple passes, and engaging in build-up play far more than your typical centre-forward. This is essential to being classified within the prototype. There are even a few centre-forwards on our list who are yet to assist a goal this season. That might be because their role is so deep on the field that they’ve become more likely to assist the assist, and engage in the intricate build up play leading up to goals.
As an essential characteristic, they need to be more than just your typical out-and-out centre-forward who holds a central position and acts as a target. In fact, among all of our Centre Forwards, they are the least likely to be used as a target in the traditional sense (winning aerial duels and knocking down high balls), and more likely to be used as a target in the modern sense (engaging in build-up and linking the play for others).Embed from Getty Images
We would therefore want our ‘Creative Links’ to spike high in areas like the ability to receive progressive passes in space; but more imperatively, the ability to play progressive passes forward. We’re looking at ‘creativity’ as not just an umbrella term to mean play-making via key passes, through balls, and assists, but to extend to the ability to progressively break lines on a dribble.
This is where someone like Gabriel Jesus excels. He drops deep to pick up possession, where he can then drive forward on the ball. He’ll come up with beautiful assists in the final third, but his role is more about getting on the ball deeper on the field and engaging in all of the nice possession that Arsenal want to maintain throughout the match.Embed from Getty Images
Simultaneously, this is where you’ll find a ‘Creative Link’ who does not assist all that many goals. Harry Kane springs to mind for his playmaking this season, having assisted only one goal this season in the Prem. However, we all know that Kane’s role extends to more than just finishing off chances in the final third. He’s imperative to build-up play, and loves to spray long passes forward for Heung-Min Son to run onto. This hasn’t worked to the extent showcased in the past, but getting on the ball remains a pivotal role for the Brit to play for both club and country.Embed from Getty Images
Kai Havertz is another player who’s posted up just 1 assist in the league thus far, but he’s far from the type of player to just wait around in the box. He wants to influence the match in every phase of play, and rarely ever actually adopts a typical centre-forward’s position.
I’ve even noticed this trend among the False 9 figureheads over on the women’s side. Players like Christen Press and Ashley Hatch play more like a ’10’ than a ‘9’, yet they rarely assist, create, or even play progressive passes. Instead, they play nice back-passes in bouncing the ball back to others. The common throughline between all of these players is their ability to ‘link’ the play (creatively, in one way or another), as other players run beyond. That’s usually for the running power of ‘Direct Goal-Scorers’ like Trinity Rodman or Sadio Mane, racing past their false nine forwards.
That said, it’s also worth noting that our ‘Creative Links’ can also be quite outstandingly creative. Antoine Griezmann frequently plays that deeper role as part of a front two. Most of the time, he’s technically a striker within Atletico’s 4-4-2 to 3-5-2. But he’ll play that deeper role and bounce off the player alongside him. The same could be said of his teammate Joao Felix, who adds a degree of precision and flair on the ball that few can contend.
Players like Griezmann or Felix could easily play on the wing or in that ’10’ slot, and for their national team, they do! But for their club side, they play in a system that has them classified as a striker. Their role is to then be the foil to someone else, working their magic deeper on the field as their partner holds back the defensive line. It’s worth noting that while they don’t play as ‘Creative Links’ for their country, we’ve organized them into this category due to the percentage of minutes they’ve accumulated up front this season for their club.Embed from Getty Images
More examples of the role will be provided throughout, but think about the relationship that Kelechi Iheanacho‘s had with Jamie Vardy over the years at Leicester. One is all out pace in behind with the desire of scoring goals, and the other drops in to pick up the ball and allow all those positive attributes of Vardy to come to the forefront. The actual art of assist making becomes less important in that quest, and so they can spike as high as Griezmann and Kolo Muani, or as low as Havertz and Kane.
With that, let’s discuss what statistics and eye test evaluations are important to assessing our ‘Creative Links’ beyond their assist-making superpowers.
MEASURING CREATIVE LINKSEmbed from Getty Images
Within our Role Continuity Player Evaluation System, players are first measured by what they are expected to do in their position and role first, accompanied by a secondary role. We utilize statistics to help measure performance, but go far beyond that to incorporate the eye test in analyzing player IQ, awareness and tactical understanding. We can then congregate data to more adequately assess aspects like positioning and movement, and how those endeavours impacted their performance. So with that, here is how we measure our ‘Creative Links’.
1. ATTACKING THREAT & IQEmbed from Getty Images
We often start with ‘Attacking IQ’ for players high up the pitch, but for a ‘Creative Link’, it manifests differently than it would for a ‘Channel Runner’ or a ‘Fox in the Box’. Again, we want them to spike higher on several on-the-ball actions, guided by their stellar off the ball movement into space. This includes…
- Ability to ‘link up the play’ and hold the ball up for others.
- Decision making on movement off the ball (including rec. progressive passes).
- Decision making on dribbles, carries and forward thrusts (including dribble %)
- Expected threat (possession-value added)
- Successful attacking actions %
- Creation from open play, set-pieces and crosses
- xG + xA
It’s worth reiterating that ‘threat’ illustrates not what a player contributed in a match, but the success of those contributions. We can therefore adequately assess not just what a player did, but the impact of those actions. We also dig deeper on our eye test beyond just the success of an action to assessing those decisions on a deeper level (i.e. timing, weight of pass, etc.).
2. POSSESSION & DISTRIBUTIONEmbed from Getty Images
More than any other forward type, we want our ‘Creative Links’ to excel on the ball. That might manifest in the form of their progressiveness in breaking lines, or in terms of their ability to simply maintain possession and keep the game ticking along. As part of our ‘Possession & Distribution’ score, we measure…
- Decision making on-the ball (including various passing percentages)
- Ability to drop in deep and pick up possession successfully (including passes under pressure %).
- Control (touches, possession lost per touch (NEW*), miscontrols, dispossessed, passes received %)
- Progressiveness (i.e. prog. passes and prog. carries, and the percentages)
3. ATTACKING CONTRIBUTIONEmbed from Getty Images
After establishing threat and IQ as a baseline, we then measure actual attacking output. This includes sheer statistical values that allow us to gain an even greater sense of how successful players were in carrying out their attacking endeavours, and fulfilling their role. This may include their total number of…
- Touches in the attacking third
- Successful attacking actions + successful attacking duels
- Key passes, through passes + passes into the penalty area
- Shots + shots on target
- Goal contributions (goals + assists)
- Shot on target % + goal conversion %
- Goal and shot-creating-actions
- Dribbles + carries
- Passes and carries into the final third
- Fouls won + fouls won to fouls conceded percentage
4. DEFENSIVE IQ + CONTRIBUTIONEmbed from Getty Images
Since ‘Creative Links’ are more possession focused, we care less about their defensive actions than other roles in that front-line. Nevertheless, we know that the likes of Jonathan David and Ashley Hatch play an imperative role in defending from the front for their teams. That may even manifest differently for a player like Griezmann or Felix, as they become tasked with defending all the way into their own half. Metrics for this category include…
- Tackle % and decision making when tackling
- Pressure % and decision making when pressuring
- Dominance in defensive duels, + combined % of duels won across thirds
- # of successful defensive actions and defensive duels won
- Aerial % + aerial duels won
- Positional awareness and positional discipline
- Awareness of own strengths vs. strengths of teammates
- Discipline (e.g. fouls, bookings, and positional discipline)
The forward’s timing of challenges, angle of approach, positioning, and decision making on when to press and when to hold position all remain paramount to their role, rather than just the sheer number of tackles or interceptions they post.
5. ABNORMALITIESEmbed from Getty Images
‘Creative Links’ may also be given additional bumps and boosts for any abnormalities that they perform in a match, including the following…
- Defensive contributions leading to a goal (GCA-Def.)
- Penalty kicks won, or given away
- Errors leading to shots or goals
- Own goals
- Red cards
While these metrics may affect a player’s rating in a given match, they don’t tend to change a player’s score over the course of a season, unless repeatedly conducted.
So with that, based on the five key evaluation metrics, let’s jump into what you’ve been waiting for – the very best ‘Creative Links’ in the world of men’s football as of 2022.
TOP 20 CREATIVE LINKS (MEN)Embed from Getty Images
When assessing ‘Creative Links’, we’re scanning for strikers who have a high degree of involvement throughout each phase of possession, and prefer to be on the ball in their quest to influence the match.
With this information in mind, we assessed statistics across the current campaign (2022-23) and used the evaluation system detailed in the previous section, to come up with our list of the Top 20 ‘Creative Links’ in the world of men’s football at the time. We’re using Wyscout data in our assessment, as a more comprehensive method for assessing several players at once.
|Rank #||Player||Team||xG + xA||Prog. P||Att. Duel %|
|1||Karim Benzema||Real Madrid||0.83 + 0.19||3.03||38.5|
|2||Harry Kane||Tottenham Hotspur||0.54 + 0.11||3.67||39.1|
|3||Antoine Griezmann*||Atletico Madrid||0.30 + 0.38||5.87||38.0|
|4||Gabriel Jesus||Arsenal||0.69 + 0.14||2.72||36.1|
|5||Joao Felix||Atletico Madrid||0.40 + 0.11||4.22||44.6|
|6||Diogo Jota||Liverpool||0.23 + 0.21||4.36||41.6|
|7||Jonathan David||LOSC Lille||0.65 + 0.14||1.73||37.9|
|8||Roberto Firmino||Liverpool||0.49 + 0.15||5.76||29.9|
|9||Randal Kolo Muani||Eintracht Frankfurt||0.35 + 0.16||1.62||36.1|
|10||Kai Havertz||Chelsea||0.36 + 0.06||3.52||28.7|
|11||Gerard Deulofeu*||Udinese||0.42 + 0.33||7.01||48.3|
|12||Breel Embolo||AS Monaco||0.50 + 0.17||1.74||34.5|
|13||Amine Gouiri||Stades Rennes||0.42 + 0.15||2.39||29.1|
|14||Angel Correa||Atletico Madrid||0.46 + 0.13||2.85||31.1|
|15||Gerard Moreno||Villarreal||0.59 + 0.14||4.08||39.0|
|16||Noa Lang||Club Brugge||0.27 + 0.14||6.24||38.6|
|17||Giovanni Simeone||Napoli||0.48 + 0.30||2.17||29.4|
|18||Alexandre Lacazette||Lyon||0.63 + 0.18||2.66||28.2|
|19||Joaquin Correa||Inter Milan||0.48 + 0.30||2.07||40.9|
|20||Fernando||RB Salzburg||0.94 + 0.23||2.38||42.7|
Right off the bat, it’s worth noting that we classified four different forwards from Atletico Madrid into this category. This is unheard of at this point in the process, with only Manchester City’s use of ball-playing centre-halves able to rival Atletico’s persistence with play-making centre-forwards. Antoine Griezmann will be re-classified as a ‘Creative Ten’ if he continues to fulfill that ’10’ void more often for Simeone’s side, while Joao Felix and Angel Correa also spend a considerable amount of time on the wing.
One final note is that Gerard Deulofeu has been re-classified this season as a ‘Creative Link’ after moving to the centre-forward’s position this season. He had previously featured in our ‘Dynamic Dribbler’ article, as someone who consistently wins 1v1 battles on the dribble and spikes high in on-the-ball moments. You can see why the ‘Creative Link’ was a perfect spot for him in his new role.Embed from Getty Images
Using Wyscout data has also allowed us to compile more players from outside of Europe’s top five leagues than previously, and we’ve included Brugge’s Noa Lang and Salzburg’s Fernando, given their stellar ability to hold up the play and create for their mates.
But some forwards are simply more influential in possession than others, and that’s where we can establish a more concrete list of players who are more true to the role.
PERFECT PROTOTYPESEmbed from Getty Images
We may be coming to an end in this series, but I’ve decided for the first time to include players across my ‘Creative Link’ database in the ‘Perfect Prototype’ section, as opposed to just the names listed above. This will help you gain a greater understanding of the role as a whole, and who to model your game after if you’re looking to fulfill that same void for your team.
For this table, we’ve chosen to include key passes, passes received, and passes into the penalty area to illustrate some of the key names that spike high in a few essential attributes. While the sheer number of passes received may seem relatively arbitrary, it helps to paint a nice picture of a player’s involvement throughout the phases.
Here are the names!
|Rank #||Player||Team||Key P.||Pass Rec.||Pass PA|
|2||Iago Aspas||Celta Vigo||0.85||26.1||2.56|
|3||Kelechi Ihenacho||Leicester City||0.96||22.4||2.30|
|5||Angel Correa||Atletico Madrid||1.01||25.7||2.76|
|7||Harry Kane||Tottenham Hotspur||0.61||15.6||2.57|
|10||Noa Lang||Club Brugge||0.25||33.9||5.74|
In excluding players from the previous section, we’ve taken out those that might be best in a different role. While a player like Antoine Griezmann is perfect as that link-up heavy ‘9’, he’s also simultaneously suitable to deploy that ’10’ role. Gerard Deulofeu on the other hand has now had two seasons to transition into a striker in Udinese’s 3-5-2 system, and is now firmly playing that creative role for his team.Embed from Getty Images
Liverpool love the ‘False 9’s’ of this world, and they have two of the best of the art in the form of Roberto Firmino and Diogo Jota. Both make our top five as two of the players that spring to mind whenever thinking about who constitutes as a ‘Creative Link.’. We also just squeezed in Noah Lang for doing everything we’d want of the role when deployed as the ‘9’, under the recognition that he also consistently plays on the left wing. So when studying what it takes to be a quality ‘Creative Link’ these are some of the best names and faces to follow.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
The ‘Creative Link’ is the most possession-focused of all our centre-forward personas, often responsible for picking up possession anywhere on the pitch. They play a crucial role in the build-up all the way into the final third, where they must remain capable of producing magic with either a pass, a carry/dribble, or both. The ‘Creative Link’ therefore might not always be the hero when it comes to assisting goals, but they should crave the ball at every opportunity, and play a more influential role in shifting around the field in order to see more moments of on the ball brilliance. The likes of Roberto Firmino and Antoine Griezmann have defined the role over the years, despite both probably being best as a ’10’. This is just the nature of a ‘Creative Link’ – a player commonly asked to play in a completely different way from the traditional centre-forward.
Embed from Getty Images
So there it is! Explaining the ‘Creative Link’ within our Role Continuity Evaluation System. Be sure to check out more from this series as we detail all twenty-five roles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon! 👊⚽
More in this series…
-> Explaining the Shot Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper Keeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wide Warrior – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Fullback – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Wing-Back – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Ball-Playing-Centre-Half – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Stopper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Sweeper – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Destroyer – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Anchor – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Deep-Lying Playmaker – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Shuttler – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Box to Box Midfielder – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Tempo Setter – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Midfield Maestro – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Creative Ten – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Inverted Winger – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Dynamic Dribbler – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Direct Goal-Scorer – Player Role Analysis
-> Explaining the Channel Runner – Player Role Analysis
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