Breaking Down the PFA Player of the Year Nominees

It’s a difficult thing, being good in the Premier League. Sometimes it’s nice: fans love you, they sing your name in front of the opposition – some 40,000 strong, they want your attention, your autograph, your picture, your car, your girl, even your life. They want to be you. Other times, it’s worse: fans abuse you on and off social media, the opposition berates you in front of your home crowd, and they kick your car when you leave the stadium after a bad game.

For the PFA Player of the Year Nominees listed above, life is normally pretty good. Using Squawka’s Comparison Matrix, I have a look at the players mentioned above in comparison with each other and others in similar positions, before breaking down the non-statistical side of their play and voting for a winner.

First and foremost, is David de Gea. A monster; a brick wall that has the ability to make you swallow your tongue with breathtaking saves on clear-cut chances. He is the epitome of excellent goalkeeping. Other than Thibaut Courtois, there isn’t a keeper in the league that warrants comparison, and his stats back it up.

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Goalkeeping stats via

In the Premier League in 2014/15, David de Gea has 10 clean sheets, beating his counterpart Courtois but still three behind leaders Simon Mignolet (Liverpool) and Fraser Forster (Southampton). Other than that, de Gea leads the Premier League in Saves (68) and distribution accuracy (68%, tied with Mignolet), even if his 39m average length is behind both Courtois and Forster.

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In addition, de Gea’s Saves per Goal ratio is 2.27, and only Forster has a better rate than that (2.86). I’m not saying the United man is a lock to win this award, because he certainly isn’t, but he might just be the best keeper in the Premier League and that’s saying something.

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For Philippe Coutinho, the statistics tell a different story. There are many excellent attacking players in the Premier League this season, but for the sake of comparison, here’s Coutinho against players with a similar positioning as him: Oscar, Mesut Özil, and Angel Di Maria.

To start, Özil wins the overall battle of Squawka scores with a whopping 611.4, one of the best numbers of any Premier League player in this position. If you look only at how well all of these players do in possession, Özil again takes the cake (and again – rightfully so) with a score of 213.59, but at least Oscar and Coutinho had positive scores unlike Di Maria.

From a passing standpoint, Oscar leads the way with most passes overall (1253) and most successful passes (1040), but loses out to Özil on pass completion (87%). Considering Coutinho is the one nominated, not Özil, Di Maria, or Oscar, his numbers should look a little higher. That said though, Coutinho is second to Oscar in total passes and successful passes, and 3rd in pass completion at 80%, so his numbers are still close. Coutinho is also joint-top in key passes (38) with Özil, but is at the bottom of the column in assists (4), one behind Özil, three behind Oscar and six behind Di Maria.

Sticking with the close-but-no-cigar theme, Coutinho is right there at the top of the “Chances Created” category with 42, just behind Özil (43) and Di Maria (47), but just ahead of Oscar (35). Oscar has scored the most goals (6), but again all of those above are right there within reach of each other, too difficult to put one significantly ahead of the other. Where the significance lies, however, is in successful take ons. “Little Phil” hasn’t been so little in this category, attempting and succeeding in take ons 87 times. Di Maria is second in this category, but even doubling his successful take on amount (44) would still only put him one above the Brazilian magician. Overall, all four of these players are very comparable, and that may be the argument of United, Chelsea, and Arsenal fans alike – that these four players are so similar statistically that any one of them could have been nominated. And yet, Coutinho got the nod. Telling.

The final four competitors have drawn comparisons with each other in an Hazard v. Sanchez and Kane v. Costa world that thankfully very few people live in. There is so much more to each of these players than what can be compared with their direct rival positionally, but there is a part to play for statistics.

Starting with Alexis Sanchez and Eden Hazard, these two have been at the center of my favorite debate of the year – who is actually better? Again, I don’t think stats show the whole picture, but they do show a very important part. Eden Hazard has the better overall score (1512.99), which means his attack, defense, and possession scores totaled out to the number you see above, but Alexis nudged him out in attack score (1112.13) meaning that the total of his defense and possession scores were negative; Hazard’s possession and defense numbers totaled out positive. Point to Hazard.

Hazard also has more total passes (1736 to 1156), more successful passes (1508 to 886) and a better pass completion percentage (87% to 77%) yet they both have the same number of assists (8), showing that assists nor passing numbers tell the entire tale alone. What is clear is that Hazard creates more chances – it’s simply up to his teammates whether they finish them or not.

In terms of goalscoring, Sanchez takes the cake. He has scored more goals this year (14) than the Chelsea man (12), and three of Hazard’s goals have been penalties compared to none from the Chilean. Hazard has been more versatile in his scoring, four left footed goals, six right footed goals, and more, but Sanchez has capitalized more. One stat that goes against the Arsenal winger though is his total shots compared to Hazard. Sanchez has converted 14 chances from 93 shots, a conversation rate of 15%, whereas Hazard has scored 12 goals off 63 total shots, a rate of 19%.

Worth noting however, that even though Eden has a better conversion rate Sanchez has the better shot accuracy, meaning keepers saved more of what Alexis fired at them than what Hazard did. Hazard has completed not only more successful take ons but more of a majority than Sanchez as well. A final stat just to add to the conundrum is fouls suffered, which Hazard leads the Premier League in (94).

The final player battle that has not been addressed yet is Harry Kane v. Diego Costa. The former is England’s new hero, touted as the next great English striker, loved by most of the country, who continually drives a London club forward that repeatedly gets stuck in the mud. The latter is England’s enemy, hated by many, touted as one of the next great PL strikers who helps push a different London club towards a similar goal – trophies. Just one that Chelsea succeeds in more.

At first glance, it seems as if the Tottenham striker has the advantage as his total score (645.46) and attacking score (877.15) beat both of Costa’s totals (642.48 & 849.98). Like Coutinho’s situation though, the two are close enough that separating them solely off of scores from a statistical analysis website without further evidence would be daft.

Taking a more in-depth look, Costa owns the passing category with higher totals in pass completion and key passes, while they both have tallied three assists. Kane has completed more successful passes overall, but by a slight margin. Just as Costa has completed more passes, but again by just a few ticks. What’s important in this case is the key passes. Tottenham supporters will argue that Costa has much better attacking options to pass to (think Willian, Hazard, Oscar, and more) than Kane (think Eriksen, Lamela, Chadli, and more), and that’s valid, but the point stands that Costa has the better numbers.

To add, Costa has created more chances as a result of those key passes, though his teammates may not have converted the chances like Kane’s when the opportunity presented itself.

Breaking down the actual goals, the pair are two peas in a pod, each scoring 19 goals – five left footed goals a piece and nearly the same amount of right footed goals. The only real advantage Costa has here is that Harry Kane has scored two of his goals on penalty kicks, which many people tend to subtract from the worth of overall goals due to the definitiveness of the actual chance.

From shots come goals, so it’s important to have a look at how the two have fared on attempts throughout the season as well. Kane has attempted more overall (87), while Costa has the better accuracy (63% to 58%). Again though, one finds a way to separate himself from the other in at least one category, and this time it’s Kane and take ons. Harry Kane has completed 43 successful take ons compared to Costa’s 28, and Kane has been more successful in his attempts.

The final comparison matrix between Kane and Costa is in fouls and aerial duels. When looking at Sanchez v. Hazard, it was significant to look at take ons and fouls suffered as a result. Because Hazard had taken on players more times and was more successful in them, he tended to be fouled more. The same is true for Harry Kane. For strikers and forwards alike, it’s also worth looking at how they have performed in the air, with Kane winning more aerial duels overall while Costa won more of his battles overall despite less attempts.

Stats help to paint a pretty picture for all six of the nominees above, but they are nothing without the words on performances where numbers fail to display quality.

In David de Gea’s case, the numbers do happen to tell a lot of the story. For example, there’s not much going on outside of what stats show – which is that de Gea is an incredible keeper in both reflex and open chance situations, but that his defense leaves him in a difficult position to execute every single time. Performances like his game against Liverpool at Old Trafford have gone on to show why the Spaniard has one of the most coveted sets of golden gloves in the world. I mean, you know you’ve made it when Real Madrid come calling you as a Spaniard. The biggest problem for de Gea is that this award generally goes to a player in the field no matter the goalkeepers merits. It’s like the Balon d’Or – Manuel Neuer can be nominated, but against Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo he doesn’t stand a chance.

Excuse the discotheque-esque background music.

For Philippe Coutinho, his skill level helps him hang with the best but has unfortunately led to him being labeled a “Vine footballer,” or someone who is only worth six seconds of highlights. To be fair, Coutinho is a Vine footballer; check out a vid I snagged of him against Newcastle showing his flair – “Insane Coutinho Flick. #lfc“. The problem is that he’s so much more than that. His bag of tricks is bigger than Santa’s on Christmas Eve and Liverpool/Brazil fans alike have yet to see the bottom of it. He’s creative, calculating, and impulsive, all things that work both for and occasionally against him. At just 22, Coutinho is still growing into his footballing ability and has been tipped by Neymar to be the best in the Premier League one day. But that’s just it – one day. Coutinho isn’t the best player right now, and he’s so young that he’s been nominated for the Young PFA Player of the Year as well (but then again so have Hazard, Kane, and de Gea). I think Coutinho has the ability to win just not right now. One day, just not this one:

On Alexis and Hazard, I’m completely torn. I think it’s safe to say any reasonable Premier League spectator would have Hazard or Alexis over the likes of Coutinho even in a similar role as the Brazilian, effectively knocking Young Phil out of the running. Hazard is fast, almost uncatchable, and has a motor like an ’89 Trans Am – ready to light the track at a moment’s notice:

Alexis is no clunker, though. Equally impressive, the Chilean is more of a lightning bolt that can strike twice from anywhere on the field. Pacy, energetic, and passionate – Sanchez has won of the hearts of Arsenal supporters everywhere… if only Gunners fans voted PFA Players of the Year in:

Diego Costa against Harry Kane is another belter of a matchup and for many reasons, the first being their attacking style. Both are poachers, yes, but of different breeds. Costa is strong and omni-present, always in the right spot, exactly where the defense tried to prevent him from heading. And he knows how to score the odd goal or two:

Harry Kane however, is a python of sorts, slithering his way through the defense before latches on to the ball and lashing a venomous effort at goal. Against Arsenal in the North London Derby, he turned golden boy after scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory to momentarily jump the Gunners in the table. Kane also has a habit of being exactly where he needs to be to convert a chance:

Despite the skill and stats of all six players, there can only be one for the PFA Player of the Year. I hinted at the odds being against David de Gea and Phil Coutinho for various valid reasons, and although Harry Kane has had an excellent year I think he’s more likely to win Young Player of the Year over Coutinho, de Gea, and Hazard among others. That brings the list down to three: Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez, and Eden Hazard. Costa has played at another level this year, but his on the field antics (stamping, violent conduct, kicking out, etc.) have warranted opinions against him. He’s out. If the award for Player of the Year was given out by one’s play through January, it’d go to Sanchez no question. Arsenal’s energizer bunny scored 12 of his 14 goals and tallied up 7 of his 8 assists in PL matches from the beginning of the year to January 11th against Stoke. After various injuries at the end of the month and into mid-February Sanchez just hasn’t been the same, his only goals coming against QPR and Liverpool, with just one assist also against Liverpool to Giroud.

That leaves one: Eden Hazard.

Hazard has been unreal for Chelsea this year and while they already had a good shot at the title, the Belgian’s presence simply brings an added threat no other team can replicate. He’s been a Man of the Match 8 times in the Premier League this season, and his 12 goals and 8 assists bring him close to being one of the best players in the world, if he wasn’t considered so already. Hazard has my vote for PFA Player of the Year, and if Chelsea were smart they’d be doing everything in Abramovich’s power to lock him down until he hangs up his boots.

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