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Conor Gallagher and context around stats
How much do we know about him from the numbers?
Hi everyone, I’m taking this week off, and this is the last newsletter before I finish up. In lieu of new content this week, I’ll be unlocking and rerunning some old premium newsletters for the free side. I hope everyone who celebrates has a very merry Christmas, and I for one will be celebrating by eating far too much.
Last week, famously chill website Twitter dot com got into a bit of a debate. It was nominally about Conor Gallagher, but really on the use of data in analysing what a footballer can do. I asked whether Gallagher should be getting serious minutes at Chelsea next season. Michael Caley, data analyst and early advocate of expected goals who podcasts at The Double Pivot, responded to me with the following:
This prompted backlash from some. The general gist of the reaction was summed up by Jay Socik, head of recruitment analysis at Luton Town:
Socik wasn’t the only person to respond with this sentiment, simply the one I saw who framed it the most reasonably. The broad tone was “you can’t look at the numbers while ignoring the context”, though I didn’t see any of these people actually saying what the context was. So let’s get into it: what does the data say about Gallagher, what is the context, and how good is he?
It doesn’t take any kind of effort to point out the most obvious thing: Gallagher has been scoring plenty of goals this season. In terms of midfielders, Gallagher’s six non-penalty strikes is only bettered this season by Bernardo Silva’s seven. When you’re playing for 11th placed Crystal Palace, that’s serious business. Yes, he’s finishing well, but nearly half an expected goal or assist every 90 minutes is very serious going. Of “midfielders” (loosely defined) outside the top three, only James Maddison is taking or assisting xG at a higher rate this season. When you’re 21 years old, that takes some doing.
The second thing you see in the data is that, as Caley pointed out, he hasn’t been much of a creative passer. He makes just over two “progressive” passes per 90, which really isn’t a lot. Within the Palace squad, this puts him behind noted silky midfield technicians James McArthur (4.25) and Cheikhou Kouyaté (2.52). He fares a little better in terms of passes into the box but is again beaten out by the playmaking king McArthur, the Glaswegian Iniesta. If Gallagher really can do a lot more in terms of creative passing, I’d seriously question Vieira’s tactical decision to leave that part of the game to McArthur.
When it comes to having the ball at his feet and driving it forward, he just about beats the Scottish Pirlo, making ever so slightly more progressive carries per 90. In this regard, Palace are much more reliant on the wingers to collect the ball and carry it into the penalty area. Creativity just hasn’t been a big part of Gallagher’s game this season. What gives?
If you watch Palace and pay close attention to what Gallagher is doing, things become clearer. Whenever Palace have the ball, Gallagher pushes forward into an attacking role, making himself an outlet to get into the box rather than a true midfielder. There are moments when the side look like a 4-4-2 in possession. Then, without the ball, he sprints back to make a midfield three. He isn’t being asked to receive the ball short and pick out passes. What he’s doing is more akin to someone like the Dele Alli of a few years ago, making runs and being a late-breaking outlet rather than someone who progresses the ball.
We can see this in the data. His 3.91 progressive passes received looks very good for his position. I think knowing when not to want the ball is one of the most important skills a young player can have. The instinct is always to want the ball and go looking for it. “There’s a lot of thick footballers out there”, Gary Neville once said. “Players with huge talent when the ball’s at their feet but no real understanding of where to move or how best to link with their teammates”1.
“When you have a young talented midfielder”, manager Bob Bradley (ok, not the best Premier League record, but he’s had success elsewhere and does speak well about the game) explained, “usually they have some ability on the ball, so on their team the idea is to get the ball to them. There’s a tendency for that midfielder to literally just chase the ball. You’re trying to get them to understand that the best midfielders don’t just follow the ball. They stop, they back up. If the ball’s on the side, they don’t just run toward the ball and face the sideline. You want to find ways to orient yourself so you can receive and see the rest of the field and connect other players.”
Gallagher, then, is very unlike your typical midfield young prodigy. He already has the game intelligence needed to succeed at the highest level, drawing space for himself and making the intelligent runs Vieira wants rather than coming towards the ball. That’s the hard bit, and he has it. The question then is whether he has the ability on the ball.
This one, to be honest, hasn’t been conclusively answered. We know he’s not bad, but there’s a difference between doing this for Palace and Chelsea. I think we can also assume, at least at this point in his development, he’s not hiding incredible playmaking skills. Vieira has been clear he wants to play a more possession-heavy style to Roy Hodgson’s era, and he needs all the ball-dominant playmakers he can get. He’s using McArthur in this role rather than Gallagher, which either suggests massive incompetence or that Gallagher isn’t about that right now, and is better used making runs off the ball.
None of this means he can’t improve that side of the game. He’s been taking set pieces for Palace, and no one takes set-pieces if they don’t have real quality on the ball. He can certainly add more creative passing to his game, and I’m sure that will be what he’s pushed to do going forward in order to reach the top. Young players, even some of the best, often feel like vague sketches of footballers more than the complete players. It’s Gallagher’s task now to fill the details in.
The more I look at it, I don’t think it’s incorrect to say he’d have some passing issues walking into the Chelsea team tomorrow. He’s just not someone who’s ever been as creative as demanded for a Champions League level attacking midfielder. Yes, tactical role is having an impact here, but that doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I don’t think Vieira is so blown away by the creativity of his Kouyaté/McArthur double pivot that he’s instructing a good playmaker to avoid progressing the ball. Yes, context needs to be applied to data, but I think the overall picture is correct. That doesn’t mean Gallagher won’t change the story in the future. He’s a very talented player showing a lot of the right skills but, like the vast majority of 21-year-olds, he doesn’t yet have the complete skillset.
How much of those other tools he adds will define his senior career.
Neville, Gary (2011). Red: My Autobiography. Great Britain: Bantam Press.