In the Daily Telegraph last week, Gary Neville heralded Cesc Fabregas as the ‘Passing King’ after Chelsea’s midfield maestro notched up no less than 144 passes in a 3-0 victory over Aston Villa.
He described how Fabregas was the natural successor to Paul Scholes – who made 148 passes in 2012 for Manchester United vs Tottenham Hotspur – as the Premier League’s best controller of a game, although Neville did wonder about how one could “measure the importance or quality” of the passes. We looked at the data from last season’s league fixtures to determine who Europe’s best passer is, based on qualitative as well as quantitative evidence.
Kicking off the numbers game, Bayern Munich lynchpin Thiago Alcantara achieved the highest number of passes in a match – 153 in a home fixture vs Eintracht Frankfurt. Alcantara also appears in the elite ’120+ passes in a game’ list once more, for his 126 vs Eintracht Braunschweig. The former Barcelona man, whose 5% ratio of ‘bad’ passes was the 3rd-lowest on the 120+ list, might be pleased he moved away from the Camp Nou and the shadow cast by passing phenomenon Xavi.
Like Alcantara, Xavi also achieved 120+ passes twice during the last domestic season, but it’s the quality of his contributions that makes him stand out on the list. His 34% share of ‘good’ passes from 131 vs UD Almeria was the highest in the 120+ Club. Crucially, he also broke the 1st defensive line (BDL-1) with 17% of his passes in that game – joint best with Granit Xhaka of Borussia Monchengladbach, who makes the list thanks to his 121 passes vs FC Freiburg.
Neville fondly recalled the quote from another modern-day passing machine Andrea Pirlo, who admitted the pre-match warm-up “disgusts” him, such is his enthusiasm for ball work.
The 143 passes from Pirlo in Juventus’s 2-2 draw with Hellas Verona, makes for an interesting comparison with Xavi. Pirlo’s 11% of ‘bad’ passes is the highest in the 120+ Club, while his ‘chance creation’ ratio is 1% to Xavi’s list-high 3%. While this shouldn’t detract from Pirlo’s ability as an expert controller of the game, it could suggest Xavi has the edge.
Bayern Munich players have 7 entries on the list, the highest of any club, with the import of manager Pep Guardiola’s ‘tika-taka’ style from Barcelona a big factor. Tony Kroos and Phillip Lahm both achieved 2 120+ games, although the purpose of Lahm’s passes appear noticeably different. The full-back turned defensive midfielder recorded a list-high 90 % share of ‘normal’ passes from his 134 in an away match vs Hertha Berlin, failing to break the 2nd defensive line (BDL-2) once – the only occurrence of this in the 120+ Club. This points to Lahm as a ‘safety first’ passer, compared with the more offensively minded Kroos and Alcantara.
Aside from Fabregas, 4 other English-based players are on the list. They include Cheick Tiote of Newcastle United, who made 124 passes in a home game vs Crystal Palace, but his 11% of ‘good’ passes was short of Michael Carrick’s 17% from 141 for Manchester United’s away trip to play the same team. Carrick, who faces a challenge to win his first team place back from Danny Blind on return from an ankle injury, also broke the 1st (7%) and 2nd (8%) defensive lines marginally more than Tiote (6% and 7%) although neither created any chances.
As Neville rightly eluded to, the capability to control the tempo and ‘take the sting out of a game’ is what sets these passing specialists apart . In Xavi’s case, as the data has shown, what elevates him to the top of the tree is his extra gift for making game changing passes in the final third.
The 21% ‘good’ passes – and 6% BDL-2 (joint-highest) – of Cesc’s 144 compares favourably with anyone on the list. It looks like the 34-year-old Xavi may well be warming the passing throne.