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Kevin De Bruyne, Tariq Lamptey the most creative players, but how do we measure that?

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

What is creativity? If you have to ask, you can't afford it. At least, you'll never understand it. And you certainly won't be able to measure it. To try to define "creativity" is to completely misunderstand the idea. You know it when you see it, but you can't predict it and you definitely can't explain it. Or ... can you?

More so than in any other sport, "creativity" is the key concept at the heart of soccer. In short, you have to "create" a goal. Unlike in baseball, football or basketball, there are no kind of timing or infrastructural mechanisms that are driving one team to attack and the other one to defend, with the pendulum constantly bouncing back and forth between the two sides.

Outside of dead balls, there are no "plays," either. For a team to score, the players have to collectively decide that they want the ball, then they have to collectively figure out how to get the ball, then they have to collectively decide that it's time to move the ball toward the goal, then one individual has to decide that it's time to try to kick or head the ball into the goal.

There is some kind of animating, collective creative instinct within all that, but the movements themselves are often driven by one creative individual. Historically, he wore the No. 10 shirt, but now it might be a No. 17 or No. 66.

We know who the creators are; we literally have a stat for that called "chances created." But not all creators are creative. Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller has been putting in 10-plus-assist seasons for more than a decade, but he's perhaps the least creative great creator of the 21st Century.

Who are the most creative passers?

Given what you just saw, it should be no surprise that the researchers rated De Bruyne as the most creative passer per 90 minutes for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 Premier League seasons. The data only included the top 10 teams in the league in each season, but that doesn't make the No. 2 player on the list any less surprising: Brighton wing-back Tariq Lamptey.

After a lights-out start to the 2020-21 season, Lamptey looked destined for an England call-up, only to rupture a hamstring halfway through the campaign. He never reestablished himself as a first-choice starter under Graham Potter -- and has since switched his national team allegiance to Ghana -- but perhaps a newfound reliance on Lamptey's creative passing will be how new Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi tries to evolve the team in his image.

"We knew that Lamptey's play was lauded last year but we were not expecting him to be so highly rated," the researchers said. "He is very close to De Bruyne and there is a reasonable gap to Alexander-Arnold in third place."

Clustered near Alexander-Arnold were Raphinha, then of Leeds, and Chelsea's Hakim Ziyech. It's likely not a coincidence that Chelsea's attacking play has seemed so predictable during the long stretches when Ziyech hasn't featured. It's also not surprising that a coach such as Thomas Tuchel, who prioritizes control over all else, didn't take to him. Given Potter's sporadic usage of Lamptey while in charge of Brighton, it doesn't seem likely that things will get much better for Ziyech now the manager is at Chelsea, either.

The researchers also found that there tended to be an inverse relationship between the number of passes attempted and the overall creativity rating, but the top five all paired high degrees of creativity with relatively high usage rates. After Ziyech, there's another drop-off, but the rest of the top 10 was, in order: Arsenal's Martin Odegaard, Tottenham's Lucas Moura, Tottenham's Harry Kane, Arsenal's Bukayo Saka and Chelsea's Mason Mount.

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