The rise of the regista: A statistical look at Premier League’s finest
The deep-lying playmaker. The ‘quarterback’. Or, as the Italians – a nation with a deep and enduring love for the position and the players which conduct the game from it – call it, the regista. There are plenty of names for the type of deep midfielder who occupies the sort of zone where snarling midfield battlers ply their trade, but instead devote their energies to dictating the play from deep.
Still, however they’re named, the footballing world is currently that of the regista. From Spain, where Xavi and Xabi Alonso work their magic, to Italy, where the cerebral Andrea Pirlo still rules the midfield, to the rising power of Germany and their bright young talents like Ilkay Gundogan and Nuri Sahin, deep-lying playmakers have occupied the hearts, minds and most importantly the midfields of millions of football fans across Europe.
Even the tactical backwaters of Britain have been somewhat turbulent with the splash the rise of the regista has caused in European football. Michael Carrick, a player maligned to the point of being scapegoated for losses, has been holding Manchester United’s midfield together for years now. This season, he’s finally got the recognition he deserves, with pundits and fans alike hailing his brilliant, commanding displays from the base of United’s midfield as they swept to their 20th league title. Even more encouragingly, he’s no longer part of a select group of registas holding out against the British prevalence of favouring energetic, muscular box-to-box jack-of-all-trades in midfield. Now, in addition to stalwarts like Carrick, clubmate Paul Scholes and Mikel Arteta, there is a huge upswell of players whose job it is to treasure possession and split defences from deep. Dots&Crosses takes a look at some of them, and considers who can lay claim to the title of ‘best in the Prem’.
A note: When considering a regista, it’s sometimes hard to determine exactly who is and who isn’t. Many registas are multitalented, and thus sometimes difficult to define as purely just a deep-lying playmaker. For example, though West Brom midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu certainly has the kind of passing stats to be considered a regista compared to the others on the list, his foremost attributes most certainly aren’t those of a prototypical dictator of play from deep; his game is much more dynamic, hustling opponents at one end of the pitch and offering willing running at the other. As such, to be considered for this list, a suitable candidate has to have his game primarily based around the retention and spreading of the ball. Secondary attributes, like his defensive game or what he offers in attack, will be taken into account but are not enough to push someone into contention otherwise.
The man of the moment when it comes to registas in Britain. As mentioned earlier, Michael Carrick has had a superlative season, controlling United’s play from deep and lending them a constantly steady hand at the proverbial tiller. As the playmaker of the league champions – and not to mention, easily the most dominant team – it’s no surprise he’s seen a lot of the ball. Carrick’s average passing rate of 76.5 passes per game is topped only by Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta (who we’ll get to later) and Yaya Toure, whose stats are slightly boosted by the superior amount of possession City receive on average compared to United.
Carrick’s game is based around not only ball retention, but also working gaps in the opposition defence. If the usual United strike duo of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie can’t find a way through, Carrick is on hand as a third option, a spreader of play from deep who has more time to put his foot on the ball and find passes. His particular speciality is the chipped ball over the top of the defence, and coupled with Van Persie’s excellent movement and anticipatory skills, his role is often invaluable in breaking down teams. A pass success of 88.1 % as well as a total key pass tally of 35 illustrates Carrick’s role perfectly; he is first and foremost a ball retainer and a spreader of play, but when necessary he’s proven himself entirely able to split the defence from deep. Most of the risky passes he plays are also successful, having missed only 66 long balls out of a total of 260 attempted, a testament to both his skill and also his decision making and anticipation. Moreover, he’s only turned the ball over (whether accidentally or forced to through dispossession) 36 times, at a rate of 1.1 per game. At the purest level of regista play, that of retaining the ball, Carrick excels.
He also contributes heavily to a United defence that lacks the true type of Roy Keane-style scrapper of days gone by. Where the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham play destroying, defence-protecting midfielders like Lucas Leiva and Sandro respectively, United field Carrick in a tandem with the dynamic but developing Tom Cleverley. Where Cleverley hustles and bustles, Carrick is all about placement and reading of the game. This calmness – along with good timing in the tackle – has helped him to 80 tackles and 74 interceptions at a rate of 2.4 and 2.2 per game respectively.
Carrick’s detractors have always painted him as a one-trick pony, a scapegoat to blame whenever anything went wrong, a player capable of passing, but only backwards or sideways. This was never the case, but this year Carrick has really driven home just how good of a player he really is, and he sets the benchmark for the rest of our candidates.
Formerly the driving, creative heart of Everton’s midfield, since moving to Arsenal Mikel Arteta has reinvented himself under Arsene Wenger. He’s dropped deeper, away from the final third and into a deep-seated regista position from which he controls the team’s tempo. It’s no surprise, then, that Arteta commands top spot in the Premier League’s average passes ranking, with a mighty 83.6.
He’s no mug when it comes to using that possession either, though. Arteta has bagged three assists and plays on average 0.8 key passes per game: not stellar stats, but certainly not bad. His other auxiliary stats are also solid, with 5.5 accurate long balls per game releasing the likes of Theo Walcott and finding Santi Cazorla in space, and 1.2 turnovers per game displaying good retention skills. Exceeding even those stats, however, was Arteta’s excellent work in getting the ball back rather than retaining it. Through being Arsenal’s deepest midfielder, Arteta’s exemplary defensive skills have come to the fore statistically as Arsenal rely on him to position himself correctly and make a team-high 3.3 tackles per game, 0.5 more than his closest challenger. This is partly due to him, like Carrick, being in a team where the regista is required to also do some of the dirty work in midfield. That said, whilst his tackling and interception rates are up on Carrick, so too is his fouling rate, 2.2 compared to the Englishman’s 0.9.
Brought in as one of Brendan Rodgers’ old players at Swansea, Allen was expected to reciprocate the kind of energetic all-round regista role he excelled in at his former club.
Unluckily for the Welshman, things didn’t quite go to plan. Much of the reason was to do with Lucas Leiva’s three-month injury, which forced Rodgers to reformat his midfield. With Lucas out, the closest player Liverpool had left to a defensive midfielder was Allen, and so he was shoved deeper and told to patrol in front of his defensive line. Understandably, poor form followed, and criticism followed that. Once Lucas made his return, Allen went back to his preferred position as the link man in a midfield three, and immediately looked better.
To his credit considering his difficult year, Allen’s stats have been pretty decent across the board. A pass success % of near 90% is somewhat offset by a turnover rate of 1.9 per game, the highest on the list, but 0.8 key passes per game is servicable, and his understandably poor successful long balls per game rate is offset by a good interception and tackling rate at 3.8 per game on average.
A new arrival at Swansea this year, Ki settled into the lineup immediately and began putting in impressive displays. His first, and easily most standout stat, is that of his pass success %. 92.7 % is a figure beaten only by three others in Europe, let alone Britain; Bayern’s defensive midfielder Luiz Gustavo, something of a statistical anomaly in Torino’s centre-back Angelo Ogbonna, and at the top, beating Ki’s figure by only 2.2%, Xavi.
Ki’s impressive statistics continue with two assists, 1.1 key passes per match and the highest accurate long ball % amongst all of our candidates. Ki isn’t just retaining the ball, he’s doing plenty with it, and such an excellent array of all-round passing statistics boosts his cause greatly. On the other end of the scale, he’s also the weakest of all of our candidates without the ball by far, putting in only 2.3 tackles or interceptions on average per game and yet also fouling the opponent 0.9 times on average per game. When used alongside Leon Britton it is something of a problem; when used alongside driving midfielder Julian De Guzman, it borders on the match-deciding.
Where Ki Sung-Yeung has just taken the first steps towards controlling the pace of Swansea’s game, Leon Britton has been doing it for the best part of a decade. Probably the unfussiest regista of this list, Britton’s game revolves entirely around retaining possession rather than attempting anything risky or fancy. His pass success % is second only to Ki’s with a still-formidable 91.2%, but he registers no assists and props up the table for both accurate longballs per game and key passes per game. Admittedly, what Britton lacks in creativity, he makes up for in his decent defensive game, making 3.4 tackles and interceptions, but he’s prone to giving the ball right back with a turnover rate of 1.8 per game. With almost all major stats down on last year’s figures, Britton needs to find his way back to form fast before he finds himself usurped by his teammate Ki.
John Obi Mikel
It hasn’t been a settled season for John Obi Mikel. Despite Chelsea looking far better when the Nigerian was paired with one of the more mobile, energetic options in midfield that Chelsea have plenty of rather than trying repeatedly to field the vaguely suicidal pairing of Ramires and Frank Lampard, Mikel’s playing time has been somewhat limited. Nevertheless, when called upon, Mikel gave his usual blend of strength and passing reliability. His turnover rate, mostly because of those two factors, is a good 1.3 per game on average, with a pass success % of 88.9 not to be sniffed at either. His interception and tackle rate per game was 3.8%, another good-not-brilliant stat. As ever with Mikel, however – and, unsurprisingly, the stick of choice for his legions of critics to beat him with – in an attacking sense his passing was neither incisive nor particularly inspired. No assists and only 0.3 key passes per game on average is the usual kind of return for the perennial solid passer. No surprises, but to his credit considering how much of turbulent season it has been for him, no bad surprises and a relatively consistent season-long performance.
James McCarthy has been one of the Premier League’s up and comers for a while now, steadily developing under the tutelage of Roberto Martinez, but this season could well prove to be a breakout one for him. Certainly statistically, it has been his best ever, improving almost across the board. McCarthy’s pass success % is firmly middle of the road, but his developing end product is impressive. The young Irishman has logged two assists this season, as well as a key pass per game on average. He’s improved the accuracy of his long balls from last year too, racking up a handy 4.6 per game.
With all that in mind, McCarthy has really shined defensively. His interceptions were a middling 1.9 per game on average, but his tackling stats shot up to 2.7 per game on average, indicative of a rounded and versatile midfielder. Whilst their games are very different defensively, McCarthy put up the same combined tackle and interception rate as Michael Carrick, impressive indeed when you consider the near-decade between them. As McCarthy matures, his reading and anticipation of the game undoubtedly will too, and then he will be a fearsome prospect indeed.
One of the surprise stories of the season. Having helped Crewe Alexandra get promoted from League Two, Ashley Westwood could hardly have imagined Aston Villa would come knocking early next season, and much less that he would end up shining on the Premier League stage. But come knocking they did and, ultimately, shine he did. Whilst his pass success % is far lower than anyone else on the lists’ is, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest why.
With Villa’s workmanlike midfield they flirted with (at times trying out Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia instead) and eventually settled on after around February, the job was left to Westwood to play the incisive balls through to the front three and unleash the pace and power of Villa’s strikeforce. As such, whilst his pass success % suffered, his other stats soared, taking him to the top of the table for key passes and giving him a relatively huge 6 assists. He also treasured the ball, taking joint top spot with Michael Carrick in the turnovers per game department, and posting a good score in the interceptions and tackles stat list too. Westwood, who idolises Carrick, would no doubt be pleased to see himself spoken of in the same breath as the United player, but in some categories Westwood hasn’t just matched Carrick, he’s beaten him.
It’s a tough one to choose. As with all players, these eight all excel in different facets of their craft. Some, like John Obi Mikel, Mikel Arteta and James McCarthy, are more defensive minded, whether naturally or by design. Ashley Westwood, on the other hand, has been forced to take a more offensive role, and both of those results will affect their stats.
Ki Sung-Yueng has had a fantastic season in particular, but can he make up for such awful defensive stats with just pure passing play? Personally, I don’t think he can. Leon Britton, Joe Allen John Obi Mikel all don’t make the grade either, though they’re quite a bit further back. With Ashley Westwood unfortunately posting too low a passing success rate to recover from – something I am weighing quite heavily, since I’m rating him as a regista – that leaves James McCarthy and the two veterans, Michael Carrick and Mikel Arteta.
It’s a fantastic achievement for McCarthy to even be mentioned in the same breath as either of them, but he’s beaten across the board. Of Carrick and Arteta, it’s a close run thing but if I had to choose, I’d give it – barely – to Carrick. Arteta deserves more credit than he is getting, that is certain, but Carrick has been imperious in the role he was born to play this season. Regardless, both are helping shape the Premier League into somewhere where the quiet art of a deep-lying playmaker is now being welcomed, and we should all be thankful for that.