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Comparing Gylfi Sigurdsson and Paul Pogba

It’s time we appreciated our Icelander, especially compared to this World Cup-winner

Everton v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

Recently a colleague of mine published a... let’s say critical... opinion of Gylfi Sigurdsson. You should absolutely click over and read it here. With those comments in mind, I want to put Gylfi’s numbers from last season into some appreciable context.

Now, before I begin. Paul Pogba is a better footballer than Gylfi Sigurdsson. He’s more talented. Last season was a disappointing one for him at Manchester United as he was managed by a completely-past-it Jose Mourinho and a lost-at-the-highest-level Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. I’m not arguing that Gylfi is better, I’m arguing that when you get similar production out of a £40m player that a league rival gets out of a £100m player you have pretty good value on your hands.

The numbers

I do not like including penalty attempts in xG numbers so what we’ll look at here is non-penalty xG and xA and they will all be per 90. The numbers will be from the 2018-2019 season so that we have a large enough sample size. This will give us an evaluation on what each player is doing from game to game. Gylfi had 0.24 NPxG/90 and 0.19 xA/90. Paul Pogba averaged 0.25xG/90 and 0.15 xA/90. Those are incredibly thin margins, pragmatically speaking you’re getting the same results on a game by game basis, pretty good for less than half the price right?

Now, how those players get those numbers matters a great deal. First let’s talk about the xA. Gylfi, as anyone who has follows his career will know, creates a lot of his chances off set pieces. Of the 2.1 key passes he averaged per 90, 1.0 of them came off set pieces. Pogba got all 1.7 of his key passes per 90 from open play. This is not at all surprising, Pogba is far more mobile and just generally more talented. I don’t consider this a point of criticism of Gylfi but I do question why Everton has not done more to buy players who can take advantage of this ability. Swansea did a remarkable job of this in Gylfi’s last year there, buying Fernando Llorente and extending their stay in the Premier League an extra season in the process. Gylfi’s lack of set piece targets resulted in Pogba actually ending the year with three more assists. The big question here is how do you value created chances from set pieces? Is a player who can do that just as valuable as one who can get them from open play? My general answer is ‘yes’. If yours is not, then you are going to see Pogba’s creative work as much more valuable.

Now let’s talk about the xG. Pogba attempted 0.6 more shots per 90 than Gylfi did but almost all of that difference occurred outside the box. This explains why the extra shooting only resulted in 0.01 extra NPxG. Gylfi shoots from outside the box a lot too, but those shots just aren’t worth a whole lot in the xG department. Throw in a few penalties and it all equates to the exact same number of goals. If you’re curious, Gylfi sent home three of his out of the box bangers and Pogba only got one.

A few other side notes statistically speaking. Gylfi completed 1.6/2.5 tackles per 90 while Pogba completed 1.6/2.4. Gylfi averaged 0.8 interceptions/90 while Pogba averaged 0.5. Pogba drew (and committed) more fouls, and attempted/completed more dribbles. Both men had the exact same number of unsuccessful touches per 90 but Pogba was disposessed three times as often (partially due to more dribbling and part Gylfi being more careful with the ball).

The point

Despite Gylfi’s limitations he gets a lot done game-to-game. I used Pogba as an example but I could just as easily used Dele Alli, James Maddison, or others. He’s a very, very good player who has performed despite the fact that Everton has not done a good job setting him up for success. I certainly think that in the next 18 months Everton ought to be looking to move on from him because of his age (I had hoped Nikola Vlasic would be that player, but alas...), but I firmly expect his form to return as the midfield behind him returns to normal. Don’t give up on the Icelander yet.