Who would win a Clone Premier League?

If you could clone one player at your club, who would it be? And who would win a Clone Premier League?

My friend Stu asked me the following question:

‘Imagine each team can clone one player in their squad to fill every single outfield position. For purposes of fairness, every team has an average goalkeeper – Lucasz Fabianski. Who would they choose, and who would win the league? (In fact a full league table would be nice)’

Well Stu, in no fewer than 3000 words, here’s your answer.

My initial reaction was fairly simple. Who is each team’s best player, and how do they rank? We’ll be looking at Kevin De Bruyne for sure, but then is it Mo Salah, Sadio Mane or Virgil Van Dijk? Harry Kane’s an easy choice for Spurs, as is Bruno Fernandes for United, but Chelsea have too many (theoretically) good players to choose from. And do Arsenal really have any good players at all?

At this point I start to think, is it really the team’s best players we’re after? Or the most versatile? In which case, is James Milner going to walk this hypothetical league? Everton’s bright spark James Rodriguez is going to struggle at CB, so perhaps they choose Abdoulaye Doucoure? Is John Lundstram getting in the top four? Can anyone beat 10 Michail Antonios?

Ability and versatility are clearly very important. But we need to dig a little deeper into what we’re looking for in a player. What specific attributes give a player the platform from which to excel in multiple positions? Let’s take a look at some of football’s multi-talented maestros.

Manuel Pellegrini described James Milner as a ‘complete’ footballer, but specifically praised his aggression, mentality, and work rate, attributes we’d consider mental rather than physical. Thomas Muller has been utilised in all six forward positions for his hugely successful club and country, and labels himself as a Raumdeuter (interpreter of space). His teammates Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba are also famously versatile, attributing their versatility to first and foremost an elite technical ability. Nacho has filled in at most of Real Madrid’s positions under Zidane, who sees his strength and heading ability as useful assets alongside the technique, agility and defensive prowess that has given him a successful career at full-back.

So what links these champions of versatility? For the most part, they are strong, mobile, quick, technical players who can score goals and defend. This should be the basis of our criteria for finding the most suitable player on each team to clone for all 10 outfield positions. It’s also clear they must have the right mentality, and to win this league they’ll need to be able to adapt to different team tactics, so must be able to head the ball. I’d fancy a team of Conor Coadys to beat a team of Raheem Sterlings by employing a bit of long ball, for example.

At this stage, I relied on expertise from football’s greatest experts, it’s fans. Thankfully, I had access to opinions on every team in the Premier League. Some answers were easy. “Kane’s our best centre-back, No 10, striker and probably everything else – he’ll win the league.”

Some were harder. My oddly large pool of friends that support Newcastle all gave me someone different: Callum Wilson, Jonjo Shelvey, Jamaal Lascelles and Allan Saint-Maximin splitting opinion.

And some were impassioned pleas. “STAY AWAY FROM ZAHA, WE’LL LOSE 8-2 EVERY GAME,” my Dad’s mate Mike implored. “Go with Kouyate, he’ll keep us up.”

Eventually these opinions proved just one thing; that they were opinions. Stu deserves better than this. And so, we turn to science. Opta, WhoScored and Squawka provide excellent analysis, but the data itself was too hard to interpret against our criteria. The best database for players’ ability across the many different attributes that make them good at football is in fact EA Sports’ FIFA.

FIFA grades each player out of 100 in 29 different attributes. There are also other things that affect a player’s ability, such as technical specialities, and physicality, but these are proportionally reflected in some of the already graded attributes, so as long as these are considered, we cover most bases.

If we are to take into account the average of all of their attributes (not to be confused with their overall rating), then at the time of writing Fernandes and De Bruyne are the best players in the league by quite a way. Bruno is helped dramatically by his penalty-taking, free-kick accuracy, and the curve on his shots. In fact, eight of the 29 attributes are about different types of shooting, which skews the results somewhat. We need to pick the most important attributes.

So, back to our criteria. We need strong, mobile, quick, technical players who can score goals and defend. Fortunately, there is a grading for ‘Strength’, so we’ll use that. Mobility and speed are graded in ‘Sprint Speed’, ‘Acceleration’, and ‘Agility’. These are all proportionally similar for each player, so one of the three will be enough. Agility tends to reward midfielders and quick pressers of the ball, an increasingly vital part of the modern game (for example Kante scores 82 for agility but just 79 and 76 for acceleration and sprint speed). For this reason, we’ll pick ‘Agility’.

Technical ability is scored in ’Ball Control’, ‘Dribbling’, ‘Short Pass’, ‘Long Pass’, ‘Vision’ and ‘Crossing’. This can be split into two, control and passing. Dribbling is a fairly specialist skill, and while players like Zaha, Saint-Maximin and Adama Traore excel in this, they are proportionally let down in the control and passing categories. ‘Ball Control’ appears to be a better reflection of overall technical ability, so we’ll go with that.

It’s impossible to prioritise one element of passing over another, so while crossing might not be totally crucial, ‘Vision’, ‘Short Pass’, and ‘Long Pass’ will be combined and averaged out to provide us with our ‘Passing’ rating. There are many ways to score a goal, which is why FIFA grade so many different techniques, but ‘Finishing’ is an excellent reflection of a player’s ability to hit the back of the net. Jorginho has a better ‘Penalties’ rating than Sergio Aguero, but won’t be hunting the Argentinian down in the Golden Boot race any time soon. ‘Heading’ is also going in; we discussed earlier why this is important at both ends of the pitch. For ‘Defending’, we’ll take an average across the three categories of ‘Marking’, ‘Slide Tackle’ and ‘Standing Tackle’. Finally, going back to Pellegrini’s appraisal of James Milner, to complete this footballer, we’ll be looking for ‘Aggression’. We’d fancy a team of Vardys to beat a team of Berbatovs every day of the week.

So there we have it, our criteria. Taking the scores from ‘Strength’, ‘Agility’, ‘Ball Control’, ‘Passing’, ‘Finishing’, ‘Heading’, ‘Defending’ and ‘Aggression’, we’ll be able to find each team’s ideal clone, and eventually, our clone Premier League champion. I’ve made a nifty little Venn diagram to showcase the usefulness of these points.

Hmmm. You know what, let’s just move on from the Venn diagram. I sort of regret it. So, starting with the Premier League champions, let’s see where we are. Here’s a look at their top three players based on the data:

Salah begins with the best average across all attributes, marginally above Mane and well above VVD. But once we assess our eight criteria, Mane and VVD far exceed Salah, who is let down by his defensive work, aggression and particularly heading. This feels right. I’d probably fancy myself against a back four of Salahs. Van Dijk is pushing Mane close when taking in our eight criteria, but the more we dismiss the
unconsidered criteria, the more important they feel. VVD scores plenty of goals but almost exclusively from set-pieces. He’s great for a defender with the ball at his feet but is he ever going to play through a team, or dribble around them?

If we bring back the rest of the categories, but weight the scoring towards our criteria of 8 (at a factor of 2:1), we have a more balanced view of a player’s total ability, while applying focus to the key aspects that make them versatile and capable all over the pitch. This gives a clearer win to Mane, with a gap to Van Djik, and another one to Salah. I’ve offered this back to Liverpool fans who resoundingly agreed before bleating on about Firmino and Saturday lunch-times.

This was an enjoyable, but thoroughly time-consuming process. The clearest winners from their clubs were De Bruyne, Kane, Fernandes, Vardy, Raul Jimenez, Kalvin Phillips, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Sander Berge. There were tight wins – Antonio over Declan Rice,
James Ward-Prowse over Danny Ings and James Tarkowski over Ashley Westwood. And there were some nice surprises – David Luiz over Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Branislav Ivanovic over Mathias Pereira and Ross Barkley over Jack Grealish. A few teams required almost their entire squad to be analysed, and coming out on top were Allan, Kante, Jonjo Shelvey, Adam Lallana and finally Cheikhou Kouyate (there you are Mike). We’ve got a nice spread of positions represented, with four strikers, four attacking midfielders, five centre midfielders, three defensive midfielders, three centre-backs and one solitary winger in Mane.

So, there we have it. Our 20 nominees are selected. I suppose the sad thing is that the next part of the question – ‘who wins this hypothetical clone-based Premier League?’, will be answered as soon as I click ‘sort highest to lowest’. That doesn’t feel very fun. The beauty of this wonderful sport is its unpredictability, its drama, the fact that it is so very unlike a spreadsheet.

Don’t worry, I’ll push the button. But not yet. First, we enjoy ourselves. Grab a cup of tea. Put your feet up. You now live in a world where there are ten Sander Berges. Relax.

It’s Saturday August 10. The sun is shining. You’re on your way to the pub to watch the 12.30 kick-off; it’s the opener of the clone Premier League, and it’s live. We’ve been blessed with a modern-day classic to kick off the season, Sadio Mane v Ross Barkley, at a packed Anfield. The home manager, Sadio Mane, gives an interview complaining about the 12.30 kick off. He says the 48,000 Sadio Manes inside the stadium agree. The TV crew of a dozen Jake Humphreys nod awkwardly and the interviewer, Jake Humphreys, links back to Jake Humphreys in the studio. The four officials are all Mike Dean and are stood in a circle complimenting each other. Lucasz Fabianski hugs Lucasz Fabianski in the tunnel. The Ross Barkleys are all chewing gum in unison. Football is back.

The game kicks off and immediately the Ross Barkleys try to get hold of the ball. Playing it confidently around the back four and through the midfield. However, despite long displays of possession the harassment from Sadio Mane is unending, and eventually CB Ross Barkley is dispossessed by Mane, who confronts the keeper and squares the ball to one of three onrushing Manes to tap into an open goal. The game continues in this manner and despite a couple of long shots from Ross Barkley, they simply cannot advance far enough up the pitch to cause Mane a problem.

Midway through the second half, Mane crosses from deep and Mane sneaks between the two centre-backs for a simple toe poke past the keeper. The game finishes 2-0 and Mane establishes himself as a real contender this season. Barkley played pretty football, but there will be concerns about both ends of the pitch.

The rest of the weekend’s football follows:

De Bruyne 5-1 Ivanovic: The visitors were thrilled to be in at 1-1 at half time, having scored a late equaliser from their first corner of the game. De Bruyne turned it on in the second half, particularly as Ivanovic tired. A convincing start from many peoples’ title favourites.

Loftus-Cheek 1-2 Allan: Loftus-Cheek led at half-time in an even contest, but Allan capitalised on two mistakes to win a tough away game. Allan looked much the fitter of the two (or 20), and could be a surprise package this season.

Antonio 3-1 Ward-Prowse: The visitors were much the better side, with 64% possession and 18 shots on goal. However, the home side were clinical and scored all three of their shots on target, striker Antonio grabbing an opening-day hat-trick.

Kouyate 0-0 Jimenez: Much better entertainment than the score-line suggests, this game was all about endeavour meets quality. Jimenez had the better of the chances, but Kouyate will be encouraged by a gritty performance against a quality side.

Tarkowski 1-0 Lallana: An excellent tactical display from Tarkowski, who absorbed the pressure, played long balls to the two tall forwards, and won free-kicks deep in Lallana’s half. For better finishing, this could have been a drubbing, Tarkowski hitting the bar three times from headers. Lallana created few chances; play this game 100 times over and the result wouldn’t change.

Vardy 4-3 Phillips: This was even tiring to watch on the sofa at home. A game packed with intensity, both sides constantly giving the ball away in dangerous areas. Don’t expect these teams to keep this up all season, but also actually do expect that because they’ve got seven more clones on the bench.

Shelvey 1-2 Kane: Kane raced into an early 2-0, carving Shelvey apart with ease, but failed to kill the game off and gradually fell deeper and deeper to protect the lead. Shelvey scored a late goal from outside the box to give him hope but Kane held out with some heroic last-ditch defending.

Berge 0-3 Fernandes: The divide in class was clear for all to see here. Berge was organised but Bruno found joy in the smallest of gaps. At 3-0 at half time, the game relaxed as neither gave the other problems. Berge might wonder where he can pick up points this season. Bruno will be looking toward the top.

Luiz 2-2 Kante: The weekend’s flagship contest. Luiz showcased some good footwork to win and subsequently score a free-kick in the first half, but Kante put the ball in the net almost through sheer force of will, twice scrappily poking the ball home in goalmouth melees. Luiz rose highest from a corner to score a last-second equaliser for the home side. A joy to behold.

Ah don’t you just wish it could be true. Modern-day football isn’t conducive to differing team identities. If a formation or tactic is effective, most teams will tend to use it. But not in the clone Premier League. Imagine a room full of De Bruynes trying to figure out how to get the ball through Kante. Imagine fisticuffs between Vardy and Shelvey. Imagine playing away at Tarkowski on a rainy Tuesday night.

Right then. Enough horseplay. Let’s do this.

So there we have it. Harry Kane. Clone Premier League Champion. Congratulations Harry. Well done.

But there is of course, so much more to discuss, than the simple (and now scientifically proven) fact that Kane is not only the complete striker, but possibly the most complete player in the Premier League. Sorry Manuel Pellegrini, but James Milner might have to pass on his crown.

What of the other contenders? De Bruyne’s average rating is the best in the league, and he narrowly misses out to Kane, possibly based on his heading alone. Kane should be able to compete with the long ball we expect from Tarkowski, Berge, Ivanovic etc, but KDB could lose some points here. Mane is also expectedly in the top four, but a surprise comes in Everton’s Allan, who is the only player with just one statistic below a 75 rating. Bruno and Kante complete the European spots, and we aren’t surprised either to see Antonio, Jimenez and Vardy just below them. Luiz is perhaps a surprise finisher in the top half, but if we’d stuck with Aubameyang, he’d have been relegated.

The bottom is somewhat expected. Tarkowski has a lot of fans but where do the goals come from – set-pieces alone won’t keep a team in the Premier League. Same for Berge, whose qualities are numerous in quantity but not in size. Barkley is a surprise for relegation, but suffers at both ends of the pitch, as do other relegation candidates, Shelvey and Loftus-Cheek. Lallana, Phillips, Kouyate and Ward-Prowse have enough quality to sit in mid-table and perhaps the story of the year is Ivanovic, whose aggression and strength are enough to intimidate his way to safety, as well as being the only player who didn’t ask a single question during the entire cloning process.

And what of the weighting system? It seemed a fair and accurate way of assessing both general ability and versatility, but some players may be upset to see its impact. Antonio was looking at a top-four finish based on our top eight criteria alone, while Fernandes is the best in the league based on the stats outside our criteria. But you know what? Not everyone can win. Only one man can. And that man, or men, is Harry Kane (or Kanes).

Nathan Gornall – he loves a hypothetical