Voices: Joseph Lowery

Why Carles Gil is the best playmaker in MLS in 2021

CarlesGilDribbling (1)

In a league like Major League Soccer that flies the Number 10 flag in a way that few other leagues still do, it’s not easy for one particular central attacking midfielder to stand out.

Well, actually, let me take that back. It shouldn’t be easy for one particular central attacking midfielder to stand out. I mean, come on, you have Lucas Zelarayan scoring free kicks for fun up in Columbus, Emanuel Reynoso running the show in Minnesota, Jamiro Monteiro dropping dimes for Philadelphia, the list of talented playmakers goes on and on.

And yet, over a month into the 2021 MLS season, one attacking midfielder is dominating Second Spectrum’s chance creation metrics. If you’ve clicked on this story, you already know who it is.

Gil’s quality isn’t a secret at this point. Opposing teams recognize it — no MLS player has been pressed more often than Gil has this season — and his own team recognizes it too. New England signed the Spaniard to a multi-year contract extension earlier this week.

"Not many teams in the league have a player of Carles’ caliber,” Bruce Arena told the media after the Revolution announced Gil’s contract extension.

The season is young, but that compliment from Arena looks like a major understatement. Through seven games, Gil has been the best playmaker in MLS. Don’t take my word for it. Let’s walk through some of the numbers, shall we?

I mentioned it already, but Gil is at the top of a variety of Second Spectrum’s chance creation metrics. First, he leads the league in expected assists with 3.53 so far this season. His 3.53 xA is nearly one entire expected assist more than the next closest player, Cristian Roldan with 2.6 xA.

Using his dominant left foot, Gil whips a lot of threatening balls into the box. He leads MLS in xA from dead-ball situations, regularly setting up his teammates for quality shooting opportunities like this one for Jonathan Bell against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday. The bend on the ball and the weight of the pass … textbook.

Gil’s playmaking ability certainly isn’t confined to dead ball situations. He’s also excellent at receiving the ball in possession, gaining a bit of separation, and then creating shots for his teammates. This moment from the Revolution’s 1-1 draw with the Union earlier this month is a perfect example of Gil’s shot-creating ability. Gil cuts inside past Leon Flach and plays a lovely ball into the box for Teal Bunbury, who misses the header.

That left foot — and his tendency to cut inside onto that left foot — is a big reason why Arena has used Gil as an inverted right winger for stretches of the last three seasons. However, now that he’s spent four of his last five games playing as a central attacking midfielder with either Adam Buksa or Gustavo Bou ahead of him, Gil has even more opportunities to influence the attack.

Gil leads the league in shots created via passes, averaging 7.2 passes that directly lead to shots every 90 minutes. He excels at advancing the ball and creating chances against defensive blocks. Right now, Gil is averaging 2.4 passes that lead to a shot against an organized defense per 90 minutes, which is more than any other midfielder in MLS.

When the Revs are in possession in the final third, Gil bypasses more defenders per pass (2.6) than any other attacking player in MLS. This ball from Gil to Brandon Bye is, admittedly, played from outside the final third, but it still bypasses a handful of Columbus Crew defenders and gets Bye into a good crossing zone.

Helped by Gil’s set piece delivery and creative open play passing, New England have racked up the fourth-most xG per 90 minutes in MLS against organized defenses. But playmakers cannot live by passing alone. Well, they can, but Gil doesn’t.

Gil has the second-most attempted dribbles in the league right now (17) and is just one attempted dribble behind Reynoso for the league lead. However, Gil and Reynoso have completed the same number of successful dribbles (14) and Gil uses his dribbles to eliminate more defenders than Reynoso. Reynoso eliminates 0.4 defenders per dribble, while Gil eliminates 0.6.

Whether he’s playing as a 10 or as a right-sided attacker, Gil will often pick up the ball on the right side of the field, beat a defender, and then shift the ball over to the left side. We can see that clearly in this clip from New England’s 2-0 loss to Nashville, where he sends Anibal Godoy to the ground and then plays a pass to the weak side.

With his league-leading xA tally, his ability to break down a defensive block with his passing, and his dangerous dribbling, Gil is the playmaker in a league filled with playmakers. When you pull out a piece of skill like this in Week 3, you pretty much lock up that title then and there…

With Gil’s strong start to 2021 giving them a boost, the New England Revolution are on top of the East and look poised to continue their strong form heading into their game against FC Cincinnati on Saturday (3pm ET | MLS Live on ESPN+) and into the Nations League break.

Maybe the rest of MLS can use that three-week break to craft some sort of “Stop Carles Gil Plan”, because they’re going to need it.