AMSTERDAM – As Saturday's heartbreaking FA Cup semifinal loss to Arsenal was the first taste of Premier League-caliber opposition for Reading midfielder Daniel Williams, it seemed the perfect time to throw his performance under our statistical microscope.
Though the Royals fell agonizingly short of the club's first FA Cup final, losing in extra time, Williams repeatedly drew compliments from the BBC broadcast team. Late in regulation, color analyst Danny Murphy remarked, "He's been everywhere, Williams. He's been really, really good."
How good? Let's break out the abacus, using a few traditional stat categories and some of our own creation.
On The Ball
As is often the case, Williams was the most efficient Reading man when his side was in possession, completing 71 of 77 passes. Even though he easily leads his team in passing percentage in league play, matching that rate of 87-percent success against the Gunners says a lot about his level of care for the ball.
Williams stayed consistent throughout the game, never missing on consecutive passes. Twenty-nine of his link-ups came in the first half, 27 in the second frame and 14 in extra time. To boot, his only ballhandling turnover did not come until the fourth minute of extra time, and it came well into the Arsenal end. This was especially impressive when one considers that Williams chalked up six dribble runs of at least 20 yards against the Gunners' midfield of Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and Mesut Özil.
We typically also like to focus on the "tough touches" category for midfielders, as they most often tend to receive and dispense the ball in hurried traffic or under great physical pressure. Williams, though, encountered the stunningly low number of three such episodes, with two successful link-ups. Even against a big club like Arsenal, his skill for calmly drifting into large spaces to receive and move the ball shines through. For a guy patrolling the center of the park, Williams simply doesn't allow himself to be harassed so much when Reading have the ball.
Williams got credit for one of these every time he followed a successful reception with a completed pass to maintain his side's time on the ball while under at least some sort of duress. Accepting the ball unmarked and laying off a two-yard pass won't count here.
In all, Williams made nine possession plays on a day when time on the ball came at a very high premium (Arsenal hogged 72 percent of the rock). Six such plays came in the first half, with the drop the rest of the game partially attributable to the fact that the American increasingly worked the dribble as the game progressed. Interestingly enough, three of his possession passes came on headers.
Pressure Valve Plays
This stat reflects the number of times a player shows as an outlet for the defense and then moves the team safely out of trouble in some manner. Normally, one would expect Williams to ring up a tidy sum in this category as a pure defensive midfielder.
Against Arsenal, he played centrally in a flat midfield, which essentially stripped half the opportunities he might have as a true No. 6. Williams had a big goose egg at halftime but rallied with four big escape plans in the second half and another in extra time. Of his five pressure valve plays in the match, only one came via the pass. Three happened on yard-eating gallops with the ball, and another occurred when Williams was fouled.
On The Attack
Not shy to shoot when following up a play or running high up on the break, Williams found three chances to fire against Arsenal, including two excellent first-half looks. Unfortunately, he failed to get a solid boot on each try, and all three fell wide of the target.
Williams did not attempt a cross or any through balls to the area, but that's nothing strange for him. One of his two earned free kicks gave Reading a very dangerous restart late in the second half, but their set-piece delivery continued with an off day.
Off The Ball
With Williams stationed up the pitch and always eager to push out the counter boat, and his team unwilling to back themselves into a shell too easily, some of his defensive responsibilities were reduced slightly. He managed two tackles, but just one clearance and no blocks around the Royals area.
The tactical move may have pumped up his number of interceptions, though. Given the freedom to jump lanes all over midfield, Williams had six, more than four above his Championship season average. Only teammate Michael Hector and Arsenal's Coquelin had more on the day. Five of Williams' interceptions came in the Reading half, including a key 82nd-minute swipe in front of their box. He had three by halftime, five at the end of 90 minutes and the last one in extras.
Combining his offensive and defensive numbers, Williams put up a splendid plus-5 turnover ratio (forced minus conceded) against Arsenal. Similarly computing a "beaten-on-the-dribble +/-" brings another glowing score for the midfielder: He passed five Arsenal defenders on his various rambles while only being bested by an opposing dribbler twice. His first check on the minus side didn't arrive until the 80th minute, when Cazorla's pirouette just above the Gunners box made the pressing American temporarily dizzy – so no real harm suffered in that incident.
While Williams did commit five fouls (and was lucky not to see yellow a couple of times), he never allowed himself to be directly pulled out of position for an Arsenal advance through his wake. Not once. He did suffer one small protection lapse at the gate to the Reading area when he was slow to close down a wild Cazorla shot attempt near the left corner of the box in the third minute of extras.
If his Arsenal showing is any indication, Williams should be in line to step into the US national team role of veteran Real Salt Lake defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman. Not only was he not bothered by a big jump in the level of competition on Saturday; the Reading rock actually thrived in some ways against the speedy, ground-based Gunners.