Leicester City winger Demarai Gray only just turned 24 years old. Yet, for some it feels his time has run its course. When you consider that he has appeared in over 160 matches for the club over the course of five seasons, you can begin to understand why. Add in a perpetual sense of impending breakthrough that never quite comes and you can start to feel the frustration.
Still, there is a reason four different managers have been intrigued enough to give him chances, most noticeably in the early stages of their tenures. There is something about his game – the deftness of foot, the agility and balance, the ambition to drive past defenders – that reminds of the sport’s best wingers. Presumably, this is what has enticed Claudio Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare, Claude Puel, and Brendan Rodgers to give him as many chances as they have.
His end product, however, has left a bit to be desired. Gray has never topped five combined goals and assists in a season for the Foxes, and never registered more than seven combined goals and assists in a season as a professional. For a winger who has never been quite as likely to track back as somebody like Marc Albrighton, these aren’t the numbers you would hope to see.
Development, though, can be a tricky thing. City should heed the warning a Middlesbrough fan might provide as the team that let go of a young Adama Traoré. Adama, much like Gray, has always had the type of ability on the ball that catches the eye. In his first three seasons in the Premier League, however, he tallied a total of one goal and four assists in 66 appearances. Compare that to Gray’s total of four goals and seven assists in his first three Premier League seasons, in a total of 77 matches, and you see a similar picture.
Now Adama has broken through and proven to be one of the Premier League’s most lethal wingers, racking up four goals and nine assists in the league this season. He has also become one of the most proficient dribblers in the world, a critical element to his team’s ball progression.
With Adama’s trajectory in mind, there is reason to feel Gray deserves another chance to prove he can sustain the production we have seen in spurts. Though he has an extra season in the topflight under his belt, he is also five months younger than the Wolves winger.
The underlying stats provide another compelling point in Gray’s favor. Though his minutes have been limited in 2020, more so than in any of his other full seasons with the club, he has been surprisingly productive on a per 90-minute basis.
Gray currently sits fourth on the team in non-penalty expected goals + expected assists per 90 minutes, behind only Kelechi Iheanacho, Jamie Vardy, and Harvey Barnes. That means he sits above James Maddison, Ayoze Perez, Youri Tielemans, and Marc Albrighton, all of whom have been regulars in positions which chance conversion and creation are expected.
*stats courtesy of football reference
Remarkably, a comparison between the underlying numbers for Gray and Adama’s 2020 seasons provides a jarring image.
Gray tops Adama in every category, from expected goals per 90 to expected assists per 90, key passes per 90, and just outright goals and assists per 90. He has also been involved in the buildup to goals more frequently on a per 90 basis, as evidenced by the xGChain and xGBuildUp numbers.
Still, the merits of per 90-minute data for a player almost exclusively used as a substitute can be difficult to gauge without a large enough sample. Simple logic might suggest that players with fresh legs are more likely to impress against tired defenses than they would from the start. One way to adjust for sample size would be to compare the data over the last two seasons, creating a slightly more balanced comparison.
This comparison indicates Gray has been more of a threat as a goal scorer over this time period and Adama has been more of a creator, though there hasn’t been much to separate them overall. With this in mind, Leicester City will hope to avoid becoming the Middlesbrough to Gray’s Adama.
This season, perhaps more than any other, there have been stretches in which Gray looked poised to make the long-awaited breakthrough into a consistent contributor. In the earlier part of the season, a six-match stretch saw him tally one goal and three assists. Since the restart, Gray has registered two assists and one goal. His efforts this season should have earned him a more prolonged look in the side, one that will hopefully come next season.
Still, potential is the overriding trait for Gray. With his contract set to expire next summer, and rumors of Tottenham Hotspur lurking, it’s time to give him another real opportunity to make good on that potential.