The magic of Pascal Gross

Words By Blair Newman Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 15, 2018
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If surface statistics were all that could be seen, Pascal Gross would probably go under the radar. An attacking midfielder signed by Brighton & Hove Albion for under £3 million last summer, his five goals and eight assists represent a nice, though not particularly spectacular, tally for his maiden Premier League season so far. However, it’s when additional numerical context is provided that the German’s true quality begins to shine through.

Brighton are a team built on solid defence. Chris Hughton organises his players extremely well without the ball, making them difficult to break down. As a consequence, after 30 games they possess the seventh best goals conceded record in the English top flight. Their scoring record, however, is the fifth worst in the league – they have hit just 28 goals of their own. Gross has set up or scored 13 of them, meaning he has had a direct hand in 46.4 per cent of his team’s total output.

To get an even better idea of the player’s creativity, only five Premier League players have more assists at this stage: Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane and David Silva of Manchester City, Dele Alli of Tottenham Hotspur, and Paul Pogba of Manchester United. Furthermore, he is also in the league top 10 for key passes, averaging 2.3 per game. He has achieved this average despite playing in a Brighton side that do not place great emphasis on having the ball. Indeed, only four teams average less than their 46 per cent possession. They also play more long balls than all bar Burnley.

Put simply, Gross is one of the most productive attackers in the Premier League right now, despite playing for one of the Premier League’s least productive attacking teams. He makes a lot out of very little, which is something he also did last season with Ingolstadt. There he averaged more key passes per game than any Bundesliga player apart from RB Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg despite playing for a team that were ultimately relegated with one of the worst scoring totals in the division.

So the headline is: Gross Is Very Good. But what about the sub-heading? How is he so good?

A versatile player who spent time operating at No.6, No.8 and as a winger during his time with Ingolstadt, Gross has been utilised as more of a No.10 in England. Within Brighton’s 4-4-1-1 setup, he essentially functions as a support striker, behind target man Glenn Murray. This role allows him to be closer to the final third at all times, making maximal use of his best attacking attributes. He discussed this in an interview with The Argus last September, saying: “In this system, I come into situations where I can shoot or make the last pass.”

Gross gained renown in Germany for his passing range from deeper positions, though in England the most noticeable aspect of his passing has been its incisiveness. Playing centrally higher up the pitch, he has displayed quick thinking, laser vision and extraordinary intricacy to find gaps in congested areas. He is also an efficient taker of set pieces, regularly finding his teammates in packed penalty boxes.

This knack for not only identifying the right pass, but executing it perfectly, requires a commitment to accuracy over aesthetics. Johan Cruyff once remarked that, “To play well, you need good players, but a good player almost always has the problem of a lack of efficiency. He always wants to do things prettier than strictly necessary.” Gross is a good player, but he does not have this problem.
He set up Brighton’s third in the recent 4-1 win over Swansea City with one of the weirdest assists likely to be seen this season. With four players seemingly blocking a pass to Anthony Knockaert, Gross awkwardly angled a diagonal left-footed pass through the opposition to find his French teammate, who went on to finish. The setup was unattractive, but effective.

The same could be said about other Gross assists, including his many from corners or wider areas. His crosses are not eye-catching – they don’t whip or bend or change direction or flash across the face of goal. But they do consistently reach their intended recipient. One example of this came against Arsenal, where one of his slow and lofted pinpoint crosses found Murray for Brighton’s second of the game.

These ungainly methods reflect someone who is more interested in results than attention. Gross’ assists don’t really stand out, but he doesn’t appear to care; he’s selfless. “I was always a player who sees his team-mates, who’s looking for a better-placed player,” he told the Daily Telegraph’s Paul Hayward earlier this term. “I was one who thought about a better man, or a player who had a better chance to score.”

This sort of unselfish mindfulness is rooted in a total dedication to the craft. In a 2015 interview with German outlet Spox the player spoke about his pre-season training sessions as simply part of the footballing routine, as opposed to an unwelcome chore. “Each player receives a training plan for the holiday and I fulfil it,” he said. “I am a professional and have obligations to fulfil. [It’s] as simple as that.”

Underneath the incredible statistics lies a magician consumed by his process. Gross follows the plan, performs his role, and knows that the assists will come. The plaudits, or lack thereof, are an irrelevance. Playing in a position generally associated with freedom, luxury and flamboyance, he thrives through his practicality.

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