What If Bill James Had Been Hired in the Early 80’s?

This is generally a blog about analytics and football, and I’ll get there soon, but I was thinking recently about what might have happened if Bill James, the father of the baseball stats movement, had been hired by baseball teams back in the early 80’s.  (For those who want more reading about James that doesn’t directly involve reading about baseball stats, his Wikipedia bio is here, and Moneyball has lots of info as well.)

James’ Baseball Abstracts, the early editions of which were written when he was a security guard at a pork and beans canning plant, were the spark for most of the modern statistics movement in baseball. It’s often hard to pinpoint the tipping points in time, but Baseball Abstract was fairly clearly one, and most of the modern baseball stats writers were hugely influenced by his work. That in turn lead to guys like Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s and primary focus of Moneyball, doing what he did, and the Red Sox hiring James as a consultant in 2003.

The first Baseball Abstract was in 1977. It would take 26 years for James to officially work in Major League Baseball. That is a long time to build a body of work and public base of support, and to teach and educate interested parties.

What if James had been adopted early on by some ownership group and the majority of his work had been kept secret, so use by some teams? Obviously, that team would have benefitted, but the world almost certainly would have been a poorer place.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a quote from Moneyball that I still find shocking almost every time I read it.

“The legendary GM Branch Rickey employed a professional statistician named Allan Roth who helped to compose an article under Rickey’s byline in Life magazine in 1954 that argued the importance of on-base and slugging percentages over batting average.”

1954! And yet it would take nearly half a century more and the publication of Lewis’s book before most of the baseball world caught on to these core concepts.

The other thing to realize here is that the baseball stats movement eventually triggered movements in other major sports. Baseball had the luxury of detailed box scores with a century of useable (if not always useful) data available. And while James often lamented the quality of the data in his early work, which eventually lead to the formation of STATS Inc, at least he had something to work on that consisted of more than batting average, home runs, and ERA.

Coming back to the question posed at the start: what happens if James doesn’t have all that influence? Does someone else pop up to take his place near the exact same time? Or does the absence of his high profile public work retard the development of baseball stats for another decade, and thus contribute to a drag on the development of statistical analysis in other sports as well?

Obviously we’ll never know, but it certainly could have happened. All it would have taken was one smart owner reading an early Baseball Abstract and POOF, James would have been sucked into the sky, while decades of future work would be gone.

What’s the Point of Rambling About Baseball?

Bear with me as I draft in Gabe Dejardins for a little guest spot.

Gabe is one of those brilliant hockey analytics guys that football has stolen a lot of concepts from over the last few years, but he was also writing original, fantastic work about football analytics back in 2010, before WhoScored or Squawka, or really any public data even existed. He was doing this stuff as a sideline to his hockey blog before most people even thought about it.

For those who don’t follow the NHL, there have been a huge number of hires this summer by professional hockey teams targeting statistical bloggers. Two of the most prominent were Tyler Dellow and Eric Tulsky, but the Toronto Maple Leafs also hired the guys behind extraskater.com, the primary hockey data site, and in the process shut the whole site down so no one else could use it.

It has been a crazy summer for anybody intelligent who was doing hockey analysis, but as Gabe explains here, it’s not really a new thing inside the walls of many teams.

Now as I mentioned, Gabe was crunching soccer stats before most of us knew data existed. And Gabe’s point about hockley analytics holds true for football as well.

(I wanted it to exist back in 2004-05 so that I could work on it, but there were no public sources. In fact, I have a notebook from a trip to Prague in 2005 with the business outline for a company just like Opta to collect football stats and do analytics. I knew Opta existed because their name was on the Premier League home page, but all we ever saw of their work was the ridiculous Opta Index - a single, useless black box number evaluating a player.)

You know who else has been crunching data for ages? Gavin Fleig. He’s currently Global Lead for Talent Management at Manchester City, but he started out way back at Bolton Wanderers with Sam Allardyce, and they crunched data and built game models to help Bolton punch well above their weight for quite a few years.

The same can be said for Steve Houston, currently of Sunderland, but formerly of Chelsea, Hamburg, and the Houston Rockets.

And Ian Graham, currently at Director of Research at Liverpool, but formerly at analytics company DecTech. (Graham actually has a small archive listing at the SoccerAnalysts Blog dating back mostly to 2011! The things you find on the internet.

There are a number of guys who have been working with soccer data inside of clubs for much longer than you might expect. Here’s an early Sloan Sports Conference soccer planel with all three of those guys plus Blake Wooster, formerly of Prozone and currently of 21stClub discussing data stuff back in 2011. (I would embed it, but it's not on Youtube.)

Never heard of any of those guys before now? This wouldn’t be a huge surprise, especially if they don’t work specifically for your club, because they all work IN clubs. Therefore whatever their research uncovers is all top secret.

What I found fascinating, however, is how clearly all of them communicate in that panel how they wish there were more statistical analysts around. Football has tons of sports science analysts and miniscule numbers of stats geeks doing good work. These guys want to know more, and they want to read you and me writing it.

In fact, as Fleig explains in an interview here, that desire was a big part of the impetus behind Manchester City releasing their data set to the public back in 2012.

They knew fans needed to have the data in order to be able to ask and answer interesting questions about how football works. And they probably knew from American sports that increasing data availability actually triggers an enormous increase in fan interest and involvement from certain groups of fans (basically anyone who might play fantasy football). It’s clear that all of these teams wanted more people doing research about the game and hopefully writing about it, so that they could learn additional useful info for free.

The StatsBomb twitter account is dense with followers who work for teams, either publicly or privately. I know for a fact that a surprising amount of the work done by guys in the analytics community has been read and adopted into football teams already.

Free labor, plus competitive advantage if you no how to apply it. It’s hard to beat that sort of thing.

Two more people doing kickass stuff way back are Sarah Rudd and Ravi Ramineni.  Ravi works for the Seattle Sounders in MLS now, while last I heard Sarah Rudd was a vice president at StatDNA. I also heard rumors that StatDNA was the analytics company purchased by Arsenal two years ago, but I can’t confirm that because despite looking all over the place, I never did see a name mentioned in the press. Assumption: Arsenal bought a fantastic analytics company who were totally ahead of the curve two years ago and who have probably continued to innovate since. Whether Wenger and co leverage that information is another question entirely.

Anyway, the point in all of this was that analytics usage in soccer/football isn’t new, but it’s also not terribly widespread. Some of the stuff we’ve done on StatsBomb might be new research, and was only possible after WhoScored and Squawka appeared, and after we took a ton of our own time to put that information into crunchable form.

On the other hand, much of the work we’ve done on StatsBomb has probably already been done at many clubs throughout England. This is hugely frustrating for me, but despite reading everything I can get my hands on in this area for the last two years minimum, there just isn’t that much new research being published.

Why did we have to redo all the work? Because football doesn’t have a Bill James or Rob Neyer. Or Gabe Dejardins, Vic Ferrari, Tyler Dellow, and Eric Tulsky of hockey fame. Or Dave Berri, John Hollinger, Zack Lowe, and Kirk Goldsberry (plus many others) of the NBA. Without that sort of long-term public framework to stand on, analysts reinvent the wheel again and again as they start to ask and answer the interesting questions about how the game works.

Bill James produced a book a year on this stuff from when he started in 1977, and a huge number of other writers sprung out of the interest in his work. Football pretty much has two books about stats, total.

(Soccernomics and The Numbers Game) Yes, the way the world publishes things is different and the total blog publication of what we've done would certainly stand up to any of James's busy years, but still... two books total. Football might develop a Bill James in a few years, but I think the odds are against that happening, and here’s why.

Unless you actually hate the game or they offer stupidly low compensation packages, it’s hard to turn down football clubs when they come calling.

And honestly, if you are putting all this work into crunching the stats, you almost certainly love the game.

So there you are, doing work, wishing for more/better data, and writing about it in public. You build a following, and start to have some interest from media and the occasional private email or DM from clubs asking about your work. Eventually that culminates in someone giving you a job offer to stop working in public, but to have a potentially real impact on an actual football club, with a fuckton of data including the secret stuff that in some cases no one really admits exists.

Poof, much like the myriad of hockey bloggers this summer, you get sucked into the sky and your future (and in some cases your past) work disappears with you.

It’s possible hockey research will experience a rough year or three now as well, since it will take time for new writers to fill the massive holes left by the most recent hiring sprees.

The funny thing is, if 10 Premier League teams immediately wanted to find and hire statistical bloggers, I’m not sure they could do it. And if another 10 clubs from the Championship and Spain and Germany wanted to find writing talent for immediate hires, they definitely would hit a wall when trying to hire amongst the football blogging community. There simply aren’t enough people out there writing period, let alone enough who have displayed the kind of skill in analysis, math, and attention to detail the hockey guys were doing.


To sum up, I think it comes back to three things.

1)      Huge problems finding detailed data to crunch. American sports have had these issues off and on at varying levels, but in Europe the data is extremely expensive to buy, most data providers don’t have a public face, and those that do always have to keep an eye on the bottom line. It’s doable, but it’s certainly not easy to get started.

2)      No Bill James-type figure to push the development with a huge body of public work because...

3)      Every time a potential figure shows up, they get hired by clubs. This creates a big competitive advantage for the hiring club, but it retards the development of the discipline as a whole.

Back to the title question – what if Bill James had been hired in the early 80’s?

The development of baseball statistical analysis would have probably taken a lot longer to happen, which in turn might have delayed improvements across any number of other sports.

In fact, you might say that baseball even a decade or two after taking James out of the ecosystem would have ended up looking a lot like football/soccer analysis does today.

Player Positional Tracker: Arsenal v Tottenham

Arsenal 1 vs 1 Tottenham Continuing the theme of guest commentators analysing our Player Positional Tracker vizs we have ThatsWengerBall giving us his thoughts on Saturday's North London Derby. His comments and brief analysis can be found below the gif. (Click on the image to open in a larger window) ARSvTOT

  • Arsenal started the game with a very fluid 4-1-4-1 system; with Özil starting on the left, Chamberlain on the right and two box-to-box midfielders in Wilshere and Ramsey playing centrally in front of Arteta, acting as the pivot.
  • Whereas Chamberlain provided width on the right, Özil often drifted inside from the left to overload the centre of the pitch and could regularly be found rotating positions with Wilshere and Ramsey. This central overload allowed Arsenal to dominate possession throughout the whole match.
  • To ensure Arsenal didn’t become too narrow, Gibbs (the left-back) acted as an outlet on the left when in possession and played especially high up the pitch in the second half – almost as a left winger. To counterbalance this, Chambers (playing right-back) stayed slightly deeper ensuring the centre-backs weren’t too exposed, recreating the offensive/defensive full-back dynamic seen often last year between Gibbs and Sagna.
  • Chamberlain acted as more of a wide midfielder than an inside forward like Walcott meaning that when Welbeck dropped deep to link the play Chamberlain rarely made a run into the space vacated by the centre forward. This meant Arsenal offered little penetration and had to rely on crisp passing combinations and individual skill to bypass Tottenham’s defence.
  • Tottenham played a lot deeper and spent a lot of the game defending in a 4-4-2 shape with Chadli playing off Adebayor. They attempted to utilise the space on the counter by hitting Arsenal on the break, however poor decision making when it came to making the final pass ultimately limited the effectiveness of this strategy.
  • Eriksen and Lamela looked dangerous, moving in from the flanks to join Adebayor and Chadli when on the counter, however Spurs had so little of the ball (only 30% possession) that they struggled to have a significant impact on the game. That said, it was Lamela who took advantage of Flamini’s mistake and slid in a well-timed pass for Chadli’s goal.
  • Arsenal’s substitutions changed the shape of their side quite significantly. From around the 65th minute onwards it was clear (as shown in the above PPT) that the Gunners were targeting the left hand side of the pitch. Alexis, Cazorla, Özil and Gibbs could all be found in this area creating a passing quartet that gave Tottenham quite a few problems and eventually led to an equaliser.

Player Positional Tracker: Hull v Man City

Hull 2 vs 4 Man City Comments / analysis provided by Danny Pugsley from Bitter And Blue.  Danny's comments appear below the animated gif. (Click on image to open in larger window) HULvMCFC

  • Despite City's early lead it was noticeable how committed they were to attacking play, even at 2-0 up and after Hull pegged them back. There appeared little change in approach.


  • Both Milner and Silva were very supportive of Dzeko and Aguero, with Milner spending a fair amount of time out on the right hand side in tandem with Zabaleta.


  • Zabaleta commented post game (as he has done before) about City's commitment to the attack and that it is a trade off that leaves them vulnerable defensively. Whilst Clichy gets into forward positions it is Zabaleta who is the full back with most licence.


  • A lot of City's play comes down the right hand side (perhaps with the absence of Nasri?) but both Milner and Silva were stationed more on the right hand side than the left.


  • Of most interest was the effect the substitutions had on City's make up. Navas for Fernandinho was first and this move essentially gave City an extra attacking option, leaving Toure as the only central midfielder to do the 'dirty work'.
  • Following the substitution through to the final whistle he was stationed virtually in the centre circle (similar to his disciplined role against Chelsea the previous week).


  • Navas was of course patrolling the right hand side but not exclusively as it is shown that he and Zabaleta would interchange on occasion with Navas tucking inside.


  • The second substitution was Lampard for Aguero. Lampard operated very centrally but not as a Fernandinho replacement, holding alongside Toure - which you may expect having gone 3-2 up - but noticeably ahead of Toure, influencing the attacking play with Milner all around him.


  • As seen in the previous week his sense of timing gets him in position to score goals and it is interesting that Pellegrini may look to use Lampard in this role moving forward; an impact sub brought to control play further forward rather than the usual tactic of an added body in midfield.

Player Positional Tracker: West Brom v Burnley

West Brom 4 vs 0 Burnley Burnley have only scored 1 goal so far this season, all the 19 other teams in the Premier League have scored at least 4 goals.  And when you see the formation the Premier League new boys play it's easy to see how they have struggled offensively. In the Player Positional Tracker below, which shows the smoothed positions (as recorded by Opta) that the players took up as the game progressed, we can see the formations employed by the two teams.  Click on the image to open in a larger window.

  • Burnley kept an exceptionally tight formation during the opening 30 minutes.  For large periods of time all 4 defenders are very narrow, all within the confines of the penalty area; this is certainly unusual for modern full backs.


  • In this opening 30 minute period, Burnley seemed content to concede possession.  This can be observed by the very small size of the Burnley dots (the size represents on the ball involvement).


  • However, having fallen behind Burnley were not able to change their formation to offer much attacking threat of their own.

Kevin Kilbane provided some more analysis on this line in this informative article on the BBC website WBAvBUR

Wolfsburg v Werder Bremen. Bundesliga Analysis via Player Positional Tracker

Wolfsburg 2 vs 1 Werder Bremen Continuing the theme of insightful analysis from guests, I aked the brilliant Rene Maric if he could provide some analysis on a German match of his choice from the weekend's Bundesliga round.  For those who are not aware of Rene, he is one of the brains behind the excellent Spielverlagerung tactics site, think of the German equivalent of Zonal Marking's Michael Cox.  That's Rene. Unfortunately I was having technical issues with the data for Koln v Bayern Munich game so Rene was kind enough to offer to analyse the Wolfsburg v Werder Bremen game instead, via the use of our Player Positional Tracker. Rene's comments and analysis appear below the gif, and as always click on the image to open it in a larger window. WOLvWER In the game Wolfsburg vs Werder Bremen the international audience probably saw two rather unknown coaches who are both considered one of the most competent tactically in Germany. Wolfsburg's Dieter Hecking is the 'classical' hard working coach who survived relegation battle regularly at Nuremberg and Hannover; he defines himself through solid attacking play and intelligent adaptation for specific games. Mostly he mixes man-marking with zonal marking or implements intelligent tactical changes like a 4-1-3-1-1 against Louis van Gaal's Bayern in 2010/11. Robin Dutt is the opposite: He often has really interest and sometimes extreme ideas with mixed success - at Freiburg he was great, he failed at Leverkusen (though more because of man-management aspects) and now at Werder he is mediocre. Against Wolfsburg Dutt had another rather unusual idea to create an advantage for his side. As you can see in the PPT, often Junuzovic is much higher than Makiadi and both wingers are not really wide. This was because when pressing higher Junuzovic moved upfront and created a diamond; the wingers then went more towards the middle and the shape was a 4-1-2-1-2/4-3-1-2/4-1-3-2. But as soon as the high press was beaten, Junuzovic came back and the wingers played classic against. This was then a typical 4-4-2 formation in their own half in pressing. Probably the goal was to close down Wolfsburg's passing options in the first third of the pitch and then attack them aggressively; if it wasn't possible, they dropped back to a more stable shape. Interesting was the focus on the right side. As you can see both Bartels and Busch on this side were pushing high; Busch was also very involved into the attacking play, while Di Santo and Petersen moved very much but tried to stay near each other for fast combination play and flick ons. At Wolfsburg's PPT it is easy to see that they had a rather clear 4-2-3-1, where both wingers tried to come into the middle and Olic was moving very much accross the horizontal to open space. Especially de Bruyne was going towards the middle, where Hunt had more of a balancing and supporting role - he wasn't involved as much as a normal 10 could have been. Interesting is also the higher focus on Gustavo and his deeper role. In the beginning Gustavo often went towards the left half space to be able to get free, pass towards Rodriguez and cover behind him. Later Gustavo was often standing inbetween or infront the two centrebacks, while Guilavogui was the one advancing from centre midfield. Against the ball Guilavogui also had a higher and more aggressive role, sometimes he helped Hunt or took over Hunt's position who then advanced upfront to support Olic. This was also because of situative man-marking from Guilavogui towards the oppositional centre midfielders; a classical Hecking approach. Involvement in general according to the PPT was rather focussed on the wing and some individual players; the wingers were rarely near the touchline at both teams while the wingbacks pushed upfront very much. Vierinha/Jung as right backs did it nearly in such a manner as Rodriguez on the left and for Bremen it was their right back Busch who did it very often in the first half, but then stayed more passive in the second half. Interesting that at the PPT it even often looked like a 4-3-3 or even a lopsided 3-4-3 for Bremen, while in fact it was "just" more a focus on the right side and Bartels pushing high up as was Busch. Hajrovic in these situations came towards the middle to fill the space and support the strikers or give connections to other zones, while at Wolfsburg it was evident that Perisic and de Bruyne had with some positional changes within the game. The general scheme of this game in the second half seemed Wolfsburg's shape became more open as they played with more of the ball while Werder on the other hand had to defend more and they were more compact; which is best seen with the less advancing of Junuzovic and Busch.

Player Positional Tracker: Chelsea v Aston Villa

Chelsea 3 vs 0 Aston Villa The comments on this game are from Adam Clark, a writer for SB Nation's Aston Villa site, 7500toHolte.  Adam's comments appear below the game visualisation. (Click on the image to open in a larger window) CHEvAST

Chelsea - 
  • A masterclass on how to overwhelm a side defending deep and narrow. Matic and Fabregas set up an incredibly stable double-pivot inside the Villa half, always sticking close together. Matic barely moves into his own half until the 60th minute when Chelsea's second goal marked a shift to a more defensive shape. Villa's midfield never managed to dislodge the two, who simply switched positions in response to one of the pair being pressed.
  • Ivanovic's effectiveness on the right flank released Willian to play a free role across the forward line, switching flanks with Hazard freely while being an attacking threat on his own right as he ventured forward to play crosses into the box.
  • Diego Costa won the battle against Villa's centre-backs who never managed to force him beyond the width of the box. He formed a hugely effective point of a triangle with any two of Oscar, Hazard and Willan.
  • Chelsea are an incredibly balanced side, with threats down both flanks and through the middle with Fabregas
Aston Villa
  • In contrast to Chelsea's fixed centre, Villa's midfield trio of Cleverley, Delph and Weimann never settled into a shape with one of them in front of the back four. Westwood occasionally settles into the spot but at other times goes tracking the Chelsea midfield. Their initial compactness fell apart as Delph drifted frustratedly out to the left in the second-half.
  • Weimann and Richardson cannot be faulted for their work rates in covering their full backs, covering a huge amount of ground up and down the flanks, but never successfully connected with the midfield trio to close down the space inside or isolate the Chelsea full-backs.
  • Baker and Senderos very rarely moved as a co-ordinated pair to one flank or the other, with their movement principally vertical as they looked to win aerial duels. Both the first and second Chelsea goals saw the two fail to cover one another. For the first, Senderos looked to defend the goal-line rather than cover the space as Baker went to challenge. For the second Baker failed to cover the space behind Senderos as Costa ran in for the header.

Player Positional Tracker: Crystal Palace v Leicester

Crystal Palace 2 vs 0 Leicester Comments on this PPT have been made by Crystal Palace fan, Jamie Seekings. Jamie's thoughts appear below the gif. (Click on the image to open in larger window) CPLvLEI

  • Palace set up in the published 4-2-3-1 with Yannick Bolassie, influential in Palace's last week's win at Everton, having a quiet first 20/25 minutes before becoming more of an inside forward than a winger for the rest of the match (although his most influential moments came from picking the ball up in wide positions).
  • Similarly Jason Puncheon on the right flank plays the other inside forward channel right from the off. In fact, except for a small period of time (65 to 75 minutes) he's never near his wing and for the last ten minutes both end up in what you would call traditional centre forward positions within a 4-4-2. His positioning seems to effect Paul Konchesky who never manages to get forward as much as Ritchie de Laet does on the other side (either de Laet or Palace going two up means Joel Ward similarly doesn't get forward much in the second half compared to the first 25 minutes).
  • Up front Frazier Campbell for his 73 minutes takes up a variety of positions, clearly trying to link up play as the lone front man. From Palace's midfield Joe Ledley was the most forward of the three trying to support attacks.
  • Leicester begin the game with Vardy, Ulloa and Nugent taking up positions more akin to a 4-3-3 (which is representative of their early pressure which led to Jamie Vardy's chance after 6 minutes). After their initial pressure, Ulloa and Nugent both end up playing much deeper - what you would consider more of a central midfield position. Vardy, impressive on the right hand side against Man Utd last week, spends the first 5 minutes there before coming into a more centre forward role before settling in the left hand forward channel.
  • For Leicester Esteban Cambiasso is the midfield player most looking to support the front three and is very advanced in the first part of the first half. He then roams all over midfield in an attempt to spark the Foxes before his substitution on 64 minutes.

Player Positional Tracker: Liverpool v Everton

Liverpool 1 vs 1 Everton This was the game that Steven Gerrard comprehensively answered his critics, or so the narrative goes.  As I pointed out on Twitter, I hadn't heard too many people criticizing Gerrard in relation to his free kick execution. Sometimes the narrative stinks. Anyway, on to the shape of the game, and our thoughts appear below the gif........ (Click on gif to open in larger window) LIVvEVE

  • Once again, Moreno took up some super attacking positions.  For the first 30 minutes he is shown as being higher up the pitch on this PPT than Lallana
  • Liverpool very much favoured attacking the left wing, pretty much to the exclusion of the right side.  Sterling, Moreno, Lallana and even Balotelli all drifted over to the left side.  Conversel, only Markovic (occasionally) and Manquillo offered attacking options down the right
  • Naismith kept himself very high and central.  Presumably this was Everton's version of the now-standard "stick someone on top of Gerrard" tactic.  Did this Naismith position push Lukaku into a wider right spot?  Lukaku certainly favours the right channel, but is his best position really as wide as this?

Some comments from Elston Gunn, a Liverpool fan:

  • Gerrard and Henderson played as a clear duo in midfield and remained close to each other for most of the game, without an obvious sitter/runner distinction between them.
  • As Everton have done more and more in big games, Naismith played in a clear "false 9" role with Lukaku on the right.
  • Everton looked to attack down the wings, presumably hoping to exploit the aggressiveness of Liverpool's fullbacks and Lukaku's height advantage over Moreno. Lukaku and Mirallas/McGeady are often the most advanced and most involved Everton attackers.
  • McGeady seemed to stick tighter to the left-hand side than Mirallas, who had shown fluidity in his 30 minutes on the pitch.
  • Manquillo was much more reserved than Moreno for the first half hour, perhaps concerned about Mirallas' threat in behind, but (after Gerrard could be seen telling him to get forward) he became more ambitious as the game went on.
  • Baines was able to get forward and get on the ball early on but then was pinned back, especially after Markovic (whose dot is almost always miniscule, struggling to get involved) was removed
  • Sterling was consistently Liverpool's most involved attacker, predominantly playing to the left today, swapping spots with Lallana from the setup against Middlesbrough. This was partially related to the proverbial game of chicken happening down the Liverpool left/Everton right. Lukaku was staying advanced, and Moreno continued to push forward. Particularly toward the end of the first half and early in the second, you can see both teams looking to attack down the same side. To some degree, Liverpool solved this problem by treating Lukaku as a striker rather than a wide forward, with Lovren often staying close to him.
  • Coutinho was able to get on the ball and try to dictate the play when he came on.
  • The American commentators talked about Browning as a defensive sub to protect against Sterling, but he was more likely brought on to attack more aggressively down the right. Liverpool were of course sitting deeper at this point, but he was more advanced and more involved than Hibbert had been down that side.

Player Positional Tracker: Man United v West Ham

Man United 2 vs  1 West Ham Comments / analysis on this PPT are from Sam Gregory.  They are shown below the gif. (Click on image to open in a larger window) MUFCvWHM

1st Half

  • Rafael started the match really strongly, with quite a few runs down the right, one of which led to Rooney’s opener.
  • Rooney and Falcao both played pretty centrally in a formation that looked much more like a 4-3-3 than the diamond midfield of United’s last few games. Robin Van Persie was isolated out on the right hand side of the pitch almost the entire match without being too involved in the play aside from his goal.
  • Downing started the match in a very advanced role for West Ham, but started to drop more deeply into the midfield as the half progressed and saw much more of the ball, giving Enner Valencia and Sakho more space up front.
  • With Di Maria having a bit of an off game Herrera was more involved than he had been in previous matches, playing centrally despite his starting position as the right sided midfielder.

  2nd Half

  • Compared to the first half where Rooney was very involved, for the fifteen minutes he was on the pitch during the second half he was completely anonymous and saw very little of the ball. Then he had his moment of stupidity taking the red card which changed the complexion of the match.
  • After the red card West Ham’s attack became much more fluid. The key change appeared to be Jenkinson coming on for Demel who hadn’t had much of an attacking presence all match. Jenkinson played much further forward and had a lot of the ball while making runs down the right hand side of the pitch.
  • Manchester United’s introduction of Antonio Valencia really shut the game down in the last five or ten minutes as he held the ball up on the right side of the pitch killing the clock.


  • West Ham showed glimpses of their performance from last week against Liverpool, but unlike against Liverpool when their chances came on the fast break, United were in a shell for the final 30 minutes which didn’t give the Hammers the same opportunity to attack at pace.
  • Louis Van Gaal moved Rooney further up the pitch in an attempt to transition from a diamond midfield to a 4-3-3 in this match. The change seemed to isolate Van Persie, but given Rooney’s inevitable suspension this isn’t a formation we are likely to see again from United for at least the next three matches.

Marseille: The Bielsa Press quantified

Previously I have written about the metric which can help us quantify and assess the strength that a team used to press the opposition; Passes per Defensive Action or PPDA.

An introduction to this metric, including its definition and what the numbers represent can be found in this article written in July

In a follow up article which looked at manager tendencies in relation to this PPDA metric  it was no surprise to find that Marcelo Bielsa ranked very highly amongst managers that incorporated a pressing game.  In fact, over the last four seasons across the Big 5 leagues only six managers used a more agressive level of pressing that Bielsa did.

Bielsa at Marseille

Bielsa took over the reins at Marseille at the start of this new season and he and his team have made a great start to the season. With five wins and a draw from their opening seven Ligue 1 games Marseille currently lead the league. It’s also fair to say that the gusto that his team presses with has gained some media attention.  An example of which found its way into my Twitter timeline last night.




It’s very early in the season but I wanted to see how Bielsa’s Marseille have performed on my PPDA metric; ie just how strong has their press actually been.

We are all aware that different leagues have differing preferred playing styles, and this is especially true in respect of pressing. In previous articles I showed that the level of pressing is lower in France and England than it is in the other 3 of the “Big 5 leagues”.

French Ligue 1 Pressing Values

To ensure we are comparing like with like, I looked at PPDA values for all individual games played over the previous four seasons within each of the Big 5 leagues. Below are the PPDA values at various percentiles for French Ligue 1.




As an example, in Ligue 1 a team that recorded a PPDA value of 6.85 in a game would mean that their “pressing performance” was in the top 10% of aggressive presses in the context of that league.  But remember, this table is based on single, individual games and not on a cumulative number of games.

Marseille’s PPDA values in 2014/15

So what do Marseille's PPDA values look like on a game by game basis this season?




We can see that the data, unsurprisingly, backs up and confirms what our eyes have been telling us; Marseille have been operating a very agressive press. Indeed their cumulative PPDA over the course of the opening seven games of 8.66 is the lowest in Ligue 1, in other words Marseille are pressing more aggressively than any other team in the league.

If anyone is interested this is the “Pressing Table” for all teams so far in Ligue 1 this season.  I'm sure that someone much more familar with French football than I am can tell me if these rankings are in line with the public perception of how individual teams set themselves up.




Some interesting patterns emerge when we look at Marseille’s pressing on a game by game basis.

The first two games they played seen them record their most aggressive press, and the intensity of the press has tapered off since then. Is this a case of Bielsa toning down his press because it didn’t suit his players?

I don’t think so. Marseille didn’t win either of their first two league games this season, and we would expect teams that are chasing the game to use the press more as they attempt to regain possession and thus record higher PPDA values. Despite what the twitter screenshot (that I posted above) shows, there is no doubt that teams will not press quite so aggressively when they are leading. Why would they risk getting played through?

The apparent decrease in Marseille’s pressing aggression as the season has progressed can be explained, however it is worth pointing that none of the games have seen OM record a PPDA value ranked in the 90th percentile or higher (with reference to individual game Ligue 1 PPDA values). Then again, when teams are winning it would probably be unwise for them to press so aggressively that they notch up a pressing score in an individual game that places them in the top 10% of all values recorded in France.

During Bielsa’s time in control of Bilbao his PPDA value was 8.39. From a pressing point of view it is arguable that Marseille’s PPDA of 8.66 in the context of Ligue 1 is even more impressive than the value he recorded in Spain.

There is no doubt, Marseille are playing football according to the Gospel of Marcelo Bielsa.  It will be super interesting to see if this brand of football will be good enough to win the title and see off the might of PSG.



Olympique Marseille; their tactics and a Player Positional Tracker

Marseille 3 vs 0 Rennes (20th September 2014)

This format of this Player Positional Tracker post is a little different to the way we usually publish them.  I thought it would be good to hear the thoughts on the game from someone that is much more familiar with the teams involved than I am.

This game was played last Saturday, but instead of publishing it straight after the final whistle I wanted to get the thoughts of the excellent Sébastien Chapuis; Sébastien is my go-to guy for French football. 

Sébastien's thoughts, both on this game, and in respect of how Marseille set themselves up under Bielsa in a wider context appear underneath the PPT for this game.



Game and positional observations

  • Marseille was set up with a back four considering that Rennes only played with a lone striker (Toivonen). Contest looked one-sided in the first half, Rennes was well organised with 2x4 in his defensive half, preventing Marseille to play.

  • Thus, Payet and Ayew had to roam to try to overload Rennes in central areas.

  • Bielsa likes to have attackers on different lines, attacking shape looks lopsided.

  • Thauvin was wide high willing to take on defenders, while the aforementioned Ayew acted more as a midfielder tucking inside on the other side

  • Rennes caused a threat on the counter attack but failed to convert good goalscoring chances.

  • Toivonen acted as a focal point, receiving support from box-to-box Abououalaye Doucouré while Paul-Georges Ntep ran in behind.

  • Gignac's well taken brace ended the contest in the second half of the game before Alessandrini's first goal in OM colors, bending a free kick into the top corner against his former team (for the narrative)

Bielsa's system relies on a high pressing game to recover the ball high up the field.

Bielsa applies the spare man rule at the back and adapts during games. Back 4 if opponent fields one lone striker, back three if opponents has two out and out strikers.

Bielsa does not want his team to prepare attacks for too long, he encourages vertical attacking football;

Hence the feeling that the team is sometimes cut in two parts:

  • a base of 3 players at the back (Morel, Nkoulou and Romao),
  • 4 attackers roaming, running and looking for space (Payet, Thauvin, Gignac and Ayew),
  • two wing backs providing width and linking up with wide players (Dja Djedje and Mendy)
  • the lone Imbula creating the link in between the two blocks (dribbling his way out from defensive third)



General observations on the set-up of Bielsa's OM:

  • Marseille is exposed when opposing teams play direct football above the first pressing wave (such at what Bastia did on opening day) or manage to play their way through (such at what Rennes did on occasions).
  • Space behind the full backs is an area targeted by opposing teams looking to hit quickly in transition considering the fact that many OM players will be subsequently caught out of position
  • Right and left CB are expected to cover in behind wing-backs when ball is played there, when OM features a back 3.
  • When OM features a back 4, the process to defend such situations relying on a communication process isn't fully functional right now. As CB is dragged wide, DM fills his position in central defence but fails to receive support from either Imbula or Payet to keep the area ahead of the penalty box in control.
  • More generally, OM's expansive gameplan means that it commits bodies forward to attack as well as to counter-press, this puts even more emphasis on the outcome of 1 vs 1 at the back.
  • If a player is 1. on the wrong side of a defensive 1 vs 1 or/and 2. fails to receive support from a team mate on the second ball of a clearance and possession is turned over, Marseille is under threat in his defensive third
  • Bielsa is said to be unhappy with the club's activity on the transfer market, especially in defensive positions. Has tried several options at the back: Romao, Nkoulou and the much maligned and formerly side defender (not fullback) Jeremy Morel converted into a CB. Even inexperienced youngster (yet aerially dominant) Stephane Sparagna got a chance on opening day at Bastia. It is to be seen whether new signing Doria can grow into a key player for OM at the back
  • Ultimately, Marseille haven't faced any of Ligue 1's heavyweights yet. Results have been good, long spans during games have been pretty entertaining (players say they're working hard during the week to enjoy the weekend game)
  • Marseille has had the ability to convert momentum into goals, especially through opening the scoring. OM is on a 5 game (winning) streak in which they scored first, Gignac scoring 4 of those (out of his 8 league goals).

Player Positional Tracker: Newcastle v Hull

Newcastle 2 vs 2 Hull Visualisation that shows the smoothed positions of players around the time as indicated. The locations are identified with reference to actions as identified by Opta.

  • Despite lining up with a supposed Back 4, Newcastle played the opening half as if with a Back 3 as Coloccini held the central position and Williamson played very wide towards the right wing

Additional comments from Zubair Arshad:

  • confirms tiote's positioning which Anita has been unable to offer in earlier games.
  • portrays very well how the space was congested on right due to Cabella + Sissoko, with all the space on left
  • the space wasn't fully exploited by Dummet on left as he's not a very attacking full back
  • in build up play it was very much a "W" formation at the back with neither fullback bombing forward recklessley
  • quite funny to see Krul's positioning change towards second half as he got involved in recycling process

(Click the image to open in larger window) NEWvHUL