Unluc-Kike? A Case Study On Middlesbrough’s Misfiring Forward

With Middlesbrough cruelly confined to another year in the Championship, Patrick Bamford returning to parent club Chelsea and Jelle Vossen’s prospects of returning to the club after the summer shrouded in doubt (#KeepJelleVossen), the club’s forward line is looking a little light. In fact, this leaves Kike as the only established centre forward left in the squad. Having scored 10 league goals, there are question marks over his ability to lead the attack of a promotion-chasing side:

 

However, to what extent are these doubts legitimate? After all, Boro manager Aitor Karanka worked hard to persuade him to make the move from sunny Spain to perhaps-not-quite-as-sunny Teeside. Likewise his transfer fee, believed to be around 3 and a half million pounds, makes him a fairly heavy investment for a club like Middlesbrough.

 

Can he Kike it up a notch next year?
Can he Kike it up a notch next year?

The numbers

Well, I have good news along with some kinda-maybe-bad news. The good news is that Kike’s shot quantity numbers this season are awesome. Over the course of the season, Kike has been firing at a rate of 4.30 shots per 90 minutes played. For context, none of Ighalo, Deeney, Murphy or Rhodes shot above 3.64 per 90. Gestede, Nahki Wells and Brett Pitman came a little closer with 4.00, 3.99 and 3.93 shots per 90 respectively but still we can see that in terms of volume, Kike has had an excellent season.

 

Kike_2014-15_radar

 

However, as we can see on his radar, He is hampered by a low conversion rate despite getting roughly half his shots on target. That he is getting the shots on target suggests he is doing something right. In fact, conversion aside, he doesn’t compare too badly to Bamford.

“Bah, that volume doesn’t say much; those shots could be from anywhere. Darn evil number wizards…” I hear you say. Well, that’s true; unless you’re Charlie Adam, there generally isn’t much value in shooting from your own half, for instance. Kike’s conversion could be a product of poor shot selection. So, where has Kike been shooting from; can we separate the wheat from the chaff? Stealing Paul Riley’s terminology, Kike has taken just over 50% of his shots from the ‘wheat’ shooting zones of the centre of the box (where 9 of his goals have come from). The ‘chaff’ being wide areas in the box and outside the box that are generally associated with lower and more irregular conversion.

 

"Advanced stats Kike-ass"
“Advanced stats Kike-ass”

 

This is significantly less impressive than the shot volume posted earlier and is lower than all of the forwards listed above besides Nahki Wells. Given teammates Jelle Vossen and Player of the Year Bamford took 63% and 49% of their shots from wheat areas respectively (NB: Bamford’s figure includes games played on the wing which will be bringing the number down somewhat), it is possible that part of this is down to team effects.

So, great shot volume, but with numbers partially inflated by a higher proportion of poor-location shots than other top strikers (Caused by lack of pace? Or perhaps movement making space for others centrally?). Where does that leave us? Well, we can account somewhat for shot location with an expected goals (xG) metric. xG is a way of weighting shots based in their likelihood of resulting in a goal. Shots taken closer to the goal, for instance, are more likely to result in goals than those from range. My current model takes into account location, game-state and body part (headers are generally less likely to result in goals, for instance).

Using this, we can simulate Kike’s shots to estimate the likelihood of scoring a given number of goals under league average finishing.

Kike_xG_sim

Unluc-Kike?

The model suggests that a league-average finisher would score more than Kike’s haul of 10 more than 86% of the time given the same shots, with a most likely tally of 14. While it is difficult to draw too many conclusions based on just one season of data, xG over/under performance is generally not particularly repeatable. Pair this with the fact that he is getting his shots on target but not past the keeper suggests that we shouldn’t expect the current conversion rate to continue throughout 2015/16. In other words, though his finishing in 14/15 has been poor, it is unlikely to remain so bad next year; given similar shots, we would expect Kike’s goal total to improve.

(You’ll notice I have stayed away from the word ‘luck’, despite a desire to get mileage out of the pun. Luck is a pretty loaded word which can mean different things to different people and so I have tried to keep things in terms of repeatability)

Past performance

One last thing we can look at is Kike’s performance before Boro. (Unfortunately, I could only find goal numbers and not shots, so these numbers are lacking some context and perhaps ought to be taken with a pinch of salt).

 

The dashed line shows Kike's career average goals per 90. Also note that 08/09 and 11/12 seasons are particularly unreliable due to the low number of minutes played. Data from soccerway.com
The dashed line shows Kike’s career average goals per 90. Also note that 08/09 and 11/12 seasons are particularly unreliable due to the low number of minutes played. Data from soccerway.com

 

As we can see, Kike’s goals tallies have fluctuated over the years with solid 10/11 and 13/14 totals alongside disappointing 09/10 and 12/13 seasons (though the 12/13 season comes with the potential caveat of coming back from a season-long injury). His 14/15 scoring rate is not far below his career average and it’s quite possible he is a naturally low-scoring striker (the Championship’s Giroud, anyone?). In 15/16, I would like to see Kike shoot less from the wide zones in the box and focus on getting shots centrally (though we have not established a cause for the lower proportion of ‘wheat’ shots). However, given the shots numbers posted through the most recent campaign along with the fact that he ought to be fully settled in next season, I think Boro fans ought to have faith in Kike firing as Boro’s #9 in 2015/16.

Find me on twitter here: @stats_snakeoil

How Do You Find The Most English Team? Similarity Scores And Team Style Profiles

    How do you find the most English team? You could count English internationals, home-grown players, the most fans, or simply refer to the picture above and declare that game the most English game of recent years. I took a different approach to find out which team played closest to the English style this last season. To do so, we need to develop a way of profiling teams by their style. For this we will use a number of metrics, listed below:   Both offense and defense -Possession   Offense -field tilt (ratio of attacking third/own third completions) -shot tempo (shots per pass) -intrabox success rate (completion % on passes that begin and end inside the box) -pass length -centrality (% of passes toward the center of pitch in final third) -box attacks (passes into the box) -forward play (% of passes that are forward)   Defense -field tilt -high press rate (% of passes completed that are 60+ yards away from the goal) -shot tempo -intrabox success rate -centrality -box attacks -forward play   For each metric, a team’s rate was compared to the European average and standard deviation to get a z score, which was then used to make a team profile. For example, Villareal allows 31% of intrabox passes to be completed. The European average is 40.4% with a standard deviation of 5.4%. This puts Villareal in the 4th percentile for ease of intrabox passing against. This is done for each metric to create a team profile (Villarreal shown again):     You can see the two things that jump out are that they shut down the box and also force teams to the flanks more than any other team in Europe.   If you do this for each team in a league you begin to see some significant stylistic differences. I’ve looked at differences in shooting across leagues before and Colin Trainor and others have written about it on this site. Others have written very well about defensive differences from league to league (two are here and here). These profiles are another way of looking at league differences through how they play the ball. Spanish, Italian, and English teams have significantly higher field tilt than German and French teams. England and France are well ahead in intra-box pass % with Spain and Germany significantly behind. Box passes can be seen below:       Putting it all together, here is the composite England style profile (average of each team):       To find the most English team we need to use another tool in its early stages: the Style Similarity Score. It’s a simple tool that compares percentile differences across the different categories (with slight weighting changes, they are ordered according to importance in the list at the start of the article) and gives us a number summing up all of those differences. If a team had exactly the same numbers as another, their Style Similarity Score would be 0, and the higher you get the more different the teams playing styles theoretically are. Here are two quick examples: http://i.imgur.com/Y71jBKE.png

View post on imgur.com

    The eye test doesn’t completely contradict anything I’ve seen, which makes me think this is a good first step. I wanted to use this new tool to find the real essence of each league. The glitz and glamour of Arsenal, Bayern, Barcelona and PSG are well-known but certainly aren’t representative of the average team in each of those leagues. So I put the English profile from above through the similarity score to find the two teams most similar so I’d know what game to watch if I wanted to find the true heart of Premier League football. I did this for each of the top 5 leagues.   Results   England: Stoke City v Aston Villa Italy: Palermo v Sassuolo France: Lorient v St Etienne Germany: Frankfurt v Stuttgart Spain: Deportivo de La Coruna v Valencia   If you had sat down and watched all 11 of these matches between these sides this season, I think you would have a good taste of the differences between the leagues. Just looking at the results you can see that: Frankfurt and Stuttgart played a 5-4 classic and a 3-1 as well while St Etienne beat Lorient three times by scores of 2-0, 1-0, 1-0 without a first-half goal.   The EPL is an interesting case as it has way fewer teams that “look” like the average side. This is because the league is more stratified in the way they pass. Burnley, QPR, Palace, Stoke, West Ham, and Hull all are in the top 15% of most long balls while Arsenal, City, Swansea, Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, and Everton are in the bottom 15%. This wide split between groups of teams means there isn’t a big group of teams playing near the average English style (like there are in Germany, France and Spain) but Stoke-Villa is as close as it gets.     Where do we go from here?  With more work, team profiles and similarity scores could be used to look at how teams and styles match up against another. If we can see that Dortmund struggle more against teams who press them back then teams who sit back and force play wide you can alter your tactics (if you are a manager) or alter your bets. It’s another piece of information on top of shot data like expG: if Villarreal and Marseille had the same expG rating you would know Dortmund was a better bet against Marseille’s style of expG than Villarreal. Maybe teams that sit back and play long balls do great against teams that have high final third possession numbers like the conventional wisdom says, maybe they don’t. Game-to-game and month-to-month changes in tactics and style could be tracked much more clearly. Similar styles could be mapped together to see if their shots or shots allowed are different than the normal to improve xG models. One early example of this involves Swansea. I wrote about how expG models do not properly capture what Gladbach has been doing so I was interested to see who was similar to them. They turned out to be a rather unique profile with not many similar teams but the closest team was Swansea. Despite having a poor intra-box defense the Swans track well with Gladbach. When I checked their goal numbers relative to expected goals, sure enough they have been over-performing for 3 straight seasons now in my model. I haven’t done a deep dive into that yet, but it’s something I might not have seen without the similarity score. These Team Style Profiles and Style Similarity Scores are good first steps but there is lots of room for improvement and without tracking data there are limitations.  Should different metrics be chosen? There are pretty strong relationships between possession, field tilt, and box attacks for example so should they all go into the mix? Should the weight assigned to each metric when comparing with other teams be adjusted? What about teams who change styles often throughout games and season like Thomas Tuchel did at Mainz? At the end of the year the stats only look one way but it covers up a ton of variance, there needs to be a metric for flexibility for sure. Certainly changes will be made, one of the first being improving field tilt to include all completions and not just a simple ratio of attacking/own third.           Comments are closed here so if you want to discuss anything in the article, have ideas on how to use or improve these tools, or anything else you can go to my blog or on twitter @Saturdayoncouch and I’d love to chat about it.

Premier League 2014-15 Stat Round-Up: Goalscorers, Disappearing Shots And More

And so we reach the end of another season of “The Premier League”, the wildly popular and occasionally thrilling sporting serial transmitted to viewers around the world.  The scriptwriters had a high benchmark to match after the goal-laden thrills of season 2013-14 and in truth they came up a little short.  Familiar villain “JR” Mourinho was the key player this year, most ably supported by the hugely entertaining new character Mr Van Gaal.   Old faces like Tony Pulis brought a familiar brand of stoic solidity and the swashbuckling entrance of last season’s comic relief, “Tactics” Tim Sherwood surprised everyone with an effective cameo.  Also riding high were Alan “PDO” Pardew, with his successful return to London and the magic man Dick Advocaat.   His miracle rescue of Sunderland was a familiar and reassuring recurring plot. Less contentment was seen in the North as a brooding Brendan Rodgers “spent £100m and did a Spurs”, a storyline that split viewers almost equally; many had hoped for a more kindly outcome, others watched on in slightly amused awe.  Lastly, elite coach John Carver gave some much needed levity as he promised the world but provided nothing and there will be mixed feelings regarding the killing off of show stalwarts Sam Allardyce and Steve Bruce. Roll on August. Where have the shots gone? Earlier in the year, I noticed that there had been a decline in the number of shots in the Premier League.  There were less last year than in the four years previous and fewer still in 2014-15.  As we can see this trend continued to the end: av shotsWith the Premier League widely marketed as the most thrilling in the world, and having just signed a huge new TV deal, it seemed a mite unfortunate that this could coincide with a decline in shooting levels.  And these reduced shooting levels have translated into fewer goals: shooting ratesWhilst goal and shot levels have reduced during the Enlightened Era (2009-15), it is reassuring to note that the levels of conversion, both to all shots and per shot on target, have remained generally consistent throughout.  This lightly implies that the most significant driver towards the total of goals is shot volume alone; to investigate a lack of goals, we would need to think about why there has been a lack of shots. Amongst the big seven clubs (traditional big 5 plus City and Chelsea), the decline in shooting numbers tracks similarly (minus ~3 shots per game between 2009-10 and 2014-15) but it’s all on the front end.  Broadly these clubs are creating fewer shooting opportunities but conceding them at the same rate.  Particular differences can be noted in the cases of Chelsea, Man Utd and Tottenham, managed respectively by Ancelotti, Ferguson and Redknapp at the start of this period and now with Mourinho, Van Gaal and Pochettino; a significant change from attack focused football to a more pragmatic and prescriptive tactical methodology.  That the new Dutch coaches, Van Gaal and Koeman have presided over two teams with extremely low combined shot rates is also noted. It would be remiss not to mention the loss of Suarez to the league.  A one man attacking phenomenon, his shot volume outstripped the rest of the league by some margin in his final two seasons at Liverpool and he was also strongly creative.  Liverpool’s goal drop off (-1.3 per game) was higher than the actual goal rate of 13 of the teams 20 clubs this year. It seems likely that these changes in goal and shot volume are an evolution in tactical thinking and strategy and possibly a general shift in popularity away from two starting strikers to often one.  With ever more money on the line, it is logical that caution may be a stronger influence but we should also note the long term trends are more varied.  Goal rates between 2009-10 and 2013-14 were the five highest recorded since the 38 game Premier League began and the average between 1995-96 and today is 2.64 per game, far closer to the 2.57 per game we have witnessed this year. Goalscorers scorers 2014-15 As a counterpoint to the usual goal chart, here we have the top 15 goalscorers ordered by Non-Penalty Goal rate, y’know, the proper stuff.  I’ve added in some conversion rates to round out the story a little.  Some research i’ve done suggests that raw conversion of 14-18% are likely rates for higher level forwards over longer samples, although a true poacher like Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose can get over 20%, as seemingly can forwards playing for the Spanish giants.  Diego Costa is interesting here, as his long term rate is 18%- towards the high end, and he again posted strong numbers as the focal point of Chelsea’s attack; sure he overachieved a little but nothing suggests he is anything but top class, a charge that can firmly be laid at Aguero’s door too. Strangely overlooked during player award season, which was presumably a reflection of  the prevailing negative view of Man City at the time, he has top scored in the league, ranks 3rd for NPG/90, has significantly the highest shot rate and has converted at 14%, very similar to his long term rate of 15%.  There is simply nothing in his numbers that enable you to detract from his evident quality.  All this implies a player at the peak of his game, which you would expect at 26, with as ever the kicker being his need to stay injury free.  He should certainly be cherished. Most extreme on the longer list is Swansea’s Ki.  His 8 goals scored at a 29% conversion rate from midfield is extremely unlikely to repeat, so any potential suitor alerted by his goalscoring prowess may do well to do further analysis.  Papiss Cisse is a fascinating case given that he appears to have two modes: off and on.  There is simply no way of predicting what kind of season he will produce; this was a good one, apart from the disgracing himself part.  It will also be of interest where Charlie Austin ends up.  Whilst it is easy to presume a new player in the league on a hot scoring run is benefiting from an element of surprise, there is nothing, statistically at least, that suggests he could not repeat his efforts for another team. More thoughts on the second half of the season As has been widely noted, at least amongst stat types, West Ham have been in utterly miserable form since the autumn.  Over the course of the last 19 games, they have posted a  42% shot ratio and 43% shot on target ratio whilst converting shots at a rate of ~6% (league average ~10%).  Their only saving grace has been an above par save percentage of 74% (league average ~70%) but without their early season run in which they vastly exceeded their underlying numbers, they would have been in serious trouble.  Following a 2013-14 season in which they projected extremely badly, it comes as a wonder how Allardyce retained employment throughout.  The comfortable hum of league safety must have resonated up to the boardroom early on and it will be interesting how a new coach approaches the team.  Historically, teams have struggled in the aftermath of Allardyce- he is known to a degree to be statistically minded and focused towards the measurement of individual tasks.  Whilst such drop-offs are maybe circumstantial- he enjoyed success at Bolton then was ousted by new owners at Blackburn and Newcastle, it should be remembered that whilst posting very bad numbers often, his teams’ points totals have usually exceeded a flat projection.  A new coach will need to be mindful that improvement may well need to be wholesale to match Allardyce’s final league positions.  Otherwise, trouble may brew.  We shall see. The Pulis effect has been more pronounced than ever before.  All of West Brom’s shot numbers now look dreadful.  In the second half of the season they have taken fewer shots than any other team and posted the second worst shot ratios yet have scored points at a rate of 1.42 per game a vast improvement on the 0.89 per game prior.  As ever, Pulis’ super defensive, high set piece reliant methods have defied conventional shooting analysis and his position as a semi-ironic poster boy for stats types remains solid.  Going forward, what will intrigue here is how much trust he is given with West Brom’s transfers, especially given the large amount of money he spent on unwanted Tottenham players whilst at Stoke, with mixed success.  I suspect Daniel Levy has made a phone call this morning. There are strong similarities between Chelsea’s first half of the season and the second half that Arsenal have just posted.  Both teams have looked extremely strong during these periods but have also benefited from favourable aspects in the numbers.  Each team converted shots at a significantly higher rate than the opposition (~+6 percentage points), each found their shot on target ratio far in excess of their total shot ratio, something that usually tracks closer together and is prone to regression.  This has given the impression of superiority in excess of reality.  During the autumn, some commentators viewed Chelsea as a team for the ages, there was talk of “Invincibles” and suchlike, and a combination of tiredness, a lack of necessity and simple regression of hot-running metrics has cooled such talk.  Chelsea were very good for large parts of the year but never as good as was being mooted earlier on.  Arsenal’s run has not garnished the same amount of coverage and retained squad fitness has helped a great deal, but there is little doubt that whilst performing well, they have also benefited from the rub, and long term, it is unlikely to continue at that level.  An 80% save percentage just the most obvious outlier here. Obligatory Tottenham finale A huge dose of recency bias has led Tottenham fans to sail off into the summer with a spring in their step and cast Liverpool fans into despair.  Neither team has enjoyed great prosperity this season, and given the hope that contending for top four places is a positive expectation in any given year, they have both failed to enjoy a beneficial skew.  Tottenham’s 5th place certainly flatters as amongst the mini-leaguers of 5th to 7th they easily have projected worst.  I talked earlier around their issues in creating and preventing chances in the box and there is plenty of squad work to be done if Pochettino’s system is to be realised successfully, especially in defense and central midfield.  It is a young squad and the plan is long term, so for now i’ll retain some hope, but there will be little wriggle room for the Head Coach if he doesn’t get a fast start next season.   Thanks for reading!   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~   Follow me on twitter here: @jair1970 Summer content will follow! *Quick thanks to everyone who has read and enjoyed the column this season.  It’s been a pleasure to write and despite occasional criticism, it seems to have been generally well received.  I have a simple intent: to widen to the interest in stats work and analytics.  Also thanks to Ted Knutson for the offer to bring it to Statsbomb and particularly the loyal band of people who have regularly promoted it via social media. It is very much appreciated.  See you for 2015-16!        

Sell De Gea, Hull On Earth, Small Margins And Other Premier League Stat Stories

And so the Premier League meanders dreamily off into the off season with a series of entertaining friendly matches, fond and not-so-fond farewells and recollections of thrilling climaxes sadly not equaled this time round.   Gerrard’s stuttering and misfiring long farewell felt like an apt reflection of a season that whilst ever intriguing, never quite hit the heights of the goal laden craziness of last year.   Too early for farewells?  For everyone except Hull, Newcastle and Sunderland, no.  The inquests are firmly under way and in many cases the variation of a couple of wins either way has been enough to define a successful or unsuccessful campaign.  As ever the divide between success and failure is relatively thin, little comfort to the disappointed underachievers (perhaps Liverpool, Man City, Tottenham, Everton, the doomed and… er… Newcastle?) and dream land for those who came out on the right side (Southampton, Swansea, Chelsea plus if you listen to Sam Allardyce, West Ham and whoever survives).  These margins can be deceptively small, see here a case study of two Premier League teams this year, one deemed to have been comparatively successful and one with a more mixed record (data prior to this weekend): leicester elementsHave a guess, see if you can identify them. Okay, maybe that’s a tricky task if you’re a well rounded individual with just a casual interest in football statistics, but from the chart and the data we can see two very similar teams in all but one measure, save percentage, in which team A suffers in comparison to team B by a margin of seven percentage points.  In this case study and over the course of a season, that’s about ten goals on the against side.  With save percentage being predominantly determined by luck rather than skill, we can see that amongst the strongly repeatable key shooting metrics laid out here we have broadly two teams of similar underlying abilities. Team A is Leicester and team B is Swansea. Of course, Swansea and Leicester approach the game with very a different ethos, Swansea eternally a passing side and Leicester very much more direct, but the two outlined styles are leading to similar outputs. There is another level of analysis available here, but one which is blighted by the small sample created by the limited experience both Nigel Pearson and Garry Monk have had in top flight football.  It is conceivable that either of these managers has incorporated into their methods tactical nuances that are enabling them to exceed predictable measures.  Tony Pulis has regularly overseen notably poor shooting rates yet has found a way of generating points regardless.  His super combative direct style with a heavy reliance on set pieces has repeatedly overshot expectations and we have also seen aspects of Chelsea’s play this year, particularly in the second half of the season, that have emphasised control over dominance and led to a positive outcome.  As ever, a 38 game sample, in the case of Pearson and around 50 in Monk’s case give us a limited window into how much their influence is felt. For now each team has reason to feel pleased with their efforts, they have exceeded expectations, but moving forward, it would seem likely that Swansea will regress next year, much as Newcastle did after their 5th place in 2011-12 or West Brom did after their 9th in 2012-13.   Only very occasionally does a team with numbers akin to Swansea’s or Leicester’s manage to reach the top half, and I would suggest that Swansea are beneficiaries of a positive skew here and to repeat such a placing will require tangible improvement next season.  Leicester found a way to do just enough and will need to look to replicate their figures next time, but there is no huge hole there, both teams project below average but without terminal issues.   Trying to promote a wider narrative that these two teams are equivalent is not easy! Hull on Earth This week Michael Caley looked at how Leicester have improved as the season progressed in this article in which he discussed how the phantom “sacking” of Nigel Pearson had the appearance of a turning point and seemed to impact positively on the club’s performance, when in fact, it was quite conceivable that Leicester were experiencing a degree of regression.  And that got me thinking about Hull.  Again. I suggested last week that there was potential to deem Hull’s plight as unfortunate and having dug a little deeper, I am ever more convinced by this idea.  In an attempt to draw further insight, I split the numbers I’ve got into the season’s two halves.  In the first 19 games, Hull were terrible.  Nearly all aspects of their numbers were bad: they averaged under a goal a game, weren’t breaking ten shots or three shots on target per game and had 40 % shot ratios.  Backing up this ineptitude were generally par conversion, shooting and save rates.  All the indicators suggested that Hull were just bad, and their solace could only be found in the five or six other bad teams around them.  These levels of performance would have preempted a sacking in many clubs and Steve Bruce would have had little to complain about if his record of three wins in 19 games had cost him his job.  But Hull persisted and most of the numbers improved, as we can see here: hull bruce Steve Bruce can rightly be considered unfortunate if he fails to secure Hull’s top flight status.  Presumably responding to board concerns, he has effectively improved the performance levels in his team as the season has progressed  but has been killed by hard to control factors.  That Sunderland certainly and Newcastle arguably (but definitely since Christmas) have been worse will be of little solace if they fail to beat Man Utd and are consigned to the Championship. Games 1 to 19 versus games 20 to now Plenty more intriguing nuggets of information can be gained from splitting the league this way.  Most notably, the team that has reduced it’s shooting levels by the highest margin between the two halves is Chelsea (-3.3 shots per game, -1.1 Shots on target) and it’s not just the fancy numbers, their goal decline ranks 19th (-0.5 per game), again good old Newcastle score worse here.  Their total shot ratio decline ranks 19th and Shot on target ratio decline ranks 20th.  All ample evidence that they coasted in.  It also underlines the fact that Chelsea’s first 19 games showed them to be overachieving at an unsustainable rate.  They did not need to continue to perform at that early level to win the title, but nor was it likely, even disregarding any tiredness concerns, that they were going to be able to maintain that pace.  The numbers predicted a significant drop off, and so it came to pass. A similar tale can be told regarding Southampton though their defense has remained remarkably consistent throughout.  Early on they were hitting solid top four pace and weathered a fixture storm reasonably well throughout late 2014 to maintain touching distance between themselves and other contenders.  That their rates declined was widely predicted (not by me, I gave them a good chance after 12 games) and it was nearly all shaved off the front end.  Their attack, never carefree outside of hammering Sunderland and Aston Villa, has consistently struggled to generate sufficient goals to continue to contend and a drop off of 0.5 goals per game in the second half is shown to be a function of five percentage points disappearing from both their shot ratios.  Regardless, there is plenty to build on, providing their playing corps is not feasted upon in the same voracious manner as last summer. Lastly for now, a few words on Man Utd and David De Gea.  With the rumour mill pitched into reality by Louis Van Gaal’s post match comments after the Arsenal game, it seems ever more likely that De Gea may be returning to Spain.  Widely praised during the first half of the season and credited with a huge influence on Man Utd’s mid-season successes, a combination of his contract situation and his high current reputation suggest this may be a good time to move on.  “But, no!” cry the Utd fans, so enamoured are they with their talismanic keeper.  “But, yes!” say I comparing an unsustainable first 19 game save rate of 76% with a below average rate of 67% charged to the second half.  He is a good keeper that has experienced a season that contained a run of strong form.   There are plenty of other comparably talented keepers available in the market too.  Whether the realms of error and misjudgement are lurking in the near future can never be predicted and Man Utd should extract as high a fee as they can, and pronto. Now how much is Petr Cech? ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter here: @jair1970      

Errors, Medhi Benatia And The Troubled Life Of The Centre Back

It is often said that the life of a goalkeeper is unfair.  Repeated brilliance and octopus-like saving talent can be forgotten in an instant if a moment of ineptitude or bad luck costs his team the game.  This is nothing new.  Throughout the history of football, the goalkeeper has only rarely been the hero and has suffered more than any other player in the hands of critics.  Heurelho Gomes, a keeper who switched from the sublime to ridiculous with revolving door frequency is my particular favourite example of the dual nature of goalkeeping efforts.

We can see the perilous nature of goalkeeping by looking at the rate of errors charged to players in the Premier League this year:

errors

An excellent post from @shots_on_target last year looked at repeatability levels for errors, and found there was none.  This follows simple logic, they are a non-regular event, and what defines an “error” is at least arguably subjective.  None of this seems to have stopped players living or more relevantly dying by their error rates though, as parts of the table show.

Topping the table are two goalkeepers, Szeczesny and Mannone who have been cast out by their coaches.  But as we see quickly, and given that it is a defensive measure, unsurprisingly, the centre back is particularly vulnerable too.  Poster boy for “transfers that didn’t go as hoped” Dejan Lovren had a horrific start to the year, so much so that he has struggled for minutes since and has a very low reputation amongst fans.  Is he so bad?  I’d suggest he hit a bad patch trying to settle into a new team and is unlikely to repeat these levels. This list is chock full of players that you can see have had difficult seasons; old players maybe losing their legs (Distin, Barry), players struggling to adapt to new teams or leagues (Lovren, Fazio, Dier, Duff, Moreno), the usual crowd of keepers (Krul, Green) and players hung out to dry by a failing system, but possibly not good enough (Mason).

Quite simply, I think errors inform selection decisions and on occasion time, patience and more context is probably required.  Players do not become bad because they commit a series of errors in a short space of time, but in the cut-throat world of football, sometimes they are denied the opportunity to prove otherwise.  And the centre back is vulnerable to the vagaries of their position.

So what am I focusing on errors for?

Well, last night’s Champions League fixture between Bayern and Barcelona was a curate’s egg for Bayern centre back Medhi Benatia.  It started encouragingly for him as he scored a delightfully placed header to give his team the lead but then events took a turn for the worse.  After being left calling for offside as Messi threaded a ball to Suarez who fed Neymar to score, he made one genuine error in charging out to challenge an already marked Messi leaving Suarez to dash clear and again feed Neymar.   The piece de resistance was revealed via replays as Suarez outrageously spun him with a flick for the ages:

 

 

And this was all before half time!  Poor Mehdi Benatia!  At half time, Paul Scholes on ITV rounded on Bayern’s defense and particularly Benatia and even many hours later, as I write, Alan McInally is on SSN telling me that Bayern are “defensively (…) nowhere near where they need to be to compete at the top end of European football”.   I’d contend the 114 goals shared amongst Messi, Suarez and Neymar this season could also be included as counter evidence to this knee-jerk analysis.

So what if I tried to convince you that beyond the obvious error for the second goal, Benatia had a really good game, indeed that he made contributions that marked out his performance as an exceptionally rare feat?  Benatia’s game brings to mind the quarterback who passes for 400 yards yet tosses up an interception to cost his team the game.  It happens, it’s what gets remembered but it is rarely the whole story.

It was noted by site owner, Ted Knutson, that Benatia had attempted four shots, made eight interceptions and succeeded with four tackles and that this was likely a rare combination of feats.  It was, you have to go back some years to find a comparable numerical performance.  Now whilst the defensive measures noted here, much like errors, are not noted for their usefulness in predicting future performance, they do offer a descriptive measure of involvement.  Benatia was facing probably the finest front three in recent memory, and he was working relentlessly hard to repel them.  Meanwhile he was also a danger at the other end, availing himself of four shots and a goal.  He also made ten of Bayern’s 17 clearances, suggesting his positional lapse was momentary not permanent.  And I think we can forgive his role as victim in the first goal, the combination of Messi’s pass with the timing of Suarez’ run would beat any defense.  However, Benatia’s legacy from this game is likely to be negative.

And this is the wider point.  The speed of the modern game has damaged the perceived reliability of the centre back.  Ten years ago, defensive systems involving two defensive midfielders offered superior centre back protection.  The advent of high lines, a widespread abandonment of 4-4-2 and ever more focus on attacking full backs has left the centre back more isolated.  They now appear more error prone than before.  Just recently, @footyintheclouds expressed surprise to me that Gary Cahill reached the PFA team of the year alongside the one genuinely solid centre back in the Premier League,  John Terry, and when pressed for solid worthy alternatives, I could think of none.  The centre back is less happy with his lot than he once was.

Next time your centre back struggles to keep pace with Luis Suarez or falls at the feet of Messi, it’s worth remembering that their task may well be increasingly weighted against them from the start and that their qualities are being limited by systems and the evolution of the game.  They are better than they might look.

Medhi Benatia sure is.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thanks for reading!

Follow me on twitter here: @jair1970

Holes in Tottenham, Bloody Hull And Don’t Fear the Numbers

Holes in Tottenham It was quite predictable that Stoke, a team with a reputation for tough play, should be able to roll over a typically soft-centered Tottenham side and so they did.  Usually, I might just point out a few issues surrounding the dismal performance and proffer a positive solution but this week happens to coincide with a bit of research I carried out which paints a dismal picture of where Tottenham are with regard their inability to prevent chances.   Amongst analytic types, this is not a new theory, i’m reminded of Colin Trainor and Paul Riley respectively highlighting and dryly remonstrating with Tottenham’s defensive issues.   This plight has been a bit of an elephant in my room: I knew it was there, but tried to ignore it.  Hugo Lloris has had a great season?  Well, you only get that kind of swift analysis when a keeper is busy, and he sure has been. I’m not normally drawn to location work but I’ve had a look at shooting rates inside and outside the box.  This is a simple yet reasonable proxy for identifying teams that create “good chances” and has proven revealing, the in-box stuff also slightly improves on overall shot ratio with regard predictability, at least for this season.  Here are the in-box shot ratios (up to May 8th): tsr in boxgraph Quickly we can identify six of the top seven clubs occupying the top six slots, which makes perfect sense.  As with overall shot ratios, Man City and Liverpool look better here than their league performances indicate; their problems have to a degree revolved around conversion.  Tottenham, in contrast a team that has ridden fairly high for conversion has a serious problem here.  A 44% shot ratio inside the box is incredibly bad, it pegs them as being as capable of creating chances in the box at the same rate as relegation candidates.  Indeed the raw numbers show that they have conceded about as many shots here as Burnley, Leicester and West Ham, with only QPR significantly exceeding that total.  These are not the hallmarks of a top side. Overall, Tottenham’s shot ratios have declined year on year, and their overall TSR of 52% is the worst they have recorded in the enlightened era (2009-10 onwards).  It is actually 7% worse than Pochettino achieved with Southampton last season and is ironically, identical to Stoke’s TSR, a team that whilst widely deemed inferior, has now beaten Tottenham twice. Andre Villas Boas was regularly castigated by fans who believed that his brand of football was sterile and non-creative.  He was criticised for encouraging long range shooting and passing for the sake of passing,  so apropos of nothing, here are the out-of-box shot ratios for Pochettino’s Tottenham, a team that also ranks 3rd in the league for possession: tsr out of box Tottenham take a high percentage of their shots from range and struggle to create opportunities inside the box.  Defensively they have failed to limit the opposition’s ability to enter the box and take shots from within.  In isolation topping a shot chart might seem good, but when wedded to failing in a more important chart, it is alarming. The similarities with the Villas Boas era are clear, as are the intransigence and the squad issues.  The differences too: there is no shot dominance in 2014-15.  I’m inclined to believe that the primary reason for this is systemic. On the front end, Kane is somewhat isolated in the 4-2-3-1 system and can lack support at times.  In defense, the porous central midfield has been a common concern with attention slowly turning to the entire defensive unit.  And the recent collapse in form is easily attributed to tiredness and a lack of rotation, but perhaps also to chickens coming home to roost?  The narrow victories that characterised the mid-season have given way to draws and defeats, an inevitable by-product of a lack of dominance.   Michael Caley wrote on this point last season with a case study on er… Tottenham.   Both Villas Boas and Pochettino arrived with reputations as prescriptive and detailed coaches wedded to their systems and methods.  Each has suffered with implementation and struggled to consistently succeed with their concepts in actual games. That this season would be one of transition was never in doubt, and that in itself is nothing new but too many aspects of performance are currently in the bin, so much so that I would propose that improvement both underlying and in general will be a mandatory requirement set at board level next year.  Any post-season performance analysis that churns out nuggets like these would likely kill off most Tottenham coaches:

  • Tottenham (53) have conceded more goals that Sunderland (50) and Hull (49) and the same amount as Burnley.
  • Tottenham (12) have lost only one fewer game than Sunderland (13)
  • They have now conceded more shots on target (169) than they have taken (166)
  • They rank 19th/20 for opposition conversion rates, no doubt powered by all those in box shots.

Under Redknapp and in Villas Boas’ initial season, Tottenham punched above their weight and took advantage particularly of Liverpool’s wobbles to regularly finish 4th or 5th.  However, during this time the team’s play consistently projected to be that good.  What is most concerning now is that the projections start at 7th and could arguably be lower.  There is a new team in charge of recruitment and a commitment to finding players in a younger bracket and developing them, much like with Bale or Modric, has been mooted.   These are admirable policies but alongside this, the £100m splurge off the back of Bale’s departure seems to be held up as a mistake.  I’d argue the error wasn’t in the intention but more the execution.  To have any chance of challenging for top four places once more, a mix of promise and fully realised quality is necessary, otherwise 5th to 7th is the long term.  It will soon be transfer season, the sale boards are up and the toughest negotiator in town has plenty to do.  Rumours persist about higher level players departing and new blood is sorely required.  Once more, expectations around Tottenham have had to be tempered.  Improvement is  required but this time it will be starting from a lower base than usual.   Bloody Hull: Relegation round up The inevitable came to pass and QPR were firmly launched out of the league by Man City in a game that thoroughly represented exactly why they haven’t been able to claw their way to safety. The league has been largely free of hammerings this year, the sweeping goal laden attacks realised by City and Liverpool last season were reigned in by variance and key sales, yet with pressure lifted and a chasm in quality, City duly ran riot and converted with ease. QPR had no response and their inability to restrict shots and goals was exemplified vividly. Prior to this, Saturday afternoon provided a marvellous example of the dangers on relying on any given ninety minutes of football to propel yourselves to safety. In the early match, Sunderland pulled off an unlikely victory, so much so that Roberto Martinez was moved to say this: “It’s one of those games, if you play it ten times you win it nine times.” I’m going to presume that he might have meant this in relation to the vast shot superiority Everton enjoyed.  In out-shooting Sunderland by 22 shots to 10 he seems to have at least something of a point: indeed, of 162 games between 2009-10 and 2013-14 in which the home team had 22 or more chances and the away team had 10 or fewer, said home team won around two thirds of the games played.  So a little overestimate from Roberto, but he’s in the ball park and sure, Sunderland rode their luck.  The same shot analysis suggests that they may have won such an imbalanced game 13% of the time, a slight advance on Martinez’s suggestion. Just as Sunderland defied basic expectation we found Hull, nominally with the most straightforward match of the round, failing to beat Burnley in a match which may well end up relegating the pair.  Again the shot stats suggest the result was unlikely: Hull out-shot Burnley 21 to 8 but the all important shots on target were few (3:2). Hull failed to work the keeper sufficiently, Burnley finally caught a break and managed to edge the game. Like a few of the lesser teams this year, I think Hull are okay defensively but their lack of goals has hit them exactly when they least needed it.  In fact a few of my current projections rank them around 15th or 16th in the league, so with one win essential and even then it maybe not being enough, there’s potential to deem them unfortunate, at least right now.  Their remaining hope is that the superior teams they now play Tottenham (A) and Man Utd (H) are coasting. And Newcastle? Having spent so long pointless, to achieve anything against West Brom was vital but they remain vulnerable to any Hull win.  Shackle -free QPR are next as we continue the weird part of the season where the already dead have an opportunity to further condemn.   Don’t fear the numbers “Our conversion rate is letting us down at the moment” So said noted stat watcher San Allardyce and he is quite right: west ham conversion Over the last ten games they have fallen in a conversion hole and it has meant only five goals.  But in a week where on Match of the Day, Phil Neville chatted about shots on target rankings and we saw pass and touch maps too, it is encouraging to see the language of the numbers being used with ever-more frequency.  Since last March I’ve written over 40 of these weekly round-ups and part of the fascination here is the constant quest to derive understanding from numerical data- the story lines are buried all around, some require extensive digging to identify whilst other lie lightly on the surface.  All of them describe and/or support truths that possibly can be ascertained via other methods and importantly broaden understanding.  And after all, that is what we are looking for here and why you may be reading this article.  In a complex and multifaceted sport, the “why” is endlessly fascinating and one hopes that a wider scope of interest is being achieved. Fans! Don’t fear the numbers, they offer some security and stability in an emotional world.   Thanks for reading! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Follow me on twitter here: @jair1970              

Man Utd! Crystal Palace! Relegation Melting Pot! This Week’s Key Premier League Stat Stories

Losing three games in a row and scoring zero goals is rubbish, but it happens. Reality has started to bite for one of 2015’s form teams.  A string of impressive wins driven by improved attacking play seemed to indicate a team clicking and finishing the season with a dynamism unseen prior to Christmas.  Now uncertainty has returned.  A run of three defeats in a row with zero goals scored has raised a few questions.  Has the change of manager worked?  Has progress been made year on year?  It’s hard to know but one imagines that… roonay …Crystal Palace (!) will probably reflect on this season as having been more successful than they had anticipated.  With dynamism and flair installed, Pardew love has been prominent and the simple regression fueled by miserable goal-free home defeats against West Brom and Hull was lightly endorsed by Chelsea.  Those positively inclined towards Pardew’s management skills will be banking on next season not containing one of his trademark trenches of poor form but not to worry, for now the holidays are here. Meanwhile!  A remarkably similar run of results (loads of wins followed by three goalless defeats) has inflicted doubt amongst the Man Utd faithful. The return of treacle-footed former hitman Van Persie made scapegoating an easy job here but by my reckoning, in a sample of well over 2000 matches since 2009-10, I can only find four occasions in which a home team had at least as many shots as Man Utd did on Saturday, failed to score and lost.  This was a freak result in the finest Pulis tradition and although it appears that Utd’s positive skew from the run of big match wins has faded a little, their underlying numbers still reflect a very solid team that has improved over time. Utd’s defense has lead the way throughout, they have now surpassed Southampton and conceded league least shots (9.9 per game) and over the second half of the season, this total has lessened (8.8) and their shot on target concession is now league best (2.9 per game). During this latter period, they have also achieved shot ratios in excess of 60%, a solid benchmark for a top four challenger.  Also, whilst less predictive and more indicative, their possession rate leads the league, as does their pass percentage and their ability to disrupt the opposition’s passing.  Foundations are there and maybe next year, Van Gaal will choose not to play Rooney and Van Persie off Fellaini, for all that it should have worked.  Now if only they can scrape together a few quid for transfers. Relegation update I suggested QPR and Burnley were “probably doomed “ last week and this probability, entirely obvious though it was, surely came to pass, and in exactly the fashion envisaged. Burnley lost 0-1, their fourth such defeat in a row and have only scored twice in ten matches. To no end whatsoever, those two goals earned them four points in matches against Chelsea and Man City: no matter, their offensive inadequacy has killed the impact of their reasonably solid defense and down they go. QPR, facing a large club in an away match, lost, as they have in all other similar games this season. It is possible to empathise with Chris Ramsey, given little time and a big problem, but his points return has been as dismal as Redknapp’s was prior, and shot rates and fortune factors have not improved. Two are gone and Sunderland will join them, right?  That was my firm suggestion last week but the victory against Southampton has forced me to wonder: is Dick Advocaat making a difference?  Again, little encouragement in the numbers but at this late juncture, seven points from four games is hot stuff and they remain well and truly alive.  In contrast, their neighbours, Newcastle, are existing now only in spirit form, having evaporated from the surface of the King Power Stadium as Leicester swept through their residue in a matter of minutes. I had intended on writing on Everton this week, but Tim Sherwood put that off for now with his “winning” team duly winning despite ever crazier goal scoring rates at both ends.  Average league scoring and save rates are 30% and 70%  yet the last five games for Villa has seen Villa posting 50% for and saving at 54%, vastly overachieving at the front end and colander-like at the other.  These levels are in excess of an already very high longer trend and regression will need to map together or else the results could turn ugly.  Still, Villa create chances, and have learned a bit about how to take them.  It’s daft, won’t last and there are issues here that would cause sleepless nights for a Mourinho or Van Gaal but one presumes Sherwood relaxes with great ease, content that football is a simple game that is easily solved. Conversion Rates, For Metric behaviour can be fascinating if, like me in full party mode, you spend enough time staring at them.  Certain metrics are reliable and consistent year after year, or at least they are in the Premier League, metrics such as shot ratios and the many iterations of expected goals.  Others regress hard over time and have no such repeatability.  Things like PDO will happily tell you a story but wave goodnight when prodded for more information.  Yet sometimes you spot mini-metrics riding particularly high or low and whilst more detailed analysis is required to nail the “why?”, story lines exist amongst them.  One example is “conversion rate, for” (all shots to goals) which has in the past offered almost zero insight (2010-11 especially) but can often enlighten.  This year, it looks like this: conv ssn As we can see, this matches up quite strongly with what we know about the league, both in reality and projections, and it explicitly highlights an issue with Liverpool this year: against a league average of 10%,  a conversion rate of 9% is sub-par, and it isn’t just Mario.  We have a simple take-out from a pretty simple measure: Liverpool, despite decent shot totals, have failed convert their shots at a sufficient rate to compete.  It also emphasises just how much impact Sherwood has made, Villa were adrift and scoring at historically terrible levels (under 5%) in this measure until he arrived.  Bottom no more, their place is now taken by Burnley, with an inability to take chances clearly endorsed. The opposite side of this metric “goals per shot against”, as is often with “against” measures, hasn’t tracked so well, though Chelsea, Southampton, Swansea and West Ham; four teams that have largely met or exceeded expectations lead the chart here.  Newcastle, in contrast, score awfully (14%) and their predicament (ably described on objectivefootball last week) gets ever worse. Bye bye, Big Sam? Having pulled out the numbers from games 20 onwards, it is possible to identify a few shorter term trends that could impact clubs going into the summer.  Quite obvious amongst this, and something Big Sam is no doubt well aware of but keeping quiet about, are the numbers being generated by West Ham.  Their goal rate (0.8 per game) is around league low and their shot concession rate has been up around the “Knutson Line” of 16 shots per game.  This projects very badly (ie. relegation standard) and if the owners, already skittish with Allardyce and his expiring contract need any reason to cut him loose, there is plenty enough there.  Allardyce will no doubt point to a history of overachievement in comparison to projection combined with his league position but actual points gained since halfway are exactly one per game: again, not good.  His salvation likely rests entirely on the positive start to the year, which all seems a long time ago now. Well done Chelsea The neutrals and non-Chelsea fans amongst us will bemoan the lack of pizzazz from Chelsea since the turn of the year, but their achievement in winning the title having lost only two games is nonetheless praiseworthy.   Whilst shot laden attacking displays gave way to classic Mourinho pragmatism as the season wore on, a combination of the right signings, extreme efficiency and the failings of others have led to a straightforward amble over the line.  A top striker on a super hot-streak (Costa) fueled by a top, top creator (Fabregas) was enough to sit them steadily at the top early on and when City imploded and they themselves tired, the Mourinho smarts came to the fore.  Hazard took prizes and probably deserved them, if for nothing else than consistent quality but as ever the defense was the true star.  Even whilst coasting in, over the last 6 matches, they have only allowed over two shots on target once: formidable stuff.  Only Southampton and Man Utd posted defensive numbers in the region of Chelsea and neither of them had a reliable attack to back it up. It’s hard to see too much different next year.  With little required in terms of team strengthening and plenty of peak age elite players, this team will go again with justified confidence.   City, possibly in transition, will surely be strong but need the type of signings Chelsea made this last year and Arsenal will, as ever, rely on fitness to direct their chances but there is every chance that Mourinho’s second Chelsea stint could match or exceed his first, with the failings of others enabling a very clear path.   Thanks for reading!   ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~   Follow me on twitter here: @jair1970