Zlatan's Ibrahimovic's Mortality

Watching a superstar in any sport have to cope with his own mortality is one of the more fascinating things you'll see, especially so if the player is as stubborn as Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A fun example of seeing the battle between player X and father time is seeing what's happened to Kobe Bryant over the past three seasons. Even your average person knows just how bad Kobe is currently. More than anything, Kobe Bryant is the cautionary tale of a headstrong superstar declining to a point where they're way below a net zero in terms of value to a team.

It's no secret that Zlatan is getting up there in age and miles. Hell, this isn't the first time I've even hypothesized about whether Zlatan is declining. In January, I wrote about how the first signs of a possible decline were already there:

Lower body injuries for a guy with Zlatan’s physique are brutal, especially something as finicky as the heel/Achilles. It also doesn’t help that Zlatan has had an insane workload the last 4-5 season which has compounded such things.  Since 2009-10, Zlatan hasn’t played a season where his minutes total in all competitions didn’t exceed 3000 minutes. He even had two seasons back to back in 2011-12 and 2012-13 where Zlatan played over 3500 minutes in both years, topping out at 3789 minutes two seasons ago.

It’s astonishing numbers for any striker, especially one who’s in his thirties. It’s no surprise really that Zlatan’s overall production has declined this season as a result.

The tone of that column was more or less me wondering whether Zlatan was truly in decline, not one of assertion. After all, until last season there wasn't any noticeable signs that Zlatan was declining just yet. Well this post will be much more assertive about the same object. The Zlatan Ibrahimovic we know, the one where he can be the entire universe of a team's offense and have that offense be really good is over. Yes, that guy who would try audacious bicycle kicks against England is gone and he isn't coming back. It's no shock really that this is happening, even if it's to the chagrin of some. For one, he can't hold up physically anymore. His 2003 league minutes last season was the lowest amount played since 2007-08 when he was with Inter. So far this season, he's only played in 53.4% of all possible minutes this season which is far below the 87.6% peak from 2012-13, his first season with PSG.

The funny part about Zlatan is that on a statistical level, it's hard to see a drop off in terms of production. Zlatan's 5.9 shots per 90 is the highest rate recorded in the Opta era, 0.8 non penalty goals per 90 is tied for his highest rate in the Opta era along with his first season in PSG and his key passes per 90 are around the same level as some of his other seasons recorded. Zlatan's expected goal output of 5.8 is also mirroring his actual output of 7 goals. In a way, someone could make a decent argument that his play has never been better, which is both a credit both to Zlatan and just how stupidly talented PSG are.

But even saying that, there are genuine signs of his physical decline. For one, he's not even really playing as a pure striker anymore. With the help of Julien Assuncao, he provided me with Zlatan's heatmaps from the 2013-14 season to now:

Zlatan Ibrahimovic 2013-14 Heatmap
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 2013-14 Heatmap
Zlatan 2014-15 Heatmap
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 2014-15 Heatmap
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 2015-16 Heatmap
Zlatan Ibrahimovic 2015-16 Heatmap

When you watch Zlatan play these days, it's pretty obvious that he doesn't have the athleticism anymore to lead the line as a striker and the heatmaps confirm this. In many ways, Zlatan these days is much more a #10 than he is a #9 (it's one reason why Javier Pastore has had a hard time since coming to PSG. Him and Zlatan overlap too much and no one beats out Zlatan in this type of soccer contextual argument). Just watching his goals from when he first came to PSG shows the considerable contrast in his game then and what it is now:

Perhaps the greatest example of this was last season against Saint Etienne in January, the amount of times he would drop back to receive the ball was very reminiscent of what we're seeing with Wayne Rooney at Manchester United currently.

Zlatan Asse Zlatan Asse Zlatan Asse It's no surprise that we're seeing Zlatan's decline. In many ways, it's more shocking that it took this long to happen. Despite the noticeable effects of father time, Zlatan has found a way to remain effective. He's still dropping deep to collect the ball this season, as he's averaging 64.6 touches per 90 this season and 49.3 passes per 90, the 2nd highest rate for both statistics he's had in his time in Ligue 1. His shot profile is at its most highest but it's coming in smarter ways. Less shots where he creates individually and more from capitalizing on the talents his teammates have. With the likes of Angel Di Maria and the fullback stable PSG have, Zlatan should be able to pocket 5-7 goals this season by merely being in the right place at the right time for tap ins. And there will be games where you'll see the Zlatan of 4-5 years ago. Against Saint Etienne last week, if you squinted hard enough you would've seen a clean shaven 29 year old Zlatan Ibrahiovic buzzing around the pitch. He played like the Zlatan of old, he got in behind Saint Etienne's offside trap multiple times including his assist for Cavani where he sprinted down the right hand channel and spoon-fed a ball to Cavani for a tap in. We saw bursts of speed with the ball and it was him at its athletic best. The difference between 4-5 years ago and now is that Zlatan can't summon that type of performance on command like he could before. Zlatan is still really good and it's impressive that he's fighting off father time and playing at a high level at age 34. He's transitioned from the all encompassing talisman who could create magic with the ball on his feet to a more subdued striker who capitalizes on the individual excellence from his teammates. His on the pitch partnership with Edinson Cavani has been the best it's been since the two have been teammates (which in fairness isn't saying much) and that too has helped the aging process. The problem for PSG is that Zlatan is still the figure at the club and with their current roster, it's been at times an awkward fit at times this season. Yes he's played well but it looks like PSG are in between two worlds going forward. With the likes of Di Maria and Lucas, PSG could in theory play a more faster tempo game with those two wingers and a more mobile striker. It could further unlock the passing brilliance of Marco Verratti and maybe even Javier Pastore can occupy the areas that Zlatan loves to set residence (if you're screaming to your computer screen that the answer to all of this is Edinson Cavani, I would just like to show you this to the contrary). The Zlatan question won't go away and there will be a considerable amount of games going forward where he looks slow and out of place. What happens after this season is anyone's guess. It's probably unlikely that PSG would consider re-signing him to an extension considering his age, and the rumors of Ronaldo coming aboard in the summer would involve at the very least Zlatan Ibrahimovic not coming back. With Ronaldo's evolution into a Godzilla like version of Fillipo Inzaghi, he would be the perfect fit for PSG as a #9 and his movements off the ball are ridiculous and would be a godsend to the passing capabilities that PSG have. There's also faint rumors of Romelu Lukaku being another PSG target and while his movements aren't in the same class as Ronaldo, the jump of quality of teammates betwen the likes of Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas to Di Maria and Verratti would help massage those issues. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic first signed with PSG three years ago, he was embarking on the remaining points of his prime and there was the real chance that PSG at the time were probably buying up 1-2 declining seasons. Truth be told, that's exactly what happened. Zlatan's first two seasons were incredible, last season showed the possible hints of his decline and now we're seeing a new Zlatan. He no longer is the guy good enough to build a team around (there's probably an argument to be had on whether Zlatan was ever good enough to have a team built around him but that's one for another day) but he isn't Kobe where you feel sad and slightly ashamed at what he's become. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is an above average attacking player who once in a while can conjure up a throwback performance, but he no longer can consistently do the things that made him a meta hero for the past decade. How PSG massage the final days of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's relavancy will go a long way towards whether this is finally the year where they make the Champions League semifinals.

Have Chelsea been "found out"?

ChelseaPiece4 Chelsea are fun this season. Not just because a king falling unexpectedly is entertaining, but because of the conflicting autopsy reports. Right now, Chelsea are the footballing equivalent of Stonehenge – we know what it is, we know it’s there, we just have a big problem with explaining why or how. The most popular explanations at the moment revolve around the team being fatigued, due to a combination of an unusual pre-season and over-use last season. The best work I’ve seen along these lines has come from Michael Caley and Sebastien Chapuis. Mourinho’s squad choices have also been illustrated by some great data journalism from John Burn-Murdoch. I remain relatively unconvinced by this line of argument. For one, Mourinho abused Chelsea’s 13/14 team, made up of largely the same group of players, nearly as much as his 14/15 one which won the title, and a huge number of those players were coming off the back of a World Cup adventure too. These are trained professionals and even with an unusual pre-season (one, notably, that was specifically designed to try and avoid the players’ fatigue carrying over) I find it hard to buy that they’re physically tired. Were ‘distance run’ data more publicly available, I could maybe look into this a bit more (for the record, the Chelsea team have been running just under the average distance in the Champions League, which is normal for a ‘better’ side). This isn’t to say that I don’t think that overuse might be a factor. Realistically, the unusual case of Chelsea’s miraculous drop in underperformance is going to be a huge, multivariate problem. And to be fair to the fatigue argument, the core of Chelsea’s 14/15 team were worked markedly harder than any other, I’m just yet to be convinced that this is the major factor.   Caley I decided to test a slightly more generic line, one that flitters in and out of punditry without much justification or explanation: Have Chelsea been “found out”? The Theory The hypothesis is relatively simple. By “found out”, we mean that teams facing Chelsea would now be adjusting their tactics in a specific way to hit Chelsea’s weaknesses. Every Premier League team will have members of staff on opposition analysis, and so it’s intuitive to suggest that once a method of attacking a weakness succeeded, other teams may try to emulate it. In Chelsea’s opening game of the season, Swansea exposed some weaknesses that had become increasingly evident through the 14/15 season. In effect, Swansea found Chelsea’s right side a particularly fruitful avenue of attack: Jefferson Montero dribbled past Branislav Ivanovic 4 times and completed 6 take-ons in total. Their counter-attacks focused on getting Shelvey the ball by getting Gylfi to take up Matic’s time and relying on Cesc leaving Jonjo free. Also, Swansea’s defensive system attempted to isolate Hazard and limit his ability to pass into the box. ChelseaPiece2 ChelseaPiece3 Normally when a lesser side grabs a point away at the defending champions, they could objectively be described as ‘lucky’. But this was no typical game - Michael Caley’s expected goals model had Chelsea at a measly 0.7 xG for the game compared to Swansea’s 1.7. This isn’t to necessarily say that Swansea did anything particularly amazing, but that they may have pushed exactly the right buttons on the day and been unlucky not to come away with more. But have other teams looked to push the same buttons? To evaluate this, I decided to look into the equivalent fixtures that Chelsea played from last season, excluding the Liverpool game and corresponding fixture as my data isn’t up to date. For some context, from these ten games last season Chelsea got 21 points. This time around they got 11. If there are any obvious aggregated tactical differences between the matches from this year and last, it may be the case that teams are attacking the Chelsea problem in a slightly different way. The Comparison A note on these visualisations - all data is via Opta, and the pitch is set up with the attacking team moving left to right. Chelsea20 Chelsea21 Above are plots comparing the key passes conceded in the same sample of games for both seasons; two things are immediately obvious – that Chelsea are conceding more chances in general, and that this increase is coming in right and centre-right areas more than it is the other side. Chelsea30 Chelsea31 Successful take-ons conceded tell a similar story. The prevalence of dribbles in the top right corner is striking compared to the year before, as is the lack of successful attempts to get in behind Cesar Azpilicueta. Chelsea are also giving up more successful dribbles in central areas, especially slightly to the right where Cesc Fabregas or whoever partners Matic would be expected to help cover. Chelsea40 Chelsea41 This has all resulted in Chelsea conceding a higher volume of high quality shots than they did in the corresponding fixtures last year, as can be seen from the rise in the number of shots in the box. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s attack is operating relatively similarly with two very noticeable differences: Eden Hazard is dribbling and producing less, and Diego Costa is having nearly half as many shots as he did per 90 last season with less than half the conversion rate. It’s worth remembering that although Chelsea did play some really good football at the beginning of last season, the second half of their season was more about grinding results en route to the title. And that as a game-plan is fine if your defence is functional, but less so if your Achilles heel has become increasingly obvious to teams about to play you. Chelsea60 Chelsea61 Looking at Chelsea’s successful dribbles in either sample, it’s interesting how much less Eden (or Pedro when Jose has bravely dropped the Belgian) has managed to get in behind the opposition’s right back compared to last season. This is where Eden is at his best – 1on1 with the fullback – but this season he is completing just over 1.5 less successful dribbles per 90. It’s easy to say that this is a drop off in individual performance, but it’s almost definitely related to how teams are playing against Chelsea. Note - in the below visualisations, Chelsea are attacking from the right to left. Chelsea50 Chelsea51 It’s possible that teams are forcing Hazard inside or isolating him so that he has no choice. Comparing tackle locations of teams facing Chelsea, it looks as if this might be the case – there seem to be more tackles on the edge of the box where Eden would be coming in. This doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but adds strength to an overall hypothesis that teams are adjusting their tactics to try and maximise their chance of frustrating Chelsea. Conclusion It’s clear that, at least to some extent, teams are playing Chelsea differently this year. The harder thing to decide is whether or not this is an intentional effect of a change in tactics, as in teams “finding out” how to play against Chelsea, or whether or not it’s just Chelsea capitulating in certain areas. The hypothesis has a few strong fundamental facts to stand on, though: Mourinho’s tactics haven’t changed since last season, and neither has the majority of his team. This is almost exactly the same team, manager and tactics that won the title, which is convenient for trying to identify tactical changes of the opposing teams. Personally, I was surprised by how obvious some of the differences were between the season samples. Let me know what you think, I'm on Twitter.  

Chewing on the Champions League

The Champions League is the pinnacle of global soccer. It's the only time we are sure to see teams from disparate leagues matching up at full strength with the same incentives. It's also the only time we get to see teams from leagues off beaten path match up against the big boys and get their day in the wider public eye. So it's kind of strange how it can sometimes be treated a bit like an afterthought in English writing and specifically among stats writers. I get why: it's much harder to draw conclusions over a smaller sample and the wild differences in opponents make it hard to compare teams that the satisfyingly balanced league schedules absolve make easier.

With those limitations in mind, I still think there are lots of insights to be grabbed from looking deep into the Champions League stats. Right now is the perfect time, with 3 rounds down and the next kicking off today. We will look at the surprising blowouts in Group D, which of the little guys can hang, the battle for coefficient (not that one), Leverkusen's softening press (?), and the fascinating subject of changing pass lengths and how that reflects on domestic leagues.

The Madness of Group D

After the draw, this was clearly the group to watch. 4 teams from Europe's top 4 leagues in one group is reasonably rare. Last years Europa League winner in Sevilla, UCL runner up in Juventus and European-narrative-around-the-neck-having Man City joined a team I was fascinated to see make the jump to the big stage in Gladbach. I wondered in my Bundesliga preview whether their distinctive style of play would hold up on a bigger stage. That style is now in transition as Lucien Favre has been replaced by Andre Schubert but whatever Gladbach has done in the UCL, it has been torn apart.

In fact, this group which seemed the most evenly balanced has given us 4 of the most lopsided games so far. The combined deep completion maps for each of those games (separate colors representing the two different teams in a game) are below:

for Gladbach-City (81 deep completions by City are most by any team in a single game so far)


for Sevilla-Gladbach


for Juventus-Gladbach


and in a non-Gladbach game that will stand out as one of the more dominant and surprising results of the year, Juventus-Sevilla (24-1 in shots)



City-Sevilla and City-Juve have been the only really competitive games for 90 minutes so far in a group that promised much more.

The little guys

One of the best parts of the Champions League is seeing teams you'd never otherwise watch show up and make a name for themselves. Basel, Shakhtar, Porto, Galatasaray, Zenit, and Celtic have had great moments in the last few competitions that remind you just how many good players and teams there are out there outside the top leagues. We also generally have more data and see bigger teams a lot more so we need to conclude more on these sides in the small UCL sample.

Here we will use territorial data to see who among the small sides can hang and be competitive and who is just happy to be here. I use territorial data because it reflects team quality rather well and stabilizes extremely quickly  on the offensive side especially.

Can't hang

BATE-the 2-0 win over Bayern a few years ago was not a sign of a Belarusian surge.

Malmo Maccabi Tel Aviv-provided maybe the scenes of the tournament so far with their celebration in front of a roaring crowd when they beat Basel in the playoff, but were lucky to advance after being thoroughly outplayed by the Swiss side and have been unsurprisingly battered in group play.

Astana-A fun story for the first Kazakh team ever in the Group Stage and a solid performance to get a home point against Galatasaray but still not close.

Dinamo Zagreb

Possibly can't hang but extenuating circumstances mean we just don't know

Olympiakos-Have had to play Bayern and Arsenal which is brutal for anyone but have created extremely little even against Zagreb.

Can hang to some degree

Dynamo Kiev-drew with Porto and Chelsea at home by completely constricting the game. Bland attack (though Everton fans might not agree) but holding teams like Porto and Chelsea to under 20 deep completions shows enough defensive solidity to rate a very conditional hang-with-rating. Creating offense over a 3-game span would be a much better indicator.

Shakhtar Donetsk-They have been outscored 8-0 which makes it weird to see them here, but their passing rating is 6th best in the Champions League. This factors in pass origin and destination with regard to how far from goal the ball is played from, 1 is set to be league average for an EPL team. So a completed 15 yard pass in your own half counts for much less than one in the opposition box. Shakhtar were put in a brutal group, they are good enough to advance normally.


Realizing too late the labeling mistake: 1st MUN is Bayern, mid-pack MUN is Manchester United. GLA=Gladbach.

Galatasaray- A disappointing performance in Kazakhstan where they deservedly drew against Astana has Gala behind the 8-ball in terms of advancing but they have essentially played evenly with Atletico at home and Benfica away. The Atletico performance was particularly impressive as they put up the 7th most deep completions any team has on Simeone's side since the start of last season (out of 51 games). Only Real Madrid, Sevilla x2, Real Sociedad and Barca x2 topped the 36 Gala piled up.

KAA Gent-Had 55% possession away at Valencia and 58% away at Zenit in close losses that could have easily been draws. Were overwhelmed territory-wise at home vs Lyon but played with 10 men for over half the game in a draw. Really impressive for a Belgian side to have 54% possession with the schedule and circumstances they have had in their first 3 games. An extremely soft back line (57% completion allowed in final 30 yards, 3rd worst in Champions League) has led to some worryingly high close shot allowed totals, but overall this looks like a team punching above their weight, and maybe a manager to watch and learn how to spell in Hein Vanhaezebrouck.


The battle for the coefficient


No, not that coefficient. Enough virtual ink has been spilled over the England/Italy battle so lets focus in on the real important stuff: Russia vs. France vs. Portugal for a 3rd UCL spot. When I see I have written sentences like that, I step back and just get really glad we have sports. I hope you do the same. Now, onto the details.

These three nations are locked in a battle for a 3rd Champions League spot (which one league can win) and each have two teams in the league right now. Both Portuguese teams have been solidly average in the early going. Porto hammered Maccabi Tel Aviv and were very competitive in their games against Chelsea and Dynamo Kiev, gaining 4 points even if the performances were very slightly second-best. They are in great position to advance with home games vs Maccabi and Kiev remaining. Benfica have been similar to Porto so far, they top their group and are in a great position to qualify with a home game vs 3rd-favorite Gala. Their performance vs Galatasaray will be telling when it comes to determining if there is actually a big quality gap between the two sides.

Lyon have superficially disappointed. It’s easy to look at their single point and failure to beat a Belgian team playing with 10 men and say "look how awful France is". That would be the wrong conclusion to make. There have been 13 instances of a team racking up 50+ deep completions so far this season in the Champions League and Lyon has 3 of them. Playing from behind helps some forcing the incentive but they’ve shown an ability to get the ball into dangerous positions that generally only good teams have.


PSG have gone through the motions and will advance, probably in 2nd place. Still clearly the best team of any from these 3 leagues.

The Russian sides have been kind of disappointing. I like watching games in Russia as the games have a distinct feel and it gives the tournament a broader scope to include such a huge and important nation but CSKA and Zenit are not playing on the level of the top Portuguese/French teams yet.


Shot distance is in yards.

So while personally I’d love to see more early games with players wearing gloves with visible breath played in front of Russian PA announcers bellowing at ear-splitting volumes, for the overall quality of the competition France and Portugal still bring more to the table.

Maybe a slightly different Leverkusen press?

To be fair, they have played Barcelona (82% pass completion rate allowed) but also had home games against Roma and BATE and have just managed to bring the total opposition completion rate down to 75% over the 270 minutes. In the Bundesliga, Leverkusen are holding opponents to 65% passing coming into the Wolfsburg game. Even BATE neared that at the BayArena. This isn't a trend yet, but is more something to keep an eye on to see if Schmidt is taking a different defensive tactic into the Champions League or this is just an unsurprising result of facing better offenses.

They aren't taking advantage of the sideline on the press like they do in the league either. In Bundesliga play, the circled areas are where teams go to die. Leverkusen destroys you when the ball goes there and they can use the sideline as an extra defender.


In the Champions League they are in Hoffenheim/Bremen range, while Barcelona dominate that area.


*Accurate only to 7 decimal points, I apologize for the sloppiness showing 9.

Changing Pass Length

Playing in the Champions League has a different effect on teams and their average pass lengths which seems to depend a lot on what league they come from:


EPL Average Change: +0.1

La Liga Change: -0.8

Bundesliga Change: -0.6

Serie A: +1.1

Ligue 1: +.9

German and Spanish teams, coming from high pressing leagues at home, see their average pass length drop by nearly a full yard. That is very significant when we are talking about well over 1000 passes per team so far. English teams stay the same while French and Italian teams start playing significantly longer passes. This is very fascinating to me, and seems like it tells us a lot about the background these teams come from and how they adjust. One of those things to look deeper into later on, once the Group Stage is over.

Any ideas or explanations on this let me know in the comments or on twitter @Saturdayoncouch. Hopefully there will be time later to examine this but now it's time to finish reading this and ready ourselves for the feast of the Champions League over these next two days.

Games with most on the line, Round 4

  1. Roma-Leverkusen
  2. Chelsea-Dynamo Kiev
  3. Sevilla-Man City
  4. Benfica-Galatasaray


PSV-Wolfsburg, Man United-CSKA in Group B and Bayern-Arsenal, Olympiakos-Zagreb in Group F are linked together.

Groundhog José, Watford and Attack Numbers

Groundhog José The mediocrity that has enveloped Chelsea's play continued this week as they found themselves on the wrong end of Klopp clicking.  Or at least they failed to provide anything like enough of an attacking threat to expect to win the game.   But from the start of the season, the primary problem has been on the defensive end:


[For more of Paul Riley's charts find the links in the top menu or click here] Trying to win matches when your defense is habitually giving up two or three goals is a strategy with an incredibly small success rate- only once against West Brom has it paid off- and it has shown little sign of correcting itself as the season has worn on. In fact, with the presumption that remedial action is being taken to reformat this Chelsea team via the traditional Mourinho bedrock of defense first, it's somewhat surprising to see that the initial knock-on effect has been the opposite: an apparent castration of their attacking balls.  Their last four games have provided an average of nine shots and three shots on target per match and unsurprisingly given that paucity of attacking verve, they've contrived to lose three of them. The many corners of the football community are now puzzling over what has become - and forgive the garbling of concept- a flock of black swans enveloping Stamford Bridge.  The idea of tiredness has been repeatedly mooted- kudos to Benjamin Pugsley for noting the then bionic nature of Chelsea all the way back in January and Michael Caley updated these concepts just this week- and other sources have looked into issues around pre-season.  Dissent in the camp and a lack of dressing room love for Mourinho seem to be likely contributors, especially given his wide experience of the good times being good, and far less of the bad times being bad and now we're seeing a bit of chat around whether or not this could have been forecasted? It seems that predicting this failure lies outside the realms of objective analysis; even a negative projection of Chelsea's season would have undershot the reality of the situation by some margin.  There was evidence that this team landed the title with less than electric late underlying numbers, but that in itself didn't project a continued decline.  The first game statistical mauling at the hands of Swansea was so outside accepted Mourinho parameters as to be a large red flag but throughout the subsequent weeks there has been a wide and understandable presumption that they will improve- and soon.  Ten weeks on and with only one win per month under their belts, we are no closer to knowing whether this is the bottom.  At home to a Liverpool side still learning their coach's methods might have been a good spot to impose themselves: no, not a bit- between scoring and fifteen minutes after Liverpool equalised Chelsea didn't muster a shot on goal.  This is bad form and what you would expect to see from a legitimately bad team. Maybe it's purgatory for Mourinho? Sentenced to conduct Match of the Day interviews after miserable defeats for all eternity as his employer looks on portraying indifference and enacting peak passive aggressiveness? November is the wrong time of year to look for the green shoots of recovery and now once more looking for a simple fixture, they return to Stoke instead- fresh from meeting defeat there in the Capital One Cup- before what could be a long international break.   No matter, the stage is set for the jettisoning of a Portuguese manager, his replacement by whoever is available, another Champions League victory and a thwarting of Tottenham and their well deserved fourth place.   Player Numbers player nos wk11 player nos wk113 While we've entered the era of the expected goal, there's still significant value in looking at what has actually happened, so this week we have some player goal contribution numbers.  Reformatting raw numbers by stripping out the penalties and converting them into per 90 rates will always give a more accurate rendition than a simple scoring chart too, so here we are. First chart is based on playing a minimum of~75% of minutes, so we're looking at as reasonable sized sample as we can get at an early point and the second one picks up a series of non-qualifiers that have nonetheless started well also, but with injury or selection limiting their time.  For the top scorers here there is a lot to do to continue at such a level.  If we kindly drop the season long limit to two thirds available minutes, only six players have exceeded 0.90 goals and assists per 90 over the last six seasons: Agüero twice (11-12 and 14-15), Drogba (09-10), van Persie (11-12), Walcott (12-13) and Sturridge and Suárez (13-14). It's a rare occurrence and implies that most of these early achievers will likely fall back.  It also shows that 0.9 is a figure only exceeded by scorers, no pure creative type has exceeded that boundary; indeed Juan Mata's 12-13 season of 0.78 is the first to register a higher assist to goal rate.  Özil and De Bruyne have the quality to put up a huge season, but can they keep it up? A few things, some beyond the obvious, that stood out:

  • Leicester and Southampton both have a dual prong supported by a third contributor: Mahrez and Vardy with Albrighton, Pellè and Mané with Tadic.
  • Lukaku: an oft criticised player who has contributed huge numbers for his age in prior seasons, and he's still only 22, again shows up well
  • Mata is on this list despite Utd's attack
  • Frustrating but progressing? Contributing so far this year, Coutinho and Barkley.
  • De Bruyne, having blasted the Bundesliga last term is hugely exciting here.
  • Deulofeu: had good numbers in limited minutes in his last stint at Everton, one to note once more

Watford As is normal, when the bookies chalked up some early prices for relegation, the three promoted teams were all quoted at short prices. The jump from Championship to Premier League grows ever wider and without a coherent strategy of strong investment, gaining a vague foothold can prove beyond even well run and organised clubs.  The Burnley model, though admirable, is not one which predicts long term existence within the top flight. This season, each of our newcomers have had sporadically bright starts.  Early on Bournemouth seemed competitive but having been scythed down by key injuries and now slumped into bad form against good teams, look extremely vulnerable.  The positive aspects of their game are that they concede shots at a similar rate to Arsenal (~10 a game). The catch here is that they have contrived to concede over 20% of them.  Their save percentage is under 50% while Arsenal's is over 80%.  That translates to a difference of about 1.5 goals per game. Their general shot numbers are okay, but it's preferable that your keeper doesn't readily shovel the ball onto the striker's feet as was seen against Tottenham. It's tough when you're new. Norwich, with a team largely inhabited by a similar group of players who were relegated from the league two seasons ago have followed seven points in five games with no wins in six and now four straight defeats, all the while failing to keep a clean sheet.  They too look to be up against it long term. That only leaves Watford who have done an excellent job of racking up points through a reasonably balanced schedule.  Villa, Norwich and Sunderland all feature in their near future before a horrible run of five tough games around Christmas and any addition to the 16 points already pocketed will give them an extremely strong base for the New Year. With a veritable United Nations of signings over the summer, it had looked as though Watford were using the QPR method of recruitment; buy everyone you can and hope it works out.  However, their play couldn't be more different to QPR, they are hard to break down- i'm delighted to see Heurelho Gomes back in the league- and have only conceded more than once in three of their games, against City, Arsenal and Everton.  This is where their results against lesser teams have been so vital, they've got nearly nothing when they've played better teams. But so what? Last year's plucky newcomers Burnley had a reputation that preceded them after a couple of good results against top sides, in the interim few people noticed how badly they were performing against the teams around them in the relegation mix.  In contrast, Watford have so far shown themselves to be competitive in the majority of their games. On the down side, Ighalo is running a little hot with seven goals from 35 shots and nobody else has contributed offensively.  Eventually, they will need more goals from others but in a league where you only need to be better than three, they've given themselves a solid chance of achieving just that.   Shot Rates shots combinedYou might as well call this an entertainment index as here we have average shot volumes per game.  Most notable and impossible to ignore is Man Utd's position on the chart.  Last, and by some margin, Utd games have been featuring under twenty shots per game this season- or around the same as Arsenal and City take themselves, if you like- and the last two weeks -12 shots in the City game and 15 at Palace- have been particularly low.  That van Gaal's system  should be so restrictive at both ends despite the extremely high investment in new talent could not be more different to that which was seen under Ferguson.  More happens in matches involving Pulis. Yep, put four centre backs on the pitch and your team is more exciting than Man Utd. Otherwise, go and enjoy football in London.  Arsenal take a ton of shots themselves and aren't as mean as Man City defensively and Palace, Tottenham and West Ham round out the top four here with plenty of shots at each end. And Chelsea, obviously. Beyond this shots are being converted at a slightly higher rate so far this year than is usual, around 10.5% compared to a long term average of around one percent less and nearly all of this has occurred over the past five weeks.  October has been a month of goals and a decrease in saves, the more free form teams have taken a slight upper hand- for now- but it will likely drop back in the coming weeks.  Certainly if Louis van Gaal has any input, entertainment will remain a minor consideration.     _________________________________________________________________________ Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter @jair1970