Italy’s Future Left Back? Adam Masina

Less than three years ago, Adam Masina was the reserve striker at Bologna Primavera, the under-19 team of the club. He was barely fielded and for him a future in football was very unlikely. Dumped by the club, he ended up in the third tier of Italian football, on loan at Giacomense, just because at the Emilian club were looking for youngsters, in order to receive the FIGC subsidies assigned to teams which regularly field under-21 players in their starting formation.

To find him a place in the team, Giacomense manager Fabio Gallo, decided to field him as the left wingback in his 3-5-2 and then even as the left-back when he switched to a 4-3-3. Gallo’s intuition has been Masina’s salvation: he became a regular of the team and his good performances granted him a return in Bologna.

The following year Masina became a regular of the rossoblu Primavera team, scoring 4 goals in 22 games. That season, Bologna were relegated from the Serie A, but last year Masina was promoted to the first team, becoming a regular of the rossoblu: with 28 appearances and 1 goal he had a breakthrough season and was one of the most important player in the Emilians comeback to the Serie A.

The impact with the top-tier of Italian football hasn’t stop his parabola: his growth has been consistent so far and he imposed himself not only as one of the best young players of the first half of the 2015/16 edition of the Serie A, but as one of the best fullback overall.

Masina has missed just a single game (because of a suspension) otherwise he has played every other Bologna league matches, both under Delio Rossi and Roberto Donadoni, featuring on the pitch the 100% of the available minutes (1440).

Given his past as a striker he is mainly an offensive minded fullback: with 2 goals and 3 assists so far he has directly contributed to the 26% of his team goals (with 0.31 non penalty-goals plus assists per 90 minutes, no other Bologna player, except striker Mattia Destro, had a greater impact offensively).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Psi7KKh9ckY
It’s rare to find a leftback with the off-the-ball qualities of a striker

Masina is involved a lot in his team offensive plays, and with 39.4 passes p90, only four of his team-mates, all midfielders, play more passes than him over the course of 90 minutes. He is also relatively tidy in his passing game (74.0 %) , considering those passes are often played high up the pitch and Bologna direct style of play overall (their passing percentage is 75.3%).

He creates 0.8 chances per 90 and completes 0.6 crosses per 90 with a 30.0% accuracy: an excellent percentage if we keep in mind that last season just five players across Europe top-5 leagues had a cross accuracy greater than 30.0%.

 

bologna chances
Masina’s influence in Bologna offensive phase determines an asymmetry in the team chance creation map

Donadoni, appointed at the end of October, has immediately identified Masina’s qualities and the importance he could have in Bologna fight to avoid relegation: in the last three games has started to field Rossettini, usually a centre-back, at right-back in order to give extra-defensive cover, leaving even more offensive freedom to his left-back.

Masina is not sensationally skilled or lightning fast (after all he is a 189cms of height per 79 kgs of weight) but is still able to complete 0.8 dribbles per 90, being dispossessed just 0,5 times p90.

However his height means that he is dominant in the air: he has won the 72.2 % of his aerial duels, or if you prefer, 2.4 duels per 90.

At the start of the season defence was considered his Achilles’ heel, but Alex Ferrari is the only Bologna player, although with almost 600 minutes played in less than him, who exceeds Masina 2.8 tackles per 90.

His 69.2 % percentage of tackles won is good, but the high volume of challenges in which is involved means he is dribbled past 1.3 times per 90, suggesting he has still room to improve in one-on-ones. Even so he partially balance this flaw out with a natural tendency to anticipate play, as his impressive 3.5 interceptions per 90 minutes confirm.

Thanks to his dual Moroccan and Italian nationality he has debuted in Luigi Di Biagio’s Italy under-21 team and he has already fallen under the radars of Italian top- teams, with Roma, Inter and Juventus all keen of him.

At just 21 years of age, Masina has still room for improvement but is already incredibly consistent both offensively and defensively. Given the shortage of players in his role in Italian and European football, this young left-back is definitely one to watch in 2016.

Someone Old, Someone New: Raffael and Thomas Lemar

Two players today from the continent as we continue our holiday cheer in the StatsBomb Recommends series. The youngster is promising Monaco midfielder Thomas Lemar while the one past the 30-mark is Gladbach attacker Raffael. We begin with the veteran: Raffael Since the beginning of last season, no Bundesliga team has a higher passing % within 25 yards of opposing goal than Gladbach’s 43.7%. Snip20151227_77 A significant chunk of this credit deserves to go to their 30-year-old Brazilian striker, Raffael, who has completed 53% of his passes under these conditions.

Snip20151228_83
Gladbach players with 60+ passes within 25 yard radius of goal, since start of 2014
His low-ish shot totals and strong but unspectacular counting stats (.43 G/90 and .23 A/90 over past 3 seasons) make him easy to miss if you are looking for an archetypical striker. Those numbers don’t fully capture the benefit he brings to your team through his passing presence. This passing ability allows Gladbach to extend possessions and be more selective in the type of shots they take, which helped them convert at a high rate last season as they reached the Champions League and has helped them back in the top 4 after a disastrous start this season. In Select Company His wider skill set puts him in some very exclusive groups: -Of the top 20 goal scorers in the Bundesliga, only Mkhitaryan, Reus, and Müller have more key passes/90 than Raffael. -Only Gotze and Kagawa have topped Raffael in passing accuracy from an advanced role in the past two seasons and he has played further up the the field than both of those while putting up slightly higher goal and assist rates. -He doesn’t just dink balls around without taking risks, when you account for difficulty of pass he only trailed Bayern players last season and Bayern players + Kagawa this year in passer rating.   Brazil’s Next Striker? Raffael is 30 so is unlikely to draw a big money move in his club career but hopefully he still has worlds to conquer with the Brazilian national team. Dunga has tried Diego Tardelli, Robinho, Roberto Firmino, and Ricardo Oliveira up front for Brazil who all have strong marks against them in various categories. Raffael is a standout player in arguably the world’s best league and has a skill set that seems as if it could fit in nicely orbiting the supermassive Neymar at the center of the Brazil attack. Please, Dunga, give Raffael a chance. He’s earned it.
Snip20151222_47
Rough and tumble comp of Brazil’s current striking options with Raffael included
    Thomas Lemar I mentioned him in my Ligue 1 Preview as a player Monaco were wise to grab from Caen but one I didn’t know would see many minutes this year. It turned out Monaco basically completely overhauled their players and playing style and Lemar has forced his way into the side with strong performances. An injury has kept his minute total low but he’s been a consistent starter when healthy. In a Monaco side with more talented players around him and less of a wild forward crash, Lemar is showing an ability to pass the ball around at a high level. Last year, despite an ugly completion percentage he was already miles above his Caen teammates as far as Passer Rating (a simple method to adjust passes for likelihood of completion). This year he’s been able to play a less breakneck role (passes end 48.5 yards from goal on average this year after 44.5 yards) alongside better teammates and we’ve seen the passing stats skyrocket. The passing percentage is up into the mid-80s and the Passer Rating is well above 100, which is pretty rare and an indication of strong playmaker. Last years attackers with a passer rating above 1 in Ligue 1 were mostly big names: Boufal, Gourcoff, Bernardo Silva, Maurice-Belay, Andre Ayew, Payet, Lucas Moura and Pastore.
Snip20151228_81
Lemar’s changing passing positions
His key pass numbers have dropped slightly this year but his shots have increased. He’s gone from 4.8 per 90 total when you combine the two to a still strong 3.9 per 90 in his more calm role. Snip20151228_80 Now this all comes with limited minutes in a weak league, but the numbers are solid, the eye test indicates he has the athleticism to make the jump and his manager has called him a key player for Monaco. The fact Monaco bought him is also a positive sign, they are acting on more information than we have and a a successful club buying someone and playing them should generally be a checkmark in favor of a player. This 20-year old might have a wide range of outcomes for his career but if I was a team like Hamburg or Newcastle, I’d want to grab him now if I could for around 12 million and see if he can reach his 60th percentile outcome while on my books. He has the potential to turn into a very helpful player.

Arsenal, Home or Away And Same Old Pulis

Kim-Kallstrom   Arsenal Interesting turn of events down at St. Mary’s as what remains of Arsenal’s squad finally walked into one in the form of Shane Long having a game for the ages.  I noted way back in the North London Derby how weak Arsenal’s bench looked and seven weeks on their options are still Oxlade-Chamberlain, some defenders and some kids.  It’s to their credit that they have managed to retain a reasonably decent run of results in the interim, but performance levels have certainly dipped since the giddy heights of early autumn as we can see here: Arsenal 1516Small samples of course, but hard to get away from the difference in what a reasonably fit Arsenal can put up and one shorn of half of its creative talents.  Herein lies their eternal problem and partially why they are on a run of ten consecutive third or fourth place finishes.  Good Arsenal has regularly put up superior numbers and regularly reached the halfway point in seasons looking like genuine contenders, injured Arsenal limps through sections of every season at a reduced rate putting up roughly par numbers and hampering the more lofty ambitions of good Arsenal. Of course the reduced firepower at Arsenal’s disposal these past weeks offers an interesting slant towards their performances. In beating Villa, once a sufficient scoreline had been attained, they shut the game down and offered very little going forward. Consciously preserving their legs in front of a busy period? Similarly against Man City, they hung onto the game until two quick goals secured a solid lead then created very little there on in.  It seems to go against Arsene Wenger’s typical philosophy of playing the same way regardless of game state or opposition but the Southampton loss was the first wide margin league defeat since the chastening hammerings that characterised the 2013-14 season.  There have been signs since those games that he has adapted his tactics in bigger games.  Maybe Southampton’s victory was magnified with the knowledge that they had a two day turn around with a small fit squad? This year the title race is shaped differently and it seems plausible that only Man City stand in their way. City themselves are only now emerging from an injury induced lull and it’s plausible that the long term difference between these two sides might come down to fitness and squad management.  Entering January with title chances is familiar to Arsenal, but so is exiting January without new players.  This one year it might be worth making an exception, if only to allow for more rotation and a well populated bench. Over to you Arsène. Home or Away? To the irritation of this writer, after 18 games we have unequal splits between home and away games and having checked the Christmas schedule, this isn’t going to be righted any time soon.  Last time I complained about this @_Peteowen told me it was unavoidable at times but still… City have played ten at home and eight away whereas Leicester have the opposite. Yet City play at Leicester next so probably wise not to read too much into it.  Nevertheless, the split does offer some interesting comparisons.  Man City, typically dominant at home have an 8-0-2 record with a ton of goals yet are 3-2-3 on the road having scored and conceded eight a-piece. So on the surface we have a simple narrative: take Yaya and co out of the comfort of their own surroundings and they just aren’t up to it. Now hold your horses just a minute.  If we actually look at some shot numbers we have a different story: city 1516A few numbers for reference there but we can see where the problem has arisen in those highlighted: nothing is going in away from home. Beyond that City have been slightly less effective outside the Etihad, but probably not to the tune of 1.9 goals per game, or any reasonable expectation in between. Stoke have picked up thirteen points both at home and away, and superficially look to be running at par; indeed they are at home as a 49%/46% shots/on target team. Take them away from the Britannia and it’s a different story; pushing a miserable average of 18 shots against and only the heroics of Butland and an 86% save percentage rebuffing all advances. Which makes me think… Learning Pulis Tony Pulis doesn’t care what I think about him and he doesn’t care what you think about him either. One imagines he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him, his methods or his interchangable army of giant centre backs. And he certainly doesn’t care that any attempt to quantify his outputs makes his team look terrible.  It was the same at Stoke; bad numbers, sufficient points, and at Palace too.  Either you begrudgingly respect him, I guess, or you join an ever-growing chorus of usually dispassionate viewers in hoping that one year his methods don’t work. I’m ambivalent towards West Brom, so it’s unfortunate that they have become embroiled in this but he has created yet another sub-40% shots team, one that relies on strength and set pieces, gives up all the territory yet somehow comes out slightly ahead of what is required. Once more there is a big focus on the dead ball; last season his short tenure had West Brom leading the league in set piece conversion and this year they are third. Conversions are generally in the realm of non-repeatable metrics, but it’s at least worth considering, given how specifically focused Tony Pulis teams are, that it is at least intended that they should profit from such events. Similarly there’s information in and around scorelines that seems relevant. This season West Brom have been a 33-34% shots team when drawing or ahead yet this has leaped to around 50% when behind, a not unexpected trend but with an extremely strong bias.  Split the home and away games and you spot an inkling of attacking intent at home but none away and only er.. Stoke’s away games have featured fewer goals than West Brom’s, yet we see the same trend as with Stoke,  a super high save percentage (81%), and a high volume of shots conceded (16+). Each of these teams appears to have the clear intent to secure away points via either maintaining a level position or once attaining a lead, protecting it at all costs. In averaging over a point per game away from home, West Brom have so far just kept themselves at arm’s length from the relegation spots but with the gap at three points there is no room for error in the land of Pulis.   Thanks for reading! ____________________________________ Don’t forget the site is full this week with the “StatsBomb recommends…” series: Jack Butland by @footballfactman Hatem Ben Arfa’s inevitable drop off by @MoeSquare Nathan Redmond and Watford by @footyinthecloud and @WillTGM The return of 4-4-2? by @deepxg More work to come in the next couple of days from @SaturdayOnCouch and @FlaFu_tbol too… And @MoeSquare had a recent look at 10 Ligue Un attacking talents. Plus there was a podcast: [soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/238581365″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /] …which is also now available on iTunes. Follow all those guys on twitter, get reading anything you missed out on and enjoy! You’ll not be bored this Christmas. Happy New Year and all that.        

Talent In The League: Nathan Redmond And Watford

quique Two guest pieces on rising talent in the league: Nathan Redmond by Clarke @footyinthecloud Redmond (Norwich/England U21) has popped up on my radar this season with some decent underlying numbers. Canaries manager, Alex Neil, uses Redmond on the right side of midfield, in an ‘attacking from the flanks’ role. His performances have been impactful with 4 goals and 2 assists this term, in just over 1100 minutes of league football. Let’s take a glance at his 19, 20 and 21 year old seasons (data to 20th Dec): redmond He is a solid contributor to the Norwich attack. Based on the 11v11 data I put together and track, he is currently ranked in the top 25 in contribution to shots % and in the top 35 in shot contribution p90. Given that Norwich’s attack is not the strongest in the league, it ranks 14th for shots and shots on target for, I am impressed at his outputs. Raheem Sterling, the same age as Redmond, was bought for a huge transfer fee over the summer and these are his stats for the last 3 years: sterling I think this offers an interesting comparison of two players growing into the league.  It gives some context to Redmond’s numbers compared to that of a high profile player of the same age, who played on bigger and better teams. As both players move into their peak ages, I am interested to see what happens. I can’t draw out information about his confidence, his ‘football brain’ or who cuts his hair but I am fairly certain we have a legit attacking player. The kid is 21 years old and has put up solid attacking numbers. With similar underlying numbers to Sterling but far less hype, I am guessing he could be purchased for a decent price. I have a hard time believing that Nathan will stay at Carrow Road for too much longer.   Watford by @WillTGM A team that entered the season with a relegation battle expected instead find themselves flying high in the table on the back of some respectable underlying numbers, while an English striker with a chequered past earns plaudits. Leicester Watford’s performance has gone largely unheralded this season, although they typically achieved a headline-grabbing result shortly after this Liverpool fan agreed to contribute to this article. As the bookmakers favourite for the drop pre-season amid unflattering comparisons with QPR, Watford have picked up a healthy 28 points going into Christmas. The bookmakers forecast them to accrue 35 points over the whole season, which underlines the significance of their achievement thus far. A newly promoted team having a hot run of form isn’t unheard of but what is most interesting about Watford is that they’ve achieved this while putting up very reasonable underlying numbers; their performance level appears to have been largely sustainable so far. Their performance has been built off an impressive defence having conceded the joint-fourth least goals while conceding the seventh least shots and shots on target. My expected goals numbers have them nestled between Liverpool and Tottenham as the fifth best defence so far in open play (Michael Caley and Paul Riley have them in fifth also). Furthermore, the number of goals they’ve conceded is broadly in line with expectations, so a visit from the regression fairy isn’t anticipated. xG_TeamPlotGraph_Watford(data to 20th Dec) While their offensive numbers are less impressive, the combination of excellent defensive numbers and a below average attack sees them project as an average Premier League team. Their current position of seventh is probably the high water mark of their expectations but the points platform they’ve established and encouraging underlying numbers could mean a top-half finish (their performance levels look far more sustainable than other current top-half interlopers Crystal Palace and West Ham). Quique Sànchez Flores deserves great praise for putting this team together; of the nine promoted teams over the previous three seasons, only Southampton in 2012/13 registered an expected goal difference per game greater than Watford’s current numbers and their defensive number is better by a significant margin. Watford may not have the exhilarating attack of Leicester City, nor the PR-friendly style of play of Bournemouth but their achievements thus far have been genuinely impressive. Prediction: comfortable safety and a potential top-half finish.   (using Opta data)

Hatem Ben Arfa: Ligue 1’s Smoke and Mirrors show

  His goals have been vine/gif worthy, he’s clawed his way back to the French National Team and he’s been part of a Nice squad that have scored the 2nd most goals in Ligue 1 this season. It’s been a renaissance for Hatem Ben Arfa, a player reborn after not playing in 2014-15 and before that languishing in the hellhole known as Newcastle. No one can argue that Ben Arfa hasn’t been exciting, and his dribbling exploits have embarrassed numerous players this season. It’s just that all that excitement has been more or less a smoke and mirrors show. Ben Arfa at his high point in mid October was rocking a overall conversion rate of 30.4% and since then, it’s been a steady decline back into normalcy as he hasn’t scored in 707 minutes of play. Ben Arfa 2 On the basis of this, some would expect that Ben Arfa should be able to bring himself back after hitting this rough patch in his season. I’m very skeptical of this for numerous reasons. The first being that a 14.3% conversion rate is still pretty high for the type of shooter that Ben Arfa is, a predominantly outside the box creator. His conversion rate inside the penalty area is still at a ridiculous 36.8% with the league average usually between 15-16%. And even the chances he’s creating inside the penalty area haven’t been of high quality. His running xG total has barely caught up with his goal total since his goal scoring binge finished two months ago. Ben Arfa You add all of these things together and the probable regression of his scoring rate inside the penalty area and a very logical conclusion can be made that Hatem Ben Arfa has benefitted from a huge amount of variance going his way this season. Hatem Ben Arfa on the season has a wCC+ of 93.1, 6.9% lower than the average attacking player in Ligue 1 this season (wCC+ is obviously imperfect but it’s a decent snapshot into a players offensive value). Combine that with his xG per 90 being a paltry 0.21 and overall Ben Arfa’s offensive value has been rather pedestrian, but a ridiculous three week scoring streak has fooled everyone into believing Ben Arfa has been good this season. Perhaps an argument could be made that his dribbling this season and the proficiency of it has created more opportunities for Nice and traditional shot metrics can’t quantify that. Even if that’s true, Ben Arfa’s play has been way too inefficient for the amount of praise he’s garnered.

Meat, Potatoes And 4-4-bleeping-2

Wnsl Pr Shoot - Wembley National Stadium Limited PR Shoot 20/12/2006 - Wembley Stadium - 20/12/06 ;Groundsmen dressed as Santa walk on the grass Much is being made in recent weeks of the resurgence of 4-4-2 in the English Premier League. Its standout proponent this season, Leicester City, sit atop the league this Christmas, and Watford’s Troy Deeney and Odion Oghalo have formed an increasingly fearsome partnership. Is it time to revert back to two banks o’four? Disclaimer: formations taken from published lineups, they may misinterpret the manager’s intent. Two managers’ takes on the same formation can be wildly different. Teams change formations during games in ways I don’t measure here. It was Mourinho’s 4-3-3 in his first Chelsea stint that dealt the death-blow to 4-4-2:

Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things.

Despite Mourinho’s success, 4-4-2 remained England’s go-to formation until the rise of 4-2-3-1. Wenger converted early – in 2011/12, Arsenal were the first team to deploy it in every EPL game. Manchester City had fielded 4-2-3-1s for 25% of their title-winning 2013/14, but Pellegrini’s freewheeling 4-2-2-2 was their mainstay, probably the last title-winning formation to bear any resemblance to 4-4-2. It took Chelsea again in 2014/15 for the formation to claim its first English title – the indestructible trio of Hazard, Willian and Oscar allowing them to play 100% of their games in the same shape. Approaching 2016, 4-2-3-1’s victory seems complete: it comprises 57% of team-sheets this season, the highest ever. City have jumped on the bandwagon with 88% of their lineups, and 4-4-2 is at 12% – an all time low (its more conservative counterpart 4-4-1-1 is at 10%): EPL Formations If there was ever a season to suss out 4-2-3-1, this would be it. Enter Leicester and Watford, neither playing your dad’s 4-4-2 (though it’s worth pointing out that Watford have actually racked up as many points with 4-2-3-1, the traitors). Watford have the 4th fewest crosses this season, and Leicester are midtable. Both are making key passes further away from the goal than any other teams in the league, and Leicester are 3rd in the league for completed throughballs, trailing only Arsenal and City. Looking at assists, Leicester are playing the ball from deep, out wide: their scorers are receiving the ball on average wider than any other team in the league, and Watford are 4th. Both teams are using their width differently than you might expect from standard, meat and potatoes 4-4-2. On top of this, their speed and directness denies opponents the advantage of Mourinho’s extra man – their buildup bypasses the 3 and their wide players stretch the 2, with Mahrez threatening to come inside and score, or making space for central throughballs. Are these the tools to end 4-2-3-1’s dominance? This season certainly features 4-4-2’s highest points per game against 4-2-3-1:

Season Formation PPG vs Formation
4-2-3-1 4-4-2
2010
4-2-3-1 1.33 1.90
4-4-2 0.90 1.38
2011
4-2-3-1 1.33 1.44
4-4-2 1.26 1.36
2012
4-2-3-1 1.38 1.95
4-4-2 0.76 1.20
2013
4-2-3-1 1.38 1.54
4-4-2 1.28
2014
4-2-3-1 1.43 1.76
4-4-2 0.89 1.50
2015
4-2-3-1 1.36 1.27
4-4-2 1.41

However, I suspect the real answer is simpler, and less hopeful for traditionalists: Watford have Ighalo, and Leicester have Vardy and Mahrez. These are attackers on varying degrees of hot streaks, and how do you separate the tactical chicken from the goalscoring egg? Plus, where else is 4-4-2 really working? Bournemouth’s 4-4-1-1 may keep them up which is certainly a decent achievement, but Palace spend 2/3rds of their time in 4-2-3-1 and you’re left with Newcastle, Norwich and West Brom as the only teams racking up real minutes – not the most convincing vanguard for a tactical revolution, or indeed restoration. So, should teams look into 4-4-2 in the New Year? There’s life in the old girl yet, but StatsBomb recommends waiting for Leicester’s regression before drawing too many conclusions.

Jack Butland – Christmas No.1

I first set eyes on Jack when he was a lad at the 2012 Olympics. He was 19, a mixture of good and terrible, of confidence and over-exuberance. Three years on, and Butland is finally a first choice Premier League goalkeeper. He’s had a great start: conceding less than a goal a game and keeping 7 clean sheets in the process. Stoke sit comfortably in 11th position right now. I reckon The Potters would be right in the relegation mix without his contribution and my xG model says he’s prevented 5-6 goals more than expected for the shots he’s faced. Many fanalysts have written off keeping metrics as ‘voodoo’ because data-wise, there’s no repeatability in performance from one year to the next. Well, that’s not a reason to dismiss it and leave it there, that’s a reason to go and find the reasons why. Lack of anticipation of the shot is huge. There are tons of tiny technical goalkeeping details that are barely noticeable in real time. You have to slow the game footage right down and watch it again and again. Whether it’s mis-timing the take-off bounce when trying to increase diving power, or a small step the wrong way just before the shot comes in, getting set properly matters. I correspond with a Polish goalkeeping coach that has worked with his national side. He talks about crouching at the right moments. He talks about teaching better anticipation. He talks about reading of attacker/defender dyads and measuring movement patterns in training with strategically based cameras. Remember Carragher and Neville pulling Tim Howard and Simon Mignolet apart? Watch it again. Even if you disagree with some of the points made, it’s the best piece of football analysis and discussion there’s been on TV in a long time. Butland’s performances this season have been an absolute lesson in all of those technical details. Below is a graphic of all the shots on target he’s faced this season (yellow dots are goals). I’ve highlighted the danger zone SoTs. Currently, Butland’s save % here is at 85% – 20% higher than any keeper’s ever finished the season with:

Play with fully interactive xG and xA dashboards and data here
I fully expect that DZ save % to come down (there’s just a 0.5% chance he concedes only 3 of these so far) but for now I’m simply enjoying the performances. Here’s as much footage of those danger zone SoTs as I’ve managed to swipe. There’s some unbelievable saves in there and only on the Rondon goal does Butland get it wrong to any great degree: https://vimeo.com/149614087 Joe Hart finally has some real competition for the England No.1 jersey. Follow me on Twitter @footballfactman Merry Christmas, and enjoy the Boxing Day games!

Poor Aston Villa, Farewell Mourinho and Leicester On Fire

staunton So, the end of the road came for Mourinho.  Mutually frogmarched out of the club having presided over a dip in performance deeper than the journey taken by Villas Boas and without precedence in his own career.  Nobody is denying that the human factors behind this drop in performance have precluded his retention but beyond that it seems wrong to presume that in turning his Champions into Chumpions, he had much leeway to continue.  The demands of helming a mega-club require only the finest returns and presumably only his reputation, or financial considerations, kept him alive for this long. It has been noted that his team have improved in recent weeks, but that improvement has come from a very low base. Dotted among the poor results have been occasional solid performances that have lacked the finishing touches. The team still controlled possession in the majority of it’s games, at least when not facing teams that pressed, and just couldn’t find some finishing smarts. The recent withdrawal of Costa from a starting role compounded that issue.  As so often, when faced with a challenge, Jose reverted to a defensive set-up, never more comprehensively than in the attacking void that was the Tottenham away fixture. In rolling over Sunderland and going back to the future again with Hiddink, it looks like all could be right in their world once more, but getting two nil up inside thirteen minutes against a struggling team is a perfect scenario in any game and reminiscent of the marvellous run that laid their title foundations at the start of last season.  Where they end up from here is hard to predict for the weight of the apparent Mourinho anchor is hard to measure.  Top four vanished from view some weeks back, the Europa League undesirable and it looks like the whole season rests on an ability to outfox PSG. There are still question marks over how many of the team in key defensive roles are yesterday’s men: Terry? Ivanovic? Fabregas even? And the form of Matic, Costa and Hazard, so pivotal last year, needs to revert quickly, for when a squad appears in flux a strong base of performance is needed to redefine a preferred starting eleven. Anyway… Feeling sorry for Villa That Aston Villa aren’t very good and haven’t been very good isn’t really in dispute. Having attempted to blend smart recruitment with old school management Sherwood-style and unsurprisingly failed to find a common ground, the hiring of Remi Garde at least looks like a case of theory starting to match reality.  The main problem they face is that they have seven points from 17 games which is historically terrible and nearly consigns them to the Championship before even the year’s end.  What’s unfortunate is that while bad, they haven’t been necessarily worse than any of the other bad teams.  Newcastle and Sunderland have failed to impress in many matches, Norwich have been subtly not good without drawing much attention to it and Tony Pulis’ army of aging centre backs are doing their usual trick of projecting to be terrible but exceeding the sum of their parts. If I chuck some metrics into a pot, I get Villa as the 17th best team in the league, Paul Riley’s xG model has them at 19th and Michael Caley’s 18th; all thereabouts among the dross but not worst.  Where the pity arrives is that all those teams around them have an advantage of five, seven, ten points or more, which in relegation terms is enormous.  In fact no team is undershooting an expected points total by more than Villa; they’re somewhere between five and seven points behind a reasonable assumption. All this conspires to leave them in an unenviable position as a club that has tried to adopt a forward thinking strategy to recruitment but has probably run out of time to successfully realise the benefits while retaining their league slot.  It’s tempting to presume the real issues date back years; the last competitive Villa teams were early in the decade and the personnel from those teams were moved on at great pace. Between 2010-11, their last decent season, and two years later, they retained a historically low volume of first team players.  The team was entirely rebuilt (Agbonlahor apart!) and has drifted around the lower reaches of the table ever since: 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th, at no point offering anything like positive shot numbers.  That initial quality never got replaced and mediocrity in performance has become standard. Therein lies the problem, when performance levels stagnate – and four and a half seasons of under twelve shots per game reflects that – there is little room for a negative skew or a drop, it will dump you in the bottom three.  So while their shot on target rate has floated around the 43-44% mark throughout that time, that it’s dived to 37% this year has compounded the problem. It’s a shame: despite the obvious issues around ownership, in regard the working operations, they have attempted to move with the times and make progressive decisions at the exact point that their performance levels have dipped and variance has bitten hard.  A broader issue is that for analytics to gain ground and penetrate across the board, there is a need for success stories; see Arsene Wenger’s horrifically titled but vibrant and insightful discussion just this week.  If as seems likely Villa fail to rescue themselves, it’s possible that their methods will be derided by the skeptical end of football and the media, when in fact it’s likely that they will be well set for the future.  It just won’t be the immediate future that they had hoped for. A little Leicester riff Continuing to make a mockery of any predictions that they will ultimately fall back (they will) Leicester now sit handsomely on top of the league.  The start of their difficult schedule hasn’t slowed them up at all as Chelsea in lurching crisis mode couldn’t peg them back and Everton’s ever generous defence waved in three goals. They still remain an enigma in many aspects, their shot numbers are fine for a team challenging for a Europa place, but there is just no recent precedent for a team that has so little of the ball, or that retains the ball so irregularly to challenge even for the top four.  Why it seems so likely that they will fall back is that some of their conversion numbers have now entered extreme levels.  And by extreme I mean, Man Utd 2012-13 or Liverpool 2013-14 style. Their all shot conversion rate is right up around 16% which has only been approached over a starting half season by that United team and Man City in 2013-14, and now exceeds the full year rate by the three teams mentioned.  Their goal per shot on target rate is a shade under 43%, which again maps to these teams.  Very early in the season, @footyintheclouds noted that there were similarities in the contribution levels of Vardy and Mahrez to those of Suarez and Sturridge back in 2013-14, and having two attacking players at absolute peak output can do wonders for a team’s results. Where a little skepticism was placed was in how long they could keep it up, yet here we are in late December and they aren’t slowing down. Just as a contrast, here’s a few of their numbers stacked up against each other: mahrex and vardy From all that we can see that their conversions are running broadly as hot as Suarez and Sturridge were, but their overall contributions are slightly lesser. The key question for summer suitors will be as to how sustainable such contributions are, but that’s a wider debate. Any season long goal and assist rate above 0.75 per game in the Premier League is the preserve of the elite but with more reliability in shot contribution numbers, the levels Mahrez and Vardy are currently providing are good but not league dominant as Suarez’s were. To have one player contributing a goal a game is uncommon, to have two is rarer still. This dual output level has to be regarded as the biggest factor for Leicester’s success and it appears unlikely that both players will continue at this pace, their cooling off isn’t inevitable, just probable. So, Leicester are flying, but why aren’t any of the big teams at least matching their efforts? One key contributor here is again in the conversions. Having such an extreme positive conversion translates to Leicester now being around ten points ahead of an expectation based on their underlying numbers.  Chelsea skewed similarly in their dominant half season last year, and the aforementioned teams all overshot a points expectation in part thanks to hugely positive rates of scoring.  None of the top sides are converting shots at a rate anywhere near that of Leicester; City and United are at under 12% for all shots, Tottenham and Arsenal under 11%, Liverpool under 9% and Chelsea aren’t even in the question.  Simon Gleave has commented that although there is a wide perception that this season has been wild and unpredictable, the truth is far more rudimentary: Chelsea and Leicester have swapped places and nearly everyone else is as you were.  I agree and none of the big teams have managed a positive skew off their numbers and as such Leicester have stolen a small march. Again we come to Liverpool 2013-14 for precedence, but this time on the side of the chasers: their dream run at the title came with 17% all shot and 42% on target conversion throughout the second half of the season, and City followed with 14% and 42% themselves.  As ever, with conversion rates, what went before has little bearing on what comes after but it is reasonable to expect that both Leicester will revert to a lower level and one or more of the contending teams will run hotter. In particular, Arsenal and Man City look positioned to exploit their already dominant numbers and to a lesser extent Tottenham and Liverpool Watford, who are both giving up very few shots on target and have done all year, may each feel that there is space to improve their attacking output and benefit. Finally, Leicester have had very few injuries. Seven players have started between 15 and 17 games and another two have started at least 12. Objectivefooty tracks injury rates (among a ton of other good stat things) and has Leicester close to West Brom as being relatively unaffected.  We simply don’t know if the squad could cushion the loss of any of their key men but can confidently presume that it’s highly unlikely that the rank and file could even come vaguely near Vardy and Mahrez’s contribution. Their points banked is a huge positive to their actual chance of staying near the top. Both James Grayson and Michael Caley have noted that roughly par results would probably be enough for a top four finish now, and they’ve provided much for analysts and fans alike to chew on during their fine run of form.   ________   Thanks for reading!   Sometime this week we will have a podcast, which is now available on itunes and soundcloud and will also be starting a series of multi-contributor “StatsBomb recommends for 2016” posts. Stay tuned!

Ten Intriguing Ligue 1 Attackers

  Last season, I did a piece on 10 intriguing Ligue 1 players and looking back on it nearly a year later, it’s kind of funny to see what’s happened since. Origi has for the most part reaffirmed my opinions on his caliber as a player (scoring goals in the league cup doesn’t count), Nabil Fekir and Jordan Amavi kept going and going and they both looked like legitimately great talents until they tore his acl’s while Jordan Ayew and Florian Thauvin are floundering away in the abyss known as the relegation race in the Premier League. I wanted to keep this tradition going so I brought it over to StatsBomb for this season but this time, we’re only going to focus on attacking players. With the success that Ligue 1 players have garnered in the PL this season, it seems like a nice time to capitalize on that buzz by bringing to you some other players that have had interesting seasons so far. Some of these names you’ve heard about and know a bit, some you’ve heard their names only and probably a couple of them you’ve never heard of before. By the beginning of next season, don’t be surprised if a few of these players have been siphoned by a PL or other a continental side. Alexandre Lacazette This is probably the biggest name on the list, and his trajectory as a player has been fascinating. He’s gone from a “decent wing prospect” to “converted striker” to “Next best French Striker” to where we are now, which is “who the hell knows”. This dude scored 27 goals last season and visually, he looked every bit the part of the next great striker in European football. However unravel the hoopla over his season and you notice some disturbing trends. For one, he converted on over 28% of his shots last year. That is a ridiculous conversion rate for anyone, even the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Eight of his goals were from penalties and his 19 non penalty goals far outpaced his expected goal output of 11.92. To illustrate this even further, here’s a graph showing the running totals for goals and xG output for Lacazette from the beginning of 2013-14 (when he started playing as a striker on a full time basis) to currently. Lacazette xG Strip out 14-15 and his goal scoring record is actually much more closely aligned with his expected goal output. I’m willing to entertain the idea that Lacazette is good enough in his finishing that he’ll have multiple years in his peak 24-30 years where he outpaces expected goals by 2-4 non penalty goals, but last year was a perfect example of so many volatile things working out. Alexandre Lacazette is a good striker who’s very athletically gifted and will probably command ~£20M on his next transfer (although a great argument could be had that Lyon missed the boat in not selling Lacazette in the summer where they possibly could’ve gotten £5-10M more for him than they will in the summer). His xG per 90 has hovered around ~0.4 since converting into a striker, which is an above average mark. Last season massively overhyped his actual talents, but he’s still a quality forward in the beginnings of his prime. Michy Batshuayi Pretty much everything I said about Michy from two months ago still stands. The guy has been dynamite this season and with the financial problems that Marseille have because of no Champions League football, there’s almost no chance in hell he stays past this season. Hell, he might leave in January if the right offer comes along. Spurs have been the most keen on signing him and if they get him, they’re getting potentially a top 10 striker in the world by the time he hits age 25. He is that good a prospect and if he ever learns to be a good playmaker, the world is his oyster. Sofiane Boufal In my season preview, I was really excited about Sofiane Boufal’s potential season. He was a bottle of lightning last season when Lille bought him in the January window and he was basically the only reason why you should go watch a Lille match (they’re not good). I even brought up the faint hopes that he could be the next Eden Hazard (the good Eden Hazard, not the imposter we’ve seen this season). He’s taken much more of a leading role offensively in terms of touches, which is understandable considering the exodus of players Lille had in the summer. He’s been dispossessed much more this season compared to last season (4.2 vs. 2.7) and his added usage has been a microcosm into just how bad Lille are as a team. Boufal is actually producing better than he did last season, it’s just that no one has been able to convert the chances he’s created this season compared to last.

Season Key Passes per 90 Expected Assists p90 Assists P90 wCC+*
2014-15 2.5 0.294 0.531 121
2015-16 3.2 0.386 0.069 124

*Weighted Chance Creation plus is the soccer spinoff of weighted runs creation plus. It’s a decent snapshot into a player’s contribution to attack* Boufal isn’t perfect and he can be selfish with the ball, but that’s probably attributed to trying to carry a quite frankly terrible supporting cast. He is a wonderful talent who’s underlying production has been steady for a decent sample size and with better teammates, he could be a player who routinely puts up 80-85 chances created and 8-10 assists per season. Martin Braithwaite I’ve had a fascination with Martin Braithwaite because his conversion rates have been constantly low despite a pretty decent shot profile, especially in his last two seasons. He hasn’t cracked a conversion rate higher than 11.3%  and in some ways he’s been the Anti Lacazette; a shot hungry forward who can’t convert on better quality chances. Braithwaite’s xG output of 11.2 this season actually outpaces Michy Batshuayi’s number  of 10.59 but he’s only scored six goals. If we do the same running total like the one for Lacazette, you can see the inverse of finishing ability. Braithwaite xG His low conversion rate is a symbol of Toulouse’s problems, with the club scoring 21 goals versus their xG output of 29.1. With the Ben Yedder situation hanging over the club, it’s very encouraging to see Braithwaite becoming a higher volume shooter while having a career high in shooting accuracy at 40.3% (not a great mark, but an improvement nonetheless).  If Braithwaite could ever get to the point where he improves as a shooter and becomes a passable finisher, he could be a great “buy low” type of striker for a midrange club in other leagues because he’s certainly athletic enough to hang in faster paced leagues. Wahbi Khazri A lot like Braithwaite, Khazri could be a very good value signing for a team needing a creative attacking player on the cheap. His xG+A per 90 mark this season is mirroring his G+A mark of 0.74, He’s just approaching his prime years and his wCC+ of 128.2 last season is at the very least some form of proof that this season is no fluke. With Bordeaux floundering in lower mid table this season and Khazri producing at borderline elite levels, his transfer fee could be even more cheaper than once thought. Khazri could be a great replacement for Leicester if they sell Mahrez and it would continue their succession of buying good players from Ligue 1/2 that no one have ever heard of. Benjamin Moukandjo Your annual “striker whose goal scoring tally is being inflated by penalties ” in Ligue 1 this season is Benjamin Moukandjo. His xG per 90 number of 0.297 is much closer to his NPG per 90 rate of 0.416 than his 0.653. Moukandjo has been decent this year and his goal scoring rate last year was okay as well but him being a top 3 goal scorers in France this season is way too flattering for the caliber of player he is. Ryad Boudebouz/Casimir Ninga It’s sad to see just how much Montpellier have fallen from their 2011-12 title winning team and this incarnation until mid October looked like legitimate relegation candidates. They were slow, ponderous and didn’t have any idea how to get past a set defense in the attacking third. The emergence of Boudebouz and Ninga has allowed Montpellier to be better equipped to create throughball opportunities and higher quality chances, highlighted by Montpellier scoring four goals on Lyon nearly a month ago. Boudebouz’s form has been ridiculous. Dimitri Payet created the most chances in Ligue 1 last year with 131 and Boudebouz is on pace to end up with 126. It’s insane how much he’s risen from last season. I thought he was a good pickup for Montpellier because he somehow had a 1.6 key pass per 90 rate on a god forsaken terrible team in Bastia, but I sure as hell didn’t expect him to be challenging Payet’s mark from last season. There’ve been only four instances in the Opta era where a Ligue 1 player has created at least 100 chances or more. They are:

  • Nene in 2010-11 with 120
  • Mathieu Valbuena in 11-12 with 105 and 12-13 with 119
  • Dimitri Payet in 14-15 with 131

I’m skeptical he can keep this pace up, but if he does end up on that short list by seasons’ end, it’s going to be one of the sneaky great seasons Ligue 1 has ever seen from a player in the Opta era. Ninga is the perfect striker for what Montpellier needed, which is a quick forward that will run behind the defense. Unlike Boudebouz who has a track record of being a decent creator, Ninga’s sample size is pretty damn small, his 4.22 xG output is less than his 6 non penalty goals scored and he’s currently got a 25% conversion so he could easily fall off. But even when he falls, just being an adequate striker would do Montpellier a world of good and help keep Boudebouz’s numbers at the pace it’s heading. Abdel Barrada/Remy Cabella Lets do a quick comparison between the two playmakers on Marseille.

Name Key Pass per 90 Assists per 90 wCC+
Abdel Barrada 3.5 0.478 127.7
Remy Cabella 1.9 0.143 71.4

So just by looking at the data between Barrada and Cabella, it looks like Barrada is a much bigger contributor to his teams’ offense and has been the better player so far this season. Yet, if we look at the minutes distribution, it hasn’t been reflected  in that way.

Name Minutes
Abdel Barrada 941
Remy Cabella 1299

Some of the minutes distribution has been because of injuries/deployment. Marseille have experimented with playing Barrada in a midfield three while deploying Cabella as a left winger but even then, Remy Cabella has played over 600 more minutes as a #10 over Abdel Barrada (886 vs 210) yet hasn’t come close to playing good football in his favorite position. Remy Cabella is a bigger name than Barrada, and as recently as May 2014, Cabella was an above average player for Montpellier. But he was terrible at Newcastle (mostly because of Pardew) and he’s been below average with Marseille. Him playing as much as he has is a detriment to Marseille and in some ways, it’s very similar to Marcelo Bielsa’s faith in Florian Thauvin last season before he eventually gave up on him. I’m not totally certain what Barrada is as a player because he’s only played ~1200 league minutes in Ligue 1 over his career and his only other history was putting up unspectacular numbers at Getafe. So far to his credit, he’s been producing elite level playmaking numbers in his time with Marseille. Barrada isn’t Payet and doesn’t have his track record, but he’s certainly done a passable impression of 2014-15 Payet in the playing time he’s gotten and if Marseille have any dreams of finishing in a CL spot (they’re six points back of third), they need to hitch their wagon to Barrada as their #10 and start reigning in Cabella’s minutes.

Are Manchester United and Arsenal Getting Lucky?

There are many ways to look at the effectiveness and reliability of a team but when you find a metric related to scoring goals that places them on the edges of historical parameters or beyond it pays to take notice. Both Man Utd and Arsenal sit perilously close to the positive edge of measures that surround the levels of good chances they have been creating and allowing as we shall soon see. Due to the subjective element in clarification, Big Chances aren’t my favourite measurement but much like PDO or error rates, they do a reasonable job of acting as a proxy and generalising, in this case to combine chances of similar quality into a catch all term.  Ben Woolcock had a good go at measuring their value at the start of the year and we know they incorporate one on ones, penalties and any situation in which the attackers has no pressure and only the keeper to beat. People have incorporated them into expected goal models for the simple reason that they allow a differentiation to be made between these opportunities and others in lieu of measures reflecting levels of defensive pressure.  The downside is the same as any measurement that isn’t grounded in a simple, irrefutable definition, and it’s a problem we encounter regularly in the design of metrics. Football’s dynamism lends itself to a wide variety of potential analysis, but also a wide scope for disagreement as to the specific quantification of certain events. For example, a shot or a save is pretty well defined, a big chance less so.  Expected goal models, while long part of the parlance of analysts both private and public, still suffer conceptually from a lack of standardisation and multiple differently realised methodologies.  Just this week we saw Arsene Wenger making an interesting move to mention them in conversation in reference to Aaron Ramsey’s effectiveness in central midfield.  This open mention of the metric was seen as a watershed by some but beyond an understandable reluctance to bring “secrets” to a wider audience, it would be surprising if clubs hadn’t yet engaged somebody to monitor internal and league performance levels through such metrics. With added complexity and judgement required to build more advanced metrics, it becomes important to avoid pitfalls on either end of the spectrum. Either elements of subjectivity creep into the process and potentially distort findings or the opposite, a lack of understanding leads to an unwavering belief in outputs, regardless of the actionable reality they need to exist within—  “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Like any great recipe, each ingredient needs to be able to be identified and to have a specific and vital role; reason and understanding cannot be forgotten.  Showing your working does not necessarily degrade an edge, for the quality of the analysis built from the tools at hand is the prevailing strength.  Personally, I prefer a more multifaceted approach to team or player analysis, too much reliance can be put on integrating multiple inputs when a list of complementary but differing factors can give a broader series of checkpoints. Anyway, anyway… The purpose of this column is to lift the lid and give the reader a different slant than the wider narrative about what is going on in this league, so we press on. These “Big Chances”, exactly how big are they? They are all those occasions in which fans leap out of their chairs to celebrate a forthcoming goal, except around 60% of the time there is no goal and the fan slumps back before turning to whoever is nearby and making severe allegations centering around the identity of the errant player’s father. Like any kind of metric involving shot conversions, rates can bounce around all over the place; just ask Roberto Soldado, who, outside of his fair record for penalties, managed to convert on only three of nineteen opportunities during his time at Tottenham.  Even Sergio Aguero, who is about as good as a striker gets during recent years in the Premier League has only converted 35% of his non-penalty Big Chances. The chances are BIG, the rate of conversion is comparatively high, but certainties they are not. Looking at the rates at team level is nonetheless informative and gives us a couple of clues about teams so far this year.  Similar to when I’ve looked at metrics before, when you have an ever-growing sample of seasons, it’s easy to find outliers.  The degree in which they sit at the edge of extremities or beyond in itself may not be enough to declare definite imminent reversion, but it acts as a significant clue to areas in which a team may be over or underperforming in comparison to longer term “normal” rates that have gone before.  And that creates a valuable checkpoint for teams and their performance levels.  Sample sizes are necessarily on the small side but have we any teams that sit beyond the horizon this year? We sure do. (All data prior to 11th Dec, 120 team seasons from 2010-11 onwards) 1. Arsenal

  • Their Big Chance For rate is higher than any full season in the sample (3.40/game, 2010-11 Arsenal: 3.29)
  • The difference between their rate and the opposition’s is higher than any full season (+2.33/game, 2012-13 Man City: +2.21)

We can posit two theories here, either a) this Arsenal team is one of the decade’s great teams or b) they are a good team but there is room for their numbers to drop back.  I’m keener to endorse the second theory for although this team has excellent volumes here both for and against, that they exist outside historical season long levels makes me inclined to estimate that it is more likely than not that they will revert over time.  If we compare their generally very good but not significantly superior overall shot numbers, or indeed any of the variety of expected goals measures, this analysis is supported. On a slightly different angle, they have also slightly ridden a positive conversion rate here, the opposition have only managed to convert 4 from 16 of their Big Chances, so to go with a low rate of concession is a low rate of conversion.  They are a good team but their opposition has failed to finish good chances at a reasonable rate.  This is also borne out by a look at their overall save percentage, which is still riding high at 80%.  Although that has been the general rate throughout 2015, even a year and the volume of events within is still a sample too small to presume that there is something methodical behind it. They are clear title contenders but the only positive move left for them within this aspect of their game is an increase in their own conversion, all other aspects are more likely than not to come down. 2. Man Utd The mystery of van Gaal and his shot-shy methods continues to provoke debate but here we find a different view: Man Utd have been ludicrously fortunate in their conversion rates from Big Chances:

  • They have converted 63% of their own Big Chances, a full 9% higher than the highest rate in the sample (Chelsea and Man City 2014-15 both at 54%, only seven teams exceed a season long rate of 50%)
  • Their opposition have converted at 24% a lower rate than any team in the sample (Everton 2013-14 were broadly similar at ~24%)

The result of both topping out their own numbers and bottoming out their opposition – and remember as these are conversions there is no factor for team quality or control here – is that the difference between these two rates is actually higher than the Big Chance conversion rate for the entire sample. (As an aside, this rate appears to be slowly increasing year on year) As the For rate for Man Utd is so high, even a positive reflection that envisages them residing at the outer positive margins of this metric would mean that they would revert over time.  Combine this with the truly dismal shooting numbers and you have an explanation as to how a team that shoots at a relegation rate can be hanging onto the coattail of the title challengers.  When they have had good chances, they’ve been going in, when the opposition have had good chances, they haven’t.  That isn’t sustainable. With low shot and goal event football, an edge gained, even if via fortune has made the difference between draws and wins; this skew is worth about eight goals (five for, three against) and for a team that has found 11 of 16 results finish either a draw or with a one goal margin, that’s a huge impact. With van Gaal’s tenure hitting patches of ice this last week thanks to a dismal departure from the Champions League and another tepid performance in losing at Bournemouth, the potential for this wobble to turn into a full blown skid is very real.  He must be hoping that similar to last season, improved performance levels will be forthcoming as the new year arrives, but for them to continue to compete, even for the top four, it is essential that the volume of their shots and creation of chances increases.  They cannot rely on a historically significant positive skew in conversion to last forever. 3. Bournemouth This season, Bournemouth have been a fascinating combination of good, bad, unlucky and well, unlucky.  We have seen them post reasonably solid shooting numbers, especially on the defensive end and shown solid territorial and passing work yet their save percentage has been at an all time historical low, something that has been unavoidable due to them serving up a raft of good chances from beneficial locations.  All this is borne out in the Big Chance stats.  Worryingly for them, they have an extremely low For and high Against rates (1.00/game and 2.47/game) and both are going in at a high rate (47% and 59%). That volume difference resembles that of doomed teams of yore like Reading 2012-13, Bolton 2011-12 or Blackpool 2010-11, but these were teams who had bad shots against numbers overall, not under 11 per game. They remain vulnerable but are hard to truly understand. Occasionally you find teams that legitimately stand alone and for now Bournemouth fit the bill. Other notes

  • Only Hull and Villa last year created Big Chances at a rate lower than this year’s Chelsea (0.92/game vs 0.93/game)
  • Norwich rate against is bad: 2.73 against looks like relegation level
  • Liverpool’s rate was high, 2.4+/game 2011-12 until it topped out in 2013-14, the season and a half since have seen decent overall shot volumes but Big Chance rates of under 1.5/game.
  • Ditto post Ferguson Utd teams
  • Leicester have conceded 13/19- a huge 68%… are they better than they even seem?

__________________________________ We’ll leave the last word on this topic to Paul Riley, who lest we forget has provided a multitude of Premier League stat toys available on the site, from Chance Creation Maps here to an Expected Goals dashboard here

  Thanks for reading!

Quantifying the Effects of Officiating

Clattenburg Considering the impact referees have on a game, they’re very seldom taken into account during pre-match discussions and predictions, only the occasional jest at Howard Webb’s affection towards United or maybe a slice of Mark Clattenburg related humour. Storylines are often crafted before a game between two rival players or managers, yet the biggest factor in creating home field advantage is rarely talked about at all. I guess the problem for most fans is that they think the referee’s a wanker, but exactly how much of a wanker is he? Let’s start by looking at the 7 referees with the most games overseen during the Premier League era. All officiating number are per game (“pG”). TOPREFS Here we can see that even when looking at referees with a large number of matches there is still a vast difference between how they officiate the game. There will be team effects in play for referees with few games officiated, but for these referees (all with over 275 games officiated) I’d like to think that they will have all averaged out and the differences are due to different refereeing styles. A two-tailed t-test on Mike Dean’s and Mark Halsey’s yellow card rates, which calculates the probability the two rates are the same, gives a P value of less than 2 x 10-22 showing how significant these differences really are. Notice just how conflicting refereeing decisions can be. Mike Dean gives penalties almost twice as often as Graham Poll did, and Mike Riley sent off players at more than twice the rate of Howard Webb. The next logical conclusion would be that the difference between referees obviously has a major effect on each team’s probability of winning specific games. Another pattern I noticed from the data is the difference in officiating between experienced and inexperienced referees. Take a look at the table below: 18refschose to compare the top 18 referees against the rest in order to get both samples as close to 50% of games as possible, but the effects are even more extreme if we just look at the tails. 8refs All rates are significantly different, for both tables, according to two-sample t-tests. Experienced referees seem to be more confident in their own decision making (Yeahhhh I know, I’m attributing something in football to confidence, sorry guys!) This means they are more willing to make an impact on the game and not “swallow the whistle”. I can imagine this effect will be even more prominent if an inexperienced referee was officiating against a big team or in a televised game although that’s just speculation. (Edit: If I had game by game data I would have split each referee into before and after X amount of games and compared the numbers although unfortunately I didn’t have access to that data) Home field advantage To show how referees make a difference we can look at how many bookings and penalties we’d probably expect home team to get based on possession and fouls and see how that differs from the number of bookings and penalties they actually get. I’m not going to go into a deep statistical analysis here, but just show you the numbers and let you see what you think. Here’s data for the Premier League since 09/10. Home_vs_away You can see that home teams only have slightly more possession (possibly influenced by refereeing bias anyway?) yet officiating decisions fall heavily in their favour. Of course the higher rates could be influenced by home teams having more dangerous possession, but it’s difficult to separate this from officiating, and the swing does seem substantial enough that it doesn’t seem to be based on dangerous possession alone. How much of a difference do referees make? With a few calculations we can look into how much having different referees can affect the course of a season. I’ll calculate the number of goals awarded via penalties since that’s the most straightforward. Mike Dean awards .145 more penalties per game than Graham Poll used to. On average this will slightly benefit better teams since they tend to win penalties more frequently than lesser teams, although the major swing will be between home teams and away teams. On average home teams are awarded about 61% of all penalties, even though they’re only awarded 51% of all fouls! Penalties are scored at a rate of about 80%. If we assume these two referees are biased towards home teams at the same rate as average then we can convert the difference in penalties into the difference in goals these referees would cause between home and away teams. Poll_Dean2 So on average Mike Dean would cause home teams to gain an extra advantage of .026 goals per game, about 10% of home field advantage, solely through his willingness to award penalty kicks. Over the course of the season you would expect him to give home teams just under 1 goal more than Graham Poll through penalties alone. Once you take into account red cards, yellow cards, other fouls, and offsides  you can see how one referee or officiating team could cause a significant advantage for certain teams over the course of the season. If a team knew certain referees were more/less home biased, then they could exploit this data even further. Application There is of course a moral issue with taking advantage of this information (although I’m sure Mourinho would love it) but we could quite easily use this data to improve our team’s chances of winning. There are two main ways I can think of taking advantage of refereeing data:

  1. Encourage fans to be even more vocal: Hound referees when your opponent makes tackles, cheer when your team tackles, etc. Referees are more likely to make decisions in favour of your team if they’re under more pressure from the crowd. Obviously you couldn’t do this directly through the media or you’d get fined and most likely sacked. Also, just having more fans in attendance will likely lead to more pressure on the referee, so pricing tickets in order to maximise capacity is another option.
  2. Play more aggressively when an inexperienced, or more conservative referee is officiating your game, especially when at home. For example you could stop the opponent counter attacking, by fouling with a lower risk, or can be more physical when marking a player from a corner/free kick knowing you only have a low risk of giving away a penalty. If you have in depth data, you could go even further with this and slightly adjust tactics/squad choice based on each specific referee you get assigned.

The whole point of sports analytics is to find little advantages like these and exploit them. There are signs of officiating manipulation in the NFL, so why not football? If each season teams could guarantee the prospect of adding 2 or 3 goals knowing they came through different forms of officiating exploitation, I’m sure most of them would grab it with both hands.

The Post-De Bruyne World of Wolfsburg

  In my Bundesliga preview, I predicted Wolfsburg to score 15 fewer goals this season due to an unsustainably high conversion of deep completions to goals.  This was when they still had Kevin de Bruyne.  Right now they are basically on track with their performance prediction but also have lost De Bruyne. Successfully replacing an elite player without much drop-off in actual performance is a enormous win on its own (see Tottenham, Liverpool for how hard it is to do even when you get good value for the player) but there are other signs Wolfsburg is a club slowly going in the right direction. Some of these are obvious: winning a Champions League group is a huge milestone.  Some are smaller game-to-game performance metrics that bode well for the future.   The Basics Snip20151207_8Snip20151207_10 Here is what I am talking about when I say the performance is basically the same. Shots are slightly down (and from half a yard further out on average) but shots allowed are down further (and also from further out). Possession is up, and deep completions look pretty much exactly the same. If anything the balance of deep pass attempts has tipped in the direction of the Wolves. Besides the insane goal conversion rate which was coming down anyway unless Bas Dost kept shooting 40%, there’s nothing you can point to and say “We really really miss Kevin”. Their underlying performance both seasons indicates a team in the mix from 3rd-6th.   The Offense   Snip20151207_18   Snip20151207_19 The brighter green a square is, the more completions a team has in that area of the pitch. This is Wolfsburg from last season on top and this season on the bottom. We can see that the Wolves are creeping further up the field this season, especially on that right wing. The center of the pitch is turning a little more green as well as the team as a whole seems to slowly be making the transition toward a self-sustaining attack instead of relying on lightning strike from De Bruyne. One of the driving factors has been Christian Träsch roaming forward from fullback. Only Bayern fullbacks complete more passes per game than Träsch. He advances the ball into attacking areas a lot better than Sebastian Jung did last season. Träsch has already played more minutes than he did last season and is 2nd on the team in completions in the attacking area (two vertical boxes furthest to the right above). Both Vierhinha (17.3) and Träsch (15.5) complete significantly more passes in the attacking area/90 than even De Bruyne (13.9) did last season when he led the team.  The team as a whole completes 9 more passes per game in the attacking area.   Last year Wolfsburg completed a higher proportion of their attacking passes on the wings than anyone else in the Bundesliga. I hypothesized that they would need to move the ball to the middle more this year with a player like Kruse (and Draxler who they signed after the preview) to create a more dangerous, less predictable attack. That hasn’t happened, the wide proportion has actually gone up. In absolute terms they are in the middle of the pitch more and I think they do have a chance of a more central attack as the season goes on, which segues nicely into the next topic.   The Replacements Draxler and Kruse   Max Kruse from Gladbach and Julian Draxler from Schalke were the two attacking players brought in to help replace De Bruyne’s production. This change is a big reason Wolfsburg have moved a little more towards a sustained possession style. De Bruyne was a heavy-action, forward moving attacking player while Draxler and Kruse can provide a key pass, but prefer to keep possession in the attacking area. Draxler and Kruse’s completion% are both above 83%, elite territory for attacking players. De Bruyne was down at 74.5% last year, but the chart below showing where the players get and move to ball to explains that. Snip20151209_36 Kruse plays 32% of his passes forward, Draxler 41%. Last year De Bruyne played 50% of his passes forward. The reason I think they can move their attack a little more centrally is with Draxler healthy, they have two players who enjoy setting up shop there. The next chart shows the number of passes attempted per 90 in central areas between the halfway line and the box and how Draxler/Kruse are both more involved there than anyone from last season.  The next step forward from team competing for Champions League spots to team who expects it will involve developing these two in the middle of the pitch to complement the wing blitzes from Träsch, Vierinha, and Schäfer, when he plays. Ricardo Rodriguez has the larger reputation but Schäfer has provided much more attacking this season when he plays at left back. Snip20151209_26 As for now, Kruse and Draxler are both providing 2.4 key passes per 90 to lead the team. It’s taking two attacking spots but they add up exactly to De Bruyne’s 4.8 from last season.   The Defense Snip20151207_17 Snip20151209_32   The increased red areas are not due to any sudden increase in defensive pressure, but facing fewer total passes because Wolfsburg have the ball more. The best defense is a good offense. Wolfsburg face fewer attacks because they have 57% possession, up from 54% last season. Opponents are actually completing a higher rate of their passes (75.3% up from 72.8%) but Wolfsburg’s defense sees less of those passes. You can see the middle of the pitch is where teams go the least, Josuha Guilavogui might deserve some credit here. The midfielder intercepts nearly 5 passes per 90 which leads Bundesliga midfielders by a huge margin. The most notable stat about their defense is the lack of a high press but besides that it’s just your typical solid defense like you see from Southampton, Gladbach or Roma.Snip20151209_33   Shot Map and Bas Dost Size of circle=shots/90, coloring=SOT%. Snip20151209_39 Bas Dost’s average shot is coming from 11.8 yards out. That’s very, very close, not quite as close as last years absurd 10.7 yards but still it’s sub-penalty. He was an analytical piñata for his over-performance last season, but he has improved this year. Dost gets more involved in the build-up play, passes at a much better rate, and has picked up his shots/90 a bit.   Wolfsburg can be satisfied with their solid start. They lost the player of the season and haven’t seen any dip in performance levels. They’ve started to show signs of a more advanced sustained possession game and won a Champions League group for the first time in club history. They aren’t leaping into Europe’s elite, but are making the kind of progress that make it possible down the road.