Analytics in Football – Have the Geeks Inherited the Turf?

We don’t often get a chance to run video on the site, but I was lucky enough to be invited on a panel this month at Charles Russell Speechlys on Analytics in Football. It was the first panel I have ever been on and – I rarely say this – but I am genuinely proud of what came out there. Ian’s a great moderator, and Chris and Blake are both big experts in the field with plenty of practical experience. My comments are fairly wide ranging, and bring in a lot of diverse topics I have had a chance to learn about the last two years. This is nearly as good as any job interviews I will be giving in the coming months. 😀 I know it sounds heavy, but some of the material covered here will crop back up again and again over the next five years, both inside and outside of football. Though maybe not the part about the bear developing IP… Analytics Cliches That Are NOT True

  • Stats guys don’t watch games. In fact, they generally watch a ton of matches to verify what the stats are suggesting is correct, both at the player and the team level.
  • Stats guys can only add value to the numbers side, like technical scouting. In fact, if your stats guys are at all like me, they are voracious readers and can have a major impact in fitness, medical, style of play, team and opposition analysis, cutting edge research like sleep/diet/fatigue AND in player recruitment.Essentially, if you are only getting basic stats stuff from your stats guys, you are either employing their skills badly or you need to find new stats guys.
  • Technical scouts/stats scouts hate traditional scouts.They only generally dislike BAD traditional scouts with terrible biases. You could create a whole book chapter of hilarious reasons why traditional scouts have explained why they don’t like a player. Just when you think it can’t get more ridiculous, it often does. HOWEVER, you need good traditional scouts – they are the lifeblood of recruitment. If you can educate the biases out of your scouts, everyone can probably get along swimmingly.
  • Every team uses stats and data now so first mover advantage is gone. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Few teams have built an organization that employs data-based decision making throughout the club. As I say in the video, it does not matter how amazing or incisive the information at your disposal is if decision makers are not using it, or continue to make poor decisions despite it.Having been inside football now and talked to tons of people there as well, I am more convinced than ever about the general level of backwardness in England. Clever teams can generate huge, sustainable edges because of it.

Analytics Cliches That ARE True

  • Some “stats guys” are definitely charlatans. They speak buzzspeak, but develop little or no IP of their own, but are good at repackaging ideas as if they did the work. They probably also happen to be good at marketing themselves. I say this again and again, but these same people are found in every discipline, inside and outside football. It’s not a stats problem – it’s a people problem.
  • Teams are terrified of making change. What if change doesn’t work out? As Chris says in the video below, relegation from the Premier League can be existential for some clubs.
  • Plenty of traditional teams fail. Some stats teams will fail as well. What you don’t know is WHY they failed. Without process information, it’s damned hard to judge a team from the outside.

I’m sure there are more, but these were the ones that quickly came to mind. Anyway, enjoy the video. Hopefully in the next year, someone will do a few more of these. Note: for those who want us to do more podcasts, ignore the video and it sounds JUST LIKE A FOUR-MAN POD. You’re welcome!  

The Evolution of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

As you might have noticed, I am all up in ur website this week. For those who don’t know me, I co-founded this here site here and still own it, though Managing Editor James Yorke is responsible for all the good stuff on the front page and hard work behind the scenes. Until last week, I was working for Brentford and Midtjylland football clubs on a variety of things, including player analysis and recruitment. However, that is no more, which gives me the time and ability to write new pieces here at Ye Auld Bomb. I don’t know how long I will be around, but while I am available, I intend to make the most of it. If you have missed the recent flood of content, they can be found in the two links below and also on my twitter account @mixedknuts. Design Diary – MK Shot Maps The Dortmund Attack and the Spurs Defense In the two pieces above, I introduced the MK Shot Map variation, and then showed how they can be used to analyse team trends. In the Dortmund analysis it is between two different managers, while at Spurs it is impressively all under Pochettino, but in consecutive seasons. Today we’re going to apply the same shot map format to player analysis. The Not So Little PEA Back in summer 2013 – in fact right at the beginning of when I started using statistics to do player evaluation – I dubbed Aubameyang the best value buy of the summer. My tools were primitive at the time (and so was some of the analysis), but 19 goals and 9 assists in a season at Saint Etienne seemed impressive enough, especially for an alleged price of €13M. I expected him to go for twice that. Dortmund fans didn’t seem terribly impressed by his first season, but he put up excellent scoring numbers for the time played in a far more difficult league than Ligue 1. Pierre-Emerick_Aubameyang_2013-14 The next season was Klopp’s wonky final one where the team was extremely unlucky in a lot of respects, and everyone’s performance suffered a bit overall. However, these are still good numbers for a forward. Pierre-Emerick_Aubameyang_2014-15 Then you hit this season… Thomas Tuchel arrived and brought with him some serious adjustments to the traditional Dortmund attack. As I illustrated yesterday, all the potshots from range are gone. Instead you get tight clustering inside the box, almost reminiscent of the dominant Barcelona teams. That is a hugely impressive transformation in just a single season. Also hugely impressive is Auba’s evolution. He has transformed into an elite center forward and now ranks among the Top 5 in Europe for Scoring Contribution among high volume players. I don’t have the radar generator hooked up to current data just yet, but an NPG90 of .78 and a total scoring contribution of right around 1 is fantastic. With the change in statistical output also came a change in Auba’s shot profile. Check this out. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang2013 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang2014 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang_2015-16 And here are the three seasons at Dortmund, side-by-side-by-side (which is how comparatives should generally be posted, but I put up the individual ones for others to use on their own). (Click to embiggen.) auba_3ssns Where did all the triangles go? And the shots from long and wide? In their place we see a huge swathe of high value chances, all in the center of the pitch. The expected goal model used here probably underestimates the quality of the chances Auba was getting in earlier seasons, since he is one of the fastest players in the league and likely was under less pressure then. However, you can’t deny he transitioned from occasionally getting good chances to almost constantly doing so. The result of this evolution also completed his transformation from a very good pace goalscorer to one of the best center forwards in the game. Though honestly, what’s truly incredible is that he still manages to find time to fight crime on the side. Dortmund's Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, right, wears a Spiderman mask as he celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the German soccer Super Cup match between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in Dortmund, Germany, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Sascha Schuermann) Opta-Logo-Final-Cyan

The Dortmund Attack and the Spurs Defense – MK Shot Maps

At the pub after the Opta Forum this year, there was what I can only describe now as “an incident.” I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it was later related to me as “an analytics rap battle.” This sounds awesome! And obviously totally nerdy. I was absolutely fucking distraught to have missed it. Except… the “battle” occurred between myself and a member of staff at some other club. Wait. What?!? Now I obviously didn’t see it this way. From my perspective, I was having a very enjoyable conversation with someone whose work I really respect, and possibly drinking alcoholic beverages at the same time. However, at one point I kind of looked up and there were probably 10-15 people standing in a circle around us, watching us have said conversation. Internal monologue: “Huh… That’s weird.” *looks around* IM: “Did something happen behind me?” *looks the other way and sees more people staring from the other side* *shrugs* IM: “Fuck it. Now what were we arguing about? Set pieces? Whether Ramsey and Welbeck are terrible finishers?” You have to understand something – stats dorks don’t talk to each other. Like ever. To some extent, we aren’t allowed to do so if we work in a team. Everyone needs to keep whatever competitive edges they have managed to discover secret in order to keep their job. To another extent, even when they do talk, it’s rarely an equal conversation in that somebody almost always knows more than the other people involved, which creates a toxic environment where real conversations can’t happen. It kinda sucks, but dream job in football, etc. Thus when I figured out I was going toe to toe with someone who knew at least as much as I do about the topic (applied football stats), it suddenly became rather fun. And apparently was entertaining for everyone else still hanging around as well. Cheers ya’ll. Anyway, I relate this story not as an excuse to tell my favorite yo mama jokes, but because one of the many things argued that night is a good example of what you can use the MK Shot Maps to suss out. Example 1: Klopp vs. Tuchel Anyone who has read my work over the years knows I am a big fan of Jurgen Klopp, and his era at Borussia Dortmund is what made me a fan of the club. That said… I think Tuchel is probably better. The reason is that at this point, I am pretty sure that Tuchel can coach an elite attack and an aggressive press, while Klopp’s mastery might simply be the press and a lot of shot volume. Confused? That’s what the visualizations are for. This is Dortmund 14-15 under Klopp for the full season. It’s reasonably indicative of the general pattern under him for the seasons I have data. Dortmund_1415_strip And this is Dortmund 15-16 under Tuchel (as of early February, anyway). Dortmund_1516_shotsfor I stripped out some of the extra numbers to reduce the noise a bit. What do you notice? First of all, there are far fewer long range shots under Tuchel. A lot less. Like holy shit, where did all the green and grey shots go? You might ALSO notice that the average quality of Tuchel Dortmund’s chances are MUCH higher as a result. In fact, they are more than fifty percent higher (at least in this public xG model) with similar personnel. That is hard to do. Clever people that you are, you also noticed that despite the fact that the Tuchel map only goes through February, BVB had already scored more goals in 15-16 than they did during the entirety of Klopp’s final season. So yeah, I love me some Klopp, but I think Tight Tommy Tuchel might just be the realest deal around. Example 2: Spurs vs Spurs. “Bah, whatever!” you shout. “Screw German football and their World Cup winning and their awesome fan culture. Give me heart and passion! (Of which, the Germans obviously have none, amirite?)” Fine! No one, but no one, has more passion than Ryan Mason. How’s that for a hot segue? Unfortunately despite said passion, the Spurs midfield featuring notsoyoung master Mason was… um… troubled last season. Some might say porous. Others specifically located in North London have suggested their defense was easier to get great chances on last season than a tortured sexist scoring metaphor. Or maybe… this season’s midfield just has more heart. Or passion. Or confidence? You tell me – I have been away so long, I forgot how to communicate the narrative. ANYWAY, peep this… (click to embiggen) spurs_paired_defense The two periods in question here are the exact same time periods of the season, taken one year apart. The difference in number of shots is noticeable – 218 vs 185. The difference in quality of chances given up is staggering. .144 expected goals per shot in Poch’s first season versus .088 in season two. Pressing systems often take a season to learn, especially for personnel that aren’t used to it. They can also take specific types of players in certain positions to really make them tick. Whatever the case, macklemore_this_is_fucking_awesome These maps would have fit in really well with the fabulous analysis published on 13Steps yesterday. Yes, yes, I know you might be able to just get this from the simple expected goals per shot metric. Or you might not. Different people learn differently and it actually matters if you provide them multiple ways to do so. Early Feedback So people have seen some charts now. Many say they are too busy. I acknowledge that especially the team ones might be, but the ones I have shared so far are mostly full season charts. Partial seasons tend to be clearer in terms of patterns. Additionally, with the right tools you can break these into rolling 10-game charts, which are probably more useful from a team analysis perspective but rather niche for public consumption. Right now all you are seeing is the image. These are meant to go together with other tools to form a suite of analysis. Additionally, the image itself should be part of an interactive app that has layered information.

  1. You have the individual shot map containing all the data points.
  2. When you mouseover any shot, you should get extra information on the shot like who took it, what game, and xG model info.
  3. When you click through on each shot, it brings up the video clip to watch the shot and how it was created. (This hadn’t been programmed yet, but it was part of the design plan.)

So you right back wants to see all the shots created by the left forward this season. Load up the chart on his ipad and *click click click* research done. (He probably also wants to see his dribbles on video too. There’s an app for that…) There was one person who asked why can’t they be more like the basketball charts, which are clean and lovely? The answer has to do with volume of data. Football sits at a really awkward place in terms of both player and team shot volume. Unlike hockey and basketball, which have 82 games and huge numbers of shots inside of each game, football has 38 league games and a maximum of 20 shots average for a good team. It also has a much larger playing surface than either of those sports, which means that location bucketing either ends up big and imprecise, or small and worthless. Instead, these maps give granularity to each shot and keep the informational fidelity.  As a consequence they can get busy, but I have yet to see anyone solve that issue without significant information problems. Informational fidelity was a key part of the player radar design as well, and keeping it was a big reason I didn’t turn everything into percentages as other designers suggested early on in the process. It’s hard to argue about percentages of a population that someone else may or may not understand. It’s easy to argue about numbers, and here’s the key lesson: arguing is really fucking important. I like radars better. That’s nice? They aren’t either/or choices. They are both small parts of a comprehensive toolbox to help evaluate players and do team analysis (both your own and oppositional). And to be totally fair, radars took a lot of shit when I introduced those as well so maybe you’ll come around. Or maybe, if we’re all really lucky, someone else will create/publish prettier versions that solve all the problems and we can just use those. Check out my Twitter for lots more current season shot maps (and possibly radars) starting today. –Ted Knutson Opta-Logo-Final-Cyan  

Design Diary – MK Shot Maps

Note: All football data in this piece is from Opta and the visualizations were built using that information. A long, long time ago – November 2014 to be precise – I was lamenting the state of public shot maps. The ones floating around at the time were okay, but they provided neither the clarity I was looking for, nor the scaling I wanted for use looking across periods of more than one game.  This isn’t to say the public ones are bad – more that I wanted to see if they could be done better. My initial thoughts were that we might be able to do a Goldsberry style approach, adapted for football. goldsberry_steph_curry I explained this to my usual partner in crime, DOCTOR Marek Kwiatkowski (as he emphatically reminds me to call him). I have worked closely with Marek for years, and it’s safe to say he’s a bloody genius. The quality of my own work would be nowhere near as good as it is without his feedback. We’re like this… muller_alonso Anyway, he was intrigued by the idea and started programming. What follows is a design diary for how this idea developed from a frustration to something that was used constantly by the now defunct Football Analytics Team during my days at Smartodds (Brentford and FC Midtjylland). Nov 10th, 2014 Hi Ted, This is for Arsenal’s home performance last season vs Cardiff (two late goals by Bendtner and Walcott). arsenal_vs_cardiff Legend: circle=header, square=foot/other (triangle for own goals?) Thick black outline=goal, medium black=on target, gray=rest Colour=ExpG (the actual numbers are still wobbly, but it doesn’t matter for the concept). Some ideas: * player numbers in the marker? * half-sized marker for blocked shots? Ted: Things to consider: Modified shapes for the following precursor events: 1) Throughball (Arrow?) 2) Successful Dribble (Triangle?) 3) Crosses (Chop 1/3 off whatever shape there is?) Break colors into buckets for the following probabilities 1-.8: RED .79-.7 – Red Orange .69-.6 – Orange .59-.5 – Orange Yellow .49-.4 – Yellow .39-.3 – Yellow Green .29-.2 – Green .19-.1 – Sequential Blues (from the PY spectrums you sent) .09-.0 – Sequential Purples As you said, there’s a lot going on in the lower ranges and it needs more attention. Adding 2 colors of sequential would see to meet that, but open to changes here. Obviously with this I probably just broke the Green outline concept for goals. Shot on target a thin black outline is good. I kind of think blocked shots should just show up as grey, as if they have been blotted out of existence because they don’t have a real expG value, but not 100%. Long-term we can make these into an interactive app that has mouseover information for more detail. Do you think adding player numbers inside the shapes will work or too much noise? Marek: Hey, A few new versions. Manual gradient+manual Goldsberry gradient+goldsberry Brewer gradient+brewer manual=me trying to follow email, goldsberry=colour-picked from him directly, brewer=from colorbrewer2.org. triangle up=from throughball, left/right=from cross, star=after dribble dotted=header grayed out=blocked Outlines still to be worked out, unfortunately with the built-in scatter function I don’t have enough control to do the black&white one. I can look into writing a custom scatter later. In general, I think we are at the limit of the info we want to pack into these charts. I’m already not a fan of the dots/hatching, or even the many marker shapes. As to the colours, I think you were right to mention the ExpG distribution itself. We should just partition it into ~10 classes of equal size and colour code these with a nice sequential map. It is in essence what Goldsberry is doing, I think. The downside is that the class boundaries will be at awkward ExpG values, but at the end of the day I’m not sure we care about that. Ted: Cool! Excellent effort. So much to process here, but that’s good. Now we can filter down what works and what doesn’t. Of these I like Gradient + Manual best. Gradient + Brewer probably second, though it’s close. I hate the dots – they just don’t work.  Get rid of the directional cross arrows. It was a really good idea, but too information dense for the first pass. Make headers circles (intuitive), regular shots hexes (or squares). Stars and throughball triangles are pretty good, actually.  Black and green outlines aren’t that bad. Maybe have no outline at all on normal shots? Obviously the legend will need to be crystal clear on meaning, but I think that will come quickly with usage as well. Marek: Little bit getting there, perhaps? I quite like this one. test The colormap (I know I’m anal about it) is the right half of ‘jet’ from http://matplotlib.org/examples/color/colormaps_reference.html. I can now easily try any section of any colormap there if you want more samples. The goal outline works better with regular shapes to my eye (ie triangle and star are a bit iffy), but it’s still easily the best I’ve tried. Hexagon works better as default marker imo: the difference b/w headers and shots doesn’t jump at you, but it’s clear enough to pick it up immediately when you want to. Ted: This works. We’ll need to build a spiffy, detailed legend to explain it and then I’ll work on the poster display for the top section over the next few days for the info display there. Poster_run1_Shot-Charts At this point, Ted realizes he is WAY out of his depth trying to be helpful and this looks terrible. Therefore he asks actual professional designer and all around awesome dude @bootifulgame for feedback. @bootifulgame sends back this, which makes Ted feel bad about how dumb he is, and about his life, and the fact that he’ll never be able to make truly pretty things. Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 23.13.32 copy It just goes to show what you can do with an awesome professional designer involved and not just data dorks trying to solve problems. Alas, the final versions never quite looked as amazing as Ben’s. These are some further test versions Marek did for single game plots. spurs_double hell For individual player seasons, they looked like this: Messi2012 cr7_alpha Suarez2013   And for team seasons, they look like this: Roma_2012-13 Roma_2012-13_conc What Changed? There was some further tweaking to come.

  • Marek got rid of the Super Mario Brothers star for successful dribbles and moved to diamonds. The rest of the markers are fairly intuitive.
  • The lowest color on the plot was changed to .05 or lower probability.
  • There’s also plenty of other information that can be added in the legend, and you can make a million different data cuts for what you want to see. Open play is an obvious one here, but there are plenty of others.
  • They still get really busy for full-season maps for teams. Unfortunately there isn’t much you can do about that. We have a couple of different styles that were built later that try to suss out trends with less noise, but they also have issues.

Conclusion So there you are, the MK (Marek Kwiatkowski) Shot Map variation and a detailed explanation of how they went from Marek fooling around on a problem to something attractive and useful. Combine them with expected goal race charts (originally seen in hockey, but something 11Tegen11 posts frequently on his Twitter account) and you end up with a fairly complete unit of game analysis, at least when it comes to shots. Enjoy the Easter holidays,and maybe if I get some time next week, I’ll explain a bit more on how to use these charts to analyze team trends. –TK Opta-Logo-Final-Cyan  

StatsBomb Podcast: March 2016

sbbb3 Fresh for Easter, it’s another edition of the StatsBomb podcast featuring James Yorke (@jair1970) and Benjamin Pugsley (@benjaminpugsley).   [soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/254949939″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /] Downloadable on the soundcloud link and also available on iTunes subscribe HERE And if you enjoy, we’d love it if you shared it. Thanks!

What Has Happened To Swansea?

swansa Swansea did not deserve to finish 8th last season in the sense that, in most timelines, they wouldn’t have. As the conclusion from my piece for StatsBomb last year puts it:

“Are Swansea crap? Err. Umm.  Completely objectively, they’re probably lucky to be 8th, especially given they’re the 6th worst team both in terms of ExpG for and against. Through separating and cross examining attack and defence, we’ve seen that the factors that probably pushed their ExpG overperformance to allow them to finish so high are also unlikely to be repeated.  This isn’t great news for a Swansea fan.”

(That piece can be found here.) This in itself isn’t a problem, being lucky is fine if you are aware of it and can make actionable improvements. And, at the beginning of the season, this seemed the case. Public rumblings from Monk gave the impression that he was aware of the difficulty in repeating the feats of the year before, a conclusion that was easy to arrive at even without analytics: last year, Swansea poached 12 points from doubles over Arsenal and Manchester United; had they gotten 3 points instead, they would have finished in the bottom half. The season started brightly, solidifying my optimism in Monk registering that there were defects within the team and doing something about it. At Chelsea on the opening day of the season, I watched Swansea register 10 shots on target as they drew 2-2. Ten. Newcastle were swiftly despatched to follow, with their rivals Sunderland luckily earning a draw in the next match. In all of these games, Swansea had higher expected goals than their opponent, and had legitimately looked good in repeatable footballing terms. (For anyone new to ‘expected goals’, they are a method of quantifying chance quality based on historical trends, mainly the location of a shot, and correlate better with goals than mere shot numbers.) Next, they beat Manchester United at home, albeit luckily. At the beginning of September, you could forgive even the most sceptical fan for believing that another good season may be on the horizon. Yet here we are, in March, and everything is a mess – had you been on holiday from September until now, it would look like the footballing equivalent of The Hangover, except instead of a live tiger, there is a dead panther. Monk has been sacked, Swansea have been yoyo-ing in and out of the genuine relegation race, Alan Curtis has been appointed, un-appointed in place of Francesco Guidolin, and then reappointed as caretaker while the Italian was ill. A guilty whiff of schadenfreude has emanated from the Liberty Stadium all season, sucked up by bitter competition, the analytics community, and the same media that mere months ago were lauding the club as a role model and Monk as England’s next big thing. What happened? The In-Between At the beginning of September, Swansea had managed higher expected goals than their opponents in 3 games. Until their game against Aston Villa in mid-October, they didn’t manage this in a match again. It wasn’t until they had marginally more chances than West Ham in late December that they took their tally of games where they had the greater chances to 6; by this point, they had played 17 games, were in the relegation zone, and Monk was gone.   Swansea2 In November, Monk had attempted to halt the slump in form by changing his team selection, dropping Federico Fernandez, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Bafetimbi Gomis for Kyle Bartley, Leon Britton and Eder against Bournemouth. At this point, it was obvious that the manager was concerned in his team, and that these line-up decisions were an attempt to change things. These changes didn’t, in the end, have a marked effect on performances in terms of chance creation, but preceded a huge divergence in goal difference from expected goal difference, at the worst point of which Monk was sacked. It may be that Monk had affected team finishing to a point where he drove this under-performance, but it is unlikely – as we saw from Swansea last year, most of the time divergence from expected goals can be explained in terms of unrepeatable streaks in finishing or saving. It is in this period of under-performance, from Monk being sacked to just after Guidolin was appointed, that the narrative of Swansea’s season took a drastic turn for the worse, from “they’re too good to go down, they’ll be fine” to “oh sh*t”. Where Monk was lucky last year and had seemingly built the foundations of a long-term career on the hype he gained, a short-term inversion in the same dynamics had lost him his job. This ‘unlucky’ slump continued after Monk’s exit (strengthening the idea that he wasn’t to blame for it), with Curtis’ team improving performances but not picking up the points that they deserved. This lead to the panicked appointment of Francesco Guidolin, after which Swansea’s luck completely changed: fortuitous wins against Watford and Everton kick-started a miraculous run since the turn of the year, and one that has saved Swansea from the threat of relegation. https://twitter.com/SimonGleave/status/711912259237355527 Swansea have been lucky in the sense that they have had few injuries, though with the tinkering of the team the consistency of a starting XI like Leicester have was lost anyway. For the whole season, Swansea had under-performed their expected goal difference, and it had caused them serious issues, yet eventually they were saved by a reversal of these fortunes. This is no small irony, especially in the greater context. https://twitter.com/MC_of_A/status/691280240052674560 Big Picture I do feel sorry for Garry Monk. The commitment that the club made to him was seemingly one of longevity, and yet they got rid of him at the first sign of downturn. Despite riding his luck last season, the team genuinely improved at the beginning of this one, though the why is ever confusing and it was short-lived; bar that brief stint, the team hadn’t improved at all. Because of this, as a fan of Swansea City, I’m not hugely disappointed he’s gone. Overall, the club have played markedly better than last year, but are still consistently performing like a lower-midtable club. The standard deviation in Swansea’s single-match xGDs is fairly low – only 6 teams have less variation in their performances – and this is despite the beginning of the season. Recently, Ben Torvaney has advocated the conceptualisation of a team’s expected goal difference in matches as a distribution, and ranking by median. This helps show what type of performances a team is tending to throw up. Swansea’s median performance is the 5th worst in the league. Swansea1 Overall, Swansea’s aggregated expected goal difference is also the 5th worst in the league. Their defence is fairly average at 12th in the league, but their attack is diabolical – only Aston Villa are worse. This passes my eye test with flying colours. Watching Swansea attack at the moment is incredibly frustrating, but the defending looks better than last year and has done all season. Gylfi has scored a lot recently, overperforming his expected goals and covering up a lot of the offensive staleness. It’s difficult to say what Swansea need to do in the future. It would be useful to get a manager who can genuinely innovate. Swansea still play idiosyncratically for a team of their size, with an average possession per match of 52.1%, the 7th highest in the league. Bournemouth play similarly, have a far lower budget, and a team of players I think it’s pretty fair to say are objectively worse, yet have played better than Swansea this year – their expected goal difference is 11th best in the league. My own instinct would be that Swansea will do everything they can to get Brendan Rodgers back in the summer, an idea I can easily get on board with. Beyond that, as any midtable club, I would be thinking about spending big on managers. Relative to the cost of players, it is probably worth it; lest we forget that Rafa Benitez is at Newcastle on a wage reportedly just under £40k per week, much less than Andros Townsend, who also cost £12m for the right to pay in the first place. We stumble here onto an ongoing debate in analytics – do managers do anything? Soccernomics and The Numbers Game introduce the idea that wage spending correlates with performance so well that there is little room for manager effects. The problem with this is that wages and performance are like smiling and happiness: are you smiling because you are happy, or because you want to be happy? They aren’t quite the same thing. And the same things that wages could be a proxy for – mainly player quality – probably includes managers. If all the wage-performance correlation is showing us is that bigger clubs have better players that play and are paid better, the better managers will be there too. A problem Swansea have had recently is that as a club without a wealthy owner, one where the fans own 21.3% of the club and the majority of the board invested when it pretty much went bankrupt, it has been difficult to invest into the future. Where Bournemouth can say ‘hey, if we stay in this here thing, we’ll get an increase of £40m in the new TV deal, let’s spend now to try and do that’, Swansea can’t get a sweet interest free loan, while posting ‘annual profits in the last few years [that] are among the lowest in the Premier League‘. The club is in an awkward transition phase where they had to sell Jonjo Shelvey, probably their most important player in the first few months of this season but one of questionable consistency, to a relegation rival to finance signing Alberto Paloschi for £8m. On top of that, the Supporters Trust that own just over a fifth of the club recently pointed out how difficult long-term financial planning can be given the demands of players joining relegation candidates. The club are looking for investment, and may be able to spend more in the summer now that they are safe and the new deal is coming in. Were I the club, I would appoint a ‘Director of Football’, hugely expand my scouting and recruitment network, and get a head coach in who is gonna work with that, though this may run into trouble with good ol’ Brendan. A clear mandate would be established on the sort of system that these players should be able to play in, a task that would be relatively easy with the established style at Swansea. Huw Jenkins, the club’s chairman, has done a brilliant job of recruiting up to this point, but the truth is there is serious room for more intelligent recruitment in the Premier League’s midtable. Wilfried Bony, an easy £12m buy after an obscene season with Vitesse, was flipped for £25-28m, and big clubs have an unusual necessity for ‘Premier League experience’. There is a market in being that stepping stone, one Portuguese clubs thrive on being between South Americans and Europe. Oh, and I’d hire some analytics folk.  

What’s Gone Wrong For Arsenal, Man City, Newcastle and Sunderland?

There are many aspects of this Premier League season that have been hard to understand and few, if any, will leave having had their prediction skills validated.  I am going to have to live with the fact that I stated that the rise of the middle classes was a usual blip that would quickly revert, there has been no pay off for my continual writing off of the chances of Leicester City (there is a tweet in existence in which I comically suggest Ranieri will be gone by November) and after their blistering start, I laughed at ludicrous predictions that Manchester City would come fifth. Ahem. This being football, a ton of things can happen to make you look foolish, others can make you look smart, and that’s why in the main, peeling back the numbers and taking a more detailed look at matters can reveal the truth. Simple stuff can leap off the page.  Chelsea allowing Swansea to create ten shots on target in their very first match was a huge red flag and with subsequent matches improving this starkly poor rate only slightly, it was possible to see even in a handful of games that Chelsea were in trouble. The rot set in and changes came later, but there was evidence from a long way out that although Chelsea had won the title, they had not been performing at league leading standards for a good deal of late 2014-15. It’s important to temper this though, nobody could have predicted how far they eventually fell before Mourinho’s departure, or that so many players would concurrently underperform, or that they would also find themselves on the bad end of a negative skew. But all that came to pass and probably weeks late, he departed. Elsewhere Norwich’s problems this season were visible from a good way out. On the surface it looked like they were making a reasonable fist of their return to the league but after an early flurry, their shooting numbers were significantly poor, they have continued to struggle and are now close to the trap door. Tottenham’s slow start points-wise disguised extremely solid shooting numbers and quickly identified problems solved in defence. While the traditional media happily worried abut the flash-in-the-pan nature of Harry Kane, it was straightforward enough to rebut this even though his goalscoring had temporarily vanished. All other aspects of his shooting game remained, it was clearly a matter of time, and so it proved. Informative analysis can be simple and understanding your team’s performance metrics goes a long way towards describing performances in the past and projecting likely events in the future. There are lots of tools for this around. The big sites carry loads of statistics, expected goals models are there to inform and everyone can get smarter for betting, their office fantasy football team or even just to win the pub argument. You can even write about what you find out and there are plenty of people who will find it interesting and latch on. Here’s a few other stories that have unfolded more recently. Arsenal and Manchester City After twenty weeks of this season, we hosted a post on this site in which a variety of modellers gave their predictions for teams to win the title. Every single entrant bar one had the likelihood of anyone other than Manchester City or Arsenal winning the title at under 20% (I believe Constantinos Chappas was the outlier). Over in the Twittersphere, another prominent predictor was confident enough in Arsenal’s chances to declare in mid January that they would have been “over the line” model-wise with a victory (they drew). None of this is to suggest that everyone was “wrong”, merely to note that the small probability outcomes are looking as if they will come to pass: the twenty percent looks likely to be heading towards the winning line. So what has happened to the two early season giants? The late winner against Leicester was the spark that was supposed to ignite Arsenal’s season, yet they’ve had to wait til this weekend to find another win, the far more routine Arsenal-style “get two ahead and sit” kind that they last pulled off at Bournemouth. This has left them teetering precariously on the very edge of the title race and looking far more likely to end up in, lo and behold, third or fourth. Plus, this week, we’ve had the annual “should we get rid of Wenger” discussion which is interesting, because from an analytics perspective we have a slight divergence; expected goals loves this team and will fully expect them to cruise home the rest of this year and possibly kick upwards next. Even within this analysis they are only projecting as the best team in the league this season, not in any season, for this one is compressed.  Simple shot analysis is more content to christen this team ” a typical Arsenal team”, good but not tearing the roof off the league and it is worth looking at how they’ve trended more recently. Since the halfway point, there has been a negative swing of four shots and two shots on target in their figures; the latter a negative swing larger than any in the league. This goes alongside entirely flat conversion rates across both periods, league average on the attack end and advantageous on the defensive end (save percentage continues to be super high). What this means is that without any increase in the fluctuating skews that affect any team, Arsenal have distinctly declined since the turn of the year. They have no room to dig up extra luck, they have simply been worse and their results have suffered because of this. It would be pertinent to note the injuries they suffered in particular during the early part of this period but–despite the continued absence of Cazorla, who as each week passes appears more fundamentally tied to their effectiveness–more recently they have had a larger squad to pick from, yet haven’t really picked up. Then Ramsey goes down, Iwobi appears and we’re none the wiser as to who or what Arsenal really are. Sacking the manager would be a bad idea. One year, maybe they stay fit and they do challenge late and long and… well, we’ll see. Pep Guardiola may have steamrollered the league after a sixteen player transfer splurge at City by then. Regarding Manchester City, only Watford’s goal volumes have decreased by a greater amount, and that’s the top line “where have the results gone? indicator but the real issue surrounds their accuracy. While their shot volumes have broadly held up (minus 0.6 shots for per game), their on target rates have fallen by a huge amount from over 6.5 per game to a frankly average four. So from being a team that had shot volume and accuracy, and projected very well because of it, they are now finding it hard to break through.  They’re still taking two shots for every one from their opposition but the on target rate is more like 4:3 (literally), they are converting their shots at 8% and the opposition 13%. The conversion part should shake out in time but it’s all a lot nearer par than you might expect from a team of such clear talent.  Like Arsenal they have been hampered by repeated injuries and the physical cost of being unable to rest an ageing squad but the 26 shot, three on target effort against Manchester United felt all too familiar and one wonders how motivated the troops are, knowing that a tough drill instructor has been recruited for their future. Sunderland and Newcastle There are clear similarities in the shooting numbers of the North East relegation rivals. Both produced abysmal totals throughout the first half of the season and both have improved since then. However, the nuance from there differs. Things have actually started going right for Sunderland but from a very low base.  They have produced a swing of 3.6 shots and 1.7 shots on target per game, which is enough to have raised their numbers to just sub-par levels. All their shot conversions have moved with them too, Sam Allardyce has found some efficiency, at least for now and they are turning a high 39% of their on target shots into goals since week twenty. This creates the discussion of whether Allardyce’s methods are adept at squeezing the maximum return from typically minimal inputs and the timescale is too short to have any confidence there, but he has realistically improved the output of the team. Whether it will be enough to save them is another story, they still aren’t good and the seats on the Premier League 2016-17 bus have filled quickly. And of course, there are long held problems surrounding squad building and team quality that still need resolving, something that can only be realistically done if they stay in the league: no easy task. Newcastle have improved by a far greater margin than Sunderland. Since the turn they have enjoyed a plus 8.6 shot swing and plus 3.6 shots on target. Nice job Steve McClaren! Post Christmas, his team has been performing with a shot on target ratio ahead of Manchester City and Chelsea, way ahead of Arsenal and just a shade behind Leicester and Liverpool. Isn’t it great when things work out for someone? sot weeks 20 onOh hey, look at Tottenham… Anyway, the volumes are the good side of Newcastle and over time, you would presume that they might turn into goals and points but sadly for Steve and his P45, it has come all too late. During this period of reasonably solid and improved underlying shooting numbers, the conversions have been thoroughly and entirely in the bin. Newcastle have been converting 7% of their shots (low) and conceding 15% of the opposition’s (high). Of the on target efforts, they have been converting 19% (very low) and have a save percentage of 49% (utterly miserable).  All that has contributed to them scoring ten, conceding 21 and winning two from eleven games, despite promising and much improved shooting rates. They too have suffered with injury, though mainly in the autumn and if this improvement continues and Rafa Benitez grabs a bounce they could find themselves fixed and quickly. Either that or they are going to find themselves as unlucky to go down, much as Hull City were last year, as they ran out of time. Quick bits

  • Everything Watford shaped has taken a big hit in the second half. They had enough on board to cushion them but both in results and metrics they have struggled through 2016 and may need to do more than take stock in the summer.
  • Swansea haven’t improved but they have got a few more breaks
  • Leicester’s metrics are insane. As their attack dried up around the halfway point, their defence has gone supernova. While they are effectively limiting on target efforts, which is to be applauded, the opposition is currently converting all of its shots at under 4%: a rate far below any realistic long term expectation. There is no strategy in the world that can cause the opposition to score at such a low rate long term, so we are left with “they are lucky” or “they have solved football”. I lean towards the former. In season they are now a sub-50% shots team, which would normally as you might expect, peg them as a par team for the league. Again shot on target or expected goals paint a rosier picture, one of the fringes of European qualification, but nope, they are five points clear and seemingly striding without trouble towards the title. It is quite remarkable.
  • The Palace collapse has two factors, firstly a large negative swing in their ability to get and prevent shots on target and then a total collapse in the conversion rates to almost Newcastle levels. These latter factors are largely out of a team’s control and given that they skewed very positively in the first half of the season, this opposite effect appears to be creating a reflection of their true ability: not so great.
  • Liverpool games have become more high event. Goals and shots are up on both ends and I joked recently about them seemingly being plugged into a random results generator. The Southampton game, and to lose in such a manner despite strong shot volume, endorses this silly idea.
  • Bournemouth and Chelsea have similar profiles. Neither has particularly improved their shooting numbers, but each has started to enjoy the benefit of a positive rate of shot conversion, the exact opposite of what came before. Bournemouth’s pre Christmas goal concession was so severely bad as to be clearly beyond a level that would sustain, and so it proved. They have produced very solid defensive volume numbers almost throughout.

So, there’s a few aspects that have driven results since the turn of the year. Plenty of other stories exist within the league and plenty of tactical and personnel inputs will drive aspects of play too, but in taking a look at the numbers we can understand what aspects of a team are performing well or badly and which aspects are likely to cool off or heat up given time.  Even in a year as surprising as this these truths remain. ______________ Thanks for reading! Long pieces on Tottenham and Manchester United by me. @MoeSquare on Marseille @Fla_Futbol on Sampdoria and Genoa

Olympique Marseille: Staring into the Abyss

I wasn’t exactly bullish on Marseille coming into this season. Though I was pleased with the club’s more youthful approach, the sheer amount of prime aged talent let go combined with the potential ramifications of Marcelo Bielsa second year syndrome meant that a 4th-6th place finish was more in order. But I didn’t expect this much of a drop off. No one could’ve expected that Marcelo Bielsa would leave after the home opener because of various reasons involving the Marseille higher ups.

Marseille are currently 10th in Ligue 1, seven points from 4th place and six points away from relegation. The quality of football has been turgid, at times depressing. They haven’t won at home since September, they haven’t led in a match in over a month and haven’t had a lead of two or more goals since beating Caen in mid January. At this time last season, Marseille were in the driver’s seat to qualify for the Champions League and possibly even win the league. Now, they’re staring at a grim future with no European football and another summer of roster reconstruction.

Past

In the context of Ligue 1, last year Marseille were solid with peaks of scintillating football. They had one of the best players in the league in Dimitri Payet, a chance creating machine whose career hit another level when Bielsa came aboard. Andre-Pierre Gignac had a second straight season of scoring at a 0.5-0.6 NPG per 90 clip and the rest of the team was composed of both young-ish players coming into their own and established players nearing the end of their prime years. In the hands of Bielsa, Marseille produced shot numbers both raw and in the context of shot quality that were good.  They had the 2nd highest xGD in the league, were 4th in both SOTR and Team Rating (SoTR + PDO). Throwing those metrics into a bin rates them as around the 4th best team last season, a couple of points off of Monaco.

More than anything though, Marseille under Bielsa had an identity: to press like a pack of hyenas.

 

As we can see, Marseille were in their own league in pressing opponents and at their best, it led to many times where they were able to get possession in an advantageous scenario and create dangerous scoring opportunities. One of the things that made Marseille especially captivating last season was their ability to create multiple goal leads, especially in the first half of the season. They created ten leads of 2+ goals in the first 19 games, which was top in Ligue 1.

 

Teams Multiple Goal Leads Points MGL First 19 games Points First 19 Games MGL  Second 19 Games Points Second 19 Games
PSG 20 55 8 24 12 31
Lyon 16 48 8 24 8 24
Monaco 11 33 4 12 7 21
Marseille 17 46 10 28 7 18
ASSE 12 34 5 15 7 19

 

The 2nd half was different. It was clear that Marseille were running on fumes over the final 19 games in the context of both individual games and the season at whole. Leads weren’t so readily achieved which could be attributed to a fatigue that comes with playing a pressing tactic and the squad being relatively small. In the end they couldn’t hold onto a top 3 position with a resurgent Monaco gaining 100% of their points when going up by 2+ goals while Marseille didn’t. A season that at one point had the promise of a surprise title win ended with a disappointing 4th place finish.

Summer Transfer Exodus

With Monaco’s demise in the CL qualifying rounds, it would’ve been a long shot that Marseille would have got into the group stage. Even then, having the chance to qualify  would’ve probably lessened the mass departure that occurred. Finishing 4th  meant that the club let go many dependable talents. Ayew and Gignac were already confirmed to be leaving before the season was over but there were many more. These are the 11 players that had played the most minutes in their respective positions last season for Marseille. X’s indicate that they left during the summer.

 

Marseille 1415

 

Combine that with the likes of squad men Mario Lemina and Rod Fanni and Marseille lost a staggering eight players who had played regular minutes for the club.

So how did they rebuild over the summer? Well… they pretty much went to the bargain bin of loans and free signings and hoped for the best. Some things worked out; Buying Bouna Sarr and George Kevin Nkoudou for €4M combined were nice value plays especially in the case of Nkoudou, and Lassana Diarra on a free is one of the best moves Marseille have made over the past 5-10 seasons. On the other hand loan acquisitions for the likes of Rolando, Lucas Silva and Manquillo combined with failed transfer signings (at least so far) for Remy Cabella, Karim Rekik and Lucas Ocampos nullified the good things done.

The end result was a mishmash roster for a club coming into the season with no backup striker and almost no room for error if they wanted to make it into the top three.

Present

If last season Marseille played scintillating football, this season it has been practically the opposite. The high octane attacking football that made their name last season has been replaced by meandering nothingness. Remember all the multiple goal leads that Marseille created last season? They have all but disappeared this season with just five so far. The majority of their transfers have been flops and the environment around the club appears quite toxic. Their shot numbers on the whole have still been fine but the quality of chances have decline by over 20%, essentially becoming Ligue 1’s version of Bournemouth, which when you consider their status before, is significantly different.

 

Year Expected Goal per shot For
2014-15 0.111
2015-16 0.089

 

*data provided by Julien Assuncao*

This fact bears highlighting: Marseille haven’t won a home game since beating Bastia 4-1 in September. They’ve won two games at home all season and the other one was against Troyes, who are one of the worst Ligue 1 sides in recent memory. The club has tried to maintain their desire to hold onto the ball and dictate play but that’s just ended up in many wayward crosses into the box, reminiscent of Manchester United under David Moyes. Meanwhile the few moments of competency this season have come via counter attacks. With the speedy wingers at hand and a striker like Batshuayi up top, perhaps Marseille should’ve leaned towards more of a speed game with the lack of an influential #10. It calls into question the quality of coaching that’s gone on with Michel as Bielsa’s replacement, especially with his lofty goals in the near future.

Future

The future of Marseille looks quite grim. It’s no secret that the club has been trimming its wage bill over the past few seasons and there are only faint hopes of new ownership coming in. No Champions League football once again will mean another huge squad turnover. Whether it be players who have their contracts expiring (Mandanda, N’Koulou), players finishing their loan spells (too many to list), players who have massively rehabilitated their value (Diarra) or youngsters with varying degrees of upside (Batshuayi, Nkoudou).

The one saving grace for Marseille’s faint hopes of European football next season is their final 9 games don’t feature either PSG or Lyon and the toughest match is Monaco away. That said they probably require 25 points over their final 9 games and let’s just say that models out there are skeptical of this happening. Champions League football would mean that they would have to win out the rest of the way and hope for lots of luck, and Marseille haven’t put that type of run together since peak Bielsa-ness last season.

More than anything though, there’s an alarming sense that Marseille are lack a plan. Monaco have morphed into the French version of Porto, Lyon will use their academy + selective transfers while big bad PSG will continue to dominate and be their very expensive selves. What is Marseille’s identity? Hanging on the coattails of big clubs or Premier League sides desperately wanting to take their misfit toys on loan?

France has a vast amount of talent in both smaller clubs playing in Ligue 1 and lower divisions. Marseille don’t have anywhere close to the finances to spend like PSG but they could easily rebrand themselves as the club in France who buy talent domestically. The likes of Vincent Koziello, Nicolas Benezet, Nicolas De Preville, Benjamin Lecomte, Andy Delort, Youssouf Salaby, Martin Braithwaite and others are within their price range and they’re right around 23-25 years old, the sweet spot for when players usually step into their prime years. And it’s not like the club doesn’t have recent success with buying in house: Benjamin Mendy, Gianelli Imbula, Mario Lemina, Bouna Sarr, George Kevin-Nkoudou to name a few. There’s also Belgium and Holland to shop around if you’re looking outside France for potential hidden gems, like with Batshuayi or what potentially Vincent Janssen could be.

Unlike the Premier League (sans this season), it isn’t as impossible in Ligue 1 to miss out on CL football one year and qualify for it in the near future. Lyon did it in 2013/15, Lille in 2011, Bordeaux in 2008. Add in that Lyon could be selling one or both of Nabil Fekir and Alexandre Lacazette this summer and Marseille could convince themselves that good summer business and  hiring a capable coach would propel them back into the CL. Someone like Saint Etienne manager Christophe Galtier would qualify as a capable coach for them to consider as a replacement for Michel or even Nantes manager Michel Del Zakarian.

There’s a roadmap for Marseille that will get them back to being one of the three best clubs in France, one that would have them also building for the next 5 to 7 years and with some luck here or there possibly taking advantage of a down season by PSG to win the title. That last part is a way away but finishing top three over the next couple of seasons should be a doable task. Sadly though, very little of Marseille’s recent work under the stewardship of President Vincent Labrune suggests that they’re capable of rational roster building.

What Next For Manchester United?

Thirty four months doesn’t sound like a long time, but in football it sure is. That is all the time that has passed since Alex Ferguson hoisted his final Premier League trophy aloft and said: “It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so. The quality of this league winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.” It is doubtful that these comments were made with an economic view of the club as a priority yet that is the one aspect that has maintained and grown in his semi-absence. On the pitch, with one manager down and another lurching around and never far from the cliff’s edge, regular success appears to have been replaced by a lesser role; for the third successive season, the team can only be regarded as no more than top four contenders and silverware aspirations appear to have fallen to the level that an occasional cup win would be probably seen as a solid return. Within this new landscape, Louis van Gaal could be seen an ideal choice. Content to appear oblivious to consternation, he continues to work with a system of football alien to the Ferguson method and no doubt believes that he is extracting the maximum possible return from his charges.  But sterile possession has become anathema to a fanbase brought up with goals, winning and trophies and aspects of his tenure remain far too similar to his previous time at a giant club, Bayern Munich, back at the turn of the decade.  On March 7th 2011, as his second season drew to a close, Bayern announced they were to cancel his contract that summer, and by the 10th of April they brought that forward and sacked him. This is the time frame we now find him in at Manchester United and with him on record as saying this will be his final job, it remains to be seen whether his retirement in the Algarve is imminent, or whether that will have to wait for 2017 or beyond. To justify the huge volume of cash spent on new players, is it right to expect more? Has van Gaal been handicapped by a squad in perpetual flux or does the buck really stop with him, his signings, his system and the moderate returns he has created? What remains Ferguson’s assertion on the quality and balance of his league winning squad in relation to the future looks like hubris viewed from this far out. Seven contributing players remain, only three under the age of thirty (David de Gea, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling) of which only de Gea has featured in more than half this season’s games. For differing reasons, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia can feel fortunate to have maintained a squad position under subsequent management regimes and of the older brigade, only Wayne Rooney can be considered a guaranteed starter. From the outset, we can judge that van Gaal has had only three players from Ferguson’s regime to build around; de Gea, Smalling and Rooney, with Jones just far too frequently injured to be part of this equation. Add in Moyes signings Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini, the only two purchases from a season in which there was  an over-reliance on the qualities of the last title winning side, before we saw a change of policy upon the arrival of van Gaal. Ángel Di María came and went, Luke Shaw showed a willingness from the club to pay ludicrous fees to gamble on teenagers, Ander Herrera was Spanish and a midfielder so had credentials, Marcos Rojo had played in the World Cup and didn’t play for a top club so was available, Daley Blind fitted the “dad’s mates with the coach” remit and Radamel Falcao was once a forward. A pretty motley crew by any estimation and one brought together without what looked like a coherent plan. Fourth place secured, United doubled down last summer with two huge “potential” signings in Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial, a utilitarian midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin plus an Italian full-back in Matteo Darmian. Throw in Sergio Romero as back up keeper, Jesse Lingard and a variety of kids and that’s Manchester United’s squad. From this array of hastily assembled talent, van Gaal has been expected to formulate a solid base, at least, and hopefully fashion top four contenders. It is largely a new and expensive team, but this is where blame–if appropriate–is tricky to allocate, as arguably his primary role is to coach the squad and maximise the output from the tools he has been given, or indeed chosen.  With Manchester United’s recruitment policy variously veering from smart to reactionary to downright bizarre just what is an acceptable level of performance? Performance van gaal pts gdSimple stuff first: quickly we can see that as a rolling trend, during van Gaal’s reign, there has been something of a decline and his second season appears poorer than the first. Rolling goal difference and points quite naturally track in a fairly linear fashion and twice during this season, the goal difference has landed on a negative total. On each occasion this has signified runs of point-gaining at close to one per game.  These outputs cannot be described as anything but sub-par. Even allowing for inevitable cold runs of form, a side aiming at the top four cannot carry these rates for long and expect to hit their targets. Big wins utd statManchester United no longer crush teams. Shots manutd shots

(using Opta data)

It’s revealing towards van Gaal’s methodological desires that the shots peak towards the back end of last season came at the end of a three game losing streak in which United failed to score. In what feels like the absolute embodiment of the van Gaal era, his team beat Tottenham, Aston Villa, Liverpool then crushed Manchester City 4-2 before losing to Chelsea, Everton and West Brom. Forever in sight of the cusp of something, yet never quite reaching it. To this season and significant peaks of shots are a distant recollection. Most importantly, at no point have United been a dominant shots on target team, with these totals oscillating around zero almost throughout.  We saw that the outputs (goals and points) were suppressed, now we see that the inputs (shots) are no better. It is hard to argue that this team deserves any more than it is currently getting. But what are the components here? Defence Manchester United are a genuine top four team. Don’t get excited, to be precise, Manchester United are a genuine top four team on the defensive end. They have conceded the second least number of goals in the league from the third least shots faced and the fourth least shots on target. Take it to expected goals if you like that flavour of analysis and the story is the same. Daley Blind might not be a natural centre back but it matters not in this iteration of the team. Overall, they maintain more possession than any team in the league, complete their passes and disrupt their opponents passing at the third highest rate too. All these simple aspects of their play feed into what a good team should do. Attack Manchester United’s attack is significantly below the quality you would associate with a top four challenging side. Leicester’s attack comes out historically on the lower end of such measures yet they at least have some attacking volume, coming out 8th and 5th for shots and shots on target, Manchester United rank 14th and 12th and are actually skewing positively for goals scored in 9th. van Gaal has fashioned half a good team and none of it is on the attacking end. This season they have spent 1301 minutes drawing 0-0, a total only exceeded by Crystal Palace and as far as action goes, their games feature the fewest combined volume of shots and shots on target and only Watford”s feature fewer goals. This overall shot repression of course impacts down to individual level, no player is exceeding rates of 4.5 shots taken and assisted per game or 0.5 goals scored and assisted per game, last season only Di Maria was able to escape the straitjacket. Players The trouble with comparing post-Ferguson Manchester United teams with the modern equivalent is the tangible difference in general quality. Even later year Ferguson teams were littered with superior talents in most positions, the lineage from Cristiano Ronaldo to Dimitar Berbatov and Robin Van Persie all supported by Wayne Rooney was a consistently high class forward line and though problems in midfield were exemplified by the recall of Paul Scholes from retirement, the defence was usually solid, with particular high quality mainstays Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand. So how many top class talents does van Gaal have at his disposal? Maybe three? David de Gea, Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger. There are those that rate Morgan Schneiderlin in the realm of defensive midfielders and Marouane Fellaini could be described as the best at what he does, if only it was possible to define what that is, but of the main three, only de Gea is in the prime of his career. Rooney and Schweinsteiger almost certainly have their best years behind them. This leaves van Gaal attempting to build a competitive unit from the base of one bone fide prime world class player; his goalkeeper, who lest we forget wanted to leave last summer.  With a squad rapidly built over two summers and with a somewhat incoherent philosophy, 2015-16 stood little chance of being the season that Manchester United refound their stride.  Both Depay and Martial are signings with enormous potential and in time may grow into stars, but for now it is too soon and the one irrefutably world class talent to have graced Old Trafford recently, Angel Di Maria, left in the summer. Injuries During van Gaal’s two seasons he has endured two huge injury crises. During the first half of last season, his defence was shredded to such an extent that young players such as Tyler Blackett (currently on loan and playing infrequently at Celtic) and Patrick McNair were fast tracked into the first team squad and made 18 starts between them. This season had been less blighted until recent weeks where @ObjectiveFooty noted this:

Hence the emergence, seemingly not by choice, of Marcus Rashford.  This injury run has had a tangible effect on performance too, van Gaal’s teams have completed all passes at a rate of around 83%  throughout most of his tenure, since the turn of the year this has dropped to 77% and overall possession has dropped from nearly 60% to around 52% during the same period, all clear low rates. They do not indicate quality in themselves, but reflect a change against longer term trends and as we have seen throughout, control of the ball is a key tenet to van Gaal’s prescriptive methodology. If we refer back to the earlier chart, the shot rates have declined during this same period.  It’s hard to attain a high level of performance during an injury blight. Now and the future Pre-season, a reasonable target for this team was to maintain their level. Any expectation that they would suddenly morph in to title contenders required an extremely positive reading of their performances in 2014-15 and a hope that all of their new signings would gel and succeed. Leicester City’s fairy tale rise will cause many a fan base to believe that similar runs are possible for their team in the future, and moreso for already wealthy and strong clubs, but it is quite evidently a one off influenced by a series of factors that have benefited them and harmed others. A smarter comparison might be the rise of Tottenham who have built a squad and coherent unit through ruthless pruning and a patient integration.  This is not something easily replicated with a series of high priced signings and that van Gaal’s force of will has managed to imprint such a distinct style onto his charges is to greater credit than is being given. Of course, the wider perspective demands “is this enough?” A club used to success via high octane football has found it hard to adapt to its changing environment and patience has worn extremely thin through an erratic season. That any version of Manchester United should be so shot-shy is an extremely tough sell and it is a genuine puzzle as to whether they would be in a better situation under an alternative manager. Louis van Gaal has become noticeably more pragmatic with age yet he has been unable to marry this with consistency in results.  With a disconnect between spending levels, results and expectation, it is easy to forecast another attempt to rebuild the squad in the summer and the club faces the likely problem of having finance and reputation as the chief bait rather than a promise of footballing freedom or trophies. Should the internal power battles resolve, fifth or worse will make van Gaal’s departure simple to justify and any subsequent recruitment will inform the direction the club wants to move. Jose Mourinho will feel like a grab for glory, Ryan Giggs an ill-conceived rabbit in the headlights of Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut and another viable candidate in Mauricio Pochettino seems smart and comfortable enough to resist overtures. Sticking with van Gaal would arguably be a brave choice but there are a subset of fans that can see beneath the surface failures and understand the strengths in his style. It may well be that he–or indeed any replacement– is perennially limited by the quality in the squad and longer term reflection will look on this period in Manchester United’s history as one of prolonged adjustment, both of expectation and team building. That they are far away from title contention is hard to refute, and the journey back to the summit could be a long one.     __________________________________ Thanks for reading! Enjoy this? Try my analysis on Tottenham Follow me on twitter @jair1970

The Downfall of Genoa

genova From 1096 to 1797 the Republic of Genoa was one of the most powerful city-states in Italy and Europe. Alongside Venice, Pisa and Amalfi, it was one of the Maritime Republics, independent entities provided with a fleet of ships both for their own protection and to support their rich and extensive trade networks all over the Mediterranean Sea. During the 16th century Genoa flourished under the government of the admiral Andrea Doria (one of the two teams which in 1946 merged to form Sampdoria was named after him) but after reaching its peak the Republic fell in 1797, when Napoleone Bonaparte established the Ligurian Republic. In the 2014/2015 football season the region flourished much like it had in the 16th century: Genoa finished sixth on the table, with three points more than city rivals Sampdoria, who placed 7th but still qualified for the Europa League play-offs at the expense of the Rossoblu, who were denied a UEFA licence by the FIGC. Both Genoese teams outdid AC Milan and Inter Milan in the league table. Less than a year after, we find both teams nowhere near the same level of performance, much less results: Genoa and Sampdoria are experiencing far lesser seasons with both teams collecting just 31 points from 28 matches, and even though they both won last weekend, they are still fighting to avoid relegation. Genoa CFC A typical Genoa transfer merry-go-round took place once again during last two transfer windows. Practically every six months the Genoa roster is revolutionised and the only certainty in the Rossoblu dressing room is the manager Gian Piero Gasperini, at the helm since September 2013, after a previous spell lasted from 2006 to 2010, in which his devoted 3-4-3  brought Genoa back to the Italian top tier. Last season’s 6th place was the second best result of Gasperini’s managerial career as well as Genoa second best placement since they came back to Serie A (in 2008-2009 with Thiago Motta and Diego Milito at their disposal the Grifo clinched 5th spot). Seven out of the eleven players with the most minutes played last season are no longer part of the squad, including top scorer Iago Falqué (13 goals, 5 assists) and Diego Perotti (3.8 dribbles & 2.1 key passes per 90 last season, 4.7 dribbles & 2.8 key passes p90 this term prior to January). Both eventually found themselves sold to AS Roma and also departing was Andrea Bertolacci whose contribution to the cause consisted of 8 goals and 5 assists before being acquired by AC Milan for a reported fee of €20 million (the Rossoblu got just €8.5 million from the sale, since the midfielder was in co-ownership with Roma). Genoa ended the 2014/2015 championship with the 6th best attack (62 goals scored) and the 8th best defence (47 goals conceded), but their underlying numbers weren’t exceptionally good. Screen Shot 03-07-16 at 11.55 PM In 14/15 they had only the 11th most shots (12.9 per game), while conceding the 9th least shots (13.1 per game). Both of their shot ratios were beneath the 50% mark, while an above average conversion rate (12.7%) and an all shot PDO of 1032 reinforced the hypothesis they collected some sort of debt with Lady Luck. This season things have quickly turned ugly for Gasperini and his team. Practically, Genoa got worse in every offensive stat I looked at. A slightly improved rate of saving all shots, hasn’t been enough to compensate for their attacking deterioration. Shots taken have fallen around a unit to 12.0 per game, while their shots conceded practically remained the same. None of these underlying stats declines are critical in themselves but the positive variance which sustained Genoa’s run to the 6th place last term has vanished completely. Indeed the Grifo suffered a huge – 4.37% drop in their conversion rate, which is now under league average at just 8.33%. Genoa not only lost 49 of the 62 goals scored last season in the last two transfer windows, but have also missed their main goal-scoring outlet, Leonardo Pavoletti, for a large portion of this season, since the ex-Sassuolo striker has played just 1300 out of the 2520 minutes available and he’s now once again out injured. When fit he has been incredible for Genoa, scoring 0.69 non-penalty goals per 90 or if you prefer, 10 of the 28 goals of the Rossoblu. Not only Pavoletti is very strong in the air as his 4 headed-goals can confirm (he wins 5.5 aerial duels per 90, 54% of the total), but he also showed a natural predilection for the Danger Zone in his shot-selection, which definitely propelled his goal-scoring tally.

Leonardo Pavoletti 2015/16 Serie A shots plot
Leonardo Pavoletti 2015/16 Serie A shots plot
In January, Gasperini searched the market for a carbon-copy of Pavoletti and came up with Tim Matavz, another 188cm tall striker, but the Slovenian is still looking for his first goal with his new team and despite just 279 minutes hasn’t yet showed himself able to provide the same shot volume of his colleague (3.2 vs 1.0 shots p90 in favour of the Italian). Rolling the dice on the market is a difficult strategy to sustain over a number of consecutive seasons and this year Genoa’s gamble would have surely turned costly without lesser teams like Frosinone, Carpi and Verona in the league. Safeness is still around a dozen points away, and it is somewhat fortunate that the performance of the other struggling teams is of such a low level that I would be very surprised if Genoa were relegated. UC Sampdoria In contrast to their rivals, Sampdoria didn’t start the season with the same manager who led them during a successful 2014-15: Sinisa Mihajlovic didn’t renew his contract with the Blucerchiati and signed for AC Milan, replacing Filippo Inzaghi on the Rossoneri bench. In response Sampdoria appointed another ex-Inter player, Walter Zenga. In the first game of the season Sampdoria were defeated 4-0 at home by Vojvodina of Serbia and despite a 2-0 win in the return leg they were immediately eliminated from the Europa League. Their Serie A start seemed better as they collected seven points from their first three games, despite being resoundingly out-shot by their opponents in their first two matches. Indeed they won 5-2 vs. Carpi shooting 10 times and conceding 25 and drew 2-2 vs. Napoli with 9 shots fired and 27 faced. This worrying trend was a constant during Zenga’s reign, which unsurprisingly came to an end in November: the Spiderman was fired after a 2-0 loss in Florence. His record at Samp (4W 4D 4L) was pretty bad given the supposed quality of the team, but their underlying numbers were even worse.
Zenga's record at Samp
Zenga’s record at Samp
In twelve games the Blucerchiati kept just a single clean sheet. They registered a scarily low 37.4% total shot ratio, but a huge 14.7% conversion rate added together with a 92.1% all shot save rate crowned them as one of the Serie A teams which benefited most from variance, despite turning that into just 16 points. I don’t know if Sampdoria chairman Massimo Ferrero consulted analytics before removing Zenga from his role, but his decision had all my support, especially because he signed Vincenzo Montella, probably the best Italian manager available at that moment. Yet even with Montella on the bench Samp perpetuated their bad form. The ex-Fiorentina manager favours a possession-oriented style of play, and it’s not easy to implement such principles on the run, in a team with not his ideal personnel. Little by little, Samp are offering better performances both from a tactical and analytical point of view, but so far Montella has won just four times (including a 3-2 victory over Genoa in the Derby della Lanterna) and collected 15 points in 16 games. To make things worse in January they lost their striker Eder, who had contributed 10 goals and 2 assists in 19 games; he moved to FC Internazionale. However as I said Sampdoria have improved under Montella, especially in terms of shooting dominance. Their shots per game went up from 10.8 to 12.3 and they got considerably better defensively moving from a terrible 18.0 (!) to 13.2 shots conceded per game. Their seasonal shot ratio has now improved to 43.2% and three games ago their a rolling five games average for total shots ratio finally passed the 50% mark for the first time. Screen Shot 03-07-16 at 11.47 PM Taken overall Sampdoria have become obviously worse than last season and are comparatively worse than Genoa. It’s true that they improved their scoring production to 1.50 goals per game, but that seemed likely to be because of variance, by way of a seasonal conversion rate a shade under 13%, rather than skill. Screen Shot 03-07-16 at 11.52 PM 001 Oddly their all shot PDO is more or less the same as last season (1022), when their main strength was Mihajlović efficient defensive system, as their above average 2014/15 all shot save rate (91.91% ) confirmed. Recently with two crucial wins in a row against two relegation candidates, Frosinone and Verona, Sampdoria eased up some pressure and finally we are seeing Montella harvesting some fruits of his work. In my opinion Sampdoria is on a better level than Genoa in term of personnel, and unless we see a miracle from Frosinone, will stay in Serie A with their rivals. Sampdoria’s bad underlying numbers reflect Zenga’s substandard managing–he has hardly gone on to success elsewhere, recently resigning from his new job as Al Shaab manager after losing nine games out of 11– and the delicate process of learning of Montella ambitious style is only slowly impacting. Sampdoria have paid heavily for their summer gamble (Zenga’s debated appointment) with a disastrous season. Conclusion This Genoese football golden age was just ephemeral and once more the Republic has declined. Genoa and Sampdoria dreamed to reinforce their rare superiority over Milan’s teams only to see that fall away after just a handful of games. In less than year both clubs moved from potentially competing in an European competition to fighting to stay in the league. On top of that, both squads lost some of their best players, and given their precarious financial situation, the two clubs will likely proceed with their disinvestment policy, in order to pay their debts. In all fairness, future doesn’t seem bright for Genoese football.

Has Pochettino Built A Sustainably Good Tottenham Team?

Four defeats in 29 games, second place behind er.. Leicester, fewest goals conceded and second highest scorers, we reach early March with the health of Tottenham’s season looking undeniably perky. Regardless of the failings of others, to reach this point and be having non-comedic conversations about the potential of this team to win the title is unusual, so much so that it has almost been forgotten how far the team has risen and that a top four slot was a high ambition back in August.

So what the hell happened? Last season Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb habitually formed a guard of honour in central midfield and made life far too easy for the opposition. They have now been largely relegated to the fringes and replaced by the deceptively child-like visage of converted centre-back Eric Dier and whomever sits alongside. Chances are far less simple to find for visitors down at the Lane, or indeed anywhere else this team rolls up. Work ethic, shots–a lot of them–and dominance are the order of the day. So what is the limit for this side? Is this the start of a golden era or are we just looking at yet another strange feature of this odd season, a Tottenham that no longer crumbles at the first sign of pressure?

What came before

Last season was, in the world of performance metrics, pretty grim. At no point did Tottenham project to be anything much more than an upper mid-table side, various expected goal models pegged them around eighth or ninth, as did general shot analysis. Not good, yet somehow, in a signal of things to come, other teams failed to translate performance into points and the team ended up fifth with a slightly bemused fan base not sure whether to credit the finishing position or bemoan the grim method. Summer transfer dealings were necessary and early moves saw defensive selections. Eventually, Toby Alderweireld, Heung-Min Son, Kevin Wimmer, Kieren Trippier and N’Jie Clinton were purchased alongside the delayed arrival of some kid from the lower leagues, Dele Alli. Primary complaints involved the lack of a Harry Kane alternative for the front line and expectation was muted. Of those signed, Clinton apart, each has had a role to play and unusually none can be considered to have had an unsuccessful year.

Meanwhile, leaving with passports in hand were an array of presumably shirking types, out of love with the barracks mentality of Pochettino and off to continue their footballing lives in Guangzhou, Naples, Sunderland and “unattached”.

Zero wins in the first four games including an unfortunate defeat at Old Trafford and a dismal wobble to allow Stoke to draw made it appear that little had changed. However, a couple of 1-0s and the eyecatching 4-1 demolition of Manchester City showed there was a little more going on; maybe this team was quite good?

Embers are glowing

In a warm but cautious appraisal of a promising start back in November, it was starting to look clear that pre-season hopes of “something a bit better” were undershooting reality. Lots of early draws kept wider recognition away and  at that point, with Chelsea’s season already resembling a fire in a park bin, Tottenham looked like they had a reasonable shot at the top four: the top end of the more pragmatic of predictions. And as time has moved on, they have found themselves ensconced towards the top end of the table, with a cushion to teams beneath. If we take a look at the shot metrics, there’s a good argument that they have actually underperformed.

All the shots, all the time

 

spurs pts gd

 

What can we take from this and the numbers that form it?

  • In 2014-15, goal difference and shot numbers oscillated around zero, at times better, at times worse, generally quite average.
  • Points were more consistent, Tottenham went 14-7-7 in games decided by a maximum of one goal, which meant they were turning a moderate goal difference into points at an extremely solid rate
  • In 2015-16, goal difference is a step above (+0.13 per game 2014-15 to +0.93 per game 2015-16) and the shot volumes have taken off. So much so that over the last 10-12 games, Tottenham are averaging around +10 shots  and +5 shots on target per game against their opposition.
  • Their all shot and on target volumes lead the league as does their rate of preventing the opposition getting shots on target.
  • Put into perspective Tottenham’s season long shot on target superiority (+3.7 per game) is greater than eight Premier League 2015-16 teams’ entire shots on target volume. It is also a clear second of 140 teams in the Enlightened Era (2009-10 to date), a massive~0.6 shots on target per game ahead of three Manchester City teams–including two title winners– from 2011-12 onwards.
  • Tottenham are forcing opposition keepers to make over five saves per game, more than any team in this same logged era.

So when we look at charts and numbers like these and reflect on the exalted company this team appears to be in, it begs the question: why isn’t this team crushing the league? Firstly and simply, the close games in which Tottenham had such a good record in last season haven’t broken as kindly: they are running at 6-10-4. The volume of time spent as a clearly superior team drawing in games likely feeds somewhat into the enhanced shot volumes and more than once, it has been noticeable that Tottenham have changed their strategy once securing a lead and turned quickly to defend. In fact, the derby against Arsenal is a microcosm of the entire season; Tottenham took 26 shots and found the target 11 times compared to Arsenal’s ten and four. Clear shooting superiority yet a close, and ultimately drawn game.

That Handsome Man

The elephant in the room here is a team that sits in among those Manchester City teams referred to in that previous paragraph. It also offers a clue to the disconnect between this season’s shot volumes and success. Tottenham’s 2012-13 side, managed by Andre Villas Boas, was even more shot heavy yet in a stronger league and powered by Gareth Bale could only finish 5th. However, parallels are far from ridiculous:

tottenham two seasons

Check out the points!

So as far as alienating comparisons go, this one is pretty big but maybe history should be kinder towards Villas-Boas’ ability to organise a disparate rabble of players around Gareth Bale and be this good.  They lost three of their last 26 games too, their middle and end of season was as strong as this season’s start and middle. No capable team in recent history took shots from outside the box like that Villas Boas team, ignoring location and encouraging volume appeared to be part of his method and it’s hard to definitively state that in that season it did not work. Sadly, Bale departed and 2013-14 saw a complete breakdown of method and belief.

Expected goals, accuracy and locations

So what has this to do with Pochettino’s team? If we look at an all shot expected goals model, we find Tottenham rate around 3rd best in the league, which reflects that while they have volume, they have found it harder to create shots in closer locations. A large part of Tottenham’s shot volume in comparison to other strong shooting teams is coming from outside the box. Think Christian Eriksen firing a free kick on target from literally anywhere in the final third of the pitch, or Harry Kane attempting a shot (not against Arsenal) from 25 yards.  These are regular but low expectation opportunities and Tottenham take a hell of a lot of them.  Here we can see Eriksen from range in particular:

 

eriksen sot

(create your own charts for your own favourite players HERE)

 

The rate in which shots have been landing on target is extremely high–40%: the highest rate in the league, and so high that it would be perfectly reasonable to expect this to reduce over time. Harry Kane is the highest volume shooter in the league this year with 116 shots taken at a rate of 4.1 per game. Of these shots, 47% have landed on target; up from 40% in his hot breakthrough season. Eriksen had bad accuracy last year (27% on target) but has leaped forward this season, he also leads the league in out of box attempts (53, 2.2 per game) and has an all shot accuracy of 48%, higher even than Kane and despite a huge volume from range. A classic example of a metric that can fluctuate over relatively small samples. With these two taking nearly 40% of Tottenham’s total shots, the influence of their accurate shooting on team rates is clear.

Reflections of location can also be found in the conversions. This team converts all shots at no more than a league average rate and for on target efforts is actually notably under par. There is room for a positive skew here and this being a frequent hallmark of a championship challengers, it should come as no surprise that Leicester are the only contending team to be significantly ahead of average here.

Goal contributions- assists and goals- are spread around the core of attackers. A fluid interchangeable front four has been largely populated by five players: Eriksen is running at 0.55/90, Kane is at 0.46/90, Alli 0.60/90, Lamela 0.42/90 and Son 0.31/90. Even Chadli, largely used as back up is at 0.52/90. Since the injury to Clinton, there have been fewer options but everyone has contributed.

Defence

The one unarguable difference between this team and any iteration of Andre Villas Boas’ Spurs or Pochettino’s first season is in defence. The signing of Toby Alderweireld seems to have been key and his partnership with first Jan Vertonghen and more recently Kevin Wimmer can be toasted by the best defensive record in the league, only 24 goals conceded. But perhaps equally important was the deployment of Eric Dier into a screening midfield role, a position that was inhabited during 2014-15 by a vapour trail.

Tottenham’s opposition have secured only 3.1 shots on target per game, which is the lowest and best in the league and this is an area where expected goals agrees: Tottenham have conceded the fewest goals both in reality and in expectation. As well, no team has secured more than four shots on target in a game against them since Manchester City in their 4-1 defeat on the 26th September, a sterling and impressive run and a strong indicator of defensive consistency. People may also be aware that the team has not been two goals behind in a fixture all season, where all other Premier League teams have spent time at least three behind. Defeats have been rare, narrow and on occasion unfortunate.

Team ethic and methodology

For so many years Tottenham have appeared as a non-coherent team, with talented individuals but without an effective group ethic. Often there have been players banished from the squad, fighting to secure transfers away and generally spoiling the ambiance. It seems that under Pochettino this is- at least for now- a thing of the past. Team and methodology are everything.  There is a core squad of at least 16 players that can start a game on merit without a noticeable reduction in quality and a handful of others slightly further down the pecking order.

Evidence of the press employed can be seen in the opposition pass success rates: the lowest in the league (70.7%) and more advanced methods endorse the same. Tactical fouling appears to be part of the style too, Tottenham have made the third most fouls and received the second most yellow cards but are yet to have a man sent off.

Sustainability

The increase in Tottenham’s performance levels from last season to this are so extreme that there is a solid argument that Pochettino has improved Tottenham to a greater degree than Claudio Ranieri has improved Leicester. Aspects of Leicester’s success have been built from a remarkable sequence of beneficial skews: first scoring at an extremely high and unsustainable rate then following it up with a rate of goal prevention at a similarly high and unsustainable rate. Their underlying performance metrics peg them as a Europa League challenger and reversion to that level, if not lower, seems almost certain for next season. That is not a slight on their achievements but the context is there.  In contrast, Tottenham have built their challenge differently; by enhancing both their attack and defence and moving both their outputs and methods from the lowly levels of 2014-15 to genuine league challenging levels.  In any season this Tottenham side would likely be residing in the top four, whereas it seems that Leicester have found a perfect storm only in this season, their chance to repeat is slim.

One aspect that is less likely to sustain is success from set pieces. With fifteen goals for and only five against, a +10 goal difference in this area leads the league. Of their top four rivals, only Arsenal have a positive goal difference here (+3) and rates of set piece conversion are well renowned for being non-reliable and unlikely to intrinsically repeat. While Eriksen is a quality contributor here and again we can see his importance, it is unwise to presume that such an advantage can be maintained moving forward into further seasons.

Prospects

The leap in performance is huge but prospects are likely good. The team is young and developing, it needs little remedial work in the summer and while Eriksen and Kane are the current jewels, that players like Lamela and Alli and a rejuvenated Dembele have taken their share of responsibility mean that this isn’t the one man team of 2012-13.  Champions League qualification and a successful project are each huge carrots to dangle for the prospective retention of both coach and star players and Pochettino seems genuinely invested in his project; it would be surprising to see him tempted away. Maybe only Eriksen is vulnerable to outside bids? There is talk that he has a contract offer and his worth has gone slightly under the radar. His reputation isn’t quite as high as that of Luka Modric prior to his move away, for all that he is equally key.

With nine games to try and overhaul Leicester’s five point lead and some tricky fixtures, it’s possible that the title may be beyond them. Concerns about the sheer physicality of Pochettino’s style causing late season tiredness remain, though it would be a harsh assessment to note the defeat at West Ham and late concession to ten-man Arsenal as indicative of this. Borussia Dortmund will offer a unique test in the forthcoming Europa League tie and the squad depth will be well tested.

Expectation should be tempered against a wider perspective. When measured against shooting metrics and the likelihood of a team improving year-on-year, this team has come from further away than Liverpool’s 2013-14 team to bid for glory and has done so with a steady defence and high attacking shot volumes. That’s an enormous achievement in itself and projects positively going forward. Liverpool lost Suarez and had huge room to revert, much like Leicester now, but Tottenham’s potential is perceptibly different, their rise has been built on stronger foundations and even a drop back should see them continuing to challenge for Champions League places in years to come. Manchester United and Liverpool continue to be in flux, Chelsea are in repair and while a Guardiola fuelled Manchester City look likely to contend well, the top four is more fluid than it has been at any point this century. Spurs are well placed to capitalise and in advance of their stadium move, consolidate.  It should be remembered that for 2015-16, top four is a success, second or third even moreso and whether they manage to win the title or not, they have managed to put together a genuinely high quality season, with a strong likelihood of more to come.

__________________________________________

Thanks for reading Follow me on twitter

@jair1970

Major League Soccer 2016 Preview

A new season in Major League Soccer – a new chance at statistical volatility. Although it’s traditionally a league that bettors are generally scared of, we’ll try to make it easier to digest. A brief preview of every team in the league is necessary to create an understanding of what we’re getting ourselves into and it looks to be an interesting year. So, here we go.

Chicago Fire

The Fire were awful last year – the team with the lowest points total and the worst GD in MLS. So what do they do? They hire a promising, young coach in Valjko Paunovic, who guided Serbia to a U20 World Cup trophy in 2015, clean out players deemed excess to team plans (including fan favorite Harry Shipp), deliver a new identity to how the team will play and preach about a long-term project.

 

chicago fire 2015 xa ga

 

Although the GD was bad, they had the largest negative differential between xGA and GA according to the American Soccer Analysis xG model. Paunovic will look to instill discipline, work rate and shape starting on the defensive side of the ball then progressing via the counter-attack. A young, but talented back line with 3 new players is a sign of promise, but also commitment to the project.

Philadelphia Union

Another club with a changed vision in the offseason, Philadelphia gave the reins to Earnie Stewart, an ex-US international who was previously ‘Director of Football Affairs’ for AZ Alkmaar. But, Earnie has some work to do because the Union can’t hold onto the ball. Although possession percentages can be over emphasized, the fact that they had they worst Possession% and 4th worst PassCompletion% in MLS last year points towards technical inferiority. Philadelphia had the 2nd and 3rd picks in the MLS Superdraft (an American player draft system populated by domestic players) and used it on 2 defenders from the same University. These additions will allow their best and most commanding player, Maurice Edu, to be pushed into a holding midfield role to address issues with ball retention.

Colorado Rapids

Colorado looked to the transfer market to boost their odds of getting out of the basement in the MLS table, placing 2nd from bottom of the table in the 2015 season. Albanian international and ex-Basel attacker, Shkelzen Gashi was brought in along with Marco Pappa, an integral part of the recent Seattle Sounders attacking success, to produce in the final third. Colorado scored 33 goals last season – worst in the league and 10 fewer than 2nd least potent club.

And, unfortunately the Rapids will be missing this from their manager Pablo Mastroeni as the beautiful lip caterpillar was shaved and torn away from mustache fans everywhere. So, for whatever that is worth.

 

pablo mustach crop

 

NYCFC

As Manchester City’s younger brother, or cousin or sister, NYCFC has some big shoes to fill as far as embracing the standards and image of their more formidable family member. But, they’ve compiled a team full of big names, with big contracts and have failed to consider how the pieces fit. The strategy of increasing wage inequality by signing ‘Designated Players‘ has been largely unsuccessful, as well as the dependence on DP’s to provide such success. Patrick Viera is in his first position and season as a manager, Pirlo is 36 and doesn’t want to defend, the club hasn’t found the right position for Lampard to compliment his talent and surrounding players, and the defense conceded the most shots against per game (14.8) in MLS. It smells like confusion, misguided market purchases and a very high ceiling of expectation.

 

RSL

 

beckerman decline

 

A club used to making the playoffs, imposing their structural will and fluidly possession the ball in their 4-4-2 diamond shape struggled in 2015 with just that – shape. Manager Jeff Cassar unsuccessfully transitioned RSL to a trendy 4-3-3 for arguably justifiable reasons, but it didn’t pan out.

The shifted priority to Plata as their main goal scoring threat, as a winger who likes to tuck inside and combine with the interior of the formation, combined with the general decline of midfield general Kyle Beckerman’s stats and mobility over the past 3 seasons justified the change. It looks as though Cassar will stick with the 4-3-3, it’s hard to think Plata won’t produce more than he did in 2015 and a full season of ex-Boca Juniors player Juan ‘Burrito’ Martinez prescribes an improved campaign.

Houston Dynamo

After no real improvement from 2014, the Houston Dynamo were a mediocre team across the board last season. With poor shot creation numbers (11.1 ShotsFor/g – 17th in MLS), inability to connect phases of attack (372 Passes/g – 19th in MLS, 24% of passes were inaccurate – 13th in MLS), and the worst GA (49) in the Western Conference, it was a rough year. The Dynamo brought in attacking midfielder Cristian Maidana from Philadelphia to bolster their attack, but as Matt Doyle pointed out, that strategy has it’s issues and seems to be a sketchy focal point.

Orlando

Along with NYCFC, Orlando City SC was the other expansion club in MLS’ 2015 season. The addition of  Kaka, US international Brek Shea and a host full of young talent saw them 1 position displaced from the playoffs. Kaka came out of the gates flying in his initial season in the league with 9 Goals and 2 Assists in 18 appearances but was then hindered by injury thereafter.

The club wouldn’t trade Kaka for anyone in the league, but can’t rely on him to perform wonders through a whole season. The onus will be placed on 20-year-old Kyle Larin and newly acquired, ex-AC Milan player, Antonio Nocerino to provide goals and dynamism in the final third.

San Jose

San Jose’s back 4 were solid in 2015, accumulating 39 GA which was good for 5th best in MLS. They were competitive throughout the season and their trusty, wile veteran of a striker, Chris Wondolowski had his best goal return (16) since 2012.

With one decent re-acquisition in the offeason (Simon Dawkins returning to the club from the English Football League Championship), not a lot will change with the Earthquakes in 2016. More streaky, defensive showcases anchored by a CB pairing, with hoping that Wondolowski can still bang in goals at 33 years old will be the mantra.

NE Revolution

After a 2014 campaign that saw the New England Revolution make it to the MLS Cup Finals, the 2015 season fell flat. Swings in form resulting in the longest unbeaten (9 games) and losing (5 games) runs were strong indications of an unbalanced side.

After some off-field contractual issues, Jermaine Jones and the club were unable to agree on a deal that has left the US international off of the roster. In the meantime, they have acquired Xavier Kouassi from Swiss side FC Scion and Gershon Koffie from the Vancouver Whitecaps to fulfill the Jones chasm.

 

They will miss: horizontal and vertical range, although sometimes uncalled for.

 

jones range ne

 

They will get: offensive, positional discipline.

 

koffie discipline middle van

 

The Revolution will miss the robustness of Jones’ play, but if Agudelo fulfills 2/3 of his potential and both Nguyen and Fegundez return to peak 2014 form they will be a dangerous side.

SKC

A season that brought the club their third US Open Cup, Sporting Kansas City had an underwhelming season by their lofty standards. US international Benny Feilhaber and Hungary international Kriztian Nemeth absolutely ran the offensive show, accounting for 20 G and 17 A.

Nemeth was lost in the offseason and reinforcements but not replacements were made. Not specifically addressing the loss of central, offensive output will hurt SKC in 2016, but the guts of their midfield might be the best in the league.

LAG

 

lag mls cups

 

Besides NYCFC, the LA Galaxy might be the most confusing and hard to predict team in MLS. Manager Bruce Arena has proven he has an uncanny sense of the proper pace of maturation within a team throughout a season and the ability to cut and paste players into his fold.

So, all you European football fans out there, the Galaxy have: Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole and Nigel De Jong all on their books. What does this sum to? Well so far Robbie Keane has been among the top scorers in the league for years, Steven Gerrard had a miserable but small sample size of 2015 and a bad 2016 preseason, no one knows what Ashley Cole has left in the tank and it’s Nigel De Jong’s debut. Make of it what you wish.

DCU

It’s going to be a rough season for DC United. They were leading the Eastern Conference out of the gate in 2015, racking up 1-0 wins like a Tony Pulis relegation rescue job – but it was a false position and ended up being unsustainable. In the offseason they lost one of the most underrated players in MLS in Perry Kitchen, they once again have done a poor job on the international market and this might be Ben Olsen’s last season as manager of DC United.

Seattle Sounders

Two players dominated the headlines for the Seattle Sounders in the offseason: Jordan Morris and Obafemi Martins. The 21-year-old US international landed the largest, homegrown contract in MLS after turning down an offer from Werder Bremen, but Seattle simultaneously shipped out Obafemi Martins who has been the club’s leading scorer over the past 2 seasons.

So, can they score goals without a crucial striker while averaging a league low 9.6 Shots/g from 2015? I think they can. Clint Dempsey will shoulder the responsibility of an offensive edge, add in Morris and newly acquired Austria international Andreas Ivanschitz and they’ll be banging them in.

Toronto FC

Toronto FC has a real shot at competing for Eastern Conference in 2016. After a 2015 season where Sebastian Giovinco had the best MLS season ever, it’s hard seeing him reproduce such numbers (22 G, 13 A ; 1.1 G+A/90). Enter the second year of the club’s project with a hopefully healthier, US international Jozy Altidore, US captain Michael Bradley, sprinkle in some MLS veterans such as Canadian international Will Johnson, Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour and you get a solid group.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Vancouver’s fantastic 2015 season came to an abrupt end by losing to the eventual, tournament victors in the second round. They are piecing it together on the West coast of Canada and their doing it with stout a stout defense and sharp, counter attacking waves.

Conceding a league best 36 G and accumulating the most counter-attacking goals is a deadly mix, but difficult to sustain unless they continue to significantly upgrade positions and signs point toward this in 2016. Vancouver have brought in Panama international and proven MLS goal hound Blas Perez along with Japan international Masato Kudo to aid in the goal scoring department and to fill out the top half of the roster.

Columbus Crew SC

All hail the runners up? Damn. Columbus had a good run in 2015, but couldn’t quite cut it against an in form Portland Timbers side in the end. They had some standouts though: Kei Kamara tying for leagues top goal scorer (22), Toni Tchani cemented himself as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in MLS,

 

columbus crew 2015

 

Wil Trapp came back from injury and continued to grow into the efficient ball circulator in the #6 pocket that he promises to be.

Of the two MLS Cup finalists, I’m most bullish on Columbus – but I’m not sure if Kamara can keep the scoring up at that clip.

FC Dallas

Maybe the most exciting team in MLS, FC Dallas’ young core is maturing and the club is adding the right pieces. Now with one of the best spines in the league (Hedges-Ulloa-Diaz-Urruti) by adding Newell’s Old Boys youth product Maximiliano Urruti at the tip of their formation, Dallas might have the whole package.

 

diaz weight of pass

Everyone will talk about the flashy, Colombian international Fabian Castillo, but Mauro Diaz is who makes the side tick. In 2015 he was at or near the top of every significant passing statistic (11 Assists, 2.5 KeyP/g, 0.7 ThrB/g) and weights passes like this:

Montreal Impact

After finishing dead last in MLS the previous season, 2015 saw large and important strides taken by the Montreal Impact. The club finished 3rd in the Eastern Conference and had the 2nd lowest GA (44) total of any playoff team from the conference.

11 goals in 11 games from Didier Drogba is absurd, and unsustainable. It’s unclear what percentage of minutes Drogba will play for the Impact in 2016, but he will undoubtedly be a crucial part to their front 3. The addition of Harry Shipp as a playmaker who plays wide or centrally should make up for the loss of Justin Mapp. The CB pairing of Ciman (2015 MLS Defender of the Year) and Cabrera should propel them to another, defensively stout season.

New York Red Bulls

After a tumultuous offseason prior to the 2015 season, New York Red Bulls proved all season long that they were the best team in the league. Although they fell short in the playoffs, NYRB implemented and stuck to a high pressing, 4-2-3-1 system that allowed little time for the opposition to breath and allowed for high xG numbers through turnovers.

 

NYRB xg 2015

 

They’ve maintained most players in the second year of the project, with Jesse Marsch at the helm, but in important swap at CB has been made which might make less of a difference than people are willing to admit. Matt Miazga made his way to Chelsea in the offseason, as NYRB acquired Ghanean international Gideon Baah. Miazga was on the shortlist for defender of the year in 2015, and I rate him highly, but the cover the system provided NYRB’s back 4 through work rate and structure was intentional. The back line might struggle in open-space, where Miazga excelled, and could prove to be their downfall.

It’s hard to imagine the 2016 regular season going any better than in 2015, as I think the side will regress but still be a force in the Eastern Conference.

Portland Timbers

Can the defending MLS champions repeat? Absolutely not.

Alright that was harsh, but: no MLS champions has repeated since 2012 and that was an LA Galaxy team with an excessive budget and a history of championships and if it wasn’t for a late, end of the season surge winning four of their last five game they wouldn’t have made the playoffs in a league where 60% of teams in a conference make the playoffs.

They will be strong contenders, they will be a force in the Western Conference and their best players will only get better. Fanendo Adi should continue to score goals, US international Darlington Nagbe should mature into one of the best players in the country and Diego Valeri is 29 and continues to produce with the elite #10’s in the league.

Predictions are dangerous territory in MLS, and therefore I will mostly stay away from them. But, here are a couple of points I will regret: Portland won’t repeat as champions, Real Salt Lake will improve, Toronto will vie for the Eastern Conference and DC United will struggle to more correctly reflect their underlying numbers. Now that I’ve set myself up for disaster, let the season begin.