Modeling Shot Profiles: Arsenal And Tottenham Are Different

x-plus-one There were two impetuses for this. The first was Arsenal. That’s usually the case. It’s a completely rational response to the frustration caused by watching a Wenger-managed team week after week. If you bury yourself deep enough in the individual trees of observation you’ll totally miss the forest of ennui. The other option is to drink. If you go back and canvass last season’s week-by-week EPL title predictions floating around the Twittersphere, you’ll find that many of those models generally loved Arsenal almost up until the day when it was mathematically impossible for them to win the Premier League. But most of those models don’t have any defensive information or, if they try to impute it, it’s probably coming up short. Models that were largely expected-goals-based were probably loving Arsenal because they were probably over-estimating the probability Arsenal’s shots were ending up as goals. And that’s because, well, they were. That’s an insightful tautology, huh? But at this point a bot could manage against Arsenal. Put 10 men behind the ball and defend while they try to walk the ball into the net for 70 minutes. Then, when they start pressing for a winner because the clock is winding down and they are getting frustrated, hit them on the counter 1. And it’s my contention—possibly with an assist from confirmation bias—that no team sees a defense like that as consistently as Arsenal. A shot against a defense with four guys in the box has a higher probability of getting scored as a goal than a shot against a defensive with eight guys in the box. That’s not a guess. Not all datasets lack defensive info. In another post on Statsbomb Dustin Ward started generating his own (scroll down to the subsection title ‘Box Density’). It was crude, but still, it produced maybe the single most important result last season (that I saw anyway). He tracked Stuttgart’s Bundesliga shots for and against by hand (seriously, that level of commitment is both laudable and baffling) and found that, on shots under 20 yards, just the difference between having 4 or fewer defenders vs. 5 or more defenders in the box caused a 1/3rd drop in the percentage of shots to score. If we assume that Arsenal are indeed consistently facing more defenders in the box more often, then their shots have a lower probability of being scored than a model built on entire league-seasons would predict. Not only that, but they would also get shots blocked at a higher rate. We can’t really calculate the entirety of the former (that would be in the defensive info that we’s missing), but we can capture a bit of it in the latter. To do that we build a three term model where we calculate the probability that a shot ends up 1) on target 2) off target or 3) blocked 2. This is roughly analogous to Three True Outcomes in baseball. If you’re shooting in soccer you can’t really control whether the keeper makes a save or not, all you can control is whether or not you get it on target (necessary but not sufficient for scoring)3. Here we’re taking shot data and just re-slicing it in a way to model what number of shots ‘should’ get blocked (along with a couple of other things). But we’re theorizing that is going to be wrong for Arsenal. They routinely encounter enough extra men packed in the box against them that they are going to see more of their shots blocked than a model lacking defensive info would predict. three_outcome_shots

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    And we’re right (see the above). They did see more blocked shots. The model predicts Arsenal should have had 145.2 shots blocked whereas in actual game play they had 164, a difference of just under 19 (column names should be self-explanatory; ‘Pred’ is short for ‘Predicted’, ‘pct’ for ‘percent’, and ‘Diff’ for ‘Difference’). That might be worth as many as 4 points on the table4. That’s probably not enough of a difference to explain why the models were so wrong for so long. The other, more likely answer is that 38 games is just big enough for us to think our models are useful, but small enough for the massive amounts of deviance to remind us otherwise5. The other impetus for this piece was a tweet by James Yorke, which itself is actually just shot a map from Paul Riley.

Look at that Eriksen map. All those shots on target from outside the box. That’s insane, right? Well, it turns out Riley only uses shots on target, so that’s all he’s plotting. Assuming they take enough shots, anyone could look like they are lethal from distance. D’oh. Still, my kneejerk idiocy doesn’t change the question: How often should shots from distance end up on target? ‘Bad’ shots should have a lower probability of ending up on target (if you don’t believe that, watch Philippe Coutinho for, oh, at least a half or, better yet, rewatch England play Iceland). If a player takes lots of those shots, he’ll end up with fewer on target than someone who takes the same number while parked inside the six. That Eriksen plot might still be ridiculous, depending on how many shots he has taken. And, by summing on individual players instead of teams, we can use the same model from above to examine just that. Turns out, it was pretty ridiculous. By the model, Eriksen should have put 27.77 of his 100 shots on target last season. He put 41 on target. As a percentage of total shots, he was second in the league only to Yannick Bolasie. The more important question is: Is that repeatable? To answer that, we sum over multiple seasons, then plot one season on the x-axis, and the subsequent season on the y-axis and we get the quasi-amorphous blob of a chart below6. The x-axis is the percentage of excess (or deficit) shots on target relative to the total for any given player. The y-axis is the same number in the following season. The colors are for the three different paired seasons (12-13 to 13-14 (red), 13-14 to 14-15 (blue), and 14-15 to 15-16 (green)). x-plus-one

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    For example, the red-colored point sitting up near the top of the chart labelled “Aaron Ramsey”? That represents Aaron Ramsey. Clever, no? In the 2012-13 season, the model predicts that Ramsey should have put 15.1 of his 46 shots on target. In the real world, Ramsey only managed to get 12 of his shots on target7. So he was -3.1 away from the target, or -6.74% of the total (-3.1/46). The following season, we get a predicted SoT for Ramsey of 17.45. He put 27 out of 50 of them on target. His percent overage was 19.10. And with that, the half of Arsenal fans who thought Ramsey was horribly overrated were forced to admit they were wrong or at least forced to do some linguistic gymnastics to find ways to consistently criticize him. But there is that blue dot on the right side of the graph. It’s also labeled ‘Aaron Ramsey’ and it also represents two seasons of his shooting. This time the x-axis is the same as the y value from the 13-14 season (above). Now our y-axis is 14-15 Aaron Ramsey. His predicted SoT was 20.6. His actual total was 17. One season later, he’s gone back to being slightly negative and half of Arsenal’s fan base subsequently reverted to being wrong about being wrong about Ramsey8. If we fit a line to the above plot (it’s there already) we get a slope of .135. It’s slightly positive, but that’s mostly noise9. So there’s little to support the idea that getting shots on target is a repeatable skill 10. Kind of. It turns out it might matter how we set this up. Again we plotted consecutive seasons. But of the four best player-seasons in our set, Eriksen actually has two of them (his 13-14 and 15-16 season). It just so happens that for the 14-15 season he went slightly negative. So, while on the whole, it looks like it’s not repeatable—we do have 168 player pairs in our plot—that mightn’t be true of everyone. Cesc Fabregas also has two good seasons as does Harry Kane. With only a couplathree seasons here, we might lack the data to saying anything more definitive than it doesn’t look to be repeatable overall but it might be repeatable for a select few players11. That’s probably not too reassuring to Tottenham fans wondering how many of those ‘excess’ 41 shots on target (see top chart) they can expect not to get next season. Sorry12.   @bertinbertin   1 It also helps when your keeper has the game of his life, which seems to happen fortnightly against Arsenal. 2 For this I built a cross-validated multinomial model. The nice thing about multinomials is that you have a built-in way to quickly check you did everything right. All of the outcomes you specify in the model should sum to one. Right? If you say there are three things that can happen, then for each observation, those three individual probabilities need to add up to one. And hey, we didn’t mess it up. Below is a screen of a few rows. All do indeed sum up to one. More importantly, hand auditing a few observations seems to check out (i.e. close-in non-headed shots have high probabilities of end up on target and low probabilities of being blocked). rowsums 3 I’m still not sure about how to think about blocks in terms of whether it’s in a shooter’s control. Theoretically, an offensive player should be able to know whether he has a clear shot on target. If there are three bodies between you and the goal mouth, you are free to pass up that shot, knowing there is a very good chance it will be blocked. But by that logic you could also wait until you know you had the keeper beat before taking a shot. So then there would be four outcomes (block, on target, off target, goal). However, one of the things I’m trying to measure is blocks, so I have to have it in the model; the other two terms (on- off-target) are things within a player’s control. It is admittedly not as tidy conceptually as I would like. Also, I stuck with the convention of classifying a shot that hit the post as off-target. Not entirely sure why traditionally it’s done that way. Can’t you hit the inside or underside of the post and have it carom in? That seems pretty on target. 4 If you want to assume that all of the excess blocked shots would have ended up on target—and that’s by no means necessarily a good assumption—then we can ballpark that Arsenal missed out on about 4 points. Here’s the no-modeling-skills-needed estimation for that. First, about 30% of SoT end up as goals, so if Arsenal missed about 19 SoT, that’s around 6 goals. By the Soccer Pythagorean, you get about an extra 2/3rds of a point for each additional goal in goal difference. So an extra +6 GD is about 4 points. That’s just enough to make a dent in Leicester’s final 10-point margin but not enough to threaten. Maybe… depending when the points had been picked up, ‘pressure’ on Leicester before their relatively easy run might have changed the entire dynamic of the back end of the season. Moreover, when those 6 goals were scored (Southampton (H), Palace (H) off the top of my head) could theoretically be worth much more than 4 points. Clearly I’m still at the ‘Bargaining’ stage. I hope to have achieved ‘Acceptance’ by the start of next season. 5 It’s worth pointing out that, even though that 18.81 for Arsenal looks pretty large, Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Bournemouth (really?), and Everton all had higher percentage of blocks above expected. I’d say those are generally attacking teams but, well, that’s LVG’s United. City was also non-trivially positive. 6 For the upper ‘mistake’ chart, I used a qualifying cutoff of 30 shots. For this expanded chart I used 40 shots. That’s not based on anything other than 40 is just over 1 shot per game, which seemed like something you couldn’t fluke into. 7 Incidentally, almost the entirety of his deficit can be attributed to blocks; he had about 3.5 excess blocked shots. 8 This season he had about 3 fewer blocked than predicted. He Zamora’d an excess of about 10% of his shots that season. Not good. 9 Residual deviance over null deviance here is 4518/4581. So we’re basically doing little better than just the intercept, which, incidentally was just fractionally over zero. 10 Either that or there is something in defensive positional information we’re missing that will help with prediction here. That’s likely. The degree to which it will improve such a model, that would be a straight guess. Also, even if we limit it to people whose job it is to shoot (i.e forwards), it doesn’t get a whole lot better. Across the data there are just three who posted plus-percentages in back-to-back seasons: Aguero, Suarez and Kane. I should also point out that I upped the minimum qualifier to 100 shots for that set. 11 I’m fairly confident I’ll think of a better way to come up with something more definitive about 10 minutes after this posts. 12 Not sorry.  

Rumour Has It, StatsBomb Transfers Podcast 1

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/270345208?secret_token=s-D29Nb” params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /] StatsBomb: Transfers Podcast In a regular new feature podcast James Yorke and Ted Knutson take a look at summer transfer stories with a statistical angle. 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! TRANSCRIPTION Ted: I thought the idea of this podcast would be pretty cool. I don’t think anyone out there really focuses on it – the idea of maybe weekly talking about transfer rumors, debunking them, giving people a chance to see my perspective and yours about the rumors. Should you get excited about this, does it smell funny? Obviously most of it is crap. James: There is a lot of crap out there, but transfers WILL happen. Players WILL move and there are some really bad ideas out there, and we’ll report on those for sure. Let’s see… who can we go first with? We can go first with… stories have been bouncing around for a couple of weeks now. Ted: *interrupting* We have to start with the champions! The champions of the Premier League! James: Well this is it, the top down. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Vardy. Ted: Allegedly he’s going to stay. That’s what the story adjusted to over the last couple of weeks of Euros. Arsenal were interested, but he’s supposedly going to stay in Leicester, maybe get a pay rise. BUT the rumour that popped up as a result of the Vardy stuff was Troy Deeney potentially moving to Leicester. How do we feel about Troy Deeney? Not wildly excited about Troy Deeney and certainly not wildly excited about the prices that have been floating around. Ted: What was the number? James: eh… 30 million. Ted: Man… that’s Christian Benteke’s range. Cmon! James: Is he as good as Christian Benteke? Ted: Y’know, he might be. They are different types of players. Deeney is a bit of an all-rounder, a bit of a glue guy in attacks. He’s not someone who lights it up on the attacking side, but was completely awesome in the Championship the year before and a great partner to Ighalo. He’s a different sort of player to Vardy and maybe provides them with more options in attack – a stronger hold-up player. He’s home grown, English and allegedly he’s a pretty good leader behind the scenes and a good guy to have in the dressing room. I found that a surprise, but got that from some sources who would know. James: That’s an interesting point because he’s Watford’s captain and the idea that you’re going to guy buy someone’s captain – that doesn’t happen too often, does it? 30M pound will certainly make people sit up. He’s very different to Okazaki, who LCFC have used alongside Vardy – lot of energy in that guy  and Deeney is a different type of player. You’re not spending £30M on a rotation, are you? Ted: Maybe you are in the Premier League now, especially at the top. He’s Premier League proven, he’s English, so that solves any Champions League home grown issues they have, though I don’t think… huh, they have a wildly international group of players, don’t they? Unusually so for a team that comes up, especially since Leicester to me feel like a long term English team. Soooo yeah, 30M is a lot. What’s your price? Say you decide you NEED a Troy Deeney, what price would you be willing to pay? James: I think I’d be bidding 15 to start and see where we go? Ted: So if you get to 20, have you gone to far? James: Ehhh, it just seems wrong. I can’t get behind this at all. Watford weren’t great, were they? They spent half a season being okay and the second half of the season was not okay. Ted: That second half of the season was really dry and dull. It’s interesting because they bought two young guys who I really liked last summer and they didn’t get on the pitch at all. I really like Steven Berghuis – sorry Dutch listeners, we have no idea how to pronounce your names – I really like him, he’s an excellent all-around wide forward. And there’s this kid – he’s massive – named Obbi Oulare from Belgium, and he’s a great prospect. Like I said, he’s huge, he looks like he’s trying to fit into his body still – you know how when you see *struggling* who’s the defender from Chelsea that looks like he’s still growing? James: Zouma? Ted: Yeah. So Big Baby Zouma looks like he’s still trying to figure out how to move inside his body. Oulare has some of that but adds explosiveness too and he’s very young. It may be a case where Watford say if the right offer come in for [Deeney], we’ll move him, but there are complications. James: Yeah, he’s 28 next week. So maybe you’re thinking 30m leads into the last years of his career really. Ted: Yeah, probably. This will be his last big contract, but he’s a fairly clever player… maybe he can grind it out to an Emile Heskey long-term career. James: It’s tricky – I looked at a handful of numbers. Gets a lot of blocked shots, didn’t like that. Maybe he’s more a link player. Superficially I couldn’t find much to get excited about. As the summer goes on, maybe we’ll see if these types of fees become normal for unexciting, replacement players. Ted: Yeah, 20-25m for an average forward might be the level, especially for a guy with Premier League experience. It’s a new world. We’re all going to sound like Arsene Wenger this summer where you can’t believe the prices, because no one will be able to believe the prices, but the league deal is SO big and there is SO much money coming in. The desire for players hasn’t gone away – you can just spend a little more and buy a little better players. James: I think if I’m Leicester, I ask City about Wilfried Bony or get in touch with Liverpool about Benteke. Ted: Bony I’m not sure about because I don’t know how long his shelf life is. I liked him two years ago but I thought the deal City made was too high then. I think the test for today’s podcast is: Does James get excited about anyone? So Vardy is not going to Arsenal, allegedly. Everything is alleged! The rumour is… Vardy is not going to Arsenal, but Julian Draxler’s name popped up earlier this week. He’s a young German kid – still young, surprisingly so, since he’s been on people’s radar since he was like 17 because he played as a teenager at Schalke, who were fairly regular Champions League contenders up until recently in the German Bundesliga. Last year Drax moved to Wolfsburg as a Kevin de Bruyne replacement, though not a direct one because they really are different players, but Drax is the type of guy that could play wide for them and dribble as well. So what do you think of Julian Draxler – is he remotely exciting to you? James: Just a cursory look at Draxler’s numbers, and I don’t watch much Bundesliga, but he reminds me a bit of Eriksen in the way his career has moved. A lot of hype around him early on, and then he slightly plateaued and the hype moved elsewhere. But he’s playing for the German national side. He’s a bit of an odd one, nothing about his numbers get me excited and that plateau maybe worries me? Ted: From my perspective… I looked at him way back in January of 2014 when Giroud was injured and Arsenal had nobody and needed to buy someone. They didn’t by the way, because that’s how Arsenal work, but I’ve looked at Draxler for a long time and I quite like him. The problem here is he’s played out wide for most of his career and Arsenal need a center forward. It’s kind of an Arsene Wenger type signing, where you have flexibility in that he can play wide, he’s good technically, and he’s an elite dribbler and has been for his entire career. He’s also a big kid – he’s 6’2 (187 cm) – so he’s not a small dude. I love the big wide forwards because it’s tough for fullbacks to handle those guys physically, especially if they have some pace. There was a period at Schalke where Draxler had a run at center forward while I think Huntelaar was injured, and he had a really good run central. So technically a good player, good pace, good size… he’s the type of player that you could buy and put out wide, and Arsenal still need some depth out there. No one is really sure you want Iwobi starting every game out there, Theo you don’t know if he’s going to stay this year. James: surely [Walcott] stays, no one can afford his enormous wages. Ted: Wait, no it’s the opposite. Everyone can afford his ridiculous wages because of the new TV deal! West Ham can afford his wages. It looked big last year, but the new TV deal is here! I was looking at Draxler’s expected scoring contribution and he’s pretty good. He’s in the same range as Nolito and Kevin de Bruyne, which is interesting. KDB’s expected contribution was good, not great, but having Sergio Aguero on the end of your passes can improve production here by a lot. But on the other hand he’s also in the same range as… Dwight Gayle, which is a bit odd and I’m not sure quite what that is telling me. Draxler’s expected goals per shot is quite good, and almost looks like a center forward and is very good for a wide player. He’s around .13 and a lot of good wide players are down closer to .10 – .13 is Ronaldo range, so when he comes inside, he gets really good shots off. I would be excited about this one. Though, you know, since it’s Arsenal I don’t get excited any more because these things just don’t happen. James: Something has to happen, since they have to sign someone. Is there anyone else out there you like for Arsenal? Ted: Ehh… Real Madrid pulled Morata back, which everyone knew was going to happen. The question there is whether they keep him or sell to the highest bidder. I think and I think you think as well, that they are going to keep him. He’s having a good Euros, he’s from their stable originally, they are going to need a Benzema replacement eventually, especially with all the extracurricular crap there James: Yeah, that could be sooner rather than later. Ted: Exactly. It just makes a lot of sense. He’s Spanish and if they have a good Euros… they love a news story at Real Madrid and capturing headlings. James: This is it – he’s got three goals and if they win it they’ve already got the player they would buy. It already makes sense to buy him because they’ve got their star. Ted: Yeah and I don’t know what happens after that. I floated a few names in the Vardy column. The big problem with Arsenal is that they hate paying big fees. Meanwhile they don’t invest in smaller gambles from young players. So they stick themselves year after year in the hottest market in the world, and the position everyone knows you have to overpay to get an elite star. James: Yeah, I agree with that. I do wonder where the 21-year-old strikers are at Arsenal. Why aren’t there one or two on the bench to try them? He hasn’t done any integration there. Ted: Sanogo they didn’t pay anything for and his wages were probably tiny and he didn’t work out at all. I think Welbeck was the guy they thought was the future – he’s young and English and fast. I think England have missed Welbeck too, his style of play. James: Yeah, that’s true. I was looking at the England v Germany game when they beat them and Welbeck was lining up in that seemingly problematic position now of wide left. Ted: He’s a great passer too. He might not take enough risks with the ball, but he’s super secure with it up front. If you have got a guy who is a physical mismatch for most players, and Welbeck is. I’m always surprised by how big Welbeck when I see him standing next to center backs and you realize Holy Shit, he’s basically Giroud’s size, but fast. But he’s a great passer and linkup guy and one of the things England have had real problems with is getting into the final third and getting the ball to forwards. Unfortunately who knows what happens to Welbeck’s career now. He might have to have microfracture surgery (or might have already had it), on top of previous injuries, so it’s doubtful he’ll get back to being an elite guy. James: Is it really? I hadn’t heard of it. Ted: The way that I look at it, it might not be that bad medically, but if you end up missing big parts of multiple seasons, especially back to back, that’s a huge problem. James: And pace being a major component of his game. Ted: Exactly. I have worries. Obviously I am not a medical doctor, but if I am looking at this guy from another team, I’m terrified of his injury history now. He’s barely played, and then had serious problems coming back off an injury and may miss the whole season. James: But you’d take Draxler though is the takeaway. Ted: I would. I think Drax is a Wenger signing in that he can play two slots too. Even if it doesn’t work out centrally, you pay 35M for a wide player that is very good, and you are comfortable with that. James: Slightly related to that, Xhaka has looked good for Switzerland at the Euros. He’s the player everyone kind of thought he would be. Ted: He’s exactly what we expected. The rest of the Swiss aren’t necessarily. He’s pulling the strings, he has a fucking ridiculous left foot, a wand of a left foot. Able to ping the ball out to the wings with ease. The only issue from a defensive standpoint is that he doesn’t add any pace. He’s not slow, but he’s not fast either. There will be times when Arsenal would really like to have someone fast in front of the back four. James: But he’ll always stick a passer in that slot now, won’t he? Ted: Yeah, probably. You can’t have a perfect team- you always have tradeoffs. He’s definitely an upgrade over the previous plans. James: Right, so who have we got next then? Ted: I. Am. Zlatan. Rene Maric said that Zlatan is rumored as a target for Bayern now as well as Manchester United. Obviously only places that have money because his wages are going to be insane. He’s 35 in October… BUT, and this is a big but, he was one of the top 3 guys in the world in terms of expected scoring contribution last season.  People will say blah blah that was with PSG in the French league. Look, I don’t care where it’s add, Zlatan is fucking ridiculous and he’s incredibly talented. It looked like Zlatan’s career was slowly winding down into retirement. THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN. That dude was unstoppable this year. James: It’s a bit like Ronaldo. I’m here for the goals, please supply me. Ted: His passing was great too. He set up plenty of assists last year. I dunno, man. You had Messi at expected scoring contribution of 1.23, Neymar at 1.22 which didn’t get enough talk, and then you had Zlatan at 1.19. Now Spain is a harder league, but if you are looking for a top center forward – the wages are going to be steep, but you get him on a free and he might continue to contribute at an elite level for another two seasons. What do you think? James: Yeaaaah, maybe? I dunno, a crazy 300-400k a week of wages for a 34 year old. It’s pretty fun from a fan perspective. Ted: Would you rather have Zlatan or Wayne Rooney? James: you probably go for it if it’s your team, what the hell? Bayern doesn’t seem like a good fit. He’s not going to sit on the bench behind Lewandowski. Ted: Yeah, that doesn’t seem right? He would come in and play second fiddle? James: Whereas Man United does tally, purely because they lack those kind of world talents. A lot of promise in their ranks, but who’s there and contributing? And where else could he go unless he goes to MLS or Qatar or China? Ted: I think he stays in Europe for another two years – he’s too good to leave right now. You talk about him just scoring goals – Ibra had more assists per 90 than Messi or Neymar last year. C’mon James! James: Yeah, but it was in France! It’s easy to play for PSG. You’d fancy yourself to chip in a few goals in that team. Ted: Mkhitarian is rumored as a potential incoming, and we know he’s likely to leave because he won’t sign a new deal and Dortmund need to cash in. On the other hand, that means United need to get rid of guys, especially in midfield because they are fairly full. Especially if Rooney is moving there. Mata was out of favour last time he was under Mourinho, so he might be on the move… One guy I thought was interesting, but we’ll see what happens… I really like Ander Herrera. He didn’t have a great season last year under LVG, but someone might be able to pull him out at a discount. James: I think Mourinho will want to keep a few workhorse midfielders around. He’s got to. Ted: Yeah, but there are so many. Mata, Rooney, Herrera, Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger can only play like 20 games a year, but he’s there. Daley Blind, and I don’t think you will see him much as a CB under Mou, Carrick! James: Everyone is back in their position under Mourinho. Back to where you belong! Ted: We have a Spurs transfer rumor, James! And you are definitely going to get excited because who would not get excited about the prospect of signing… Victor Wanyama? James: Apparently it’s already happened. This is fine. Apparently he’s had medicals. From my perspective, I’m good with this. Eric Dier is never getting rotated. Bentaleb seems to have burned his bridges amongst talk to agent shenanigans. Ryan Mason? He stays probably, but is that your first change for Eric Dier? Ted: I don’t think Mason stays and plays though… if he does, it’s a huge problem. So what you are saying is, this is remarkably sensible. And the price is sensible too. James: He wanted to leave last year and they pushed him back and made him stay another year. Opinions are mixed on him, aren’t they? I think he’s a pretty decent, solid defensive midfielder. Occasionally prone to rashness, but he’ll fit in and it’s about squad depth for Champions League and a hole in the squad which is being filled. We’re paying 11M, which is basically what Southampton paid for him. Ted: I think it’s good. The starting XI for Spurs last season was really good, but their depth was a big problem. James: Who else are we in for? We’re supposed to be in for Vincent Janssen or *pause* Michy Batshuayi. I said we weren’t going to him because I can’t pronounce him, but give him a quick mention. One of them is going to be about 30M and the other about 12M, and if you know anything about Daniel Levy, you probably conclude that Vincent Janssen will be the guy. Ted: They are very different players and it’s possible you could buy both? You could have Michy as a wide forward and Janssen as backup to Kane up top. I like Vincent, especially at that price. That price is too cheap. Size is good, has a good burst of pace. He doesn’t look fast, but beats center backs to the ball on a regular basis. Age is right as well. People are like oh well, it’s the Dutch league. Well, you are only paying 12m for a center forward, so get over it. On to Liverpool! James: Crazy stories. Man City were linked as well, which truly is crazy, and Liverpool for… Andros Townsend. Ted: You know him better than anyone. James: *offended* You’re quite well acquainted. I’m more positive about Townsend than maybe others, purely because he hasn’t had a run of games for years. He had a good run at Newcastle. He does kind of offer something that not many other players do, that kind of running and cutting in, and he doesn’t shoot as much now. He can hit the target from there… Ted: From where? 25 yards out? James: He’s just kind of unique and can stretch a team though. Ted: There’s this concept he had a good period at Newcastle, and his output was solid, but the underlying numbers were not great. He’s only at .36 xSC, which is okay, but that’s the same range as Jonathan Walters and Gervinho at Roma. James: Who are not linked with Liverpool, obviously. Ted: Mmm no. Interesting story. We had Sergi Canos at Brentford last season, and I love Sergi. I think he has the potential to be an elite wide forward that can press. He loves that side of the game, mentality is fantastic, clever kid. We talked to Liverpool potentially what to do next year, or this coming season, and Liverpool decided to keep all of their prospects in house as long as possible this summer, to give Klopp and his guys the chance to assess them and how they fit in, building a long-term idea of how all these players might fit in for the future. I thought that was really clever, because it’s so unusual for a club to do this. Liverpool have a really good pipeline of attacking players coming through, and also they have a top coach named Pepijn Lijnders who moved into the first team squad, but helped polish these guys. You have Sergi, Ojo, Jordon Ibe, etc, but you have to figure out how these guys fit into the plan, now and in the next few years. I don’t see how Townsend fits in that at all, based on the fact that I think they probably already have guys who are better then Andros in their youth setup. James: Newcastle fans want him to stay more than any other player, so maybe he stays. He reminds me of Defoe, in fact. Defoe at this point is fine for a lower Premier League club, and Andros is like that. He’s probably found his level and will be good there. That’s a good career. Ted: You say it’s a good career, but not as good as Aaron Lennon. James: *groans* Tottenham could have sold Aaron Lennon at any point for about five years before they actually did. We wrapped it up discussing Bonucci and Boufal as potential Chelsea guys, but my fingers are about to fall off, so if you want that, click on 30:45 in the podcast and listen to the last 6 minutes.   All the best! Ted

Euro 2016: Stats Diary 2

I’m not sure I enjoyed the second round of group fixtures as much as the first and they have presented a rather dull situation for much of the final round of games in which any team with four points is, barring a miracle *Leicester fan raises hand*, already qualified for the next stage, able to rotate and play out thrilling 0-0s that peter out into nothing. This has led to a slew of grumbles about the tournament; there’s a been a lack of goals and tension has so far been slight, but we are from here into the business end, and I stand by my theory that even if the groups have appeared watered down for excitement, the new teams have been worth having and the extra round of knockout football, more than doubling the previous volume, will prove worth it. Nobody remembers a tournament for its group stage after all.

All the “already qualified” flags a-waving inform us the viewer: don’t watch France v Switzerland, watch Romania v Albania and so on. The new system has created a situation where more teams are involved to the final game–only Ukraine were toast after two–but also more teams are comfortable. Around ten teams were statistically certain of qualification after two games with a handful more long odds on to join them. So that leaves the intrigue of the qualifying matchups with the subtle variations of the positioning in the groups meaning we can’t be 100% sure who will face who until it has all shaken out.

For potential drama, Wales v Russia is a match between two teams that could either qualify or go home and so appeals more than England v Slovakia which is two teams that are going through. Sadly, Group C’s remaining interest lies on rooting for Northern Ireland to beat er… Germany. Czech Republic v Turkey holds more qualifying interest than a chess match between Spain and Croatia, for all that Turkey have been dreadful and deserve nothing from their efforts, a charge we could also lay at Sweden’s door, a team that are somehow an unlikely victory against Belgium away from the next stage.

Group F is the one group I can endorse both matches. either you get Iceland’s story facing off against the thoroughly disappointing Austrians or you continue the Ronaldo saga, which has proven good value so far.

We also have what appears to be a newer complaint– about the “quality” of the football. Maybe this is a by product of modern analysis and the vast amount of content available on each and every big match? Historically, international tournaments were the one opportunity where the world got to see teams and styles they were otherwise not exposed to and innovative tactical schemes were often building blocks for the wider game. Nowadays, the quality is seen as a poor relation to, quite understandably, more complex and entrenched styles seen in the club game. We see ever more football now and little surprises. International teams have ever less time to create coherent tactical methodologies with a constant rotation of players or a fixed but limited squad. Part of the mystique of international tournaments for me as a kid were that the players in your sticker book came to life, you simply never saw them play outside these tournaments, TV coverage was scant. Unless you were a season ticket holder, it’s unlikely you’d even see players for your own country play very often outside the odd televised match or international game, so these tournaments had far more power to influence than they do now. So Spain are a neutered Barcelona, Italy are Juventus without the thrilling forwards, England are Tottenham with Milner instead of Eriksen and so on. It’s fine though: what we lack in quality we make up for in cruelty, knock out football does not care for fairness and luck can play a huge part in small sample outcomes. Which is fun. And fun equals entertainment and that’s hopefully what we get when the second round starts.

Couple of resources:

..and there’s tons more from other people out there in the twittersphere. Lotsa pretty pictures and predictions.

Shots

Amazingly after two rounds of fixtures, the simple truth that all winning teams have recorded more shots on target than the opposition has held firm. The other simple truth is that the competition has lacked a star turn upset. This could be a by product of the wider variation in quality, and after all these groups would probably be easily navigated by the bigger teams if only the top two qualified. We can see in simple shot measures: even in two games the leaders in shot volume +/- per group are France, England, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Portugal. The Swiss and Italy take France and Belgium’s place if we look at shots on target, but otherwise the list remains the same. The cream has easily risen to the top so far.

Michael Caley’s two game xG totals were lead by Spain, Croatia, England and Portugal with all the other usual suspects in behind. Even if Portugal have struggled for reward, they certainly can consider themselves unfortunate not to have won a match. Saying that, one aspect of their play is fascinating, as Clarke noted, Portugal have outshot the opposition 49-8 but in open play shots in the box with the foot (acronym that!), which is a loose proxy for reasonable chances, they are running at 4-4. The long bombs are not just Cristiano Ronaldo’s doing and they sure are creating a lot of headed chances.

The orthodoxy so far is strong, and that could well be contributing to the perception of the tournament not yet living up to its billing. A small team like Northern Ireland beating a smallish team like Ukraine is great, as is the Iceland story, but a truly big scalp would ratchet up the thrills. Still let us not forget, the second round is lined up as eight matches across three days from Saturday to Monday. If you ever needed motivation to book a long weekend off from work, it’s right there.

How Do Coaches Learn?

How do we learn a thing? If you are in any normal pursuit, you probably read a book, or take a course. Maybe you check out some peer-reviewed journal articles, should you have access to materials at a university. Possibly, what you want to learn has some expert sites on the internet, so you trawl through their material to get up to speed. In a few rare cases, maybe you are lucky enough to have access to a subject matter expert and you ask them for information. That’s for normal subjects, which covers the vast spectrum of all things humans need to know. Now… how do you learn if you are a coach? This is a question that has fascinated me since I started working inside of football, not least because I needed to figure out the best ways for me to impart my knowledge to coaches for them to use. So I started studying the problem inside of our clubs, and also took the English FA Level 2 Coaching Course to see how new coaches learn from a personal point of view. What I figured out is this: How coaches learn is

  1. an unbelievably important thing for people who work high up in football to know.
  2. horribly misunderstood by almost every decision maker I have encountered.

It’s not really anyone’s fault – it’s just that picking up coaching knowledge is so different than how humans learn almost anything else, it’s easy to make assumptions that seem natural, but are quite clearly wrong. The issue here is that unlike almost every modern profession in the world, coaching is really an apprenticeship. Instead of learning via reading or attending lectures, the vast majority of knowledge you need to do the job comes via observing and doing. Theory is still important, but the practical element is dominant. Before we carry on, let’s break the job down further – what do coaches actually do? Choose a style of play for their team. All the potential styles of play under the sun are possible, both in attack and defense. Design training sessions to impart knowledge to their players about the style of play and specific tactics. Once you have chosen how you want your team to play, you need to teach that to the players through training. Teach. Communicate. These elements are huge. If you can’t teach and communicate your ideas in a clear and effective manner, then you aren’t likely to be a good coach. And the subjects you need to teach to players are potentially vast and hugely different, but cover all areas of technique, tactics, phases of the game, and dynamic situation analysis of yourself, your teammates, and the opposition. Football is complicated. That’s one of the things that makes it so captivating. Interventions. So much of what a coach actually does in training is correcting things that are not quite right, or teaching players about the options they had available. A teachable moment occurs, the coach stops training, rewinds to what they want to discuss, and then corrects actions to how they want it done in the future. Conduct meetings. These meetings can cover a variety of topics including reviewing training, reviewing games, what to expect from upcoming opponents, teaching new tactics, etc. You only get so much time on the pitch each week as a coach, and then everything else you need to give your players comes outside that area, typically through video review. That means meetings, and at the professional level, potentially lots of them. These are just the basic elements of the job, but there are plenty additional responsibilities I have skipped over for the sake of brevity. Right, so now we know what coaches do – the next step is learning how to do it. In order to teach the material to players at an elite level, you have to master the material yourself. Where does that mastery come from?

  • Playing the game. It’s possible you picked up some coaching basics via osmosis when your brain and body were busy learning how to play.
  • Learning from past coaches you played under. Most of these will not be role models for the modern game, especially if you played in England.
  • Coaches you apprentice under as a lower level, or assistant coach. Most new coaches land at their early jobs not based on what those jobs can teach them, but based on the fact that those were the jobs they could get. How many of those will be great learning environments?
  • Coaching courses and licenses. In many cases, you are required to go on these to maintain your licenses. Like many courses in other pursuits, some are useful, some are not.
  • Internet resources. Useful, but a mixed bag of material and rarely comprehensive.
  • Watching other teams play? With regard to this one, how do you go about seeing tactics in game situations and turning them into training sessions for players?

Without belaboring the point too much, coaching is a knowledge-based profession that is also a practical apprenticeship, and it’s incredibly hard to find a good place to learn how to do it well. Let’s step away from coaching as a whole, and make this simpler… Say I want to learn how to train a single tactical element from top to bottom, and do that well. Pick one item from the following list:

  • Defensive pressure like Jurgen Klopp
  • Generate great shots like Arsenal
  • Execute set pieces like Atletico Madrid

Awesome, we have a topic… now what? Uh… I don’t know? You can’t exactly walk up to The Jurgen Klopp School of Football Coaching and get a degree in Rock and Roll Gegenpressen. And as far as I am aware, there is no Arsene Wenger MBA of Elite Attacking on offer at any university in England, nor Cholo Simeone’s Science of Set Pieces anywhere at all. This is unfortunate, because as a student of the game and someone who actually needs to know a lot of this stuff to be better at his job, I would enroll in this as an Executive MBA program in a heartbeat. It sounds like I am joking, but this is serious stuff – if you are a young British coach that wants your team to learn German-style defensive pressure, how do you do it? Where do you do it? The basic unit of coaching is a training session. Where can I find 10 or 20 or 30 training sessions strictly on imparting the knowledge of zonal defensive pressure and gegenpressing, explained in detail? And more importantly, where can I find the video of those training sessions, so that I can learn what right and wrong look like in training, and be able to make crucial interventions? Because that is what you need to have in order to learn the material well enough to teach it to players who are unfamiliar with the concepts. You need example after example of what is right and wrong, and an expert pointing these things out and explaining the difference. This isn’t just a personal lament – I’m writing about it because it explains one of the incredible oddities of the football world: coaches almost never change styles. This is weird, right? Coaches are typically smart, and football is a dynamic game that changes tactically on a regular basis. So why do so few coaches go on to incorporate other styles or develop new ones over the course of their career?

  • As noted above, it’s hard to learn a new style in the first place.
  • Where and when are they going to test out that style while learning it?

Successful learning environments are low pressure, where students can make and learn from mistakes while getting feedback. Making mistakes (and reviewing them) is fine because that is how we learn, especially in a hands-on, process-oriented job like coaching. All first team coaching jobs in pretty much every professional league in the world are high pressure environments. You’re a first team coach – your job is to win matches. If you don’t win matches, you will be replaced. Period. These two things are wholly incompatible. Being a first team coach means you exist in a terrible learning environment. Additionally, when pressure increases, we tend to revert back to what we know and think works best. Which in coaching terms will be the tactics you are most familiar with from your historic learning journey. Thus is it any wonder that we rarely see professional football coaches learn new things?  For most of them, their job makes for an environment totally inhospitable to experimentation, which is crucial in the pursuit and mastery of new knowledge. THIS IS A HUGE PROBLEM! Say you want to hire a new head coach because your old one was too successful and has been poached by a bigger club. You find a new coach whose personality works, who seems open to new things, but his past teams have only exhibited two of the four crucial components to your club’s style of play. What do you do? “Well, [new coach] can learn what they don’t already know.” Maybe. Probably not. Definitely not if this change is happening in-season, or if the job is a high pressure job – as pretty much all of them are. Even if they want to increase their knowledge, it might not be possible because the learning environment is toxic. At the end of the day, understanding the problem fundamentally changes how we address it. Instead of “[new coach] can learn what they don’t already know” decision makers need to ask the following: “How do we enable [new coach] to learn what we want them to know?” New coaches are what they are. Do not expect them to fundamentally change on their own – we have an overwhelming amount of evidence that indicates that doesn’t happen. Instead you need to think about empowering them to learn and provide subject matter experts to bolster their knowledge. So How Can a Coach Learn New Things?

  • Spend time interning with coaches who already know these things. This would presumably involve going to watch training with other clubs during the off season. The problem here is that most coaches are secretive about their training and tactical knowledge, and the off season happens at the same time for practically every club in Europe. Where and when would you do this?
  • Hire assistant coaches that are subject matter experts. The obvious example here is hiring set piece coaches to coach your set pieces, but it can be true across the whole spectrum of coaching expertise. In American football, there are coaches for each specific football role (Quarterback, Offensive Line, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, etc), as well as coordinators who sit on top of offense, defense, and special teams and who all report to the head coach. These act like coach-analysts I have mentioned in my previous work, and can be more hands on with players about every aspect of their games. Want to implement a defensive press? Hire a bright, young defensive coach who has expertise in this area to work inside of your coaching staff. Hopefully the personality and linguistic differences work out fine, and everyone ends up happy. That last bit is tricky, but people need to make it work because it’s one of the only possible ways to add new knowledge to your club.
  • Create training programs inside your own club to address these areas. As I noted above, there’s very little public learning material that can turn you into an expert in specific tactical areas, or even to give you the basic paths for learning the information. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If a club wanted to, it could go out of its way to create courses that teach the various elements of its style of play, complete with instructional videos, videos of past training, session plans, and written explanations that tie it all together. Make no mistake, it’s a lot of work to create something where nothing existed before. But if your club has taken the time to develop a style of play it thinks is important, doesn’t that deserve the investment necessary to make sure every coach inside the club can learn all of the tactical elements inside of that style to an elite level? Including incoming head coaches that may only have parts of the knowledge you need them to have?

It comes back around to this: football is a knowledge-based game. Smarter coaches and smarter players equal smarter results. And yet our ability to increase coaching knowledge is somehow incredibly limited. Remember, it’s not just book learning we are talking about. It’s learning the material well enough to communicate it to other people. It’s seeing the situations in training and on the pitch, recognizing they are outside the ideal, and then correcting them in a way that the player can understand and that makes them better for the future. And it’s reviewing training and game performance to figure out what is missing, so you can implement and adapt future training sessions to address that. There’s one more big thing that is missing, even from the points above: reps. In any new learning, it’s important to be able to practice a skill repeatedly. The more you do it, the more situations you see, the broader the knowledge base you build for what does and does not work in those various situations. If you are a professional coach who wants to add new tactics to their bag of tricks, how do you get the training and game reps to improve your learning and cement the new knowledge? I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I do know it’s important. Head coaches already have too much on their plates at most clubs, but maybe the assistants can also coach academy teams in order to gain experience in tactical evaluation and organization cycles? Regardless of my inability to provide an acceptable answer, it’s noted here because it’s another important element that needs consideration. Conclusion

  • Coaching is a different type of profession than most of the world’s occupations.
  • How coaches learn is radically different than how most people learn to do their jobs.
  • Decision makers need to understand these facts. If they don’t, they have expectations for what coaches can and cannot do that are unaligned to reality. This gets expensive when teams are constantly firing head coaches and bringing in new ones in attempts to fix perceived inadequacies.
  • Resources for learning new tactics and how to teach them to coaches and players alike are scarce. This makes learning new things somewhere between difficult and impossible.
  • If you want to have a coherent style of play from one coaching generation to another, then clubs need to make sure they take steps to enable and empower new coaches to learn their style of play at an expert level.

Euro 2016: Stats Diary 1

euro 84 These are the good times: three games a day (apart from today), nobody’s gone home yet and hope for all. The squads are still filled with “a great bunch of lads”, “spirits are high” and most importantly everyone is still “confident, and why not?” It’s a charmed time, for we’re only a matter of days away from coach firings and post mortems and widespread disappointment. Cleverly, the extended format means we get 16 nations still heartily waving their flags deep into June where previously we may have found just eight. Sure all the third place qualifiers makes getting through easy but we now get 15 knock out games instead of seven and the tournament doesn’t end quite so abruptly. As such, “Roy the Root Vegetable” may well be a July phenomenon this time round. Pleasingly, although there are bad teams in this extended tournament, none of them have been entirely put to the goal sword, which would be humiliating, even if the shot sword is far less discerning, as we shall see. In a sample of one game what can we learn? Well, of course, not a great deal from an analytical perspective, not that that’s stopped the charters and predictors working overtime, but international tournaments are never conducive to such things. We can still enjoy the stats produced–and watching the matches too, I guess–and ponder the strengths of the teams. The beauty of a short term skew can occasionally turn up an upset with the Danish and Greek victories of 1992 and 2004 fresh in the memory and the Euros seemingly far more prone to them than the rarely shocking World Cup. But no real shocks so far in this round, apart from Aaron Ramsey’s hair. Low scoring first games make perfect sense too, the main idea is not to get knocked out before you’ve used up the mini-shampoo in the hotel room. Despite Group F having yet to kick off, here’s a few thoughts from the first few days of the tournament. Shots Shot shy team of the tournament so far is quite understandable really, with Northern Ireland posting just two shots including just one from open play. Sporting the 3-5-1-1 “Formation of Fear”, they were never likely to go toe to toe against the Polish and so it showed. Slightly more must have been expected from both Russia and Sweden, who each managed to score despite truly dismal shooting performances, six shots with just two on target for the Russians and seven shots, none of which troubled the goalkeeper for the Swedes. Albania prospered more than was expected against the Swiss despite an early sending off and due to this were limited to just seven shots and Ukraine caused all manner of chaos in Germany’s backline, at least for a half, yet only chalked up five efforts. Romania also caused more trouble to France than might have been expected but were ultimately outshot and outscored. In contrast nobody has really ripped it up shots-wise–Croatia lead the way with 19 credited shots, though Germany, Spain, Poland and er… a wasteful Belgium all managed 18. Germany lead the way with nine shots on target, though the most notable shot performance of the round has to go to Wales who found eight of their 11 shots on target, an impressive rate of accuracy, for now. In fact there has been an element of routine to the shot profiles of nearly all the matches, though each game has remained close until injury time. Of the eight victors, six have outshot their opponents and all eight of them have recorded more shots on target. Poor old England would have qualified for both categories if they had a more experienced team, at least that’s how the narrative informs me. The simple equation is currently holding: testing the keeper = a chance of goals. Players Star of the first round of matches output-wise so far can easily be bestowed on Dimitri Payet as he’s the only player to record a goal and an assist so far. He also showed an array of lovely touches and created a tournament high eight shots for his teammates before his emotional substitution. Behind Payet in the shot creation charts is knock down king Marouane Fellaini with seven before usual suspects David Silva (6), Andrés Iniesta and Toni Kroos (both 5). Fascinating that for all their talent, Belgium, like Manchester United before them have ended up with a bushy haired lynchpin. Croatia’s Marcelo Brozovic leads the shooting volume charts with six, although he may wonder how. An early cross skimmed aimlessly off his head before another headed effort found only vague direction. A thirty yarder that is yet to land rounded off his first half trio before the pick of the bunch, a left footed side-volley that skimmed over. Shot five was an outstretched toe that lightly helped the ball towards the corner flag and an accurate but powerless header finished his tally.  Some of these locations were excellent, but the chance of conversion minuscule, it’s hard to say he’s due a goal. The three men to have registered five shots so far have all scored and been on the winning team: Arkadiusz Milik, Gareth Bale (who leads the outside the box total with four) and Graziano Pellè and a fascinating new chapter has started in the N’Golo Kanté story. He averaged under 40 passes per game for Leicester this past season, yet upped in grade to the France starting eleven, he got through 86 against Romania. Pass orientated club teams will be looking on with interest. That’s all for now, hope you’re enjoying the tournament as much as I am.   data via Opta

StatsBomb Podcast: June 2016, Premier League Managers

The Euros are here and get a quick mention but the main topic is the managerial changing of the guard in the Premier League this summer… It’s another edition of the StatsBomb podcast featuring James Yorke (@jair1970) and Benjamin Pugsley (@benjaminpugsley). [soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/268519308″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ 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!

Good Ideas and Lessons Learned

We are coming up on the three-year anniversary of StatsBomb. During that time (and despite a lengthy absence due to that whole “working for football clubs” thing), I have published more than 200 items in the SB article database. Plenty of these are fluff, like gifolutions during the World Cup, or weekly follow-ups on basic predictive models from back in the day, but plenty of these are early prototypes for concepts I would later successfully apply inside of football clubs.

Given the fact that there are a lot of new followers on my Twitter account since I started writing, and the fact that so many people seem to have missed the early years of football stats writing, I figure now is a good time to review my recent past. I’m just going to do it on my own work for now, which will keep me out of trouble for criticizing others work, and probably keep this to a (barely) manageable load. This is also just StatsBomb based and skips over work I did for The Mirror, The Guardian, Opta, and various guest spots on blogs over the years.

Doing this completely chronologically is going to be a mess, so I’ll break them into subject headings and then work from there. I’ll also add some context about why pieces are included here, how I feel about them years later, and what stuff was just plain wrong about.

All of the material here is me learning publicly, and then writing about it on the fly. There is plenty in the early work that is just wrong. Given that knowledge, there is probably plenty in my current work that is also wrong, but hopefully it’s at least a little less wrong than I was before.

Fundamental Work

How Do Teams Create Better Chances? Three years later, almost all the ideas in this piece still guide my thinking about football as a whole.

Pace and Margin for Error Early on, there was a lot of application of hockey metrics to football, spurred on by really interesting work from Gabriel Desjardins, James Grayson, and StatsBomb co-founder Benjamin Pugsley. One of the primary metrics used was TSR or Total Shots Ratio.

As of this article, I was having a really weird time applying TSR to football outside of the Premier League and La Liga. There are a variety of reasons for this, but a big factor in that is this concept of pace. It’s around this point I stopped using ratios at all, even in basic shots work, and moved to differentials.

Building Better Defensive Metrics – Opponent Passing

I mention this one because I think I was the first to publish about it (though I suspect some clubs used it ages ahead of this), and also because it’s not defined as “pressing.”

Pressing is a set of actions designed to put pressure on the ball and yield [things]. Elements of success can be found in defensive actions, but not all successful pressure yields a tackle or an interception. Without tracking data, teams need to collect explicit data outside of the normal Opta event data set to examine pressing in detail.

Lower opposition passing percentages are a result or outcome, and can be caused by a variety of factors including tactics, player ability, pitch, weather, etc. It’s correlated to pressing, but it’s not pressing in and of itself.

If you want to examine team pressing beyond the occurrence of defensive actions in specific places, I would look at PPDA from Colin Trainor and Defensive Distance from Garry Gelade as well as opposition passing percentages. Introducing Possession-Adjusted Player Stats I still use these, though some find them controversial (and others pointless). There are probably better ways to go about it now, but it gets complicated pretty quickly and you need to be a data ninja to do the analysis.

Long story short, it’s one of the few ways you can make defensive actions apply to things you care about with per90 data.

Explaining and Training Shot Quality

One from the post-Brentford and Midtjylland era, this piece is actually a chapter from a book I will likely never publish. It took a year of working on the ideas to get to this final incarnation. It’s also based off the work of countless other people who went before me, and is not groundbreaking. The focus here was instead on clarity and brutal practicality.

If you didn’t understand the concept before, it’s a good introduction to shot locations and expected goals and covers a lot of the various forms of pushback I received on these concepts inside of football. If you already knew about expected goals and the like – which at the point of this writing is not nearly as widespread in football as analysts and even some journalists seem to think – it provides practical, real-world examples on how to teach these concepts to players in training and through what behavioral economics would call a nudge (the shot rings).

The Future of Football

Increased data use in football is inevitable. This piece uses a Big Short metaphor to explain why.

Data Visualization

Radar Love: The Three Best Players in the World

 

nba poster_east copy

 

It started out with seeing an NBA All-Star poster by Ramimo. It ended with months of reading up on data visualization and learning Photoshop to finally produce player radar charts. This is the first, mostly awful piece that introduced them.

Iteration would then come fast and furious. I split the radars into positional archetypes and added two standard deviations for the boundaries (A.K.A. scienced the shit out of them), and voila – lovely little bite-size player evaluation pictures for the footballing world.

These have been improved in subsequent years, but the public versions are mostly the same as what I was making at the end of 2014. The new versions are only available to paying customers, largely because there are proprietary metrics in there and of which there are currently exactly none.

And if you hate them, you have my apologies, because they seem to have spawned a variety of imitators not only in football, but across various sports.

A guide explaining radars and how to read them can be found here.

MK Shot Maps

Called “MK” because Marek Kwiatkowski did a lot of the heavy lifting for these, and there are many different variations of shot maps out there. The design diary for how these were created is here. The link above is a more practical use demonstration for using them with teams. You can also use them in player evaluation.

In terms of taking stats and applying them to football in a useful, beautiful way, I think these are at least as successful as the radars, if not better.

Player Evaluation

Opening the Door to Player Analytics in Football The first article I ever wrote about player stats and football. It all started with Max Kruse, who would go on to

a) Play in the CL and EL

b) Make a final table at the World Series of Poker

c) Leave £60,000 cash in the back of a taxi.

d) Allegedly get in trouble for his late night poker life style and eating too much Nutella.

Age and Value in the Transfer Market

This is hugely important and hugely misunderstood. I stand by taking Manchester City to task for their transfer buys in 13 and 14 not because of the immediate impact, but because it cost them heavily in the latter years of those contracts. Good thing FFP is irrelevant or they would be in a world of hurt trying to rebuild for Pep this summer.

The Suarez Conundrum

What if you wrote a piece that read like good analysis but was completely wrong? Well, I totally did that and it looks just like this one.

The reason why it was wrong was a fundamental misunderstanding of the game at this point on my part. You see, I had been sucked in by the “all shots are equal” mentality of hockey analysis. The problem here is that while hockey and football overlap in many places, shot quality is one where there is a massive divergence. I didn’t understand that yet, and because of that I thought Suarez kept killing Liverpool attacks by taking poor shots.

Not exactly…

The good news is that being wrong about this forced me to rebuild how I evaluate the game from the ground up. The bad news is that this mis-step blew up some of my credibility (especially among Liverpool fans), and I got to hear about it constantly both on Twitter and on the podcast from Pugsley. *sad trombone noises*

Midseason Transfer Shopping: Arsenal

It is January 2014 and Arsenal need a new forward. I poked around the data to look at Draxler (hot in the media), Griezmann, Lacazette, and… Aboubakar? This sort of statistical shopping (but using more advanced, modern metrics) is immediately applicable at the club level.

The Danger of Predictions – Luis Suarez Edition

I am public with my work and I’m not afraid of being wrong. If you make a lot of bets, you will get winners and losers. If you make a lot of player and team predictions, you will get the same. However, when you are wrong in this big a fashion, you are going to have to eat it. It was a great learning experience, and obviously I would not make the same mistake again.

Life lesson: If you are going to have to eat shit, don’t nibble.

Statistical Scouting Young Superstars

Can we take statistics and use them to find young players that are going to develop into Champions League players? This research would consume the rest of my summer until I was hired by Smartodds, and to some extent still does.

A huge challenge, but hugely rewarding if you pull it off.

The Best Young Prospect in Europe 2014 – Alvaro Morata

I had Morata number 1 and Memphis number 2 that summer for very young players that would likely be future stars. Number 3 was Lucas Piazon, who has had some serious issues in his personal life and looks like a complete bust.

Trying to predict the future is tricky, and there are absolutely, positively going to be failures. On the other hand, something like half of all transfers of mature players “fail” as well, meaning you don’t have to raise the bar that much to improve a Premier League club’s transfer business enough to save tens of millions of pounds yearly.

The Death of Traditional Scouting

You would think someone who is a huge proponent of statistics would have strong feelings about traditional scouting. You would be correct. The article is adapted from a presentation I gave to Science + Football that encompasses two years developing a lot of the initial concepts you see written about above, but applying the theories inside the world of football.

It also explains why we almost never scouted players live at BFC, and how use of stats is pretty much the same as incorporating video services into your scouting, something that isn’t remotely controversial in the modern day.

The unexpected take away at the end (which is the fault of the clickbait title) is actually that good scouts are extremely valuable, but most football teams can apply their skills far better than they currently do.

Arguing About Marcus Rashford and Young Player Development

A synthesis piece about player analysis and young player development. The second half talks about what clubs can do to better evaluate prospects coming from their academy and into the first team, which is yet another area I think most football clubs can improve dramatically.

Tactics

Attacking Wrinkles – Manchester City and Barcelona

I really like these types of articles, though they are a massive time sink to produce. I think the reason I get so excited by them is because it felt like doing real football work, and it definitely paid off once I needed to do presentations to coaches and Directors of Football inside the clubs.

Here’s the transition from football fan to coach-analyst: Start to see games in sequences of possession. What do smart teams repeatedly do with the ball, immediately after they win it back? In the final third? What do they do immediately after losing possession? How can we further break that down into potential ways to train it on the pitch?

Thoughts on Football Clubs

Building a Better Football Club

Richard Whittall had written a piece for 21st Club about Directors of Football, and I wanted to apply some consulting knowledge to football clubs in general and see what turned up.

The essential logic is this: it’s nearly impossible to know everything you need to know and have enough time to accomplish all the things a “traditional English manager” must do in modern football. And this is especially true when you realize the average life span for this role last approximately 12-15 months.

In short, it’s a recipe for failure.

Merging Football Stats and Coaching

What happens when you goof around with ideas about how to better train players, at the same time grabbing their attention and imagination, while subtly trying to explain analytical concepts? You get this.

It might be too dumb to be useful, but I would love to have license to test it enough to find out.

Manager Evaluation

Does Your Manager Suck?

Introducing Manager Fingerprints Both of these articles are the building blocks for me trying to find a better way to evaluate managers than results in the league table. This work got much bigger and better once inside of the football clubs, and I’m pretty confident that – much like for player transfers – the data we analyze now will produce a better population of potential future head coaches for clubs than current hiring practices.

Conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed this look back through material both old and new, correct and horribly wrong. Football analytics is just like any other endeavour – mistakes will be made. The hope is that you also manage to get a lot smarter in the process.

Breaking Down Vardy to Arsenal and the Alternatives

The Jamie Vardy news came as a surprise. You knew there would be rumors of a move this summer, but normally sensible Arsenal? Really?!? That’s an unexpected source, but the details of a £20-30M bid and potential buyout clause were confirmed by a number of reliable sources over the weekend. Today I wanted to investigate what Arsenal might see in the 29-year-old striker, currently of the English National Team, but playing non-league football as few as five years ago. On the surface, Arsenal are thinking of buying an aging striker who is at max possible value, which is anything but standard operating procedure. Note: I am going to ignore the cultural issues here, but you are welcome to your own opinion. If I were doing this professionally, they would certainly factor into my evaluation and recommendation. The Context Before we get to the meaty analysis bit, we need to examine the current context of the Arsenal squad, since it’s going to give us some pointers on what the thinking might be behind the scenes.

  • Welbeck is injured and his career as an elite forward could be over before it truly got started.
  • Because of this, and also because Walcott had a sub-par post-ACL season, Arsenal’s attack lacked pace both centrally and wide. This was a problem and the attack suffered because of it.
  • Arsenal probably needed another center forward this summer anyway. Giroud turns 30 in September, Yaya Sanogo is a bust, and Chupa Akpom is nowhere near good enough for Arsenal’s first team right now.

Add in uncertainty about Walcott in a central role and Arsenal are definitely buying a center forward now. It’s not optional like it was last year – it’s a mandatory purchase in order to be able to compete next season. Vardy 15-16 Jamie_Vardy_2015-16 Jamie-Vardy_2015-16_edit_opta Obviously this is good. Good enough to help Leicester City’s cinderella squad win the Premier League. Vardy’s shot map might just be the best in the Premier League this past year, and the number of throughballs in the box is ridiculous. Esteemed Managing Editor James Yorke offered up the following alternative as his visualization of Vardy’s shot map pyramids_vardy 17 shots off throughballs, 16 after completed dribbles – Vardy was getting a huge chance more than once a game. This by itself would be enough to bring scrutiny by a club in need of an elite striker, even with the age and personality concerns. Vardy’s expected goals per shot were exceptional, and he posted similar numbers in that respect in 14-15, though he played more of a hybrid role that season. However, there’s another element of Vardy’s game that is massive for Arsenal. Vardy creates goals for teammates. If you can’t set up teammates for shots, you can’t play center forward for Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. Only an average passer across the rest of the pitch, Vardy keeps his head up in the box and as a result he has produced assists consistently for teammates at the Premier League level (.23 per90 in 14-15, .13 in 15-16). A final factor that deserves note: Vardy drew 7 penalties this season, which was more than 18 of the 20 Premier League teams. Convert those into assists at a .78 rate, and his scoring contribution numbers look even better. He likely won’t generate as many penalties in the future, but it’s a valuable skill and one that is shared by another center forward whose release clause Arsenal tried to activate a couple of summers ago. It also further highlights how miserable Vardy and Mahrez were to deal with in and around the penalty box.   caley_twitter defense_vardy_mahrez But It’s Just One Good Season Well actually… *puts on his statsplaining cap* It’s just one elite season. (Though I agree with the general point here.) This season Vardy was 21st in expected scoring contribution (expected goals + expected assists) across Europe, and the six players around him were: Marco Reus, Alexis Sanchez, Aguero, [Vardy], Mkhitaryan, Cavani, Ozil. That’s undeniably good. However, last season was still decent. In a bad team playing a couple of different positions, Vardy’s expected scoring contribution was still .48. A selection of the cohort around him yields Immobile, Mario Gomez, Keita Balde, [Vardy], Haris Seferovic, Danny Ings and Jesus Navas. We are still camping in the realm of mostly good players. Oh, and amusingly, Riyad Mahrez was right there at .46. But He Doesn’t Fit the Style! Funny thing about that – almost no one does. There are very few elite possession teams in Europe these days, and even fewer that play anything like Arsenal. Fitting the style is always going to be an issue. One thing that Vardy does do is fit the league, which is always at least a minor concern when bringing players from abroad. He’s been pretty healthy too, though obviously he will end up horribly broken the moment he signs an Arsenal contract. smalls Please, please please, tell me there are other options beyond Jamie Vardy! Well, there are… they are just a lot more expensive. The reason Arsenal have likely landed at Jamie Vardy is a basic disconnect between price and value. Vardy at £25M is mispriced in the current HOLY SHIT EVERYONE IN THE PREMIER LEAGUE HAS CRAZY MONEY market. Remember, Arsenal are definitely buying a forward, and everyone knows that, so teams will try to extract max value because of it. There’s an argument that if Wenger were truly thinking ahead, he probably would have addressed this issue a number of times over the previous 3 summers, taking small gambles on 20-22 year old players with big potential and hoping that one of them would grow into his center forward of the future. He kind of did that with Welbeck, but injuries wrecked the plan. Three summers ago he could have bought Aubameyang for 13m. Two summers ago it was Morata and Michy as standouts. Last year it might have been Santi Mina, Vietto, Borja Baston, or Sebastien Haller. Arsenal have a good recruitment department and resources that dwarf almost every other football club out there. At some point you’d think they’d let them gamble a little on the future, especially when Wenger has been destroyed by poor market reads again and again (FFP never really mattered, and the EPL TV deals meant that money spent in 2013 and 2014 was way more valuable than current dollars). ANYWAY, we are where we are, and unless he’s going to Looper into his past to fix things, Big Weng has to deal with the now, which means buying a forward. Assume Vardy turns Arsenal down for whatever reason – where do you go next? The obvious one that Arsenal were allegedly in contact about (both now and in 2014) is Alvaro Morata. The problem there is that Arsenal find themselves competing not only with Real Madrid for the player, but also with PSG and potentially Chelsea. It’s great to identify the player and all, but you still have to convince him to come play for you. Arsenal are rich, but they have never paid as much in wages as any of those clubs. Aubameyang? Great, but probably not available and if he is, it’s for £60M+. Higuain? He’s awesome, but same age issues as Vardy for twice the price. Ibrahimovic? This would have been a fascinating move, but he’d take Arsenal’s wage structure and break it in half. Lacazette? This would make sense and Lyon might be willing to sell at this point. There are questions about how well he would fit into Arsenal’s style, but he has pace and his expected scoring contribution was right there with Giroud this season. He also just turned 25, so the age doesn’t make me wince. As you go further and further down the list, it gets harder to get excited. Lukaku? 60m and style concerns. Harry Kane? Hahahahaha… No. If Arsenal strike out on the top targets, I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see them try to convert a wide man like Julian Draxler, or to take a punt on a mostly unknown from France (speaking of… they should have bought Ousmane Dembele to play wide, but whatever). Anyway, it’s a complicated problem and one that is compounded by past mistakes. However, these facts should guide future decision making.

  • Elite center forwards are rare and a luxury good, meaning prices will always be absurd.
  • Unless the well of football money dries up in a black swan event (and the new PL deal technically hasn’t even started), elite CFs are unlikely to get cheaper in the near or medium terms.
  • Unlike Chelsea, Arsenal do not have a pipeline of good CF candidates coming through the academy, so they can’t rely on that method for the future either.

Am I delighted by the thought of Jamie Vardy up front for Arsenal? Not really, but I can see the logic and he certainly fits a need. Basically, he’s the most cost-effective option on the market, and he leaves Arsenal a lot of flexibility for additional moves this summer. My bigger concern is how Arsenal are going to source that future CF. The academy isn’t producing them and Arsenal aren’t dabbling nearly enough in potential future superstars in the transfer market to overcome the issue. A Quick Note About Romelu Lukaku I read someone say Lukaku was overrated the other day, and people are “misguided about his goalscoring figures.” Needless to say, I disagree with this. xGxA in the Premier League 2012 (West Brom loan): .84 2013 (Everton loan): .53 2014 (Everton): .47 2015 (Everton): .65 He just turned 23, can be physically unplayable, and has spent the last 3 seasons playing for an Everton team that is tactically dysfunctional. Rom’s production last season was basically the same as Olivier Giroud, Daniel Sturridge, and Harry Kane while playing for a much worse team. (Talk about your mixed bag of over and under-rated Premier League forwards!) Verdict: Lukaku is very good and he’s just entering his prime. The only question is whether moving to a better team will continue his development, or whether last year is the best we’ll get.

The Big Bundesliga Review, Part 1: Teams

  Well, here we are. Another year gone and another Bayern title, this time they added in the Cup for good measure. Dortmund are (or were?) back to form, I predicted all four Champions League teams correctly, Stuttgart and Bendnter are gone, Wolfsburg tumbled down the table, Darmstadt and Ingolstadt stayed up, and ominously the malevolent force that is RB Leipzig is snorting, ready to be let out into the arena in the fall. While next year could be one of the more exciting Bundesliga seasons in recent times we have plenty of time to prepare for that later, let’s dive in and try to more fully understand what just happened this year. We will start with team-level analysis and move on to player stuff in Part 2.   Team Analysis   Bayern and Darmstadt: Two Different Sports Champs once again. For a fuller dive into theirs and Dortmund’s seasons, look at my winter break piece. Neither team made massive second half changes so much of that is still relevant. I track 30 metrics on a team level to scan to see what teams are trying interesting or unique things on the pitch. These are things like centrality, vertical build-up pass distance, deep completion %, etc, etc. Two teams constantly jumped off the map as straying far from the average: Bayern and Darmstadt. We start with the team who does not have Beard Guy:

apparently his name is Marco Sailer
The Bayern uniqueness starts with how far they force opponents to pass from when attacking goal. This is opponents dangerous pass origin split into halves of the pitch so everything doesn’t muddle around the center: Snip20160601_146   This may not look like much of a gap, but a pass toward goal from Hoffenheim’s average locations are about 20% more likely to be completed and *40%* more likely to be converted into a shot than passes originating from Bayern’s average locations without even factoring in Bayern’s typical numerical advantage where they force opponents into early passes toward isolated strikers. Seemingly small distances make a huge difference when it comes to around the goal.   Other Superlatives Unsurprisingly Bayern were also outliers in holding opponents to a low deep completion % but impressively they also allow a lower proportion of total passes to even be played into dangerous positions (the “Atleti” stat). They also force opponents to play more vertically in their own half: the average team can spray the ball side to side comfortably in buildup, but Bayern completely erase that forcing you into looking straight ahead and shrinking the areas of the field that are available to pass into. You often wind up having to quickly play the ball through a tunnel to a harassed guy at the end of that tunnel.   With the ball, they are the rare Bundesliga team that tries to “walk it in”, playing much shorter vertical passes than the rest of the league. This and the fact they swarm the box (in the first part of the season no team got more men in the box for their shots than Bayern) obviously are great ingredients for high quality chances. Snip20160602_153 Getting past all the parts of their game and looking at the whole, Bayern as a whole this season were probably as close to a perfect team as we will ever see in the Bundesliga. Pep constantly increased their shots rate and territory dominance in his 3 years in charge and they had no real weaknesses. Dortmund had a team that could reasonably contend for any title in any league and the race was essentially over in early October when Bayern rolled them 5-1. For neutrals, the fact we didn’t get a two-legged, full-strength Barcelona vs Bayern matchup will be the biggest disappointment of Pep’s tenure. There can’t really be any substantive disappointments about the level they reached on the field.   A non-stat moment that really resonated with me was Pep’s final game. After winning in penalties, he was on the side crying for several minutes. The amount of effort and intensity Pep pours into each match and each season is really impressive and admirable and to see it kind of all come out with the final win and final title at Bayern was a nice way to cap an absolutely phenomenal 3 seasons. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siGFGn2pydo     Darmstadt The other outlier team (the one with Beard Guy) played what looked to be a different sport. Darmstadt as you may have noticed were on the opposite end of Bayern on the previous chart. That happens a lot. They make Leicester and even West Brom look calm and measured as they essentially bombed the ball forward with no regard for human life. 67% of their midfield passes were played more than 3 yards forward, Bayern were at 41%. They built up like Bayern’s opponents, never spraying the ball from side to side but just attacking vertically. Generally you don’t want to play like Bayern’s opponents but Darmstadt somehow made it work and scrapped to safety with a ragtag bunch of players and Sandro Wagner. The vertical pace they play at led to a league-low 16.9% of their shots being blocked and a ridiculous 8.3% of their completions coming within 25 yards of goal. That was nearly 3 standard deviations above league average: Snip20160602_157 And still that’s not even their craziest stat of the season. Last year across Europe, no team played a faster “pace” than Leverkusen, who took a shot every 17 completions. That was 2 standard deviations below the European average of 26. This year Darmstadt destroyed that by taking a shot every 13 completions. They are in a group of their own, with some room to stretch out. Snip20160602_158   They weren’t any good and should be heavy favorites for relegation next season but they are bad in a beautiful and unique way. Watching hundreds of games a year can sometimes get to be a slog (Frankfurt again?) so when we get teams like Darmstadt who are trying stuff so far outside the norm, I enjoy it.   ***BONUS CONTENT*** The worst single shot quality game came in August when Hannover hosted Leverkusen. The average Hannover shot came from over 30 yards. Snip20160602_159   We should have known, if you can’t get a shot to start on-screen at all in a home game, you might be headed for relegation.   Dortmund Again more was written about them at the halfway mark in the link above, but they clearly re-established themselves as a legitimate top European team this season after last years strange bobble. Tuchel at Mainz showed a tendency to dominate the center of the pitch and he continued that this season and was able to narrow Dortmund’s previously too-wide dangerous passes:
Snip20160601_148
Cross shows origin of attacking passes ending within 25 yard radius of goal
    If we look at Europe-wide data on passes from these average locations, we see that the Tuchel spots lead to ~15% higher likelihood of a completion.  The location and efficiency was much improved, but the volume of dangerous touches spiked as well. Dortmund coupled 10% more dangerous completions with 7% *fewer* total shots, so there is no surprise we see their shot quality skyrocket: their average shot came from 2.5 yards closer on average this season compared to last. The more time they spent around goal picking and choosing resulted in better areas to shoot from.   Моst Improved Team Werder Bremen   This may seem strange at first as last year they finished 10th with 43 points and this season they slipped to 13th with 38 points with the exact same goals numbers (50 for-65 against) and battled relegation for a long time but bear with me. Let me make my case before you trust the table, which can have a Trumpian relationship with the underlying truth at times.   No team improved as much as Bremen did from last year to this in increasing the number of passes they completed in dangerous areas. No team improved as much in decreasing the number of passes their opponents completed in dangerous areas. With these two improvements, they wound up pretty solidly on the positive side of the ledger here, and only behind the Big 3 when it comes to territory dominance. Snip20160530_120     *Adjusted deep completions means I weight ones ending in a 0-15 yard radius from goal 4x as much as those from 16-30 and crosses are half as valuable as open play completions.   Bremen were 7th in TSR, allowing a middling amount of shots (13 per game). There is reason to believe they might have been unlucky to allow that many: Bremen allowed a higher ratio of shots to deep completions allowed this year than any Bundesliga team over the past two seasons. This is something that seems to vary randomly (.15 R2 1st half to 2nd half and a similarly weak R2 year-to-year). Maybe former Chelsea star Papy Djilobodji is just completely ineffective at stopping shots but I suspect next season Bremen will see a significant drop in shots allowed.     Even if they did have a hint of the Darmstadt forward rush about their build-up nowadays that doesn’t have to be seen as a no-doubt terrible thing. The line between Darmstadt’s silly looking anti-football and Leicester’s exhilarating title-winning play is not a pretty thin one. Someone on twitter (I think it was @goalimpact but cannot find it now) once said Leicester are just Darmstadt with good players, and there is truth in that. Without running an analysis I would guess that Bremen would be one of the teams most closely related to Leicester in any sort of stylistic profile. Next year, Bremen should not have to sweat relegation.   Extra Bremen note: Their shot distribution is a strange one, 10 players with >1000 minutes had between 0.9 and 2.6 shots/90 and different guys would be popping up to take shots in similar locations. Snip20160530_122 Honorable Mention: Schalke. Breitenreiter got their heads above water after the disastrous Di Matteo experiment but now they turn to Augsburg to take much lauded manager Marcus Weinzierl. I’ve never really been incredibly impressed with how Augsburg play and they’ve never stood out in the data, but it’s hard to tell what talent level he was working with. Schalke’s central midfield was basically a red carpet for teams to roll into attacking territory on, fix that and a Champions League return can be discussed.   Others: Koln, Bayern (yes one of most improved teams after one of the best Bundesliga seasons ever last year), Hertha Berlin   Most Disappointing Leverkusen Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen remain one of the most fascinating teams in Europe, but this season saw their progress slow and even start to drift backwards even as the potential for something great dimmed slightly. First, the potential. Their games against Barcelona and Bayern showed just how brutal to play against Leverkusen can be. In a messy home 0-0 draw, Leverkusen held Bayern to 9 shots and 77% passing, both near the bottom of the entire Pep tenure. At the Camp Nou, Barcelona had just 5 shots in the first hour and Leverkusen controlled the game before Barca got 2 late goals for a comeback win. Aside from the raw numbers, watching the games you really felt like these were just even teams going at it, in the Barca game I thought Leverkusen were the better team for most of the first half and pretty dominant at times. It’s stretches like that and their powerful (though a little less powerful this season) pressing game that make you think there is Atletico Madrid-type potential here. One fantastic bit of information I love to pull out every time I talk Leverkusen is their sideline pressing trigger: I first found that playing around with data and then later saw an interview where Karim Bellarabi said they are set-up to force opponents into these zones and then pounce to win the ball back.   Pressing triggers and a few great performances aside, the big picture stats all trended the wrong way this season:   Snip20160531_130 The one thing holding them back from making the leap into the elite teams in Europe has always been generating enough offense. The frenetic defensive style often seemed to seep over into their attack and they became careless with the ball leading to very few sustained possessions. This year they eased up on the helter-skelter ball a little bit: they took 23 completions for every shot, which was 5th quickest tempo in the Bundesliga after they were fastest in Europe last season at 17 completions per shot. They saw their midfield completion percentage rise 6 points (helped by a huge reduction in share of midfield passes being played forward). This increased tranquility didn’t transfer to improved offense, as we saw from the raw numbers, and it didn’t lead to a more efficient attack: a lower % of dangerous passes were completed. I’d always said there is no reason to play with the ball like they did without, but maybe there is some connection I’ve been missing as when Leverkusen dropped a bit of franticness with the ball, the intensity on D dropped a bit as well. Last year they forced opponents into 32 yard passes on average as they approached goal, nearly 3 standard deviations above the Bundesliga average and the longest in Europe. This year they weren’t even 1 SD above the league average at about 29 yards. Allowing shorter passes led to a dramatically higher success rate as you can see by the 2 seasons charted: Snip20160531_131     This contributed to allowing some of the easiest shots in the league on average.   One place where they can point to some bad luck comes on close shots. When you combine both ends of the pitch, Leverkusen were the worst team on shots under 10 yards: Snip20160530_117 Stuttgart, the team who employed Przemysław Tytoń in goal and whose horrible short-range finishing became a well-worn source of comedy, finished ahead of Leverkusen here. The problems for Leverkusen were mainly on the defensive end, where 40% of these shots went in (league average: 26%).   After the 2014-15 season if you told Leverkusen fans that Pep would leave Bayern and Dortmund would lose Gundogan, Hummels, and maybe Mkhitaryan after the 2015-16 season they would have had good reason to start dreaming of a competitive title race. After this step back, that looks like a tougher sell. You can still see a solid structure that oozes potential but you just have to squint a little more, maybe squinting really hard and having Kevin Kampl and Charles Aranguiz healthy next year will be enough to hassle the Big Two In Transition (the narrative I’m trying to gin up already).   ***BONUS CONTENT*** Unsurprisingly it was Darmstadt who had the lowest ratio of completions to shots against any single opponent. Also unsurprisingly it was Stuttgart, a perfect match of fragile defending and wild pressing running up against long vertical passes. Darmstadt totaled 32 shots in the two games while only completing 255 passes, which is a lower pass total than almost every Bundesliga team averages per game.   Others Who Disappointed Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim, Frankfurt   Wolfsburg were cruising along at the winter break basically doing the same things as last season without the absurd conversion rates before losing some serious steam in the second half of the season. Opponents started accumulating 20% more dangerous completions and the VW club’s early season numbers looked like they had just been fiddled with to give the appearance that everything was ok. The Wolves ended season with 8 points from their final 8 games while allowing more shots on target than they took (11th in league over that time period). The 2-0 win over Real Madrid means they get another year of cross-happy Hecking, who showed little flexibility in using Max Kruse and Julian Draxler this season.   Most Unlucky Stuttgart For those not emotionally involved, Stuttgart’s season was simply amusing. Utterly chaotic pressing from first coach Alexander Zorniger led to them playing like Rayo Vallecano (and conceding uncontested shots like Rayo) only to pile up huge amounts of shots through their talented attackers to where their advanced numbers looked like a Champions League contender while they drifted toward the bottom of the table. Zorniger got the boot and conservative Jürgen Kramny came in to stop the chaos and quiet things down: Snip20160531_134     He did nothing of the sort, as Stuttgart started allowing an even higher completion % at the back. They ended the season with horrific block and SOT% allowed numbers, both worst in the league by some distance and close to 2 standard deviations below average. That’s how a team finishes 5th in TSR, 4th in Caley’s xGD and gets relegated. They allowed 22 fewer shots than Koln and yet allowed 33 more goals. Their playing style and atrocious defensive work means they never had a real chance of playing up to those lofty shot numbers, but they certainly were not a relegation level team either. Stuttgart improved their own SOT numbers 36% from last season and wound up with more on target than Leverkusen! That is usually not followed by relegation.   The strange thing about Stuttgart is they are seemingly loaded with attacking talent for teams to presumably poach now. My opinion if you are trying to grab a player who will help you next season (and yes I am violating the strict rule of player talk in part 2): #1 Maxim (best passer of all, most involved, nearly tops scoring contribution list) #2 Ginczek (good at getting in-box shots off, chips in well with key passes) #3 Didavi (already off to Wolfsburg, 3.5 shots/90 led the team but showed a little too much affinity for long-range bombs with his head down. Has a strong track record) #4/#5 Harnik/Werner. Basically identical statistical profiles this season. Werner is only 20, Harnik 28. #6 Kostic. Potential is there but currently way too aggressive with the ball and just loses it too much for me to feel comfortable paying big bucks for him. Lowest volume shooter of everyone here, and still doesn’t take high-quality shots.   ***BONUS CONTENT WITH THE BENEFIT OF NICELY EXEMPLIFYING TWO TEAMS ENTIRE SEASONS*** The single longest pass that led to a chance was an 85-yard bomb by who else, our old friends Darmstadt against who else, but Stuttgart. It shows off Darmstadt’s ugly, vertical long bomb game, Stuttgart’s relentless forward push and their generally awful defending mixed with a bit of bad luck (would have been better example if Tyton had botched the save, but good enough.)   Others Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen   Luckiest Hertha Berlin Hertha were both one of the more improved teams and the luckiest. They slowed the game down to an absolute crawl with the ball, taking 37 completions for every shot, a number only topped by Barcelona and PSG last season. They did this by passing backwards on average (Bayern the only other team to do this) and the average pass winding up closer to their own goal than any other team by 2 full yards.
Snip20160601_145
Average Midfield Pass End
    Their ability to control territory with the ball increased significantly this season but they still took the fewest shots in the league.     Others: Hoffenheim, Mainz     Alright, take a break. Go get you some Taco Bell, one taco with Cool Ranch Doritos shell, one with fried chicken shell, finish it off with some Captain Crunch donut balls, and wash it down with some Mountain Dew before you feel ready to brave part two.

The Big Bundesliga Review, Part 2: Coaches and Players

If you missed part one, where I generally talked about teams as a whole: read it here. I violated that rule several times in that piece, and will in this piece as well because really how can you separate coaches and players from teams? So while it may have been a slightly silly way to separate the piece, we’re already in it. Part Two focuses more on the individuals. We start with a bald man in a bright green hoodie. Brother Schubert’s Rolls

With Gladbach once again blowing away their expected goals total and qualifying for the Champions League, it seems like all is well and Andre Schubert has taken over for a faltering Lucien Favre to keep the Foals on their upward climb. Not so fast. While Schubert certainly deserves credit for waking up Gladbach after their horrendous start of 5 losses in 5 games, there were some warning signs that crept in over the balance of the season. Favre set Gladbach up defensively to basically concede 90% of the field so they could defend their own box with ferocity, which they did effectively. Schubert has changed that and pushed Gladbach out to go and press the opposition, which they did at times to a pleasing effect.

 

However, the broad push out has left the box exposed without the manpower to protect it of years past.   They now hold opponents to basically a league average completion % in their own half as opposed to last year when only Koln’s press bothered opponents less. Strangely, with that increased pressing number, Gladbach opponents average pass in their own half still traveled backwards. The only two teams to do that in the past two seasons are Gladbach in 2015 and Gladbach in 2016 (Bayern and Hertha only teams to do it on the offensive side). So under Schubert, Gladbach were kind of caught between the Favre system and the more expansive pressing game Schubert apparently wants to play. They pressed some, but just enough to intercept an average amount of passes, and teams were still able to casually build up a lot of the time. The downside to the pressing was once opponents got close to goal, it was much easier for them to move the ball around to get a good shot. Snip20160523_99

 

In previous years the defense got more and more impenetrable around goal, this season the trend was the opposite. Gladbach ended the year even on deep completions for and against and even on shots for and against. Basically it looks like under Schubert, they will have a league average defense leaving it to the offense to continue to be incredibly efficient with their chances to push Gladbach above a 6th-8th place performer. They were this year, but as Raffael and his wonderful passing ages I suspect it will be tougher for Gladbach to turn league average fundamentals into Champions League finishes.

The Young Gun  Julian Nagelsmann is getting lots of love for the great escape he engineered, earning 23 points from his 14 games in charge to pull Hoffenheim to safety. Plenty of Bundesliga observers see a bright future for the 28-year old, with even a few Dortmund fans are already whispering about him being the next guy after Tuchel. While that might be overly optimistic, Hoffenheim’s improvements after he took over are enough to mark him as a man to watch going forward:   -territory ratio nudged up from dead last pre-JN (Julian Nagelsmann) to a solid 13th-ish with him -TSR jumped from dead last to 14th under Nagelsmann -SOTR from dead last to 13th or so.     The attack contributed all of this improvement as shots allowed actually went up under the youngster. Shot quality improved markedly, both ends of the pitch saw about a 1 yard improvement on average. He got his team closer to play shorter passes when attacking and forced opponents a little wider, but we need to reserve our judgement on if he can get a team to play well without the ball. The season-long numbers still wound up just plain horrific and there was no significant improvement on that side under Nagelsmann. If he has that cleaned up and Hoffenheim don’t flirt with relegation in the upcoming season, we can start cranking the hype machine up toward elf.

Coach of the Year  Ralph Häsenhuttl of Ingolstadt. No team allowed a lower opposition completion % in their own half, and only Leverkusen and Bayern were harder to pass against across the whole field and that margin was very fine:

Snip20160601_150     This

whole field pressure did not leave huge cracks at the back, Ingolstadt made opponents complete 27 passes per shot (higher than league average), opponents were significantly less efficient than average around passing around goal and were forced into slightly longer approach passes than league average. The only crack you can find defensively is they allowed a rather high proportion of their shots from inside 10 yards. This all adds up to a team who allowed opponents the 4th fewest completions around goal and 4th fewest shots in total, and 3rd fewest shots on target. All this for a promoted team without any heavy spending. That reflects very well on the manager so I am awarding him my Manager of the Year award.   Offensively, they seemed to not have the talent to really build any sort of sustained possession so Hasenhüttl wasn’t too proud and basically played isolation ball and field position. Pascal Groß drifting out right was their clear plan to where you can see big separation between Ingolstadt and the rest of the league when you look at the average midfield pass.

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The long balls they played had a defensive purpose too, they forced the opposition to start their attacks from further back than anyone else except Bayern. Each yard you have to cover, especially against Ingolstadt, makes a shot a less likely result.     Shaping his attack around his one qualified player led to some ugly play and a low SOT% but Ingolstadt ended the season with a +56 shot difference and were comfortably in the mid-table. Now Hasenhüttl will get a chance with another promoted team, this one with a little different budget and perception. He’s accepted the RB Leipzig job and so will have more resources to work with. From an outside perspective, it’s great to see another team with tons of money come into the league, though I understand why locals might root against Leipzig next year. No matter what your feelings about them, it will be a huge story to follow, Leipzig are already 4th favorite to win the title at some sites ahead of Gladbach, Schalke, and Wolfsburg.   Honorable Mention: Pep Guardiola, Thomas Tuchel   ***BONUS CONTENT: PULLING BACK, BACK, BACK*** The pass assisted by the largest pullback of the season came from Christian Trasch, who was fed by a pass that took the ball 20 yards further from goal. Some model somewhere has downgraded Draxler (?) for moving the ball into such a lower xG area.

 

All-Bundesliga First Team GK: Marwin Hitz (Augsburg) CB: Joel Matïp (Schalke) CB: Dominique Heintz (Koln) FB: Wendell (Bayer Leverkusen) FB: David Alaba (Bayern) MF: Arturo Vidal (Bayern) MF: Pascal Groß (Ingolstadt) MF: Ilkay Gündogan (Dortmund) MF: Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Dortmund) F: Raffael (Gladbach) F: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern)     This is my opinion obviously, not what “the stats say”. My opinion is heavily influenced by your basic per 90s, a passing metric which attempts to weight their passes for start and end point, how well the team played through and defended the area of the pitch they played on, how they did relative to their teammates, and then a pinch of the good old fashioned eye test. And before someone gets mad there are two left backs, this is not designed to build the best team using Bundesliga players to use on the field but more of selecting the best at vaguely correct positions.   Player of the Season

Raffael. When Max Kruse left and Gladbach didn’t really

replace him (Drmic didn’t count and Stindl was sort of repurposed into a forward) there were reasons to wonder if the Foals could keep up their hyper-efficient attack. Raffael made sure they did. His 13 goals and 10 assists only trailed Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang, Lewandowski, and Müller for scoring contribution. His ball retention and passing skills have proven to be absolutely crucial for the Foals and there’s a strong case that he’s the most important individual player in any attack in the league, so this award is somewhat influenced by the vagaries of the word “valuable”.  That Brazil hasn’t started him for 10 straight games to see how he works with Neymar is total negligence.   Others Considered: Mkhitaryan, Vidal, Gündogan   Notes -Wendell and Alaba both contributed a lot to the attack, but both also made their left sides much tougher for opponents to advance down than their right-sided teammates. How much of that credit should go to themselves is obviously up in the air, but as we are always starved defensive data I am handing out a bit of credit to the two left backs.       -Heintz was part of a Koln team which couldn’t slow down anyone all

 

 

 

season everywhere except their own box. Snip20160531_138   and wound up with a strong defense and a league-leading block%.     -Marwin Hitz (Augsburg) distributed excellently and was the top shot-stopper according to fellow StatsBomber Thom Lawrence’s number-churning. There is a whole argument on whether that’s sustainable or should even be recognized as a good performance, but we won’t have that here. It will continue to slowly rage on on Twitter, bubbling up every few weeks.   All-Bundesliga Second Team GK: Oliver Baumann (Hoffenheim) CB: Naldo (Wolfsburg) CB: Mats Hummels (Dortmund) FB: Paul Verhaegh (Augsburg) FB: Jonas Hector (Koln) MF: Zlatko Junuzovic (Werder Bremen) MF: Julian Weigl (Dortmund) MF: Hiroshi Kiyotake (Hannover) MF: Marco Reus (Dortmund) F: Thomas Müller (Bayern) F: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Dortmund)   Over the past two seasons no Hannover attacking player has topped 72% completion percentage, except for Hiroshi Kiyotake who has put up 79 and 80%. He’s coupling by far the best percentage with what are probably the most aggressive passes of any Hannover attacker, so this isn’t a product of just playing the ball backwards. Looking at key passes, it’s the same story: Snip20160601_143   -Kiyotake is one of the better players in

the Bundesliga and has been stuck on terrible teams for most of his career. Teams all over the world looking for a sweet-passing, playmaking midfielder should be lighting up the Hannover offices right now, Kiyotake should not be playing in any 2nd league.   -Verhaegh has been a kind of under-the-radar gem at Augsburg, his more hyped fellow fullback from last year left for Chelsea in Baba Rahman but he kept on rolling at age 32.   -Baumann is on here simply to acknowledge the fact that no team with Hoffenheim’s defensive numbers has any business avoiding relegation.   ***BONUS CONTENT*** Widest goal of the season (naturally coming from one of Koln’s talented fullbacks)

and the longest goal of the season, coming from my player of the year Raffael.

Others to Mention -Salomon Kalou, fantastic work with 14 goals and seemed to up his passing game with Ibisevic alongside. -Alexandru Maxim, more on him in the Stuttgart section in part one but deserved more minutes. -Nadiem Amiri, he was one of the relevations of the 2nd half of the season. If Nagelsmann didn’t completely overhaul Hoffenheim in his short time, at least he gave Amiri a good chunk of playing time (944 of his 1461 minutes came in the final 14 games of the season). Amiri led Hoffenheim in shots/90, key passes/90, had the best completion % and passer rating of any attacking player and made more passes/90 than any other attacking player. When Amiri played, Hoffenheim’s attack generally looked better. At 19-years old he is one to watch. -Anthony Modeste does one thing and he does it well: shoot. He did it well this season, only Lewandowski and Aubemayang took more shots from inside the box than the Koln man did and the 4th

place shooter was 25 back. Snip20160531_128 That’s an impressive year even accounting for the fact he gets a lot of headers. He’s in a nice spot alongside Koln’s fullbacks and should continue to rack up strong shot numbers as he’s done for each of the past 6 seasons. -Kevin Kampl was everywhere doing everything this season. He fit perfectly into Roger Schmidt’s midfield after a basically lost year wandering around on the wing in Dortmund. If not for injury would have put him on one of the first two teams. -Jerome Boateng/Josh Kimmich/Thiago/Xabi Alonso: You can’t write about every Bayern star. These guys were good.

-Schalke’s wide men Max Meyer and Leroy Sane. Schalke were much more effective playing with the ball through Meyer’s left side but Sane’s defensive activity (3.3 INT + Tackle) might have played a part in making Meyer’s side easier for opponents to advance against. I like Meyer more as a player, but I admit I am partial to guys who keep the ball. If you want someone to win it back and rack up a bit more volume shooting (2.9 to Meyer’s 1.9, though only 56% in-box to Max’s 79%), Leroy might be your guy.

-Julian Draxler: Kind of got lost a bit with Wolfsburg’s disappointing results but it was a very impressive season for the 22-year old. It wasn’t quite Kevin de Bruyne volume production but it really wasn’t a huge step back from the 14/15 Player of the Year and Draxler’s ball retention is a step above KdB (being a more conservative player certainly helps). A focused Max Kruse without any Nutella stains on his jersey would have seemed a perfect match for Draxler and Wolfsburg to move their game forward but sometimes the best laid plans are waylaid by that sweet Nutella goodness.  

-Franck Ribéry/Arjen Robben. These two are getting up there in age and only combined for ~1800 minutes in the league but were still enormous forces when they were on the pitch. Bayern went from simply overwhelming you with the quality of their game with these two healthy to giving the slightest of openings to the cranky Pep-haters without Robbery. Robben took 4.3 shots/90 with 2.9 coming inside the box as a winger and chipped in 2.2 key passes/90. The only other player in the league with >6 KP+shots combined was Hakan Calhanoglu, who was taking a ton of long pot-shots and more reliant on corners than Robben. Ribéry? Led the league in key passes for those with >500 minutes. At various points this season it looked like we might have seen the last of a healthy, thriving Ribéry, then maybe he was only going to be an impact sub, and then at the end of the season he was playing 344 minutes in 19 days. Fantastic to see a great player fight through serious injuries no matter how you feel about his Cup final antics.

-Pierre-Emile Højbjerg-A strange loan really as he only got 1274 minutes at Schalke. The guy can pass the ball no matter what team he’s played for and was 2nd in the league among midfielders for interceptions, for whatever that is worth. His potential is great, though it reflects poorly on someone that he couldn’t play more in a Schalke midfield that had pretty big weaknesses, whether that someone is Højbjerg or Breitenreiter is TBD. If the price drops to 5 million as has been rumored, he seems absolutely worth the buy.

Kamaran led Hannover in shots with 44. That was good for 49th best for an individual player.   -Ragnar Klavan, Sebastian Langkamp, and Benedikt Howedes deserve notice but maybe not multiple full sentences.   -Mahmoud Dahoud: I enjoyed watching him this year but the hype has probably outrun the current production here. I don’t think he’s ready to plug and play and immediately fix your teams midfield problems. He moves all around the pitch but doesn’t really rack up great numbers at any one thing it looked like to me like he left Xhaka alone to defend too often. His stamina and strength aren’t quite there yet, maybe when he adds those two things he can develop into a full-blown star but right now he’s still more in the very promising category.   -Leroy Sane: Similar to Dahoud in that I think he’s a currently good player that is being done a disservice by sometimes being talked about as if he’s already a complete star.

-Mehdi Benatia: Stands out (along with Sebastian Rode) as a player just below Bayern’s ridiculous standards.   The American Section

-Christian Pulisic: The best part of the 2018 World Cup was probably when the 19-year old Pulisic lifted the champions trophy in Putin’s direction, gave an impassioned speech to win over the Russian fans whose team had just lost in the final to the Stars and Stripes and then led the 80,000 spectators in a USA! USA! USA! chant as a bald eagle emerged to land on his flag-draped shoulders. As for this year, while he didn’t light the world on fire during his 440 minutes in the league, the kid is 17! 17 years old! He just recently was judged able to watch Old School without an adult accompanying him and he’s playing for one of the best clubs in the world.

In his limited time on the pitch we can gather he likes to get forward, his average pass started from closer to goal than Reus and Mkhitaryan and maybe he doesn’t like the long-range shot as all of his 8 shots came from inside the box. We also know he’s 17 and making 9 appearances for Dortmund. Youngest player in the league.   Fabian Johnson made a lot of highlight plays but the highlights might have oversold it a little bit. He had a competent, acceptable season for Gladbach not playing fullback.   John Brooks impressed at Hertha in a team focused on building from the back…Timmy Chandler battled injuries and didn’t get many total minutes at Frankfurt…Aron Johannsson’s hip injury sadly sounds like one that could put his career at risk, a real shame for one of my favorite USMNT players…Alfredo Morales played midfield for Ingolstadt but basically was asked to play defense-only and wound up with basically no offensive contributions.

Names of the Year Winner: Noah Joel Saranren-Bazee. I listened to his debut on the radio and it took me hearing his name 4 or 5 times to realize that yes, that was one player they were talking about and he just has two of the best last names of all time.  Honorable Mentions Josuha Guilavogui (misspelled his first name about 20 times before realizing the correct spelling.) Jeffrey Gouweleeuw (if you speak English-only and have zero knowledge of the beauty of Dutch it looks somewhat strange but just try to pronounce it, I will wait. Ok, now go check. I’m going to assume you got it very, very wrong) Mark Uth Maximilian Eggestein Papy Djilodobji Ragnar Klavan Sonny Kittel (most likely to have previously lived a life as the 4th most important character in a John Wayne Western)     And we have come to the end. It’s been a blast watching, analyzing, and writing about the league this season and I really appreciate anyone who reads me and hopefully you can find one or two new things to add to your enjoyment of the league. Pep was fantastic to watch for three years and it would have been great to see a Pep-Tuchel title battle but with Dortmund’s summer so far that looked unlikely next season. So now I’m excited Bayern might have to transition a bit, the possibilities seem much more open for next year and we get the baddies of Red Bull up as well. I can’t wait until the Bundesliga is back and hopefully you will come back and enjoy another season with me here!

Cristiano Ronaldo: More Lethal With Age?

This season has been tough for Real Madrid: no £50m+ player to integrate in the summer, Rafa Benitez gone by Christmas, Karim Benzema in a world of trouble and  Zinedine Zidane channeling Harry Redknapp.  The Champions League they won has been called fortunate, the solitary point they finished behind Barcelona not representative, they only scored 110 league goals and the more-shots-than-anyone-in-the-big-five-European-leagues they took were probably from the wrong part of the pitch: I dunno.  Sometimes out in the tactical and analytical world, it feels like haphazardly assembling a lopsided squad full of some of the world’s best players isn’t as respected as filling up half spaces with tricksy midfielders and eschewing centre backs.

In amongst this malaise, hiding his light under a bushel once more has been Cristiano Ronaldo.  The hands of time keep moving and in football terms, he’s getting old. Not to suggest he’s disappearing any time soon but at 31, the question of how many more years he stays at Madrid or in the top leagues before either retiring or wandering into sterile semi-retirement in a lesser league has started to be asked. One might hope that for the sake of his legacy and his ego, he calls it quits somewhere near the top. He’s not as popular as his eternal nemesis Lionel Messi either and it seems that there are a queue of commentators gladly waiting to proclaim his decline. Criticism is rarely far away, as we saw just last week:

  • “He did nothing in the final” (He was likely half fit)
  • “He chose to take the fifth penalty, the GLORY penalty” (Wouldn’t you want your star striker on a pressure penalty?)
  • “He shoots too much when he should pass” (This is not unique among goalscorers)
  • “He is such a twat” (It’s a game of opinions, Trev)

The preening peacock routine grates and the petulance when his teammates have the audacity to score when they could have passed to him is tough to like too, but when you have consistently created the goal output Ronaldo has, foibles are far more readily accepted, at least within his personal environment.  Thanks to the vagaries of knockout football, he once more stands at the pinnacle of the game, with his third Champions League medal– and second in three years– clutched firmly to his bronzed torso. Also on the plus side, if we’re to round out the story a little, his wikipedia page does not have a section on “legal issues” and in a world drowning in horrific body art, that he rejects tattoos so he can consistently give blood should get significant credit.

Back in September, over at the much missed Grantland, Mike Goodman did a fine job of describing how Ronaldo‘s style of play had evolved under then coach Rafa Benitez. Part of the thrust of that article involved how Ronaldo’s game had changed as he had aged; no longer was he the marauding left forward that blew past players at will, no longer did he give and go like in his younger days. At least partially, this is because the two things he has maintained require him to be high up the pitch: shot and goal volume. Maybe he’s sticking around a while?

This is where I start to become perplexed at attempts to dismiss him or his impact.

Shots and goals

Aging Ronaldo is still the highest volume shooter across the big European leagues. In each of his seven seasons in Madrid he has taken more shots than anyone else in the top five European leagues. In the earliest of these years he was averaging well over seven non-penalty shots per 90 minutes played and in apparent decline through 2015-16 he still averaged 6.4. His shot volume is down; his shot volume still exceeds everyone else.

Okay, so what? If he’s declining, then maybe he’s greedier than before, pulling the trigger and wasting shots from unrealistic positions to keep his volume high. Maybe? Well actually, no.

Over time, we can see that his shot locations have moved. Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, he took 345 shots inside the box (48%) and 377 outside. The following and most recent three seasons have seen significant change, he took 378 shots in side the box (59%) compared to 263 outside. That’s a big increase in efficiency for an aging player, and in fact his in box rate has risen from 3.45 to 3.85 shots per 90 and (+0.40) and the out of box rate has fallen from 3.78 to 2.68 shots per 90 (-1.10). Since 2011-12, the average distance of his footed shots has reduced every season. Students of expected goals will understand what this means: he’s reduced the low probability hit and hopes from range and is getting in the box and getting closer chances more often. This gif shows the difference between the middle seasons here 2011-12 and 2014-15, there’s a clear move to closer in:

 

ronaldo gif

La Liga, square=goal, circle=other shots, colour=blue to red ->scoring probability of shot

Anyway, let’s strip out those free kicks and the ambitious efforts from range and look at what’s left, to get an idea of his irrefutably valuable production. The 3.8 shots per 90 he took in 2015-16 from inside the box alone list him as a top 20 shot volume forward in the big five leagues. So to relate: Harry Kane’s entire shot volume was 4.1 per 90 in 2015-16, Alexis Sanchez put up 3.9, Luis Suarez in a season for the ages hit around 3.7. These are high quality forwards! Romelu Lukaku and his seemingly desired and no doubt expensive shooting boots? 3.3 per 90. All extremely solid totals and you get that output from Ronaldo, every year, just from inside the box.

So having ascertained that his overall shot volume had marginally declined yet was still ahead of everyone else, we now know that it hasn’t affected the quality of the chances he is getting, and in fact as a striker, he has become more efficient with age.

Of course the derived currency is goals, and in no way is he looking like he has taken his foot off the pedal there. His 2015-16 return of 0.82 per 90 still lands him firmly in the elite–7th among players with over 50 shots and is broadly alongside expectation (he ranks 4th in the big five leagues with around 0.9 xG/90). In fact, if we look at the players that surround him for both actual and expected goals–Pierre-Emerick  Aubameyang, Luis Suárez, Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, Lionel Messi–and consider the praise most of them have garnished for this last season, we can see that familiarity has maybe brought contempt, Ronaldo’s always part of this group, and hasn’t fallen back.

All good, still good.

Creation

For a guy that regularly gets slated for his selfishness, Ronaldo sure does create a lot of goals. The last five seasons he’s managed ten or more assists and has averaged 12. Through 2015-16 his rate of assisting shots has been around 1.4 per game, which pales compared to his shot volume, so it’s easy to understand where the perception comes from, but still, his attacking prowess is not just one dimensional. There’s even an argument that he is managing to create better chances as he ages, the chances he creates are clustered more towards the centre of the goal than they used to be, by on average approximately two metres. Again if we use 2011-12 to 2014-15 as representative of this evolution, the contraction is clear:

 

ronaldo gif2

 

line=pass, circle= pass destination, red= goal, white=shot (props to all who have built similar)

Evolution of role, the others

Madrid’s current system is somewhat tricky to define. With Benzema, Bale and Ronaldo a three pronged forward line with little responsibility to defend, their precise positions can be hard to pigeonhole, and that comes out in the data. Bale played slightly behind the other two under Rafa Benitez but Zinedine Zidane’s throwback “run-around-a-bit” style of coaching returned him to start from the right flank and the two forward positions of Benzema and Ronaldo have been far less strict. Once more we can see this in the evolution of Ronaldo’s shot maps, this time via a comparison between 2013-14 and 2015-16:

 

ronaldo ted

 

 viz credit, Ted Knutson and Marek Kwiatkowski, using Opta data

 

Again, a comparison across seasons reveals changes, and with further detail in this visual, we can spot greater nuance. As a reflection of his well-known left forward role, the 2013-14 map clearly shows a bias towards that side in comparison to the far more centrally balanced 2015-16 shot map. What else? Evidence of his more forward role can be seen in an increase in attempts from throughballs (triangles), specifically in the left channel, and a trebling in goal expectation from this type of chance. The conclusion that he’s getting better chances closer in is reflected by the average expected goals per shot, up significantly from 0.107 per shot to 0.123. All in all, his shot charts are looking better over time and his 2015-16 total expected goal volume exceeds previous seasons. Thirty-one year old Ronaldo isn’t an all round forward, he’s an elite striker and that has contributed to an interesting knock on effect: Benzema and Bale have completely ripped it up this last year.

Benzema has recorded over a goal per 90 minutes played (which places him second among Europe’s top tier leagues behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s renaissance in the one-team Ligue Un) and is shooting at a career high rate of 4.4 shots per game. Bear in mind it’s four seasons since he exceeded 0.6 goals per game for Madrid, his goalscoring this season–when fit– has been phenomenal.

Bale is a player with a history of exceeding expected goal contributions (most notably in his last season at Tottenham- 2012-13 and the following year in Madrid) and he has once again achieved that and even allowing for mega club overachievement, almost doubling a goal expectation is crazy, as we can see here:

 

bale sh chart

 

Tons of goals arriving at the back post. I wrote about his season for ESPN Insider recently and one thing to note is the sheer volume of headed goals- 9.

This is the third season of the Ronaldo-Benzema-Bale axis and quite clearly the one with the widest output, for all that injuries for the Frenchman and the Welshman have contributed to them missing a large volume of time. More time may have led these outputs to cool somewhat but we have to consider that the three players have learned to function together at a new peak level. Does Ronaldo’s move towards a more central attacking role higher up the pitch occupy defenders more than his former role? And if so, is this allowing his teammates to exploit the spaces defenders leave behind when double or triple teaming him? The evidence certainly suggests it’s possible.

What next for Ronaldo?

Ronaldo’s lifetime shot and goal contribution is so high as to measure alongside any scorer in the history of the game. As such even with an adapted game, he is proving as lethal as he ever was. It is not yet a question of his decline as core outputs are still extremely high and while it’s impossible to state how much longer he can maintain such a level we can see with a lesser talent such as Ibrahimovic, at 34 and still providing huge output, that he should be able to maintain for a while longer. Indeed, it can be presumed that Ronaldo will keep scoring well as long as he is playing.

So what should Real Madrid do to plan for a succession?

It’s too soon. With Bale at 26 and Benzema at 28, Ronaldo is the only of the three who is an age usually presumed to be beyond his best, and we’ve shown that that isn’t the case. It’s perfectly feasible that they are set with a front three–court cases notwithstanding–for at least another two years. With James Rodriguez bench bound and seemingly out of favour and an aging defence, it seems likely that the smart thing to do for Madrid would be to recruit further back through the team, but with the Euros due and new stars likely to shine, one suspects that flipping James for the next big thing may be their limit; after all it’s their style.

Ronaldo has played an immense volume of football in his career while being fortunate not to suffer with severe injury, and the common thread looking towards the Euros in that it’s his last chance to find glory with his country. However there may well be a further World Cup and Euros left for him beyond this one–he’s on record as saying he may retire in “four or five years”. While Portugal may fundamentally lack the strength in depth to challenge deep into a continental or worldwide tournament, it’s far from implausible that Ronaldo could run hot and give them a chance. As long as his fitness is up to scratch, Euro 16 could still be his tournament and while young pretenders will look to impress to secure big moves, the player Madrid most need in the coming years is already on their books and is ever more efficient in his play as a goalscorer. He remains the best player likely to take part.

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Thanks for reading!

Find me on Twitter @jair1970

LIKE THIS? PLENTY MORE HERE:

Be sure to check out our two Bundesliga reviews from Dustin Ward:

Part One: Teams

Part Two: Coaches and Players

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Ted Knutson on Marcus Rashford and youth scouting

Flavio Fusi wraps up Serie A

Mohamed Mohamed looks at West Ham

And I wrap up the Premier League and look at the worst transfers

Check back all summer, we’ll have plenty more to come.

Arguing About Marcus Rashford and Young Player Development

If you follow football Twitter at all, you’ve probably seen commentary about Marcus Rashford’s ascent to the English National Team. There are two fairly clear sides in this argument. Side 1: Hey, look at this amazing young Manchester United player who can’t stop scoring goals! Side 2: He’s been really lucky to score as many goals as he has so far. Statistically, there is little reason to think he’s as good as his goal return suggests, so should he really be going to Euros? I was intrigued by the stats argument for a lot of reasons, not least because I hadn’t seen anyone actually examine whether it was true outside of some hot takes. Additionally, I figured it was a topic that would let me discuss young player statistical  development, an area that has always intrigued me, in a context that people might care about. Hot or Not: Marcus Rashford Having seen Rashford score two goals in living colour (I was at Midtjylland Europa League knockout tie at Old Trafford), I can tell you he looks like a genuine football player. He’s reasonably tall, has a good frame, but he’s an 18-year-old who is still filling out. He’s got good pace and thus far seems to have a great knack of timing his runs to be in the right place at the right time. That’s an incredibly valuable skill if it can be done consistently. Aside from physical attributes, he has two massive things going in his favor.

  • He is playing games in the Premier League at 18 years old.
  • He is scoring goals in the Premier League at 18 years old.

Both of these things are unusual, but the second is extremely so. The very fact he is being selected to play PL matches at all at this age suggests he’s an elite talent, and the fact that he’s scoring goes a long way toward reinforcing it. So what are the stats guys on about? The problem is that Rashford doesn’t generate any real shot volume. 1.7 shots per 90 is well below the level of elite forwards, and because of that his goal return of basically 1 every 2 games is questionable. Marcus_Rashford_2015-16 Compare this to what I produced from a similar small sample size of Harry Kane games and you can see what might be worrisome. Harry_Kane_2014_Monster_Grafitti Then again, I was poking around with the radar generator and remembered that this looked very similar to another player whose goal scoring has consistently surprised me at Lazio. Miroslav_Klose_2012-13 Klose has an amazing knack for scoring goals without generating a lot of shots, and it has been surprisingly sustainable in Serie A. Bas Dost is another guy who consistently generates amazing expected goals per shot throughout the data I have on his career. Maybe Rashford is a shot quality monster without being a volume monster? rashford_klose Or maybe not… Rashford’s shot quality is solid for a center forward, but nowhere close to the elite levels of Klose or Dost. So yeah, he’s probably riding a bit of a hot streak, and maybe he was also fortunate to be chosen by Hodgson to go to Euros. I don’t have a problem with it – England always seem to take a teenage player to major tournaments anyway, and Rashford is this year’s mascot. What Can We Infer About Rashford’s Future Career? Short answer: not much, but he’s likely to be pretty good. The reason behind this are the two elements I mentioned above. It is damned hard for 18 year olds to perform against adults, and that’s especially true in the Premier League. Rashford has done that, so the null hypothesis – in my opinion at least – is that he’s pretty good simply by being selected at all and then scoring goals. Okay, but what about the shot volume issue? Well that is the tricky element that forces us to look more closely at player development, and how we think it occurs versus how it actually occurs. For those of you unfamiliar with this topic, there’s a concept out there called the age curve and it suggests that on average, football players peak somewhere between 24 and 28. Now this doesn’t mean that all players peak in this period – some might peak at 22 and others strangely late at 30 – but across the population this trend holds very strongly to be true. Marcus Rashford is 18, meaning he probably has another five to six seasons before we see his peak output. Add five or six years of shot volume to a trending chart and you’ll likely wind up somewhere pretty good. On the other hand, don’t expect this to be a smooth curve – real player development tends to be anything but. This chart is taken from baseball velocity development (thanks @drivelinebases), but skills and output in football are similar. dev_progress_plateau If you are expecting a smooth curve, you’d get to week 14 or 15 and want to kill yourself. OH MY GOD WHY IS THIS NOT WORKING?!? The human body, biomechanics, the sport of baseball (or football) are all incredibly complex things, so expecting an easy input to output relationship is a recipe for disappointment. And calling the peak versus the plateau is almost impossible. Has Romelu Lukaku peaked yet? I don’t know – he’s looked like a grown ass man since he was 17 years old. I can give you a probability as to whether this has happened or not, but the fact of the matter is that I am not going to KNOW the answer to that question for another couple of years, and neither will anyone else. This is why focusing on the process matters. You can control the process, even if you rarely control the outcome. This is true in player development just as it is true in the league table. Back to our young  Manchester United player – with this small an amount of league data, we don’t know how Rashford will develop, so we have to make some guesses based on the aforementioned selection biases as priors. 18-year-olds who score reasonable amounts of goals in the Premier League tend to go on to have excellent Premier League careers. That said, would I want to rely on Rashford to be United’s primary striker next season? Eh… Can We Use Data to Evaluate Young Players? This question came up at Science + Football a couple of times and the answer is yes, with some caveats.

  • The first challenge is getting reliable data, and many years of it.
  • The second challenge is making sure that data stays valid.
  • And the third challenge is using that data to build trends where you can evaluate approximately how good those young players are and how good they potentially will be.

You are never going to be perfect with this. You might not even be able to get close. But you can probably get better than knowing nothing objective, which is an improvement on the status quo. One thing I suggested to Midtjylland’s academy last year was that they get on the same data format that we use to evaluate first team prospects, so that we’re able to match up all the advanced metrics and provide them with similar analytical tools. Additionally, with enough information, we could start evaluating statistical development patterns in their best youth players. In order to do this, they would need to send off past seasons of video to be coded by Opta (the data company we used) at the U-19 and potentially U-17 levels. With this information, we could then track a player’s progress through the development teams and into the first team (or other clubs in the data set), and understand what those players looked like at different stages in their development. Another area where tracking younger player statistical output is potentially a huge boon is with teams that have a lot of loanees. If a Manchester City or Chelsea send all their loanees to leagues where they have data, they will gain an incredible amount of clarity about their own players’ performance. They can then use that information to better assess what the next loan should be, as well as which players are most likely to become good enough to make their first team, and which players are probably better to sell on now. With the right people working on this project, they can also develop an objective pricing model for those players’ future transfer values. Given all the information above, perhaps the most interesting questions now are

  • What should we expect from Marcus Rashford next season? and
  • What would be best for the continued development of his career?

The new manager at United is Jose Mourinho, a genius, but also someone who has been remarkably stingy about handing out valuable playing time to young players. What likely will not be best for Rashford will be to ride United’s bench for the entire season, with only a handful of Cup appearances to his name.