Predicted Table and Assorted Lists

  1. Bayern-77 points
  2. Dortmund-74 points
  3. Leverkusen-69 points
  4. Wolfsburg-55 points
  5. Gladbach-52 points
  6. Schalke-50 points
  7. Mainz-48 points
  8. Leipzig-47 points
  9. Werder Bremen-46 points
  10. Hamburg-42 points
  11. Freiburg-42 points
  12. Hertha BSC-42 points
  13. Augsburg-38 points
  14. Frankfurt-38 points
  15. Köln-38 points
  16. Ingolstadt-36 points
  17. Hoffenheim-35 points
  18. Darmstadt-30 points

  Point total is probably a bit too low, but that’s a rough feel for my table.   Top 10 Non-CB Young Players (Under 23 played in BuLi last year)

  1. Julian Draxler
  2. Kingsley Coman
  3. Julian Brandt
  4. Julian Weigl
  5. Hakan Calhanoglu
  6. Max Meyer
  7. Joshua Kimmich
  8. Maximilian Arnold
  9. Nadiem Amiri
  10. Yannick Gerhardt

  Top 10 Overall Non-CB Players

  1. Arjen Robben
  2. Franck Ribéry
  3. Robert Lewandowski
  4. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
  5. Thiago
  6. Raffael
  7. Thomas Müller
  8. Julian Draxler
  9. Karim Bellarabi
  10. Kevin Kampl

Fifteen Under-the-Radar Guys I Like

  1. Nadiem Amiri
  2. Wendell
  3. Salomon Kalou
  4. Florian Grillitsch
  5. Paul Verhaegh
  6. Ja-Cheol Koo
  7. Benjamin Henrichs
  8. Sascha Riether
  9. Tobias Levels
  10. Marco Fabian
  11. Aron Johannsson
  12. Dominique Heintz
  13. Naldo
  14. Pablo De Blasis
  15. Daniel Baier

  Worst Sideline Outfit 2C8E650B00000578-3242335-image-a-14_1442772844345 Tuchel’s track suits expose his lack of work in the squat rack, won’t instructions coming from a guy with skinny legs in wind pants be 5% less effective?     Non-Bayern/Dortmund Rating In Order Of Expected Entertainment Value

  1. Leverkusen
  2. Gladbach
  3. Leipzig
  4. Mainz
  5. Schalke
  6. Werder Bremen
  7. Hamburg
  8. Hoffenheim
  9. Freiburg
  10. Wolfsburg
  11. Köln
  12. Augsburg
  13. Ingolsadt
  14. Darmstadt
  15. Frankfurt
  16. Hertha Berlin

  Top 8 American Rankings

  1. Fabian Johnson
  2. John Brooks
  3. Christian Pulisic
  4. Julian Green
  5. Aron Johannsson (temporary until he gets back to form)
  6. Bobby Wood
  7. Alfredo Morales
  8. Timothy Chandler

Top 5 Jersey Rankings borussia-monchengladbach-16-17-home-kit-3

  1. Gladbach
  2. Dortmund
  3. Wolfsburg
  4. Schalke
  5. Bayern

Darmstadt and Ingolstadt Vol. 2: Großer Than Before

250px-Pascal's_triangle_5.svg It’s almost impossible to overstate how central Pascal Groß was to Ingolstadt’s attack. He led the league in key passes yes, but this doesn’t get to the bottom of it really. He also led the league in passes from attacking areas (~final third): Snip20160813_8 But that’s still not my favorite attacking passing stat for the big man, it’s this list of all passing connections in final third with at least 60 completions: Snip20160813_10 6 of the top 33 connections involve the man Groß, often forming one of his patented Pascal triangles with the right backs Levels and da Costa and his main man toward goal in the Aussie Leckie. Basically, what I’m saying is the only way Ingolstadt ever applied pressure to the opposing defense was through Pascals. It is interesting to notice how close the RB’s got to Groß to pass him the ball, passes of ~12 yards on average for a team who loved a long-ball. The difference in how Levels in particular passed compared to the rest of the Ingolstadt fullbacks was stark. Snip20160813_16 In one of the more bizarre and standout stats of the year Tobias Levels actually had one of the highest completion percentages of any fullback in the league and did it while playing on a team that completed 64% of its passes overall. Maybe he’s suddenly Phillip Lahm in the body of the guy manning the counter at your local electronics store? If he is, he will have plenty of minutes to roll up and down the right with da Costa moving to Leverkusen. One Big Strength: The frenetic press made Ingolstadt were a tough opponent for everyone in the league with how they defended. No team forced opponents into a lower completion % in their own half than Ingolstadt did. I’ll let Pep say it, he might have more credibility than me: Snip20160813_17 Tuchel made similar comments about how it’s a headache to play against them. To be promoted and get praise like that from coaches like Tuchel and Guardiola is basically enough said. Though to say something else, I also named Hasenhüttl by coach of the year in Europe at the midpoint and the Bundesliga Coach of the Year after the season. If you have Pep, Tuchel, and a random guy on twitter with a Homer Simpson profile picture praising you, you know you’ve made it. One Big Weakness: Ralph Hasenhüttl is off to RB Leipzig. He was the man behind the hectic defensive pressure Ingolstadt brought to each and every game and the Groß-centric strategy that scraped enough goals out of what looked to be a talent-poor attack to finish comfortably mid-table.  Groß himself said that Hasenhüttl was crucial to getting him to reach his current level: “Ralph Hasenhüttl has let me play immediately and gave me the confidence in a personal conversation. At my age, that’s the most important thing.” (link)  Markus Kauczinski is the new man, in from Karlsruher, and he will face a tall task to keep the team defending like madmen. Good Season: Someone else besides Groß helps out with the ball and Kauczinski continues to get the team to swarm around and safety is assured.

Bad Season: Relegation
Darmstadt
The passing connection that advanced their team the 2nd-most yards toward goal was Timo Horn to Anthony Modeste. This pushed Koln just over 8000 yards toward goal, now these weren’t high-quality yards because it was just dumb-bombing the ball forward and the second ball was often lost but 8000 yards is a significant number. But it’s still 3000 yards shy of Darmstadt’s goalie to striker hook up of Christian Mathenia to Sandro Wagner. Darmstadt picked up over 330 yards a game just through these two. They are both gone but it signifies how Darmstadt survived last year and probably how they will play this season. When they get the ball it’s full steam ahead: 67% of their midfield passes are toward the opposition goal, 17 points above the league average and 8 points ahead of 2nd place. 8.3% of their total completions came in the final 25 yards, compared to a league average of 4.8% and the second place team there at 6%. It started at the back where Sulu and Caldirola’s passes went more than double the distance of an average CB and ended in front of goal where Sandro Wagner’s passes went 5 yards toward goal, when we rarely see a striker above 2 yards. No player was exempt from the rush the ball forward and get back and hope to block shots strategy. When you talk teams on the edge as far as playing style, you talk Bayern on one end and Darmstadt on the other.
One Big Strength: Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces. Darmstadt led the league in set piece goals which is simply an astounding stat for a team that strung 5 passes together I think twice in their first 3 months. They stayed up almost completely on the back of set pieces, as every time they had a free kick anywhere in the opposition half they heaved the ball toward goal. If you aren’t one of the best passing teams, I’m not sure this isn’t a good strategy.
One Big Change: Augsburg hired Dirk Schuster away this summer. To replace him Darmstadt have brought in Norbert Meier who is not promising the stars to Darmstadt fans. He said things are unlikely to change too much and that “We will certainly not play Tiki Taka here.” For those who love the opposite of Tiki Taka, Darmstadt are good to watch. For those who like to watch Most Extreme on TV, Darmstadt also great to watch.
For a team who had nowhere near the level of talent needed to succeed in the league last year, survival was beautiful. This year the odds remain stacked against them. Sandro Wagner the leading goal-scorer is gone, Luca Caldirola the center-back who led the team in minutes is gone, Mathenia the goalie is gone, Konstantin Rausch the leading assist man is gone, and the coach is gone. They are odds on for relegation and survival this year would be even more beautiful than the year before.

Juventus 2016-17 Season Preview

Last season Juventus had their worst start in the Serie A in 54 years, collecting just 12 points from the first 10 games of their league campaign. Pretty much everyone wrote them off for the title race, but somehow they still won the Scudetto, recording a stunning streak of 25 wins in 26 games, finishing the season with 91 points, 9 more than the runners-up of Napoli.

The hard-to-believe comeback achieved by the Bianconeri was a manifestation of the edge they have built over the rest of the league in the last few years. Juventus have won the last five Serie A titles, averaging more than 90 points per season and leading the second placed team of an average of 11.2 points.

As if that was not enough, this summer’s transfer window may have further enlargened the gap. Not only Juventus improved with the purchases of players like Gonzalo Higuaín and Miralem Pjanić, but they manged to considerably weaken Napoli and Roma, arguably their two main rivals to the title, depriving them of their two best players. Despite the departure from the team of Alvaro Morata and Paul Pogba, two of the best young players in the world, they added depth and quality with the acquisitions of Daniel Alves, Mehdi Benatia and Marko Pjaca, making the Serie A look, at least on paper, more and more like a one horse race, like Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga.

Juve lost #Pogba, but they still have 4 players who were top 10 for scoring contribution last season, 3 in the top 4 pic.twitter.com/086Wbpc63G

— Flavio Fusi (@FlaFu_tbol) August 8, 2016

Transfers

In 2015/2016 Gonzalo Higuaín had the best attacking season the league has ever witnessed.  He led the Serie A in shots (5.50 per 90), shots on target (2.51 per 90) and non-penalty goals (1.00 per 90). In doing so he broke Gunnar Nordhal’s 66-year-old record, scoring 36 goals; more than the amount Bologna, Verona, Frosinone and Udinese scored all season.

 

gonzalo_higuain_2015-16

 

Obviously, his offensive prowess came at a cost: to bring the Argentinean to Turin Juve had to activate the release clause in his contract with Napoli. The €90 M they spent on him, is now the 4th biggest fee ever paid in the world’s transfer market, topped just by fees for Ronaldo, Bale and Pogba. Precisely the money they got for the Frenchman financed the move for Higuaín, but still you wonder if splashing that amount on a soon-to-be 29 years old striker is the right thing to do. To replace a top class striker like Morata, they needed another top class striker and, together with Suárez and Lewandowski, Higuaín is arguably the best in the world right now. Yet el Pipita could offer his maximum output for just two or three season, so if we consider it by itself, it doesn’t sound as the smartest move.

However, if we put this transfer in the context of Juventus’ recent seasons and of their entire reinforcement campaign, it starts to make much more sense. Juve have gathered domestic titles in numbers, but they missed European glory, even though they reached a CL final in 2014/2015. Key players like Buffon (38), Barzagli (35), Chiellini (32), Evra (35) and Licthsteiner (32) will have just a couple more occasions to try to win the Champions League, and so Juve decided to go all-in before the start of a new cycle.

In order to propel their European hopes, Juve acquired also Champions League veteran and multiple winner, Daniel Alves. At 33, he is a short-term solution, but even if his la Liga output declined last season, he is still one of the best right backs in the world right now. Other than top-class quality the Brazilian offers depth in a role where Juve had just Lichtsteiner (32), after the departure of Padoin and Cáceres: the two will likely alternate, in order to keep both fit in a season that, if everything goes well, will see them competing in 55+ games.

Before moving to Bayern, Benatia impressed in his only Serie A season, in which he even scored 5 goals for Roma. He will juice up (and even if he is 29, rejuvenate) Juventus array of elite defenders, establishing, together with Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini and Rugani arguably the best quintet of centre-backs in Europe. Ah, and he will cost just € 3 M, since they got him on loan with option to buy.

Marko Pjaca is another tricky transfer. Allegri usually does not field wingers, so the Croatian would be probably deployed as a forward or behind the strikers, either in a 4-3-1-2 or in a 4-3-2-1. Pjaca, who impressed in his limited playing time at the Euros, averaged 0.59 goals+assists per 90 during his Dinamo Zagreb career. As Cuadrado (who could re-join on loan before the end of the transfer window) did last year, he could offer unpredictability to their plays, creating chances for himself and his teammates with his dribbling.

Finally yet importantly, Juventus had to find a replacement for Pogba and they found him before they sold the Frenchman to Manchester United. At the start of the summer they acquired Miralem Pjanić, the only midfielder able to hit double figure in goals (10) and assists (12), last season, and subsequently the one with the highest scoring contribution. As you may already presume from this information, Pjanić had the best season of his career and the €38 M release clause Juve had to pay to employ his services is quite big, but there were not many midfielders of the same quality available for the same money in the ever-inflating transfer market.

 

pjanic_roma_1516_fwd

 

With Marchisio out until October, Allegri will probably use Pjanić as Juve deep-lying playmaker. When the Italian will come back from his injury one of the two would move to the no.8 spot in Juve three man midfield. Last season, the Bosnian had just two assists more than Pogba, but he almost doubled up the amount of key passes per 90 minutes played by the French. We will see if Allegri will decide to play him “à la Pirlo”, or as one of the interior, but no matter how, his vision and understanding of the game will be precious.

 

 

However, this creativity boost will have a price: Pjanić has not the same physicality of Pogba, even if the Bosnian tackles + interceptions averages are not particularly inferior (Roma and Juventus shared a similar amount of possession, so we can compare their defensive output). But I am sure they could compensate for this eventual problem by playing longer possessions, given how much they improved in terms of overall technique.

Metrics

In the first 12 games of last season Juventus averaged almost 18 shots per game, but they could not convert them. Indeed, they scored just 12 goals, while their opponents scored 11 by firing just 8.6 shots per game on average. That dozen games, in which Juventus converted their shots at a rate of 5.6%, risked compromising their title hopes, but it was obvious that the Bianconeri would improve their finishing sooner or later.

And so it happened: in the last 26 games of the season, Juventus averaged less shots per game (~15) and while they maintained their shots on target average of more than 5 per match, their conversion rate triplicated, reaching 15.2%. As if it was not enough they almost stopped to concede goals. In their comeback to the tile, the opponents fired 236 shots in 26 matches, yet Allegri’s team conceded just 10 goals. Their conversion rate against nosedived to 4.2%,  so no wonder that Buffon  broke Sebastiano Rossi’s Serie A record of 929 minutes without conceding a goal, pushing it to 973 minutes unbeaten. According to Michael Caley’s data, Juve scored 20% more goals than the expected, while conceding 15% less. This is a serious level of over performance, in which luck probably played a role, but as I said at the start of this preview, it was above all a manifestation of the gap between them and the rest of the league.

Paulo Dybala was surely their best player last season: only Gonzalo Higuaín topped his 0.80 non-penalty goals + assists per 90. Expected goals + assists suggested a value of around 0.60 for him, but every Juventus player had his stats doped by their crazy 26-game run to the title and the Argentinean made no exception. Now he will play alongside El Pipita, establishing the most powerful duo of strikers the league has seen in some years. The clinical Mario Mandzukić, who last season managed to score 0.44 non penalty-goals despite averaging just 1.62 shots per 90 and whose defensive contribution in pressing was incomparable, will probably have to sit on the bench, but I am sure he will play his part in this season too. And don’t forget Simone Zaza (if he stays), who netted arguably the single most important goal of the season in the home game against Napoli, and scored 0.68 goals overall in the 663 minutes he spent on the pitch.

European all-in?

Juventus have depth, experience, flexibility and a balanced roster with no clear weaknesses. Their defence was already one of the best in Europe, if not the best, and now they have an attack to rival the very best teams in the Champions League. In any case, they will likely acquire another midfielder and maybe Cuadrado before the end of the window.

They surely must clinch their sixth consecutive Scudetto, because otherwise, their season would be a flop, but above all, it is pretty clear they want to reach (and win) another European final. Their recruitment strategy has radically changed and it will probably make it to harder for them to rebuild in the coming years. However, you can’t blame them for their “European all-in”. In a season in which all the English teams are at the start of a new cycle and also Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have changed their managers, Juventus will have a concrete chance to win the Champions League, and even if they fail, they could regroup and try once again next season. Will they overcome their European obsession? Only time will tell.

Twente’s One Pilot: Hakim Ziyech

2015-08-15 00:00:00 ENSCHEDE, FC Twente - ADO Den Haag, Eredivisie , Voetbal, Stadion Grolsch Veste, Seizoen 2015 / 2016, 15-08-2015, FC Twente speler Hakim Ziyech scoort de 1-2, doelpunt.

In the Dutch media, Hakim Ziyech has come to be known as ‘Hakim the Silent’. Since the start of 2016, he no longer attends press conferences or interviews of any sort; Ziyech and his agent feel they do not want his comments to be misinterpreted, leading to a vilification of the player in the media. After all, that was what transpired after Ziyech, the then-captain lashed out publicly at essentially everyone associated with the club, following the sacking of Alfred Schreuder (he was soon stripped of the captaincy). Barring some social media activity now and then, Hakim Ziyech remains a bit of an enigma off the field.

He has let his on-pitch performance do the talking mostly and there Ziyech has been anything but enigmatic.

Hakim Ziyech’s two years at Twente have probably turned out both the way he wanted and not the way he wanted. On a personal level, the Dronten-born midfielder has seen amazing growth in his skills and ability to influence matches. However, this has all taken place on board the Twentitanic, a rapidly-sinking ship hit by the Doyen controversy iceberg last season off the pitch and a floundering ghost of a team on the pitch. Ziyech has been the band that continued playing even as chaos erupted and consumed the ship.

For the most part of the last two years, Hakim Ziyech has carried the Twente team. In moments of defeat and debility, the Moroccan has been the one that everyone looked to for a spark, for a way back into a match.

Naturally, the centrality of Ziyech to Twente as a club directly translated onto the pitch. The fact that his teammates depended on him to deliver so much meant that he got freedom in his movement and decision-making on the ball. A ‘true’ No. 10 in an era where playmakers are increasingly expected to be multifunctional, Ziyech filled the void of creativity left by Dusan Tadic, who albeit operated from the left wing. The 23-year-old occupies a central role just behind the frontline, but as many attacking midfielders do, often finds himself playing further forward, in line with if not ahead of the striker. Ziyech is equally smart when there is space behind the defence, as well as in tight spaces, when defenders are closing him down.

While extrapolating from one performance is not ideal, a game that really showcased Ziyech’s ability as the main man, came in a heavy 1-4 defeat to ADO Den Haag a year ago.

L: Ziyech's pass map vs ADO Den Haag; 79 passes completed, 56 of which went forward R: Ziyech's touch map, showing his influence in halfspaces
L: Ziyech’s pass map vs ADO Den Haag; 79 passes completed, 56 of which went forward
R: Ziyech’s touch map, showing his influence in halfspaces

ADO took the lead quickly within the first half hour, and as Twente looked to pick themselves up, they looked to Ziyech. The Moroccan had the most touches — 103 in total — and most of these came in the halfspaces (as seen in the touch map), which is the area between the flanks and the centre, if the pitch is divided into 5 equal parts, lengthwise. Operating in this region gives the player the opportunity to play a forward pass over a backward pass as well as being more decisive in moving the play forward. The freedom that Ziyech is afforded in his #10 role is thus well-expended in such a way, since 56 out of the 79 passes he played went forward to a teammate.

The Twente No.10 floats all across the pitch, although his decisive actions tend to come more from the halfspaces. In general, this makes marking Ziyech difficult; PEC Zwolle’s Wout Brama acknowledged last season that trying to man-mark the slender midfielder was an essentially futile endeavour.  Furthermore, Ziyech has consistently put up some of the highest numbers for key passes in every full season he has played in the Eredivisie, since making the step-up from youth/reserve level.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 11.10.12

Putting up good assists and/or key passes numbers as a young player generally bodes well as an indicator of the player’s potential and ceiling, as Ted Knutson detailed. To quote Ted, “(The skill of young players producing high number of assists) is the modern attack. You need creative guys who can run make runs, fill space, and have the vision to produce great final balls. Pair them with efficient finishers, and the combination makes it exceptionally difficult for teams to mark you in the attacking third.”

This is the type of player Hakim Ziyech has proven himself to be, especially over the last year in the Eredivisie. Even from his days at Heerenveen, there were comparisons (premature then, but somewhat valid) to Mesut Özil and now, it is not too far-fetched to liken Ziyech’s skill on the ball to the German; his control of the ball even when dribbling is impressive and his passes are often well-weighted, if not silky.

Ziyech_1516

In addition to crosses, a large portion of Ziyech’s key passes come from set pieces, with his corners in particular being a strong point. His awareness of space is fantastic, as shown before. In 2014/15, Ziyech had relatively better teammates in Jesus Manuel Corona and Renato Tapia, who were in sync with the nimble-footed midfielder and each found themselves on the receiving end of a Ziyech assist four times over the season. But even when these two departed for greener pastures as the Twentitanic started sinking, Ziyech continued creating. This is highlighted by the fact that his key passes numbers have increased between 2014/15 and 2015/16, even though the assist tally went down. Such fluctuations are rarely the fault of the creator and the growth in the key pass metric from an already high level is an encouraging trend.

Ziyech is the type of player who finds it second nature to change direction quickly and flummox defenders. His light frame gives him mobility and he accelerates just as smoothly with the ball as he does without it. Over the last three seasons, he has attempted an average of 4.7 dribbles per 90 minutes, and finds success roughly half of the time.

As such, when his teammates aren’t finding the target enough, Ziyech is more than capable of taking the mantle himself. Being the focal point of his side, in every sense of the term, means that Ziyech takes a lot of shots, from both open play and freekick situations. He also finds the target pretty consistently, with a percentage of 41.3% of his shots being on target over the last two seasons. With a propensity to shoot from range, he lags a bit in terms of actual conversion, but in a side with better teammates and with more guidance, he should develop a more keen sense of picking his shots well. There is a certain unpredictability about Ziyech, which is what also makes him lethal; he can seem quiet but then suddenly emerge in a good position and find a goal or create an opening for a teammate. That he could produce such moments with some regularity over the last season is impressive.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 11.06.01

Ziyech’s glaring weakness is his physique — or rather, the lack thereof. While his balance is good, being fleet-footed can’t always get the 23-year-old out of trouble and at times, this can lead to him losing the ball when he attempts a dribble and ends up being outmuscled.

However, with enough strength and conditioning work, this should not be a major obstacle in preventing clubs from being interested in him. Riyad Mahrez, for example, showed last season, that one does not necessarily need to be of bulky build to succeed as a winger or creative midfielder in a league as renowned for being physical as the Premier League.

As far as his best position goes, there is very little space for discussion. As Ajax boss Peter Bosz put it, “Ziyech should not be played on the wing. He belongs at the #10 role; he’s a creative boy who does not belong on the flanks.” The midfielder himself is obsessed with everything #10, he even has it stitched into his gloves. He is not the type of player who would thrive in a tactically rigid role; growing up playing football on the streets, Ziyech is an effervescent attacking presence but can only perform as such if he is given the tactical freedom to dictate play.

Ziyech might also take his time to develop into more of a team player, which has some irony in as much as the reason for him seeming ‘selfish’ at Twente was in taking up responsibility in situations of need. Naturally, if/when he moves to a bigger club, he will have teammates of better calibre and thus, he will have to refrain from trying to do everything himself and sometimes taking that too far. Most teams also expect attacking midfielders to be multi-functional and help out in defending and pressing, and this too is an area Ziyech should look to improve and develop in.

However, the fact that we are well into August and Ziyech still plays for Twente (who were nearly relegated over the summer due to their financial irregularities) remains almost a Tupac-level mystery now. There has been interest from some foreign clubs, while PSV and Ajax have made enquiries too. The Dutch clubs are likely to be priced out by the €12million ‘base’ fee price tag that Twente have slapped on him. All of Borussia Dortmund, Roma, Fenerbahce, Inter Milan, Napoli, Burnley and Everton have been linked to the 23-year-old at some point over the last few weeks — the first three being named by Twente director Ted van Leeuwen himself as clubs willing to pay the minimum fee.

It is possible that Ziyech himself is waiting for a ‘big’ club to show real, concrete interest, hence perhaps why reported talks with Burnley were unsuccessful. Most of the other clubs should be of sufficient level for Ziyech to benefit from the move as a player, though naturally he will have to go through the adaptation and acclimatisation process before producing performances of the calibre he showed in the Netherlands.

Given the ridiculously high fees thrown around this summer, the club who eventually picks up Hakim Ziyech for the peanuts sum of €12m or so, might prove to have made a shrewd investment.

Move The Transfer Window And Other Week One Thoughts

bolasie2 Same old, same old? The same old warnings need wheeling out at this time of year: one game tells us very little, two will tell us a fraction more, but it will be some weeks before there’s enough solid evidence to make more confident conclusions on team quality. Certainly we know more than before, but most of that revolves around guesses about personnel. It’s nice to see new players get onto the pitch and get off the mark, and bravo to Nathan Redmond, The Zlatan, Sadio Mane and others for becoming hit transfers overnight. The most obvious team example this time round was Arsenal, who started against Liverpool with inexperienced centre backs, no Ozil, no Giroud and a team that was arguably half full of reserves. Conceding four makes their defence look poor but this was a tough fixture to try and win from an undercooked start. They have the excuse that they will be stronger and better in the near future, something that Liverpool cannot claim with the same certainty. Contrarily, it’s possibly wiser to be more concerned as a Liverpool fan. The propensity for high scoring, high variance games has immediately reared it’s head again. Under Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool league matches averaged nearly 3.2 goals per game last season, and during the back half of the season that went up to 3.6 goals per game, the highest rate in the league. That’s fine if you’re regularly coming out on the right end of the results, but Liverpool’s record was 13-9-8 under Klopp, and that needs to improve. Winning seven goal thrillers is fun, but conceding three goals from five shots on target is a little too familiar. There were other aspects of the weekend’s games that felt usual for all that the thinking and method behind their construction was different. Widely–and rightly– castigated for averaging around eleven shots per game under Louis van Gaal, Manchester United once more managed eleven shots in beating Bournemouth, but scored three times. United managed to score three times in the league on eighteen occasions during van Gaal’s two years but on only four occasions did they manage it from more than twelve shots, so this has become quite a hallmark. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the only attacker new to the club that started, and United’s attacking efficiency resembled Uncle Louis’s tenure once more. It will take a while to shake out his old ways and he will have been shaking his head from his Portuguese villa at the impetuous rashness Ibrahimovic showed in shooting and scoring from such a distance. Mourinho’s teams, although widely recognised as defensively orientated, have most often been strong shooters and comfortably dominated shot counts, so it will be interesting to see the metamorphosis as his methods gradually take hold. At the Etihad, we found Manchester City controlling their fixture against Sunderland. They started with their back up keeper, too many full backs, who then ended up in midfield, relentless passing, John Stones recast as a centre back par excellence. To the sound of a million keyboards clattering an eked out victory against Sunderland achieved a new status as a foundation game in the history of football. I jest of course, but Pep Guardiola’s reign will no doubt draw analysis and interest at a level beyond what we’ve seen before in the Premier League. If Klopp was a taster, then Guardiola is long awaited main course. Over here in stat land, there was a familiar tone to the shot numbers.  Sixteen shots to seven is broadly in line with last season’s average (16 to 8) but to get only four on target (to three) was a low mark that again reflected a problem they suffered from in the second half of last season, where they ranked 12th/20 for a shots on target to shots rate. With Guardiola rewiring the whole method, it could be a few games before they hit fifth gear. Tottenham’s point away to Everton felt much like their 1-1 draw there last season. That game was an equally mixed performance and being heavily favoured beforehand, was the kind of match that a title contender needed to win. This time round and with Everton thoroughly in transition, it looked a good time to visit Goodison, but Ronald Koeman outthought Mauricio Pochettino, at least to start with, and that was enough to secure a point. Stoke spent much of last season getting points despite miserable shot rate and once more hit that mark  with one on target, for one goal and a draw and as if to firmly state that we are what we are, West Brom won one nil. These are just anecdotes, a small window into what the rest of the year promises but it shows how it takes time to rebuild teams in a manager’s image. There is also the spectre of the transfer window that hangs over the entire league, and leaves us without satisfactory resolution until it closes. Only in the weeks that pass after that will we start to truly understand the personalities of the teams of 2016-17. Transfer window One of the least logical aspects about football–and this faces steep competition– is the date the transfer window closes in comparison to the start of the season. A situation that means that the season starts without a final squad settled to compete truly detracts from the opening few weeks. So we find Yannick Bolasie thought to be on his way to Everton, thrown on to attempt to salvage a point for Palace. Did Romelu Lukaku have a bad foot or was he earmarked for transfer? Will Arsene Wenger ever not use the opening games as pre-season? Early season games always have an added factor for variance due to differing fitness levels and now a newer trend of players deployed during summer tournaments getting added time off. When we consider that nine points are at stake and 8% of the season takes place prior to the trading ending, then surely, even if a club struggles to balance its entire squad prior to the 1st of September, it can endeavour to bring the fundamental core of its first team to the first game and hit the ground running. Has Guardiola settled on his squad? There’s talk that incoming business is done and we will probably find that it’s mostly outs from here on in. What of Chelsea and Arsenal? Both have huge gaps to fill in defence, yet start the season undermanned. Regardless, we won’t find out who is intended to stay at each club until the season is well underway. Hull haven’t even got a whole squad. Surely these issues should be solved prior to league kick off? It’s untidy, and maybe the barriers to solving this are hard to overcome, but in the interest of providing the best product, the best competition and the best sport, the coming years need to see moves to start to change the circumstances, so that when the season starts, we can concentrate on what happens on the pitch and not the circus that surrounds it.   ____________________ Thanks for reading   Did you miss the previews we did? Give them a look here      

The StatsBomb Premier League Previews 2016-17

sbbb3 The season is upon us! Thanks to all our contributors here: Thom Lawrence, Peter Owen, Clarke Ruehlen, Flavio Fusi, Benjamin Pugsley and especially Mohammed Mohammed who braved slow internet speeds from the heart of Africa to submit no less than four previews (three PL and a Ligue 1). A great effort all round. And big thanks to all who shared, retweeted, took the previews to forums or reddit or otherwise just enjoyed and interacted. This isn’t the end of 2016-17 StatsBomb previews, Dustin Ward–notably absent from this series– has been cooking up a storm for the Bundesliga, so watch this space. Here in one place, the StatsBomb Premier League Previews 2016-17: Arsenal by James Yorke Chelsea by James Yorke and Flavio Fusi Everton by Thom Lawrence Leicester by Mohammed Mohammed Liverpool by Peter Owen Manchester City by James Yorke and Benjamin Pugsley Manchester United by James Yorke Middlesbrough by Clarke Ruehlen Southampton by Mohammed Mohammed Tottenham by James Yorke West Ham by Mohammed Mohammed Six into four won’t go: The top four race by James Yorke If you don’t already, give the contributors a follow on twitter and make sure you return regularly during the season for more smart, premium content. Thanks for reading.   -James Yorke Editor

Middlesbrough 2016-17 Preview: Back To The Big Time

The Boro are back in the Premier League and sadly they didn’t bring with them the attacking flair of a Juninho or the 3 headed attack of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Yakubu & Mark Viduka. No, those days are long gone. The road back to the top flight has been long and bumpy, with seven seasons in the Championship all told, but building on the promise of a fourth place finish in 2014-15, automatic qualification was secured in 2015-16.

Aitor Karanka

After serving three years under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho during his stint with Real Madrid, Boro came calling and offered Aitor Karanka his first club managerial role. His record on Teeside is quite impressive: 73 wins and 32 draws in 139 matches. He almost left the club three quarters of the way through last season but amends were made and he guided the team to a 2nd place finish. However, the Premier League is an altogether different beast and this season will really show us how much he learned from Mr. Mourinho.

Defense Good or Defense Lucky?

Boro gave up the least amount of 2nd tier goals (31) of any team this centuryand had a league leading 22 clean sheets during their promotion campaign, so it’s safe to say that their outlook could well be defense first.

Now a lot of this was powered by a 80%+ save % from the elder statesman & goalkeeper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos. The 37 year old even had a stretch of 9 matches in row where he never gave up a single goal. A nice season for any keeper. A deeper look at the numbers confirms what we already know, goalkeepers are voodoo. In the 1st half the season the Greek saved a super high 87% of the shots he faced while in the 2nd half the season he was down to 74%.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.29.56 PM
Boro had an unsustainably high save% through the 1st 30 matches

Now it is up in the air whether Konstantopoulos will be back on Teesside let alone even get a game in the coming campaign as former Barcelona man Victor Valdes and Aston Villa’s Brad Guzan have been brought in. Valdes really has not played meaningful minutes since the 13-14 season and Guzan has been poor for a while now, most notably during Villa’s dismal relegation year. It’s hard to say either is in the right shape to show their best form.

The team itself was solid in the shots against metrics. They were at or near the top of shots, shots on target, shots inside the box against. Whether Karanka was happy with that performance or is just re-emphasising his focus on defense is tough to know based on this close season. We have seen him sign 2 keepers, Marten de Roon (DM) from Atalanta, Bernardo Espinosa (CB) from Sporting Gijon, Antonio Barrigan (RB) from Valencia and the club was also heavily linked with Neven Subotic before he failed a medical and promptly went under the knife.

It is safe to assume that Karanka will be pragmatic in his approach the Premier League and he will likely stick to a double pivot 4-2-3-1 system. I don’t expect this team to take to many chances going forward and it will likely lean on defensive structure and discipline to limit the opposition.

Attack (or lack-there-of)

During 2015-16, Nugent, Kike, Stuani and Fabbrini all took turns spear-heading the attack but none really shone to brightly as the campaign wore on. Looking at the underlying numbers, Stewart Downing had a decent start to the season but after around 15 matches he started being less and less influential in creating and taking shots.

As much as it wasn’t reflected in terms of goals, the Smoggie’s didn’t get rolling offensively till Jordan Rhodes and specifically Gaston Ramirez showed up during the January transfer window. They started to maintain longer stretches of dominating games and in turn the shot metrics took a ride upwards, they just couldn’t find the net at expected rates. Ramirez took over the #10 role and the majority of the Boro attack flowed through him. Clipping along at over five shots & key passes per 90, his performance during his loan spell prompted Middlesbrough to sign the Uruguayan on a free transfer over the summer.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.29.40 PM
From match 30 onward Boro maintained a higher Shots on Target Ratio. This coincided with Gaston Ramirez and Jordan Rhodes being signed in the January window.

In the end, they scored an unflattering 63 goals (8th most in the division) which is among the lowest for a promoted club in last 15yrs.

Boro’s ranking in various shot counting metrics:

Total Shots – 4th

Shots on Target – 3rd

Shots inside the Box – 2nd

Open Play Shots – 4th

We see that the Teessider’s didn’t have trouble getting shots away but their conversion rates were a tad on the low side:

Goal per shot on target rate – ~27%

Goal per total shot rate – ~9.5%.

League averages are roughly 30% and 10% respectively.

Transfers In

The only 2 attacking additions so far have been Alvaro Negredo from Valencia and the young winger Victor Fischer from Ajax.

Negredo has been brought in on loan after having struggled the last couple seasons. He posted back to back five goal seasons with Valencia in a limited role while taking roughly three shots per 90. He is now on the wrong side of the age curve and with a need for some cutting edge finishing Boro can only hope Negredo finds his pre-Man City form. (Hint: He likely won’t)

Victor Fischer is a bit of an unknown but the age (22) and price (€5m) reduce the risk. He found the net 8 times in 1200 minutes last season and as a winger he took 3 shots and 1.3 key passes p90. He ran hot with a goal per shot rate of over 19%.

Can they survive?

Gaston Ramirez is the key going forward but the creative depth falls off a cliff after that. Someone is going to have to step up and join Ramirez if the club has realistic aspirations to maintain it’s position in the division. That the club relied on goal keeper over performance during much of the season is a concern given that in a harder league and with some reversion, we know that is unlikely to continue.

When analyzing any promoted team it is extremely difficult to gauge how they will do in their first season up. Metrics in the Championship do not effectively transfer to an analysis of the next season in the Premier League.  While Karanka can lay claim to some tactical nous, I am just not sure the overall talent pool at the Riverside is good enough. In short, staying up would be a great achievement.

Clarke

@footyinthecloud

Contribution to Shots and Goals Through the 1st 38 games of the 15-16 season

 

Pos Name Mins Contribution to Shots % Contribution to Goals %
M Ramirez 792 36.2% 50.0%
F Rhodes 617 34.0% 25.0%
M Adomah 2580 28.8% 25.6%
M Downing 3003 27.3% 14.6%
F Fabbrini 1261 26.3% 33.3%
F Nugent 2055 25.7% 40.6%
F Stuani 1624 24.3% 29.2%
D Leadbitter 2850 22.8% 16.3%
M Forshaw 800 19.7% 27.3%
F Kike 840 19.0% 27.3%
D Nsue 2618 12.9% 8.5%
M Clayton 3048 11.1% 4.3%
D Friend 3013 9.7% 4.4%
D Ayala 2380 7.4% 8.6%
D Amorebieta 1032 5.1% 6.7%
D Kalas 1787 3.8% 0.0%
D Fry 540 3.8% 0.0%
D Gibson 2121 1.2% 2.8%

Manchester City 2016-17 Season Preview (with Podcast)

This season, probably the biggest boost to the Premier League in relation to attracting the best talent isn’t the arrival of a player, but Manchester City’s procurement of already legendary coach Pep Guardiola. Alongside Arsenal, they are the only team to have finished in the top four in every season this decade and while their team may be aging in parts, it is still extremely talented. What Guardiola brings in the case of method may take time to bed in, but while players as talented as Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero or David Silva are spearheading his attack, there is every chance that they will steamroller teams through sheer talent alone.

Ilkay Gundogan and John Stones are the major outlay new players with a view to fitting in problem positions for the squad. Centre back has been a tricky position for players to thrive in under Manuel Pellegrini, as Nicolas Otamendi found to his cost during 2015-16 and Stones offers as yet unrealised potential and passing ability for his new team. Gundogan looks a long term replacement for now 33 year old Yaya Toure, though it should be remembered how well Guardiola managed the minutes, injury permitting, of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Xabi Alonso across recent seasons. Indeed, aspects of City’s recruitment seem to mimic those seen at Bayern with an extremely talented young core being purchased for the future, to maybe fit around the more senior incumbents.

City clearly underperformed against their underlying shooting and expected goal numbers last year and therefore can be considered to still project as one of the top two or three clubs in the land. Their general trajectory though has been decline. From the attacking prowess of 2013-14 that propelled themselves to the title, both subsequent seasons have been noticeably less successful, for all that investment hasn’t stalled. Txiki Begiristain continues to oversee transfers and with his old accomplice now installed as manager, it would be a huge surprise if Guardiola couldn’t harness that talent and supply a title challenge.

Some questions will present themselves with plenty of choice in the ranks. Is Nolito considered a rotational player or a starter? Coming off an impressive season with Celta Vigo, where he enjoyed being a focal point of their attack, he created significantly more than Raheem Sterling managed as a junior man in City’s side:

 

nolito creation2

 

Will Guardiola persist with four aging full backs? This problem looked one to solve last year, yet persists with no remedy sought yet.

Will Kelechi Iheanacho step forward and take the role as second striker behind Aguero? He showed huge promise from limited minutes and although substitute appearances bounced up his rates, he was possibly the most exciting young player in the league to offer the promise to fully break out in 2016-17.

All these questions and more are discussed in the accompanying podcast where City fan, Barcelona resident and thus long time Guardiola watcher Benjamin Pugsley and I examine the potential for Manchester City’s season.

Enjoy.

Liverpool 2016-17 Season Preview

Another season outside the Champions League spots but with plenty of reason to be optimistic about next year. It seems like an ever recurring pattern as a Liverpool fan, and even when we do qualify for the Champions League it manages to be just as painful. Last season we attracted a real top class manager, made it to two cup finals and played some exciting attacking football along the way, yet it all ended rather anticlimactically. But, as always, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about Liverpool’s chances this season. So how can we improve on last season? The basic underlying metrics last season were promising: Shots On Target For – 4th Shots On Target Against – 4th Shots On Target Ratio – 3rd Shots in the Box Ratio – 3rd Passes into the Box Ratio – 2nd Klopp has a full preseason of preparation under his belt, so the gegenpressing should be in full swing come the start of the season. The focus on denying opponents time on the ball as both a defensive and attacking option has been noticeable in preseason, with two goals against Barcelona coming from quick breaks after a successful duel in midfield. https://streamable.com/ntjt https://streamable.com/5tvz   He’s also had time to work on other tactics/player development/transfers putting Liverpool in much better stead than after the managerial takeover 9 games into last season. He’ll  be under less pressure than the most of the other top managers, and won’t have the physical burden of European football this year. Anything other than top 4 for City, United, Arsenal, and Chelsea will be regarded as simply not good enough, whereas Liverpool and Spurs will surely be given a little more leniency from fans and directors. But even though Klopp had Liverpool playing good football last season there seemed to be 2 main limiting factors preventing a serious challenge for the top 4: 1) Mignolet’s incompetence Using an expected saves model Mignolet conceded -4.9 more goals this than an average keeper would with the same shots. Considering you’d expect a keeper playing for a top 8 team to be better than average Mignolet cost Liverpool somewhere in the region of 5-6 goals. If we plug this into the pythagorean formula here we can see this cost the team approximately 4 points, or the difference between placing 6th and 8th. Considering shot stopping is apparently the best part of his game, which may unfortunately be true, this output would clearly hinder most teams in reaching the top 4. 2) Sturridge’s lack of minutes When fit, Sturridge is arguably the second best striker in the league and his goals per 90 whilst at Liverpool support that, as he’s good for 2nd in Premier League history behind only Aguero at City. In the first half of the season Sturridge only managed to play 17% of possible time on the pitch, scoring 2 goals in 290 available minutes. This contributed to the Reds only scoring 22 goals in the first 19 games, level with Norwich, Bournemouth and Louis Van Gaal’s army. In the second half on the season he managed more playing time but still only 40% of available minutes, scoring 6 goals and assisting 1 in 690 minutes. Liverpool scored 4 more goals than any other team in the league in 2016, with Sturridge clearly having a positive impact even in his limited time on the pitch. I think again we’ll be heavily reliant on Sturridge’s fitness although hopefully less so than last year. Origi’s development has been promising and for as much negativity as he received Benteke’s goal return is consistently good. All 3 strikers had very respectable seasons and given the strength/depth we have in attacking midfield have every chance to replicate these numbers again this season. Below numbers are from the Premier League and Europa League last year.

Goals Assists Mins G+A p90
Benteke 10 3 1741 0.67
Origi 7 2 1266 0.64
Sturridge 11 2 1460 0.80

I love the idea of having Benteke as an impact sub, his aerial prowess and shot numbers late in games are a serious threat, but whether we want to spend £120k a week on someone playing 30 minutes a game is obviously doubtful. After the initially poor offensive output, Sturridge felt like had to take the burden on himself consistently shooting from range, much more often than in his best season to date in 13/14. His ExpG/shot dropped from .171 in 13/14 to just .109 last season. Hopefully Klopp can reign this in as there’s only so much long range shooting a team should do and Coutinho more than fills our quota, having the most shots outside the box p90 in the league last season.   Daniel Sturridge_2013-14   Transfers in Loris Karius (£5m, £60k pw) – A huge need filled fairly early on in the transfer window, Karius was bought with the intent to move straight into the first team. Unfortunately he picked up an injury in pre-season and looks like he’ll miss the first 4-8 weeks of the season. His shot stopping numbers look pretty good, and as we’ve pointed out already Mignolet was calamitous so his value above replacement is high. Mignolet was actually coming off a great season with Sunderland when we signed him so many fans may be worried that the same may happen with Karius. Fortunately Karius’ numbers are better than Mignolet’s when he joined. Using a probability method, I can calculate that an average keeper facing the same shots would have done worse about 71% of the time compared to a decent, but lesser 54% for Mignolet after his last season at Sunderland.

Goalkeeper Saves Expected Saves Saves Above Expected Average Difficulty Prob avg. keeper < X
Loris Karius 327 321.3 5.66 0.271 71%
Simon Mignolet 600 602.7 -2.72 0.292 40%
Mignolet (Sunderland) 315 313.6 1.40 0.275 54%
Mignolet (Liverpool) 285 289.1 -4.12 0.311 31%

Joël Matip (Free, £100k pw) – First of all he made it into the Whoscored Bundesliga TOTY last season so, er… you know he’s got to be good. One of the main things that initially stands out about Matip is his experience for someone his age at centre-back

Age Apps Mins League Pos.
24 34 3060 5
23 17(4) 1546 6
22 31 2790 3
21 32 2873 4
20 30 2631 3
19 14(12) 1500 14
18 17(3) 1392 2
Total 194 15792

For perspective he has more Bundesliga minutes than Koscielny has Premier League minutes. Since he was 18 he’s been playing consistent first team minutes for a team competing for Champions League football, and considering that reliably  analysing centre backs is a task that tests even the best analysts that’s good enough for me. A recent piece by Garry Gelade showed how important experience is in aiding forwards improve their rate of scoring. Although the analysis is for forwards, I like to think it also paints a broader picture of how important experience is in player development, but obviously more research would have to be done for confirmation. Sadio Mane (£34m, £120k pw) – Last year I had him as the attacking midfielder with the 2nd highest expected goals per 90 behind only Alexis  Sanchez. He also had the second most shots in the box per 90 again behind Sanchez. He’s had an impressive pre-season and shown how his pace and high shot output can add a counter attacking dimension to Liverpool’s game which will help in the push for top 4. An attacking midfield trio of Coutinho, Firmino, and Mane looks very good on paper and with Lallana and Wijnaldum for depth we’re looking pretty strong at this position. We can see just how impressive Mane’s last season was when we look at his shot chart. Sadio Mane_2015-16   Georginio Wijnaldum (£23m, £75k pw) – Possibly the most questionable of this season’s signings. 11 goals and 5 assists is great production for someone splitting minutes between CM and AM for a relegated team, even if he did run a little hot scoring his 11 goals from only 54 shots. Will be interested to see how Klopp fits him into the team, since there’s lots of competition for our 3 attacking midfield positions and Can and Henderson seem pretty set in the centre. Transfers out Joe Allen (£13m) Not going to lie I am going to miss Welsh Pirlo/Xavi/Busquets but considering he was coming into the last season of his contract I’ve got to say this looks like a good deal.   Joe always comes across pretty well whenever analysed by the analytics community and seemed to fit Klopp’s system well with his impressive pressing abilities. At the moment there is a fair amount of uncertainty in centre midfield, exacerbated by Milner picking up what seems to be a heel injury in the past week. It’s probably going to lead Grujic needing to fill in some of the rotation minutes that Joe used to pick up, and we’ll soon see if he’s progressed enough to fill in his boots. Jordan Ibe (£15m) Another player I’ll be sad to see leave but I think was good value all things considering. Judging a true value for him is clearly not an easy task. After the 14/15 season a fair amount of Liverpool fans were  suggesting that out of Sterling and Ibe, the latter had the higher upside. He did slightly improve his successful dribbles (from 4.2 to 4.5 p90 ) shots in the box (from 0.7 to 1.1 p90), and key passes (from 1.1 to 1.5 p90)  but it wasn’t considered enough to compete with Coutinho/Firmino/Lallana and now Mane/Wijnaldum in playing as one of 3 attacking midfielders. Without him we are lacking in width a little bit though, and it looks like we’ll heavily rely on our fullbacks to provide us with that attacking scope, as well as the occasional impact substitutions of Markovic and/or Ojo. What can we expect from this season? The hype train peaked relatively early last season when our title odds were slashed to 5/1 after a string of 2 or 3 good results late in November. This sent optimism into overload, before the very next game we lost miserably to Newcastle.  This erratic form was a hallmark of the season and I’d not be surprised to see a similar amount of it this season. In fact, we’ve already practiced our volatility in preseason comfortably beating Barcelona 4-0 before Mainz beat us 4-0 in an equally comfortable fashion just a day later. I do think that this season will be better, but there’s a lot more strength at the top end of a league that was already very competitive and it will be tough for Liverpool to finish above two of Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal. That said, if the team can replicate some of the solid metrics from 2015-16 and get a bit of overdue luck along the way, especially with regard our goalkeeping, then it’s possible that we can be in there pitching at the business end. Klopp has a ton of goodwill and the main hope for this season is to see genuine progress and for his methods to really start to bed in. If it all works, top 4 is possible, if not it could be 5th.     ______________________________________   Check out our other previews here

Arsenal 2016-17 Season Preview: Wenger’s Gamble?

508072076 Tottenham’s mentally drained and empty defeat at Newcastle not only meant Arsenal finished above them but also broke a long run for the Gunners as they vaulted into second place for the first time since 2004-05. That made little difference in the prize stakes and the way the season panned out, they won’t have been the only team to rue a title chance missed. It meant we had the usual tired chorus of “Wenger Out” from the kneejerkers, when in fact looking a little closer at the process showed the team in a more positive light. Were Arsenal the best team in 2015-16? They were comfortably among the top four once more and stylistic refinement towards the maximisation of shooting locations at both ends of the pitch heavily implied that they eventually underachieved. Could that remedy itself this season? Squad and Transfers Arsene Wenger showed his hand early with the signing of Granit Xhaka and the attempt to bring in Jamie Vardy. In doing so he solved a simple problem–giving Flamini over 1000 league minutes last year was criminal– but failed to solve another, a striker upgrade. Now the summer has moved on and a new problem has presented itself with the injury to Per Mertesacker, which means the general consensus is that both a striker and a centre back are desirable. Wenger has been typically enigmatic regarding signing either with a slight nod towards the necessity to strengthen defence; Mertesacker might be entering his dotage, but his organisation skills will be missed while Gabriel now joins him in the injury room and Calum Chambers remains not quite there. Moving forward, as ever there’s a ton of good. Perennially underrated, Mesut Ozil had one of the great Premier League creative seasons last year with 146 key passes for 19 assists landing just shy of Thierry Henry’s league record of 20. There was some ill-informed analysis about late last season that did a quick bit of maths and decided that finding only 13% of his key passes turning into assists should somehow be held against him, and typically anti-Ozil narratives seem to take hold far too easily. Of course they miss the point, Ozil is a special player, should be regarded as such and creating chances at a better rate than anyone in the league? That’s a really good thing. Here’s a chart of all the non-corner derived shots he created, the locations are excellent and even if his teammates struggled to finish the chances, the 19 overall assists is still a phenomenal return: ozil kp assists no corners

red = goals

Alexis Sanchez, who has played football in every summer since forever, unsurprisingly looked a little jaded at times, but found a little more form when finally moved out to a right sided role. His overall expected goal output (goals and assists) lead the team at around 0.8 per 90, even if his actual output lagged somewhat at 0.57. Santi Cazorla grabbed the role of “most missed player” when injured as he and Francis Coquelin had combined effectively to do the job of one all round midfielder through the early months of the season. The signings of Mohamed Elneny and now Xhaka at least offer genuine options in those central roles, maybe freeing Aaron Ramsey to move forward again. Elsewhere Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain appear to be in the last chance saloon having made fitful contributions in recent seasons while Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere once more start the year injured. And that’s the recurring problem: with any kind of squad fitness, Arsenal could have fought for the title far more frequently that they have in recent years. What of Olivier Giroud? As a focal point for a team full of talented ball players, he’s surely an ideal fit. Good in the air and reliable positionally, he can continue as first choice. It just seems that a succession beyond Giroud has not been planned. As we see here, Arsenal regularly find Giroud in good positions and he gets his share of goals: giroud shots Talk of replacing him recurs every year, but when you pick apart his contribution, it’s actually quite difficult to see how Arsenal could improve on him without landing right at the top of the market, something that post-Suarez and now Vardy, they have failed to do. One option that seems not to have been explored in recent years is something other larger clubs have repeatedly tried: to stockpile young talented players, with a view to hoping they break out. Manchester City appear to have based their entire summer on this philosophy and the two German giants, Bayern and Dortmund have recently shown great skill in recruiting elite young players. Wenger, again seems reticent to compete in this market, at least to the level he may have in the past. Would Wenger in his earlier years have persisted for so long with Flamini, Mikael Arteta  or Tomas Rosicky? Or even Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott? These are tricky questions to answer when often the solutions are new players, and at least to some degree, Wenger seems to value continuity and loyalty. Overall, when fit, the first team is very strong and there is some degree of depth, primarily in midfield. Metrics Arsenal’s team metrics have taken an interesting journey since the “star signing” era that was ushered in by the purchase of Ozil. Arsenal’s general shot volumes were by their own standards low in 2013-14 and came forward for 2014-15 before a slight drop off in 2015-16. All these are enough to rate among the better teams in the league but in no way dominant. Expected goal analysis reveals a slightly different story: over these three seasons, Arsenal have progressively created chances from closer locations and their rate has increased year on year with 2015-16 being a starkly better season. Arsenal’s average shot distance for 2015-16 was a shade over 16 metres and that is the shortest Premier League average recorded in the period from 2010-11 onwards; that’s right, first of 120 teams. (Though it is perfectly feasible that they will drop back somewhat here, it is still a positive trend). The centrality of their shots ranked third for 2015/16, so Arsenal created shots from close in and central. Ideal really. So why didn’t they do better last year?  The primary reason seemed to be a finishing slump that affected the majority of the team. That it was so widespread does provoke the question as to why, and that’s tough to answer beyond the obvious dodge to cite variance. That could still hold as true as the overall team rate was notable but not as woeful as say Liverpool’s 2011-12 or 2012-13 seasons. Olivier Giroud was the only attacking player that exceeded his expected rate, and even then he suffered a huge drought in scoring in going 15 league games without a goal from January onwards. There’s a mild worry that their shot volumes did not approach truly elite levels and that may have been a side effect of the focus on location, but no matter: the team created more defined big chances than any other team in the league. Defence is good too. There’s a school of thought that Arsenal are weak at conceding shots from range, and it’s another faulty analysis that misses something crucial. In 2015-16, Arsenal limited their opponents to the longest shots in the league (over 19.5 metres on average). They were very good at fending off teams and this has fed into an above average save percentage that has now run across four seasons. That they may have conceded the odd goal from range or a high percentage of shots from such locations is actually more of a reflection of sound practice than a fundamental flaw. In 2015-16 Arsenal effectively repelled the opposition from shooting from close in. Again this is a hugely positive trend and is backed up by the fact that  the team also conceded fewer big chances than any other team in the league. Same old, same old? The fan base will never be content until they see a genuine title challenge. While the league appears to be trickier to navigate than ever before, the underlying metrics that point out Arsenal’s strengths suggest that even in a competitive league, they could well be progressing towards once more competing for the title. If the strategy to focus on a higher grade of chance and limit the opposition continues at a similar level to last season, it is entirely reasonable to expect them to bounce forward and get right into the mix. Though their general form slowed for a period after Christmas to some degree it coincided with a run of injuries, the malaise which they seem doomed to endure year in year out. And fixing that is something that is well overdue. We know Arsenal have a shrewd team of people looking at issues from a data led perspective in StatDNA, so it’s not as if the club is loath to invest in smart practices in order to look for edges. Why the continued retention of both injury prone players and seemingly little progress in developing practices to reduce injury rates? This gradual change in style over recent seasons may become frustrating when the results fail to create a solid title challenge. Ideas about maximising shot locations might seem a folly, but it’s possible that this subtle shift in focus in recent years is an attempt to bridge the gap. It is twenty seasons since Arsenal finished outside the top four and at least through this century they haven’t projected to finish outside those positions once, and that’s the longest run in the league and a huge credit. They haven’t had to transition like Manchester United, they haven’t been forced to repeatedly rehire like Chelsea. It is only the glory of the early Wenger years that cast a shadow on his subsequent exploits and the stability he has brought the club should be well appreciated. Indeed it is hard to envisage them outside the four, even in a more competitive league. The main way to build upon 2015-16 would be to max out the squad and offer genuine options in a variety of positions. The responsibility that Ozil carries is huge, and a similar type of player as an alternative could bring great dividends. Too many times during December and January Arsenal fielded a solid first eleven but when looking to the bench for game changers found kids, aging defensive midfielders or centre backs. More striker options or young talent could bear great fruit. None of this would undermine the enviable stability the squad possesses but with three senior players and Wenger lieutenants in Rosicky, Flamini and Arteta all gone, the squad’s dynamic will have changed. It is the perfect time to add sufficient depth and 2016-17 could be that much more. But it’s a familiar refrain, to be close but frustratingly held to Wenger’s stoicism. He has three weeks to commit to only slight change and two transfers might do it. Whether he does so could well define Arsenal’s season once more. ______________   If you enjoyed check out our other season previews here

Southampton 2016-17 Season Preview: The Next Transition

puel Relative to their size as a club and their spending power, you could argue that no team over the last three seasons have achieved as much as Southampton. They’ve constantly finished in 6th-8th place, and will be playing European football once again this season. They’ve survived consistently selling some of their best players to bigger clubs. They’ve even had multiple managerial changes and this season is no exception with the appointment of Claude Puel for the departing Ronald Koeman. In some ways they now resemble Everton back in the David Moyes days where they regulalry chop and change their squad but always finish 2 to 4 spots higher than perhaps their wage bill and revenue would suggest. Last season was another fine season for Southampton as they finished in their highest table position in the Premier League era. The football was perhaps more pragmatic than earlier iterations with an added emphasis of long crosses but a 6th place showing made up for the drop in aesthetics. However, there is an argument to be made that of the past three seasons, the 2015-16 version were possibly the most underwhelming. 2013-14:

  • Shot on Target Ratio: 57.7% (4th place)
  • Big Chance Ratio: 55.4% (7th place)
  • xG ratio: 55.3% (7th place)

2014-15:

  • SoTR: 60% (4th place)
  • BCR: 57.9% (4th place)
  • xGR: 59% (4th place)

2015-16:

  • SoTR: 55% (6th place)
  • BCR: 53.3% (8th place)
  • xGR: 56.4% (6th place)

All of this is a matter of degrees, as Southampton were still above average across a number of fronts. The Mauricio Pochettino version of Southampton were undone by horrible goalkeeping that saw them eventually peter out towards mid-table despite playing very attractive and productive football. Koeman’s first season were by the beginning of February in 4th place and then went into shot conversion hell. Between the months of February and March, Southampton only scored 5 goals and had a conversion rate of 3% over 132 shots and eventually ended up with another 8th place finish. History won’t remember too much of 2014-15 Southampton, but they were probably the fourth best team in the league that season.       The New Manager I’ve watched Ligue 1 pretty extensively for only the last two seasons so I’m in no way capable of telling you what happened with Claude Puel in Lyon and why they were a failure domestically or his earlier years at Lille and Monaco. His reputation with Nice especially last season was playing attractive possession based football and leaning on younger players. Their entire midfield three that they played were 25 or younger, with Alassane Plea and Ricardo Pereira only 22 and Valere Germain 25. Puel is the guy who’s been credited with turning Hatem Ben Arfa’s career around, and he’s just the type of coach to put his faith in the famous Southampton academy that seems to churn out quality players with some regularity. As fun as Nice were last season–and they were generally aesthetically pleasing to watch–I still have my reservations about just how good a team they were. They benefited from Marseille collapsing in a fashion that was even impressive by their lofty standards, Saint Etienne being even more sub-par than their usual selves and the league overall having a down year beyond PSG. They also benefited from a sky high conversion rate to begin the season even if it’s acknowledged that they were a side who more so prioritized good shot selection over pure volume. The other thing with Puel is that over preseason, he’s taken the 4-2-3-1 setup that’s mostly been Southampton’s starting point previously to the woodshed, replacing it with the 4-3-1-2/4-1-2-1-2 structure that brought Nice all their success. Formations resembling a diamond haven’t really been used much over the years in England. Sure we can name specific instances: Swansea on occasion, Liverpool’s supernova 13-14 season had them play a diamond, LVG experimented with it in his first season and the famous 2009-10 Chelsea as well. But via @stats4footy, from 2013-15 only Spain have played it less: forms Will Puel’s version succeed in England? Time will tell on that. His acquisitions over the summer and some of the remaining parts fit into his framework: they already have a proven creator to play the role that Ben Arfa thrived in, a young midfielder with the talents to play different roles within the midfield, fullbacks who can provide the width necessary and a winger who could possibly be a striker in disguise. Transfers Tell me if you’ve heard this before, but Southampton had another summer consisting of selling their stars at really high prices. Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle and Victor Wanyama were sold for the region of £56M which is really good business. Wanyama had one year left on his contract and the odds of him extending were probably not great, especially considering he was keen to leave last summer. Southampton made a profit on Pelle despite him also having one year left on his deal and being over 30. Mane at 24 is coming into his best years and has been a good player in the league. His profile fits with what Jurgen Klopp wanted, but £36M for him is a very decent fee even though he had a very fine season. Coming in, Nathan Redmond at only £11M is a fine gamble. On a very poor Norwich side, he managed to probably be their only bright spot in attack. Courtesy of Footy in the Clouds‘ website that tracks how players contribute to a team’s attack while 11v11, he contributed just over 33% of his teams shots which ranked in the top 30 among players who played at least 1000 minutes last season. Also intriguing with Redmond is how Puel sees him much more as a second striker, which might conjure up similar memories of what he did with Alassane Plea last season and some of the success that came from it. Was Redmond the best player on a poor team who doesn’t get much better with improved talent? Or is he a genuine player who’ll show much more of his potential now that he’s no longer stuck in Norwich purgatory? No one knows the answer yet but at that price, it’s definitely worth a shot even though he’s got a way to go before replicating Mane’s production: RedmondMane 2 Similar sentiments could be said about Southampton’s other big signing Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, once a favorite of Pep Guardiola. Southampton have lost defensive midfielders over the past two summers and Hojbjerg from all accounts profiles decently as one with added playmaking and box-to-box potential. A full time role as a potential key cog in the system could be the perfect way to show his capabilities as a player, and put his lackluster campaign at Schalke behind him and at 21 he has plenty of time still to progress. Jeremy Pied is basically added insurance in the fullback and even midfield position. Overall it’s been another summer of Southampton selling high and buying low with the added potential of high resale value in the near future. Redmond has work to do to realise his potential but is worth gambling on, Hojbjerg fits a need with also a potentially high ceiling while Pied helps with squad depth. If the two gambles pay off, Southampton could find themselves with good players and more options to trade moving forward. The Future One could make the argument that this could be the weakest version of Southampton over the past 3-4 years and that it has the makings of a transitional season with a bigger emphasis spent on the summer of 2017. With the departures of Mane and Pelle, goal scoring and shot generating could be an issue in a league that values it more than France. Their manager while having a solid enough pedigree in Ligue 1 is an unknown in England, their two prized acquisitions have high ceilings but have to realise potential. Having to navigate European football with their domestic campaign could be a problem too. At some point we’re going to see Southampton relatively struggle one of these summers with their player trading and occupy a more pedestrian spot in the Premier League food chain, even with the acknowledgement that they’re a club who’s generally run better than most. Is this the year that it happens? The one good thing that could come from this season for Southampton fans is that Dusan Tadic could possibly be unleashed in a way that we haven’t seen from him since his first few months at the club and his days in the Eredivisie. At the age of 27, he’s right in the peak of his powers and how high up Southampton finish this season will be driven by how he performs as the probable main creative hub in the diamond. Despite not always being in Koeman’s good graces, he managed a 0.71 NPG + A rate last season and created a number of high quality chances that stacked up favorably to some of his peers: Tadic All things being equal this season, Southampton are competing in a group alongside West Ham/Leicester/Stoke/Everton for “Best of the Rest” honors. If things go their way, it’s entirely reasonable that they finish as the best of the five. It’s also possible that the Europa League, for good or bad, drains them enough that they finish the worst off. The bookies have their over/under is 50.5 points, which is low on the surface considering previous seasons, but if things go wrong it could be where they end up. The football media will likely write them off for their constant retooling, but with consistency across different managers and a system that has so far absorbed change effectively, Southampton perhaps deserve the benefit of the doubt.   _________________________________   Check out our other previews here

Olympique Lyonnais 2016-17 Season Preview: Another Title Challenge on the Horizon?

Flashback to the beginning of April 2015 and Ligue 1 was in the midst of a mini renaissance as a league. They were host to the best title race in Europe as PSG/Lyon/Marseille were within two points of each other while the likes of Monaco and Saint Etienne were nipping at the heels ready to join that threesome. It could’ve been the beginnings of a new era in French Football where it wasn’t just a one team monopoly. As the story goes, Marseille flamed out in spectacular fashion and missed out on the Champions League while Lyon didn’t have enough gas in the tank to beat out PSG for the title but still had their best season in years. However the goodwill didn’t carry through as last season amounted to a stroll through the park for PSG with Lyon floundering until the winter break and Marseille collapsing with their ownership turmoil.

This season? Well Lyon to this point have kept their prized player Alexandre Lacazette out of Arsenal’s grasps and the closer we get to the season starting, the chances Arsenal meet Lyon’s rumored asking price get smaller. They’ve made a big show about how they’re going to maintain their stars and to this point they’ve mostly succeeded. Add in the fact that PSG are going through some retooling and no one else domestically are anywhere close, and if there was any year for a non PSG team to sneak up and snatch the league, it’d be this one for Lyon.

The Numbers:

Shot Dif Rank 2nd

SoT Dif Rank: 2nd

Big Chance Dif Rank: 2nd

xG Dif Rank: 2nd

There were two versions of Lyon that existed in 2015-16: The one that languished through the first 19 games which featured a horrible CL campaign, a mid-table position, infighting within the players and injuries to their two main attacking players in Lacazette and Nabil Fekir. And then there was the other version of Lyon that were as dynamic as ever, featured an in-form Lacazette who looked like himself again, and played their best 19 game stretch of football in years, better than at any point in their title chasing 14-15 season.

 

Lyon Games SoT +/- Big Chance +/- Goal Difference Points
First 19 games 15-16 7 -1 0 26
Last 19 games 15-16 57 31 24 39

Lyon Comp

 

On the aggregate Lyon came out as the 2nd best team in France, which well you look at that, they finished in 2nd place. Sure they ended a million points behind PSG but had their first half of the season been relatively sane, they probably would’ve ended up being ~12 points behind PSG. So which Lyon are we supposed to believe? The one that couldn’t go one month without a major incident imploding them or the one that hipsters were intrigued with coming into the season. If I was forced to choose, I have more belief that the Lyon we saw in the second half of the season was much closer to their true talent level. I mean they’re the team that ended PSG’s waltz to an undefeated domestic season!

Transfers In: Emanuel Mammana, Nicolas N’Koulou

Transfers Out: Samuel Umtiti, Henri Bedimo, Bakary Kone, Lindsay Rose

Outside shuffling some deck chairs in the defense, Lyon have continued their trend of not selling their best players unless they get something close to fair value for them. Samuel Umtiti within Lyon’s defensive structure was very good but getting €25M for him is probably a fair enough price. Despite being in the Lyon starting XI for a few seasons, he’s still only 22 which is kind of nuts. But getting N’Koulou for free and Mammana as replacements are fine transactions. The last time N’Koulou had a proper manager to learn from was Marcelo Bielsa and he had a very fine season even though it was injury plagued. I really couldn’t tell you much about Emanuel Mammana seeing as I’ve watched two South American games in my lifetime, but maybe he does well in a league more favorable to defenses.

The other big rumor with Lyon was that their prized midfielder Corentin Tolisso was off to Napoli. Losing Tolisso would’ve been a blow to Lyon and made it harder to construct an argument for them chasing PSG. In addition to his ability to play multiple roles at a fairly high level as a midfielder alongside some spot duty at RB, Lyon’s midfield core without him would’ve been pretty shallow. After you get past the likes of Sergi Darder, Maxime Gonalons and Jordan Ferri, it’s basically youngsters they’ve poached from other clubs like Lucas Tousart and Oliver Kemen to fill the role. However with Lyon apparently keeping hold of Tolisso for another season, now Lyon’s midfield won’t need to be stretched as much as some feared. I also know a friend who watches Ligue 2 extensively and he vouches for Tousart as a player, so Lyon might possibly be able to roll with five quality midfielders to rotate for league and CL football.

“So Moe, you’ve been waxing lyrically about Lyon’s squad talent and sure, they’ve got a nice squad, but PSG have dominated French football for four seasons in a row and had they not been bored two seasons ago they would’ve walked over Lyon/Marseille in 2015. I’m still skeptical”

Glad you think that way, let’s go further down this wormhole:

The Tolisso thing would’ve put a damper on things even though if it had happened Lyon would’ve been paid handsomely. The real reason why I’m very high on Lyon being able to challenge PSG is twofold. First: Lyon have a really intriguing depth of attacking players. Lacazette, Fekir, Rachid Ghezzal, Maxwell Cornet, Mathieu Valbuena and even Aldo Kalulu. We’ve already talked loads about Lacazette, Cornet and Ghezzal had really nice second halves to the season, and if Fekir recovers fully from his acl surgery he could continue his ascent to stardom. He was one of the most electrifying players in Ligue 1 in his real debut season at age 21. Kalulu is basically 6th on the depth chart but he’s still a highly rated prospect from the famous Lyon academy. As far as an attacking core, it’s hard to do better than what Lyon have done given their financial constraints over the years. You could imagine a scenario where those six players alone score 60 goals and contribute another 15 or so assists.

Meanwhile PSG’s attack… has kind of seen better days? Hatem Ben Arfa was very fun last year although I’m still skeptical of him being the type of player to continually contribute 23-25 goals a season (having said that going to something resembling a super club does generally help with goal outputs for players). Angel Di Maria is awesome and will probably continue to be so, plus Lucas Moura is still a talented 23 year old despite his hairline being all but gone. They also recently signed Jese from Real Madrid who may turn out to be a very nice player, but he could also be just a guy who produced in spot minutes on a super team and looks ordinary elsewhere.

However when you go through their striker list, for as rich a club as PSG are it’s kind of underwhelming. Jean-Kevin Augustin from all accounts is a very fine prospect but he’s only 19. Meanwhile Edinson Cavani is a good striker but he’s declined somewhat from his peak years at Napoli. I might have a little sympathy for the argument that playing with Zlatan as a striker partner isn’t easy and some have used the excuse that he’s been totally shunted out as a LW, but that rhetoric really isn’t as true as Cavani still got to play centrally when PSG circulated the ball in opponent’s halves. Cavani’s had stretches without Zlatan playing and he’s still hasn’t really returned to his Napoli days. Plus he’s turning 30 in February, which for most strikers is when they’re firmly in their post-prime period. Even if you’re the biggest of Cavani optimists and believe he’ll have a great season without Zlatan, it’s still only him, Augustin and probably spot minutes for Jese/Ben Arfa down the middle. PSG have kept their powder dry at that position, instead beefing up in other areas mainly their midfield and out wide which is great for squad balance, but it’s possible that PSG go back to being a team who scores around 80 goals instead of the supernova 102 they achieved last season.

Conclusion

I know this preview is basically the most optimistic view of Lyon’s upcoming season, but I do recognize that PSG are considerable favorites this season even in their current incarnation and there’s fair skepticism as to Lyon’s ability to do better adjusting for CL football and domestic play. There’s also time for them to buy a capable striker to compete alongside Cavani which would probably make them clearly heads and shoulders above Lyon considering how good they are at every other position. But I really do like this Lyon squad and it might be their best one since their title winning days of the 2000s. Fekir has had a full summer to really get back in the swing of things, Tolisso has grown leaps and bounds season after season, One of N’Koulou or Mammana will probably do alright as Umtiti’s replacement, Lacazette is in the prime years of his career and they’re going to play a full season in the 4-3-3 formation that breathed new life to the club.

I still can’t give them the edge over PSG just because of the pure talent aggregation they have. I mean good god they are stacked in the midfield. But in comparison to seasons where PSG have just waltzed to the title, this could be the 2nd season in 3 that they nearly go wire to wire with Lyon for the Ligue 1 title.

Prediction:

If Lacazette stays; they’re clearly the 2nd best team in France, give PSG a good push domestically until around April before eventually losing out. Fekir returns to form and further progress is shown on a team level.