Team Comparisons: Good (and Bad) in the Premier League

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 27, 2016: Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Correia sees his shot saved by Tottenham Hotspur's goalkeeper Michel Vorm during the FA Premier League match at White Hart Lane. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda) Twelve games have passed in the Premier League and there’s value in looking at comparative historical numbers at various points. It’s a good time to take stock because a) it’s starting to become a vaguely decent sample and b) I have a load of numbers stored at twelve games because i’ve written this before. This is the eighth season of Opta data that has been published publicly around the place and with every season that passes, the more interesting the outliers become. One reflection worth making is that at this point last season, Leicester really weren’t signalling their rise to the top. Sure they had won seven games, sat third, had scored 25 goals and lost just once, but they had also shipped 20 goals. All their shot rates were around par, and understandably given their matches averaging nearly four goals per game, their conversions were high at both ends. That they turned this into 25 points was remarkable and just stage one of the Leicester miracle; indeed all this looked sure to regress over time and see them fall back. Part two of the Leicester miracle indeed saw everything slow down, but the defence stopped conceding, almost entirely for a long spring period, the rest of the league huffed, puffed and blew itself up, and the rest is history. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about their early accuracy problems and that this was just one of the small likely unrepeatable aspects that were likely to regress for Leicester. The early numbers show the dial has moved enormously. Between skill and luck, somewhere Leicester have stopped being able to prevent shots landing on goal and have forgotten how to create them themselves. Their shot numbers were never great last season, but are decidedly poor this year: 10.5 shots per game (137th/160) would make Louis van Gaal proud and 2.8 shots on target per game (148th) would gain favourable glances from Tony Pulis. Over five shots on target conceded is pretty lousy too, and they will need to refocus on the league now their Champions League progression has been secured. Lightning has indeed struck twice, but while the first strike illuminated the sky and brought light where before there was only the darkness of a late night casino, this time it has wreaked only destruction having landed square onto Jamie Vardy’s left foot. Another curio is that their twelve game goals against column reads “20” for both seasons and when they were terrible in 2014/15 it was 18. Half a story, sure, but there we go. “But what of expected goals?” Fret not, there are many ways to look at this but they’re about five goals behind expectation this season having been about twelve ahead of it in the whole of 2015-16. The inputs tell us more, they’ve lost shots and the ones they have been taking have been from an average of around a metre further away. Shots A kindergarten basic chart makes a point here so here you go: shots-per-game-12 There are fewer shots than there used to be in the near past. It's a point I regularly make, but it makes sense to bear in mind when pondering this stuff. We now have 160 twelve game team season starts (2009-10 to date) to look at so that's how the ranks work when mentioned. Liverpool Everything shots related looks nice for Liverpool. They lead the league for shots with 18.8 per game (9th/160), on target (7.3 per game, 4th), shots against (7.7 per game, 1st) and are in the top 20 for shots on target against too. This plays into average shots of +11.1 per game (2nd) and +4.2 on target (3rd). Of course all these things interrelate, but it's nonetheless pretty impressive stuff and they are deservedly well in the mix for the title. Comparison to 2013-14 is inevitable, but at twelve games then the team was looking good but not great--they were taking around 55% of the shots instead of the 70% they are now--and that title assault was based primarily on a huge middle and latter third where the team absolutely took off on the front end. They've already done that this season and you probably don't like money if you're betting against them based on shooting metrics. While shot volumes like Liverpool a lot more in 2016-17 to 2013-14, there are similarities, ones that feel inevitable. At both ends in both seasons, the shots that are taken and conceded are landing on target at a high volume; this season in attack it's 39% (10th), so good, but in defence it's a huge 41% (2nd worst), while a similarly huge 15% of those shots are going in (6th worst). Weighing this up is tricky because as noted, they are conceding a tiny volume of shots but in terms of preventing the shots they allow to land on target, only Jose Mourinho's Chelsea debacle of 2015-16 exceeds this rate at this point. That sounds scary right? Well, if you're a Liverpool fan hang onto the huge excess in shots, and hope that the the defence doesn't get called to step up at any point. That is of course the key aspect here because if the attack goes through a quiet spell, which it surely will, they might need a few breaks to stay with the pace. The two good Liverpool teams are only a win apart (7-3-2 in 2013-14 to 8-3-1 now) and that lack of divergence given the differences in structural metrics could well be attributed to the 12 game save percentages, this season it is 63%, then it was 78% and only fell later on. When you commit to attack, or rabid counterpressing, there's always a possibility that there will be leaks elsewhere, but it's surely a lot more fun this way? For all that, if you could somehow glue the front third of 2016-17 to the back two thirds of 2013-14, you'd have one hell of a season. Is this a surprise though? Well not really. Season one of Jurgen Klopp involved some excellent shot metrics and then got a little sidetracked by the Europa League run and occasional weird defeats. The potential was there and they have clearly taken a step forward this season with no Europe and a strong starting eleven. I still feel cautious about their ability to field injuries and squad depth, even allowing for fewer games but little of all this will be news to Liverpool fans, who are well served by stat types among their fanbase. They know they're good and are just hoping the train stays on the track. Expected goals? Yep, they like them. A lot. They have a +16 goal difference because they are a expected +16 team. Would finishing top four be enough? As a pragmatic football supporter well able to alienate swathes of fans with sensible takes, building into top four in Klopp's second season would be an excellent achievement and would bode extremely well for the future. Should a title bid fail, it should not be mourned or considered a missed opportunity, unless maybe you've sat on the Kop for 40 years, because then i'm the last person you're going to listen to. Other big shots In isolation, it would be easy to get excited about Liverpool's apparent progress and forget the rest but this year, a polar opposite to last, finds contenders lining up. On the front end, Tottenham, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United, yes... Manchester United are all creating historically high shot volume without doing anything spectacular, but the intrigue appears when we look at defences. Shots Against, per game Manchester City, 8.5 (5th/160) Chelsea, 8.6 (6th) Manchester United, 9.7 (9th) We also find Tottenham, Arsenal and Southampton in the historic top twenty. So after twelve games, seven of the meanest twenty shot teams over the last eight years are from 2016-17 and this naturally feeds into on target rates too, with Chelsea's 2.2 per game (2nd) and Southampton's 2.5 (4th) particularly notable and Tottenham and Man City pretty close behind. And if we follow this wee journey to it's natural conclusion, we get various combinations of these all teams in a historic top twenty for plus/minus shots and shots on target and good old TSR and SOTR. This season, the good teams are solidly superior (and the bad teams are awful), as this example chart of TSR shows (similar holds across SOTR or xG...): shot-ratos-by-ranks Any thoughts on a rise of the middle class are long gone here, and the bounce back from the better teams has been extreme. The "no Europe" theories around Liverpool and Chelsea must count for something, as it has freed up their schedules but Man Utd once more have an attack under Mourinho after ending up a ten shot team under van Gaal. Also, Pep Guardiola has maintained Man City's strong structure in the numbers (lest we forget this time last year they were looking superb on the numbers).  Claude Puel has created an odd mix of solid volume but weird conversions at Southampton, Mauricio Pochettino is as ever the same at Tottenham and Arsenal appear to be continuing their quest towards quality over volume. The current top five, and even Manchester United are all staring at potential top four chances, and while this far out it's too soon to be making concrete predictions of how it will shape up, 12 games in, (just about) six still vie to become four, and we are looking at a genuine deep and exciting title run. Tottenham So wait, what was that just there? Tottenham are the same as ever? What does that mean? Slew of injuries to key men. Odd transfers in the summer. Trouble creating chances. Champions League failure. All off the back of last season's impressive work. It's a tough life being unbeaten in the league. So what gives? All is similar, at least according to this raft of old-school numbers and also in a bigger sample, given how broadly comparable this first twelve games are to the entirety of 2015-16: sputrs-16 We can also look quickly at expected goals, and Tottenham are at around +0.49 per game this year compared to +0.54 last year. Recall, expected goals did not translate Tottenham's shot volumes happily then and disregards them similarly now, primarily because they shoot from anywhere and everywhere and are not focused on building better, closer chances. That's still the plan, but this year they are back towards normal in their accuracy rate, for all that in reality, it has cost them just two goals. It's sacrilege to say that aspects of this team--or at least the way it creates some of its outputs--are intriguingly similar to those that Andre Villas Boas devised, so I will not make that comparison. Bad teams One of the refreshing things about how statistical and analytical ideas are starting to spread and become understood is that I feel i've seen widespread dismissal in my echo chamber of Burnley and Hull as Premier League quality teams, despite a slew of good early results. Swansea sit rock bottom with just six points, primarily due to moderate-to-bad numbers and horrible conversion rates, and do face a genuine battle to recover but with Sunderland bad but slightly odd and the aforementioned pair in the league, must retain hope. Expected goals has them 17th with an attack-free nine shot per game Middlesbrough in hailing distance, and it seems likely that it's three from five for the drop provided Alan Pardew doesn't contrive to continue his amazingly poor run of 2016 results. Let's line this up: Hull and Burnley are objectively and historically terrible Premier League teams and Sunderland are not far behind them. Firstly defence: Hull and Burnley are conceding more than twenty shots a game which ranks them worst and second worst in the sample, and the only two teams to exceed that mark.. Sunderland are conceding 18.8 per game eighth worst and each of these three is allowing over six shots on target per game and lands among the ten worst teams out of 160, with Burnley the single worst (6.8 per game). Attack? Burnley are creating shots at a rate of 8.7 per game with 2.3 on target, enough for second and third worst rankings while Hull and Sunderland also inhabit various bottom five, ten or twenty positions. These three teams are in the bottom four for the entire sample for all combination shot metrics (+/-, TSR, SOTR) with Burnley's shot on target ratio a truly staggering 25% and a full five percent lower than any other team. Remember the bad teams? Cardiff 2013-14, Portsmouth 2009-10, Reading 2012-13 or Aston Villa 2015-16... all of whom put up better numbers than this sorry lot at this stage of the season. Poor Tom Heaton is making more saves than any other goalkeeper has this decade. He has rightly earned plaudits but has faced no choice. Expected goals is happy to join in and while the only team to go a season with more than a minus one per game expected goal difference is Reading 2012-13, both Burnley and Hull are exceeding this mark. Yet by virtue of the Heaton heroics and a positive skew at both ends--at least until they were trounced 4-0 at West Brom--Burnley are sitting in a hollow and fragile 12th, almost certainly doomed to fall, with only those points already accrued to use as a parachute and potentially spare their demise. Huge improvement is required to stop them falling towards the trap door, as it is for Hull who simply seem overmatched and ill prepared for the league. To at least some degree, the good teams seem better this year and have happily beaten up the bad teams, and this is reflected here. Sunderland defy explanation year after year by surviving with terrible metrics. What more can be said? Curios

  • The difference between West Ham's rate of of getting their shots on target (20%) compared to their opposition (40%) is five percentage points higher than another team in the sample. Aston Villa's gutter ball streak 2015-16 is the worst full season here (-9%) so to be over twice as bad at 12 games is both horrific and surely prime for reversion.
  • There are no historically high or low save percentages thus far.
  • Our old friend PDO, still a cracking ready reckoner at this stage, sees Southampton 3rd worst after 12 at 0.79, and Swansea at 6th at 0.84. Arsenal and Burnley are both at 1.16 and high. These numbers may or may not move towards 1.00.
  • Everton's rate of landing their shots on target compared to their opposition is extremely high (+12 percentage points, =2nd). The two teams ranked first here and tied second are Southampton 2014-15 and 2015-16. So: of 160 twelve game season starts, the three highest scores by this metric are the only three Ronald Koeman teams in the sample. This would be a lot more powerful if it held through the season, but it hasn't and Southampton regressed in both seasons here. But it's nonetheless the most curious of the curios.

________________________________________________   Thanks for reading   @jair1970  

Leipzig, Leaks, and Left Backs: A Look at the Bundesliga's Surprising Start

  It's been a fascinating start in the Bundesliga. When you look at the table, maybe only Bayern, Augsburg and Mainz are about where they expected to be. And Bayern are certainly not where they want to be performance-wise. Today we will look at a few contributors or areas of play that are keying early season surprises or holding their teams back. With Bayern and Dortmund playing this weekend, I will try to save them for next week for a possible recap piece. Leipzig's Standout Start And A Big Leak? They are in 2nd place and while the underlying numbers might not indicate a clearly better team than Dortmund, they show this is a good enough team to finish 3rd, 2nd or even 1st? without widespread cries of "Fluke!". They've trailed for 10 minutes all year!  They are absolutely peppering the goal with shots from inside the box, their 10.3 in-box shots per game are 1.3 ahead of Dortmund and only 1.7 behind league-leading Bayern while they are right there at the top with those 2 as far as shots on target go. Their 8.4 shots allowed trail only Bayern again and no one has allowed fewer shots on target than RB. They've done this by dominating the danger area on both ends of the field. Their completion% overall is low (15th in league) and possession is under 50 but in the boxes, Leipzig shines. snip20161117_24 snip20161117_23 This has been a team effort but I want to highlight two players in particular who have caught my eye and then one I kind of scratch my head about and wonder if it's a bit of a leak.   Naby Keita 12 players on Leipzig have played more minutes than the 21 year old but he pops up in their top 3 at both moving the ball from midfield toward the fringes of the danger zone (from outside to zones 3 and 4 here) and entering zones 1 and 2. He's alongside players who have played 300 or 400 more minutes in Diego Demme and Marcel Halstenberg, who we will talk more about later, as the best danger zone entry providers at Leipzig. Keita's strength is he has been able to get further up field to be in great position to play short passes around goal, compare his passes in red to fellow early season star Nab in Bentaleb in blue. snip20161117_21 No player who is among the top 3 on their team plays shorter entry passes than Keita's at 19.7 yards. The only players with a higher entry pass completion % are his teammate Marcel Halstenberg and Wolfsburg superstar Julian Draxler. Basically when Ted gushed over Naby Keita like Russia Today over a shirtless Putin/Trump wrestling match, you should have listened. For good measure he leads the team in tackles and interceptions per 90 and has scored 3 goals. This guy is a star and has probably earned some of that money that Ralf Rangnick has ready to spend now that Leipzig have removed their artificial salary cap. An example of a lot of the things he does well comes in this 55 second clip where he makes 3 big plays to advance the ball very well, chips in a bit of defense, throws in a dribble and wide pass for good measure. Marcel Halstenberg He doesn't see much of the ball at all. His 30 passes per game are more like a striker than a fullback. Only Gäetan Bussman (he who I wrote about as Mainz's weak link) passes the ball less often than Halstenberg from left-back. But he's played all 900 minutes, so clearly Hasenhüttl loves him for something. He has solid defensive counting stat numbers, blocking more shots than any left back. But the stat that makes you rub your eyes is his completion% entering the final 30 yards. Among players with at least 50 of those passes, no one in the Bundesliga has a higher completion%. Not Arjen Robben, not Franck Ribéry, not Julian Draxler. snip20161117_26 Top 10: Halstenberg, Robben, Draxler, Vidal, Lahm, Müller, Kampl, Keita, Alonso, Thiago. Such a standout stat needs recognition.   A Leak? In poker parlance a leak is a consistent weakness or poor strategy in your game that limits you over time. I suspect that having Diego Demme as your main ball-handler might be a leak that could hamper Leipzig's title chase. No Leipzig player averages more passes than Demme's 64, but he is among the worst in the league at advancing the ball into attacking positions. He tries lots of long balls toward the box, and they don't turn many into key passes. snip20161117_27 I understand a lot of Leipzig's strategy is based on quick forward passes but this still looks like one of their worst passers is playing the most passes on the team, including the most danger zone entries. He seems to be a good defender and he plays in midfield so you can't just avoid him, but a strategy adjustment I'd like is more Halstenberg and less Demme with the ball.     Other Early Standouts Nadiem Amiri has only played 390 minutes so that might keep me from going completely head over heels for him but the motion has begun. Last year I raved about him and he has taken another step forward this year. He almost has matched last years 16 interceptions in a quarter of the minutes, is closing in on the 5 per 90 mark in shots+KP's, and is one of only 3 midfielders to have a completion % above 90%. Nice company to be alongside Thiago and Weigl. We want to see more, his minutes were limited early due to an injury but hopefully we get to see full 90s going forward as Hoffenheim look to stay up at the top of the table. snip20161110_10 If not for Naby Keita, Kevin Kampl might be the standout midfielder in the early going. He has built on a strong season from last year and has taken on more responsibility after Bellarabi's injury. Only Pascal Groß, Mr. Volume himself, has played more entry passes into the danger zone than Kampl and he's been by far Leverkusen's most reliable and effective option to progress the ball. Fellow midfielder Charles Aranguiz has not quite been able to match Kampl's dynamism or efficiency and the midfield Schmidt was dreaming of has not come fully together. Kampl has been great however, as Leverkusen have dominated territory in a way they never previously have. Too bad that's the only thing they are dominating.   Other Early Leaks

Stafylidis eying up a potential cross as he moves across the halfway line
Stafylidis eying up a potential cross as he moves across the halfway line
If you look all the way to the right on that chart on completion% in final 30 yards you see Augsburg left back Konstantinos Stafylidis. He is completing 19.7% of those passes compared to league average of 45.4%. He is neck-and-neck to be the most common danger zone entry pass provider on Augsburg and those passes end the possession 80% of the time. All those incompletions don't come with huge payoff on the top end: his 5 key passes are only tied for 7th most on the team and he doesn't have an assist yet. He's giving the ball away 5 times a game with these long crosses. With quality passers like Koo, Baier, and Bobadilla around Stafylidis Augsburg are wasting lots of quality territory by having the Greek youngster fire aimlessly. Him getting forward so often seems to have left their left side weak in defense as well, Augsburg have allowed 35 chances to come from passes from their left side, compared with just 14 on the right. An example of the failed cross (though this one is not a bad pass or decision really) followed by a chance conceded is below:   Filip Kostic is similarly poor with wasteful crosses, but Hamburg seems so hopeless basically over the entire field (except for maybe fullback Douglas Santos) it feels harsh to point him out. Hamburg's shots on targets for their first nine games ran: 1-2-2-0-1-3-0-0-2. Then they had 50% of their first 9 game total with 6 against Dortmund last week. Sure they came when after they went down 3-0 in the first 37 minutes, but you have to take promising signs where you can get them if you have 2 points through nearly 30% of the season.   Wolfsburg have been maybe the biggest disappointment of the year. Dieter Hecking has already been fired, something that happens when your team is in the relegation places with Julian Draxler, Mario Gomez and preseason Champions League expectations. They are underwater in shots and shots on goal and have a glaring *potential* leak defending down their right side. They have the most lopsided ratio of completions allowed in attacking areas, as opponents pour into the right side over and over.snip20161117_30 In buildup, opponents move forward more often down the right side.snip20161117_29 And are more successful moving down the right than the left. snip20161117_28 Now is being so lopsided automatically bad? Because the VW braintrust can point to their chances allowed and say they aren't coming overwhelmingly from the right side and that when they do testing in the lab their right side performs exactly like the left. We can tell them that beating a test in a lab is one thing and real life another, but they might have a point on chances created. Maybe it's not automatically bad to have one side be so much softer and targeted much more, but it's something the new manager Valérien Ismaël should be keeping an eye on. Christian Träsch, Kuba, and Vieirinha love getting forward but maybe they don't love getting back or defending enough. One last example, from the Leverkusen game which shows the ease with which Leverkusen move the ball down, around, and toward goal on Wolfsburg's right side.   This weekend get ready for Leverkusen v Leipzig, Gladbach v Köln and Dortmund v Bayern in one of the best schedules of the year. Any questions, comments, or qualms you have post a comment here or get at me on twitter @Saturdayoncouch.   Hope you enjoyed and enjoy the games this weekend!

MAILBAG: Liverpool's Defense, How Good is Lukaku, Craft Beer and more

I try to do a monthly mailbag. Checking my archive, it appears I have failed to produce mailbags for September OR October, so it's time to super-size this one. It has been a long, looooong time since this was relevant, but in honor of the new Tribe album... Can I kick it? liverpool_defense Great question, and one whose answer may decide the title this season. They are awesome at constraining opposing shots, giving up less than 8 a game, and way out there in terms of performance among top teams. This is huge. On the other hand, the quality of shot they do give up is in the bottom 5%. This is an issue with aggressive pressing systems. Break the press, get good shots. Save the cheerleader, save the world. You know how it goes. It's interesting to compare this to Conte's Chelsea, who also only offer up about 8 shots a game, but manage to keep the quality of shots against them below average. One thing I found interesting is that their PPDA (passes per defensive action) isn't at elite levels yet, which to me indicates the press still isn't perfect for various reasons. Anyway, the combined math means Liverpool are good, not great in defense coming in at just under a goal a game in xG. I think in open play, Liverpool might actually be elite (though they could still use a mobile DM for harder games), but their set piece defense has issues. The two questions that come out of this are

  1. Can Klopp fix the set piece defending? This is actually fairly straightforward, so I'm going to lean yes.
  2. Can Liverpool keep scoring enough that a good, not great defense is good enough? We'll find out.

monreal_love Do you live in a deeply religious, judgemental country? If so, they might deem your love for another man - even a left back as fine as Nacho Monreal - to be wrong. This, mon frere, is a judgement free zone, so you do you. Ha, who am I kidding? We judge things all the time! It's practically the purpose of the site. That said, we are totally cool with man love and it's fair to say you are with friends. Back to Monreal's quality as a left back, he has been one of the better defending left backs in the Premier League for quite a while. An excellent game reader, he's also been quite good in the air. On the other hand, he doesn't bring that much to the attack, but that isn't really his job. About 18 months ago, we were looking at Arsenal on a new defensive activity vis we'd designed and there was a very clear high intensity spot out on the left wing. @StatLurker dubbed in the "Nacho Monreal Zone of Death." I just smiled. rb_leipzig_etc They say game recognize game, and I don't think Leipzig really need me. They have an amazing player development pipeline, a great coach, and their Director of Football Ralf Rangnick has so many edges figured out, his team has gone from promotion to the top of the Bundesliga in no time flat. It's possible their external recruitment could get a touch better using our tool set and methodology, but I'm not even sure of that. They execute extremely well. Top 5 Bundesliga Coaches (no order): Tuchel Hassenhutl Ancelotti Schmidt Nagelsmann Craft beer is complicated because availability across countries is miserable. The Reservoir Dogs line from To Øl in Denmark is great. Everything coming out of the Stillwater Artisinal (like Vielle) is awesome but impossible to get. Siren is doing really good stuff, and pretty much anything by Jolly Pumpkin is mind-bending and both tasty and weird at the same time. book_on_coaching My mind on this changes practically every week. I could/should finish the book and publish, but in order for it to be as good as I want it to be, I'd have to write about all sorts of edges that are not public right now. That means giving away at least some future utility if I were to go back inside a club, which isn't a particularly comfortable thing. On the other hand, it might be years (or never) until I work completely inside a club or set of clubs again, which is why you see me publishing single chapters from time to time. It's not really a coaching book though, it's just a book that explains how I think about football and why I have come to those conclusions. The hacks from the coaching article this week (link) should be universal. perf_analysis At the risk of pissing off an entire profession, I don't understand the purpose of the performance analysis degree. It's not sports science. It's not stats and data. It's not medical. It doesn't often entail programming. And yet people often get a Master's degree in it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I didn't grow up here, so it might be a cultural thing, but having been around football clubs for a number of years now, I genuinely don't understand it as a degree you would spend years at university to learn. lukaku Just a touch below that right now, but definitely top 20. The question is how many concessions your style of play has to make in order to accommodate his weaknesses. He's been great this year, and this is probably his true level going forward. Fun fact: Did you know Lukaku is completing more than 2 successful dribbles a game? Given his size, this should be physically impossible. How can a man that big and explosive also be... nimble? romelu-lukaku-premier-league-2016-nov17 gps_accuracy I wasn't there, but I heard Ian Graham, head of research at Liverpool, did a presentation at a big conference discussing their validation efforts across a wide range of tracking and GPS data, and some companies fared dramatically better than others. This is something that is absolutely necessary to get the most out of data going forward. The problem is that devoting resources to it is not cheap. However, if your organization is up to snuff and cares about these things, validation of current and new equipment should be going on all the time. Whether it actually does... intl_role I am always open to interesting opportunities, and to be honest, the chance to teach and shape future coaches and analysts as part of a broader education program at the country level would be intriguing. At the moment though, I'm enjoying building things related to football but not immersed in the day to day, so I don't feel any pressure to get stuck back in unless it was something really special. Life is good right now. It's also not incredibly stressful. I'm going to keep doing this for a while and see where it goes. We'll cluster the next two together, because they have similar themes cheapest_analytics_guy It depends on whether you can obtain accurate data or not. If you can, adding a useful tool set on top of that is less than the cost of another performance analyst. If you then bring in someone smart, but young, to help you execute current research and evaluate how well the team is doing, you can probably get a nice boost. My guess is data + tool set + analyst is less than half your average League One player salary. What's interesting is that MLS clubs are starting to invest significantly in this area, and their budgets feel far more constrained than even English League One in some cases. I suspect this is happening because adding stats to sports at this point is a very easy cultural thing to accept in the U.S. own_analysts_vs_outside (Note: This may sound like a sales pitch. It is not. This is my genuine opinion, whether you use StatsBomb Services as the consultancy or someone else.) This is a really interesting question because it hits on a few critical points in the current environment.

  1. Can and should clubs hire data analysts to work inside the club with coaches/technical directors/heads of recruitment, etc?
  2. Does the population of analysts they would be hiring have the skill set and knowledge to dramatically improve club processes and execution on and off the pitch?
  3. If they bring on consultants to help, what can they deliver? Does the club lose anything in the process?

The answer to question 1 is yes, if they are open to change and improvement. If they aren't, money is probably better spent elsewhere. 2 is a fairly serious issue. The number of analysts out there who have enough knowledge and experience to make dramatic improvements is relatively small because the field is pretty new, at least in football. If you hire kids - even bright ones - you are essentially paying for them to learn. Learning takes time and time, perhaps more than any other resource, is scarce in football. They are less likely to have an impact simply because they are young. It takes a special club to empower young people to help them change. The other issue here is that there is simply a ton of poor analysis out there, both public and private. Undergoing massive change because of conclusions reached by bad analysis could be both expensive and have dire consequences. Want to get the most out of smart, young hires? They need a mentor. They need someone they can talk to about ideas who can point out easy mistakes and pitfalls, and someone who is capable of evaluating their work and communicating what is just plain wrong. This is true for coaches, it's true for programmers, and it is especially true for analysts. Analyst work inside clubs will typically be secret, which means they miss out on any and all public review to help them learn. 3 is the alternative. The issue with 3 is that consultants presumably aren't developing IP that is unique to your club, so you boost your short- and medium-term knowledge and execution, but potentially sacrifice long-term improvements and institutional knowledge. On the other hand, consultants should be bringing a high degree of competence, knowledge, and outside information that the club does not have currently, and doesn't have to wait/pay for it to develop. I think the best way for clubs to bridge this gap is to hire someone younger, but very bright who can be the internal operator, and then layer in a consultancy to quickly ramp up the knowledge and act as a mentor. This way the club retains the knowledge gain, potentially has the ability to start creating long-term edges for itself, and gets an immediate boost to performance in different areas. It's a bit like paying for a transfer to give your young, talented player more time to learn and adapt to the rigours of first team football. (Note: There will be official news about the launch of StatsBomb Services on December 1st. We have our own custom analytics platform, and offer bespoke consulting for player and manager recruitment, team evaluation, financial valuations, and set piece coaching and execution. If you want to know more, send an email to antonio Our numbers have his xG per90 at about .38, so he's good but not amazing. He's a ridiculous athlete though, and that aids everything he does while making him extremely difficult to mark. You're right though, if he had the ball skills of say your typical Spanish player, he'd be unstoppable. As it is, he's getting by on some elite athleticism, but we'll see how long that's sustainable. leicester They are both right now. Their league stats are average, though to be fair they have faced a very difficult schedule thus far. Meanwhile, their style of play is conducive to Champions League style football. Ranieri also has vast experience in the competition (and he's a very good coach), so he's setting them up to succeed without making big mistakes. To be honest, I don't think Leicester really care about the league this year. They won it last year against all odds. This season is about a respectable finish and the best CL run they can possibly make. If those are the goals, the season so far looks just fine. sherwood *tries to figure out a way to answer this that won't get him blackballed from the industry* In five years, Tim will be... *struggling* entertaining(?) fans.... *still struggling* likely as a *whooboy* commentator. *sweating profusely* Yes, I made it! Let me tell you though, his involvement with the rumoured takeover of Swindon by Red Bull is just plain weird. Red Bull have proven extremely competent in their football operations across a number of clubs and countries. Tim Sherwood has been anything but. *looks up* Shit. Time to go. I hope you enjoyed the show, and even if you didn't, you can now rejoice in the fact that we don't have another international break in football until 2017. Peace. --Ted Knutson @mixedknuts

4 Coaching Hacks to Develop Better Players

One of the things I think a lot about is player development. Part of this is because my kids are right at the beginnings of their football journey (and my son especially, is football mad), and part of it is because I think it's an exceptionally important topic to understand in building a professional football team.

The dichotomy of this is fascinating. When out with my kids, I literally see the genesis of their skill set starting from nothing. When working professionally, I review players who are many zeroes away from the Top 1% in how good they are compared to the rest of the world.

Today I am going to outline coaching hacks I believe are huge keys to developing better players. Some of these are appropriate to the very young, and others need to wait until you start imprinting tactical knowledge on players. I think some of these are fairly well understood in other countries, but I rarely see the whole package together, nor have I seen it explained at a level I was happy with.

Some caveats before we get started:

  1. These are not validated research on my part. Much of my work is on statistics, and I only write about things I have researched well enough to be fairly certain are correct. This ain't that. Where there is validated research I am aware of, I will link to it. However, I will freely state these are my learned opinions on what is better and why.
  2. Most of the material in this chapter is not unique or original to me. Unfortunately I don't know where it started, and so can't appropriately credit it either. My apologies.
  3. Plenty of it might not even be new to you. If so, you are likely already doing a great job at developing players.
  4. Finally, this isn't comprehensive. While I think dribbling skills and first touch are incredibly important to teach players, I also think those are generally well emphasized in good programs.


What happens when you take a five-year-old out to the park and have them lift up their foot to trap a ball?

They fall over.

Then as they progress to being able to trap a ball, we start asking them to strike it.

When they try to strike it hard, they fall over some more.

Everything we do in football is based on balance.



Striking a dead ball?




First touch?

More balance.

Running? Cutting? Jumping?


This particular element of skill and strength is woven through every single motion in the sport, and might be the one overarching thing that ties it all together.

I played five different sports when I was a kid in the U.S. How many of those explicitly taught me balance by itself?


It wasn't until I started learning MMA late in my 20's that I learned balance could be taught, and not as part of doing activities inside of a sport.

Once I learned how to balance myself and apply the strength that came along with it, I suddenly became better at every sport I did.

Funny how that works.

Now some of you might suggest that the current methodology is fine.

Learning through doing is a tried and true methodology, and in many cases it just works.

I disagree.

What happens if you teach children balance first?

The short answer is that every single thing in the game of football becomes easier for them to accomplish. The long answer is that you produce better football players, because the ones you are now working with are more able to focus on explicit techniques and adjustments without the constant fear of falling over.

How do you teach balance?

This is one area where a tradition of thousands of years has probably got it right: kung fu. There are legions of internet resources on this not to mention books and videos.

In the martial arts I learned, we worked through stance progression on both feet. The progressions are crucial because that's where you build dynamic balance between the static movements. When initially learning the technique yourself in order to be able to teach it, it's probably useful to get together with a martial arts expert to learn properly, as much of this is fairly subtle.

But it's boring!

It is, a little. However, you can get kids doing these on their own with the right video/email nudge to the parents, and it literally only takes about 15 seconds per stance plus a slow transition between them to start to see the results. If you have attentive kids (do it post-warmup, after they have been running around a bit), it can be done in about 3 minutes.

Black belts in various martial arts can literally spend hours working through stances and body mastery, so the time progression here goes as far as you want it to. (But preferably at home and not during your incredibly valuable training time.)

Looking to create a little extra buy-in? Conveniently stance mastery is a key component of both jedi and ninja training. Let your kids know.

Here's another reason why I thing this topic is hugely important: Balance is absolutely crucial for smaller players.

A major problem we have in player development is that smaller players are constantly weeded out. Not for lack of skill - in fact, often they have better technical skills than their bigger counterparts - but generally for a lack of strength and "ability to compete."

Now picture the small players who are in professional football. Almost all of them have amazing balance. You often hear them described as having a "low center of gravity", which makes them difficult to knock off the ball, easier for them to tackle big players, and generally just annoying as hell to play against.

This is really just another way of saying they are short with great balance. Balance, and the strength that comes with it, is the key when it comes to enabling smaller players to compete with bigger ones. If you don't introduce this to your youngsters and give them a methodology to improve, you are failing them.

At the Pro Level

I was lucky enough to present at Science and Football this year with Grant Downie, Head of Performance at the Manchester City Academy. Grant is tremendously thoughtful, and the attention to detail he described City as paying to their academy was jaw-dropping. He told us that Manchester City have playgrounds for their academy kids, and those playgrounds intentionally feature plenty of balance-related elements. He also mentioned that their first team regularly does light wrestling, to learn to use balance when in contact with another person, which is especially useful when attacking and defending set pieces.

I was talking about this with Jim Pallotta, owner of Roma, in 2015 and he said they were doing balance tests in preseason and had a backup goalkeeper who kept falling over when asked to stand on one leg. Everyone in the room was shocked that something like this could still happen at the pro level. You know for a fact that if it is happening at Roma, it's probably happening everywhere.

Here's a blurry photo of Berndt Leno catching balls while kneeling on a balance ball as part of a warmup that I absolutely love.


Balance and core strength is hugely important for GKs because they constantly find themselves in odd positions that they have to make explosive motions out of in order to make saves. Better balance also helps you become faster at making these dynamic motions, even when something has happened to mess up your initial positioning or footwork.

Also check out some of the sand pit work (around 1:35) in this video from the Ajax academy for some funky, creative ways to continue training balance at elite levels. Forwards are constantly getting battered by other players, and being able to continue executing while withstanding that sort of assault makes a huge difference in end product.


This is probably the most obvious hack on my list, but it happens far too infrequently. I think one of the major reasons is that is has to be trained young to take full effect, and professional academies rarely have access to children at this age. Because of that, the responsibility falls to parents and community coaches.

Having two good feet completely changes how a player can approach the game. It's hard to quantify, but it opens up the other half of their body, which in turn makes vastly more options available with every touch of the ball. More good options = more opportunity to succeed and maximizes good decision making ability.

Think of it from the perspective of the defender. If I know a player only has one useful foot, I can always key on that when trying to defend. It makes my life easier. On the other hand, if a player is running at me or likely to shoot, and he or she can use either foot with equal alacrity, my job is infinitely harder.


Having a second good foot also makes life easier for a player's teammates, since they suddenly have a much larger margin of error when passing to that player. I've run into two major difficulties in my own training of U7s and U8s in this area.

  1. You have to make the kids aware of the need to use both feet. It's also good to attach it to a player they really like and talk about how hard they worked to make sure both feet were good. (Santi Cazorla is my son's example.)
  2. You have to reinforce this need constantly.

Kids want to succeed.

As their dominant foot starts to get good, working with their weak foot feels like constant failure. Thus you have to talk about it in the same way as any other skill, but you have to mention it frequently, regularly, for years.

"Use the other foot! Now try it with your left! Pass it to the right, control with a touch, then shift it to your left to pass it back. Okay, now control with your left and shift to your right for the pass."

It is a long process, but... If you stick with it, you see your kids start to gain comfort. My son, who is an able U8 player but possibly nothing special, passes and shoots with both feet regularly during his games. He doesn't think about it either.

He's probably scored five goals over the last two years with his weak foot (his left), which never ceases to make me smile. We talk about why we train both feet fairly hard so that he understands it. One of the easiest paths to understanding was showing him how he could cut central much easier for better shots if he used his left foot as well as his right.

If you want to develop better footballers, you must impart the knowledge that this is important to your players, and find subtle, constant ways to bring it into training.

At the Pro Level

I was helping Flemming Pedersen (now technical director at Nordsjaelland) set up a Brentford B session last year and watching some players warm up. One guy, who was fairly well regarded, was only warming up with his right foot. I noticed and jokingly asked how many feet he had. "Two." At that age, if he's only warming up with one, the hope that a player can use both feet equally is probably dead. Start early. Reinforce it regularly. Constantly work it into training as a nudge.


Scanning is the act of constantly looking beside and behind oneself on a football pitch. (Some coaches call this "shoulder checking", but it's a more comprehensive activity than that.)

To me, scanning is the single biggest skill that separates average from elite players.

It has also been heavily validated, so before we go too far, check out this presentation + paper from the Sloan conference back in 2013.

"The results show a clear positive relationship between visual exploratory behaviors (scanning) that are initiated before receiving the ball and performance with the ball. The best players explore more frequently than others and there is a positive relationship between exploratory behavior frequency and pass completion. The impact of exploratory behaviors is the largest for midfielders performing forward passes."

The first place I ever saw this highlighted was a video from AllasFCB about Xavi. I still get chills thinking about it, because in my mind it was truly this HOLY SHIT moment of new knowledge.

(See also: football epiphany.)

In the video, Allas shows just how often Xavi is looking around the pitch, without the ball. It is an insane number of times, like every other second for an entire game.

However, this activity is what powers Xavi's game. He had an almost otherworldly ability to see the pitch, find open men, find his own space, escape pressure, and complete impossible passes most players would never even see.

He could see these things because he was constantly looking around. When I first watched this video, my heart stopped.

I had been watching football for 15 years at that point, why had I never seen this?

It literally changes how you can see and play the game. One of my all-time favorite examples of this came during a Bayern Munich match from last season. Watch Xabi's head look to his left just as the right back receives the ball.


As part of his scanning, he spots Costa in space with only a fullback near him. It's an amazing pass, but that pass is created because his scanning made it possible.

Here's the thing - scanning is important everywhere on the pitch. Forwards need it to see who is around them, whether they can turn, where the space is, where they should run, etc. Midfielders need it for absolutely everything, since they are surrounded by opponents at almost all times.

Defenders need it to know not only where their nearest opponent is, but where their helping teammates are, where additional runners may be, and as you see above, where their potential passing outlets are once they recover the ball.

You want to teach your players to play one step ahead of the opponent?

Teach them to scan.

How best to train scanning?

I don't know.

This was high on my list of things I wanted to learn when visiting elite academies, but I never got to make that trip. I have some ideas on how to go about it, but have done zero work on best practice.

I asked a high level English coach how he would go about training it once and got the following answer:

"I learned to look around when they threw me into training with the big boys, because if I didn't, they'd kick holes in me. Teaches you right quick, that does."

We may have some issues with pedagogy in this country. Please leave links in the comments if you have information on how to train this at different levels, and I'll review them and gradually move the best of them up here as recommendations.

Cover Shadows

In my head, this is the inverse of scanning for the defensive side of the ball. It requires scanning to do well, but understanding cover shadows will help players dramatically limit passing options for opponents. Think of the ball as a light source. Bodies of defenders are solid, and they create shadows behind themselves.

Here's an image from Rene Maric that clearly illustrates the concept, and the grey shaded area are covering shadows for Iniesta and Xavi.


Why does this matter? Because it is a key to defending, particularly to pressing defense. It allows a player to not only press the ball, but also to limit a passing option at the same time. And it is a concept your attackers need to understand in order to work through a press from their opponents. Unclear? Check this out. Watch Aubameyang's sequence of presses here and in particular, look at how he cuts off a passing angle with a curved run each time.


Then notice the creep (or sprint) on the other Dortmund defenders as they move forward and further cut off lanes like some sort of pressing python, strangling possession.

The result is a long pass into the distance, and likely Dortmund regaining the ball. I also like the explanations from Spielverlagerung about Atletico's press, which has a different flavour than Tuchel's, but the underlying concepts are similar.

That piece is crazy long, but example 1 is enough to get a sense of what I mean.

How do you train it?

It goes hand in hand with scanning and pressing. How do you train elite level pressing? What are the sessions?

What does the knowledge progression look like?

Sadly, I once again don't know.

As I mentioned in my How Coaches Learn article, coaching knowledge is very much an apprenticeship, and I have not been able to learn how to teach this to players from experts yet. That doesn't change the importance of the skill with regard to player development. It just means my ability to convey further knowledge to you is currently limited. Think of the following things slotting into place for your players:

  • Scan the whole pitch in attack.
  • Scan the whole pitch in defense.
  • Work covering shadows aggressively.
  • Form Voltron.

That's almost how it works. First you make one phase of the game far easier for yourself. Then you make the next major phase easier as well, and you make your transitions better in the process. Finally, you make attacks for the opponent far more difficult. The result should be a massive improvement on a possession by possession basis.


To me, the four elements discussed above are the fundamental building blocks for developing better, smarter players. I don't know how to train the last two well, because they are specialized knowledge that I have yet to unlock, but I am absolutely certain of their value to modern footballers. Thanks for listening.

--Ted Knutson @mixedknuts

Post Script

This is another chapter in a book I have gradually been developing over the last year. It touches on all sorts of topics, but the main purpose is to explain how I view the game of football and why I think the way that I do.

I don't approach the game from the standpoint of someone who played - that wasn't an avenue that was available to me where I grew up.

Instead I approach the game from a standpoint of examining what matters, how do we prove that, and how do we apply these lessons to teams on the pitch? Currently finished chapters are linked below (and are all free), so have a poke around if you are interested in more.

Explaining and Training Shot Quality The Future of Football How Do Coaches Learn? The Death of Traditional Scouting New Tech Marcus Rashford and Young Player Development

Passing and Game State, Part 1

We've known for a long, long time in soccer analytics terms (back in the stone age of 2013 at least, with this piece from Ben Pugsley) that game state changes how teams shoot. I haven't seen many pieces on how it changes how teams pass, so we'll take a short and sweet look at a few aspects today. This is called part 1 because there is a huge amount to dig into here and I plan on looking into it more at a later date, not because there are more lined up ready to go right after this. If only James paid the talent here at StatsBomb at Bill Simmons rates, we both have the same amount of HBO shows right now. Anyway, onto part one.   A reminder of what are becoming my ubiquitous and unübersichtlich (or confusing) zones. zones The data for this study comes from the 2014-15 French season. It's the only place and year I had game-state data for all the passes.   Possession Trailing teams possess the ball more. In this specific season we are looking at, trailing teams played 53% of the passes while leading teams played 47% of the passes. Unsurprisingly, this isn't because low-possession teams take the lead more often, it's because teams change their behavior after a score change: 15 teams increased their possession share when going behind while only 4 increased it when taking the lead.   Starting at the Back: Long Balls When Ahead When teams go ahead, they start hitting a lot more long balls. Every single team in the study hit more long balls from zone 7 when leading compared to when tied. 17 of the 20 teams hit fewer long balls when losing compared to tied. snip20161025_46 Field Tilt: Score or Time A Bigger Factor? Field tilt here is measuring the share of completions in zones 1 and 2, so the more time spent in front of goal the higher the field tilt. I was not surprised to find that losing teams have a higher share of their completions in advanced positions: teams average a 20% increase of the share of completions in zones 1 or 2 compared to tie games. I was kind of surprised to see winning teams see a 12% increase as well. snip20161101_17     I can intuitively write an explanation backwards around that data (something like: When a team has a lead, games tend to see a lot more of the action played around the goalmouth as trailing teams push forward allowing for quick counters from the losing side), which I was ready to do until I looked at the time factor. snip20161110_9 So this changes things. Whether your team is winning, tied or losing only makes a small difference until the final minutes but all 3 trend up nearly in lockstep as the game progresses. Whether this is a reflection of game theory where coaches and players purposefully play cautious early on or a reflection of fatigue can't be determined. Putting on my pundit-hat (and we've seen in recent days that broad, sweeping conclusions from data journalist types based on small bits of data generally do not lead anyone wrong) I suspect it's more of the first and less (though still some) of the second.   Up Front: Entering Zone 2 from Zone 3 This was surprising. While the league as a whole had a significantly higher completion % while winning (which is what I expected), only 11 of 20 teams actually had a higher completion % when leading compared to tied. 12 of 20 actually had a higher completion % while losing. This tells me that the difference in total comes from PSG and Lyon leading the most and being the best at this category. Game state itself doesn't seem to be a pushing factor here, passes entering the danger zone are generally completed at a similarly slightly higher rate when losing or ahead compared to a tie. snip20161101_19 Overall Totals here: snip20161101_20   Time Factor Here again we see time playing a big factor. 16 of the 20 teams have a higher completion % on passes from zone 3 to zone 2 in the final 15 minutes compared to the first 15 minutes. Here however we don't see the steady increase from first 15 to final 15 but more of a sharp jump after the first 15 minutes. snip20161110_11   In the second half you can see a sort of "reset" as the completion % on these entry drops to start the half though not close to the start of the game. Then it quickly rises again throughout the second half.   Conclusions And Further Questions

  1. Losing teams possess the ball more. I suspect this is mainly a move by the leading team to play more defensively but haven't figured out a great way to try and test this.
  2. Losing teams generally play shorter passes out of the back while leading teams hit long balls. Presumably this has to do with the different levels of high pressing, but further investigation is needed for that to be the why.
  3. The field gets tilted toward more passes in the danger zone the longer the game goes on. Time seems to be the dominant factor here.
  4. Completion % entering the danger zone increases as the game goes along and "resets" a bit at halftime before increasing again.

  The major question to me is if the time factor is most related teams scared of conceding at the start, why do they do this? If strategy changes later in the half, why are teams content to come out of the chute hesitant and "feeling each other out"? Maybe there is a good reason for so much of the game to be played in the midfield or own half to start the game, but the fact it changes so drastically the rest of the game indicates that there's a chance that teams are not fully prepared so come out too conservative to open up games.   Anyway, this is a quick overview of an area that is open for further deep dives to try and reveal how the game chances as the clock ticks and scoreboard changes.    

Inside the Eredivisie

http-%2f%2fcdn-kiosk-api-telegraaf-nl%2fts_9dd4b9c4761cab8f29548313e5f7ed6a Aloha from your favourite ‘little brother’ league, from the land of the Nethers. It’s been quite an interesting season in the Eredivisie, 12 games in. For one, Feyenoord are top and were unbeaten until last weekend, and seem to have a team that is one of their most balanced in recent memory. Following sacking reports 3 weeks into his tenure, Peter Bosz has steered Ajax well back on track and they have not lost a single match since Hakim Ziyech’s arrival. Last year’s last-day champions PSV have struggled a bit more. Luuk de Jong has failed to replicate the scoring form he maintained for the last two years and their chance creation trend has been slightly erratic, but more on that to follow. PS: Admittedly, small sample size alert. picture1 Feyenoord The last time Feyenoord won the Eredivisie, 14 players in Feyenoord’s current first team squad were not even in primary school yet and Dirk Kuijt had just burst onto the scene with Utrecht. It’s fair to say that a season where they put in a serious title challenge has been a long time coming for the Pride of the South. The defence has seen van der Heijden, Botteghin and Kongolo cover reasonably well despite the fact that the former two have the combined pace of a lazy cat. Feyenoord have the lowest shot ratio (62.5%), and expected goals suggest they have been lucky not to concede more, while they allow more shots on goal than the other two contenders. It’s further ahead that things have gone well for Feyenoord this season. The midfield triumvirate of Karim El Ahmadi, Tonny Vilhena and Dirk Kuijt have shown a great deal of efficacy in doing simple things – and while they don’t play ‘Cruijffian’ football, this was one of Cruijff’s most famous sayings, that playing simple football could often be difficult. El Ahmadi and Vilhena have shielded the defence well while forming a passing axis with the two fullbacks and Toornstra. Feyenoord, as a team, have only had a cumulative 11 unsuccessful touches per game too, the least in the league, so they’ve been pretty well-drilled in their passing movements by van Bronckhorst and van Gastel. It is not much of a coincidence that Feyenoord’s first defeat of the season was dealt when both El Ahmadi and Vilhena were missing from the XI. Dirk Kuijt, on the other hand, is partially a beneficiary of the Wayne Rooney paradox. There are games where he can be relatively invisible and ineffectual but he is the club captain and he often seems to be the most likely to get a ‘clutch’ goal. I think it is pretty unlikely Kuijt will get the Rooney treatment and be benched soon though. His energy fits well with the profile of players around him and allows Toornstra some more freedom to wander around and provide a creative contribution. 41% of Feyenoord’s attacks come down the right flank, which is testament to the fact that Karsdorp has continued providing a vital wide option on the right while combining well with summer acquisition Steven Berghuis (or Bae-rghuis, according to Ted) as well as Bilal Basacikoglu in recent outings, although Berghuis still fails to impress as he did with AZ. Feyenoord’s attack is where the difference is really palpable between recent seasons and this season. Despite having inferior expected goal and shot ratios to PSV and Ajax, they are being powered in part by a SoT/Goal of 35%. Nicolai Jorgensen has been a real upgrade over Michiel Kramer and has hit the ground running in the Eredivisie, since arriving from Denmark in the summer. Taking 4.1 non-penalty shots per 90 with a conversion of 19%  has seen him top the league’s scoring charts. Important too is that the Dane plays 17.3 accurate short passes p90, compared to the 10.6 of Kramer last season. This adds some more coherence to Feyenoord’s attack; the presence of that extra option to pass to lets his teammates act a bit quicker and the team’s speed of moving the ball increases. This is particularly helpful in the final third and most of Feyenoord’s attacks have been results of swift circulation in that part of the field. Feyenoord's last three matches have resulted in a loss and two draws and it may end up that their early 'luck' has run its course, as it often ends up doing around halfway through seasons, whenever they have threatened to be title contenders.   Ajax A shaky start to the season had people calling for Peter Bosz’s head before he’d even managed to construct a team in his semblance. Ajax’s u-turn on Ziyech is at the moment, pretty undoubtedly the pivotal point that has turned Ajax’s fortunes around.   kpa1617 Barring the draw with Feyenoord, Ajax’s ExpG per match post-Ziyech has been higher and much more favourable compared to pre-Ziyech, even more so after he was reinstated in the #10 position, as opposed to the right wing. Ziyech is a ball-magnet for Ajax in possession and moves across the frontline to receive the ball and find an outlet. As such, Ajax use slightly more of the middle of the pitch in attack (29%) compared to last year (26%), when the play was excessively dependent on wide service. Ziyech is also keeping up a healthy number of key passes p90 (3.8) which is much more than the numbers he has put up over the last few years. While I do expect this will go down a bit over the course of the season, it’s almost 1 key pass more per game than last season, which is indicative of how he’s managed to maintain and improve on his attacking ability despite being in a new team, having to put in more off-the-ball work and against defences that play tighter and deeper than he was used to, with Twente. Bosz’s general philosophy is starting to become more apparent in an effective way too, since Ajax play higher up the field now than under Frank de Boer and 33% of their possession happens in the opponent’s final third. Schone’s role in defensive midfield has reduced some of the dilly-dallying on the ball that was prevalent in the middle-third. Ajax are pretty neck to neck with PSV in terms of shots but they’re scoring a lot more from their chances, which is partly the increase in quality of chances created in recent weeks and the fact that the likes of Klaassen, Dolberg and Traore are all sharing the goalscoring burden pretty well. At the back, an unlikely central pairing in Sanchez-Viergever have held fort relatively well but the right flank with Veltman and Traore remains more liable, which is surprising considering an attacking midfielder is playing fullback on the other side. Sinkgraven has taken admirably to the leftback role and his links to Ziyech coming in off the left-side of midfield as well as Klaassen and Schone in the centre help Ajax move ahead effectively on pitch. The off-pitch fracas surrounding Gudelj and El Ghazi has been less palatable but there is little doubt that their exclusion has come for the better of the team and Bosz has been justified in his selection choices in as much. European performances have been more encouraging this season too. Ajax seem a little less shackled by dogma and a little more open to switching their mode of attack. The unpredictability of Ziyech and Dolberg has helped in this regard too, since you need individual moments of excellence to get you through some tough matches.   PSV Dear, oh dear. Things have gone a bit gloomy in Eindhoven this season. The most baffling thing is that PSV continue to post some of the best numbers in the league (and Europe). They’ve conceded the least number of shots (79) and average the most shots inside the box pg (12.6), and have the highest TSR (72.9%). And yet, they have drawn 3 of their last 5 league games, have gone out of the Cup and likely out of the Champions League in recent weeks and seem a shadow of their former selves, to borrow a cliché. psv

Average distance of shots to goal (closest) in top 5 leagues + Eredivisie. (Well done, ADO?)

Their ExpG per game is currently the least of the three title contenders and their SoT/Goal% is  only 24.4%, compared to the 35.7% they managed last season and 34.4% the season before that. The main difference happens to be that Luuk de Jong was on fire for both of those seasons and is considerably less so this term. His non-penalty conversion % was 21% last season and 17% in 2014/15. This season, it’s a Stormtrooper-level 6%, and even though he averages 3.4 shots in the penalty box this season, 52% of his shots have been off target – considerably more compared to previous campaigns too. It’s hard to put this down to any specific cause. One factor could be a serious dip in form for Jetro Willems, which has culminated in him being benched and replaced by Brenet in both the PSV XI and the Dutch national team. A key attacking axis for PSV was the Willems-de Jong connection over the last two years and without the right kind of service, de Jong’s conversion may have taken a hit.   luuk-de-jong-eredivisie-2015_16   In a way, PSV resemble Ajax in the last two years of the Frank de Boer era – devoid of a proper Plan B when their Plan A is stifled by opponents. For example, in the 0-0 vs Groningen, PSV attempted 60(!) crosses, and Groningen made 63 clearances from inside their box. There was a certain pattern to the that emerged that

  • a) PSV did little to break out of and try something different and
  • b) PSV continued even more enthusiastically as the game went on and
  • c) was replicated in the match vs Heracles, when PSV attempted 37 crosses, and were met with 42 clearances from Heracles’ defensive third.

The loss of Jorrit Hendrix to injury was a loss, but the loss-of-form that Pröpper has suffered in recent weeks has probably been more detrimental considering how influential he is. Summer recruit Bart Ramselaar, with his inspired movement between channels and ability to break defensive lines has been a bright spot. Most of PSV's numbers are pretty impressive so it's probably wise to just wait and see how their situation improves (and I'd say it is likely to improve). Toon Gerbrands has suggested that once van Ginkel is available on loan in January, PSV will look to bring him in again and that might help, considering he scored 8 goals in his half-season stint last year and helped PSV pick up crucial points on their way to the title. A change in system might be an out-of-the-box option for PSV to pursue and the 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield is a potential option, especially once Hendrix is back. It would allow Ramselaar more freedom to go forward while also un-restraining Pereiro to the obligations of a traditional winger (which he does not seem to be, really). But either way, brighter days might not be too far off in Eindhoven.   Other fun observations Stijn Schaars, 32, has been the best one-man-midfield I’ve seen this season.

Defensive midfielder Schaars on an attacking midfielder template still looks pretty good.
This is not to discredit Heerenveen’s other midfielders but the former PSV player has been doing pretty much everything at the base of midfield for the Frisian side. Schaars has completed more passes (690) and had more touches (1015) and made more interceptions on the opposition half (13) than any other Eredivisie player this season. He also completed 105 passes v Groningen back in October, the highest by any player in the league since January 2015. The numbers are partly facilitated by the fact that he plays in the #6 position and sees a lot of the ball but Schaar's influence in this area has also had a very direct impact on his team; Heerenveen average 5% more possession this season than last season and his ability to circulate the ball effectively mean Arber Zeneli and Sam Larsson are found closer to the goal and more likely to make an attacking impact. In other news, NEC Nijmegen have been quite an experiment to watch this season. Peter Hyballa, who once co-authored a book on Dutch training methods, was given the reins and his lofty idea(l)s have impressed many. His NEC side rarely pass sideways and centreback Dario Drmic and midfielder Julian von Haacke have been key additions in NEC's attempts to play through vertical buildup and passing between the lines.
NEC with some really good positioning on-pitch v PEC.
NEC with some really good positioning on-pitch v PEC: width of the field
  Hyballa's admiration of the 'Pep' style of football is evident, though of course, NEC Nijmegen are neither Barcelona nor Bayern nor Man City and his attempts to translate that kind of football to Gelderland has not always come off successfully and has posted some strange patterns in the numbers.  They've taken the least number of shots (99) but have a pretty decent accuracy of 47%. They've played 71 key passes as a team, but only 8.4% of them have been crosses (a grand total of six crosses), in a league where on average, 26% of teams' key passes in attack tend to come in the form of crosses. Contrastingly, 11.3% of their key passes come in the form of throughballs, by far the highest percentage in the league, which I think, gives some backing to the kind of play Hyballa is trying to create. But unfortunately, NEC lack the resources and players of the calibre required to make this a proper success and thus they remain floating just above relegation places.

So, it's all setting up pretty nicely for a tight race and if the shooting data is to be believed, Ajax and PSV are likely to be fighting it out again in the second half of the season, while Feyenoord's form will probably cool off and they might end up being a dark horse. PSV's woes should be resolved pretty soon because their numbers are solid at both ends -- Marco van Ginkel's loan move should only facilitate this too although it might mean less playtime for Zinchenko, who I'd like to see more of. For Ajax, two regular starters in Ziyech and Bertrand Traoré will be departing for AFCON in January and could potentially miss up to 4-5 games. It will be interesting to see how Bosz works around this, whether he gives El Ghazi and Bazoer another chance to restake their claim to a starting position or if he eases Nouri or van de Beek into the team. Heerenveen have converted extremely well this season, with Samba Sam Larsson and Zeneli both firing regularly and in good form. AZ have pretty decent numbers too, but their scoring has taken a hit since neither Weghorst nor Friday have been able to fill Janssen's shoes effectively, although Janssen did blossom only after November. I'd watch this space because this might be an interesting fight for 4th. If Man City loanee duo Ünal and Celina keep up their form in attack, Twente might pose an outside threat to the Top 5-6 too. Which is impressive given Twente rose back from the dead over the summer and were relegation favourites going into the season.   Thanks for reading!

StatsBomb Podcast: November 2016, Part Two

[soundcloud url="" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]   Ted Knutson and James Yorke takes questions from the floor on a range of topics... Downloadable on the soundcloud link and also available on iTunes, subscribe HERE If you like, we'd love it if you shared it. Thanks! (featured picture, Alex Iwobi, shot maps 2015-16 and 2016-17)

StatsBomb Podcast: November 2016, Part One

[soundcloud url="" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /] Ted Knutson and James Yorke take a spin around the key numbers in the Premier League and beyond... Downloadable on the soundcloud link and also available on iTunes, subscribe HERE If you like, we'd love it if you shared it. Thanks!

Passing Motifs: Identifying Team and Player Passing Style

The Passing Motifs methodology is something I’ve been working for a couple of months now, and it has left pretty satisfying results convincingly representing team and player passing style. I got the original idea from an article pre-print on the arXiv titled “Searching for a Unique Style in Soccer” by Laszlo Gyarmati, Haewoon Kwak and Pablo Rodriguez. These guys do research for Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica and took a slight detour into football analytics by applying a mathematical concept from graph theory which they apply to communications networks, basically to prove the popular point that Barcelona have a pretty unique passing network. Since then, I have substantially modified their original idea and have obtained a pretty cool methodology of my own.

Here’s how it works:

The basic idea is to break up passing sequences into 3-pass long subsequences (usually overlapping) where the identity of the node is relaxed. If you’re not used to mathematical jargon this might sound confusing, but it’s pretty simple to get your mind around:

There are 5 possible 3-pass long motifs; identified by their acronyms:

  • ABAB
  • ABAC
  • ABCA
  • ABCB
  • ABCD


The process of identifying the passing motifs is simply taking a passing sequence, breaking it up into 3-pass subsequences and looking which motif they fit into. The key concept is that at first we are not interested in the particular player performing the passes, simply the flow of passes amongst them. A sequence Kroos – Modric – Bale – Kroos and a sequence Ronaldo – Kroos – Benzema – Ronaldo are simply two separate instances of ABCA.

At the end, we are left with a counter for each of the 5 motifs for each team in each match we have the necessary data for. Simple enough. So how do we use this to identify passing style?

Team Passing Style:

The original authors’ reasoning is that by understanding the motifs’ distribution for different teams, inherent information about a team’s playing style will become apparent. It seems like a reasonable intuition, if we consider for example that ABCD is a direct build-up passing sequence involving 4 different players, while ABAB most likely reveals a patient build up where 2 players give the ball back and forth in the style we usually attribute to Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

However, rather than looking at the raw numbers of how many times each team performed a certain motif, I found it more interesting to look at the relative frequencies. That is to say, for a certain match I would break down each team’s distribution of motifs into something like 13% ABAB, 22% ABAC, 30% ABCA, etc., rather than looking at the actual number of times the motif was performed. This is interesting because it should represent something like ‘intent’. When you have the ball, what do you intend to do with it. If we focus on absolute numbers rather than relative frequencies, then high possession teams like Barcelona or Arsenal would always come up as being unique, something that we all already know and don’t need this methodology to tell us.

By taking each team’s relative frequencies for each motif and averaging over an entire season, I obtained a 5-dimensional vector representing each team over the course of a season. Below is the hierarchical clustering dendrogram for this methodology using data from the 2014-2015 and 2015-16 Premier League seasons respectively.

cluster-dendogram-14-15 cluster-dendogram-15-16

There are several interesting things to point out. First of all, 2015-16 title-winning Leicester has the most distinctive motif frequencies distribution; and forms a subgroup with the Premier League’s passing powerhouses Arsenal and Manchester City. Not only this, but this unique identity of Leicester’s motif distribution was also present for the 2014-15 season in which they went on an impressive run at the end to avoid relegation. However, nobody could have foreseen their exploits of the following season. Was this a sign we should have seen that there was something special about this team?

The consistency of Leicester’s motif vector for both seasons is a good sign that this method is capturing an underlying quality which we can call “passing style” rather than simply randomly assigning values through statistical noise. The consistency of the method is also present in other teams to which the method attributes similar styles such as Arsenal-Manchester City, Tottenham-Chelsea and Crystal Palace-Sunderland. If the method wasn’t picking up on stable underlying qualities of the team’s passing style, the probability of the method assigning these pairings by chance for two consecutive seasons is very low.

It seems we’re on the right track to quantify team passing style…

Player Passing Style:

Extrapolating this methodology convincingly to a player level is an exciting prospect for recruitment. Passing play is obviously a major factor of a team’s potential. Let’s say we could find economically efficient alternatives to Bayern Munich’s players and set up a low-cost team with the potential to execute a similar style of play to that which has made Bayern so dominant. Seems a bit naïve, but there’s definitely a competitive advantage there for clubs.

The question then is how to manipulate the info and translate it into a player context; and once we have done this, how to validate that we are in fact picking up on stable underlying qualities of the players. The problem for teams already introduced a key “validating element”: consistency across consecutive seasons. I won’t get into much detail here, but you can have a look in this entry from my blog on how I measure this consistency.

Long story short, I settled on a 45-dimensional (yes, 45) vector representing each player. Once again, for more details on how and why this was done in this way, you can have a look at this other entry from my blog. This is the summary at how I constructed this 45-dimensional vector:

  1. One first objective is to neutralise the effect of the team passing style on a player. If a team proportionately uses ABAB a lot, then inevitably so will the players. Therefore, if you put Fernandinho in Barcelona, his motif frequencies will start to resemble those of the whole team without it having been something inherent to him all along. The first idea I had was to view how a player’s relative motif frequencies diverged from his team’s frequencies in each match. That is to say, if in a match Arsenal performed 40% of its frequencies as an ABAC and 43% of the motifs Coquelin was involved in were ABAC, then Coquelin had a +3% for that motif for that match. Averaging for the whole season, Coquelin could be seen as 5-dimensional vector where each entry corresponds to his average divergence for each of the 5 motifs. This logic corresponds to 5 entries of the 45-dimensional vector.
  2. Instead of considering the raw values of motifs a player performed, we can consider each performance in a match by a player as a 5-dimensional vector in which each entry is the percentage of the player’s total motifs that that motif corresponds to. So we can represent a match played by Romelu Lukaku as 5% ABAB, 13% ABAC, 25% ABCA, etc. Averaging over a whole season, each player is represented by a 5-dimensional vector (5 more entries down).
  3. Another way of seeing that data which I felt might be useful is seeing each player’s match as the proportion of each motif his team performed that he participated in. That is to say, if Southampton completed 50 instances of ABAB in a match, and Jordy Clasie participated in 25 of those, he would have a 50% score for ABAB in that match. If in that same match Southampton completed 80 instances of ABAC and Clasie participated in 20, he would have a 25% score for that motif. Applying this logic to the 5 different motifs and averaging over the whole season, each player is once again represented by a 5-dimensional vector (another 5 entries down).
  4. Another take on the problem is this: for an ABAC sequence a player could participate as the A player, the B player or the C player. It’s straightforward to count that looking at all 5 motifs there are 15 “participation” possibilities for each player. If we count how many times each player was each letter in each of the 5 motifs, we are left with a 15-dimensional vector representing each player. Another 15 entries down.
  5. Finally, we can take this 15-dimensional idea and slightly alter it to not count the total of each pseudo-motif but rather what their relative frequencies are, so once again do something like if Dimitri Payet performed the B in an ABAC 15 times out of 100 total motifs he participated in, that pseudo-motif has a score of 15%. Once again, each player is represented by a 15-dimensional vector.

Since 5+5+5+15+15=45, we are left with our 45-dimensional vector representing each player. This entry explains how we know that this vectorisation is performing well; that is to say, the vector representations for players are in a sense “stable” across consecutive seasons, indicating that the methodology is picking up on some underlying qualities of a player’s passing style rather than randomly assigning statistical noise.

I’m quite happy with the results and there is good evidence that the vectorisation contains valuable information. Presenting this information in a visual way to the reader isn’t exactly straightforward. One way to do it is by displaying hierarchical clustering dendrograms of the results.

Below is a link for the pdf for the hierarchical clustering dendrogram applied to the data set for the 2015-16 season of the Premier League (only players who played in over 18 matches). Since there are 279 players, the tree labels are really tiny so the image couldn't be uploaded onto the site directly, but on the pdf you can use your explorer's zoom to explore the results.

If you’d rather not, here’s a selection of the method’s results:

  • Mesut Ozil has one of the most distinctive passing styles in the league. Cesc Fabregas is the player closest to him and together they form a subgroup with Juan Mata, Ross Barkley, Yaya Toure and Aaron Ramsey.
  • Alexis Sanchez is in a league of his own but the players with the most similar passing style are Payet, Moussa Sissoko, Jesus Navas, Sterling and Martial.
  • Troy Deeney is in the esteemed company of Aguero, De Bruyne, Oscar and Sigurdsson.
  • David Silva, Willian, Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen are all pretty similar.
  • Nemanja Matic, Eric Dier and Gareth Barry have a similar passing style.
  • M’Vila, Lanzini, Capoue, Puncheon, Ander Herrera and Drinkwater are all similar, pretty good and perhaps underrated.
  • Walcott, Ihenacho, Scott Sinclair, Jefferson Montero, Wilfired Zaha, Bakary Sako, Albrighton, Bolasie and Michail Antonio form a subgroup of similar wingers.
  • Giroud is more similar to some rather underwhelming strikers such as Gomis, Cameron Jerome and Pappiss Cisse rather than to world class strikers. The same can be said of Harry Kane being similar to Aroune Kone, Son and Marc Pugh. Maybe the methodology is not as convincing for strikers?
  • Shane Long and Odion Ighalo are good alternatives to Jamie Vardy.
  • Diego Costa and Lukaku are similar to Rooney.
  • Victor Moses, Aaron Lennon and Jordon Ibe are similar.
  • Mahrez is similar to Sessegnon, Nathan Redmond and Jesse Lingard. Did Southampton know this?
  • Matt Ritchie (ex-Bournemouth now at Newcastle) is in a group with Lallana, Alli, Pedro and Lamela. An opportunity for the taking?
  • Angel Rangel has (and has always had) unusual stats for a full-back.
  • The methodology recognises who the goalkeepers are and set them apart with this information being explicitly available. The same applies for many other players from similar positions which are grouped together like the CBs and full-backs.

This is a poor man’s substitute to actually exploring the dendrogram yourselves. Not to mention that a clustering dendrogram is not even the most faithful representation of the information being collected by this vectorisation, but I’m more than happy with the results and feel there is some real promise to the methodology. If I can come up with some better visualisations for the results I’ll post those later on.

Please have a look through the results from the dendrogram and comment on whether you feel we’re getting close to convincingly capturing player passing style through passing motifs.

Find me on twitter @dperdomomeza1

For prior work on this subject see my blog here