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

By Ted Knutson | November 17, 2016 | Mailbag

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?


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.


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.


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):

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.


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.

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.


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.


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?



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...


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


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.


(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


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.


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.


*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*


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.


--Ted Knutson

Article by Ted Knutson