On Twitter recently I’ve been trying to clean up my pass maps. I’ve been clustering every pass into one of 100 “types.”
This is only based on starting and ending position, there are of course many other variables that could be added: when a pass comes in a possession sequence, body part, where previous pass was played, position (MC, FW, etc) of player as a proxy for options in front and behind, if a team is flooding their own zone to keep possession in useless areas which skews completion %, etc. All of these would contribute to a robust passing model but are not accounted for here. Nevertheless, we press ahead.
I started looking at how often teams played certain types of passes. For example, here are Liverpool’s and Swansea’s attacking maps.
Liverpool tilt the pitch forwards and wind up playing short passes in the attacking third just outside the box a huge amount. Swansea never pass the ball to the left (sorry Wayne Routledge, it’s nothing personal) and play around the midfield stripe a good bit.
I then wanted to see which teams were “overperforming” their pass types. If we know how often teams in general complete a certain type of pass, it’s simple to add up expected completions and see which teams are beating that. At the top are mostly teams who you expect: Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Napoli, etc (City slide down the ranks a bit here when you account for pass type). The next step is to look at players. I’ll use this basic framework to try and find interesting transfer candidates who stand out from their team and/or couple other solid output with ball progression.
We want players we don’t have to break the bank for and prefer those who are under-the-radar, so while Willian, Nasri, Coutinho, and Banega stand out they will not be purchasable for most teams. A few other filters: outside the PL (to save money), sub 30 years old, and under 8m on transfermarkt. I will be role-playing as the stat-crazy agent trying to sell a team on my guy and then as a skeptical transfer guy raising some questions. Well, here we go.
Center Backs-H Below Izzo
Armando Izzo (Genoa), 24
You want a Boateng or a Hummels right? Playmaking and skill in possession from centerback allows you to shift the entire offense forward and not have to hit low EV long balls from the goalie or use a defensive midfielder as a third center back. Armando Izzo is your man to move possession forward.
Izzo has played as a very forward minded right CB in a 3-man defense. He leaps off the page at Genoa gaining his team an extra 50 completions from what you’d expect from looking at his pass types. Only 20 players across the top 4 leagues have added more than 50 completions and most are huge stars from excellent passing teams: Thiago, Cazorla, Ozil, Hamsik, Filipe Luis, etc. Genoa are basically completely average outside of their standout Izzo.
He doesn’t really play like what you generally think a center back does. When you look at where he passes the ball and try to find players who do so similarly, you get hybrids like Nenad Tomovic, Joshua Kimmich, Antonio Rudiger or Mauricio Isla who play right back alongside center back or midfield. To drive the point home, Izzo was the leading passer in the final third in the Genoa-Roma game. He even scored the only goal! (Just don’t check on which side that goal went in, please.)
Don’t take only the stats word for it. More tactically minded analysts/coaches who have closely followed Genoa’s training camps have loved Izzo’s play as well (and if you don’t care about age the 30-year old Gentiletti would be a fantastic addition).
Now, you are surely wondering if he’s one of those fancy all-glamour-no-grit-sweet-passer-but-defensive liability types? I’m here to assuage those. Genoa are one of the tougher teams in Serie A to complete deep passes against (almost a standard deviation below average in the 30 yard radius around goal and the toughest to complete against in the 15-yard radius around goal). Drilling down further, only Crotone allow a higher share of key passes to come from their defensive left side than Genoa (not Izzo’s side). So teams struggle to complete deep passes against Genoa, and when they are creating chances they come from Izzo’s side at one of the lowest rates in the league.
Who to pitch to for maximum earnings: Dortmund, Everton, Southampton, Bournemouth
Front Office Questions: Can this guy actually defend? That key pass side stuff doesn’t really convince me. These stat guys generally have no clue when they talk about center backs and defense, let’s get one of our other non-stat guys who might have a whiff (but just a whiff) of a clue on center back defense to check on that, at least he will sound more convincing. This agent is convincing on the passing stuff and Izzo does seem as if he can start attacks from CB in a 2 or 3 man back-line and maybe even right back. Let’s get working on the scouting side quick because there’s a chance this guy might be a true difference-maker. Also, let’s try and get to talk to Izzo man-to-man and get him to cut this slimy agent out, he keeps WhatsApping me to Venmo him $100,000 to ensure the signature. Sad!
Other, Lesser Recommendations
2. Benjamin Hübner (Hoffenheim), 27
Jonny Castro (Celta Vigo), 22
Want a fullback like Wendell from Leverkusen who is a great passer and wins balls all the time on defense but don’t have the money to get Wendell? Jonny Castro from Celta Vigo might even be a better passer and a more active defender. On a team that is below average in terms of expected completions, Castro stands out bigly. No player on a team with a negative total has a higher over-performance than Castro’s +36 completions. He’s not exactly a Danny Rose type output guy, more of a helper in the buildup if you have players who can create shots up top. This can be seen in a differential pass map that shows the areas of greatest difference between two players.
To go along with his passing goodness, he has defensive legs. Castro makes an interception or wins a tackle 6.7 times a game and gets dribbled past just 0.6 times. No fullback in the PL can match Castro’s 6.7 number.
Where to aim pitch to maximize earnings: Manchester City, West Ham
Other, Lesser Recommendations
2. Yuri (Sociedad), 26
3. Giulio Donati (Mainz), 26
Bruno Fernandes (Sampdoria), 22
If I asked you do you want a Christian Eriksen clone, you’d immediately say yes right? If you look at where Bruno Fernandes passes the ball, Eriksen is the single closest comparison you can find. If you then go stat-by-stat, Fernandes looks very similar to Eriksen, except he doesn’t appear to need a hair transplant anytime soon.
Let’s look at some of their stats side-by-side.
Sampdoria take 4 fewer shots than Tottenham, so Fernandes has even more impressive shot contribution numbers. He doesn’t come with Eriksen’s set piece reputation, but you can find someone else to get you a goal a season there.
Front Office Questions: Is this guy too cross happy? 10 crosses per 90 is pretty ridiculous, though in the past he has much more reasonable numbers.
Who to pitch to for maximum earnings: Stoke, Bournemouth, Everton
Other, Lesser Recommendations
Gianluca Caprari (Pescara), 23
Jeremie Boga (Granada), 20
Petros (Real Betis), 27
Ivaylo Chochev (Palermo), 23
Remo Freuler (Atalanta), 24
Roque Mesa (Las Palmas), 27
Agents Pitch for Petros to Crystal Palace
Petros is absolutely an ideal deep-lying midfielder for your team. He completes passes at a rate way ahead of his Betis teammates. On a team that is overall well-below average (-160 completions below expected), he is +30 completions. These are generally safe passes played out wide, but he’s great at doing it and that’s exactly what you guys need. You often struggle with getting the ball to your wingers to start attacks, MacArthur and Ledley are both below-average passers and are playing big minutes for you in Petros’s position, grab him for an upgrade that you really need in a season where every point is crucial. If you are worried it will weaken your defense, don’t be. Petros has 7.5 won tackles or interceptions per game while Ledley + MacArthur combine for 6.8 between them. He does the defensive work of both while outpassing them by leaps and bounds.
Agents Pitch for Chochev
Chochev brings a really unique skill set to the table, not many players can combine the things he does really well together.
-He’s efficient: No Palermo player completes forward passes into the deep attacking zone (defined as a ~30 yard radius from goal) at a higher completion % than Chochev.
-He’s dangerous: No Palermo player has a higher rate of key pass per pass than Chochev in this deep attacking area.
-He gets shots: Chochev takes a shot in the box per game trailing only Nesterovski and Robin Quaison (who both have played forward). No one else on Palermo takes over half a shot in the box per game.
-He works extremely hard defensively: Only a pair of center backs two top his huge tackle and INT rate (5.9 won tackles+INTs) on Palermo.
This is serious two-way potential that gives you the chance to play him all over the pitch.
Where to pitch for maximum earnings: Leverkusen, Leicester, Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen
Front Office Questions
Why does he get involved so rarely with the ball? A very low 33 passes per 90 rate raises questions to me.
The latter two (Roque Mesa and Freuler) are certainly more upmarket types. Roque Mesa is a Xabi Alonso-esque type player. Maybe I will try to get Manchester City interested. Freuler is more of the rangy Kroos/Koke type who is going to give you solid production in the box. I might ring Dortmund first on that one.
Well, there you go. My list of guys who I think could provide good bang for your buck in the transfer market and immediately help teams with money to spend. As a blogger my job is done but as an agent I am shooting for the stars with some of these pitches, so wish me luck and that I can wet my beak with several shady kickbacks so I can then roll that over into investments into 16-year old South American midfielders in an illegal scheme with a Portuguese team! Until next time, the Secret Agent/Statsbomb Blogger.
Article by Dustin Ward