Creeping Forward: Improving Shot Location

The idea behind shot quality in football is really a fairly intuitive one. A shot from the halfway line isn’t as good an idea as a shot from inside the six-yard box. There’s more nuance to it but you don’t need any sort of deep analytical education to grasp it. Hell, it’s right there in why goals like this one from Memphis are so memorable: because we don’t expect them to happen.

 

memphis gif

Yet, in spite of this, shot quality and the improvement of it feels like a bit of an uphill battle. Especially when it comes to coaching the idea into younger players who have a particularly frustrating problem with their shot selection (Hakim Ziyech, bij voorbeeld). However, it would appear that, one way or another, teams are starting to pay real attention to their shot selection. I noticed this while compiling some shots numbers and tweeted about it, prompting the ever lovely Colin Trainor to produce this nice summary:

 

 

Whether you talk about it in terms of shot distance or shot zones, teams across Europe’s top five leagues are cutting the fat off of their shots. This article is going to focus on the Premier League specifically, mainly because there’s just so many things to digest across Europe that this could go on forever, so a cutoff point has to be set somewhere. If you want details on what’s going elsewhere give me a bell on twitter and if there’s enough curiosity there might be a follow up. 

 

Season Total Shots Outside Box Shots % of shots outside box Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 10562 4626 43.80% 18.96
13/14 10238 4599 44.92% 19.15
14/15 9881 4221 42.72% 18.72
15/16 9781 4046 41.37% 18.50
16/17 9734 3971 40.80% 18.37

 

(*distance numbers for 16/17 are a few matches out of date, but you get the gist)

The first thing that sticks out is the relationship between shots taken outside the box and the total shots numbers. Bits are getting shaved off the outside numbers with each passing season, yet those shots aren’t really being replaced with anything. However, this isn’t really ending up as a loss in end product because of the increased focus on better shots.  Everything is floating around in similar totals, and the goals aren’t going away that’s for sure.

(If you’re wondering about the slight increase in distance in 13/14 that season was very, very odd in an attacking sense. There were 184 goals scored from outside the box that season, 22 more goals than the next highest total over the last five seasons. Most of those were Luis Suarez scoring against Norwich. Or at least that’s what it felt like).

Which teams then are embracing this change and leading the charge in these numbers?

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Arsenal put up the lowest % from outside the box in the recently finished 2016/17 season with an exceedingly low 33.03%. This makes sense for a couple of reasons. Firstly it fits with the image of them of as the English Barcelona, building their attack around getting high value shots (by the by, Barca’s % of shots outside the box in 16/17 was 31.9%). You may also remember that in late 2014 they bought StatsDNA, an analytics company. Now, obviously it’s hard to tell from the outside how much sway they have, but Wenger has mentioned things like expected goals in the past so it seems quite likely that the sharp dropoff between the 14/15 to 15/16 season is at least partially down to StatsDNA being in the discussion and Wenger being open to what they have to say.

In that 15/16 season they absolutely crushed it on the attacking end. It was the ne plus ultra of ‘they always try to walk it in’. Their average shot distance that season was the lowest of any team over the last 5 seasons. This saw their xG per shot jump from 0.105 in 2014/15 to 0.125 which, again, was the highest of any team over that timeframe. This season they’ve become more dysfunctional in attack but that’s a whole other story entirely.

 

Arsenal
 Season xG per shot Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 0.1056 18.45
13/14 0.1114 17.93
14/15 0.1056 17.80
15/16 0.1253 16.08
16/17 0.1035 17.25

 

Their North London neighbours Tottenham are another interesting case. Plenty has been said about how Mauricio Pochettino seems to emphasise long range shots as a part of his gameplan, and sure enough his Tottenham sides have a similarly high % from outside the box as his Southampton one. Yet even though they had the highest % overall in the 16/17 season he has still actually brought the number down from where it was before he took over. It appears that AVB was even more content for his players to take pot shots than Pochettino is. Bless his soul.

 

Tottenham
Season Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 20.75
13/14 19.98
14/15 20.22
15/16 19.81
16/17 19.76

 

Another big (and perhaps unexpected) contributor to the overall league dropoff is your friend and mine Sam Allardyce. West Ham under Allardyce from 2012 to 2015 were always posting low %s, and then as soon as he leaves and Slaven Billic takes over those numbers shoot up. Sure enough in his lone season at Palace they had a similarly low average. His time at Sunderland is the outlier, but it seems none of the many managers they’ve gone through have been able to greatly change their numbers. Much was made from early on in Allardyce’s career about how he embraced stats and let it shape how he worked. Billic meanwhile seems to prefer the volume over quality approach.

 

West Ham under Allardyce West Ham under Billic
Season Average shot distance (metres) Season Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 16.60 15/16 18.29
13/14 17.33 16/17 18.52
14/15 17.25

 

Funnily enough there’s another manager who has this effect: the Right Honourable Tony Pulis.

 

West Brom Pre-Pulis West Brom under Pulis
Season Average shot distance (metres) Season Average shot distance (metres)
12/13 19.27 15/16 18.13
13/14 18.85 16/17 17.68
14/15 19.25

 

Allardyce and Pulis doing this shows that it’s the idea of shot location that matters, not how you achieve it. They aren’t bringing down their teams’ average shot distances with intricate play and sly throughballs like an Arsenal or a Man City are. They’re adapting the idea to the strengths of their players, utilising more headers and the like. An equally valid way of reaching the same end result.

And that’s the point of all this: teams are getting the message on shot locations and starting to remove some of the more pointless shots out of their attacking diet. Will long shots ever go away? No, nor should they. Everyone loves a thunderbastard goal from outside the box. The aim here isn’t to turn every team into a Poundland version of Barcelona. It’s just to make them a little bit smarter and to maximise what they get out of their attack.

Stoke City: Reboot needed?

  There are few guarantees in the Premier League, but one of them is this; somehow Stoke manage to finish comfortably above relegation year in and year out. In some ways, it’s an impressive feat. Over the last 5 seasons, they’ve been on average 13 points above the relegation zone, and this was done while transitioning from a largely static attack focused on exploiting inefficiencies in set pieces to an attack that was more based on flow and aesthetics, at least in theory. Considering the absurd finances in the Premier League these days, there are many clubs who would kill to do what Stoke currently do, which is regularly achieve mid table security. And this season, they have done it again, finishing lower midtable and comfortably above the relegation scrap. Yet the way they’ve done it brings into question just how smartly they’re using their resources. Look up and down the squad and there’s no clear vision of what’s being built. Because of the riches of the PL, Stoke have been able to transition into being a squad with more creative types and afforded formerly heralded prospects like Bojan or Xherdan Shaqiri. The latter part is fine in smaller doses, just because players don’t make it at the big clubs does not mean they aren’t capable of playing at a lower tier, but look at the whole squad and it’s just the most random assortment of talent you can find. They’re also quite old; in terms of the average age of the startling lineup in 2016-17, only West Brom (29.9) and Watford (29.6) had an older average age than Stoke (29.1). Peter Crouch, Glen Johnson, Phil Bardsley and Geoff Cameron all have contract extensions for at least another year. Cameron, who is 31, has his deal now running until 2020. Somehow in the year of our lord 2017, Peter Crouch played 1336 minutes this season for Stoke City. It’s as if no one at the club has ever seen an age curve. The team is extremely low on players who are about to enter their 4-5 year prime period, and instead have a stack of players either about to exit their primes or are long past it. Stoke City In theory, Stoke could position themselves more in the opposite direction; more percentage of players entering their primes while having fewer players who are into the twilight stage of their careers. This isn’t to say that it’s bad to have players who are closer to 30. And even executing that type of scenario would leave yourself vulnerable to losing your young talents, but having the majority of your squad be structured like they do is the furthest thing from optimizing the resources at hand. For reference, here’s a look at the age and minutes distribution for Southampton. Southampton Numbers It should be noted that generally, Stoke City were not good this season. The polarization of the PL this season puts things into perspective on some level since the top 6 beat the living shit out of everyone else in the league.  Even conceding that point, we’re still talking sub 45% on basic shot ratios, which is below average and those kind of numbers typically get you around Stoke’s actual point total of 44. Adding in shot quality and the picture gets a bit rosier, particularly that they’re top 5 in both expected goals per shots for/against, but at least in attack it’s possible that thse use of Crouch has skewed this. What they lacked in volume on both ends, they tried to compensate with shot quality, but the volume was still far too lopsided to truly make up for it. They weren’t exactly 2015-16 Arsenal in this department. Add it all up and you’re still getting at best a below average statistical resume that landed around the points value they deserved. One of the weirder quirks with Stoke in attack is that under Mark Hughes, they’ve done quite well in terms of the percentage of shots that are classified as Big Chances. In three of his four seasons, his teams have been above the league average and in the last two seasons, they’ve been in the top 5. In fact, the only teams to have been above the league average in at least three of the last four seasons are; Arsenal, Manchester City, and Manchester United. The fact that this is a repeated trend could very well be something that could be a positive attribute to Hughes as a manager, though it also should be said that in the last four seasons, only once has he generated more big chances than the overall league average. Some of the process seems solid, but the overall volume lags:

Year League Avg Big Chances For Stoke City Big Chances For
2013-14 64 60
2014-15 60 55
2015-16 59 60
2016-17 51 50

There’s just nothing that they do in attack that’s all that impressive. A lot like Southampton, some of the problems come from having several mediocre-poor passers both in the backline and midfield. Their build up is stifled because the fullbacks are either too slow to get into positions higher up the pitch, or they just stick closely to their corresponding center backs. There’s just no tempo at all to how they progress the ball up the pitch in a structured scenario. The whole idea of the counterpress being the best playmaker could’ve been fascinating to see. Many thought (myself included) when Stoke signed Gianelli Imbula and Joe Allen over a six-month span, you could imagine them playing in a system that would prioritize ball recoveries and quick transitions. It would have been their easiest way of getting Xherdan Shaqiri and Marko Arnautovic the ball with space ahead of them. It might not have been the penicillin to Stoke’s issues in attack, but it could’ve been a start to something grander. Even in the half hazard system that’s currently constructed, they love to progress the ball when they gain possession of the ball https://streamable.com/lgxxq Future Judging the season only by the point total and their position in the league table, Stoke are fine. It doesn’t have the same happy vibes that the last three seasons had when they finished between 50-54 points, but it’s another season where they weren’t at any point dragged into the relegation scrap and this time despite a very slow start. Unlike last season, which had the whole narrative of Stokelona (and Mark Hughes being improbably linked to Chelsea), this season didn’t really have anything that fans could hold onto. By and large it’s been forgettable, which is quite amazing considering they had Jesus play 2936 minutes in the central midfield. As more of a sample size is being gathered, the argument gets stronger that Mark Hughes truly doesn’t move the needle as a manager. In his four seasons at the Britannia, only one of them has seen an attack that was something notable, and that’s been in addition to having mediocre-bad defenses. If you’re never going to fix the defense, you might as well turn into what West Ham were last year, and make all matches the most high event encounters in the league. I’m more than willing to give a pass on 2013-14 considering the sheer skeleton squad he had to work with, but even so, we’re still looking at a four-year resume that at best is uninspiring. It’s cool and admirable to have a blueprint of expansive football, but the actual moments of it happening with Stoke have been small. For large stretches of the past two years, Stoke City under Mark Hughes has been the living embodiment of the “Emperor has no clothes” idiom. And that’s maybe my main issue with Stoke City as a club. In of itself, Stoke City are a success story over the years when it comes to sensible finances. Yet when you look at the club’s current financial situation, it’s very much clear that they’re in the bottom 10 when it comes to both wages and overall revenue. There are studies that have shown in the PL, how much you spend generally dictates your ability to move up the food chain. If you can’t spend like the big boys, you must find other areas to gain an advantage and one of those places would be finding a manager that can help you overperform. Why not just go to someone like Roger Schmidt and offer him a boatload of money considering his proven record of accomplishments in Austria and Germany. And if that route doesn’t work, maybe go for a young upstart with interesting tactical ideas. Just take a small gamble when it comes to moving the needle in a positive direction. Considering the amount of reliance on the old boy’s club, Stoke could be more adventurous with their player recruitment. Part of why I would advocate this is because the bottom range of their potential outcomes is not too scary, so it affords them the opportunity to try some out of the box measures. This type of season is on the lower range of outcomes that can realistically happen for them. Teams like Burnley can’t do this because their bottom range of outcomes is relegation. Now, this isn’t to say that the whole idea of getting players from the top 6 in the PL who are clear talents, but for reasons can’t break into the squad, is a bad idea. Lyon managed to snag one of the most productive wingers in Europe because of that strategy. Stoke themselves have not had terrible ideas with this route; Joe Allen and Saido Berahino at their transfer fees were okay, and Wilfred Bony on a loan was fine at the time. Now the end results have not been good for Berahino or Bony, but the process going into those moves had some logic to it. I just wished they were more willing to invest on younger players with potential. Signing Gianelli Imbula was a smart idea that didn’t work out for several reasons. Paying £3.5M for Ramadan Sobhi could very well be a coup in a couple of years. It’s not as if you can say they never try these sorts of deals. It’s just not to the volume that they should. And look, I’m not saying Stoke have this amazing ceiling as a club that they’re not tapping into. Their finances relative to others in the league are small. Within reason, the best-case scenario might be finishing top of the “Best of the Rest” league outside the proverbial top six, but there’s no harm in aiming for that. One player that could be a nice coup for them would be Francois Kamano from Bordeaux. For one, he’s only 21 and Stoke need more players in that age group. Another thing is he takes a lot of shots, especially from open play. In fact, the only wide players to take more shots than him who played at least 900 minutes in Ligue 1 were Memphis Depay and Angel Di Maria. The big sticking point is that his average shot quality is not great, clocking in below 10%. But Stoke have had shot generation problems for most of Hughes’ tenure, and it would just be fascinating to see someone with a shot happy approach like Kamano under Hughes. If it works, we’re talking a player who could average a 0.45-0.5 NPG + A rate in a season. For Stoke, those type of players don’t grow on trees. Stoke could very well run the same group next season and finish 13-14th once again. Even with how mishmash the squad is, there’s just too much talent to find serious trouble. I just think that it’s doing themselves a disservice because they desperately need a new plan. I’ve always wanted a midsized PL squad to gamble on prospects at a high volume. Southampton have been the closest thing to it over the years, but even they haven’t gone as far. Especially considering the current construction of the squad and the contracts at hand, it would be very beneficial to blend in as much new blood as possible. The old timers can’t last forever and lord do Stoke need some excitement going into next season.

Top Four Review: Part Two, Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal

[Part one, on Chelsea, Tottenham and Man Utd is here] Man City The Pep Guardiola revolution has had a decidedly flat first season. With prior expectations high, anything short of a title was going to be deemed under par and while third place may seem solid enough in a competitive year, City’s results appeared best before Guardiola’s systems had really taken hold. They started fast before hitting something of a wall and meandering through much of the centre of the season, a superficial storyline that mimicked the year before. Kevin de Bruyne hitting the bar from yards out against Chelsea was held up as a key point in both team’s seasons and it pointed clearly the general trajectory each team then took. A mixed bag of signings generally failed to displace the City mainstays; İlkay Gündoğan was injured, briefly fit then injured again, Nolito fitfully sparkled then disappeared, John Stones looked every inch the potential liability he always has done while Gabriel Jesus was promising and Leroy Sane eventually got motoring to good effect. Wonderment at Guardiola fielding centre midfielders as inverted wing backs or more than two full backs while playing a system featuring no orthodox fullback positions now seems like a quaint reflection of more innocent times. The early fascination with every detail of his selection gave way to accepting that he was going to channel Ossie Ardiles with forward heavy line ups and tinker with his extravagantly assembled squad, come what may. Results stayed erratic until very late on, when they motored home. . Generally, they were too easy to score against, but allowed very few shots. No team allowed the shots that it conceded to land on target as easily as City and no team conceded those shots at such a high rate. That all this did not equate with generally solid locations lightly implied that when shooting the opposition were often unpressured, and the miserable mid-season run of Bravo brings exactly that to mind. They outshot every team they played bar one, Tottenham away, their pass completion was higher against every team they played, and they had more of the ball in every match too. Peponomics was installed and much like Arsenal last year, expected goals loved them, but they struggled to turn such dominance into title contending form. Aspects of variance hindered them at key moments but they can analyse the season and see that much of what they did was very good. However, a flawed squad, underbuilt across multiple seasons, had its weaknesses brutally exposed much as it had in previous years, when perhaps Nicolás  Otamendi and a less lean and lumbering Yaya Toure bore the brunt of responsibility. Instead now, Stones and Bravo carried the can. The team had real verve in attack, with the January arrival of Jesus looking to lift it up a gear, but his injury and a slightly flat, though still prolific season from Sergio Agüero meant the team only rarely hit top speed. He scored plenty across all competitions but before a late flurry, only at par in the Premier League, which when held up against the returns of Harry Kane or Diego Costa, who both scored plenty ahead of expectation and when it mattered, reflect exactly what’s needed to power a team late into the season. A goalscorer needs to be on fire, something that Agüero is well capable of achieving, and will need to again. Maybe that’s harsh and the real problem was elsewhere with Jesus and Raheem Sterling, with seven league goals apiece, meaning that there was no real backup in goal volume from one player. The continued overlooking of Kelechi Iheanacho was perplexing in this regard. He will represent a solid gamble for someone else should he remain as unwanted as appeared in the latter half of the year. So for Pepalytics season one, what to think? The Champions League demise against Monaco was incredibly tame and he seemed to hint that he felt his players performed within themselves. It still feels like the team needs control and strength in the centre of midfield–Yaya can’t be expected to do that forever–while all the full backs have seen better days. Any system will work best when built around Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta all at their peak. Or when installed on top of the wealthiest club in Germany with gamechangers like Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski or Franck Ribery in the ranks. Who are Man City’s gamechangers? Can they make enough of a difference to lift Pep’s values into genuine contention? Reinforcements will be fascinating and inevitable.  Full backs at least, surely, three years late, will be incoming.   Liverpool Step back from the rollercoaster and what Liverpool achieved last season was against the odds and successful. Sure, this is a club that measures success in trophies and the fantastic early season form led the league title talk to emerge but the bigger picture is that in edging out Arsenal and forcing Man Utd to win a trophy to qualify for the Champions League, Jurgen Klopp’s men have taken a large and well deserved step forward. Pre season, eighth to fourth would have been a fair benchmark for progress, and some of their thrilling attacking play will be remembered and potentially offers a platform for sustained success. That the team was capable of a step forward was well flagged by last season’s metrics, and moreso those confined to the Klopp era. They may have finished eighth but profiled more like a team a coinflip away from the top four, and the deficit wasn’t large. That they had to improve to actually land such a slot indicates the strength of the bigger teams in general. A lot has been made of the variation in results for Liverpool–extremely strong against rivals, but vulnerable against weaker teams. I’m more inclined to suspect that this is a freakish artefact but that Liverpool’s opposition expected goals per shot rate was extremely poor is undeniable. A vulnerability to the second ball on set pieces and an occasionally porous midfield meant that although they allowed few chances, the ones they did were high quality, a problem they shared with Man City. Beyond this,  the true problem with Liverpool’s season stems back to May 2016 and their Europa League final defeat to Sevilla. That defeat was a huge fork in the road; a win would have ensured Champions League football, but more importantly a European campaign. The club would not have been able to prepare its squad as it did had it faced European football. Liverpool’s squad depth after the summer of 2016 was simply insufficient, and they failed to remedy that in January 2017. When all were fit, play was scintillating, but as soon as Philippe Coutinho suffered his injury and Sadio Mane departed for AFCON duty, the combination of a fixture pileup and squad weakness quickly told. Liverpool right now perhaps have 14 or 15 definitive first teamers before a steep drop in quality, and then the kids, who Klopp seems reluctant to trust. In truth they probably needed 17 or 18 to get through this season and maintain a high standard throughout, and may need more like 19 or 20 to get through a season with a Champions League campaign glued on. You can’t plan for injuries, but you know they will probably occur, and reliable backups are imperative. Also over multiple seasons, bouncing in and out of European competition plays havoc with sensible recruitment. Tottenham may have fumbled their Champions League run this last season and been lightly mocked for living in the Europa League before, but being involved in European competition year in, year out means that their squad has the depth to combat the fatigue effects that inevitably come with extra fixtures and travel. Liverpool now have to build up again and land straight in the deep end, just as they did after 2013-14. This lack of depth, even with no European schedule, can explain the team’s second half of the season decline in quality. Furthermore Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane all missed chunks at the business end through injury while Daniel Sturridge was variously unused and sidelined. There is talk now of Liverpool moving some of their lesser lights on, In fact, given they probably need four or five first team ready talents to add into the squad, the retention of even a utility type such as Lucas or a back up like Alberto Moreno makes just as much sense. Cast them out and you’ve more slots to fill. That said, Liverpool’s transfer business has been solid in recent years. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Joel Matip all represent smart talent identification and/or no fear of pushing large fees onto players they trust will fit the club and latterly Klopp’s systems. A couple of early transfers this summer would be a solid look here. So: in review, a good year, with the problems of the season now the challenges of the summer. Liverpool were outsiders of the six teams for the top four, and may well be again, with expectation that Arsenal and Man Utd will contend strongly and the added pressure and workload of a European campaign, but they overcame a wobble this time to secure their spot in the elite. Klopp now needs to find a way to keep them there. Arsenal Eight wins in their last ten, sufficient points to comfortably land in your average top four, an FA Cup final coming up, a deep squad, a legendary manager… what’s not to like at Arsenal? Groundhog Day comes but once a year, every year at the Emirates and said legendary manager now faces the strongest challenge to his autocracy yet after a typically virile end to the season failed to land the usual Champions League qualification. The team found a way to generate more points than last season, but that only tells part of the story. Last year they really should have contrived to build a challenge to Leicester and Tottenham that consisted of more than pipping their North London rivals in the last game. A run of three wins in ten from around halfway killed them off and a similar run of four wins in ten this season, which featured a distinctly vulnerable, and notably bad run in defence, was enough ultimately cost not just a title run but the top four. The biggest disappointment from over here in stats land–and let’s recall Arsenal are well stocked with stats people, so will be well aware of this–is the year on year decline. 2015-16’s side looked like they had benefited from smart advice; the team’s expected goals per shot at both ends was league leading and the volumes were excellent too. They undershot and were better early on, but backed up by Mesut Ozil’s great season, they looked to be the closest team the Premier League had to replicating the shooting efficiency often seen by various Barcelona teams. This year a hot autumn offered a slight sticking plaster to issues that came later and the move from a back four to a back three, which coincided with an upturn in results if not an upturn in underlying performance looked a reaction to the post Christmas slump. Sadly, now we are a long way away from knowing how Arsenal should best line up, and this apparent lack of a cohesive strategy doesn’t get bailed out in the numbers. Year on year, expected goal rates have fallen by a rate only exceeded by Leicester, and when the structure declines, a team is left to rely on variance to succeed, a far less pretty picture than a year ago. Both seasons see a with or without Santi Cazorla narrative easily applied, and even as he approaches his dotage his influence appears key. However, that’s too simple, and Wenger’s strategic transitions appear the biggest driver. Ozil has suffered hugely through lacking a target, and a late season flurry against beach-dwelling opponents hasn’t masked that. Alexis Sanchez has been electric and has benefited from changes more than most, his individual season tallies would have created a greater appreciation had the team itself managed to compete. It does feel as though perhaps the benefit of Sanchez may have hindered the rest of the attacking corps, but as ever things like that are hard to prove. Their impending term in the Europa League offers a line in the sand but also an opportunity. Arsenal are a competent European side, and their style has regularly been more suited to the open play found in European matches rather than the attrition of the Premier League. Perhaps the team is just flawed? Coasting along in comfort, unchallenged by modern ideas or lost in long term malaise? It’s hard. For curiosity’s sake and beyond any “Wenger Out” takes, a new manager would be welcomed just to see what another set of eyes could do with a fairly capable and balanced squad. The possible retention–or not– of Ozil and Sanchez will likely dominate the summer, with each looking for mega-money but with few mega years left in front of them and a lot of football in their legs. The possible retention–or not–of Arsene Wenger will determine likely whether next season will feel any different.   ______________________ Catch me on twitter here, it’s a lot of fun: @jair1970

Revisiting Radars

As you may have seen, Luke Bornn set Twitter on fire yesterday (to the tune of nearly 500 RTs) re-posting something that Sam Ventura mentioned previously on why radar charts are bad.

Obviously, a lot of eyes turned toward me, since it is probably my fault they exist at all in soccer/football, and possibly my fault they have crept into other sports. Daryl Morey then managed to do a drive-by on my career so far, posting this tweet

Which I don’t think was calling my entire analytics career into question, but could be interpreted as such. THANKS DARYL. I am pleased to note that at least I don’t use pie charts or 2 Y axes. Anyway, none of this is personal to me and please don’t assume I took it as such. I do have incredible respect for Luke, Daryl, and Sam though, so I thought this topic was actually worth revisiting. In addition to hot takes, that thread under Luke’s tweet generated a lot of great discussion. The fact that lots of people have reactions to this type of work is a good thing, not a bad one. Anyway… many smart, analytically savvy people hate radars mostly for the reasons explained in that thread. They can be misleading. Ordering of variables matters. There are more precise, accurate ways to convey the data. The thing is, I knew all of this before I started down this road. My stuff used to just feature tables of numbers. Then I spent the better part of six months doing a deep dive into data vis before I ever spat out a silly radar. And yet, some might say despite my education, I still did it. Why? It’s obviously the result of a choice, not of ignorance. Before I’m tried and hanged for data visualization crimes against humanity, I’d at least like a chance to mount my defence. Often when someone allegedly smart (that’s me) continues to do something somewhat controversial in the face of some serious criticism, there are things we can learn.

Learn to Communicate

I have been to a lot of analytics conferences at this point, and the biggest point of emphasis on the sports side is always communication is key. You need to understand your audience (usually coaches, sometimes executives), and take steps to deliver your analysis in a form and language that they can accept. Rephrase that a bit, and you end up with:

Audience. Dictates. Delivery.

In order to succeed, you need to take account of the audience you are pitching to and give them something they can understand. Even better, give them something they want to understand. (It helps if it’s pretty.) In soccer/football circa 2014, the fanbase had no real statistical knowledge. The media was just glomming on to the idea that maybe stripping out penalties from goalscoring stats made sense, assists might be vaguely interesting, and the concept of rate stats wasn’t completely insane. I’m not being glib here, this was how it was. “xG” (or Expected Goals) was seriously weird and controversial and people seemed to think, presumably via the result of someone else’s misguided analysis, that possession had something to do with the probable final score. In situations like this, visuals go a long way toward opening the conversation. If you show a table of numbers to a coach who isn’t already on board, you’re dead. Bar charts? Only mostly dead. Radars? Interesting… Tell me more. The same was true of the general public. Radars grabbed people in a way almost nothing else did. I think part of that is related to the fact that various soccer/football video games had used spider charts for a long time already, so they were somewhat familiar. Math = bad. Familiar = less scary = good.

Right, we have a vis style that grabs attention – can I fix the flaws?

Rewinding, when faced with a cool visualisation framework that would allow us to talk about player stats in an accessible way – something ALMOST NO ONE WAS DOING IN SOCCER at the time – I set about seeing if I could correct radars for some flaws. Major flaws with radars:

  • Order of variables matters
  • Area vs length issue means potential misinterpretation
  • Axes represent different independent scales

So what did I do?

  • Added the 95th/5th percentile cutoffs to normalize for population. Suddenly axes weren’t really on independent scales, even if it seemed like they were
  • Broke the stats we care about for different positions into their own templates
  • Clustered similar element stats together. Shooting over here. Passing over here. Defensive over here, etc.

One thing I was also clear about up front was that I wanted to include actual output numbers, not just percentiles. This was another choice about audience impact. Sports quants mostly care about percentiles. Normal fans barely cared at all about numbers, so percentiles would be even more abstract. Plus no one had ever done percentile work for most of the stats in football. What is a high number of dribbles per game? No one knows. Putting percentile info made even less sense then, because we were just starting to have conversations about basic stats. Going back to my youth collecting baseball cards, I wanted people to be able to talk and argue about Messi vs Ronaldo from a stats perspective, and the only way to make that happen was to have some actual numbers on the vis. I don’t even know if this was successful, but it was a design impetus that was constantly in my head.

Impact vs Accuracy

Most of the people ranting about radar charts on Twitter yesterday are pretty hardcore quants. To many of them, sacrificing precision for anything is strictly verboten. The problem with this perspective for me was: radars aren’t for you. Hell, radars aren’t even for me. I work in the database, and my conclusions are largely drawn from that perspective. The minor inaccuracy issues of radars don’t affect my work. BUT I wanted to talk to a resistant public about soccer stats, and this enabled discussion. I needed to talk to coaches about skill sets and recruitment, and this was a vital way of bringing statistics into that discussion while comparing potential recruits to their own players. As I designed them, radars exist to help you open the door with statistical novices, and from that perspective they have been wildly successful. Even in 2017, football/soccer doesn’t have the volume of knowledgeable fans that basketball and baseball have in the U.S. We also don’t have coaches who are comfortable with almost any statistical discourse, although that is definitely changing in the last year.

Actual, practical feedback

So a funny thing happened on the way to the boardroom: In football, radars became accepted as a default visualization type. I’ve visited a number of clubs who just incorporated the work as part of a basic suite of soccer vis, only occasionally to my chagrin. “My coaches love these. They want us to do physical stats in this form because they feel like they are easy to understand.” “This is cool. I like the way the shapes become recognizable as you use them more, and clearly indicate different types of player.” At Brentford, we took two non-stats guys, taught them the basics of interpretation, and churned through over 1000 potential recruits in a year. Football isn’t like American sports. Players can come from a ridiculous number of vectors, and radars were the best, most easily understandable unit of analysis I could find. Combine no money, huge squad needs, and limited recruitment personnel, and the only way we could hope to succeed was via efficiency and volume. They were not the end of the analysis. In fact, for recruits we liked, they only comprised a tiny portion of the evaluation cycle. From a volume perspective though, radars were the most used form of evaluation in the process.

john_drazan_STEM_tweets

On StatsBomb IQ, our analytics platform, even non-recruitment people seem to be taking a deep dive in a way they never have before. One person researched nearly 1000 players and teams over the course of the first two weeks, just because they liked learning about the game and the stats in this way. In my own opinion, having researched many alternatives, I feel like radars are the fastest way to get a handle on what skill set a player may or may not have, and include some basic statistical context.

You can’t prevent misuse of statistics

This tweet from Luke yesterday made me laugh

Two words: competitive advantage. If you’re going to take the research for free and apply it while failing to understand how to actually use it, you deserve what you get. I’m 98% certain this club never talked to me, or else I would have forcefully steered them away from that type of analysis. And the problem is, you can’t prevent people from doing bad analysis on any type of stats. Single numbers? Mostly useless. Thinking the wrong stats are important? Happens all the time, even from smart, highly educated individuals. Bad interpretations of basic visualizations? Check newspapers almost every day. Bad/useless visualization? So many, it’s a surprise we don’t all walk around with our eyes bleeding. Look, everyone makes mistakes in their jobs. We try to be objective, but everyone in stats and analytics also makes mistakes. Daryl Morey drafted Joey Dorsey, even though understanding age curves and competition cohorts is a pretty basic concept. Soccer stats once thought possession% was important. Pep Guardiola apparently thought he could win a Premier League with a bunch of fullbacks over 30. I said nice things about Luke Bornn. It happens to the best of us. The fact of the matter is, unless you are there talking to the users every day, you can’t prevent people from taking your work and potentially using it poorly. It doesn’t matter if that work is in tables or numbers, or bar charts, or radars, or fans, or code, or in a shot map, or whatever. The interpretation, application, and execution of analysis will remain more important than simply having the information from now until the end of time.

What next?

The bashing of radars is almost a yearly event at this point, and like I said at the start, I concede that there are flaws in the vis style that even my adjustments haven’t completely overcome. With that in mind – and despite the fact that customers actually seem very happy with our current style of vis – we will probably add an alternate form of player data vis to StatsBomb IQ by the end of the year. I’m not sure exactly what it will be, but as football clubs move from novice to intermediate to advanced statistical analysis, precision will become more important and I want us to stay ahead of that curve. In the meantime, I hope my defense of radars above has at least explained why I made this horrible, unforgiveable visualisation choice in 2014 and continued to stick with it over the years. Communication and opening doors to talk about stats in football with coaches, analysts, and owners remains the most important hurdle we have to overcome. Radars start a conversation. They get a reaction. And for whatever reason, football people are often more comfortable talking about and digesting them than almost any other vis type I have encountered. Maybe that will change in the future. Until then radars remain a pretty damned good visualisation for displaying most of the different elements in player skill sets*, which is the most important conversation topic we have in player recruitment.

Ted Knutson

ted@statsbomb.com

@mixedknuts

*In my opinion at least, and provided you correct for their flaws and educate your users.

Watford: side-step or step-back?

mazzarri watford When the Watford board didn’t renew Quique Flores’s contract at the end of last season the general reaction was one of criticism and confusion – the team had just overachieved, with the Spanish manager leading the side to a comfortable 13th place finish without ever really being confronted with relegation in their first season back in the top tier. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, they did the same to Jokanovic – who is now succeeding with Fulham – after he lead the team to the Premier League in 2014-15 despite arriving in October as the club’s fourth manager in the season. Former Napoli boss Walter Mazzarri was the chosen one for the Hornets to rely upon this season but they now sit in 15th, with two difficult matches to go (Everton and City). So, we get it: the Pozzos (who lead Udinese and Granada besides Watford) like to switch up their staff. However, I decided to go beyond just calling the club a mess – which it effectively is – and try to figure out what happened between these two seasons and look at where to go from here. There has been a huge turnover in personnel and Cathcart, Watson and captain Troy Deeney are the only three outfield players that are still at the club after their promotion season. They approached the English top flight by getting a series of experienced guys like Capoue from Spurs, who has turned out to be one of their most consistent players of the two seasons as an all-rounder in midfield, attacking-midfielder Jurado, who they proceeded to take a 7M€ loss on this past summer after he didn’t get a single goal or assist in over 2000 league minutes and Behrami who was always about an average defensive minded centre-mid and continued to be so. Steven Berghuis had just had an outstanding season with AZ with fantastic output for a winger – 15 G+A in around 1700’ – but as we mention so often the Eredivisie is a tricky league to pick out from and things didn’t work out for him in the Premier League. Neither Prodl nor Britos are outstanding centre-backs by any means but they had top league experience and I’ve seen worse acquisitions considering they arrived on free transfers. While they weren’t high goalscorers under Flores, they were defensively organized – outside the top 5 only Southampton and WBA conceded less goals. Their characteristic counter-attacking style, serving the duo of Deeney and Ighalo and with the highest amount of long balls per match in the league has now changed to a slightly less effective one. Flores managed to guide Watford to survival while integrating a ton of signings in the first team, with recruitment both in the summer and January. To most people his sacking was a shock because, much like me, they didn’t understand what else could they have achieved last season besides their safe run. But if the board wasn’t satisfied with Flores’s job, how will they evaluate his replacement? XG Wat Again, in all fairness, Watford were never in the mix to go down this season either but the difference in numbers doesn’t show much progress. The problems come mostly from the creative end of the pitch, with a drop in both their Xg per match and in their Xg per shot, which combined with slightly improved defensive numbers lead to a -21 goal difference this season compared to last season’s -10. Watford have been taking slightly fewer shots from slightly worse positions – enough for a difference to be felt though and even more so with the lack of a great goalscoring run like Ighalo had last year. It has been reported that Mazarri fell out with Deeney something that doesn’t help either. Defensively one could even consider them somewhat unlucky, with the Italian manager actually improving their defensive Xg numbers but unable to stop them having the league’s 4th leakiest defence with 63 goals conceded, 13 more than last. That lack of luck appears to continue as we look at their transfer market approach. Roberto Pereyra came in from Italian champions Juventus as the big signing of the Summer and, while 4 G+A from midfield in 1000’ showed end product the club needed, a knee injury ruled out most of his season. But Watford can’t blame it all on luck. Out of all the other major signings for the season only Kaboul and Janmaat have over 1000’ Premier League minutes. The January loan signings haven’t impressed with Niang contributing to goals in just two matches and seemingly disappearing on all others and Cleverley being okay at best. To look more positively here, the already confirmed purchase of the latter and option to buy Niang could at least be an initial step to revert the cycle on what is an aging squad. And we can’t talk transfers without a mention of the sequence of players that get bounced around the trio of clubs owned by the Pozzos: Udinese, Watford and Granada. Penaranda, Success, Kums, Doucouré, all players with interesting numbers in previous seasons elsewhere that are seemingly bought on one side to be loaned out to one of the others right away without ever really establishing themselves anywhere. Overall there seems to be somewhat of a lack of direction within the club. They are the Premier League side that most lacks a project behind their team, or an identity. Again a change of the direction is needed and while logic might tell us that Walter Mazarri will get improved results if he stays with the team, someone with a grasp of the bigger picture might be able to move the clubin  a positive direction with the funds from back-to-back Premier League survivals backing it up.

Top Four Review: Part One, Chelsea, Tottenham and Man Utd

backgroundss   Back in August I kicked off the StatsBomb preview series with an article describing how “six into four won’t go” which looked at the big six clubs and their expectations for the coming season. Each team harboured significant hope of title challenges and comfort within the top four, a desire that could only ever be sated by four of them. We’re now into the last week so this is where we will start to review what happened. I suggested that only Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp could realistically land their teams outside the top four and expect to survive, yet Tottenham are safe in second and Liverpool have a home game against Middlesbrough between them and Champions League qualification. I had thought lifting Chelsea from mediocrity back to the summit was a huge task for Antonio Conte (ever shrewd bookies reps had tipped them for the title in seven of thirteen predictions…) I thought Pep Guardiola was nailed on to lift  Man City into the top two, while who could foretell Arsenal landing outside their eternal top four positions? Not me. What fascinates beyond the undeniable facts presented by the league table are the changing structure of the competing teams, and how they have evolved season to season. That’s what will inform predictions next time round (with a healthy skew from transfers) as we go again in 2017-18 with the same deal on the table. Six into four won’t go, even if Jose Mourinho can snout out a fifth slot for his team and pretend he wasn’t really playing all along, and next season will find them all on a level playing field with European fixtures for all. This just might open a small window for a well organised interloper to take a run at the orthodoxy, we shall see. Anyway, what do we know, right now? Chelsea, Tottenham and Man Utd’s destiny is decided, so let’s start with them and part two on the other three teams will land further down the line. Chelsea It’s easy to understand how Chelsea were able to shake off the shackles of their dismal 2015-16 and reclaim their title. No European football was huge, team stability and a lack of injuries helped too, as did the talent in the squad, but none of that should take away from Antonio Conte’s achievement to create the basis not just win the title but pretty much crush the league. Autumn’s win streak was the decisive factor, but to win 28 games (and potentially 30) is a devastating return, particularly in a league with such depth in contending positions. He built a dominant team in Turin and has done the same quickly in London with defense the bedrock. If we get into the stats, we find evidence that Chelsea are one of the best teams in the league but not the decisive aspects that are borne out by the table. Expected goals loves Man City, and puts the rest of the big six–Arsenal apart– into a fairly narrow band. Specifically for Chelsea, year on year we see small gains in attack but huge gains in defence. The 3-4-3 system got a lot of credit as the decisive change after their back to back defeats against Liverpool and Arsenal, but they were already limiting their opponents shot levels beforehand and by and large did so all season. N’Golo Kante got the wide praise, and players bought the hype that a workaholic defensive midfielder can improve a team of expensive world stars and voted him in as Player of the Year; that the writers did the same was somewhat surprising. Why so? “Italian defensive organisation” was the real star here and the roles David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Nemanja Matic, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses inhabited contributed every bit as much as the diminutive Frenchman, but just lacked the storyline hook that took Kante over the line. This stability allowed Eden Hazard and Diego Costa to once again direct the team’s attack towards another title ably assisted by a sterling second season from Pedro and from his new “special teams” role, Cesc Fabregas. Part of the disconnect between metrics and their success has been their ability to create and maintain positive game states. They have spent nearly half their time in games in winning positions (last season no team spent more than 37% of time ahead) and if we look at a list of similar teams with such a profile they are familiar: Man City 2011-12 and 2013-14, Man Utd 2011-12 and 2012-13, Liverpool 2013-14 and Chelsea 2014-15. All these teams we know as good teams that ran hot with regard finishing in the seasons noted, and won titles or went close because of it. Time (and Leicester) have demystified Man Utd’s 2012-13 title somewhat and what we see here is the perfect recipe for success: quality plus efficiency and luck. This Chelsea team has a slightly different profile to most of these teams given its reputation for defensive strength, yet they’re still the league’s top scorers, powered by some extremely hot finishing rates. Whichever way you turn, Chelsea’s 2016-17 season had all bases covered. They were an excellent team that made the most of their talent and deserved their title. However, next season will be different. They will not win 13 straight games through the autumn with Champions League fixtures intervening, and the potential loss of Costa could be big. In his three seasons at the club he has fired the basis of two titles through hitting rare form in two pre Christmas spells. He’s unique for a top striker as he has rarely hit large shot volumes yet has reliably converted at a high rate across multiple seasons. The money in China will be good, but Conte’s best bet is to spend every penny they get in return at the very top of the market for another striker. Michy Batshuayi will get game time next season and is a solid forward, but Chelsea need to put the very best at the head of their attack if they are to back up this remarkable season. Tottenham In building on a thrilling 2015-16 and securing a clear “best of the rest” slot behind Chelsea, Mauricio Pochettino deserves almost as much praise as Conte. In another season, it might have been enough to land a title, but to take Tottenham past the “AVB line” of 72 points and bringing his young team clearly forward was a fitting finale for their last year at Old White Hart Lane. It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Champions League apathy, too many draws and key injuries overshadowed the autumn. The team looked to be a blunt instrument, bombarding the opposition with shots from all angles but rarely offering the guile to get behind teams and genuinely hurt them. Indeed, title talk was well wide of the mark back them, with a top four slot seeming no more than a coin flip either, and their climb into such positions only occurred as the new year ticked in. Pre Christmas, Dele Alli had not hit the heights of 2015-16 either, Victor Wanyama was getting daggers from more critical circles and even Christian Eriksen’s form was under scrutiny. That each has come through the ensuing few months with their reputation shored up and even enhanced reflects just how positively Tottenham’s second half of the season has gone, Europa League blip apart. In particular, Eriksen, continues to exist somewhat under the radar, despite making the whole team tick, moreso this year in the absence of Erik Lamela, who at least shared some of the delicate creative tasks last year. Tottenham continued to shoot more than the rest of the league of course, and from a variety of wild, not-so-wild and genuinely good positions. They landed more shots on target than any other team too and the sheer volume of their artillery even allowed expected goals models to rate them, eventually. In that regard they look fairly similar to their 2015-16 brand, with a small uptick in defence, which was boosted in reality by Hugo Lloris (and Michel Vorm) securing an extremely high save percentage, a league leading 78% but that’s the kind of outlying skew that is unlikely to hold long term. This was the primary difference between the two seasons in metric land: they got the rub this time. Last season had the makings–shots, lots of them– but none of the special sauce in the conversions. This year they shaved a couple of shots per game off their defensive end, got the breaks at both ends and happily rode the positive variance all the way up to second place. That’s maybe frustrating, and Pochettino knows it, judging by his reluctant acceptance of praise that has come his way. Beyond that, the project is still moving in the right direction–and still ahead of time, by at least a season. The way that the team seems to have learned how to dispatch lesser teams is encouraging. Frustrating post-Europe results have been in decline, as has the fall away in performance on and around the hour mark that was prevalent before. And the squad has grown together–they really know each other well, and the systems their manager employs. Fears of a mass exodus are unfounded. It looks as though Kyle Walker may leave, but the core of the team will stay on into the wandering year at Wembley. And that’s the biggest challenge. Just as Chelsea surely won’t win 13 straight again, it’s unlikely that Tottenham will win nine in a row or go unbeaten at home all year again. What they need to do is return with the same basic plan: dominate territory, dominate the ball, dominate the shot count, try and rotate effectively, don’t worry about European competition too much and get into the mix. Oh, and not to screw up the transfers. Man Utd What a season! Jose Mourinho nailed the transfers, empowered Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba to run his attack, played it safe in all the games you’d expect him to, tried to shake the remnants of Louis van Gaal from his team’s mentality, built a team that effectively dominated weaker league opposition and for what? A Europa League slot? Ah but notsofast. Win the Europa League and six into five comes into view. Neat twist, Jose. Reality is a stark but familiar comedown but the broad take is simple: despite landing outside the top four Mourinho has done a good job. He’s just been pretty strongly shafted by brother variance and a smidgen of his own caution. From a stats perspective, it’s quite easy to forgive what looks like an underwhelming season. No team has improved its expected rates at both ends by such a combined margin year on year, and it has been split fairly equally between attack and defence. The ten home draws have been frustrating and some of the performance boost can be attributed to the team relentlessly battering on a door that never opened during those games. The bigger picture remains that they are still a work in progress, albeit the most expensive half built team ever known. But, coming into what is a hugely pivotal game against Ajax, one cannot help but reflect on a former prioritisation of Europe in the face of league opportunities, one in which Mourinho failed; Chelsea 2013-14’s season. The die had been cast earlier with odd, meek defeats away at Palace and Villa, and there was no way of predicting that Man City would win out with five straight but Chelsea were bang there until very close to the end of that year. Ever the pragmatist, Mourinho put out a weakened side away at Liverpool staring down a five point deficit and played for the steal. That he got it yet proceeded to get knocked out of the Champions League with his first team intact, meant that overall the strategy failed. He ended up with nothing. We once more reach this juncture with all the chips on the European table and none saved for the league. Two points from twelve are his post Zlatan return, and seven points back from fourth, a preferred league finish is long gone. More concerning is that whether by plan or accident, Man Utd haven’t put together a strong attacking performance since Ibrahimovic went down. In fairness, that run includes both legs of their Europa League semi finals and away trips to Man City, Arsenal and Tottenham, but the starkest game on the chart was the 1-1 draw with Swansea. Very different from the 25 to 30 shot 1-1 draws of earlier in the season, this was played out at a flat 12 shots a-piece. Van Gaal-esque. And so Mourinho’s season could be redeemed publicly with a trophy and one that carries a pass into the Champions League. It’s easy to presume that next year should see further consolidation or with added world stars, improvement. Mourinho has unusually used a large squad in this extended season meaning that although a lot of football has been played across four competitions, the minutes have been fairly well apportioned out. The first two seasons of his Chelsea return were characterised by a lack of rotation and where aspects of burnout definitely impacted the team late on, United may not suffer that way going forward. If Mourinho is to see history repeat, signings of the calibre of Fabregas and Costa are required to push the team forward. That worked for him at Chelsea, and Man Utd will surely spend. With the Pogba signing showing that money and paying the agent can override the lure of Champions League football the aim will be to pull in top rank talent once more. That Romelu Lukaku shares an agent with Pogba has been noted. We have yet to see the best of Henrikh Mkhitaryan too, he could well be primed for a huge season next year if given support. With eight titles, three second place finishes and a third across his completed seasons as a manager, this season represents his worst finish to date, and that is following up his role in Chelsea’s mid table finish last year. Has the aura gone? Losing to Ajax would sharpen the criticism in that direction, but next season will tell us a lot more. He finally got the job he craved, and so far hasn’t quite managed to live up to his or Man Utd’s high standards, yet could end up with two trophies. That would be a successful first year for any other manager in any other club, and there’s enough will, good or otherwise, for Jose to go again. Another year outside the top four will simply not pass muster.

*NEW* StatsBomb Podcast: May 2017

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/321549440″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”450″ iframe=”true” /] Ted Knutson and James Yorke chat football, with a statistical angle answering listener questions Downloadable on the soundcloud link and also available on iTunes, subscribe HERE Thanks!

What Has Happened To Southampton?

sth I’ve had a fascination with Southampton since they came back to the Premier League. Maybe it’s due to having replaced their manager year upon year without any tremendous signs of decline in team performance. Maybe it’s due to the hilarity of Liverpool constantly poaching their players over the years for huge sums of money. Maybe it’s due to having a good track record of selling high on players when the opportunity arises. Whatever it is, Southampton continue to be an interesting team and this year is no exception. At the beginning of the season they were projected by most to be around 8-10th place with some bookies having their point tally nestle around 50 points. They’re currently on pace for around 47 points with models predicting similar results, so they’re headed for a point total a bit below their over/under but not disastrously so. For what it’s worth, when we were doing season previews on the site, I projected that their best-case scenario would be finishing around 7th and being the best of the rest. So, on the face of it, one could argue “Well they’re more or less projecting where they finished so what’s all the hubbub about them this season?” Well here’s the thing… I think Southampton have been considerably better than what their standings project. Dare I say, they might even be good. I know it’s weird to say that a team 3 points behind Tony Pulis’ Theater of Dreams could be considered so, but I don’t think it’s such a far-fetched thing to suggest. How they’ve done it is through shot volume. Whereas Arsenal last season looked to be gaming xG by destroying opponents in shot location, Southampton’s plan is to focus on volume in attack and shot locations defensively. Some of what’s happening in attack is probably due to having players like Sofiane Boufal and Nathan Redmond, who are more concerned with getting a shot off and figuring out the rest later (especially in the case of Boufal). In terms of the percentage of shots in attack that are classified as Big Chances, Southampton rank in the bottom 4, and the three teams below them are either in lower mid-table (Burnley), fighting relegation (Hull), or doomed (Sunderland). Even then, all the rudimentary shot data screams of this team being better than it has shown; xG models project them to be around the Europa League spots. They have an impressive statistical resume for a team that’s stuck in midtable purgatory. I’ve gone through video to come up with possible reasons as to why Southampton are settling for lower quality shots among a healthy volume at 14.7 per game. One thing that stood out was that Southampton can lack the ability at times to occupy the central areas with any conviction. Both Oriel Romeu and Steven Davis would be classified as players who don’t take risky passes to find a better shot opportunity, primarily wanting to circulate the ball to the outside. You could survive and probably do just fine if you have one of them, having two of them particularly in a double pivot seems riskier. This is compounded by a lack of centerbacks that are game changing passers. CBs that can be comfortable on the ball are such a commodity in today’s game, and having one that isn’t good on the ball represents a problem. The advantages of having one includes being able to bypass self inflicted problems in the midfield. Against Tottenham, they had problems whenever the ball was given to Maya Yoshida. He’s fine when it comes to simply recycling the ball to his fullbacks, but things get hairy when he’s asked to do more. https://streamable.com/q2865 I don’t really know how much these things truly contribute to their inability to get a higher % of good quality shots. Putting a number on such things isn’t easy. It’s fair to ask if playing someone who’s more adventurous alongside Oriel Romeu would brighten things up. Steven Davis seems like a good soldier who’s got some mobility, and can recycle the ball to teammates. I’m sure that’s valuable in some way but it just seems to put more strain on Romeu, who isn’t exactly Cesc Fabregas as a passer. It’s not all bad however. The more I watch, the more I really enjoy Nathan Redmond as a player. He still has problems with shot locations, but he is a clever player who can operate in tight spaces. His constant movements into the more advantageous areas of the pitch is one way for Southampton to compensate for having Tadic stationed out in a wider position whenever they play in a 4-3-3. I have a soft spot for wingers who can operate in half spaces both by passing and dribbling, and I really think Redmond is underrated in it. Imagining a full season of sequences like this would get me excited if I was a Southampton fan. https://streamable.com/ypeya While at Norwich, Redmond did well relative to his teammates in terms of being able to create shots for himself or for others. He was the type of purchase that other mid-range PL sides should’ve been looking at (Hello Everton). Again, it feels like the point is being beaten to death, but probably the major thing that’s keeping him from being a star PL player is his lack of shot discipline. Now you can ask multiple questions from this, primarily; is it the systems he’s played in that have hindered him from getting better shots, or is an Andros Townsend/Ross Barkley situation where the basic concept of what a good shot constitutes isn’t getting through to them?  I hope it’s just been him being unlucky to have played on two straight teams that didn’t prioritize shot quality. Defensively, Southampton are quite passive. They are more concerned with defending in compact situations in what resembles a 4-4-2 shape. They’re not a team that will hurry opponents like Tottenham/Man City/Liverpool. In fact, they’re perfectly fine at times with giving the opposition backline loads of space to just pass it to each other, so long as there’s no threatening outlets through the middle. For the most part this has worked, though when the setting gets more chaotic, that structure can collapse like Jenga blocks. https://streamable.com/gv24w Numbers Despite the things I brought up about the deficiencies, which are legitimate on some level, every general shot metric we use to identify team quality paints them in a positive light.

  • Greater share of total Shots? Check. They’re between 56-59% whether it’s all shots, shots on target, or unblocked shots
  • Greater share of Big Chances? Check. Once again hovering around the mid 50’s.
  • Expected Goals? Yes, they’re doing fine in that department as well, to varying degrees depending on the model at hand.

We care about these things because we care about things that can be controlled. Variance is something that is at the mercy of every team, and it could be purely conversion rates or even stuff like injuries. An example of this is people in the analytics community pegging Liverpool to bounce back this season. One of the reasons why was that they produced impressive shot numbers without much in the way of conversion luck. In conjunction with a reasonable enough offseason of transfer purchasing, those are usually the teams to be looked at for bouncing back and have a better season. To some extent Southampton are doing what Liverpool did last year, but without even the league average conversion rate that Liverpool had. As it currently stands, Southampton are in the bottom 20 in conversion rate and bottom 10 in save rate of teams since 2009. The only other team to have accomplished this feat was the fabled 2015-16 Aston Villa side, and they were the living embodiment of The Benny Hill Show. The level of variance that has gone against Southampton has been the equivalent of going from their current standing of mid-table obscurity to fringe Europa League contender, which has been the space they’ve occupied over the past few years. Tactics obviously matter, and people way smarter than me would hypothesize logical reasons for what Southampton aren’t doing to maximize their talents. But when you’re carrying the anvil of historically bad variance on your back, I mean what the fuck can you really do? The chance that they revert towards a mean next season is high, and any movement there will give them a tangible boost. A comparison that could be made with Southampton this year is Tottenham, especially in attack. The journeys the two teams take are vastly different, but the end results are quite similar in attack. They both believe in volume first and location second. Southampton are basically a diet coke version of Tottenham. And yet one of these clubs have gotten much friendlier variance than the other. It should be noted that even without variance Tottenham’s attack has been better in both volume and shot location because they have considerably more talent to work with. Also, while finishing skill is still something of a murky topic, there are hints that suggest the likes of Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-Min could be above average finishers. I wish I had an amazing answer for why Southampton are being screwed over, but I really don’t. There are things they could improve on when it comes to where their players are positioned on both ends, and that could tilt the balance of play more in the positive direction, but let’s call a spade a spade; they’ve just been exceedingly unlucky, especially in defence. Until this season, all the public goalkeeping data available suggested that Fraser Forster was a fine enough shot stopper, and this season he’s just been putrid. Something resembling a normal season from him and there wouldn’t be a need for articles like this to surface. The more seasons we witness, the more likely we will see weird outliers at both ends, a list that Southampton exist on. Until very recently, they were flirting with bottom 10 levels of conversion on both sides of the pitch, which no one in the Opta era has ever accomplished. Sometimes shit just happens, and while 38 games on the face of it sounds like a massive number, it’s still a small enough sample size to have variance run amok. Future Southampton this season have ebbed and flowed a bit in quality and currently reside as a solid team, but without any variance help whatsoever, which is a recipe for a mediocre finish. I’m certainly not saying that Southampton have been good enough to contend for a top 4-6 finish, they’re frankly just not talented enough. But they’ve been much better than either their goal difference or place in the table indicate. They’ve clearly decided that with the mishmash of talent in attack, beating opponents by volume was the recipe for success. Defensively, they’ve done fine in both volume and location. All of this should’ve worked if they could stop a beach ball in goal or weren’t carrying a ~25% conversion rate. Everton are 17 points ahead of them in the table, and I would very much argue there’s very little difference in quality both anecdotally and quantitatively between the two clubs. It’s clear that somehow, someway, Southampton have the ability to plug and play with managers and maintain being a ~55% shot or xG team. That is not a small feat, and if the time comes that the club retreats to being a lower rung club in the PL, it should be among the very first things mentioned on their tombstone. In terms of going forward this summer, the club should do more of what they always do: bet on 18-23 yr old players that they can sell for two-three times what they paid for. A version of Nathan Redmond who takes better shots is worth a lot more than what they paid for him last summer, particularly because he has shown this season to be a positive contributor with his playmaking. Boufal as a player divides opinion; I’m still a fan of his and think he’s got the ability to be a good player, but it can’t be denied that he’s been a disappointment this season (though having a knee injury early in the season certainly didn’t help things). The process again was the right one, it just hasn’t worked out so far. This team could go with some more creativity within the squad, particularly in the deeper midfield positions, which could open their team to take better shots. It’s also fair to suggest that it could be time to start looking for a younger replacement for Dusan Tadic. He’s been very good for major parts of his PL tenure, but he’s turning 29 in November and though one could guess his game would age better than most because it isn’t heavily reliant on athleticism, he’s still at the end of the age curve where things can get hairy fast. By points alone, this is the worst season Southampton have had since their first season back in the PL in 2012-13. There have been things to like this season even with their disappointing position; particularly the signing of Manolo Gabbiadini, and the growing evidence that Nathan Redmond could be a very good PL player. Fraser Forster can’t possibly be this bad next season considering his past success, and Virgil van Dijk having a contact reportedly until 2022 means the club can sit back and let the market bid crazy money. What is done over the summer will be very intriguing, and if they keep thinking rationally in the market instead of overreacting to their points tally because of variance being totally against them, there’s a good chance Southampton could once again be a top 6-7 side by the end of next season. Claude Puel’s tenure has had a tricky start, but if he stays on, there’s plenty to work with.

Valuing Kylian Mbappe

Transfer rumours are hot and heavy on Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe this week. Some might even call the speculation “furious”. Manchester United have allegedly tossed £72M at Monaco. Real Madrid today are rumoured to be on course for an £85M move (which presumably means Benzema or Morata are leaving, and half the deal will be recouped through selling one of them). Mbappe is 18 years old. He has also had a torrid – but somewhat lucky – season at Monaco this year. Today I want to briefly walk through his underlying numbers and discuss what valuation I would put on him in the transfer market. Previously I helped on a couple of real world deals for high profile players that were negotiating new contracts, and this type of valuation process proved very valuable and lucrative there. The Stats Kylian Mbappe - French Ligue 1 - 2016-2017_5may Kylian Mbappe - shotmap - 5may2016-2017 Mbappe is already an outstanding scorer, and the fact that he’s well-rounded and not just a poacher is hugely impressive. On the other hand, he’s currently scored double his expected goals. If you think he’s going to score a goal a game, you will likely be sorely disappointed. However… Half a goal a game of xG is excellent. MBappe is already a significant outlier for players under 23 across Europe. Don’t be disappointed he’s not the greatest player in the world right now. Be very very excited that even without the overperformance, he’s already one of the better scoring forwards in Europe at age 18. The Eye Test Mbappe plays in a good-but-not-great league, and he’s shown the ability to terrorize some of the best defenses in the world in the Champions League. In the first 25 minutes against Juventus, he gave the entire Juve back line fits with pace, power, and movement.  Having watched quite a few Monaco CL and league matches this season, I can also tell you that Mbappe regularly produces exciting moments of skill that would be fantastic from a 25-year-old. The fact that he’s out there doing it at 18 against grown men is staggering. Oh… and he’s So. Damned. Fast. Valuation Discussion Given what we know above, the question now becomes what value do you think Mbappe should have. Ignore for a second that we only have this one season of data. Assume Mbappe’s baseline stats are rock solid, and we can expect him to produce .5 xG per90 for the next 7-10 years. The value on that is at least £50M. Factor in the fact that he has a lightning first step, can dribble, and also knows to keep his head up for a pass and now we’re past 60M. Then there’s another factor. What if Mbappe really is Thierry Henry Mark II? Or Ronaldo (either the Brazilian or Portuguese one)? He’s still maturing, but player development is uncertain. Maybe right now is Mbappe’s peak but – just maybe – his peak is legendary. Well we know for a fact that Ronaldo and Messi and Henry in their prime would be valued somewhere between 150M and You Can’t Buy This. Let’s estimate an approximate fee in those situations to be £200M. Subtract the 60M mark we already have and you get £140M of “potential pricing.” The question then becomes what probability you assign to him reaching that legendary status. Say your scouting group loves Mbappe as he is, but it’s only 20% likely he’ll become a Ballon D’or winner. The calculation is then 60M (actual) + 28M (legend potential) = 88M. If you are able to buy him for 88Mish, you are in good shape. Now there are other factors at play that change the price equation, like Mbappe is SO YOUNG that even after a 5-year deal, he’s still only going to be 23, meaning you might not need to spend another 100M then, so maybe that moves the price up. But maybe you are really concerned that we only have one year of data for the kid, and Monaco are a bit weird and overperforming expected goals massively, and he’s playing for a super team and… Then maybe that increases your risk assessment and you drop the price you are willing to pay because of it. This skill set from a fully grown player is rare. This skill set from an 18-year-old is absurd. Given the fact that Mbappe could produce .8 or .9 xGA a game for the next decade, it’s not unreasonable to put a £100M tag on him right now. Preferably the base fee is a bit lower with huge add-ons, but unless there is a release clause in his contract, Monaco have a very strong hand to play in negotiations and can demand an awful lot of cash up front. Anyway, I thought this case was really interesting to analyse through the context of how I would think about it inside of club recruitment. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you find yourself needing professional help in this area, get in touch. Ted Knutson ted@statsbombservices.com @mixedknuts

The Worst Transfers Of The 2016-17 Premier League Season

12123 Nobody ever said transfers were easy. The potent blend of vast amounts of television money, an army of agents and an industry that has long been prone to inefficiency has meant that plenty of transfers go wrong. They will go awry for human reasons that are impossible to avoid and they will go wrong even when everything looks like it shouldn’t.  The Premier League may be slowly starting to think how to make fewer mistakes, but even clubs that appear smart can drop the ball completely and made rash or odd decisions. So here’s a list of deals that didn’t work in the Premier League this last season, for a variety of reasons, but all have one thing in common: they tally up to being a huge waste of money. Often, these deals were easy to criticise from the outset, for others it took time for the lack of sense to become apparent. With fees rising fast and mistakes now costing in the tens of millions, for the most part, it would have been easy enough for you or I to have sat in on the proverbial cheque signing, grabbed the pen and tossed it out of the window. This key role appears to be one that is understaffed in football. Jordon Ibe This is the kind of transfer that lives on the cusp of old football vs new football. Old football watches Jordon Ibe and likes what it sees. He can run, he can beat players, he’s quick, he’s young and he is “promising”. That kind of player is one that many a scout loves, sticks him in the notebook, keeps an eye on him. New football is looking at some numbers and wondering “what gives?” Now it’s tough to come down on a young player but there were red flags here that were visible from a good distance. Firstly, he came through at a huge club in Liverpool, had loan time, spent time in the first team yet at 20 years old they are happy enough to sell him? This is not a Raheem Sterling situation. Looking at his pre-Bournemouth top-flight career, Ibe played nearly 2500 minutes in the Premier League and European competition, scored just two goals and created three assists, from a general shot contribution (shots and key passes) of around three per game. These numbers are very much on the low side for an attacker of any sort, and moreso for one that has gathered up minutes playing for a reasonably high volume shooting side, while getting a good amount of time off the bench. Twenty year old Jordon Ibe did not participate in goals. As a buying club, perhaps you’re okay with this, you think you can find a way of fitting him in, work on these aspects? A cheap bid should do it, right? Couple of million? Alright, five million, times have changed. Au contraire, Bournemouth spent a club record £15million. To spend so much of a budget on a gamble such as Ibe? That is madness. Ibe’s season has not gone to plan. Thirteen league starts all in, but just two since Christmas, including what looks from the outside to be a “prove a point, mate” selection against Liverpool, for which he lasted an hour and created nothing, not even recording one dribble, let alone something useful like a shot. He’s often been sacrificed at half time, or thrown on when the team is getting stuffed, and all the way along 1000-plus minutes, has recorded no goals and no assists. That he has become so peripheral also raises questions about how he is being managed and Eddie Howe could earn some added kudos by finding the key to his record signing. Ibe might still learn, I guess, and his development could move forward, but there is practically no evidence that he will become a Premier League standard player or live up to a big fee. Liverpool already made that call last summer, and for now he is a bust, and one that wasn’t hard to foretell. Claudio Bravo Manchester City could be highlighted in any reflection on last summer’s transfers not least for what they didn’t do rather than what they did. With four aging full-backs in residence, and a slew of senior players on contracts deep into their dotage, obvious problems ahead of Pep Guardiola’s arrival were not solved. They did need centre back cover, and £50m worth of unpolished Stones arrived while the attack was bolstered by Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus–expensive young toys aplenty. These deals may well prove very good, but didn’t immediately get to the core of City’s problems. A broken İlkay Gündoğan for £25m also arrived without a receipt, and Nolito started well before drifting off into the ether but the goalkeeper saga probably represented the worst bit of business of the lot. It isn’t about how good Claudio Bravo has been in his career, or even about how well he has performed in a Manchester City shirt (which hasn’t been good at all: he’s saved 55% of the shots he has faced, the lowest of any keeper in the league this season to play 15 or more games, and sufficiently low to be notable).  The crux to why this deal was bad was the price and the age. City’s rear guard is already chock full of over-30s and the old idea that goalkeepers don’t decline like outfielders perhaps doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did. The modern game is ever faster and reactions fade. For every Gianluigi Buffon thriving into his late 30s we find an Iker Casillas type who has hit the wall harder than a Cristiano free kick. Buying a 33 year old goalkeeper is instantly a risk; moreso when you throw £17m at them. City look like they will pay the price for their knee-jerk signing, as another keeper is surely fairly high on their summer wish list. Lucas Pérez Spanish C and B teams, Ukraine, Greece and then a hot couple of years as the main goal getter for a relegation threatened La Liga side are not the general career path for an Arsenal forward. Then again, nor is non-league football, playing with an electronic tag or racial abuse in a casino, but that didn’t stop the early summer bids going in. Already well blessed with attacking talent, it appeared that Arsene Wenger and/or his team had identified a role to buy for; once Jamie Vardy was missed, a Vardy type seemed on the menu. So they turned to Lucas Pérez. Two weeks after signing for Arsenal he turned 28 years old. This was not a signing for the future. Yet what future Perez has at the club already appears in doubt. Having started just two Premier League games and one Champions League game and played around 400 minutes in those competitions, he can hardly be said to have had much of an opportunity to make an impact. When he has featured he’s looked a tidy player–and has seven goals littered around cup appearances and his sporadic league and European outings–but has simply not found favour, even as the team’s form careered into the bin. The curiosity is why they signed him, only not to use him? Arsenal have as smart a unit of analysts as any team around. If they signed off on him, he must have shown up exceedingly well somewhere, and one hopes beyond his headline numbers. If Wenger went with his own gut feeling or took other advice, then how could he identify and sign a player who he would then routinely ignore? Perhaps £17m is small change for Arsenal, but regardless, the signing has been almost entirely pointless beyond the enrichment of Pérez and his long term security. That is not to cast an aspersion on him but it will likely be his last (only?) big contract, and a black mark against Arsenal’s generally sound recent recruitment. Moussa Sissoko and Georges-Kévin Nkoudou Vincent Janssen gets a pass here despite a tough year because he’s young, but mainly because it was possible to create an argument that he might have been a good signing prior to his arrival. No such case exists for Moussa Sissoko or Georges-Kévin Nkoudou. It has been tough to break into Tottenham’s first team this season, but on paper, you might expect a £30m French international signing–no, not N’Golo Kante–to knock hard on the door and look to make an impact. Sissoko, has not managed to do this. An ironic season highlight was his shepherding the ball near the corner flag as Tottenham eked out a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace last week, it represented a rare tangible benefit to his being on the pitch. The main problem with the Sissoko signing isn’t so much that he has failed to have any impact–he hasn’t, having started just ten games in all competitions–it is that it was entirely foreseeable. As the transfer window came to a close last summer, Newcastle fans couldn’t hide their glee that Everton and Tottenham appeared to be battling for their erratic midfielder. Buoyed by an apparently successful Euros (one wonders how he made that squad given France’s depth of talent) and despite having just participated in relegation, he was in demand. But why? During his three and a half years at Newcastle he averaged around two goals and four assists per season and was rarely creative. He had an engine, sure and he could run with the ball, a bit, but nothing about him suggested he had anywhere near enough end product to justify such an elevated fee. Add in that he was 27, significantly older than Tottenham’s generally youthful transfer focus and everything about the deal made no sense. For those who expected little, he has not disappointed. And the fee! Daniel Levy came through for his manager here, but may not again, at least not like this. Having arrived for £9m from Marseille, N’Koudou could not be easily quantified either. He has made just six substitute appearances in the league for a combined 47 minutes. Is he for the future? It seems unlikely. He’s quick but that’s about it. Like Sissoko, nothing in his stats from his time at his former club suggested that he was a player that could fit in or thrive at a top six Premier League club, and sure enough, he hasn’t. Tottenham have made great strides in recent years and often found gems in the transfer market. However, Victor Wanyama apart–a player already known to the manager– the summer of 2016 was a car crash. If anything changed in the player selection process there, it might be advisable to change it again. Ahmed Musa In recent seasons, Salomón Rondón is about the closest thing the Premier League has to a successful signing out of the Russian League. Otherwise, it hasn’t been a very fertile hunting ground. By now, you might expect that knowledge to have permeated slightly further than it has but Leicester, ever creative in their recruitment, cocked a snook at such an idea and splashed out £17m of their summer budget on Ahmed Musa. He has now made two league starts since Christmas, both 3-0 home defeats (to Man Utd and Chelsea) in which he lasted a half and 71 minutes respectively and beyond that he’s played 41 minutes since February. Neither Claudio Ranieri or Craig Shakespeare appear to have found faith in the Nigerian attacker and he is starting to look very much like an expensive mistake. A percentage call would have been to pass; all transfers involve risk, but it’s important to get an idea about league strength when evaluating future signings, in particular ones that clock in at this kind of fee. Islam Slimani narrowly missed the cut here, but his record of actually scoring saved the easy criticism of his club forking out a huge £35m on a striker who turns 29 this June. He has also missed time for injury but Leicester have struggled to nail down their forward line this season, so much so that they have often found well over £50m in transfer fees warming their bench. Strength in depth, or the folly of wealth? Team awards: West Ham Manuel Lanzini’s contract became officially permanent at some point within or after the 2015-16 season. This was a good idea. Subsequent summer transfer dealings were less so. West Ham may have long since waved goodbye to Harry Redknapp, but the tendency to do a bit of transfer business has not left them. Ten players arrived in the summer of 2016, for a variety of fees, some on loan, some permanent. Around £40m was invested on these players, who arrived from such varied locations as Uruguay, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, England and Wales. One can only presume West Ham have an excellent scouting network to be able to cover the globe so broadly, as the players acquired rarely stood out in the numbers. Indeed Donald Trump would be impressed with such committed deal making. Sadly, this extensive preparation has not proven a successful blend, with the ten new players logging just 58 league starts between them. By January, post-Brexit, the hatches had been battened down and recruitment brought intra-league with Robert Snodgrass (29 years old and 30 soon) arriving for £10m on a three and a half year deal and José Fonte, a sprightly 33 years old and a European Champion no less, signing on for two and half years and an £8m fee. Eek. Swansea Leroy Fer is the… Relegator Hull Hull arrived in the Premier League and spent £13m on Ryan Mason and then bought nobody else. Metaphorically this was the equivalent of drunk guy climbing into the rhino pen at his local zoo armed with a can of lager and an urge for a fight. The Premier League, a couple of early blips apart, duly mowed them down. One manager change and a cartload of January loan signings later, they might just sneak survival. It will be no thanks to their summer transfer strategy. Sunderland So bad was Sunderland’s recruitment that an entire article could have been conceived using just players they acquired. While at Everton, David Moyes had a reputation as a man who had an extensive knowledge of players and was skilled in recruitment. David Moyes reputation as Sunderland manager is that of a guy who has no knowledge of players beyond those he has already worked with and that he is extremely unskilled in recruitment. It’s a stark transition. Sunderland spent money too. Launching most of your budget on a goal shy central midfielder is pure Moyes and the £17m capture of Didier Ndong echoed the failed “Fellaini gambit” from his Man Utd tenure. That deal ate most of the budget yet is possibly one of the better ones–Ndong at least has future value in the market. Doubling Chelsea’s money on Papy Djilobodji was a little perplexing but meant Younes Kaboul was replaced. That’s the money spent, but what else? Paddy McNair, Donald Love and Adnan Januzaj arrived from the depths of Man Utd’s reserves and may have had better seasons had they stayed there. The ghost of Steven Pienaar and free agent Victor Anichebe formed the first wave of throwback Everton signings, while by January Darron Gibson and Bryan Oviedo found the opportunity to get the band back together too much to resist. Joleon Lescott, a bad signing last year for a truly dismal Aston Villa team, rounded out the fab five and played half an hour all in. Perhaps money became tight but what was left wasn’t well spent. Moyes’ desire to bring in trusted guys who presumably were thought able to “do a job” echoed everything bad in modern recruitment. The overall malaise hasn’t been confined to just this season, but the cumulative effect of years of incoherent policy and endless changes meant that a season of abject greyness, the like of which only Moyes could produce, rooted the team firmly at the bottom of the table. His retained presence is a localised cartoon cloud that continues to precipitate. Overall, the Premier League is awash with cash, but not always awash with sound judgement. Pray that your club is doing the right things and not just indulging their manager’s follies or buying off agent lists. There are still huge benefits to be gained by just putting together a sound process, and as we have seen, even big clubs aren’t necessarily on top of it. Spend your money wisely owners, for these are the good times.   _________________________________   @jair1970    

StatsBomb Transfer Stories – Outliers Are Everything

In statistics, you rarely care about the outliers. If the data set is big enough, these are naturally occurring, but generally we want information about trending in the population as a whole. Outliers are something to be discarded. In sports, outliers are everything. In summer 2015, I was lucky enough to head up recruitment for Brentford football club in West London. We had to rebuild everything that McParland and Warburton took with them, and we had to do it from scratch, which meant scouting, market knowledge, player fit, etc. It was a monumental task, but we ended up with a really good recruitment team of Ricardo Larrandart, Nikos Overheul, Mark Andrews, and Robert Rowan, and a couple of part-time scouts including tactical superstar Rene Maric. From the point we knew Warbs was leaving until the close of the summer transfer window was one of the craziest and most exciting times of my life. We were both researching and applying statistical football theory to the transfer market on the fly. How well would players from various leagues translate to the English Championship? What was the lowest price we could pay for players and still get them? Could we rebuild an ageing squad into something that could potentially challenge for a promotion place again while playing an attractive, positive style? This is one of the stories from that summer… We knew we definitely weren’t getting Alex Pritchard back on loan. After finishing in the Championship Team of the Season in 14-15, Spurs wanted to keep him in training camp and then likely loan him out another rung up the ladder. There was the briefest chance we could get Dele Alli, but that quickly dissipated as he wowed Poch in training. This left a big hole for us in the 8/10 position. Our first choice was to get Arsenal’s Jon Toral back on loan. Toral was tremendous in limited minutes for Brentford in the playoff season, and his profile was unlike anyone else we could get in our price range. I sat next to him and talked him through what I saw from the numbers and what his age corollaries were in the data set. He seemed smart and interested. Unfortunately, somehow [former head coach] Marinus dragged his feet on whether Toral was the right fit. He was slow to make up his mind or get in touch with the player. Jon apparently was guaranteed starter minutes at Birmingham, and POOF! What seemed like a great fit flew right out the window, leaving us without a first-choice AMC. Owner Matthew Benham had negotiated to bring in Andy Gogia from Bundesliga 3’s Hallescher on a free in the spring. He could fill the role, but a bit like Alan Judge, we thought he would be better as a creative passer and dribbler out wide. (We also had Judge as a potential 8 because his defensive numbers were so good, but that never quite worked out.) We could not get Pascal Gross or Ziyech, and no one else was super exciting. Faced with a ticking clock and a very low budget that we would prefer to spend elsewhere, I put this Austrian guy no one had ever heard of back into the scouting queue. The data suggested he was a solid attacking midfielder who could dribble and had the great ability to create shots for teammates. He also had reasonable tackling stats for a guy who primarily attacked, and scouting agreed that he was decent at pressing. Now this was clearly a risk. At no time did we ever think, “Yes, this guy will be great in the Championship.” Instead we thought, “For the right price and in the right role, he certainly shows enough potential to be a solid performer in England.” Everything in transfers comes down to money. Are you paying the right price for the talent and the risk involved? In Brentford’s budget, half a million pounds is a big deal, and a difference of £500K in valuation will kill a deal. In a Premier League budget, half a million pounds is chump change, and you’d be an idiot for missing out on a player for that small an amount.   Konstantin Kerschbaumer - Austrian Bundesliga - 2014-2015 The numbers lined up and scouting was positive, so we needed to get in touch with his club and his agent to find out if we could afford him. That’s where the Chris Palmer story came from. [Scroll to the bottom here.] An eventual deal was sealed for low six-figures, and we had ourselves a low-cost wildcard of a 10 with potential upside. Even if Kersch was a bust, he was still probably cheaper than anyone we could have signed from League One, and for a club like Brentford, that mattered. The Real World Kerschbaumer showed up at training camp in amazing shape, and tested for the highest vO2 max in the group. Dude could run for days. It was all very exciting back then. Unfortunately, things in football go weird sometimes. Brentford went through three head coaches that season and by the end of it no one really knew he was supposed to play 10 except the recruitment guys. He basically never played at AMC until the dead end of the season in 15-16. Brentford had a horrible winter run, and things looked very grim. The club announced the closing of the academy and also the Football Analytics Team – my group – was made redundant as part of cost-cutting efforts. We had already finished most of the recruitment workload for the 16-17 season, and the perception was that the squad we had recruited was struggling mightily. Now the truth was that we intentionally built a youngish squad with the blessing of the owner because that is what we could afford, and also so that they could potentially grow and improve together. As long as your recruitment is good, this is a good plan. Then a funny thing happened. Brentford had an amazing run-in. From April 2nd at Nottingham Forest until the close of the season, they only lost one match, against eventual promoted side Hull. They also won six and drew two, most of which was without player of the season Alan Judge, who broke his leg in a nasty tackle at Ipswich. Scott Hogan finally came back from two different ACL injuries to be the hottest scorer in the league. Yoann Barbet started regularly with Harlee Dean in central defense, displaying an impressive passing range from his left boot, and a team that could not win a match from Christmas through February suddenly could not lose. Brentford finished 9th. Without the poor start from the Dijkhuizen era, they might have been right back in the playoff mix. Additionally, they did it with a massive surplus of transfer fees. Worst case scenario, performance suffered a little but the club was now making big money in the transfer market. Lost in this was Kerschbaumer’s performance. He subbed on when Judge broke his leg at Ipswich and set up Sam Saunders for the first Brentford goal. He also created an early goal for Hogan against Fulham, and two more in the final match of the season at Huddersfield. Then the summer came and seemingly Brentford once again forgot about Kerschbaumer. This wasn’t unfair – Brentford had a lot of competition for the midfielder roles, and Romaine Sawyers, Ryan Woods, Nico Yennaris, and Josh McEachran shared the bulk of the minutes. Injuries bit throughout the season though, and Kerschbaumer finally started to see more playing time, once again in the spring. Since March 18th, Brentford have lost once, drawn twice, and won five times. And once again, KK is out there racking up assists. Why the long story about a bit player in a small Championship team? pin_tin_scatter The answer is because Konstantin Kerschbaumer is a major outlier. Combine his minutes across two seasons and you get the following: 2320 minutes, 1 goal, 12 assists. That’s an assist rate of about .47 per 90, which is in the top 3% of footballers. Kersch also doesn’t take set pieces, meaning nearly all of his assists come from open play. To give you an idea of how unusual this is, in the last four seasons in the Championship nine players have posted 12 assists or more, all with more minutes and nearly all of them taking set pieces. Assists are really valuable – I view them basically the same as goals. Fans still have a very different perspective if a player scores half a goal a game than if he creates half an assist a game, there’s a decent case to say they shouldn’t. The bulk of Kerschbaumer’s minutes also came during that first year, many of which were not in his natural position. That’s a tough situation to succeed in, but his numbers in this one particularly valuable area continue to be crazy. Is Kerschbaumer a success? I have no idea. It would be hard for Brentford to lose money on his transfer should he leave the club, so if that’s how you grade success, I guess it’s a check mark. He’s also produced exactly what I thought he could when we recruited him. But… there are questions about whether he does enough on the pitch when he plays, and I can certainly see why those exist. I think he’s still learning, and I hope he ends up with starter minutes next season, preferably in a system that plays him in his natural AMC spot. Like most data scientists, I want more data and preferably a lot of it. Part of me roots for the players we recruited like they are my children. I want them to succeed no matter what. There’s also a part of me that is scientifically evaluating their successes and failures to see what worked, and what I need to do better the next time I have a chance to dabble in the transfer market. Anyway, the combination of Kersch’s crazy assist rate in the run-in and Fabregas’s continued creative skills for Chelsea made me think back to four years ago, when I first started writing about player stats. So much has changed in my approach, but remarkably, so much is still similar. I think a lot of the early ideas I latched on to as mattering ended up being very valuable. That said, I have made plenty of mistakes along the way, both inside and outside of football. Making mistakes – and learning from them – is most of the fun. Ted Knutson @mixedknuts ted@statsbombservices.com *Thanks again to Matthew Benham for the chance to do all of this while learning on the fly. Looking at the quality in the squad right now, I think we did pretty well.