What can you really say about three weeks in the Premier League? Beyond the lights, the drama, the endless transfer sagas, the randomness of the first few games makes it hard to spot concrete trends. To compound an already lousy sample size of three, the league has witnessed several early sending offs. It’s hard to play soothsayer when a team only has 10 men on the pitch. What the crystal ball does reveal is mostly unsurprising, though with subplots novel enough to hold our attention. Goliath Despite their sixth-place finish in the previous campaign, Manchester United’s early success is not a great surprise. Even through their recent struggles, the Red Devils have had the financial advantage to be able to compete. After three spectacular performances against inferior sides and 9 well-deserved points, it looks like they may have finally converted their comically large sacks of money into an excellent team. Racing out to a goal difference of +10, the attack is firing on all cylinders and the defense appears tight. The club's underlying numbers are also strong, with an xGd of +6.2 the best in the league. Romelu Lukaku has slotted right in to the team, and has begun repaying his significant transfer fee by shooting at a rate of roughly 1 xG per game. This is what dominance looks like:
Despite being managed by the Premier League's arch-villain and executing a “pay now, ask questions later” transfer strategy, it is becoming more difficult to dislike Man United. Their core of young, talented attackers are genuinely *fun*, a quality missing from every United team since Sir Alex retired. Their creative engine, Mkhitaryan, seems to have settled in his second season in England, and has already bagged five assists. And while most of their talent was acquired for the GDP of a small country, the rise of Marcus Rashford, an academy lad becoming a star through sheer grit and character, is a genuine feel-good story. Even Phil Jones, all rough edges and work rate, has so far impressed in Mourinho's near-perfect defense. Can they maintain this pace? It's too soon to say, and far sterner tests await, but it should be enjoyable watching them try. Other Goliaths Elsewhere in Big 6 land, the storylines are somewhat typical. Like clockwork, Tottenham continue to steadily press the throttle, posting good shot and xG numbers against teams below them in the pecking order. Pochettino's band of merrily underpaid young men continue to lead the league in shots outside the box, but have yet to convert one. Last season Spurs scored long shots at a range of 0.3/90, a not-obscene rate they could still maintain on their way back to the top 4. Meanwhile, Conte at Chelsea continues to show his tactical nous, with two efficient, if not dominant wins. Further north, erstwhile Spanish genius Pep Guardiola has his big crazy machine humming along. A wise man once said that "the king stay the king", and what's true in West Baltimore seems to apply just as well to English football. Liverpool are conceded big chances away from home at Watford, but in their two homes games have maintained a potent attack that has looks to have recovered from its slowdown in the second half of last year and the lack of Philippe Coutinho. New boy Mo Salah has been a key part of their attacking success, and has quickly proven his Mourinho-shaped doubters wrong. The Egyptian has already bagged two goals from nearly 3 xG. Salah's success shouldn't take anything away from his partners and crime, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, who between them have all looked impressive, whether shooting, running, or simply scaring the bejeezus out of any defense in their path. Questions remain about Liverpool’s depth, but we can leave them until mid-season and enjoy the heavy metal football through the fall. Arsenal fans have quickly entered crisis mode, with the club dropping 6 points. Despite a not-untalented squad, the suspicion that Wenger continues to reinforce is that he adds the least value among his big club peers. Though Arsenal's xG difference of 1.6 over their first two games was quite reasonable, Liverpool’s meat grinder press turned them into low-grade turkey. In the past, Wenger used to fail mainly against deep set defenses with elite counter attackers, but he now also seems vulnerable against strong pressing teams, like Liverpool here, who also completed counter attacks with a fearsome ruthlessness. If Arsenal hope to return to the Champions League, they may need a manager who has the knowledge and the adaptability to execute against such modern approaches. Davids Outside of the big six, most clubs have had a mixture of good, bad and ordinary results. Watford look the most likely to break away from the relegation pack, going toe to toe with Liverpool and dominating Bournemouth away, was impressive. Richarlison, the club's 20-year old marquee signing who has no experience in European football, has already shown signs of strong potential. In only two starts and a sub appearance, he has returned 7 shots and 19 touches inside the box, and created 5 chances for his teammates. Sometimes, Brazilians just do good things. Beyond that, interesting stories are few. A resurgent Newcastle have put up positive xGd, and against the early "crisis" narrative and helmed by Rafa Benitez, you'd tip them for a comfortable finish. Huddersfield Town are another surprise package, and while they have been fortuitous to take seven of nine points, they have not looked uncomfortable against their richer compatriots. Southampton are not yet clicking, having been outplayed by the aforementioned Huddersfield and a 10-man West Ham. The Saints' non-penalty finishing woes persist from last season, and if they continue to undershoot their expected totals, they may well return their xG models and ask for their money back. Leicester have oscillated between losing to good teams and walloping the bad, which feels much like last season, so it's unclear where their true talent level lies. West Ham have suffered a red card and played away three times, so we can’t say much about them either. For my money, early front-runners in the relegation race are Brighton, Swansea, and Bournemouth. All have paired a relatively impotent attack with a shaky defense, though each has already played against a CL club. All are putting up below 10 shots per game. Swansea in particular have put up ghastly shot numbers, with 5.3p90 being nowhere near close enough to ensure survival. Brighton are shooting a touch better, but have yet to score a goal. Meanwhile, Eddie Howe has won plaudits for playing a high-risk, high reward attacking style, so if even he can't coax his Cherries to find the net, it's unclear who will. Well? We shouldn’t make strong predictions this early, if only for the fear of having them surfaced on Twitter down the road and ridiculed by anonymous accounts like Mo_Salah_fan89. What we do know isn't all that novel, though there is enough variation to keep us tuning in. At the end of the day, it's all been good fun, so don't mind me and just enjoy the ride. Cheers and thanks for reading, Ryan
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It seems strange how much has transpired in the last 12 months in Dutch (men’s) football. This time last year, PSV were still playing in a European competition, Feyenoord were still trying to shrug off tags of perennial ‘also-rans’, and Ajax were getting off to a slow start under a new manager after a season in which they could have won the title on the last day. Oh wait.But we look forward now, to a new season, full of up-and-coming talent, high-volume shooters and defending mishaps (hey, it makes the league more entertaining).The Big ThreeFeyenoordStraight off the bat, Feyenoord look by far, the strongest side in the league and are probably frontrunners in the bid to defend their title. This stems largely from the fact that they have managed to keep most of their starting XI together, from last season, where they won the title having never relinquished the #1 spot in the table.The midfield of Karim El Ahmadi, Tonny Vilhena and Jens Toornstra is very well-balanced in most aspects. El Ahmadi sits deep, breaks up opponent play and is essential if Feyenoord choose to build from the back. The latter is probably an understated function, since in most Dutch teams *cough* PSV *cough*, the ball can very often just be circulated within the back four without any verticality. El Ahmadi enables that, and Tonny Vilhena goes one further. The 22-year-old functions slightly higher up and more significantly to the left, and pulls the strings on that side. Along with the leftback (Kongolo, last year, Haps this year), and the left winger (Elia last year, Boetius this year), Vilhena completes a very effective triangle of play that is crucial in transition for Feyenoord. Toornstra is arguably Feyenoord’s most important player. He spent half of last season at right wing, before taking over Dirk Kuyt’s spot as the CAM in midfield, but very clearly is the attacking outlet through which anything good comes for Feyenoord. The former Utrecht midfielder has a good range of passing and is equally great in helping to switch play as he is carrying the ball forward himself. He also offers a great deal of mobility high up the pitch, and had his best scoring season in 2016-17. He’s over-performing xG on that (14 goals from an expectation of around nine), but it doesn’t take the sheen off his importance. In fact, the only other player as important as the Dutchman is his partner in crime in attack, striker Nicolai Jorgensen. Seven of Toornstra’s 9 assists were to Jorgensen, while the Dane notched up 11 of his own (though only 2 to Toornstra). Martin van Geel’s masterstroke signing was the only player in the league to get to double figures for both goals and assists, and his goal tally matched his xG, which probably bodes well. Jorgensen is a lot more flexible in attack, having played as a second striker before, and this should prove useful for Feyenoord’s Champions League exploits (that sounds very weird to say...).In terms of transfers, Feyenoord have done well given their budget. The midfield was already overperforming in terms of goals, so their ‘big-money’ signing of Steven Berghuis will be expected to take on more of that burden this time around. The ‘Comeback Kid’ Jean-Paul Boetius has already shown some good understanding with new signing Ridgeciano Haps, as well as Jorgensen up top, although his shooting is a bit suspect sometimes.Haps, brought in to replace Kongolo at leftback, is a very attacking fullback, although he does not necessarily have the same playmaking-fullback qualities of Karsdorp or even Sinkgraven (both literally playmakers-turned-fullbacks). He is still a lot more of an attacking leftback than Kongolo was, averaging 2.8 dribbles p90 and 2.0 crosses p90 compared to Kongolo’s 1.0 and 1.4 respectively. The real question is whether defensively, Haps can do what Kongolo achieved in masking the absolute lack of pace in the central duo of Botteghin and Van der Heijden. Sofyan Amrabat and Jeremiah St Juste are great young talents, and personally, I find both of them very elegant, aesthetically pleasing players. Amrabat in particular, is a joy to watch in midfield. It’s a bit hard to predict whether they will provide sufficient depth, because the drop-off in quality between the first XI and most of the subs last year was really big for Feyenoord, especially with European fixtures.This might end up being crucial, because arguably, it was Ajax’s increased involvement in Europe that may have cost them the title in the final weeks last season. Either way, it promises to be an interesting season for Feyenoord, defending a league title for the first time in 18 years, and definitely a new challenge for Van Bronckhorst in his third season, as to how he and the team grow from here.AjaxAnother season, another new manager, another early elimination from the Champions League. *sigh*Cynicism aside, I’d think Ajax are actually - at least on the pitch - in a better position at this stage than they were last season, because the transition from Bosz to Keizer’s playing style has not been as radical as De Boer to Bosz. Thus, even against Nice, Ajax looked like a pretty cohesive unit already. This is also due to the fact that barring Davy Klaassen’s departure, Ajax have also retained most of their main starters (as of 10/08/2017). Joel Veltman has extended his contract, and he's not everyone's cup of tea. Kenny Tete, now at Lyon, was seen by some as the better tackler/option at rightback, despite the fact that Veltman attempted (134) and completed (108) the most tackles in the league, averaging 4.4 tackles won per game. It’s an odd situation, because even if the numbers are good and his anticipation of the game is good, Veltman’s tendency to go missing in big moments does not work in his favour. Ajax have signed according to Carl Worswick, the best rightback in the Colombian league in Luis Orejuela, so at least there is some competition / stylistic alternative.In midfield, Donny van de Beek has come in and fit into Klaassen’s role almost perfectly. Two goals in two games so far is reminiscent of the former captain, but Van de Beek arguably offers even more, in terms of his dynamism and wide range of passing. He has the potential to stamp his authority on longer periods during the game, which was not always an aspect of Klaassen’s game. As an aside, StatsBomb's passing ability model really likes van de Beek's passing albeit off a relatively small sample.Frenkie de Jong has dazzled whenever given the chance, and (definitely an exaggeration) is kind of like a part-Iniesta, part-Seedorf midfielder. There might be a point in the season where Schøne becomes dispensable as opposed to suddenly indispensable, and we might see Van de Beek in the deepest role in midfield (likely the role he will develop into anyway), with De Jong shuttling ahead of him. While this might be a bit risky for Ajax, it would definitely be fun and fun obviously counts as a trophy.Speaking of fun..😀The fact that I am one of Ziyech’s biggest fans is not a secret. Chances created/key passes is probably a bit of an archaic metric for some now, and it definitely has its drawbacks and can make certain players appear better especially when comparing across leagues. (So no, Ross Barkley is not as good as Toni Kroos and Ziyech at the moment is by no means a better player than Christian Eriksen or Kevin de Bruyne) But for lack of better analytical skills, it’s the one I have to go with here. Looking at the more established/well-known company that Ziyech finds himself in at the top probably lends some credibility that with a large enough sample size, key passes can still help us with some conclusions. Namely the one here being Ziyech is a bloody good creator.That’s in addition to / in spite of the fact that he has had to adapt to a new team, face deeper-set defences, and run a whole lot more under Bosz’s pressing system (which he actually grew to absolutely love).The caveat, is obviously, the fact that Eredivisie defences don’t stack up anywhere near as good as say, Premier League ones, and that he is a set piece taker, but even taking confounders into account, Ziyech is good. Is it worth excusing his ridiculous 4.4 shots p90, usually from not-ideal situations, so much so that he has probably single-handedly shifted Ajax’s profile of shots? Debatable, and likely one of the flaws that he must iron out of his game.If the Neymar money eventually finds its way to Ziyech *touch wood* via Dembele/Dortmund or Coutinho/Liverpool, it will be Ajax’s biggest loss in recent years and this is not hyperbole. It took them 3 years to find a proper replacement for the void of creativity left by Christian Eriksen, and the tragic situation with Nouri means that Ajax neither have the ‘natural successor’ to Ziyech. He did seem set on staying, but so did Milik last year before he ended up getting pulled into the chain set off by Pogba to United, and Higuaín to Juventus. If anything around €40-ish million is thrown Ajax’s way by virtue of this ridiculous domino-dollar effect, it becomes a difficult situation for Marc Overmars to handle. Under Bosz, there was a lot of emphasis on the wingers to dribble in from the byline and it’s no surprise that Younes and Traoré averaged 3.8 and 3.6 successful dribbles p90. Traoré’s departure opened a space at right wing for either Justin Kluivert or David Neres to fill. So far, the Dutchman has been the preferred choice (although I think he’d be a better fit on the left wing), and in the first half at home against Nice, he justified the choice, creating all kinds of chaos with his mazy runs and smart acceleration. Neres seems like the better finisher/goal threat, and produced a Messi-esque radar in his 5.8 90s in the tail end of last season, so the Ajax wings are definitely a space to watch (also especially if you are an opposition defender).Jong Ajax scored 93 goals in the Eerste Divisie under Marcel Keizer last season, at least 15 goals more than any other team. Partly due to superior talent level among the players, but Keizer’s philosophy seems right for attacking football, so ideally, Ajax would be able to build upon Bosz’s work from last season.PSVThis could be a one-meme-preview.I did a small review of the Eredivisie season 12 games in last October, and found that PSV were actually doing really good in the underlying numbers, despite results being quite gloomy. I thought things would get better. [NARRATOR: They did not.]In the numbers, PSV’s season still does not look as terrible as it was. Their defence conceded the fewest shots in the league and the joint-least number of goals. Their attack were good in as much as getting into good shot locations and getting shots on target -- the best in the league in fact. The issue - which is likely to be also reflected in relevant xG numbers - is that they really really really could not finish. Their Goal/SoT% in the league last year was 26.36% - only 3 teams (PEC Zwolle, NEC Nijmegen, Roda JC) had worse, and two of them got relegated. One of the main factors has been the radical drop-off in form from Luuk de Jong. Almost a talismanic leader in his first twoseasons at the club, De Jong fell down a serious loss-of-form abyss and has never resurfaced. According to Opta’s model (which includes penalties), Luuk de Jong was underperforming his xG by around 8 goals, ie, he was put through and took shots in positions where he should have scored 50% more times than he did. Pereiro suffered a similar season too; his conversion rate was 20.5%, only marginally better than Luuk de Jong’s 17.8%, despite the both of them accounting for 89 shots on target. Why is this significant? While PSV's defence were not too bad, at times between 2014-16, they also looked like a team who, if they could not contain you, would just outscore you with the likes of De Jong, Memphis, Wijnaldum, Van Ginkel and Pereiro, etc. In the absence of prolific, or even average, levels of finishing, they seemed to end up drawing a lot of the games that they would have found a way to score a winner in previously.There are structural issues with PSV’s play that can essentially be repeated from the diagnosis last October:
a) PSV’s Plan A is a very static, defensive-possession based game, dependent on delivery from wide
b) PSV do little to break out of and try something different when their Plan A fails
c) PSV continue even more enthusiastically as the game goes on, hoping that doing the same thing over and over again will somehow yield a different result
This apparently gets worse, because in their first two games this season in the Europa League qualifying vs FC Ojisek, PSV mustered all of 3 shots on target, from 39 attempts. For the first time in their entire history, they’ve been knocked out of Europe before September. PSV have already lost key players in Hector Moreno and Andres Guardado this summer, and with the lack of money from European participation, now have to sell Davy Propper (who is off to Brighton) and Luuk de Jong (who Hannover 96 seem to be interested in). This could go either way for Cocu. Propper was not happy with being benched in the first game, and De Jong had just decided to give up captaincy to Van Ginkel; in terms of a dressing room environment, this might help PSV with a ‘fresh’-ish start with a young squad. Jurgen Locadia will likely be the first-choice striker and this is his chance to prove himself, after a very hot-and-cold career til date. Propper and Guardado leaving might potentially open up a door for Dante Rigo (who holds a lot of promise) to compete with Hendrix for the #6 role, although Cocu’s track record with youth has not been ideal so far.On paper, PSV still look a very decent outfit. Van Ginkel returns having been very productive on previous loan stints (15 goals, 4 assists in 28 Eredivisie games for PSV), while the purchases of Derrick Luckassen and in particular, Chucky Lozano might be effective if properly allowed to integrate. This season promises to be quite the crucible for Phillip Cocu. With the level of uncertainty currently around PSV, they do seem the weakest of the ‘big three’.Other fun stuffIf PSV do not pick up the pace, it is not too far-fetched to think one of AZ Alkmaar or FC Utrecht could potentially overtake them and move into 3rd.AZ have had to sell both Luckassen and Haps, but remain reasonably strong. Marko Vejinovic returns after nearly a decade, and if both him and Joris van Overeem can produce consistent displays as a midfield duo, things may get interesting. I’m a big fan of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, but also very much looking forward to seeing more of 18-year-old Calvin Stengs, who glided past opponents in the Europa League play-offs and made a big, decisive impression. His footwork is great and he seems like Robben, but delivering with key passes/assists after cutting in, instead of taking a shot. Floats on the pitch like a butterfly, Stengs like a bee.FC Utrecht under Erik ten Hag finally seem like gaining some sort of consistency. You can’t necessarily try to play like Barcelona or Bayern Munich with a fraction of their budget, but credit to Ten Hag for still trying? In Dessers and Kerk, Utrecht seem to have replaced Haller and Zivkovic without too much hassle. The former was involved in 40 goals (29 goals, 11 assists) in 40 games for NAC in all competitions last season, and really powered them through the pro/rel playoffs. They lost Amrabat, but can hopefully still keep Ayoub; his multi-functionality in midfield and ability to make things happen might prove invaluable with European fixtures looming.The issue for most of the high-mid to mid-table sides has been to do with replacing outgoing strikers, and especially, strikers who carried a lot of the team’s goal burden: Ricky van Wolfswinkel scored 38% of Vitesse’s league goals, Enes Ünal, 37% of FC Twente’s. Twente have looked to the second division, buying 33-goal-striker Tom Boere from FC Oss as their main man. Boere will be looking to do something a la Vincent Janssen in 2015-16 in adapting as soon as possible to the Eredivisie, trying to translate his goal-every-101-minutes-record from last season. Incidentally, the other two with the least min/goal (15+ goals) in the Eerste Divisie have also earned moves to the Eredivisie; Sander van de Streek (who has already been good for FC Utrecht in Europa League qualifying) and Piotr Parzysek, who will lead the line at PEC Zwolle and might also be interesting tactically, with John van’t Schip at the helm.On the other hand, Vitesse have brought in Tim Matavz, who had a couple of good seasons with FC Groningen once upon a time, and Luc Castaignos, who played all of 91 minutes for Sporting in the league last season and contributed one off-target shot. These do not seem like particularly inspired transfers, although of course, for their part, they’ll look to have a renaissance a la Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Others to potentially keep an eye on include Martin Odegaard in his first full season in the Netherlands, as well as FC Groningen's new Japanese talent, Ritsu Doan. ----Any analysis is to emphasise the importance of an event or thing, that inherently the said event is worth enough to be researched and reflected and ruminated upon. But there are things more important than numbers and football. Thoughts and prayers with Appie Nouri, and his family. ---- Thanks for reading!
It's been ten months since I wrote xCommentary, which came out of frustration from hearing my 7-year-old, who is fully addicted to Sunday morning Match of the Day binges, parroting factually wrong commentary.
I don't want to repeat what I said there because I think the piece stands on its own quite well. However, with the announcement that Match of the Day will now be using expected goals as part of the program combined with what is a clear push for Sky to move forward in this area, I did want to cover a bit about how to use these silly numbers in the first place.
The short answer, at least at first is: with caution.
First of all, this move is a good thing.
The fact that broadcasters in the UK are willing to move in this direction is a positive for analytics in the sport. Period. Huge credit to Opta, Sky, and the BBC for making this possible. I'm still quite staggered that it is happening at all, and using and explaining these numbers daily has been my job since 2014.
Yes, there may be rough patches to start, but everything new has those. Yes, there may be quibbles about the precision of the model(s) used, but the remarkable fact here is that a model is going to be used at all. I have barely seen the numbers, but if there is a backlash about general discrepancy, then presumably there will be a push to improve the error of the models.
That's part of the natural process of data science. Yes, expected goals discussion might be best served by having a smart stats guy on air to explain them clearly and concisely, but let's give all of this a chance before we kill it.
Second of all, please be gentle...
Okay, so we've got an expected goals model.
What do the numbers it spits out actually mean?
This is where you have to be really careful in making claims about what single shot xG numbers do and do not convey. The analytics community are all guilty of treating these as defaults, largely because the venue where we usually discuss these things is limited to 140 characters.
That doesn't allow much room for caveats. In reality, every tweet about xG values of single shots or even single games comes with a whole host of legal fine print that no one really cares about except the data scientists.
However... since this is going to be on TV, some caution is advised. An xG value like .40, means that 40% of the time a shot with these qualifiers from this location has been scored.
This means all previous shots are factored into that number, which will include a whole range of very simple chances as well as insanely hard ones. So why do we care about this? Because it doesn't actually say much about this particular shot we are discussing right now. It's more like "in the past, this has happened."
Now the reason we're here at all is because most TV commentators have previously been really bad at estimating historic likelihood. (This is a verifiable claim.)
For some reason they seem to think the modern incarnation of football is a much easier game than when they played, which makes them far too critical of whether any particular chance should have been scored. I don't know why this is, but it's an epidemic across the entirety of European commentary and there isn't a way to change it without some sort of objective information.
This is where xG shines, because it provides an anchor point based on history. All the players in the data set taking these shots are/were professional footballers. It's not like we're comparing the expertise of children against the Sergio Agueros of the world - these are mostly like for like comparisons.
And this is where the commentators get to apply their expertise...
Because as noted above, xG models have very little information about the particulars of any one chance. Commentators, on the other hand, have all the information, including expertise in knowing what it's like to be on the pitch trying to score those goals.
They can then apply their expertise and tell us why a single shot is likely easier or harder than all the other shots from that location. It won't generally turn a 9% chance into a 90% chance (see also: wide angle headers from 10 yards out), but it could easily be double or treble what the model estimates.
I stated in my article last year, I feel like the commentators don't get enough chance to apply their expertise in place of cliche. Adding an underlying xG model gives them exactly that opportunity.
My show pitch
Opta have a lot of data from the entirety of the Premier League at their disposal. It would be brilliant to see someone walk ex-players back through the stats and data from their own careers and discuss it, especially when paired with video highlights. It could also potentially be a huge conversion point for players and coaches on the value data represents to the game.
Example: Alan Shearer is easily one of the best forwards ever to play in the Premier League. This isn't a claim anyone will argue with. However, as good as he was, Shearer probably only scored about one in every five shots he took. 20%. Maybe less. If one of the PL's best ever forwards only scores at that rate, and you prove this info to him with his own stats, maybe it will soften/improve his commentary when evaluating others?
Football has changed.
I've been saying this all summer, but even compared to 12 months ago, I am seeing massive differences in how interested clubs are in adding data analysis into their football process. The fact that media are picking up on this and moving forward is a clear sign that football itself is in transition. Whether certain groups of fans like it or not, the world is progressing from viewing data analysts as "xG Virgins" (as someone recently tweeted at me), into people that work inside of football clubs and have their analysis appear regularly in the mainstream.
My suspicion is that this transition won't be an entirely smooth one, but it is unequivocally positive. It's also going to create an entire new generation of highly educated fans and coaches who view the game itself in a more knowledgeable light.
In the meantime, my only request is please, be gentle.
With feedback, with drawn conclusions, with criticism. With everything.
There are numerous subplots going into 2017-18 for Southampton: the club trying to bring back the swashbuckling attacking football that the fans have yearned for, could Nathan Redmond takes the leap and becomes one of the best wide players in the league, potentially having a better answer as to just how good James Ward-Prowse actually is. Also hidden in the Saints summer is them breaking their transfer fee record for former Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina, who arguably has the potential to be the most electrifying midfielder the club has had while in the Premier League. All of those stories pale in comparison to the Virgil Van Dijk saga that’s hovered over the club since Liverpool allegedly tapped him up. With a transfer request handed in, the player clearly wants to leave. But after multiple summers of Liverpool snatching up Southampton players (and compensating them quite handsomely in the process), the club is finally stomping their foot on the ground and saying “No Más”. They probably also feel emboldened to do this since Van Dijk’s contract doesn’t end until 2022, and the craziness of the market might dictate they could get the same astronomical fee in the summer of 2018. However, with that situation in limbo the knock on effect is that the standoff between the club and player could have massive consequences on what could be a big bounce back season. Managerial Switch I kind of feel bad for Claude Puel. While I don’t think Southampton were great last year and had genuine problems in consistently creating quality chances, he also got the wrong end of the stick when it came to conversion luck. Only 7 PL teams since 2009 had a worse conversion rate in attack than Southampton’s 23.3 percent, and their save rate of 62.2% is the 11th worse in the same time span. The fact that they finished 8th is something of a minor miracle considering the handcuffs they had on, a testament to how solid they were when it came to shot volume on both sides of the pitch. It’s clear that part of the reason he was sacked was because the fans weren’t happy with the lack of fun that involved watching them on a regular basis. I think the complaint itself isn’t unreasonable, whether he should’ve been sacked for that is another question. What is to wonder is whether or not the hierarchy at the club thought that this team would’ve had another season of converting shots at a poor rate under Puel. I'm skeptical of that being the case considering he coached a Nice team in 2015-16 that overachieved because of variance. Southampton got some of the worst luck we've seen from a PL side, but even then it's also fair to suggest that the process the club undertook wasn't without its faults. In his place is Mauricio Pellegrino, a guy whose name is a delightful hybrid between Mauricio Pochettino and Manuel Pellegrini. Fans will be hoping that his managerial chops are of the same category as those two, and his work at Alaves dictates that he might be up to the challenge. With a shoestring budget, he led Alaves to a commendable 9th place finish in La Liga with both goal and expected goal differential mirroring each other. What's intriguing here is the difference in shot quality in both directions. Southampton focused more so on beating the opposition by volume, while Alaves focused on shooting from the central zones and forcing opponents to take low quality opportunities. It's fair to wonder whether Pellegrino could merge the two worlds in a way that Puel never really came close to doing. The attack will be doing it with basically the same squad as last season and one which is featuring some wayward shooters (Redmond/Boufal). But if he manages to register an attack that maybe goes from 14 shots per game to ~13 while upping the average quality in open play to around 12%, he'd be improving the process and probably helping the club to a greater goal tally than the 41 obtained last season. I probably would've given Puel one more crack and banked on things evening out, but Pellegrino seems like a very reasonable hire. He did an admirable job at Alaves with a small amount of resources, and he seems to be a fit for the club's ethos of giving young players a chance to become regular first team members. Southampton have more or less done well with their last three managerial hires, and they've earned the benefit of the doubt to #TrustTheProcess. Mario Lemina One of the things I hypothesized as to the problems Southampton had with shot quality going forward is that starting Oriel Romeu and Steven Davis made it hard to create any form of dynamism. Combine that with centerbacks who weren't renowned for breaking defensive lines with their passing and it just put a massive strain on the front end talent to compensate for it, and the talent up top wasn't quite good enough to do so. And that's why I love Southampton getting Mario Lemina for £18M. He's exactly the type of spark that the club has been needing from the deeper position. I loved watching Lemina at Marseille during the 2014-15 season when at times he was tasked with manning an entire midfield with their insane pressing and man-marking scheme, and he hasn't deviated too much as a player since leaving the Stade Veledrome in 2015. It is a bit odd that at age 23, Lemina hasn't played more than 1330 league minutes in a single season, but some of that can be explained: he was injured in the beginning of 14-15 and couldn't break into Marcelo Bielsa's starting XI at Marseille until November, and Juventus had a lot of players in the central midfield positions. You can find good value at times by just snapping up young players on mega clubs that don't get consistent playing time (see here). He's embarking on the prime years of his career, and Southampton could even stick to their plans and sell him off in a couple of years for a nice profit. How much will Lamina move the needle? Time will tell, but I do think that him in the central midfield could be key in nudging that xG/shot from the bottom 5 in the PL into something more respectable. Outlook Obviously a lot of what happens with Southampton in 2017-18 hinges on whether Virgil Van Dijk is still with the club by the time the summer window ends. There's enough evidence to suggest he's one of the better center backs in the league, and something that potentially helps his glowing reputation is the sizable gap in quality between himself and the rest of the players who man his position in the squad. CBs can be hard to find, especially at the low price Southampton got him for. Should Southampton have sold him earlier in the summer when allegations of tapping up by Liverpool were brought up? Probably. £60M is a lot of money for a defender, and it could've been put to good use with enough time in the summer to scout for replacements. But with the season only a day away, getting that money wouldn't be as fruitful now. In a world where Van Dijk doesn't get sold this window, I quite like this team. The only tangible departure was Jay Rodriguez to West Brom, and he's never reached the same heights he did in 2013-14 after his bout with knee injuries. Puel to Pellegrino could be an upgrade in manager, Sofiane Boufal has a full training camp under his belt, Manolo Gabbiadini is starting his first full season with the club, and maybe this is the year where Nathan Redmond #MakesTheLeap. Looking at all the clubs around them also breeds genuine hope to finishing with a better point total: it remains to be seen if Everton's summer is any more than a bid to be the most seventh place club to ever seventh place in England, West Ham still have massive holes defensively, and Leicester are gonna have trouble finding a way to give all their forwards the requisite game time they're looking for. Finishing atop the "best of the rest" table in the PL while playing attractive football looks to be what Southampton are aiming for this season, and they've got the juice to pull off the task at hand.
It's a new season. The smell of freshly cut grass* permeates the air, the sight of a million predicted tables fills our vision and in our bones we can almost feel the approach of the slightly performative and tired rants about Wenger that many of us will still gleefully RT after Leicester roll Arsenal 3-1 to open the year. But before all that, still one more preview. *though none of that too intricate, soft, weak-chested stuff Here at StatsBomb we've had a fantastic couple weeks previewing the Premier League. Big picture overviews of Swansea, West Ham, Spurs, Everton, Leicester, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have all come out from a wide array of writers. Now it's time for me to make my triumphant return to StatsBomb like Homer coming back to work from a successful barbershop quartet world tour. This will be different from the previous ones. It won't be a big-picture overview of anything or focus on one team, I will be focusing in on very specific and distinctive parts of open play that could be crucial to determining how five different teams seasons go. We will ask questions about Chelsea, West Ham, Bournemouth, Burnley, and Manchester City. I'm rusty after so much time without an article, so let's dive right in. Keep this chart of the different zones handy, I will use it in each different question. Attacking left to right so zone 1 on the right is closest to goal, zone 7 is furthest on the left. 1. Can West Ham get the ball out of midfield?I'm forever playing passesPretty passes in zone 4. They fly so high, Nearly reach the sky, Then like my dreams, They fade and die. No team in the league had a higher % of their completions coming in the “midfield” zone (4) about 45-60 yards from goal than West Ham. This isn’t a death knell for your attack (see Man City and Everton) but looking at the ratio of completions zone 4 to zones 1-3 (closer to goal) shows the stagnant attacks of Swansea, Hull, and Middlesborough alongside the Hammers. West Ham’s biggest problem is not that they do not complete the forward passes they attempt (mid-pack there), it’s that they simply do not attempt many forward passes from the midfield (31.3% of total passes from the zone go forward, second-fewest in the league). When we drill down to the individual players we find two high-volume passers who simply do not play the ball forward: Manuel Lanzini and Cheikhou Kouyate. They played the 2nd and 3rd most passes on the team from this zone and only passed it forward 24.3 and 22.1% of the time respectively. Among the other 19 teams in the PL, there is only one player who cracks their respective teams top 3 in volume coupled with a sub-25% forward rate: oddly enough it's Burnley's Jeff Hendrick. One Hammer passes back from the right, and one from the left, but both do it often. Pass types mean I grouped all PL passes into 100 different types (the start of this article gives a hopefully better introduction). Lanzini is a fascinating case. While he rarely passes forward, when he does so he almost never misplaces a pass. Sort of McClellan-esque if we are going to compare West Ham midfielders to Civil War Union Generals. He's great when he's actually doing his job, but he's a little too hesitant to do it. Only John Stones (good ball-playing center back for Man City, so no surprise) and Mousa Dembélé (widely accepted midfield mega-star) actually complete passes at a higher rate going forward from zone 4. I mean, look at this list: Very odd to see him there amongst the big boys when his team is having such problems moving the ball forward. I suspect Lanzini, while probably lacking options forward, is not being aggressive enough when the ball is played to him. West Ham analysts should be raising their eyebrows at this and trying to get answers from Lanzini and the coaching staff as to why he so often settles for playing the ball sideways or backwards instead of progressing the attack, which he's been one of the best in the league at. Encourage him to do it more, say a few more incompletions might not necessarily be a bad thing as we try to move out this midfield bog. Kouyate is a tougher problem as he showed neither the proclivity to pass forwards or much skill at doing so (league average comp% coming from a deep, deep-lying midfielder is poor). He just doesn't look like a good progressive passer of the ball and being aware of that and developing other ways of moving the ball forward needs to be a focus. Maybe Arnautovic can be a better receiver than say Antonio was, but this will remain an area to watch for West Ham fans in the early weeks of the season. 2. Can the league get the ball in front of Chelsea's goal? Chelsea allowed opponents to have the ball more than any of the other big 6, but were pretty Atletico-ish defending their goal (previous StatsBomb work on Atletico here). Chelsea forced opponents to make more passes per shot than any team in the league, and unsurprisingly that goes hand in hand with allowing little and low quality danger zone access. Chelsea do not press high consistently. Teams without renowned presses like Everton, Watford, Crystal Palace, and Arsenal all force opponents into a lower completion % high up the field. Chelsea's defensive set-up is clearly all about protecting that precious area in front of goal, when teams move the ball into the midfield they don't find it easy to go forward. This is the opposite of how many of the other elite defensive teams work (see City/Spurs below), where they harry you into rushing forward and look to win the ball back. Once you get close to goal Chelsea do not allow you to set up quality shots with short key passes. They allowed 20% fewer sub-10 yard passes in zone 1 (15 yard radius around goal) than the team with the second fewest, Liverpool. Not much high-wire risk about the way Chelsea defend compared to say, Liverpool or Man City. Also, not much much reason to doubt their solidity continuing this year. You can make the case it could be improved with the addition of Bakayoko and Rudiger. However I'm not so sure that stiffening the team without the ball is the easiest way for them to improve shot prevention, right now the risk is probably not having the ball enough. A little less time without the ball might be an easier way of improvement. Aside from that debate, having this sturdy base provides a solid foundation for a title challenge, even if they aren't favorites to repeat. 3. Can Bournemouth's porous defense close up at the back and how good is Eddie Howe? Cherries are not supposed to get softer the closer you get to the core. But look at the stark divergence between Bournemouth and three other lower-half teams as you get inside 20 yards. Two years ago they had a respectably fierce high press but last season that kind of withered away and you are left with this: a team that theoretically tries to press but really just leaves themselves open at the back. That is a recipe that lends itself to giving up 67 goals. That weakness was covered up a bit by a strong finish in the table equal on points with Saints. If Bournemouth want to repeat last year or improve, fixing this should be priority number one. This year will be a big test for Eddie Howe and will help clarify how good a manager he really is right now, there are data points and opinions all over the map on his first few years in the top flight. This year should help us hone in. 4. Will Burnley develop an alternative to their hit-and-hope build-up play? After Bournemouth, we come to their near-opposite in Sean Dyche's Burnley. Not only for their defensive divergence we saw above but for how they build up. They stayed up deservedly through what was a distinctive long ball and shell in the box playing style but are one of the favorites to go down this season showing bookies are skeptical they can do it again. Burnley's best player %-wise at moving the ball forward from zones 5 and 4? Michael Keane, now an Everton player. New man Jack Cork presumably will be asked to be a progressive passer from midfield as Keane's loss will put more pressure on Burnley's midfielders to actually move the ball. Last year Marney and Hendrick would move the ball forward about as often as Sean Dyche made an appointment to get his hair styled. The numbers do not indicate Cork as Burnley's Iniesta. Cork was a quite hesitant player on Swansea and his percentages did not stand out at all relative to teammates (while they do compared to Burnley, the odds of that transferring are quite low). Burnley will likely remain a team that spends little time working through the middle and hopes they can pressure you with their defense and hit a few long balls over you to get shots. I suspect it won't work quite as well the second time through the league. And one more tip for Sean Dyche before we leave: go with the 3 on the sides, 5 up top next time, stop confusing the barbers with your elaborate requests. 5. Can City solve their strange in-box passing problem and become a super-powered attack? Why is one of the best play-makers in the league down sub-Milner on intra-box passes from the side? Yes, City probably face packed boxes but so does almost everyone on this list. De Bruyne and Sterling played 102 and 85 of these passes each, so it conceivably could be an oddity like the store that's 2 weeks from everywhere. But just going on gut feel after trawling through tons of this type of data, I don't think there are as many wild swings without good reason like there are with shot conversion. Usually there is some explanatory power in smallish samples. What makes this a tough one to explain is Nolito, Silva, Sane and Aguero were all perfectly fine and well above-average playing these types of passes. For Sterling you might be able to write it off as a guy adjusting to a new system. There were other signs of an adjustment period playing under Pep, he posted his lowest completion % of his career with weird outliers like this and also almost leading the league in proportion of backwards or sideways passes from midfield. For Navas it's somewhat easy to rationalize as a guy who gets too nervous inside the box, for De Bruyne it's a genuine puzzler. If anyone can figure it out though, it should be KdB playing under Pep. If City could just get those 3 stragglers up to the rest of team average at completing these passes, that's something like 40 more possessions inside the opponents box and an attack that's even scarier. With that alongside their opponents conversion likely to see some regression from last season and the enormous money spent out wide, City seem to be deserving favorites heading into the season. Watch and see though if their main men continue to struggle playing that final ball. Well, that's about it. The entire StatsBomb gang is now back together writing about the 2017/18 PL season and proclaiming from the rooftops how the season will go. Anyway, hope you enjoyed the piece and enjoy the season...and get the tear gas.
2016-17 was a rough year for West Ham. Besides the obvious saga that was Dimitri Payet wanting to return to Marseille, the club on the pitch significantly dropped back from the previous season. Some of this could’ve been predicted: The idea of turning games into high event ordeals that more resembled basketball just seemed off base as a sustainable blueprint. Factor in that West Ham had an expected goal difference much closer to 0 than the +14 accumulated in 2015-16, and last season was always going to be a step back, but perhaps it was an even bigger one than could’ve been imagined. The product on the pitch was often not great, and Slaven Bilic’s shine wore off considerably as a result. We’re in year two of the Olympic Stadium era; a.k.a. “We somehow got a brand spanking new stadium for dirt cheap”, so there's the interesting question of how much the new home will feel like home but after the disappointment of last season, the club has spent big to regroup for 2017-18. The manager likely needs a good season with a view to retaining his job. Will it pay off as intended? Reversion to the Mean West Ham in 2015-16 were a perfectly okay team that overachieved, with metrics indicating they should’ve been closer to 10th than 7th. They got the benefits of Dimitri Payet scoring numerous amounts of goals from audacious free kicks, and Michael Antonio scoring on a high volume of headers (which to be fair he also did a year later). Only Leicester City had a better goals/shot on target conversion rate in attack, and they banked a lot of points from the beginning third of the season when everything they touched practically flew into the opposition’s net. West Ham in 2016-17 were a below average side that got far fewer breaks than the season before and that combination made them suffer. It didn’t help that they spent a considerable amount of time in a losing position, finishing in the bottom ten in time spent in that game state. The leaky defense that got covered over previously continued to allow chances. Only Liverpool and Swansea gave up a greater percentage of shots as big chances, and only Swansea and Hull conceded more big chances in general. Combine that with a less formidable attack and it paints a bad picture: It isn’t unreasonable to think that West Ham could return to being what they were in 2015-16 but perhaps without the conversion luck they received. There’s enough credible attacking talent in the 27-29 age range, and perhaps enough of them to have prime caliber seasons at the same time. Andre Ayew quietly had a nice debut season, with a 0.56 NPGA per 90 rate in just 1411 minutes due to his early season injury. Another season of sub 65% save rate from their goalkeepers would be a problem though and the Olympic Stadium could end up as home to high amounts of entertaining 2-2/3-2 types of encounters. Transfers and Lack of Strategy West Ham transfer strategy is has been hard to fathom for quite some time now. You can look at some of the players they’ve been linked to over the past couple of summers and think that if this is what they were intending to do, they were on the right track: Alexandre Lacazette, Rachid Ghezzal, Kelechi Iheanacho, Michy Batshuayi. All those players at the respective prices they were listed at would’ve been fine value. They could even claim to have gotten one of the better value in the league over the past two or so years when they signed Dimitri Payet for around £11M in the summer of 2015, and he proceeded to have a very good, albeit short, tenure at the club before the messy divorce. Hell, even if you look at this summer’s moves in isolation, they’re not *that* bad. Javier Hernandez is a professional goal scorer who’s averaged 0.60 non-penalty goals per 90 over the past four seasons. He’s damn good at what he does, and West Ham fans are probably overjoyed at having an actual proper striker to lead the line considering who’s manned that position over the years. Meanwhile Marko Arnautovic on middling Stoke sides has been a consistent attacker. He’s was one of the few redeeming parts on what was a lost season for the club in 2016-17, and he’s arguably the best hope for replicating the kind of production that Payet brought to the club from that left sided position: That’s probably where the positivity ends. Joe Hart has been in decline over time and beyond not being a stylistic fit at Man City, his year in Italy was erratic at best. Thankfully he’s only on a one year loan, but it looks like Adrian has got a rough deal as he has been one of the best shot stoppers in the league over time even with his poor 16-17 campaign and there’s not much of an argument to be made that Joe Hart should start over him. Meanwhile Pablo Zabaleta is a 32-year-old fullback in a young man’s position, and he’s signed on until age 34. It’s hard to understand how that could be considered a good thing. At best Zabaleta doesn’t move the needle in the negative direction and represents a net zero. Even Arnautovic, while providing considerably more present value than the other two, is now on the books until age 33. Chicharito only being a two-year deal is arguably the redeeming quality deal wise of what’s happened this summer. West Ham aren’t a selling club. You might think that would represent a good thing, but rather it's got to do with them almost never having anyone good to sell. Dimitri Payet and James Tomkins represent the only two players that West Ham have sold for at least £10M since Carlos Tevez in 2009. Just look at the amount of 30 and over players that will be on contract for 2018-19: Zabaleta (34), Jose Fonte (35), Robert Snodgrass (31), Mark Noble (32), Andy Carroll (30), Winston Reid (31), Angelo Ogbonna (31), Hernandez (31) and Arnautovic (30). It’s such a huge chunk of the wage bill allocated to players who are firmly on the wrong end of the age curve, even if PL teams have more money in 2017 than Scrooge McDuck. It’s no wonder West Ham almost always run at a player trading deficit year in and year out and the big issue is how short-sighted it all is. Compare what’s happened to West Ham since 2012-13 with a team like Southampton, and the lack of a process gets even more damning. Southampton haven’t been perfect over the same time span, but they’ve been able to constantly sell players that bigger clubs have coveted, and while constantly outperforming West Ham both in points and underlying metrics. In comparison, West Ham just don’t seem to be a club with much of a long-term plan or structure in place, which considering the decent resources they have is a bit of a shame. Outlook I get what West Ham are trying to do in the short term, and I understand the sentiment on some level: get some recognizable names, finish in the top ten, entertain and worry about next summer when it arrives. Had Arnautovic’s contract been 2-3 years and Zabaleta a one-year deal, I’d be more inclined to cut them some slack on their short-term idea. I still wonder how Chicharito is going to be fed the ball in his sweet spot on a consistent basis with the roster construction as is, but there’s not too much that can be quibbled about with his transfer in relation to the other ones. As for 2017-18? If a heck of a lot of things go right, finishing 7th isn’t that unreasonable but more likely they land bang in the middle somewhere. They’re part of the group featuring Everton, Leicester, and Southampton that are likely to vie for a finish atop of the “best of the rest” table (Stoke lost their membership privileges after their last 12 months of performance). Different betting places have West Ham’s Over/Under point total at around 46-47 points, and you could definitely see the team get to the low-mid 50’s if enough things go right for them. It very much feels like West Ham are treading water as a club, but at least this season promises to be less dysfunctional than 2016-17 ultimately became.
Rue Swansea City. After five mostly stable years in the Premiership, in 2016-17 the wheels came off. Last season saw the club’s new owners ditching a competent manager for an untested one, a bold move which resulted in the club leaking goals left and right and sinking to the foot of the table. The club then hired their third manager in five months who righted the ship and managed to steer the Swans to safety for another year. Gauging the Gaffer Despite a thrilling trapdoor escape, few Swans fans will relish a repeat of the ups and downs of the previous season. Paul Clement, long a bridesmaid to the prolific Carlo Ancelotti and only once the bride himself with Derby County, appears skilled enough to steer the club safe from relegation. Aided by a raft of long-overdue signings in the 2017 winter transfer window, Clement lead the club to an xG difference over 0.5 points better than his predecessor Bob Bradley. His tightening of the defense came at the expense of attack, however, and Swansea’s xG of just over 1 per game remains worrisome. Fellow strugglers Middlesbrough demonstrated that even if a team keeps it tight at their own end, a neutered attack and too many nil-nil draws can bring relegation. What can we make of Swansea City’s year of scattershot manager hires? The club traded in Francesco Guidolin, a defense-first manager who struggled under a difficult schedule, for Bradley’s reckless attacking swagger. When Bradley proved disastrous, the club traded in for Clement, a manager with limited head coaching experience who shifted the focus back to defense. There appears to be no effort to maintain continuity in tactical systems or style of play. Whereas the club was once heralded for playing a technical passing style, that approach has largely fallen away and has yet to be replaced with a coherent vision. Though Clement has been a success for his few months in charge, given his lack of prior head coach experience or internal work with the club that could be evaluated, one can’t help but think that his hiring was yet another shot in the dark. State of the squad Swansea’s positives in attack were a tale of two players: Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente. Despite an impressive return of 9 goals and 13 assists in 2016-17, a recent overview of Sigurdsson’s attacking numbers reveals his mastery of the dead ball, but otherwise output that is only lukewarm. Sigurdsson appears to be on his way to Everton, and given his limitations and age, the Swans will do well to sell him for the reported £50 million. Fans however, are right to wonder who will replace his goals and assists. Even if the club sign a marquee attacker who provides twice as many goals and assists from open play, they will still not match Sigurdsson’s output from last year. Then again, before last year, Sigurdsson had never before created more than two assists from set plays in a season, suggesting he may regress to more moderate creativity. Factor the Icelander’s age into the equation, and the time may be right to re-tool the heart of the Swansea’s attack. Swansea’s other star performer last season was the Lion King himself, Fernando Llorente. Despite being 32 and on the wrong side of the age curve, Llorente contributed 15 goals to the Swans’ survival last season. His xG of 8.24 is almost half of his actual output, and he is unlikely to overperform to the same extent next season. Of his 15 goals, six were from set pieces, all of which were delivered by the departing Sigurdsson. The man does provide a masterclass in where to shoot from, and fans can only hope that more trigger-happy teammates (hint: “the relegator”) are attending each lecture. The club’s reliance on Llorente’s and Sigurdsson’s set piece act was necessary due to Swansea’s lack of creativity in open play. The team’s key pass leader in 2016-17 was Modou Barrow, who is now plying his trade in the Championship with Reading. Swansea’s next most common creator was an aging Wayne Routledge, while in 5th was Borja Bastón who mainly played substitute minutes. Arguably, the mercurial Jefferson Montero remains the best creator in the squad, though injuries and managerial disfavour means he rarely earns a starting place. Lack of chance creation seems the most obvious flaw Swansea need to address, and recruitment should prioritize targets accordingly. As is often the case, Swansea’s defense proves more difficult to evaluate than the attack. The task is made no easier given the back line’s relative success (or lack of) under various tactical systems last term. Paul Clement stemmed the tide of goals conceded after the Bradley experiment, but he did so by tightening the defense at the expense of attack. Questions remain about whether the personnel are good enough for Clement to loosen the tactics and allow more players to contribute going forward. Martin Olsson at left back seems a decent, if underwhelming replacement for Neil Taylor, who has looked out of his depth in the PL since a serious knee injury. Meanwhile, young Alfie Mawson has established his place in central defense, and played well under Clement’s system. The Cult of the New Who have Swansea recruited to address their issues in attack and chance creation? The club achieved something of a coup in securing Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham. Not even 20 years old and already a ball of kinetic pace, guile and poacher’s instinct, with height and a strong build to match. Abraham absolutely crushed his debut season of professional football, netting 26 goals for a lackluster Bristol City side. With the potential to be a genuinely exciting player, the England U21 international could become the goal threat that Sigurdsson wasn’t, though he won’t fix the team’s issues with chance creation. Abraham remains young and has no substantive experience in a top league, and represents something of a gamble on that front. However, he is a low-cost signing with a high potential upside if he continues his form from last year. Swansea’s other notable signing, this time a permanent transfer, is Roque Mesa. The midfielder has spent most of his career in the lower divisions of Spain, but has played an important role in Las Palmas’ two most recent campaigns in La Liga. A very strong passer who is good on the ball, Mesa seems the spiritual successor to Leon Britton, who has long been the metronome at the base of the Swansea midfield. Though the Spaniard is 28, he fills some of the creative void in midfield and should hold down a regular starting place this season.
The most notable departure from South Wales is Borja Bastón. The young striker excelled in his first two seasons in the Spanish second division before capping his time in Spain with 0.5 npG per 90 in La Liga with Eibar. Given Bastón’s scoring record, his inability to cement a first team place at Swansea remains puzzling. In his limited minutes last season, his expG of 0.31 p90 was the best in the squad, though was likely inflated by several appearances from the bench. Bastón is a player who thrives on the counter attack, perhaps a strength Clement finds unsuitable for a tightly leashed attack lacking creative passers. Still, it is dispiriting all three of his managers could not integrate his talents into their style of play. It is unclear what Swansea hope to achieve by loaning Bastón back to La Liga. Now 24, he has entered his prime and is unlikely to show great improvement. This seeming failure returns to a familiar question: what exactly is the plan? The club’s record signing was unable to nail down a starting place under three different managers. Either the club did not provide him with the opportunity to adapt and demonstrate his strengths, or his obvious talent was not suited to the attacking system he was recruited to lead. In either case, the scouting process failed to make sure their record signing was at bare minimum appropriate for the squad. Sometimes, signings just don’t work out, but Bastón seems emblematic of a persistent failure at Swansea to recruit intelligently and towards fulfillment of a well-thought out plan. Not great, Bob. What’s the best Swansea can hope for in the coming season? Long-term problems with player recruitment, manager evaluation and the creation of a cohesive style are still to be addressed. Persistent recruitment failures over the past few years, culminating with Bastón, could be improved through a better scouting system complemented by analytics. The club are employing the services of noted analytics guru Dan Altman, but how and to what extent they are implementing his advice remains unclear. The recruitment of Mesa is a first step towards re-establishing a passing-based style of play, though players who can unlock defenses are also needed higher up the pitch. Ultimately, an ageing Llorente and loan signing Abraham are just paper over the cracks. Paul Clement wrung enough out of the squad last year that they are not favourites for the drop. Until they address their systemic issues, however, Swansea will likely finish closer to 17th than to 9th. Thanks to James Yorke for giving me a chance to write, and to the whole Statsbomb community for helping me approach football in a different way. Data sourced from StatsBomb and Paul Riley.
The best team in the Premier League over the last two seasons? It’s got to be Tottenham hasn’t it? More points than any other team, the league’s top scorer in both years, a solid defence, a growing but still youthful squad, and of course not a trophy in sight. If anything, that’s the frustrating part, but it overshadows the genuine achievement of becoming contenders off a comparatively small budget, at least compared to the petrodollars elsewhere. There are fascinating similarities and differences between Tottenham’s last two seasons which won’t necessarily be apparent to the casual viewer, some of which hint at continued success, and others that sound a note of caution. Beyond that, a potential transfer of Ross Barkley--a story that has loomed large all summer--feels like it could represent some of the stylistic quirks the team has featured over a long enough time to be considered representative. Is he the heavy shooting Christian Eriksen alternative the squad has long required? Where could he fit in? He certainly matches Eriksen, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min as a player that is rarely shy to shoot on sight, and this apparently inefficient method of attacking has yet to impact the team in the aggregate. Metrics and suchlike The league table says Tottenham bounced forward by sixteen points year on year. This was a fine achievement. There was no fade off like the season before once the title had gone and while expected goals placed them firmly among their peers, they still do it differently to the other big sides. They shoot more, from anywhere. They test the opposition keeper more. And this time thanks to the couple of end of season routs they scored more too. The defence did a good job too but both ends of the pitch saw Tottenham ahead of the models, in particular, and unlike 2015-16 the attack was in front, by a lot. Now this has happened often enough to be notable; some models say all of Pochettino’s Tottenham seasons have seen a positive skew, all certainly agree that his first and third have. Regardless Tottenham play a very cohesive game with a rather ragged shooting strategy attached to it. It doesn’t look optimal, yet somehow it works. That said, the ragged shooting does offer one benefit, in both the last two seasons, Tottenham's on target rate has been top two in the league and the difference between their rate and the opposition's league leading. This team may boom shots from all over, but a hell of a lot test the keeper and they restrict the opposition from doing the same. All three of Tottenham’s main goalscorers scored both freely and ahead of expectation last season, but there is some evidence to imply that it's recurrent enough to include some signal. Kane has been ahead in all his three full seasons of play albeit by varying degrees (2016-17 by far the heaviest overshoot), Alli in both his and Son has a strong long term finishing record too. For Son, as the chart shows, he doesn’t get many high value chances, but continues to rack up the goals. Of course goals don’t make themselves, so ticking away behind this deadly trio was the ever under heralded Christian Eriksen. Quietly, the most dangerous open play combination was Eriksen to Alli, but if we look at how Eriksen creates chances for his attackers we can see Tottenham’s attacking gameplan in front of us; indeed that’s exactly it: Tottenham play a system that pushes defences back. They rarely draw teams out to create space behind and instead tend to squeeze the play: Two passes that Eriksen creates for Tottenham’s shots are sideways for long range efforts or vertical but not deep. Indeed, Tottenham do not create a lot of deep chances outside of set pieces and this undoubtedly impacts on their expected numbers. This retained strategy has had improved success year on year against weaker outfits, but does not always work as erratic displays in Europe and against some of their peers demonstrate. Tottenham can be unplayable on their day--witness the utter hammering of Arsenal at White Hart Lane--but equally find a good team that knows how to press and they can be quickly undone. Liverpool under Klopp and Man City have caused Pochettino’s men severe problems on more than one occasion. The major challenge for the side is to work out a method of nullifying the opposition in these type of games. They look to be drilled well enough to continue to overrun teams, but to make the next step they need to find extra from somewhere. Whether Pochettino has the flexibility to recognise this is hard to know but prior to 2016-17, nobody thought that he would veer away from his stock 4-2-3-1 but he did, and the way that Son and Alli joined Kane in attack so regularly certainly challenged the orthodoxy of the attacking midfield and forwards roles in his system. Transfers This time last year, Tottenham had already made two signings of the in Victor Wanyama and Vincent Janssen. Others followed later on--to lesser degrees of success than the Kenyan, about par with the Dutchman--but it was probably the first summer in memory that Tottenham faced a transfer window without an essential need to improve the first team. That Wanyama did was a bonus, and his recruitment explained Mauricio Pochettino’s surprise repositioning of Eric Dier into defensive midfield the season prior. That experiment went so well that Dier became England’s defensive midfield lynchpin too, but not so well that any idea that he was going to be placed there long term for Tottenham dissolved once Wanyama arrived. A similar situation faces the club now. The first eleven when fit pretty much picks itself and there’s probably enough depth to allocate anywhere around 15 or 16 of the first team squad as genuine first teamers and options, with perhaps less need than a nervous fan base might think to make big adjustments. That said, no team can rest on its laurels with regard to recruitment and there are areas that could be improved or given better depth. Decisions that look like they could be made include: *Ross Barkley *Kyle Walker replacement *More Mousa Dembélés *alt-Kane *Someone of the imagined calibre of Moussa Sissoko *Someone for the “promising ex-Ligue 1 winger/forward who won’t get in the team” role most recently inhabited by Clinton N’Jie and Georges Kevin N’Koudou *A mythical Mousa Dembélé / Christian Eriksen hybrid, like... say... er… did I mention Ross Barkley? One thing that seems certain: Tottenham are not going to spend a fortune. Kyle Walker’s departure has stuffed the hamper for a summer fund, while bits picked up for a departing Federico Fazio and N’Jie should help too. Hell, Nabil Bentaleb brought in £16million at some point since the last bit of money was spent. However, it’s now August, the pre-season is complete and all we are seeing are light promises that the club will buy. Nothing concrete and a nearly neutered and silent rumour mill. If the first team is not easily improved and certainly not within the wage structure, then that shouldn’t stop the club stuffing the bench with coin flip potential stars aged 18-23 years old. Wages can be afforded for promising talent and for a club that acquired and developed variously a 23 year old Luka Modrić, Gareth Bale as a teenager and much of the current first team from near birth, a reticence to go again is so far disappointing. On the other hand, that only Kyle Walker has departed from the first team feels like a necessary but best case and small exodus. Pochettino has said they will buy, so presumably they will. Identities remain unknown, but Ross Barkley continues to play wall ball against the side of his garage waiting for his phone to vibrate. Future Last season it was simple to presume that Tottenham would do little more than maintain, and instead they bounced forward. This season it is again straightforward enough to presume that they will maintain, but more towards the level that some of their structural metrics suggested rather than a dreamy land of 80+ points. Expected goals and bookies like them more or less the same as a year ago and think the 70-71 point baseline we have seen so frequently remains their true level. The Wembley factor looms and will no doubt be cited as the reason for any normal reversion but with a non-zero possibility that Pochettino’s systems do create some kind of positive skew against expected goal models it feels most likely that they will end up on seventy-something points. Should this transpire, and regardless of what position it lands the team in, it should not be considered disappointing. The whole club philosophy is to become a Champions League side in time for the new stadium, and so far the team’s performance is two years ahead of plan. But the whole game is also a balancing act. If Kyle Walker picks up a trophy this year, how many players will look on with envy? The best way for Tottenham to keep the band together is to win something themselves. It will not be easy, but it feels like the Pochettino era needs something tangible to represent the undeniable progress towards stability. The year before Pochettino arrived, in which Andre Villas Boas and Tim Sherwood competed to out-backend of a pantomime horse each other, only one outfield player played three-quarters of Tottenham’s league minutes. In year one, 2014-15, as Pochettino found out about the players he had that number crept up to four. In the last two seasons Tottenham have had eight outfielders play that frequently. The team picks itself, but can it make the next step? It could be vital that they do. ___________________________________
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! The 2016/17 Best-of-The-Rest Cup has returned to its rightful home in the Goodison trophy cabinet. Tarnished somewhat by having been downgraded from 5th to 7th place, it's still a trophy, and we shouldn't begrudge Ronald Koeman providing an immediate return on his £7m-a-year salary. From around February we are better than evens to finish 7th, no higher, no lower, and never faced a real challenge to our septpremacy from Southampton under-performing in front of goal, nor from Bournemouth getting their first taste of England's top 10, nor even from West Brom, returning to the top half of the table for the first time since saying goodbye to one Romelu Lukaku (of whom more later, duh).
We also made progress on the stadium front, securing land at Bramley Moore Dock. I say 'land', obviously right now it's all underwater. In fact, I say 'securing', obviously we haven't raised the money to pay for any of it yet. But you wouldn't bet against our cadre of Russian money men, would you? Mayor Joe Anderson's inbox is probably already brimming with offers of dirt on his opponents for the 2020 elections.
We started the season with Lukaku still recuperating from that awkward holiday we've all had where your ex turns up to the same resort. Sources from within Belgium's Chateau du Haillan training camp claim that Lukaku and Robert Martinez could be heard attempting to stoke each other's jealousy well into the small hours of the morning, the former loudly praising Thierry Henry's tactical prowess, the latter bouncing on the bed complimenting Michi Batshuayi's finishing skill.
This meant that we started the season with a 3-4-3, the honed spearhead of Mirallas, Deulofeu and Barkley up top, James McCarthy on the right against Tottenham. In the first half, we took no shots after the 19th minute. In the second, we took none after the 79th. We won a point off a fluky Barkley free kick that found its way through to the far post. The 3-4-3 persisted against West Brom where we overturned an early set-piece goal to win 1-2. With Lukaku back in the team, and £25m man Yannick Bolasie a regular fixture, we mostly fielded a 4-2-3-1 with Barry and Gueye holding, Bolasie, Barkley and Mirallas ahead, or a 4-3-3 with Barry deepest and Gueye and Barkley in the headless chicken roles in the middle, Mirallas and Bolasie flanking Lukaku. The 3-4-3 returned against Chelsea in early November. Antonio Conte had laughed off suggestions he was facing the sack in late September, and by the time Everton made their visit to Stamford Bridge he was already 4 wins into the 13-game winning streak that would all but secure them the title. We took a single shot that day, and Conte would continue laughing for quite some time afterward.
At the half-way point of the season, the top 6 were already 9 points ahead of 7th, and while Everton had picked up a couple of creditable wins against Arsenal and away to Leicester, and grabbed a point off each Manchester side, it was only really a run of four wins against fairly easy opposition in August and September that was propping the season up. The football wasn't much to look at, we defended a bit better, showed a bit more energy when pressing, but it didn't feel as if we had any plan or systematic advantages in attack. We crossed a bit, and Lukaku found ways to score.
The fundamental issue we seem to have under Koeman is the disconnect between our build up and our attack. There's not a great deal of movement and interplay in the centre, so we're reliant on longer balls (especially out wide) to progress towards the goal. Gareth Barry (offered a new contract at 36, and apparently a target for Tony Pulis) has generally been the only midfielder who reliably can progress the ball in this way. The stat that stands out to me is this: Everton's passes into the final third were the 6th longest on average in the Premier League last season. Only Watford, Burnley, Palace, West Brom and Sunderland relied on longer passes to get the ball forward. I wouldn't mind this - gaining lots of ground quickly is great - but we're bottom half of the table for completing these passes. I haven't seen much in pre-season to show we've addressed these issues: I certainly like Ademola Lookman's movement more than most of our other attackers, and Klaassen has decent first touch, so perhaps we'll see this completion rate go up even if the plan doesn't change.
A minor tactical turning point in our season came in December when Bolasie suffered a long-term knee injury. Deulofeu was unable to replace him, and all that could be done for the poor lamb was to ship him off to Milan to assist more xG per 90 than any player 23-and-under in the big leagues, before forcing him to make a humiliating return to Barcelona. This meant the team, outside the reliable Baines and Coleman, had slightly less width to exploit. Morgan Schneiderlin arrived in January, by which time Tom Davies had broken into the team looking like a Viking chieftan's daughter disguised in a fake beard after her father forbade her from joining the raiding party, intent on proving her valour.
This is an entirely aesthetic metric, but you can see the change in our play by looking at the ratio of crosses to through balls. Before the New Year, we took around 27 crosses for every through ball we made, the 6th highest ratio (Arsenal take 4 crosses for every through ball, Swansea and Palace 60+, just for some context). After the New Year, though, we had the 6th lowest ratio: 14 crosses per through ball. In this period we still oscillated between the 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 but I actually quite liked some of our play, harrying opponents' midfielders, occasionally producing nice combinations in the centre, and securing some memorable wins, not least the 4-0 against Man City. What we didn't manage to do was bring that final third entry pass length stat down. Tom Davies added a lot of energy and some penetrative passing to the team, Schneiderlin has some of Barry's long ball game, and finished the season with the highest xGBuildup per 90 of anyone in the team. But without Lukaku's 24 non-penalty goals from ~17xG on the end of all this, I'm unconvinced we systematically create enough danger to really compete at the top level of the EPL.
Let's talk Lukaku: he was better than we deserved when he arrived on loan, and he's been better than we deserved every season since. If he were on a great Everton team, he'd be rivaling Gary Lineker's numbers, but as it is we got to see an Everton player finish with 25 league goals in a season for the first time in more than 30 years. He stayed for promises of Champions League football, gave Koeman a chance, and leaves us with a profit of nearly £50m. His capture was possibly Roberto Martinez's singular achievement, both in convincing the player and the board to make it happen.
Strikers often struggle with perceptions. I always remember Lukaku's goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup, he points where he wants Barkley to put the ball, makes the run, looks up, looks up again, beats two players, shrugs off a foul, beats another two players with the tiniest of touches, and side-foots it past Courtois inside the far post. The commentators inevitably described him as "like a man-mountain there". It was a lovely goal, and it's true: his strength kept him on his feet despite one defender grabbing his shoulder and trying to haul him down. But I don't think Lukaku gets much credit for his vision and intelligence, and the amount of work he puts into his technical game off the field.
That all plays into the narrative that he's clumsy and has terrible first touch. We can investigate if this perception is actually fair with some simple stats: strikers receive passes in the final third, and we look at whether their next non-shot action is successful or not. So, they get the ball, and maybe pass, or dribble past a defender, whatever. Which strikers have a better or worse success rate with these actions? Looking at the last four seasons and limiting to players that have received a total of more than 500 passes in that time, Lukaku ranks 10th out of 26. He's above Diego Costa, Harry Kane, Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez, Olivier Giroud and plenty of others. He ranks worse for the eventual xGChain of those possessions, so perhaps he's not creating a ton of a danger in his hold-up play, but at the same time Everton rely so much on him to be on the end of moves that you'd expect less xG from possessions involving him in the buildup. Either way, I don't think he's as bad as people think, and besides, it's not our problem now. Go with love, Big Rom.
Everything turns upon this simple equation:
Position2017 = 7th - Lukaku - European Campaign + The Genius of Steve Walsh
Are we a seventher team than last season? Are we more than seventh? Or without Lukaku's goals, and facing attrition from Europa League games, might we actually find ourselves south of Southampton this year? Our Summer business was ambitious in quantity, if not in quality. But even if we land Gylfi Sigurðsson for the price of 0.25 Neymars, I don't think we've made a single signing in the same league as the outgoing Lukaku (or the top 6's incoming Salah, Morata, Lacazette, Mendy etc etc). Maybe you'd stack our signings up against Tottenham's big pile of nothing, but over 24 months they seem like as good a team as any in the EPL and don't seem to expend any fucks on European competitions.
I haven't accounted for one additional factor in the complex scientific equation above: Charlie Reeves, a data analyst poached from Forest Green Rovers, indicating at the very least that Walshie wanted an up-to-date spreadsheet to start sorting. My only concern is that in this window, the flashing red light attached to his veto button has clearly malfunctioned. If there's budget for a replacement, future windows might make more sense to me.
The biggest story of our Summer is of course the return of always a blue Wayne Rooney. He brings with him such a weight of narrative I don't know where to begin. When he left Everton, we immediately finished in the top 4. Now he's returned, does symmetry demand that we or Man Utd return to the top 4? The boy Rooney ended Arsenal's famous 49 match unbeaten run, could the man put us ahead of Arsenal, and end Wenger's tenure entirely? Storylines aside, Rooney is still a perfectly cromulent Premier League player, but he's more of a replacement for Ross Barkley than Romelu Lukaku. I don't believe that Rooney plus Sandro Ramirez (plus Sheffield lad Dominic Calvert-Lewin) equals anything approaching one Lukaku, but then again I don't really understand what Koeman's hoping for in attack.
Elsewhere, Davy Klaassen joins our midfield, though I'm slightly suspicious of attackers coming from Eredivisie with anything but bonkers stats, which he does not possess. He certainly has tidy feet and quicker passing than we're used to, but I've seen little evidence of enough intelligent movement around him to really take advantage.
Since Neville Southall, it's never felt like Everton have had a truly generational keeper. Nigel Martyn's swan song and Tim Howard's often-unfairly maligned tenure brought some solidity, but could Jordan Pickford be Everton's number 1 in 5 or 10 years? I'll admit I didn't see him much last year, it was hard to watch Moyes's Sunderland, a bit like your dad going through a bad divorce and trying to get all his uni mates back together to for one last year-long binge. But his shot stopping numbers look fine from the small sample we have. As long as he doesn't fall out of his loft or get injured warming up he certainly seems like he has a better shot than most, if only because of the expectations of his price tag.
Michael Keane shaves some necessary years off our defence's average age. He's joining a very different back line to Burnley's, his numbers last year show very little pro-active play in terms of tackles and interceptions, but his aerials and blocks per shot were good. Our passing model quite likes him, and already in pre-season I've seen him sprint 40 yards through the middle of the pitch with the ball so it'll be a wild ride at the very least.
There's also the possibility that Ross Barkley leaves. I genuinely think he's progressed and taken up more responsibility, but there are always the suspicions that the gaps in his game are all things that can't be taught: decision making most of all. I'd always hoped that if we cashed him in, it'd be for John Stones money, but barring a bidding war those days are gone, as his contract winds down and his manager constantly criticises him in the press. If he moves, I hope he's turns out to be more Rooney than Rodwell - he always put in the effort, and came back from some horrible injuries early in his career. Who knows, maybe he'll make a dream return as our number 10 for the 2025/26 season.
Anyway, I've cranked all that through the supercomputer and it reckons... 7th.
So what's the long-term plan? We're behind the rest of the class and we're going to catch up to them by going slower than they are? Are we to sit poised in 7th, waiting for the Mad King Arsene Wenger to self-immolate? Hoping Mourinho and/or Chelsea have another 2015/16, that Pep truly is a fraud, that Pochettino's head is turned by a more generous sugar daddy and his Tottenham project is picked apart, that Raymond Verheijen will jump out with a police baton and assail the knees of the entire Liverpool squad?
We've spent, upped our wage bill, and signed solid players to accommodate Europe. I feel grumpy saying this, but it's all probably fine. It's entirely possible that Koeman's targets from the board do ultimately include the top 4, maybe he even thinks we have a shot this season. Our last mad dash for the Champions League was Martinez's series of loan gambles, and hell, we had a bunch of luck and very nearly got there, before it then immediately fell to pieces. But I see no hope of replicating that in the next couple of years. It wasn't so long ago that you'd interpret any sort of £50m bid as a sign of ambition, but in Premier League terms who knows what it now represents, especially taking into account our new and deeper pockets.
I'm not a huge fan of what's happening on the field, and I don't think we're getting value in the transfer market. But look at the next 5 years as a slow, iterative process: secure 7th, not a bad spot in such a competitive league. Try to become a fixture in the later stages of the Europa League. Between that and the stadium, slowly increase our reputation and make us more attractive to transfer targets and commercial partners. Build out the back office, chuck in a few analytics people. Keep developing and playing the youth, who are already a big part of their respective England setups.
There are worse ways to run a club, and let's face it, we've witnessed most of them in the last 30 years. Nil satis nisi septimum.
Ranieri: On God, whom Ranieri hath abjured? On God, whom Ranieri hath blasphemed? O my God, I would weep, but the devil draws in my tears… O, he stays my tongue! I would lift up my hands, but see, they hold ‘em, they hold ‘em.
All: Who, Ranieri?
Ranieri: Why, Lucifer and Mephistopheles, the finishing pixies. O gentlemen, I gave them my soul for my Premier League title.
(‘The Tragedy of Doctor Faustu-‘ I mean, ‘The Tragedy of Don Ranieri’, Act V, Scene II)
Leicester City’s 2016/17 was a step different from their 2015/16. The (utterly, utterly) bizarre honour of being the last English team still left in the Champions League after they reached the quarter-finals coincided with genuine fears that they would be drawn into the relegation battle. While this latter wasn’t ever *quite* a realistic possibility, it was close enough for the Foxes to smell the rotting dread and dying hopes of the battlefield.
And then, like a Shakespearean tragedy (GEDDIT!), Craig Shakespeare coldly stabbed his boss in the back, ably aided by Leicester’s key players. ‘Et tu Jamie?’ And ‘Shakey’, as even professional journalists took to calling him, ruled the kingdom of Leicester, and he was a Good King who brought back the Old Ways, and the Kingdom was Glorious because of it.
Only, not so much.
Under Ranieri, Leicester had an Expected Goal difference of -4.59 (11th in the league for that period), but an actual goal difference of -20. Under Shakespeare, Leicester had an Expected Goal difference of -1.24 (a little better, though still only 9th in the league), but an actual goal difference of +5. That’s some pendulum swing in the luck-stroke-variance department. And, as for the claim that Shakespeare took Leicester back to the way they’d played in their title-winning season?
Kind of yes, but not really. While they started to get their shots off at a similar rate to 2015/16 again, Shakespeare’s side passed forwards less, pressed less (the PPDA and Opponent pass percentage metrics), and defended a little deeper.
There might be some nuance to consider. Shakespeare’s side started winning, so it’s conceivable that they may have played in a more similar way to Leicester of 15/16 when scores were level, and then dropping back into more of a defensive and conservative block when they were ahead.
Yes, Shakespeare’s 2016/17 Leicester side played more in keeping with their title-winning style than Ranieri’s 2016/17, but it was not a radical departure from one to the other.
It’s worth noting that the slight departure which Ranieri may have taken from 15/16 to 16/17 was justified, as well as partially being a burden which Shakespeare has not had to bear until now. The expectation was that opponents would ‘find Leicester out’ and work out the code to stop their counter-attacking style, so a change of tack was sympathetically met (until it stopped working).
But Ranieri also had to figure out how to fit big summer signings Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani into his squad. They did not fit particularly well, and Shakespeare, purely in charge to steady the ship in the short-term, immediately benefitted from being able to more or less discard them in the latter part of the season.
The coming year…
Shakespeare will not have this benefit in 2017/18, though. Fortunately for him, it seems that either Leicester or Slimani have figured out how to play him in the second striker role behind Vardy. He’s no Shinji Okazaki there (who made 2.4 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes last season; Slimani made 1), but based on pre-season friendlies it looks to work a little better now, and also offers another attacking dimension.
Musa may as well be considered gone. He offered 2 shots per 90 in the league last year, only 0.7 on target, and only offered 0.8 key passes per 90 in the way of creation for his team-mates. He also didn’t offer anywhere near the level of defensive work and shape-holding which Marc Albrighton offers, or the advantage of youth which Demarai Gray has (who created a similar number of shots and more key passes anyway).
Wilfred Ndidi was the perfect signing signed six months too late for Leicester’s 2016/17 season, although no-one could have seen Nampalys Mendy’s injury troubles happening before he arrived last summer.
Vicente Iborra has come in from Sevilla, with more sub appearances than starts in La Liga last season at the age of 29. Back when he played for Levante five or so years ago, he was a high-defensive volume central midfielder, but not so much since then (figures per 90 minutes).
You don’t have to watch for long to see that he’s got a bit more of a controlled touch than some of Leicester’s other options in midfield, but the question is how he fits into the side. He’s apparently pretty flexible, with decent central positioning sense or an ability to play as a second striker (of the Marouane Fellaini variety), but – and I’m not sure how much is age and how much is just him – he’s pretty sluggish. How he’ll fit into the squad’s share of minutes, and a squad which plays a quick, counter-attacking game at that, remains to be seen.
Harry Maguire has come in at central defence, a signing only verging on exciting because it brings the average age of Leicester’s primary centre-backs below the state retirement age.
Kelechi Iheanacho has finally arrived, and now the questions turn to where exactly he would fit in. Vardy has been such a talisman up top that it would be a surprise to see Iheanacho replacing him, and what makes Okazaki so key in the second-striker role is his ability to defend - to cover passing lanes, to harry. Last season, it took a good while for both Musa and Slimani to look even vaguely comfortable doing that job.
They briefly experimented with moving Vardy to second striker with Slimani up top, and Vardy understood the role better, but it ruined what made him an effective forward. So either Iheanacho replaces Vardy, or has to learn the 'Okazaki role' a damn sight faster than either of the striker signings last summer did. Leicester are not exactly short on attacking options either, particularly considering that Gray, Musa, and Mahrez can all feasibly play in the second – or even main – striker role.
With Ulloa, Okazaki, and Vardy all now 30 or older, Iheanacho could pave a path for a strike-force of the future though. The age profile is probably as much an issue to address as any positional group, especially considering that Ndidi, 20, is unlikely to stay at the club in the long-term, or maybe even the medium-term.
Aims for 2017/18
What to aim for as a club who are, barring disaster, nailed on for midtable? Consolidating your ‘midtable’ status, of course, and realistically Leicester should probably be aiming fiercely for anything from 11th place upwards. The top 8 of 'Big 6 plus Everton and Southampton' will likely be difficult to displace, and losing out on the top half to West “spend now, plan later” Ham United and West “Tony Pulis is King” Bromwich Albion would not be too disappointing.
However, by taking on West Brom, Leicester can vie for the title of Masters of the Midlands which – summer transfer battle for Jonny Evans in mind – is probably a bigger deal than it sounds. Midtable is always a bit of a mess, where a good run of games can push you up a handful of places, but it seems likely that they'll finish 11th, plus or minus two places.