Huddersfield, Chelsea and Other Notes From the Premier League’s Opening Salvo

We’re a couple of months into the Premier League season now and, as ever, it’s a real whirlwind of events. Managers are falling everywhere you look and it feels like a team is getting crushed 5-0 seemingly every other week. Now’s a good time to slow down a little, take a few minutes to collect ourselves. Interesting details are cropping up throughout the league table and the statistical minute is starting to pile up, so lets have a dig through it all shall we? This wont be an all-encompassing roundup, just a few bits and bobs from the teams that stick out.

For the purposes of this article we’ll be using these zones, similar to those that the venerable Dustin Ward has used in his work on this site. They represent the team in possession attacking from left to right. It may be helpful to open the image up in a separate tab or window as they’ll be referred back to throughout.

 

 

Huddersfield

David Wagner’s boys are one of the more intriguing sides to come up from the Championship. Obviously the German’s history at Dortmund and friendship with Jürgen Klopp leads to ‘heavy metal football’ stylistic comparisons from all quarters. Put those to one side and there are some unexpected wrinkles to how his Huddersfield team functions.

Through nine matches they’re sitting much higher up the defensive numbers than many will have seen coming. Their tally of 10.7 shots conceded per game is 5th best in the league, with a similarly impressive ranking of 8th best on non-penalty expected goals conceded. What’s really surprising though is the areas in which they’re most disruptive. The press that many associate with Wagner is evident high up the pitch where they’re preying on sideways and backwards passes around the opposition’s box.

 

 

As the ball enters into midfield the press is apparent on passes starting in zones 4-5 but less so elsewhere. They don’t force the kinds of long balls from the opposition half that the traditional pressing teams do (allowing a little over 40% on those, one of the higher percentages in the league alongside deep block teams like Brighton and West Brom). Nor do they disrupt especially heavily in midfield zones. There are areas where they are on the lower end of percentage allowed (such as within zone 3 or 4) but not quite to the level their reputation suggests. Maybe Wagner has scaled it back a little bit with the step up in competition. Or this could just be early sample size fuzziness messing with things. Food for thought anyway.

 

 

One sure fire sign of the press is them being easy to play through in midfield areas. On passes starting in zones 3-4 and ending in central positions in Huddersfield’s half, they allow the most in the league. An indication that perhaps it can be relatively simple to transition against them or that the press can be broken.

 

Huddersfield’s completions allowed through the middle

The unexpected skill in Huddersfield’s repertoire is how stifling they are in a set defence closer towards their own goal. At this stage they’re looking positively Mourinho-esque with how well they’re keeping opponents out of the most important areas. Whether this can be sustained for an entire season remains to be seen but regardless it’s clear they’re one of the most well organised units around.

 

 

On the information we have so far it’s evident that Huddersfield have a relative versatility and solidity in the defensive phase of the game that would be good enough to stave off relegation in most instances. It’s on the other side of the ball where things get dicey.

They have thus far struggled massively with their attacking performances. They’re currently averaging 9.3 shots per game (the 4th lowest shots per game in the PL) with 48% of those coming outside the box (the 2nd highest such percentage). This is leading to them putting up the joint worst non-penalty expected goals per game numbers in the league. What’s the issue? Well, to quote the effervescent Paul Riley: They pass the ball around the back like an elite team. They pass the ball out from the back like a relegation team.

 

 

Going through zone by zone Huddersfield are always at or near the top in terms of completions that stay within the zone or go backwards, and are on the other end in terms of progressing forwards. Their best route is the longer option as goalkeeper Jonas Lössl actually ranks 3rd in the league for completions from zones 1-2 into the opposition half. When that doesn’t work though the responsibility usually falls to Australian midfielder Aaron Mooy, who is responsible for the largest proportion of his team’s completions. He plays a lot of backwards passes but is also their best hope for progressing the ball. Mooy has the most completions forward from zone 4 to zones 5 & 6 on the team, 11 more than the next closest player, as well as the most completions from zone 5 to 6.

When they are actually able to get the ball in dangerous positions things break down even further. They’ve the fewest completions into the opposition box of any team in the league. Mooy again leads the team in this regard and seems like their best shot at generating opportunities but even he is having a tough go of it.

 

Aaron Mooy’s completions into the box (corners excluded)

 

Chelsea

Last season’s champions are off to a bit of a precarious start. After losing a total of 5 games in all of 2016/17 they’ve lost 3 of their first 9 already, including a fairly important one at home to Man City. Even in their wins – such as the 4-2 against Watford on Saturday – there are signs of issues.

Defensive stubbornness was the bedrock of their title success but after averaging 8.5 shots per game conceded last season that’s gone up to 12.7 per game this season. The change can likely be traced to a couple key areas of pass disruption that were previously their bread and butter. Overall it’s become much easier to get the ball into dangerous areas against Chelsea than it was previously.

 

 

The number of completions they’re allowing into their own box is also up (by an increase of around 4 per game, the 2nd highest increase in the league) and the same is true in zone 8. Chelsea’s calling card last season was being steadfast in not allowing the opposition into the most high value areas. Now the underbelly is a bit softer than before. If you look at matches this season where teams allowed the most completions into Zone 8 Chelsea have several of the top 20 or so, alongside sides like Swansea and Crystal Palace. Against Watford last weekend they allowed 10, the joint 6th most any team has allowed this season. This iteration of Watford are a solid midtable side but at home that just isn’t good enough.

 

 

On the attacking side things are also looking iffy. As you may have noticed in one of the charts above they’re spending a whole lot of buildup time within their own half. When they do get out they’re only midtable on completions into the opposition box (they were 4th last season). Their shots per game tally is down from 15.3 to 12.8 with a much higher percentage of them coming from outside the box (49%, the highest in the league!). Combine that with them not speeding ahead in the set piece goals standings – another key edge for them last season – and things are starting to look a little worrisome. This is a squad of very technically gifted players who’ve shown they can outperform attacking metrics in the past so it might all be work out anyway if they hit one of their customary hot streaks. If they don’t it could be a real struggle.

Man City

Guardiola’s blue machine has been so good so far this season that there’s genuinely too much to praise. Rather than bombard you with more charts or passmaps or whathaveyou here are just some metrics and where they rank in them. They tell you all you need to know:

Shots (for) per game – 1st

Shots conceded per game – 1st (i.e they concede the fewest)

Non-penalty Expected Goals (for) per game – 1st (0.65 more than the next closest team. There are a couple teams that don’t even average 0.65 per game.)

Non-penalty Expected Goals conceded per game – 1st 

Passes completed into the opposition box – 1st (Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva are no.1 and 2 respectively on the equivalent players list)

Passes allowed into their own box – 1st (i.e they allow the fewest)

You get the picture. They’re doing OK.

A Quick Bit On Coaching Style

Leicester sacked interim-turned-full time manager Craig Shakespeare last week and announced his replacement yesterday in the form of Claude Puel. Puel himself was sacked by Southampton last year after finishing 8th and reaching the League Cup final. Whether Puel is a good manager or whether they were right to sack Shakespeare is neither here nor there. What’s so thought-provoking about this is the fit.

The Leicester sides of recent seasons and Puel’s Southampton team are in different worlds, stylistically speaking. The former has been one of the most direct teams in the league and the latter were the polar opposite.

 

Long Balls From Their Own Defensive Third
Proportion of Overall Completions In Midfield
Leicester 15/16 2nd most in PL 3rd lowest
Leicester 16/17 3rd most in PL 5th lowest
Southampton 16/17 3rd fewest in PL 6th highest

 

Does this mean the appointment is doomed from the start? No, not at all. Managers and players can change with time. But that’s the thing: one of the two parties here will have to change and that will take time. If you’ve spent the last couple of years coaching or playing in a specific style you build up muscle memory and habits within it. Puel has shown some flexibility in the past, to his credit, but there will likely be growing pains regardless. Anyhoo, here’s to good times ahead, hopefully.

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As always if you have any questions you can DM me on twitter @EuanDewar. All the best!

 

Identifying Ligue 1’s Next Breakout Talent: Marcus Thuram

  With how things stand in Ligue 1 through nine weeks, Malcom has been the best attacking prospect in the league not named Kylian Mbappe. He’s been by far the most consistent player on a Bordeaux side that’s emerged as a prime candidate to sneak into the Champions League. He’s been electrifying as a dual shooting and creative threat, emerging as a genuine gamebreaker and in the process increasing the likelihood of a big club in Europe bidding for his services in the summer. After Malcom and Mbappe, things get murkier. There are a bunch of players who are arguably next best young attacker. Kids like Houssem Aouar and Adama Diakhaby have done well, but it’s been in more limited minutes than others. Francois Kamano has largely stayed the same from last season and didn’t make a leap like some had expected. Allan Saint-Maxamin has had his fleeting moments with Nice. Rony Lopes might be the best candidate, as he has taken over for Bernardo Silva and is having just as good a season as any of Silva’s years with Monaco. Ligue 1 is just brimming with young attackers. One name that belongs in that conversation is Marcus Thuram, who broke into Sochaux’s first team in Ligue 2 last season and currently plies his trade at Guingamp. Teams like Guingamp don’t usually have someone who could be considered a blue-chip prospect, but with every passing week that’s looking to be the case. Despite a pedestrian season in Ligue 2 last season, he’s been very good so far this season, alternating between playing as a lone striker or part of a striker duo alongside Jimmy Briand. Only seven players in Ligue 1 have contributed a greater amount of shots (shots + key passes) per 90 minutes in open play than Thuram’s rate of 4.80, and no player on Guingamp has a higher xG contribution rate. It’s early days, but things are looking strong so far: The biggest reason for optimism with Thuram is the versatility in his game, the potential to be something of a unicorn as an attacker. He’s 6’2, strong like an ox, and could be used as a stereotypical target man. You can even see it with his shot distribution, with over 36% of his shots have come via headers. He’s got all the traits needed to be the type of player who you can play long balls to and hope he can box out his opponent so he can lay it off for upcoming teammates. But he’s also got the athleticism and skill set to played out wide when needed. In the Under-20 setup, he played for the French national team on the wings with his ability to beat out opponents via his trickery and burst. He’s just as comfortable being able to beat defensive lines with his timing and having passes come to him on the ground. There will even be times where he combines both: the ability to stiff arm a defender and blow past him. https://streamable.com/p4zws For a guy with a high center of gravity, Thuram has the ability to shift direction in 1v1 situations with feints and turns. It can look awkward at times seeing him be defended by guys who are half a foot shorter than him, nibbling at his feet. It can make for an awkward kind of scene where it’s almost akin to men versus boys out there, but it works more often than it doesn’t. https://streamable.com/ytzgk Guingamp this season have made him arguably their main focal point in their attack, an attack that’s right around average by numerous measures whether it be shots per game or average shot quality. It’s makes it more impressive that around 82% of his own shots have come inside the penalty area. However, despite that, Thuram’s shots haven’t been of the best quality. While Guingamp do have some credible talents on the squad (including another tantalizing attacking prospect in Ludovic Blas), it’s still a team that’s on the lower end in Ligue 1. Without a robust system that makes up for that, it’s left Thuram to take some pedestrian headers that xG models would rate as low quality chances: https://streamable.com/8udx5 Normally I’d be more concerned about a player that most models indicate is taking mediocre shots on average, but considering the circumstances going on and it’s still only less than 600 minutes, it could be put on the back-burner for a little longer. If there’s one place for improvement as a player it’s probably in his passing, which considering that he rating solidly in passing models, could potentially bode well for his future. Thuram’s only averaging around 19 passes per 90 mins so it’s not as if he’s being tasked as a high usage playmaker. It’s somewhat similar to what Alassane Plea was a couple of years ago when he was still transitioning into a central player; someone who can see a potentially high value pass but not necessarily having the requisite technique needed to make them on a consistent basis. https://streamable.com/7xq4p Having said all that, it hasn’t been much of a problem so far. Out of all areas in his game, his passing is one where it would be curious to see what he looks like by seasons end when we gain a bigger sample of his work. What is Marcus Thuram’s ceiling as a player? That’s tough to say. Besides the fact that we have less than 2000 minutes of data between his time in Ligue 1 and 2, his type of archetype isn’t found too much in football. Guys who are 6’2 and can genuinely alternate between striker and winger aren’t exactly littered all over the place. At some point in their development, players like him probably would’ve been stuck at one position and not float between two. In some ways, you could make a broad and perhaps vague comparison to how Juventus have used Mario Mandzukic as an unorthodox winger who can beat up on small fullbacks in aerial duels. But even then, Thuram is blessed with pace that Mandzukic doesn’t possess even on his best days. I think there’s a chance that if Marcus Thuram hits the 90th percentile of his potential outcomes as a player, he could be a genuine force as a forward. We obviously know about the athleticism he has. While room for improvement exists in the passing department, he’s good enough to create chances for others at this stage of development whether it be crosses from the wing or headed layoffs, and he’s not a hindrance during build up play. All his statistical indicators so far show him to be a more than capable attacking prospect on a team that at best would rate as a middle of the pack Ligue 1 side. He has grown accustomed to the forward position at a quicker rate than some expected, and he just gives off the feel that he belongs in the league, which is impressive considering his struggles in Ligue 2 previously. It’s still very early days, but Marcus Thuram just might be the next great French forward in European football.

What Has Happened To The Klopp Press?

When asked how his Liverpool team would play by the media horde who greeted his unveiling as manager two years ago, Jürgen Klopp responded:

We will conquer the ball, yeah, each fucking time! We will chase the ball, we will run more, fight more.

The above is a neat synopsis of Klopp’s preferred style of play, which focuses on pressing the opponent after losing the ball and quickly transitioning into attack. It is a tactic that he successfully deployed at Borussia Dortmund and one that he has employed regularly at Liverpool. However, a noticeable aspect of the new season has been Liverpool seemingly employing a less feverish press. The Anfield Index Under Pressure Podcast led the way with their analysis, which was followed by The Times’ Jonathan Northcroft writing about it here and Sam McGuire for Football Whispers. Liverpool’s pass disruption map for the past three seasons is shown below. Red signifies more disruption (greater pressure), while blue indicates less disruption (less pressure). In the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, the team pressed effectively high up the pitch but that has slid so far this season to a significant extent. There is some disruption in the midfield zone but at a lower level than previously.

Liverpool’s zonal pass completion disruption across the past three seasons. Teams are attacking from left-to-right, so defensive zones are to the left of each plot. Data via Opta.
The above numbers are corroborated by the length of Liverpool’s opponent possessions increasing by approximately 10% this season compared to the rest of Klopp’s reign. Their opponents so far this season have an average possession length of 6.5 seconds, which is lower than the league average but contrasts strongly with the previous figures that have been among the shortest in the league. Examining their pass disruption figures game-by-game reveals further the reduced pressure that Liverpool are putting on their opponents. During 2015/16 and 2016/17, their average disruption value was around -2.5%, which they’ve only surpassed once in Premier League matches this season, with the average standing at -0.66%.
Liverpool’s game-by-game pass completion disruption for 2017/18 English Premier League season. Figures are calculated for zones above Opta x-coordinates greater than 40. Data via Opta.
The Leicester match is the major outlier and examining their passing further indicates that the high pass disruption was a consequence of them attempting a lot of failed long passes. This is a common response to Liverpool’s press as teams go long to bypass the pressure. Liverpool’s diminished press is likely a deliberate tactic that is driven by the added Champions League matches the team has faced so far this season. The slightly worrisome aspect of this tactical shift is that Liverpool’s defensive numbers have taken a hit. In open-play, Liverpool’s expected goals against figure is 0.81 per game, which is up from 0.62 last season. Furthermore, their expected goals per shot has risen to 0.13 from 0.11 in open-play. To add further defensive misery, Liverpool’s set-piece woes (specifically corners) have actually got worse this season. The team currently sit eleventh in expected goals conceded this season, which is a fall from fifth last year. This decline in underlying defensive performance has at least been offset by a rise on the attacking side of 0.4 expected goals per game to 1.78 this season. Overall, their expected goal difference of 0.79 this season almost exactly matches the 0.81 of last season. Liverpool’s major problem last season was their soft under-belly but they were often able to count on their pressing game denying their opponents opportunities to exploit it. What seems to be happening this season is that the deficiencies at the back are being exploited more with the reduced pressure ahead of them. With the season still being relatively fresh, the alarm bells shouldn’t be ringing too loudly but there is at least cause for concern in the numbers. As ever, the delicate balancing act between maximising the sides attacking output while protecting the defense is the key. Klopp will be searching for home-grown solutions in the near-term and a return to the familiar pressing game may be one avenue. Given the competition at the top of the table, he’ll need to find a solution sooner rather than later, lest they be left behind.