The Rebirth Of Florian Thauvin

  Florian Thauvin has been a hot topic within French football for years. From his initial start at Bastia where he helped the club stave off relegation, to his controversial move away from Lille to Marseille, to being derided and held as an example of flawed transfer policy when he moved to Newcastle in the summer of 2015. He was once seen as the heir apparent to Franck Ribery, the type of winger who could have a whole team be built around him yet was also ridiculed by Alan Shearer on Match of the Day for wearing a tuxedo to Newcastle games. He almost became a lost figure, a once highly touted prospect left behind as a newer generation of French wonderkids like Anthony Martial, Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe made their mark. Marseille are 4th in Ligue 1 right now, which is about where you would might expect them to be considering the talent at their disposal. What’s really been interesting is the pure shot volume that they’ve been operating on, and to a lesser extent the league as a whole. Compared to the rest of the Big 5 Leagues, Ligue 1 doesn’t usually have as many shots in their games because of the slower pace. Teams as a whole have also gotten smarter during the Opta era when it comes to prioritizing shot location, and not just dithering about the pitch and launching 20+ yard shots on a consistent basis. Or at least they had: so it makes what’s happening in Ligue 1 this season all the more interesting with shot volume up across the board, and lots from range. Why that’s the case, I’m not entirely sure. It could also be that this season, Ligue 1 is almost the junior version of the PL where there’s a core four (PSG, Monaco, Lyon, Marseille), and then there’s everyone else fighting for scraps. Certainly, the fact that Ligue 1 has two extreme outliers within that core four is helping as well. Both PSG and Marseille rank in the top 12 within the big five in Europe when it comes to shots per game and shots inside the box. Half of this at least passes the smell test. You could’ve imagined PSG leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, as they’re as close to the Monstars as Ligue 1 has seen in the modern era. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDna-qlJ5pg In terms of recent history, we have never seen two teams shoot more times in Ligue 1.

Year Team Shots per game
2017-18 PSG 17.4
2017-18 Marseille 16.6
2013-14 PSG 15.7
2011-12 Montpellier 15.7
2009-10 Marseille 15.7

At the head of this for Marseille has been Thauvin, who’s having by far the best season of his career. The untapped potential that many had seen in him has come full bloom over the 1606 minutes he’s played this season. Out of all player in Ligue 1 to have played at least 450 minutes, Thauvin is in the top 10 in non-penalty goals + assists per 90, and in the top five in expected goal contribution per 90 minutes. He’s been the best player on arguably the 2nd best team in Ligue 1. Never has he been given as much responsibility in attack as he has this season, and he’s responded as well as one could’ve hoped for. There’s such a fluidity and flexibility within Marseille’s set up whenever they’re in possession. On the most basic level, what Marseille try to do is offer passing outlets in tight spaces, forming different types of shapes on the pitch where they are progressing the ball from one zone to another. At times, they’ll try and shrink the pitch so as whenever they try and switch the play from one side to another, it could lead to a dangerous opportunity. In a sense, there’s little bits here and there where it’s reminiscent of the Bielsa led 2014-15 side. It’s a deliberate, methodical style of play looking for the first crack in place and immediately pouncing on it based on the caliber of attacking players and passers on the team. With the likes of Jordan Amavi, Bouna Sarr, and Hiroki Sakai, there will always be the corresponding width needed for the attacking midfielders to drift inside and play in the half space. This could be manipulated into third man/blindside runs where the full backs take advantage of the attention towards the midfielders in the half space, and they have acres of field to run into and potentially find something advantageous. https://streamable.com/em4qc Seeing the intricacy that has been displayed makes it a teeny bit more understandable as to why Marseille skewed older with their transfer recruitment over the past 2-3 windows. The failed experiment at Lille has shown that it can be very hard teaching a young squad to implement this sort of structure. What Marseille did still does carry the very real downside risk of having lots of older players with years left on their contracts on wages that won’t be easy to shed, but at least they’ve gotten close to the best-case “win now” scenario where everything is clicking, and the older players still have some gas in the tank. What’s helped Thauvin this season is that there’s a clear preference as to how Marseille attack with the ball. Marseille are a right sided dominant team with their attacks, which means Thauvin sees a lot of the ball. His position varies depending on whether the ball is played long or short by the keeper or defense. If the ball is being circulated out of the back, Thauvin will tend to stick somewhat closer to the sidelines. The goal of this is having someone as technically proficient as him as one of the passing options within the shape that’s being constructed to progress the ball forward. However, sometimes he’ll drift into the middle of the park to help switch the play when there’s an opening. https://streamable.com/ms5rr His ability to work in tight areas means he is hard to knock off the ball during passing sequences. When the ball is recycled back from the middle or attacking third back to the defense. Thauvin will usually stay closer to the middle of the pitch while the full backs take full ownership of the wing area, kind of lurking around to see if there’s space to run into so he can play a final ball. There will also be times where nothing is going on in terms of support and Thauvin takes the ball from around the midfield area and gets it to the final third by dribbling. He’s not exactly someone who has the athleticism to blow by past everyone for 60+ yards, but again he excels at getting past opponents in tight areas and having that mini burst. https://streamable.com/p7qoz When the ball enters the final third, Thauvin’s role is very much similar to a lot of inverted wingers. When he does decide to shoot, most of his shots come from the right channel in the penalty area and right half of the danger zone. His shot selection isn’t perfect, he is still prone to take his fair share of bad shots from the perimeter. Some of them are excusable because there weren’t other viable options outside taking a 3-4% shot, but compared to the likes of Memphis Depay or Keita Balde, he does have worse shot selection on average. https://streamable.com/sf4dp When he makes a pass into the penalty area, one thing he’ll do is briskly jog into the area to present himself as a threat if he does get a pass back from the original target and shoot himself. Sometimes the spacing can be a little weird when it happens but it does represent another option. https://streamable.com/yiplu Marseille isn’t a hugely fast team, but against a defense that isn’t set, they can get men forward and get opportunities because their attackers have mobility and can viably occupy different spots on the pitch as threats (especially when Germain is playing as the forward). When given the ball to run and with a non-settled defense, Thauvin is a dual threat as both a creator and a shot taker. This is probably the part of his game that has most improved over the past few years and can make smart choices. When he does pass it, he generally likes to aim it on the right half of the penalty box and trusts his teammates will get on the end of it. https://streamable.com/7k2zs There will be those who’ll look at Thauvin’s success and say something to the tune of “well of course he’s doing better in the Ligue 1, it’s a weaker league compared to the Premier League”. This kind of analysis is very basic, and ignores the number of successes that have come with paying for young French talents over the past few years, but it is true that Thauvin’s time at Newcastle was an unmitigated disaster. But we can at least give educated guesses as to why his time in the Premier League was dreadful:

  • He went from Ligue 1 at age 22 after not exactly setting the world on fire in his previous season at Marseille. Considering that the team in question was a relegation candidate like Newcastle + a different financial environment, paying ~£15M was a risky proposition.
  • The criticism of him not tracking back defensively wasn’t entirely off base, and Thauvin wasn’t nearly good enough in attack to make up for it.
  • He played very few minutes, 182 of them as a sub and only started 3 of his 13 games.
  • He went to Newcastle, who were coached by Steve McLaren. That’s challenging for anyone, let alone a young French kid in his first big move.

Assuming his form continues until the end of the season, there’s a good chance that some team in Europe would try and get him over the summer. Thauvin has reportedly been lined up by the likes of Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid for a move away from the Stade Veledrome. There’s no guarantee that moving again from Marseille will work out any better, and he very well might be a player who can only thrive in Ligue 1, but we do have a grander sample size of what he is compared to 2015. He probably rated as a top 15 attacking player in Ligue 1 last season, and on current form, he’s been the best non-PSG attacker in the league. He’s been a genuinely good player who, at least for this season, has made the leap to great. Florian Thauvin is proof of just how hard it can be to forecast player development and how wildly it can vary before a player delivers on early promise. He’s gone from a prodigy to mercurial talent to bust to salvation in a short space of time and he’s still just 24 years old. These should be his best years. In some ways, his career has mirrored someone like Adnan Januzaj, with both players taking the road less travelled to before looking like finally realizing their potential as a player.  At the rate he is going, he’s certainly in contention for the spot in the French National side heading into the 2018 World Cup. It’s been a wild ride, but it could end up with him leading Marseille to their first appearance back in the Champions League since 2013-14.

Liga NOS Talents: Beyond The Big Three

When most people think of the Portuguese league, they think about youngsters and exciting, creative players. Overall, I think they’re right: wingers and attacking midfielders are our thing and, whether they are Portuguese or foreigners who came to make the jump, this is very much a hunting ground for the European elite. Sporting’s Gelson Martins is a key part of their set-up and depending on what he shows at the World Cup (you already know how clubs are), could very well move for figures around the 40M€ mark next summer. Benfica’s Zivkovic puts up some of the league’s finest numbers every time he plays but rarely plays, for reasons unknown. But you’ve probably heard of those guys and the “big three” just aren’t willing to sell their assets for less than humongous figures. What clubs often fail to look at is the other side of the coin: other Portuguese clubs often sell incredibly cheaply. Often burdened by troublesome financial situations, they have no leverage to refuse decent offers even if they’re well under the player’s market value. That price-quality ratio turns this league into an ideal yet somewhat unexplored shopping spot for mid-table sides in Spain, Italy and France. By way of contrast, the Premier League clubs are the rich friends who don’t really need to buy stuff on sale. Some clubs in particular have caught on: Nice got Jean Michaël Seri and Dalbert for a combined 3M€, from Paços de Ferreira and Vitória SC respectively and the bottom half of Ligue 1 has picked up a few others. Even the few guys that were slightly more expensive have been very much worth it: Zé Luiz has become a very interesting forward for champions Spartak in Russia – costing them 6.5M€ -, while you’d sure as hell give 7.2M€ for Diogo Jota today wouldn’t you? Also, remember when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink moved from Boavista to Leeds for less than 2M€ before costing Chelsea around 10 times that? (Maybe you do? I don’t, it was a month before I was born, but sounds like one hell of a deal!) So, let’s take a look at three interesting wide forwards popping up in lesser sides in Portugal, that clubs will be looking at, and figure out if they would be worth pursuing in the market. First name on the table is Shoya Nakajima. Since I know it’s a rarity to see a Japanese player around these parts, it’s worth mentioning that he plays for newly promoted side Portimonense who, due to contacts in Japan, have brought in a couple of J-League players over the last couple of seasons with moderate success. If you look at his initial numbers he looks straight up insane, that he’s highly rated makes sense and just being generally fun to watch. Playing as a wide forward from the left, he’s already scored 6 goals and sprinkled a couple of assists on top. He won his spot with the season already under way, that’s why he has played only ~700’ – and means we should be cautious in our interpretation. If we look at his xG Chain Template, it’s not surprising to see his numbers drop when looked at through xG glasses since he scored his six goals from only 21 shots and he takes a large portion of them from outside the box (~62%). That said, 0.29 xG/90 is still very decent for a wide forward, and five of his goals have come from inside the box so… I think he gets the concept. Beyond that, he is actually quite the complete creator, with above average dribbling and key pass numbers. A clever little footballer, his capacity to pierce through tight spaces from his low centre of gravity with the ball always under control should be highlighted. Any potential progression to a bigger team should be aided by that capacity to work against closed defences. Well, by that and by the fact that his team doesn’t really play like a small side in a traditional sense – Portimonense have the 4th highest goal tally in the league despite just being promoted (they also concede the 2nd most in the league so yes, they’re a very fun watch). Portimonense’s largest ever sale: Simy to Crotone (16/17) – 830k € Next up is Vitória SC’s Raphinha. Last season Vitória had their best season in years, finishing in fourth with an eight point margin to rivals Braga who had to settle for fifth. Raphinha was in his first season with the main team and his influence grew as the season went on, taking advantage of teammates’ injuries to get minutes  and finishing the season with 10 G+A in ~1700’. With player turnover in the summer, he became the team’s number one option out wide at just 20 years old. He is the league’s fourth top scorer with eight goals already, is playing in the Europa League and is deemed the star man for his side. He is bound to show up on radar of a lot of clubs but the question is, is he worth pursuing? Well, he is obviously overperforming when it comes to goals, but he is still putting up decent xG figures for a winger – reminder that this is a forward template and except if you’re called Mo Salah, you’re not really expected to be putting up 0.5 XG/90 from wide. Left footed playing from the right, he tends to appear well in the box where he takes a solid majority of his shots. Creation wise, he relies a lot on set-pieces to back up his key passing numbers but, on the other hand, is a good set-piece taker. For a player who is as technically able as he is, he doesn’t complete nor try as large of an amount of take-ons as one might expect, but it comes down to the set-up more than the individual ability. Vitória SC are very counter-attack reliant offensively, so his role is direct and heavily focused on exploiting his speed into open space and the timing of his runs into the box. I’m a bit doubtful of his potential to grow into a player for a possession-based big team set-up but could very well work as a Mahrez-esque asset for a mid-table side. The Liga NOS-Serie A route is a bit uncommon but since Raphinha carries Italian nationality alongside his Brazilian one, I can see it happening. Vitória SC’s largest ever sale: Bebe to Manchester United (10/11) – 8.8M€ Finally, Oghenekaro Etebo. Although semi-unknown as well, Etebo is, out of these three, the player with most press behind him. He’s been linked to Premier League teams multiple times over the last year (mainly Leicester but WBA and Arsenal as well) and, with his 13 senior caps, is a familiar face of this Nigeria side that qualified for the World Cup, so it’s pretty safe to assume he’ll be in Russia. All very positive signs for a 22-year-old who is now only on his second full season with Feirense. Let’s start by saying his output isn’t amazing, but it does match expectation and he is legitimately quite an interesting player. Often playing from the left in Feirense’s 4-2-3-1, he’s been deployed centrally a couple of times as well – either as a striker or as an attacking midfielder. In the national team, he has also been used in a central role with a lot of emphasis on late runs into the box. Back to the league, Feirense are in an awful run of form and are the third worst team at keeping possession of the ball. An even bigger issue is that they don’t play many long balls either (12th in the league). They want to keep the ball and play short with it, they’ve just been unable to. This means Etebo doesn’t get the ball anywhere near enough, is often positioned too deep to have much offensive impact so – on the other hand – gets more defensive action than most wide players. He is one of those players who I believe would look a lot better in a per-possession spectrum as opposed to per-90 minutes – something that has been discussed on Twitter a bit as of late. Working with what we’ve got, though, we have a player who has for sure been sipping on fruit from the xG tree over the summer: going from taking only 41% of his shots from inside the box last season to 66% in this one. In fact, he has already taken more shots from inside the 18 yard box in 17/18 than he did in all of 16/17. Although he doesn’t often provide that magical final ball, he is a very decent passer and quite a competent ball-carrier, combining his physicality with a capacity to dribble through tight spaces. With four goals and an assist, he has contributed directly to 45% of his team’s goals and has a skill-set versatile enough to adapt to quite a lot of systems. Feirense’s largest ever sale: Vaná to FC Porto (17/18) – 1M€ In conclusion, we’re often really focused in the high end of the transfer market, where absolutely every risk should be calculated due to the large amounts invested. If there’s a situation where teams should take a chance it’s when approaching these type of players – young, clearly talented, putting up above average numbers in a lesser context. I mention these club’s biggest sales to give you an idea of how little these players could go for. Vitória are a top 5 team in the country, so Raphinha could prove a tricky one to get for a reasonable value, but the others will for sure be picked up for values that won’t make a dent on the budget of pretty much any top-5 league team.

Identifying Ligue 1’s Next Breakout Talent: Houssem Aouar

The summer of 2017 was when big named players from Olympique Lyonnais left for greener pastures. Alexandre Lacazette finally made his long-awaited move to Arsenal, Corentin Tolisso left for Bayern Munich, Maxime Gonalons took his talents to Italy and signed for Roma. Even Rachid Ghezzal, a player who was equally as frustrating as he was brilliant, left for Monaco on a free transfer. While it might be a bit much to claim that this was going to be a new era, it was clear that there was a distinctly youthful approach occurring, with the club once again tapping into its famous academy along with the  youthful players they bought as replacements for the departed.

So far, it’s worked about as well as one could hope for. Lyon were never going to challenge for the title, but they sit 3rd in Ligue 1 with a massive goal differential at +21 and underlying numbers that for the most part look like what you would expect from a top three side in Ligue 1. It’s fair to say that they won’t continue shooting at a clip of 16.1% in open play (only PSG has a higher conversion clip) but they mostly project as a good side even if the goals start drying up. Nabil Fekir is back to his best and is doing the business, Mariano is shooting first and asking questions later, and their midfield has arguably been the best in Ligue 1 despite their main three contributors being 20 and under, which makes that even more impressive.

One of the members in that midfield is Houssem Aouar. While mainly a central midfielder, he’s shown versatility as to where he can play. He can be used as a deep midfielder in a double pivot, as the furthest forward midfielder in a trio, or even giving width as a wide man who can drift inside to help overlapping fullbacks. In a sense, his positional versatility is reminiscent of Tolisso, who was also able to play basically anywhere on the pitch and not be a hindrance to the team. Considering the circumstances he’s dealing with and who he’s replacing, Aouar has been as good as you could realistically expect from a 19 year old who’s logging regular minutes in a major league for the first time.

 

 

One thing that has helped Aouar is that whenever he’s part of a midfield trio, there’s a nice blend of talents for him to work with. Lucas Toussart has replaced Gonalons as the steady hand who can act as a water carrier if required, while Tanguy Ndombele does a little bit of everything. More importantly is that both of those players aren’t terrible with the ball at their feet, which helps considering that Lyon give off the feel of a club who win by talent more so than with a cohesive structure.

It can be argued that Aouar’s greatest trait is his dribbling and how he can make opponents look silly with little shakes and changes of direction. He is one of the better dribblers you’ll find in Ligue 1 when it comes to being able to maneuver in tight situations. In an era of football where space is becoming less and less available, players who can be hard to nudge off the ball are assets. Aouar profiles as someone who can potentially become something of a needle player: someone who can maintain the ball in dangerous areas despite being pressured by opponents.

 

I wouldn’t say that Aouar is fast but he can be intelligent with how he maneuvers himself and find space to work with. He’s someone who glides on the pitch more than he would zoom past people. When he plays with NDombele and Tousart, there are situations where he will try to break in through opposition lines and get himself into the penalty area. They don’t happen too often, but you see it here and there. When it does happen, he seems to be more comfortable making cutbacks towards open teammates and looking to set them up for solid opportunities.

 

 

If Aouar’s dribbling is his best attribute, not far behind is his ability to play defense splitting passes and he has been in an ideal situation for this development. Lyon constantly play 3 or 4 attackers with pace that have a solid first touch once they receive the ball. Whenever he’s played in a double pivot or part of a midfield three, the pitch is stretched out it’s allowing him options on the ball. In particular, he’s developed a nice little chemistry with Memphis and Mariano where he will look for an audacious pass whenever either of them loses their marker.

 

For being only 5’7, he’s also a surprisingly decent tackler. He’s dogged and to borrow a tired cliche, “gets stuck in”.  You could imagine that in a team where there was more cohesion in terms of how to press with specific triggers, he would fit in. Considering how good is he with the ball at his feet, in a counter pressing system that prioritized transitions, he would be able to create scenarios both for himself and others.

 

 

With the way Aouar moves around and constantly tries to find space to work with, he can do a decent job in being part of scenarios where Lyon will have a man advantage so the ball could be progressed into dangerous areas.

 

 

I’m not sure Aouar profiles as a guy who will produce high expected goals per season when he’s in his prime, and that could potentially leave his contributions underrated. With how much he loves being on the ball and presenting himself as an outlet in deeper areas, his importance comes more so in progressing plays rather than finishing them with a shot for himself or others. He doesn’t shoot at high volume, and his locations haven’t been inspiring either. Even though his chance creation numbers are pretty good considering how many different positions he’s played, they’re not spell binding. It’s possible all this will improve over time and with more coaching but I also think that with him being 5’7, potential recruiters might try to stick him as a #10 and I’m not convinced he would be great in that role.

Houssem Aouar is only 19 years old, but he’s hit the ground running already at a decent team in a big league. At his best, he’s a magician with the ball and he’s not afraid to try and create big chances from deeper areas. The fact that he’s this young and is already looking like an above average midfielder says a lot about his possible upside once he hits his prime years.  Despite my apprehensions towards Bruno Genesio as a manager, he’s at a club that does like to promote youth at a steady pace and he’ll stand a better chance at being a consistent starter at Lyon over the next couple of years. The best compliment that could be given to him is that Lyon sold a great midfielder in Corentin Tolisso over the summer, and haven’t seemed to have missed him.

On Burnley and Expected Goals

Expected goals has found itself outside the confines of the analytics community this season, which has brought renewed questions regarding its flaws, foibles and failures. The poster-child for expected goals flaws has been Burnley and their over-performing defence, even finding themselves in the New York Times courtesy of Rory Smith. Smith’s article is a fine piece blending comments and insights from the analytics community and Sean Dyche himself. Smith quotes Dyche describing Burnley’s game-plan when defending:

The way it is designed is to put a player in a position that it is statistically, visually and from experience, harder to score from.

Several analyses have dug deeper into Burnley’s defence last season, including an excellent piece by Mark Thompson for StatsBomb. In his article, Mark used data from Stratagem to describe how Burnley put more men between the shooter and the goal than their peers, which may go some way to explaining their over-performance compared with expected goals. Further work on the EightyFivePoints blog quantified how the number of intervening defenders affected chance quality. The author found that when comparing an expected goal model with and without information on the number of intervening defenders and a rating for defensive pressure, Burnley saw the largest absolute difference between these models (approximately 4 goals over the season). If there is a quibble with Smith’s article it is that it mainly focuses on this season, which was only 12 games old at the time of writing. Much can happen in small samples where variance often reigns, so perhaps expanding the analysis to more seasons would be prudent. The table below summarises Burnley’s goals and expected goals conceded over the past three and a bit seasons.

Burnley’s non-penalty expected goals and goals conceded over the past four seasons. Figures for first 13 games of 2017/18 season. Data via Opta.
Each season is marked by over-performance, with fewer goals conceded than expected. This ranges from 5 goals last season to a scarcely believable 15 goals during their promotion season in the Championship. The above table and cited articles paint a picture of a team that has developed a game-plan that somewhat flummoxes expected goals and gains Burnley an edge when defending. However, if we dig a little deeper, the story isn’t quite as neat as would perhaps be expected. Below are cumulative totals for goals and expected goals as well as the cumulative difference over each season.
Burnley’s cumulative non-penalty goals and expected goals conceded (left) and the cumulative difference between them (right) over the past four seasons. Figures for first 13 games of 2017/18 season. Data via Opta.
In their 2014/15 season, Burnley were actually conceding more goals than expected for the majority of the season until a run of clean sheets at the end of the season saw them out-perform expected goals. After the 12 game mark in their Championship season, they steadily out-performed expected goals, yielding a huge over-performance. This continued into their 2016/17 season in the Premier League over the first 10 games where they conceded only 12 goals compared to an expected 19. However, over the remainder of the season, they slightly under-performed as they conceded 39 goals compared with 36 expected goals. The above illustrates that Burnley’s over-performance in previous Premier League seasons is actually driven by just a handful of games, rather than a systematic edge when examining expected goals. This leaves us needing to put a lot of weight on their Championship season if we’re going to believe that Burnley are magical when it comes to expected goals. While the descriptive and predictive qualities of expected goals in the Premier League is well-established, there is less supporting evidence for the Championship. Consequently it may be wise to take their Championship figures with a few grains of salt. This season and last has seen Burnley get off to hot starts, with what looks like a stone-cold classic example of regression to the mean last season. If we ignore positive variance for a moment, perhaps their opponents got wise to their defensive tactics and adapted last season but then you have to assume that they’ve either forgotten the lessons learned this season or Dyche has instigated a new and improved game-plan. The cumulative timelines paint a different picture to the season aggregated numbers, which might lead us to conclude that Burnley’s tactics don’t give them quite the edge that we’ve been led to believe. In truth we’ll never be able to pin down exactly how much is positive variance and how much is driven by their game-plan. However, we can state that given our knowledge of the greater predictive qualities of expected goals when compared to actual goals, we would expect Burnley’s goals against column to be closer to their expected rate (1.3 goals per game) than their current rate (0.6 goals per game) over the rest of the season. Time will tell.