Should Chelsea Sell Eden Hazard to Real Madrid?

In the wake of Cristiano Ronaldo’s shock move from Real Madrid to Juventus, the transfer market is waiting for the next shoe to drop. And one of those shoes looks a lot like Eden Hazard. Madrid is all of a sudden in the market for a superstar winger, and Eden Hazard has been Chelsea’s superstar winger for going on six years now. So, should Chelsea be willing to sell Hazard and reinvest the money to rebuild last year’s fifth place squad?  

The Argument for Selling Hazard

Everything is price dependent, but one thing that’s undeniably true is that Hazard will never be more valuable than he is right now. There are a number of reasons for that. He’s 27 years old, and he plays a position where speed and agility are important. He doesn’t have that many years at the peak of his game left. Common wisdom is that it’s better to sell a year to soon than a year too late, and it’s hard to imagine there are going to be many summers after this one which won’t come after a drop in performance. In fact, last season was his second worst at Chelsea both in turns of total combined goals and assists and minutes played. Then there’s the relevant interested party. It’s not every summer that Real Madrid has money burning a hole in their pocket and a star of Ronaldo’s wattage needing replacement. And while it seems like Spain’s richest team is always splashing the cash, it’s actually been a quiet couple of years at the Bernabeu. Madrid haven’t made a truly major signing since they brought in James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos after the 2014 World Cup. There have been lots of smaller moves, bringing in players like Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez and Marcos Asensio to add depth and potential to the side, but the big name wheeling and dealing has largely stopped. Under the now departed Zinedine Zidane an odd thing happened at Madrid. For three years, the team was stable and consistent. It’s also the summer after a World Cup. It’s not like Hazard made his bones in Russia, he was already one of the world’s biggest names, but a star turn on the biggest stage never hurts. He scored three goals and added a couple of assists, playing an integral part of a front three which included Romelu Lukaku and (for the later stages of the tournament at least) Kevin De Bruyne. Belgium were one of the most fun, attacking sides to watch in the tournament, and Hazard was a big part of that. And finally, there’s the actual production. For all the obvious talent, Hazard’s top line numbers, his goals and assists have never been at super star level. Last season his non-penalty scoring contribution (the combination of non-penalty goals and assists) per 90 minutes was only 0.49, the 41st best mark of players in the league who played over 600 minutes. Twelve goals and four assists isn’t anything to sneeze at but take away a couple of penalties and it leaves good but not great, production. If Madrid’s going to pay top dollar for that, it’s at least worth it to listen.  

The Argument for Keeping Hazard

The problem with judging Hazard simply by goals and assists is that he does so much with the ball that doesn’t directly show up in those numbers. At his best, he’s an epic ball progressor, able to effortlessly pick the ball up in his own half, and charge down the pitch leaving defenders in his wake. In the attacking third his ability on the ball pays dividends in ways that goal and assist numbers don’t quite measure. He unsettles defenses, committing an extra defender or two or three. By the time the ball leaves his feet the opposing defense is scrambling to recover and often times the dividends aren’t realized until several passes later. That’s why Hazard’s xGBuildup, his contribution to passing moves that ended up creating expected goals for teammates, is a strong 0.83. That’s 23rd in the league (among players who played more than 600 minutes last season), which seems low until you consider exactly how much Hazard was doing on his own. He might have been 23rd, but that’s in large part because there are 12 different Manchester City players ahead of him on the list, and five different Arsenal ones. The heavily possession based styles of Arsenal and City, and the fact that they ran up 2.03 and 1.69 expected goals per game respectively, stacks the deck way in their favor as compared to Chelsea’s 1.52 expected goals per game, which came from their more direct, less build-up heavy, style. Hazard was also seventh in the league in open play passes into the penalty box per 90 minutes with 2.96, a stat that really starts to get at what it is he does so well. In an attack that was allergic to pouring men forward, which often left only Hazard and a striker in advanced areas to create attacking moves, he still found ways to get the ball into the box. He progressed the ball forward for teammates and contributed to the attack, even if he was generally speaking in less advantageous positions than wingers on other top Premier League sides. That disadvantage will almost certainly change in the upcoming season. After years of playing under the restrictive systems of Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho, Maurizio Sarri will be a tactical breath of fresh air. Players like Dries Mertins and Lorenzo Insigne flourished at Napoli under Sarri. They got to play in a system that emphasized using the ball to create chances, empowered midfielders to combine in creative ways to get them running at goal with three attackers ahead of them, and broadly rejected playing a closed style, in favor of taking risks. Hazard has simply never had the opportunity to play under a manager like Sarri at Chelsea. He has the skill set to thrive in ways that few other people in the world might. It’s possible that even if he begins to lose a little bit of his physical edge, being unleashed with the ball at his feet by a manager committed to getting the most out of his attacking talents will more than outweigh that decline, preserving his transfer value for another year or two. Beyond that, given the possibility of what Hazard might do under Sarri, it’s hard envision how Chelsea might get the equivalent bang for their buck on the open market if they had to replace Hazard. Giant price tags are had to invest smartly. Often times a team simply ends up paying the premium they received forward, in turn enriching the team they buy replacements from. PSG broke the bank for Neymar which led to Barcelona breaking the bank for Coutinho which led to Liverpool breaking the bank for Virgil van Dijk which led to Southampton smartly not shipping the money on….and also almost getting relegated. Reinvesting the windfall from selling a superstar for an outsized chunk of change can be done smartly, but it takes time, planning and a several windows of well prepared business. Replacing a superstar’s production involves immediately replacing them. Chelsea were a fifth place team last season, losing Hazard, and not replacing his contributions in buildup play and attack, would make it extremely difficult for them to qualify for the Champions League this season. Teams don’t simply lose their best attacker and get better. It’s possible that selling Harzard to Real Madrid might make the most long terms sense for Chelsea from a dollars and cents perspective. They may not ever get another chance to get the gigantic payday that Madrid could provide. But, if that offer can’t be effectively reinvested quickly then it still might be worth it. Persuading Madrid to overpay for Hazard only makes sense if Chelsea can take advantage of the king’s ransom. If they can’t, and with an accelerated transfer schedule this season it seems unlikely they’d be able to, then the team should at least give Hazard the chance to thrive under Sarri and see what happens.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Fulham’s Seri-ous Transfer Coup

There wasn’t much doubt that Jean Michaël Seri would leave OGC Nice this summer. The club failing to qualify for European football, a year after finishing third in 2016–17. On a team level, it was hard for Nice to duplicate that kind of success. They’re fighting upstream in resources available to them, and their statistical profile in 16-17 wasn’t what you would expect from a top three side in France. Seri’s performance this past season weren’t quite up to the standards that he showed during that special season when he was one of the best players in the league, but he was still solidly above average.

All of that should’ve equated to a fairly robust market for Seri’s services, and yet it was a promoted side in Fulham that ended up with a player that frankly could’ve played for clubs that had Champions League football to look forward to in 2018-19. It’s a genuine coup for Fulham that they were able to snag someone of Seri’s quality, and offers further proof as to the sheer financial power that the PL operates at where a newly promoted club could get a player that would help almost every club in the league.

If we assume that Slaviša Jokanović continues to have Fulham operate in a similar manner that they did at the Championship, a possession-based system that produced the second highest goals in the league, tied for third in shots and second in open play shots, Seri will be a solid acquisition considering his experiences with Nice. Seri’s style of play should help Fulham’s transition into the PL as he should project as an upgrade over what they already have in the midfield department.

What made Seri such a hot name, particularly after 2016-17, was his quality as a passer. He’s someone who can break defensive lines with regularity, and not even look like he’s breaking a sweat while doing so. He’s such a good passer during buildup play and in the middle third that even if he only tops out at producing 6-8 non-penalty goals + assists over 2500+ minutes, he’ll still be an asset because he’s very helpful in getting from one zone to another before even approaching the final third. The versatility in his passing range is legitimate, and it doesn’t feel as if the ball gets stuck to his feet for longer than it should. It’s in and out in no time.

 

In addition to his work on the ball, he’s helpful with his off-ball movements. Sometimes, he’d be the deepest of Nice’s three-man midfield, supporting the center backs, and other times he’ll run into space further up the pitch in more dangerous areas. When he was further back, Seri helped in combination play and creating overloads so there would be an open player in proximity who could receive a pass and dribble forwards, with Adrien Tameze’s mobility in particular helping with the ball carrier duties if he was the one open for the pass. Seri’s very intelligent in general when it came to finding enough space to where he can receive the ball and make his next move.

One way that I think Seri could fit in well would be incorporating plays like this to help get him into advance areas so he can work his magic. At times Fulham will have their wingers, particularly Ryan Sessegnon, come inwards while the fullbacks maintain the width. This could allow for quick combination play that allows Seri to dribble the ball into the final third uninterrupted if an opponent is sticking close to Sessegnon. Seri isn’t an amazing dribbler and he doesn’t possess an elite level burst, but he’s got enough mobility to have him progress play in this manner.

 

 

If Fulham continue with having Sessegnon play more of his minutes as an attacking player versus at fullback, he’ll benefit from how Seri can help get him the ball in advantageous scenarios. While many people have been excited with Sessegnon’s speed and overall athletic gifts, he also has a very good understanding of when to migrate into the penalty area to be at the receiving end of cutbacks or just scooping up the loose ball for a shooting opportunity. It’s why his shooting locations last season were so pristine for a 17-year-old attacking player. Having a midfielder behind him who is a quality passer should help with the step-up in competition, as Seri’s presence was one reason why someone like Alassane Plea turned into a solid goal scorer and shot taker over the past two seasons at Nice. Alexsander Mitrovic should also be someone that benefits for Seri’s presence if he returns to Fulham, as he’ll have someone who can set him up well whenever he tries to seal off his defender in the final third for layoffs or creating his own shooting opportunities.

It’s hard to see too much fault with the thinking behind Fulham’s move to get Jean Michaël Seri. Of all the teams who realistically had a shot of acquiring him, you could argue that someone like Fulham benefit the most from getting prime aged talents of Seri’s caliber. With the ridiculous amount of money that’s available in the Premier League, just staying up is so financially viable for teams that it’s worth it for them to push their chips on a singular talent they believe is good enough to make a difference. If Seri had gone to Arsenal for example, he certainly would’ve helped but it’s unclear how much he would’ve truly pushed the needle, and he would’ve been another player added to the long list of guys they have who are either nearing the end of their prime years or already past it.  Seri’s presence at Fulham, on the other hand, should swing the percentages in a more meaningful way in terms of avoiding relegation.

Seri’s move to Fulham is reminiscent of Dimitri Payet’s transfer from Marseille to West Ham in 2015. Payet was 28 years old and had come off what was the best season of his career up to that point. He was one of the best players in Ligue 1 during 2014–15, but Marseille missing out on the Champions League meant that they had to sell him at a discount. Marseille’s loss was West Ham’s gain and Payet helped them to their best season in nearly two decades. Of course, Payet left soon after in a blaze of glory, but he did help West Ham pocket two seasons of that delicious PL TV money while the club turned a profit on Payet’s return to Marseille.

You can see how something similar could apply to Seri and Fulham. The club now have a player who most would’ve figured had the talent to play for a Champions League side.  This year will be Seri’s age 27 season so he probably has roughly three seasons left of peak production in him. If perhaps Fulham keep him for two of them while and in the process maintain in the PL, there should be enough interest with Seri at 29 years old to allow them to potentially make a profit on a future transfer given how the football food chain works regarding player movement. They would’ve gotten quality midfield production while not having to worry about a major decline in performance by selling him at the right time.

Seri’s move to Fulham has the potential to be one of the more astute signings you’ll find from a Premier League club this summer. He’s a wonderful passer who should fit in with how Fulham operate in attack in deeper areas. He’ll feed their fullbacks when they make blindside runs into open space for potential crossing/cut-back opportunities, as well as directly contribute to some goals as well. His age profile also fits well with Fulham’s objective of maintaining Premier League survival, and he should still carry re-sale value if Fulham are cognizant of the general aging curve and when it’s time to sell. If things go according to plan, Seri and Fulham will probably be a short but fruitful marriage for both club and player.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The Great Neymar Debate

Brazil were one of the favorites to win the 2018 World Cup. Then Belgium happened, and the favorites went home in the quarterfinals. It’s impossible to talk about Brazil without talking about Neymar. His performances at the World Cup were, as ever, incredibly polarizing. Neymar usually splits opinions, but as someone within the Portuguese-speaking section of the internet, the opinions feel as divided as they’ve ever been. On one side, most stat-based websites rate him as one of the best performing players in Russia, while, on the other, a sizable portion of the public thinks he was anywhere between disappointing and straight up bad. In order to bridge the divide, I re-watched every Neymar touch from this World Cup to try and see if stats were missing something or if people were too busy judging his falls to acknowledge his contributions.  

Brazil 1-1 Switzerland

This first game was the one I looked forward to re-watching the most. People have been saying Neymar grew with the tournament and had his worst match in the debut. This was a poor result for Brazil. Although they created far more than their opponents (much like in every other game), it was the match in which Tite’s side had their lowest attacking production, with ‘only’ 1.58 expected goals. Looking at Neymar himself, he played from the left in Brazil’s front trio – much like in every other game of the tournament – and was the target of some very tight man-marking by Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami. Looking at his numbers, Neymar had four shots, four key passes and completed five dribbles – on paper you get why so many rated him highly. But re-watching the game I’d say this was his worst game of the competition. His shots amounted to only 0.20 xG, with only two in the box: one from a poor angle and a header from a cross in the second half. Dealing with Behrami as well as having Bleron Dzemaili on top of him for 70’ definitely didn’t help and Neymar’s ball-carrying became mostly ineffective. He failed at more dribbles than the five he completed. The take-ons he did complete occurred mostly in the 2nd half – a tendency we’ll touch more upon later. The complaint that Neymar loses possession too often makes some sense here as the trade-off simply wasn’t good enough. His key passes mostly came from set-pieces, another trend we’ll see throughout. But not all was bad: his connective one-touch link-up play was fantastic. Specially in the first half, where he had little space to dribble into, Neymar was able to work in tight spaces and advance the ball despite the heavy pressure from Swiss midfielders. There’s merit to Switzerland’s scheme to nullify him but he was still more influential than most in a largely uninspired Brazil.  

Brazil 2-0 Costa Rica

Costa Rica sat deep for this one but unlike Switzerland they didn’t have someone stuck to Neymar like a second skin. The first half was mostly anonymous, beyond one great run in behind that didn’t end up in a shot due to a miss control. Beyond that he saw a lot of the ball but mainly just circulated it as Brazil looked for an opening. During the second half he appeared centrally more often, became more vertical with his passing and worked himself into the box more. The Marcelo-Neymar connection was the most common combination in the team, which makes sense particularly when you see that Costa Rica’s more offensive wing-back and center-mid were on that side. Neymar led Brazil in xGChain and finished the game with 1.35 of Brazil’s 1.96 total Expected Goals. He ended up scoring an easy goal in the closing stages but worked plenty for it throughout the game, even missing the two chances below. These were chances where Neymar’s movement was outstanding, but is overshadowed by him missing – even though our model only rates them as 0.13 and 0.09 xG respectively.  

Brazil 2-0 Serbia

Against a Serbian side that needed to play for a result and offered more space than the previous two opponents, Neymar had a field day. He was able to show all his ball-carrying ability through the opposition midfield (nine dribbles, six in the final third), had seven shots amounting close to one xG (only one of them from outside the box) and showed a bit more aggressiveness in his pressing compared to the other games. He also assisted Thiago Silva’s goal from a corner. The only possible criticism of this performance has to do with his best chances to score coming in the final ten minutes after spaces were completely open and the result was largely done.  

Brazil 2-0 Mexico

First thing I noticed about Neymar in this match was how much he helped Filipe Luis defensively, which makes sense since Mexico started the game giving Brazil some trouble, but it’s ironic nonetheless, since he didn’t help Marcelo nearly as much when the first choice at left back was playing. On the ball, Neymar had some trouble against Mexico’s set-up. Juan Carlos Osorio became the latest manager to deny Neymar space. Mexico kept right back Edson Alvarez protected for the most part. Although the first time he had the chance to get isolated against him, Neymar wrecked the poor defender and created himself one of the best chances of the half. Brazil came out flying in the second half, Neymar created a great goal by dragging two players with his movement before back-heeling it to Willian and getting a tap-in. The goal forced Mexico to open themselves up even more. Much like in previous games, Neymar ended by getting a couple of great chances, one of which ends in Firmino’s goal.  

Brazil 1-2 Belgium

Much like all the previous ones, this match also became about Brazil trying to breakdown a compact defensive side, due to Belgium’s early lead. With a Belgian right side composed of Maroaune Fellaini protecting Thomas Meunier ahead of him, Neymar attempted his lowest amount of dribbles in the tournament, but was still behind every major Brazil chance in the first half – from open play and set-pieces. Neymar as somewhat slow at progressing possession when coming deeper but that changed in the second-half, as he pretty much full-on switched to a central role. From there, he was able to keep his side dynamic on the ball, drag defenders, force more one against one situations and actually create between the lines. Brazil ended up unable to break down Belgium, but it wasn’t for lack of Neymar trying. He finished with six open play key passes.   Conclusion: Neymar was key for Brazil at this World Cup. His ball-carrying is outstanding and an important part of how Brazil move forward on the ball, his shot locations have gotten better and he creates a ton for his team-mates. Teams need to set-up specifically to shut him down and even then he tends to get his way at least once or twice. This is also a lot of the reason why it was so common to watch Neymar’s (and Brazil’s) second halves be so much better than their first ones: man-marking schemes are difficult to pull off under high intensity for ninety minutes and space will gradually open up as the game goes on. This necessity to try and hinder Neymar’s game would also be a lot more beneficial for Brazil if their set-up wasn’t so asymmetric and left-side heavy in terms of creation. Tite moving him to a freer central role in what was closer to a 4-4-2 at times, end up helping him have less trouble disrupting deep block.s One of the other points to touch on, are set-pieces: a sizable portion of Neymar’s game revolves around them – both taking and winning them. His set-piece delivery itself is perfectly fine without being anything too special, becoming a relatively way to get some extra assists and key passes. It should be valued but it’s something we should strive to separate from open play creation. But, regardless of how you feel about his methods, he is one of the players to get fouled the most in the World Cup and being able to get your team extra set-pieces is an awesome asset. His side averaged 0.59 set-piece xG/90, so it’s fair to say they took advantage of it. And finally, I want to reiterate that its only natural for players of his role and quality to lose possession relatively often simply because they’ll try riskier actions more often. And, another detail noticed upon re-watching, was that in a large majority of the situations where he decides to jump into high risk-high reward situations where he is likely to lose possession, he is almost always covered by a couple of team-mates ready to counter-press or keep the team balanced. I’d go as far to say he’s sometimes not incisive enough in his build-up play, as opposed to someone who takes “too many risks” – that’s just a reactionary take that you should shy away from. I’m open to complains about his performances, but the large majority of the time they simply don’t match up with what occurs and stem from pre-conceived notions against flamboyant footballers or his persona – which shouldn’t be your ideal metric to logically evaluate a performance. He’s far from being my Golden Ball of the tournament, but Neymar was most definitely not the reason why such a dominant Brazil crashed out of World Cup in the quarterfinals.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Nate Silver Day 24: A Champion is crowned

Nate started the tournament with $571,538. He’ll end it with either $628,624 with a France win, or $851,838 with a Croatia upset. If it’s the former, he’ll have seen his bankroll grow 10% over the course of the World Cup. Croatia wins, his bankroll will end up having grown 49%. While neither is the stratospheric rise of the 2014 World Cup, 10% bankroll growth is not too shabby.

 

Bankroll % Team Wager Risked To Win Result
10.74% Croatia Champion 75666 147549 0

 

I’m skipping the second England-Belgium game as it’s even less meaningful than the first.

I hope y’all have enjoyed the World Cup as much as I have. Perhaps next time the US will join. Until then.

Nate Silver Day 21: I Can Has Win?

Careful Nate watchers may have caught that day 21 was missing. 

It’s been a rough stretch for Nate Silver. His bankroll is down to $782,228.

Sweden can turn things around if they can send the three lions home. It won’t be easy as England has been strangely competent this world cup.

Russia’s only loss was a meaningless game against Uruguay. They were able to hold the fort against Spain (with some help from the refs). Croatia is an easier test, but they’ve looked quite good so far.

Brazil are out after their strikers let them down:

“xG map for #BRA#BEL

As Mel Brooks said, tragedy is when I cut my little finger, comedy is when you fall in an open sewer and die. pic.twitter.com/tqz6pjM3Do”

— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) July 6, 2018

France choked the life out of Uruguay. The France-Belgium matchup is fascinating to me as there will be a massive stylistic difference. We’ll see which prevails.

 

Bankroll % Team Wager Risked To Win Result
8.87% Sweden Advance 69398 146429 0
2.03% Russia Advance 15882 26205 0

France’s Defense Steals the World Cup Show

The defining force of the 2018 World Cup has been France’s defense. They’ve conceded four goals in the entire tournament. Didier Deschamps has built a team that is devilishly difficult to break down, an immovable object that Croatia will have to pry apart if they want to stage a historic upset.

Those four measly goals came in only two matches. France gave up one to Australia in their opening match, before switching to a lineup which included Blaise Matuidi playing in the attacking band of three to bring defensive stability. Other than that, the only goals France conceded were against Argentina in their wild 4-3 round of 16 victory.

Unsurprisingly France’s underlying defensive numbers are stellar. Only Uruguay, who France soundly dispatched in the quarterfinals, conceded fewer expected goals per 90 minutes than France’s 0.47 over the course of the tournament. Similarly Uruguay was the only team that conceded a lower xG/shot rate at 0.04 to France’s 0.05. Only three teams, Australia and Senegal who didn’t advance from the group stage, and Spain gave up fewer shots. The combination of giving up very few shots and having those shots be of low xG value is the holy grail of defending. France achieved it.

France’s strong defense means that even though their somewhat meager attack has a tendency to greatly undersell its talent, the team still regularly generates more and better scoring opportunities of all types than their opponents.

 

 

The question of how France execute their defense is an interesting one. This is neither a typical modern defense, ball dominant and full of intense high pressing to win the ball back quickly nor a traditional deep block. They don’t sit back and absorb pressure. Instead they operate firmly between those two extremes.

Where France pressure teams is highly dependent on their personnel. On the left Blaise Matuidi’s presence in the attacking band means he often is challenging opponents in their own half of the field. On the right, where Kylian Mbappe is often pushed very high in the attack, France contain attacks, forcing them out wide before pressuring them as they advance.

 

 

It’s also important to understand that France’s defensive activity in the middle of the pitch is relatively light, not because they are vulnerable, but because they are so impenetrable the ball rarely makes it that far. Their dominance and solidity actually frees up defensive midfield superstar N’Golo Kante to go win the ball all over the pitch. Looking at defensive actions where the ball changes possession, it’s clear that Kante gets to have the freedom to go take the ball from opponents wherever he finds them vulnerable. It’s a clear example both of how stellar he is at getting to the right place to cause damage, and how good France are at letting him do just that.

 

 

Nobody has quite figured out how to get the best of France’s approach at this World Cup. In the semifinals Belgium, perhaps the best attacking team of the tournament were simply stopped cold.

 

 

That shot map has a whole lot of nothing on it. France were happy to let Belgium filter the ball out to the right where their defense was more than well equipped to deal with the challenges presented by Nacer Chadli.

 

 

Eden Hazard was both much more dangerous and much less able to get on the ball during the course of the match. But, ultimately, even his unstoppable dribbling on the ball didn’t do enough to pull France out of their shape and create real opportunities either for himself or for his teammates.

This will be the major problem for Croatia when it comes to the World Cup final. On the one hand, they have the midfielders who could in theory be equipped to break down France. If anybody is going to break through this fortress a combination of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Marcelo Brozovic would be that trio. On the other, the way Croatia wants to attack is by using those players to filter the ball out wide.

Croatia’s best moments all involve Modric and Rakitic drifting wide to combine with wingers and fullbacks in order to facilitate attacks down the flanks. That approach has provided just enough juice to get the job done to this point, but they also haven’t had to overcome a defense like France’s. Meanwhile, France just handled a Belgium setup where Eden Hazard was one of the wide men on the ball tasked with unsettling a defense. Croatia’s Ivan Persisic is very good winger, and Ante Rebic has his moments, but neither of them can do anything close to what Eden Hazard can on the ball. And France handled Hazard.

The other thing that France’s slightly lopsided defensive structure does is free up Kylian Mbappe in attack. Because he doesn’t have to defend like Matuidi does, he can stay higher up the pitch and combine with Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud on the counter. In Croatia’s semifinal against England, they looked their most vulnerable when England was able to get the ball forward to Raheem Sterling quickly and get him isolated against a central defender. If France can similarly isolate Mbappe then Croatia will likely be in for a long day.

Coming into the tournament the lack of a cohesive attack out of France was the main story. The way the side seemingly squandered, dynamic attacking talent overshadowed just how defensively strong they’re set up to be. As France head to the finals, the defense deserves all the attention it’s getting. Kante is every bit the superstar that his more glamorous teammates are, the beating heart at the center of a defense that has completely owned this tournament. Defense can be harder to appreciate than attack, but it’s no less important. And France have the best defender in the world in their midfield. And they’ve shown him off all tournament long.

Watch Out For The Shaq Attack: Is Xherdan Shaqiri To Liverpool A Good Signing?

When you nail as many transfers as Liverpool have done in the last few years, anything that appears less than obviously stellar raises eyebrows. If Liverpool are so smart and analytically minded, then what do they see in a just relegated Xherdan Shaqiri? The first thing to note is that this is quite obviously a percentage play depth signing. The price of around £13.75 million is cheap by comparison to most in today’s market and for that you’re getting a vastly experienced international player who is amazingly still just 26 years old. The obvious critique towards Shaqiri is his shot selection: Unlike his NBA namesake, this Shaq doesn’t much care to go to the rim. Shaqiri has scored memorable goals from range both for club and country but a player that appears to prioritise long range shooting appears to be slightly contrary to the idea that Liverpool are transitioning towards ever smarter shot locations, for which they certainly have the players. However, that may well slightly miss a necessary evil. Since the departure of Coutinho, who was variously feted and criticised for his long range shooting, usually depending on whether he was scoring them, Liverpool have lacked a go-to guy in that vein. It’s not that plan A should involve hammering in shots from 30 yards, but if plan A is faltering at the face of a parked bus, the idea that Shaqiri can be a plan B late sub who can try and make things happen is reasonably appealing. Shaqiri’s shot selection might be less than optimal, but his ability to get shots quickly may be part what has attracted Liverpool. Of the 50 players to take more than 50 shots in the Premier League last season, Shaqiri ranks fourth for the amount of them that were taken within ten seconds of his team gaining the ball, with nearly 50% of his shots coming this way, and two thirds of them coming within the five and ten second mark. Liverpool can be a fast countering team when they are allowed to be, and Shaqiri fits fairly well into that profile. Is his defensive work up to scratch? The total volume here is mid range at around ten pressure events per game and it’s clear that he fairly rigorously kept to his flank last season. Liverpool’s uber-pressers such as Roberto Firmino or Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain clock in at 20-plus pressure events per game, so there’s room to catch up there, but Mohamed Salah was down on 14 per game, and it’s not unreasonable to envisage Shaqiri as a Salah back-up, at least as one of his potential roles. What else do you get? He’s a pretty competent set-piece taker both creatively and for shooting. He ranked 8th in the Premier League last season for chances created via set pieces at 0.92 per 90. When you consider James Milner was Liverpool’s chief provider there and consider again the loss of Coutinho, the option of Shaqiri becomes again more logical. What’s the risk? Not very much. At best you reinvigorate Shaqiri and find the guy that was of sufficient class to be part of Bayern Munich’s squad for two and a half seasons, at worst you have a player who is capable of leading the team through cup fixtures and offering general squad depth. At the price, even if the transfer doesn’t work out, it would be hard not to recoup after a year or two. Were this a banner signing it would be far easier to criticise, but there’s enough around the margins to see it as a reasonably smart play in an ever inflating market. It would be a surprise to see Shaqiri taking staring minutes away from Liverpool’s dynamic trio of attackers, and it looks unlikely that he has enough versatility to drop further back into Liverpool’s midfield. However, Liverpool did great work last season in incorporating better rotation into their team selections and fleshed out the squad effectively. They promoted from within with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez and hit the jackpot with another unheralded signing in Andrew Robertson thriving. More squad depth will do no harm, and the bottom line is that Liverpool are covering some areas that they are slightly lacking with Shaqiri. There’s quite a lot of player in there for your £13.75 million.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Do England Have a Problem in Open Play, and Does it Matter?

England are into a World Cup semi final for the first time in 28 years and got there on the back of one specific method of attacking.

Set pieces have been the order of the day, and have proven a very effective tool in getting England to the semifinals, scoring five goals over five games from this route (not including penalties). An expected goals value of 4.59 suggests that there’s a good deal of repeatability about this, too. Nonetheless, the strong work done in this aspect of the game is covering up the lack of firepower in open play. Across five games now, England have created a grand total of 1.83 expected goals in open play. That’s about 0.32 xG per 90 minutes.

 

Worse still, most of the better chances here are from open headers. This makes a degree of sense, since part of the routines worked on for set pieces probably also have some effectiveness in the rest of the game. Still, if we restrict the xG only to open play shots without headers, we’re left with this map of sadness.

The first thing to catch the eye here is the complete void of nothing in the centre of the box, right in front of the goalmouth. To add an extra dose of frustration, the highest value shot here is Harry Kane’s third goal against Panama, which was an entirely unintentional touch he knew nothing about. Take the 0.31 xG from that out and we’re left with 1.05 expected goals, or 0.18 xG per 90.

As in, on average StatsBomb’s model would expect to see England score a goal from feet in open play once every five games.

Clearly there are some questions to be asked about how this happened.

One problem is a lack of creative passing. Of the players to have started the majority of England’s games at this World Cup, Kieran Trippier has generally been seen as the most creative. This is backed up by him managing the most open play passes into the box per 90 minutes, at 1.57. Yet this is lower than the 2.12 passes into the box per 90 he averaged in the Premier League this season, despite playing with more dominant creative outlets at Spurs such as Christian Eriksen. This is a trend throughout the England team. The first choice front six (Trippier, Ashley Young, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Kane) generate a combined 8.45 open play passes into the box per 90. In the World Cup, this figure has fallen to 6.16. This is despite not having a dedicated playmaker such as Kevin de Bruyne or the aforementioned Eriksen at international level. In theory, these players should be playing the ball into the box more than in the Premier League, but that’s not taking place in reality.

And it’s not as though England are not active in dangerous areas of the pitch. When looking at a defensive activity map, the immediate thing one notices is how aggressive the side are in the opposition’s half. 

Teams that press a lot in high areas of the pitch usually tend to be very effective in generating shots in open play. “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation”, as Jürgen Klopp has been known to say. And yet England aren’t really attempting to do this at all. To understand this, it is important to consider different reasons for a side to press.

England are not attempting a Liverpool-esque counter press for the purpose of attacking a team quickly in their own half, while the opposition defence is in an awkward shape. That approach, advocated by German coaches such as Ralf Rangnick and Roger Schmidt, has not been adopted, perhaps because it has a high level of difficulty or the players are just unsuited. Instead what we’re seeing is pressing primarily for defensive purposes. The players are aggressive in forcing the opposition to make suboptimal choices, or to give away the ball completely, but then look to be more patient in possession themselves. If the aim of this press is to restrict good chances conceded, it’s hard to argue with the results too much.

4.18 expected goals conceded across five games so far, or just 0.73 xG against per 90. Any way one looks at it, that’s solid. Interestingly, a lot of these shots have been conceded while the team is in a winning position, perhaps owing to a dip in concentration or the opposition being more forceful in pushing for an equaliser. When looking at simply the chances conceded while the side is drawing, we get this:

Just 1.13 expected goals conceded when the games are level. England have so far played 248 minutes of football while drawing, so that comes out at 0.41 xG per 90 conceded at this game state. While there are still concerns to be had over mistakes when England are ahead,  it’s clear that it’s very hard to score against this team when on even footing.

This is much closer to the kind of pressing strategy deployed by Mauricio Pochettino than it is to Jürgen Klopp’s attack through defense. Pochettino’s Tottenham side tend to press aggressively as a defensive strategy, while the attacking side of things is about grinding the opposition down with a range of different shots. With Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Kieran Trippier all important cogs in the attacking side of that Spurs team, it makes sense that England would go for a similar approach. Pochettino, however, has a greater range of tools in order to unlock a defence. Christian Eriksen can use his excellent creative passing, Mousa Dembélé can move the ball through midfield with his excellent dribbling, and even centre backs Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez can open up the game. England do not have the same kind of options. Jesse Lingard, like Alli, is primarily useful in terms of making runs into space without the ball. Jordan Henderson in defensive midfield is a slightly underrated passer, but still primarily valuable for his energy. The back three are all comfortable on the ball but not nearly as adept as the Tottenham trio. Really, only Raheem Sterling is someone who can easily offer significant ball progression in this side, and has done so a fair amount, but one man can’t do it all.

The obvious question to ask is why England manager Gareth Southgate decided to structure his side this way with obvious holes in terms of personnel. The most straightforward reason is that there are a number of players in the squad who already play for Tottenham, and several more who play in slightly but not dramatically different pressing systems at Manchester City and Liverpool. With the lack of time and coaching talent generally found at international level, if you can get a complex system half right you’re already ahead of the curve.

What’s more, as Rafa Benítez says, football is a “short blanket”. You cannot cover everything, and be effective in every aspect of play. Encourage Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to take more advanced roles running into the box more frequently, and one risks exposing Jordan Henderson’s cover of the back three. This is all the more acute in international tournaments, where time is in short supply. If Southgate had opted to spend more of his coaching hours working on attacking patterns, some of the defensive work would have inevitably become less rehearsed and more disorganised.

All of this might be why England are so focused on set pieces as a tool to score goals. Aside from the delivery, this is less reliant on technique and creative passing. It is also likely easier to rehearse in a short space of time than some of the best attacking moves we see at club level, the type that make it seem as though the players have an almost telepathic understanding with each other. What’s more, the requirements for knockout football are different than that of a 38 game league season. A World Cup winning side will play just seven games on their way to the trophy, and losing any one of the last four is obviously a guarantee of failure. As we saw with Portugal in Euro 2016, keeping things very low scoring in the knockout stages can be as effective a route as any, especially for a side not blessed with a number of great creative players. If England had any intention of a different approach, the time to use it would have been in the group stages.

It is entirely possible that this team will lose to Croatia primarily because of an inability to create chances in open play. Perhaps it won’t be, but then in the final against France, England will have a lot  possession with an inability to turn it into shots. It’s not obvious, though, that a more expansive approach that solves these problems would increase the chance of winning the World Cup. While it may have some flaws, England have probably given themselves the best platform to achieve their first title in this tournament in 52 years.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Nate Silver Day 22: Our Chocolate is Best!

Belgium vs. France. Two culinary titans (although Belgium’s masterpieces seem to be uniquely high in calories). Belgium knocked out Brazil in a game where Brazil’s strikers were a bit unlucky in converting chances.

France have focused on choking the life out of opposing offenses, so I’d expect Belgium to have to work hard to generate good chances. France dodged a bullet and are now the tournament favorites. We’ll see how that works out for them.

Nate’s bankroll has shrunk to $696,948. That’s a far cry from it’s peak, but it’s still 21.9% higher than it was at the start of the tournament, which is nice.

 

Bankroll % Team Wager Risked To Win Result
4.67% Belgium Advance 32524 39029 0

 

Raheem Sterling is Good at Scoring Goals

Last season for Manchester City Raheem Sterling scored 18 goals. Despite his obvious goal scoring ability, stubborn questions remain about whether or not Sterling is good at kicking a football. What exactly is it about Sterling that leads people to believe that despite the numbers he puts up, he somehow cannot make the ball go where he wants it to? An easy place to start is expected goals. If Sterling were a poor finisher one way it might turn up is his performance as compared to xG. If he scored 18 goals, but “should have” scored 24, well that might at least point is towards a possible explanation. But that’s not the case. Sterling’s goal total was slightly better than expected. He scored 17 goals from open play and his expected goal tally was 15.48. It’s certainly not like he was missing the target left and right while he should have been putting them away. One thing that chart makes clear is that Sterling takes great shots. He gets into unbelievably good locations over and over and over again, and that’s where the majority of his goal scoring comes from. His xg/shot of 0.18 is quite good, 10th in the Premier League among players who have played 1000 minutes and average over a shot per 90 minutes. but it’s almost unheard of to combine that degree of efficiency per shot with Sterling’s shooting volume. Of the 9 players who are more efficient on an xG/shot basis only one, teammate Gabriel Jesus takes more shots per 90, 2.94 to Sterling’s 2.81. Sterling’s goal scoring ability comes from his unique ability to get great shots. But, that might also be why he’s unable to shake the perception that he can’t shoot. Here are his shots and goals grouped by xG. Sterling doesn’t score very many goals from low xG shots. Only four of his goals are from shots that had a value below 0.20, and only three from below 0.10. And even those three, while they might have been low value, were still goals that might not have seemed all that impressive. There was the goal against Newcastle from a tight angle. The goal against Everton from the middle of a crowded box. And, finally, the goal against Southampton, the 95th minute winner from the edge of the box which was his only actual memorable finish of the season. The best goal scorers take the best shots. But Sterling takes this idea to the extreme. It’s simply incredibly rare for a player, especially one who plays mostly on the wing, to get so many high xG tap-ins. Compare Sterling with his Manchester City counterpart. Nobody would say Leroy Sane is bad at kicking a ball. He constantly fire rifles on net. He also, on average, gets into much worse positions than Sterling does. Sane’s shots come from difficult angles, he frequently ends up charging in from the wing and trying to blast the ball past the keeper. There’s a reason Sane only scored ten goals. He also well outperformed his expected goals of 6.56. That’s a result that even the best strikers in the world don’t achieve regularly. Next season he’ll likely either see his scoring drop, or figure out how to take better (or more) shots. But, Sane also has lots of memorable goals. Despite scoring seven fewer times from open play, he scored the same number of goals on chances below 0.10 xG, three, as Sterling, and then four times on shots between 0.10 and 0.20. Only one of Sane’s goals came from a shot which had an xG greater than 0.20. Sterling scored almost exclusively from the best chances, while Sane scored heavily on situations which had low xG value. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. This isn’t to say that Sane is a bad player. He’s an electric winger who keeps the ball on a string and consistently destroys defenses and creates chances for both himself and for teammates. His goal scoring in these situations isn’t a negative, it’s a positive. But, subjectively it leaves a different impression. Sane is scoring in situations where it doesn’t feel like he should, spots that make you sit up and take notice. Sterling’s goals are mostly coming from situations where his skill is evident before he actually kicks the ball. Very few Sterling goals start with him kicking the ball in a situation where it seems unlikely the ball will find the net and end with the goalkeeper picking it up. Most goal scorers look like Sane. Occasionally unleashing a howitzer from distance keeps defenses honest. Being able to score great goals means defends have to close a player down. Part of what makes Sane such a terror is that defenders have to rush out to him, and when they do, he’s happy to zoom right past them. It might be a worry that Sterling’s reticence to shoot from distance might mean defenders could sag way off of him and limit his effectiveness. That’s simply not what happens though. We already know it doesn’t stop Sterling from getting great shots for himself, but the fact that he isn’t shooting from distance also isn’t stopping Sterling from being the most creative high volume scorer in the league. Ten players (who played over 1000 minutes) scored more than half a goal per 90 minutes in the Premier League last season. Nobody had a higher xGBuildup that Sterling’s 0.93. Only Philippe Coutinho, before he left for Barcelona, had more key passes from open play than Sterling’s 1.83 per 90 minutes. Only Mohammed Salah and Coutinho had more successful dribbles than Sterling’s 1.54 per 90 minutes and only Coutinho had more assists per 90 minutes than Sterling’s 0.39. Sterling is so good that he simply doesn’t need to take shots from distance to keep opponents honest. In the vast majority of situations where he might be tempted to tee one up from 25 yards out or a tight angle, he’s better off either playing a pass or trying to get around an opponent. He’s so gifted (and on a team with so many great teammates) that keeping opponents honest is a waste of time for Sterling. Why make opponents close you down when you’re 25 yards from goal if you can just go by them even if they don’t. Sterling’s reputation as being a bad shooter does make one thing crystal clear. When football fans think of players who are good shooters, they think of players who score unlikely goals, players who launch thirty-yard screamers, or incredible chips from tough angles. Everybody understands they don’t happen often, but good shooters, in the minds of many are players who might pull those memorable moments off at any time. When a player misses nine out of ten difficult shots, everybody remembers that tenth one that went in. Similarly, when Sterling makes nine out of ten easy shots, people remember the tenth one that didn’t. Sterling simply doesn’t take the kinds of shots that he would need to to convince people he was a great shooter. His game is better for it. Getting, and converting, high quality opportunities is more important than occasionally putting one in from distance. Some players might need to balance their game with potshots in order to get the best opportunities. Sterling doesn’t. He shoots, and scores, from the best locations. He is a creative force around the box. He does it all without taking speculative efforts. What more could you ask?   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

What Happened to Brazil?

In a World Cup where chaos has reigned supreme, Brazil seemed to be the team to beat in the competition. They combined defensive solidarity with attacking verve in a way that no one else did. Brazil had been good throughout the competition and were favored to get past Belgium in what was the glamour tie of the quarterfinals.

And yet here we are, with Brazil going out in the quarterfinals for the 3rd time in the last four World Cups. On the surface, Brazil’s attack did what it had done throughout the entire tournament: lots of shots with locations that were just good enough not to actively complained about. They took 27 shots with 16 in the penalty box and had a few good scoring chances mixed in. It’s true that Brazil’s shot totals were juiced up by playing from a losing position for over 80 minutes, particularly at a -2 game state, but the degree to which they piled it on was still staggering.

Score effects, or game states, are nothing new. They are one of the bedrocks of the early analytics movement within football as well as elsewhere in different sports. The crux is that teams, for whatever reason, behave differently depending on the scoreline. Losing teams get desperate and become prone to settling for bad shots while the team ahead can tend to form a defensive shell. Football matches consist of a set of different mini matches all jumbled into 90 minutes of play. Something similar happened to Brazil. The calm approach they started with slowly but surely turned more chaotic as time slipped away.

The modus operandi of Brazil was control through possession. Whenever Joao Miranda or Thiago Silva had the ball, multiple teammates dropped deep to present themselves as a passing option. At times, even the wide forwards like Neymar or Willian would come back to receive the ball. The goal was creating passing triangles all over the pitch and good connections overall, in order to make it easy to progress play into more dangerous areas.

Brazil had their chances when it was 0–0, with two of their better ones in the entire match coming from corner routines, both of which involved Miranda making a cut to the near post and executing a flick on for a teammate. Once Fernandinho headed the ball into his own net from a corner to put Brazil behind, the left sided dominant attack that had become a staple of Brazil’s gameplan during the tournament became more prominant. The trio of Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar were in close proximity to each other in the attacking third, constantly switching positions to try and find cracks in the defense with one of the three always maintaining width along the sidelines. One of the key themes in the 2018 World Cup has been the prevalence of lopsided attacks. The key is to be able to take advantages of switches of play when the opposition potentially loses some compactness in their shape. Against Peru, France had a lot of their players situated on the left side which Kylian Mbappe isolated on the right wing waiting for the chance to be isolated against a single defender.

The same thing happened for Brazil on numerous occasions when they were trailing in the first half, with switches of play onto the right side for Willian. The problem with that is for all the good things Willian brings to the table, he’s not the kind of play that scares you off the dribble in isolated situations. All of this equated to moments during the first half when Willian was whipping crosses in from the right to no avail.

While Gabriel Jesus was quite isolated while the ball was mostly on the left side, his movement into the penalty box was important in making sure that there was another player that had to be accounted for. His two shots came from little shifty off-ball moves in the penalty area. Douglas Costa came on in the second half and occupied the right wing, with Roberto Firmino playing the central position in place of Jesus. Firmino’s inclusion meant that Paulinho was able to make more penalty box runs and give Brazil multiple threats to deal with inside the area. The second half was quite interesting, as Brazil poured in 15 shots in total with a lot of them coming from inefficient areas. It was the picture perfect example of what happens when a team is pressing up against time from a losing situation, as there were more instances of freelancing with Neymar picking the ball up at the halfway line and trying to do things himself. Between the 51st and 74th minute, Brazil attempted 8 shots and only one of them was a halfway decent opportunity, a rebound attempt from Neymar. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Coutinho took two typical Coutinho shots, cutting into the middle and shooting from ~20 yards. Both of them were blocked.
  • Paulinho shot from a tough angle just to the right of the 6 yard box after making a run from the right wing.
  • Douglas Costa had four shots: two from the right half space outside the penalty area and two shots from the wide areas in the box.

Brazil eventually broke through and showed the benefits of having a bunch of players near each other as well as having midfielders who can make runs into the box. There were four players within relatively close proximity of each other as Coutinho brought up the ball with Marouane Fellaini guarding him. Firmino’s position means Vincent Kompany has to keep tabs on him, while both Axel Witzel and Toby Alderweireld are ball watching. Combine all of this with Thomas Meunier being just a bit too wide and it creates a gap for Renato Augusto to run into for a potential lob pass, which Coutinho expertly does.

The same thing nearly happened just a few minutes later. Kompany failed in his attempt to hit Fellaini with an out ball to relieve Belgium of some pressure, which led to a semi transition opportunity off of Marcelo’s first time pass to Coutinho. Nacer Chadli’s position is near midfield which means he can’t catch up to Augusto which makes it a 5v4 advantage with Neymar and Costa occupying the attention of their markers. Kompany has to pay attention to Firmino and it leads to Augusto having a run up on his shot which goes wide.

That was basically it for Brazil, outside of the half chance from Firmino from a corner kick in the 93rd minute. It was an odd match, one in which if you ran simulations based purely on the shots taken, there were many more scenarios in which Brazil come out on top than Belgium. Of course that’s not completely fair because the scoreline does dictate behavior of teams so who knows how Belgium would’ve acted at 2-2, but looking through the tape and there was enough to suggest that Brazil probably did get unlucky overall and would’ve had enough to finish the job.

Brazil were good during this entire tournament and were largely good against Belgium, even if their shot and xG numbers in the aggregate perhaps overrated what they did. Their 27 shots were helped by playing at a -2 game state for as long as they did, but the left sided dominant attack did its job even in helping progress play into the final third and the close calls they had when the game was tied. If anything, Brazil will probably wish they could’ve had Douglas Costa in place of Willian for the full 90 minutes as his dynamism would’ve made their switches of play considerably more dangerous.

Sadly for fans of the Brazil national team, this will probably be the last World Cup with Neymar at the peak of his powers. Gabriel Jesus projects to be a star when he hits his peak and the likes of David Neres and Malcom offer promise for Brazil in the wide areas, but they don’t come close to replicating the same overall value that Neymar brought. In addition, players like Coutinho, Firmino, Marcelo and others will probably be at a different stage of their careers when 2022 rolls around. While the pipeline coming up has some gems, it could be that for a number of reasons, this was Brazil’s best chance at winning their first world Cup since 2002 and they came up short. Brazil were a good team that did a number of things right in the 2018 World Cup, but football is a cruel sport and sometimes things just don’t go your way.

  Header image courtesy of the Press Association