La Liga Transfer Roundup

It’s been a strange summer for the elite teams in Spanish football. The teams at the top have focused on the long-term renovation of their sides instead of breaking transfer records on some of the best players in the world. That’s not to say they haven’t spent money – they have, plenty -, there was simply a shift in who they targeted.  

Barcelona

Barcelona added Clement Lenglet, Arthur and Malcom. The first was a brilliant centre-back for Sevilla and will occupy the slot that forced Vermaelen into playing over a thousand La Liga minutes last campaign. Lenglet is 23 and he was an unambiguously good buy. Malcom had a great season in France, but there are still questions on whether he’ll step up as a Barcelona-level talent – particularly in a season where Ousmane Dembélé is back to full fitness and ready to put in a large shift. That said, there are a lot of minutes to be played and manager Ernesto Valverde lined up with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Dembélé and Philippe Coutinho against Valladolid this past weekend. If that is the way forward, Malcom becomes the number one attacking option from the bench (especially after the club moved Paco Alcacer to Borussia Dortmund). In midfield, Arthur is the best player to come out of the Brasileirão in recent years and will be an awesome ball-progressor to look out for. Between his passing and ball-carrying capacities, he’ll be most impactful disrupting deep defensive blocks. The fact that he has quite a different profile to all other midfielders in the club also increases his chances of him claiming a fairly high spot in the pecking order. Finally, Arturo Vidal arrived as pretty much a direct replacement for Paulinho. Giving a three-year deal to a 31-year-old Vidal after a series of injuries last campaign is incredibly risky, but his more physical midfield profile is certainly useful if he can stay healthy and at his previous elite level. The way Barça managed to sell-on unimpressive players at a profit this summer, while also keeping a deep squad, was impressive but its worth mentioning that with Lucas Digne’s exit to Everton, Jordi Alba – who is going to turn 30 during the season and played a ton of minutes over the last few years – is the only left-back in the squad. That opens the door for Marc Cucurella or Juan Miranda to jump from the B side and get some minutes with the big boys this season.  

Real Madrid

While Barcelona balanced thinking of the future with the ability to contribute in the present, Real Madrid’s buys were more of the former and less of the latter. Vinicius Junior has started the season with Castilla, while keeper Andriy Lunin was unsurprisingly loaned out. Alvaro Odriozola, the 22 year old rightback acquired from Real Sociedad, will take some pressure off Carvajal who has played over 2000 minutes in four of the last five seasons, but that’s about it. Courtois will add competition in goal but when it comes to outfielders, particularly up front, the options are thin. Or that was the case until the last-minute arrival of Mariano Diaz, who will be the team’s Ronaldo replacement. They may not be in the same quality tier, but Mariano fills the amazing-shooter role, who creates more for himself than for others and is dangerous both as a finisher and from outside the box. Diaz developed at Madrid before moving to Lyon last season. At 25, he’s older than the typical player with barely a year’s senior level experience under their belt. At 3.44 shots per 90 minutes Mariano’s volume is good but not exceptional, and the same is true for his 0.14 expected goals per shot. It’s also at least a slight concern that his goal total from last year, 17 from open play, outpaced his xG of 13.78. That said, he’s also shown an ability to get into good spots in the center of the penalty area, and he’s moving to one of the most talented sides in the world. The best case scenario is that the raft of elite passers Madrid have can elevate Mariano as he adds some of the shooting boots that the team is lacking heading into the post Ronaldo period.

Atletico Madrid

To finish up the trio, Atletico is perhaps the team that improved the most while also rejuvenating. With Gabi leaving to Qatar, Rodri – twelve years younger than the former captain – has taken his spot after showing off as a great high volume deep passer in Villarreal’s midfield last season. Thomas Lemar divides people (including me) through his heavy price-tag, but the Frenchman is undoubtedly a great player and will only turn 23 in November. The World Cup winner dropped back to a more plausible scoring rate last campaign, but retained his ball-carrying and creative numbers that could thrive in an Atleti system in which he arguably fits in better than he would have at other teams he was linked to, like Liverpool. After finishing last season on a high note, Angel Correa becomes a bench option much like Gelson Martins who was signed from Sporting. As someone that has watched Gelson’s every senior match, I very much doubt the possibility of him turning into an elite winger but if he is to make the step up, Atleti is the ideal spot. He’s still missing a lot of things when it comes to end product and decision making in the final third, but he thrives on the counter and puts in plenty of defensive work without possession. His move seems to capitalize on his strengths and is difficult to argue against if it really ends up really happening without a transfer fee. Santiago Arias has been one of the most consistent right-backs in Europe for the past couple of seasons and finally got his move out of the Eredivisie. He’s 26 already but was a no-brainer at €11 million and, at the very least, will not be a downgrade on Sime Vrsaljko who left for Inter Milan. Nikola Kalinic was brought in to cover the usual strikers and, while he isn’t the most exciting of the bunch and most would’ve preferred someone else, it’ll be at least interesting to see what can do in a better team set-up than he’s ever had to work in before. He finished 2nd and then 7th in the league for xG in his two Fiorentina campaigns while pretty much only having Borja Valero as a provider. Simeone has one of the deepest squads he’s had since arriving in Madrid and will be a legitimate candidate both in Spain and in Europe.  

Everybody Else

Below the trio, all the usual European-candidates did plenty of business this summer. After a very successful season in which they finished just three points away from third and six away from second, Valencia invested just as much as the big teams – most of it by doubling down on players who brought them success last campaign. They purchased Kondogbia and Gonçalo Guedes who were key for manager Marcelino during loan spells last season. Out of the true newcomers, Michy Batshuayi is the one we’re all hoping to see thrive after his explosive stint in Dortmund. I see him as an improvement to the departing Simone Zaza, in a squad full of quality options up top. Villarreal had to search for a Rodri replacement and they seem to have found him in Santiago Cáseres, who has been the biggest surprise of the first two league games for me so far. He’s only 21 and is fitting in perfectly into the high-volume passer, defensive-midfielder role that was essential for the Yellow Submarine last season – showing up well with and without possession. They also got themselves a new striker duo for a combined €38 million fee, with Gerard Moreno coming from Espanyol and Toko Ekambi from Angers. They’re two forwards that excelled in their shot locations for sides without a lesser creative structure behind them. Under Quique Setién, Betis got a Europa League spot and the admiration of many for their style of play but managed to keep most of their squad together so didn’t have to add much. Fabian Ruiz was the single major out as he moved to Napoli for €30 million but has cleverly been replaced by Sergio Canales on a free. The club made sure to exploit expiring contracts as Pau Lopez and Takashi Inui also signed with no compensation for their previous clubs. The Japan international will be a tougher fit into the system, but the 23-year-old former Tottenham goalkeeper has already shown to be one of the best goalkeepers in the league and here will have the chance to shine with the ball at his feet as well. The biggest investment came in the form of William Carvalho, who became the second most expensive ever at the club. He divides opinions but should, at the very least, fit well within the team’s possession-based scheme. The other Seville team took advantage of Lenglet, Steven Nzonzi and Correa’s exits to profit off this transfer window while shifting their side to Pablo Machin’s preferred 3-4-3. The talent pool for it was mostly there already, so much so that the most expensive additions – Joris Gnagnon and Ibrahim Amadou – are starting the season as rotation options. André Silva seems the single most interesting newcomer and not just because he scored more goals on his debut than he did in the entirety of his Serie A stint. Machin will want his striker to provide plenty for the other forwards with his back towards goal, as well as being able to win duels and press, as well as someone who will take advantage of the plenty of chances this side will be able to create. Silva’s ability as a complete striker – who works off the ball, can connect well to set-up team-mates while remaining a threat himself – fits the bill. As a last minute newcomer, Quincy Promes will be a lovely addition to the inside forward options in Machin’s squad after three seasons in a row with more than 20 combined goals and assists in Russia. Options like Franco Vazquez and Pablo Sarabia are all more on the creative side, so the Dutchman will offer a different capacity to penetrate the box and get on the end of chances, that is required in the new system. Elsewhere, Real Sociedad only really invested by hitting Mikel Merino’s release clause of €12 million – a smart addition if he is to get anywhere close to the form he hit upon arrival in England. Theo Hernandez’s loan from Real Madrid could prove very useful as well: it’s tough be Marcelo’s number two, but his attacking numbers back in 2016/17 with Alavés showed a lot of promise. Celta had such a good summer we have an entire article on their moves. Further down the table, newly promoted duo of Rayo and Huesca took some intriguing steps into the transfer market. Huesca got themselves one of the league’s most consistent full-backs on a free deal (Luisinho) and still had time to take a punt in goal scoring Turkish winger Serdar Gurler for only €2.5 million. The Turkish league isn’t exactly the safest market to buy from but he was one of its top scorers for two seasons running while playing for less than great teams and at this price is relatively low risk. Rayo have been just as smart with their investments. Jordi Amat played over 2000 minutes for Betis last season and arrived for just €1 million while Manchester City youth product Pozo didn’t cost much more than that after a season in the second Spanish tier. Michel’s side still managed to add their top scorer from last season (De Tomás) and one of the best full-backs at the World Cup (Advincula) both on loan – it doesn’t get much better than this for a newly promoted side. We obviously can’t much everyone but, to finish up, here’s a couple more names to follow for one reason or the other. Patrick Roberts at Girona, for stepping out of his British comfort zone. The battle between four above average strikersat Alavés: Borja Bastón, Guidetti, Calleri and Sobrino. And finally, Yuri Berchiche’s move to Bilbao after a season in Paris that was solid, despite perhaps not being too flashy. He’ll be a key part of the eleven in a transition season at Athletic.

Early Premier League Numbers to Watch: Danny Ings is Alive, Andre Schurrle’s Shot Selection is Dead and More

It’s too early to draw conclusions. It’s not too early to pay attention. After three weeks here are a handful of numbers that jump out off the page and are worth paying attention to as the season marches on.

Danny Ings is Alive

It’s been a rough couple of years for Danny Ings. Bad luck, bad injuries and a bad fit largely kept him off the field for Liverpool. In two seasons he played a total of barely over 600 minutes. At 26 years old, he’s still got some good years left if he could just get out on the pitch and stay there. Well, so far so good at Southampton. He’s already played over 200 minutes this season, and things are going quite well thank you very much.

 

 

He’s fourth in the Premier League at this early stage with 0.74 expected goals per 90 minutes (of players with over 100 minutes). And he’s fifth in the league with 4.75 shots per 90 minutes. At only three games in, who a team has played is inevitably going to skew a team’s stats. And Southampton have face an interesting lineup of Burnley, Everton and Leicester City. That’s the solidly midtable clubs club, so those are three teams that probably aren’t terrible, although exactly how not terrible they are is still very much up for debate.

Ings’s hot start is going somewhat under the radar, because he’s only scored a single goal. But that shot chart is for real.

 

One of Southampton’s longest standing challenges has been finding a forward who can do the fundamental work of taking up strong attacking positions, getting himself free in the box and generating point blank goal scoring opportunities. So far, Ings fits that bill.

Hazard Keeps Dropping Deep

Chelsea have taken nine points from their first three games. The strong start to their season is even more impressive given that they’re still both adapting to new manager Maurizio Sarri’s system and also working players back into the rotation. Expect them to get even better as players continue to adapt to what Sarri wants them to do.

One particular example is Eden Hazard. After coming on as a substitute for the opening two games, Hazard made his first start against Newcastle. The winger is currently fourth in the league in deep progressions per 90 minutes with 14.09 per game. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s also not really the way Sarri’s system is supposed to operate. Chelsea have an overabundance of passing in their back seven. That’s supposed to help the attacking players stay further up the field rather than force them to drop back into midfield. It’s a marked change in roles for Hazard who spent his time under both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte being asked to use his prodigious skills to drop into deep areas receive the ball and embarrass defenders as he ran transition.

He’s still doing that. His contributions are still slanted towards contributing in the middle third of the pitch, unsettling defenses and bringing the ball forward. As such, he’s not getting himself into the box for shots quite yet. The shot chart remains barren. As Hazard continues to work himself back into the team, look for him to do somewhat less creating and a lot more attacking.

 

 

Pascal Groß Pressing Machine

Pascal Groß is a one man defensive pressing whirlwind. He’s averaging 51.43 pressure per 90 minutes. Nobody else in the Premier League is averaging even 35 (among players with more than 100 minutes on the pitch). To some degree this is a schedule effect. Brighton have already played Manchester United and Liverpool in addition to Watford although Groß was on the bench at Anfield and didn’t come on until the 80th minute. Still, his sheer level of activity on the defensive side of the ball is breathtaking.

 

That numbers is bound to come back to earth. Nobody who played more than 1000 minutes last season in the Premier League averaged more than 28 pressures. Last year, Pascal Groß himself averaged 24.48. That number was seventh best in the league. As Brighton plays worse teams, they’ll have the ball more and they’ll spend less time chasing the opposition. When that happens Groß’s ability on the ball will be more important than his never-ending motor when the opposition has it. Still, as Brighton enter their second season, the two way ability of Pascal Groß remains one of their keys to success. Thus far this year, he’s been an unparalleled defensive machine.

Andre Schurrle Really Likes to Shoot

Some players shoot the ball a lot. Some players REALLY shoot the ball a lot. And then there’s Andre Schurrle. Fulham’s winger simply cannot stop shooting. Usually that would be a good thing. In this case, it’s not. Schurrle is averaging 6.16 shots per 90 minutes, which leads the league (among players with more than 100 minutes of playing time). The problem is, he’s also averaging only 0.25 xG per 90, the 31st highest total. He’s averaging 0.04 xG per shot. That’s tied for the lowest xG per shot of any player averaging over a shot per game.

Taking bad shots is not, necessarily, a problem on its own. Players who shoot the ball relatively rarely, or primarily from set piece situations, will often have a relatively weak shooting profile. Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, for example, is also averaging 0.04 xG per shot. He’s also taking less than half the shots per 90 minutes that Schurrle is.  But, if you’re a forward, and your job is to shoot, you want to be getting better shots than Andre Schurrle is. There’s a whole lot of blue going on here.

 

In Fulham’s match against Burnley, Schurrle took an astonishing nine shots. He scored on his last one. Part of the reason it took so long, of those nine shots four of them had an xG of 0.01. That’s not good! Schurrle, right now, is the rare example of a high volume shooter who is hurting his team more than he’s helping them. But, there’s a reason those examples are rare. Either, Schurrle’s shot selection will improve, or he’ll probably end up riding the bench. Shooting a lot, in theory, is good, but not when you’re doing it from the moon.

Explaining xGChain Passing Networks

(Editor’s Note: This was originally published on the StatsBomb Services blog, but the URL was lost in a server move. We have re-published it here so it can be referenced in future work.)
Some of the work we need to do on the StatsBomb Services side involves teaching people how to use what we create. If it’s not practically applicable and/or can’t be taught, then it’s just a piece of art, not analytics.
Today I’m going to discuss passing networks, with a specific emphasis on the xGChain passing networks you’ll find on the StatsBomb IQ platform and also on our Twitter feed.

What is a Passing Network?

It’s the application of network theory and social network analysis to passing data in football. Each player is a node, and the passes between them are connections.

The first time I saw them used in football was either a presentation by Pedro Marques of Man City at the first OptaPro Forum, or Devin Pleuler’s work at Central Winger on the MLS site.

 

 

We also used them at Brentford to do opposition analysis, specifically to find which players we might want to aggressively press whenever they get the ball, or looking at valuable connections between players we wanted to break.

The application is simple.

  1. Look at a bunch of recent matches for a club and you will often start to see patterns of play and interesting details you care about.
  2. Investigate a little further in the data to find usage information
  3. Go to the video and see what shakes out.

In many cases, analysts only have time to watch and analyse the last 3 matches of opposition on video. Using the passing networks gives them quick info in an easily digestible format that doesn’t cost them an extra 10-20 hours of video time.

Before we go any further though, I think it’s important to speak about the limitations of passing networks. These are a tool and meant to be part of an analytics suite to help you analyse games, but like any tool, you need to understand their weaknesses.

First, each node consists of the average location of a player’s touches. If they switch sides of the pitch regularly, their average will look central, even if they never touch the ball in that area. This is a limitation of the vis and why we ALWAYS use video to back stuff up. On the other hand, if you want to stay data-based, you could use things like heat maps, or even dot touch maps for every place a single player touched on the pitch to get more accuracy. This is a bit like using shot maps to supplement aggregate data in player radars to get a clearer picture.

The second limitation is that this info is an extrapolation of what actually happened. Did the fullback pass 15 times to the left wing, exactly along the path in the vis? No, of course not. That information is also easily visualized, but it’s just not contained here.

The third limitation is that these don’t actually explain that much by themselves. They take snapshots of actions through a match and combine them into a bigger picture. It’s like a movie where you only see 20 of 50 scenes without seeing the whole thing. Sometimes, you’ll end up with a clear idea of the plot. Other times, you are going to be really surprised when your friends start talking about the whole Verbal Kint/Kaiser Soze thing. They are still useful, but this is another reason why – in practice – we almost always pair this analysis with video work to complete the picture.

Design Stuff

Right, so we have passing networks. Some people do them vertically. We do them horizontally.

 

 

Why?

For starters, most humans are accustomed to looking at football matches left to right. High angle tactical cam footage from behind the goal is quite useful if you can get it, but the vast majority of the audience views football in a left to right perspective.

The next thing you notice is that we stack ours on top of each other. This happened as a bit of a happy accident where I noticed a pressing team had a map very high up the pitch. I then put the map from their opponent underneath, and voila! we had a fairly clear view of territoriality in the touch maps.

If you take a step back, it seems fairly obvious, right? There are two teams on the pitch, and each of their actions impacts the other one, so visualize both together. However, actions between two teams aren’t always linked. The shot locations of one team don’t have any impact on the locations of the opponent. Passes do though, so at least in my opinion, pairing them as part of this vis makes sense.

We also have them both going the same direction, which seems to strike some people as odd. All I can tell you is I think the territory element is much clearer if they go in the same direction, but people are welcome to test their own implementations and judge for themselves.

What else do we have… ah yes, the big difference: colour.

 

 

With passing networks, there is a real danger of adding so much information that your vis basically becomes unusable. It’s an incredibly info-dense visualization to begin with, so adding more elements is likely to make understanding what you are trying to display harder instead of easier. I think Thom walked this tightrope perfectly, adding the extra xGChain layer of data while still leaving it interpretable, and to be honest, totally gorgeous.

That said, it may take looking at these a number of times before you become comfortable with what they are trying to display. The same caveat was true of radars and shot maps, and is another reason why analysis blends elements of art with data science.

The xGChain Layer

First you need to understand what the xGChain metric is, and to do that you should read Thom Lawrence’s intro piece here. So any time a player is involved in a pass in the possession, they get xGC credit, and then we sum up their involvement over the course of a match and colour their node based on that.

Why?

Because this allows us to take the network vis beyond basic counting stats and starts to examine the value of a player’s contribution to the match. Because the colour scales are tied to the 5%/95% cutoffs I started back with the radars, you also get an easy reference for whether a player’s attacking contribution was pretty great (RED), pretty poor (GREEN), or somewhere in between.

We also start to get a sense of how non-attacking players are contributing to valuable build-up play in a way that just makes sense (at least to me).

Quick Reference

  • Size of node = number of touches
  • Thickness of line = number of passes between two nodes
  • Colour of node = linear scale from green to red (.6-1.4 xGCh based on 5%/95% cutoffs)
  • Colour of line = the total xGChain of possessions featuring a pass from A->B (0-.5 values based on 5%/95% cutoffs)

We Still Use Numbers

On Twitter, you will generally see just the visualization. This is mostly due to the limited, bite-size nature of the format. However, on the StatsBomb IQ app, Passing Networks also include all the individual and combination numbers you see below.

 

 

The combination of the vis and the numbers represents the whole of the analysis. The vis gives you basics, the numbers specifics, but both are still constrained by the limitations of this visualization format.

Examples

 

 

In this one you see Liverpool pushed quite far forward and had massive amounts of possession and created reasonable chances. Pretty much everyone is involved, but Coutinho and Lallana only put up good, not great xGChain numbers for the match. On the Swansea side, Llorente is the only guy up high most of the time, while he and Wayne Routledge both put up big numbers for the game, and Swansea came away with a vital win.

 

 

Just a single plot this time from Liverpool’s trip to Bournemouth earlier in the season, mostly to compare same team performance. Here Firmino is posted out wide instead of central, and had comparatively little impact in creating big scoring chances for LFC that match. Normally he’s a fiery red circle, but for this match he’s ineffective green. That’s another cool element these plots allow. Instead of focusing on the full match, you can isolate one player across a number of positions and games and see what it does to their performance.

 

 

I posted this one because both team’s maps are pretty incredible. City’s front three have average touches nearly on the 18, and nearly everyone except Claudio Bravo is red or orange. Meanwhile Boro had almost none of the ball and created almost nothing as well. The match ended 1-1, with Boro scoring a very late equalizer. 90% of the time our simulations think City win that match.

 

 

It’s always fascinating to see what happens to these maps when two elite teams square off. This is from the 1-0 Dortmund home win earlier this season. Bayern dominated the touches, but Dortmund just edged then in xG, 1.40 to 1.24. Aubameyang was rampant the entire game, and every time Dortmund touched the ball, they felt dangerous while doing a pretty good job of stymying Bayern’s great attackers.

How Do You Use This Inside a Professional Football Club?

Typically what I would do would be take passing networks for the last 10 matches from the next opposition and divide them into home and away games. Stick the numbers next to each of them for reference, and start to look for patterns.

Which players provide the engine for plan A when this team attacks?

Which players have the most valuable touches?

Does their fullback tend to get really high in possession and can we play behind them?

Which players should we look at for potential pressing triggers?

If we have a choice, which center back would we allow to play the ball forward?

Conclusion

This is already long, so I will wrap it up here. We view passing networks as an integral part of data-based football analysis. Provided you understand their limitations, they can provide a huge productivity boost to opposition and own team analysis. We also think the addition of our xGChain metric adds a layer of value to a visualization that previously only contained counting stats.

If you work in football and want to see what else the StatsBomb IQ platform has to offer, please get in touch.

–Ted Knutson

ted@statsbomb.com

@mixedknuts

How Are Real Madrid Changing Without Ronaldo?

Losing Cristiano Ronaldo is like a new signing.

At least, that’s the kind of thing you have to tell yourself to be convinced that Real Madrid have a strong chance of winning La Liga this season. It’s a stretch, but it’s not entirely without reason. Since Real Madrid’s style under manager Zinedine Zidane for the past three seasons was so heavily built around leveraging the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses of the Portuguese forward.

Madrid Under Zidane – Ronaldo FC

Managers like to build their football teams in their own image. Pep Guardiola’s sides are meticulous perfectionists. Jurgen Klopp wants his football to be full of emotion and energy. Jose Mourinho’s teams will do anything to win, and don’t care if they make a few enemies along the way. Zidane’s Madrid, however, did not particularly resemble him, or the wonderful technician he showed himself to be as a player. It was a team in the style of Ronaldo. The side’s primary mode of attack was, as Ronaldo likes to, to bury the opposition in a wave of shots. Some of these would be from distance, but enough would end up at close range that it produced dividends. Real’s 18.58 shots per game last season was well ahead of any other La Liga side, even if the 2.07 expected goals per game was the smallest of margins below Barcelona’s. Ronaldo was unsurprisingly the key figure in this. His 180 shots were more than double the volume of any other player, and he managed that despite serving a five game suspension to start the season. It’s clear from the shot distribution chart just how much volume Real get across the board, and how much of it comes from Ronaldo.

 

 

The career arc of Ronaldo is fairly well known by now. As his body has aged, he has gradually become more and more of a pure striker, stripping away the parts of his game that took place outside the box. A full 7% of Ronaldo’s touches last season were shots, a figure that puts him far ahead of any other Real Madrid player, and more than double that of his eternal rival Lionel Messi’s 3%. And yet, despite this, he still ended up with the highest xGBuildup of any Real player. While Ronaldo didn’t take a lot of touches that were not shots, the ones he did take were extremely effective.

In terms of his work off the ball, it probably won’t shock anyone to learn that Ronaldo was not a defensive workhorse last year. Of everyone at the club who played at least 1200 minutes last season, nobody pressed less than Ronaldo.

 

 

With Ronaldo setting a somewhat lethargic tone off the ball in attack, the modern tactic of pressing high and defending from the front was not workable for Zidane’s Real Madrid. As such, the midfield would potentially have more defensive work than is typically required of a top side, requiring a purely defensive minded midfielder to start in the form of Casemiro. The Brazilian was a black hole in possession, managing less than half as many deep progressions per 90 as his midfield team mates Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, but this was a tradeoff they had to make in order to allow Ronaldo to do his thing without getting exposed. Perhaps Zidane’s biggest reason for success at Madrid was understanding that a side built around such a singular superstar would have to make sacrifices elsewhere, and finding the right balance (and persuading boss man Florentino Perez to accept that balance) was key. This also might be why he was so reluctant to integrate new players into the starting eleven, as he’d built a finely balanced side that could easily be tipped too far in one direction with only minor tweaks.

What Now?

In case you’ve been under a rock, Ronaldo has moved to Juventus. Zidane, having achieved everything he wanted to do at the Bernabeu, has resigned, and was succeeded by former Spain manager Julen Lopetegui. As of writing this, the only senior outfield signing has been second choice right back Álvaro Odriozola. If Madrid are to weather the storm of losing Ronaldo, it will be about getting more out of the players already at the club.

Save for an early start at Rayo Vallecano and an uninspiring season and a half at Porto, Lopetegui’s coaching career has been spent within the Spain national team setup, working at various youth levels before getting the big job in 2016. Spain are one of the only national sides in the world to play a genuine distinctive style, so the way he’s used to working is clear: a strong focus on possession and short passing combined with an aggressive high press. This is often seen as emulating the style of Pep Guardiola, but in truth there is a much greater focus on possession and “passing for the sake of passing”: genuine tiki taka, rather than the positional play of Guardiola’s Manchester City side. When it goes right, you get Spain’s World Cup win in 2010. When it goes wrong, you get the nation’s exit to Russia this summer (in a side prepared by Lopetegui, if not managed by him at the tournament itself). Or as I call it, the game that did this to the StatsBomb pass map:

 

 

That was a lot of passing in defence and midfield for 0.97 expected goals in normal time.

The good news is that this Real Madrid squad is perhaps more suited to a more possession focused approach than ever before. Ronaldo’s two biggest drawbacks were a lack of involvement in open play and pressure from the front, and he is no longer around to set the tone for the side. In the UEFA Super Cup loss to Atletico Madrid and the first two La Liga fixtures against Getafe and Girona, Lopetegui opted for a front three of Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Karim Benzema. All three averaged more passes and more pressures last season than Ronaldo, even if none can do what he does in front of goal. In midfield, Casemiro started against Atletico and Girona but missed the Getafe game, implying that the better defensive work in front of him will mean he no longer necessarily features at home to weaker sides (though he occasionally missed games previously, this was more down to a rotation policy than a tactical choice). Toni Kroos moved to a deeper lying role in his place with Isco and Dani Ceballos in front, creating a midfield three that now offers serious ball progression from all three of its members, especially as former number ten Isco now seems to be a permanent midfielder. This all combines to create a side that is much more front foot in its work without possession, and more comfortable retaining the ball when it is won back. Madrid are now stylistically much closer to what one would expect to see from a top tier European side, with an extra focus on possession giving them an extra Spanish touch.

As for what we’ve seen on the pitch so far, it’s fair to say things have been mixed. Real ran Atletico close in the Super Cup, dominating in terms of possession and shot volume but allowing their neighbours a few high quality shots that they were able to convert. A solid work in progress nonetheless. Things were slightly less promising in the La Liga game against Getafe, a match they won but really without anything like the shot domination we’re used to seeing from Real.

 

 

Madrid were in near total control of the ball for the vast majority of this game and generated a total of 0.7 expected goals. Granted, this was enough, but for a side that averaged 18.58 shots per game last year, starting off the new league season with just 10 in a home game is concerning. Making matters worse, the xG per shot of 0.07 was significantly down from last season’s average of 0.11, too. Comparatively speaking, Madrid created nothing against Getafe. The theoretically better ball retention and progression in midfield did absolutely zero to help the team create better chances. It was hard to view this kind of performance as anything other than last season’s Madrid minus Ronaldo.

Optimism was perhaps restored in this weekend’s 4-1 victory at Girona, as the side came back from conceding an early goal to totally dominate the game. The performance matched the scoreline, too, with Madrid having no issues generating chances this time.

 

 

Girona were fairly aggressive in their pressing against Madrid, which probably suited the away side. This was still a much more balanced performance, with the tiki taka notch turned down a touch compared to the Getafe win. Casemiro returned to the starting lineup and was unsurprisingly not involved in possession, providing only two deep progressions. This arguably helped Real, though, giving the team a more direct feel rather than moving the ball slowly through midfield. While it is obvious that Lopetegui has his own ideas, at times in the early going it might not be the worst idea for him to stick with elements of the tried and trusted style from the Zidane era.

If any one player seemed like he would be a beneficiary of Ronaldo’s departure, it was Gareth Bale. The Welshman who always seemed like he was cannibalising his own game for Ronaldo’s finally has the stage to himself, and boy is he shining on it. Interchanging in the wide roles of the 4-3-3 with Asensio, Bale has been inarguably Madrid’s key player so far, generating both the most xG in the squad for himself and assisting the most for others.

 

 

His fellow wide player Asensio hasn’t quite yet found his rhythm in the new side. Lopetegui’s system is asking for a direct wide forward who can cause problems running in behind, which is perfect for Bale, but it still isn’t clear whether Asensio’s best role is in this position or as more of a playmaker. The 22 year old remains a huge talent, but in order to become more than potential Lopetegui will have to figure out what his specific role in this side is.

Overall, it’s fair to call the post-Ronaldo Real Madrid a work in progress. Lopetegui is clearly looking to move away from Zidane’s finely balanced star studded side in favour of something more cohesive and possession based. Whether he will succeed in implementing this new style depends a lot on his ability as a coach, which is surprisingly still unclear for someone in such a high profile job. Just on pure player quality, though, it’s difficult to imagine the loss of Ronaldo not negatively affecting the team. Even if everything goes right for the new Madrid this year, second place might be something they have to accept.

It’s Watford’s World Now

Early in the season a constant refrain can be heard from numbers nerds everywhere. Wait. Be patient. A few games is not enough to draw conclusions. It is important, however, to be specific about what conclusions can and can’t be drawn. It’s certainly true that three games can’t do much to move the needle when it comes to evaluating performance. It can raise some red flags, perhaps point an analyst in the right direction, but saying anything definitive based solely on three performances is a recipe for overreaction. However, the same is not true of results. Early results can change things a lot. Watford are the perfect example. Watford have taken all nine points from their first three games this season. Are they better than people expected? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer definitively. Their numbers through three games are certainly better. They’ve only conceded two goals. Only Liverpool’s perfect defensive record is better. And, with 0.68 expected goals conceded per match, they’re also only second to Liverpool on that count. They’re only conceding eight shots per game, yet again second to only Liverpool Those defensive numbers are significantly better than last season’s where they conceded 64 goals, the third most in the league, 1.46 expected goals and 11.18 shots. The trend is similar, if somewhat less pronounced, when only looking at manager Javi Gracia’s time in charge last season, where the team conceded a better 1.18 expected goals per match and allowed 9.35 shots. Unsurprisingly the same is true on the attacking side of the ball where the side has gone from 1.19 expected goals and 12.13 shots last season (1.25 and 13.35 under Gracia) to 1.45 and 15.67 this year. It’s quite clear that so far in three games this season, Watford have played at a higher level than they did either in total, or specifically under Gracia, last year. That’s the good news. Here’s the small sample size news. Watford’s three opponents this season have been Burnley at Turf-Moor and Brighton and Crystal Palace at home. Those aren’t the worst teams in the league by any stretch. It’s not like Watford beat up on Cardiff and Huddersfield, for example, but they also aren’t teams that are obviously better than they are. Watford’s performances have been strong, but it’s reasonable to expect that they’ll get worse as the season progresses. In fact, three of their next four matches are against Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal. Let’s see how those numbers look when the end of September comes around. This isn’t a knock on Watford. Sometimes a team can run up gaudy early season points totals and have numbers that don’t support that the success. That’s not the case with Watford. They aren’t stumbling their way blindly into points. They’ve played some of the best football in the league so far. They’ve just done it against a non-representative slice of opposition. As such, it’s hard to project exactly how well these numbers will hold up when the going gets a little bit tougher. What isn’t hard to project is exactly how important those nine points are going to be for Watford. They were a side that came into the season on the fringes of the relegation battle. But, nine points from three games changes that picture entirely. While it’s certainly true that hot starts can cool, and freezing cold starts can melt away, the points you do and don’t put on the board early in the season remain. And those points indelibly impact the contours of a team’s season. Last year Crystal Palace was a team with good underlying numbers and an absolutely brutal start. They didn’t get their first points until into October. The team didn’t get a magical get out of relegation card free for the fact that in a more just world they’d have taken points from matches early in the season. Instead, they had to spend time fighting and clawing their way out of the bottom of the table. They had very little room for error, which meant that in the back half of the season, when they suffered a rash of injuries, they were dragged right back into the race for the bottom. Ultimately, they climbed clear for a comfortable 11th place finish, 11 points clear of danger. They finished well above the drop, but the bulk of their season was defined by the lack of points they ran up early on. Watford are precisely the opposite. Nine points from three games is a massive haul, and gives the team  a huge buffer against the dangers of relegation. It’s a quarter of the way to the total of last year’s worst survivor, Southampton. Watford could play like an absolutely terrible team for the rest of this season and still likely survive. If Watford fell apart tomorrow and played at a 30 point pace for the rest of the season they’d still finish with about 37 points. There are currently seven teams with two points or fewer. West Ham have none. Burnley, Huddersfield, Newcastle and Southampton all have one, and Wolves and Cardiff have two. If we start from the premise that Watford might magically turn into a 30 point pace team overnight then West Ham would need 37 points to catch them. That’s a 40 point pace. The group of teams with one point would have to play at a 39 point pace and Cardiff and Wolves would need to play at a 38 point pace. It’s certainly conceivable some of these teams could do that. But, in order for Watford to get relegated a full five out of seven of them would. That’s…well it’s a long shot. At the beginning of the season the case for Watford’s relegation was fairly simple. They were a team without much attacking firepower, that had lost a dynamic young winger in Richarlison and not replace him. Under Javi Gracia they looked like the kind of sturdy defensive team that could scrap their way to survival but might not have enough in attack to get the job done. It’s easy to make the case that if a couple of things go wrong a team like that can find themselves on the wrong side of the most expensive race in football. Now, three games later, the case for relegation rests on an extremely narrow just so story. Watford would in fact need to be a very bad team, despite their results. That’s not impossible, but given the strong underlying numbers backing up their three wins, it’s at least somewhat unlikely. Then, a large number of teams would have to play at the kind of pace, 38 points and above, that far outstrips what they’re expected to do. Oh, and to top it all off, no other team with fewer points than Watford can collapse. There’s not a lot it’s possible to say confidently after three games. But, a combination of strong play and great results make Watford the exception to that rule. A team that was an outside contender for relegation is now sitting pretty. Not bad for a month’s work.

Is Harry Kane Fine Now?

Harry Kane scored a goal against Fulham last Saturday. It wasn’t a remarkable goal. Erik Lamela did most of the work driving through Fulham’s defense before freeing Kane on the left side of the penalty box. The Spurs striker cut back onto his right foot, shaking a defender to create enough space to finish precisely across the keeper, tucking the ball inside the right post. Fairly standard Kane type stuff. What makes that goal important is that for months Kane hasn’t been doing the standard stuff that turned him into a superstar. In March of last year Harry Kane suffered an ankle injury in a match against Bournemouth. The injury didn’t keep him out very long. He only missed two matches. But the differences between his performances before he had his ankle stepped on and after were striking. Up until the match Kane was averaging 5.75 shots per 90 minutes and 0.77 xg per 90. Those are astronomical numbers, arguably best striker in the world type numbers. After the injury, his shots per 90 dropped substantially, falling to 3.06. And his xG came down with it, dropping to 0.44. Those are still fine numbers, but they’re the numbers of a good striker, not the numbers of the one who’s at the top of world football. Often times, of course, injuries take time to heal, and players aren’t quite at full fitness when they return to the lineup. It’s perfectly natural that Kane might take a while to get to get the fire back into his full fire breathing dragon form. But, and this is an incredible sentence to write, despite winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup, Harry Kane’s finishing still didn’t return to form this summer. His shot chart is pretty barren. Strip out the penalties and all that’s left is three goals on 11 shots in six games, and an even less impressive xG of 1.52. There are reasons beyond just himself that Kane struggled of course. England played a sound, but ultimately unimaginative, style, and Kane spent much of his time dropping into midfield to help progress the ball while Raheem Sterling or Marcus Rashford tried to run in behind opposing defenses. With relatively little extended possession in the final third, England didn’t work effectively to create chances for Kane, even as Kane seemed unable to create them for himself. So, Kane watch continued, and the concern grew. Football is chock full of players whose careers have been permanently slowed by injury. The obvious and recent example of course is Fernando Torres (even ignoring a slight late career renaissance with Atletico Madrid). It’s an inexact comparison because Torres’s game with Liverpool was built on top of his speed. He played in a side specifically constructed to squeeze him in behind defenses and let him outrun them. When Torres’s hamstrings decided they’d had enough, it took away the foundation of what he did so well. Kane, on the other hand, does not have a game built from speed. He gets in great goal scoring positions not by fastest to them in a sprint but by being first to them in more congested areas. That’s not to say he’s not a prodigious athlete. He is. It’s just that the interplay between entirely healthy legs and his ability to score goals is more complicated than how the speedy Torres works. It’s certainly possible that Kane’s ankle injury could permanently hamper him, but the story would have to be more complicated. Which brings us back to Kane’s goal. The process of scoring that goal involves tons of tiny decisions, even as Lamela did most of the creating. Here’s how the shot ended up. In order to get into that position Kane first decides to stay outside Calum Chambers as Lamela drives forward. It’s a smart and simple decision, although sometimes a striker in that position will make a run from out to in, trying to split the two defenders and either receive a pass or drag the defenders with him and create space for the ball carrier. Kane holds his position and Lamela plays him in. Chambers is in a relatively strong defensive position when Kane gets the ball, and again the Spurs striker has multiple options. The simplest thing to do would be to let the ball run to his weaker left foot, and rather than try and confront the defender, simply blast the ball on net from a tighter angle. Kane declines that option, and instead opts to do something harder. He takes a touch to cut the ball back to his right. There’s a cost benefit analysis there. On the one hand it gives Chambers a chance to make a play, sacrificing a sure shot on goal. On the other, successfully shifting the ball back to his right opens up the goal and creates a better scoring opportunity. To put it nerdily, Kane’s decision decreased the chances of getting a shot but increased the xG of the shot he’d ultimately end up taking. The theoretically correct decision depends on whether the increase in xG makes up for the times that he’s dispossessed, you could make an equation out of it and everything. Part of Kane’s skill as a striker is that he’s excellent at making those decisions instinctively. There are a million little moments in a game that players have to confront, and strikers and defenders alike are constantly evaluating those moments and making choices, taking into account factors that most of us mere mortals can’t even dream of. And the margins are tiny. If Kane’s assessment is wrong, and Chambers had just a split second more time to react than Kane expected, then the defender would have disrupted the play, Kane wouldn’t have gotten the shot off, and we’d still be worrying about his performance. As it was, he walks away from the game with four shots, and a goal, and everything seems fine. The challenge of analyzing these specific tiny moments is just how many different things are at play. Imagine a world where Kane cuts back and Chambers sticks his foot in and disrupts the play. One possible reason for that is that Kane’s ankle is still not quite right, and the Spurs star is making decisions based on the way his body used to react, as opposed to how it’s reacting now. That’s scary. That way lies Torres. But, there are plenty of other things that can go wrong as well. Maybe the ball took a tiny unexpected bobble, maybe Chambers is simply slightly better than Kane anticipated, or the turf is slightly looser, or maybe the Spurs forward just got his calculations wrong. Life is complex. And, to further complicate things, even an unhealthy Kane will execute that move successfully some percentage of the time. That’s why we use aggregates. Looking at any one decision and definitively attributing it to lingering ankle woes for Kane (or anything else) is likely a fool’s errand. But, looking at the results of lots of decisions he made before he was hurt, and lots of decisions that he made after the incident, and seeing that on average the outcomes are worse, that’s powerful. We know that Kane’s results were worse after his injury. Were still waiting for them to bounce back. Last weekend Kane played well. He had a goal and four shots. That’s the kind of performance you’d expect from a healthy star forward against relatively weak opposition. A close examination of the goal shows just how fine those margins can be though. The trick is to both recognize the match for what it was, a good sign that Kane might be back to his usual self, while not discounting that if Chambers was just a fraction of a second quicker, Kane’s results would look a whole lot different. Overall, a healthy Kane will get those decisions right over the course of time. It’s encouraging that the did so last weekend. Now the question is, will he continue to?

I Think We Broke Denmark

I was mucking around with an analysis for a customer this week when I ran across something I hadn’t looked at in a really long time – the set piece table for Danish Superliga 14-15. That was the season FC Midtjylland (FCM) won their first ever Danish title, largely on the back of scoring tons of set piece goals. Brian Priske was the set piece and defensive coach that season and he and the players probably deserve 99% of the credit for those goals, but a tiny portion of what’s left should probably be apportioned to Matthew Benham for the idea that this phase of the game was exploitable, and to my own work in designing the set piece program.

 

Anyway, the reason why I mention it is not to break my arm patting myself on the back, but because after this nostalgic instance of stumbling across the 14-15 stats, I wondered what the 17-18 set piece table looked like.

That’s when things got weird…

Background

When FCM first started having success on set pieces, we discussed how to talk about this in a few internal meetings, especially with regard to questions from the press. I distinctly remember the message we landed on being one of happily crediting player skill and a bit of luck, but under no circumstances should anyone say that we worked on these more than normal.

Set piece goals to outsiders would hopefully be written off as things that magically happened, which was just fine by me.

 

 

(This splash image is from Daniel Taylor’s scathing piece on Championship owners.)

That’s why I thought it was weird when pieces like Sean Ingle’s one from February 2015 started appearing in the press. Why was this thing that we knew was hugely important to us and driving a lot of our success, suddenly public knowledge? I still don’t actually know, to be honest. My guess was that it provided a counterpoint of positivity to the ongoing Warburton mess at Brentford, but even acknowledging the edge existed – and one that would likely be sustainable long term – seemed incredibly dumb.

One of the big rules of conducting sports analytics inside a team is that when you find an edge, you exploit the hell out of it.

And you never talk about it in public.

Why not? Because professional sport is competitive and you don’t want to make your competition any smarter. Plenty of them will ignore the information or not be able figure out how to successfully exploit your edge directly, but even one team copying an edge for free is too many.

In many cases, the edge only exists because people don’t know it’s there to begin with. That’s why many coaches and general managers/directors of football will outright lie when reporters start asking questions in these areas.

The Fallout

In a way, the public discussion created a fascinating economics question. How do actors in competitive economies adapt behaviour to new information over time? Or to put this in more obvious sports terms, what happens when a comparative league minnow wins a title on the back of scoring a lot of set piece goals, and then tells the entire world what they did?

Welcome to Denmark!

That is a lot of set piece goals. Like… a LOT. And from a whole bunch of non-Midtjylland teams. Brian Priske would later spend some time helping giants FC Kopenhagn crush the league (partly also via dominating from set pieces), and his expertise may have dispersed into greater Denmark a bit, but this whole “we too can score lots of set piece goals” idea has clearly caught on up North.

In 14-15, FCM were the only team in the league to crush this particular phase of the game, scoring 25 goals, while three other teams barely cracked 10. Three years later, eleven of fourteen teams were in double digits.

I Now Have SO MANY QUESTIONS

One of the things I used to argue about with my long-time collaborator Marek Kwiatkowski was whether working on set pieces more in training forces trade-offs in other areas. I was firmly in the “you can score more goals, period” camp (Marek is a natural uber-skeptic), but it was mostly just theory. However, now we get a chance to look at exactly that.

Are the total goal outputs largely fixed and you just shuffle between open play and set pieces, or can you just plain score more goals by adding set piece expertise? To put it another way, can you create a bigger pie or are you just carving out different sized pieces?

Set piece goals per game, 14-15: .55
Set piece goals per game, 17-18: .75
Total goals per game, 14-15: 2.41
Total goals per game, 17-18: 2.91

Set piece goals per game have gone up by .20, while overall scoring is up half a goal a game. This lends weight to the bigger pie hypothesis, and not merely different sized pieces.

Note: The Danish league changed structure between 14-15 and 17-18 by adding additional teams and the world’s most complicated playoff structure, so it’s not as clean as an analysis as it might otherwise be. Professional sports…

But wait, you say… some of that increase can be explained by competitive reasons, right? By increasing the league size, they probably brought in some weaker teams that were more likely to get blown out.

A fair point. Going to the first year of the 14-team league, we see… .63 goals from set pieces and 2.65 goals a game. Again, more set piece goals and more goals overall.

Shouldn’t there be an equilibrium, though? Teams are scoring more set pieces, and they presumably know how to defend better against them as well, right? So why are we seeing so many more goals?

This is where we get to a bit of theory. Back when I was at FCM, someone asked our striker Duncan about defending set pieces, and his reply was that if the timing and delivery were right, the goals were basically unstoppable.

Now part of this comes back to creating complexity in your delivery and route patterns, and who you are targeting on all your different set pieces. You can’t just do what England did in the World Cup and run the same play over and over again and succeed. You might be able to get away with that for a few games, but you’ll struggle mightily through a league season. Defenses will adjust to that type of basic plan. However, if you are smart about your planning… well, maybe the goals actually are unstoppable.

Given the fact that the fewest set pieces goals conceded in the entire league was nine (and three seasons earlier, it was just four), either everyone in Denmark suddenly became really bad at defending set pieces or everyone became much better at executing them in ways that were difficult to stop.

I lean toward the latter.

The analysis above isn’t scientific or conclusive. There are confounding factors, and football is an inherently complex game that often defies simple explanations anyway. However, I find the dramatic increase in set piece goals across the entire league here fascinating, and if we were building a case that you can increase set piece goal production at the cost of basically nothing else, we now have some evidence that perspective may be correct.

My Own Work

One of the things I am happiest about regarding set pieces is that what we built at Midtjylland was sustainable, despite the fact the coach initially responsible for the success was poached by a bigger club. Well done to Mads Buttgeireit for continuing to innovate in this area, and well done to FCM for listening when I said, “You HAVE to get Priske a fucking set piece assistant or you’ll lose tens of millions of euros in value if he ever leaves.”

Listening is underrated.

We also know for a fact that data analysis has dramatically changed the way that both baseball and basketball are played now. It’s not just about finding better players, it’s often about finding fundamentally superior styles of play before your competition and then beating them with it over and over again until they adopt your style.

In light of the above, I still find it amusing that this summer, no one on the club side came and talked to us about set pieces. The World Cup of Set Pieces was great. I broke down a lot of things, both on the site and on Twitter. Still, zero interaction.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In a way, this was really good, because I honestly did not have the bandwidth to spare while also launching StatsBomb Data. (I probably still don’t, but football is a siren’s call.) In another way, it’s just continuing evidence that football is glacial when it comes to adopting new ideas from outsiders. Lest you think things are progressing behind the scenes in England, the Premier League scored 214 set piece goals in 2017-18… and 216 in 14-15. Fair dos to Bournemouth and Eddie Howe/Tom Webber for leading the league in this area last year though.

Our price for consulting on this is not cheap. We don’t need to be. We still get you goals at a huge discount vs what you pay at the player or manager level without cannibalising anything else. And we teach your club personnel how to sustain this edge. The value you get at the club level is stupidly large.

And like I said above, it’s not like teams were put off by the price… no one even had the conversation. *

One thing I do want to note is that if you are a national team and want help with set pieces for the Women’s World Cup, definitely get in touch because like with our data, we will offer a deep discount to support the women’s side of the game.

Conclusion

I will always be a nerd at heart, so finding data on how the Danish Superliga ecosystem changed after we shocked it in 2014-15 was super exciting to me and I had to write about it. While it doesn’t offer conclusive proof of anything, it certainly allows you to ask interesting questions about what would happen if the rest of the football world starts to adopt advice on better ways to play the game that were reached largely via data and analytics.

Thank you for listening!

Ted Knutson
CEO, Founder StatsBomb
ted@statsbomb.com
@mixedknuts

*And I also know that plenty of you are in clubs already and listening, and you’ll take what you learn from us and do it on your own and probably succeed at least somewhat, because you are smart and it’s not that hard to do better than what you have now. It’s probably pretty hard to score 25 every season like FCM though.

Other Writing

Changing How the World Thinks About Set Pieces Set Pieces and Market Inefficiency.

Historic data used in this piece was licensed from Opta

Three Premier League Things That Aren’t Actually Surprising

Two games into a new season is not the time to make grand pronouncements. Weird stuff happens in two games. From a performance perspective, very little is done that cannot be undone. Although the same doesn’t quite hold true when it comes to results (the fact that Arsenal already trail Chelsea by six points looms large for example), it’s important to separate out the unfortunate dropped points, from the warnings of bad underlying performances. It’s useful to put the unexpected in context. Often, a look back at last season, or even further, makes seemingly unlikely events seem more common place.  

Burnley’s Defensive Struggles

Last year’s seventh place team has one point from their first two games. They’ve also already conceded three goals. The concerning thing is that those two matches have been against Southampton and Watford. A dull scoreless draw on the road to open the season isn’t unreasonable, but to then come home and concede three to Watford in their home opener is at least a little alarming for Sean Dyche’s team. Last season, Burnley didn’t concede three goals to a team outside the top six a single time, and the only time they conceded twice was in a home loss against Bournemouth. Watford scored early, but Burnley almost immediately equalized, so the two teams were on equal footing for most of the first half, and entering the second. Watford took the lead with the kind of goal, a defense splitting move from Troy Deeney, that Burnley are supposed to be very resistant to. If Burley’s defense can’t prevent these kinds of looks, they’re not going to come close to achieving last year’s results. Maybe Burnley’s defense simply had an off day, it happens. But it’s worth considering that the three goals they’ve conceded are in line with the 2.9 expected goals, the model predicts. The questions around Burnley have often surrounded their mysterious ability to concede fewer goals than expected goals might predict. That’s not what’s happened so far this season. Instead, Dyche’s team’s xG has gotten worse, moving from 1.27 per game to 1.45. That would be a surprising result were it to persist. Most likely this is just a rough start, and the team’s defensive xG will move back towards where we expect it to be, but even then don’t be surprised if Burnley concede more goals this season than last.  

Manchester United’s No Good Very Bad Day

After losing to Brighton 3-2, Jose Mourinho made the point that his team was punished for every mistake that they made. And he wasn’t really wrong. Brighton scored from their second and fifth shots, their first two on target. Brighton’s first two goals came from a collection of shots that were worth a total of 0.74 expected goals. On lots of days they’ll only score once from those shots, and on some days they won’t score at all. On the face of it, United were unlucky to concede the way they did. That said, they also created next to nothing. After they went behind, United created a grand total of seven shots before Paul Pogba’s very late penalty. Three of those came from corner routines. For a team with as much dynamic talent as United have, chasing the game against worse opponents, it was an anemic attacking performance. So, yes, Mourinho was right to say his team was harshly punished for their mistakes. But, that only diagnosis part of the problem. United have spent the better part of the last season and change only being able to get results if circumstances are favorable. They’ve gotten away with it because David De Gea has been so good in goal, that United simply haven’t dealt with very many situations where they’ve been harshly punished. But, that’s not generally how the world works. The best teams need to be able to win even when they get an ugly path. They need to be able to generate attacking impetus to chase down the game after getting a bad break, and to score anyway. United’s performance against Brighton showed no signs of being able to do that, late penalty not withstanding. United spent a year being bailed out by De Gea, but even the best keeper in the world isn’t going to be unbeatable every week of the season year after year. United avoided those inevitable human days last season. This is what they look like when they don’t.  

Scorers Score

A number of teams across the Premier League feature players who have a reputation as lacking end product. Alvaro Morata is Chelsea’s starter. He scored only 11 goals last season, though he had 13 expected goals, and his limited minutes, meant his xG per 90 of 0.53 was quite respectable. Still the question remains as to whether his poor second half with Chelsea last season is the most important factor when predicting his future, or his general strong goal scoring record across the years with not only Chelsea, but also Juventus and Real Madrid. Against Arsenal, he scored a very tidy goal, beating an isolated defender and sending Peter Cech the wrong way. One goal, of course, proves nothing either way. But, it’s exactly the kind that his career record suggests he should be scoring, and the second half of last season suggests should be a rarity. Then there’s Raheem Sterling. He’s been much maligned over the course of his career for what amounts to a failure to convert the occasional low xG chance into a goal. Then, to start this season off, he did this. Unlike with Morata, it’s fair to say that based on the bulk of his history, that specific kind of goal is an unlikely one for Sterling. On the one hand, Sterling is a terrific goal scorer, on the other, the goal he scored in City’s opener against Arsenal is genuinely one he hasn’t shown a proficiency for over the course of his career. If he begins to add the occasional bomb from the edge of the penalty area to his game then look out. It’s useful to keep that dichotomy in mind as the season progresses. Expect Sterling to score goals, but don’t expect too many like that one. And finally there’s Richarlison. The price tag of his move to Everton raised eyebrows this summer. He was after all, a player with only five Premier League goals to his name moving for £40 million. The knock against him was his lack of end product, a reasonable reaction to the fact that those five goals were significantly below the double digit expected return on his 102 shots. He’s now scored three in his first two games with Everton. Here again, this is only surprising is your starting assumption was that, in fact, Richarlison was in some meaningful way a bad finisher. The power of expected goals though is that it allows for a more basic, and accurate assumption, namely that Richarlison was probably not nearly as bad a finisher as his stats indicated last season, and that he’d likely be just fine in the long run. Similarly, Everton shouldn’t expect Richarlison to keep scoring multiple goals from a set of chances that only works out to 0.55 xG. Morata’s own history provides lots of reasons to expect the kind of goal he scored against Arsenal to be a normal occurrence. Sterling’s career provides evidence that he’ll score a lot, but not necessarily in the way he opened his account this season. For Richarlison, it’s his underlying numbers that make his goal scoring run expected. One of the powers of expected goals is that it anchors expectations rather than then sending observers chasing their eyes for a reason after every hot or cold streak. So, these goals from the young Brazilian aren’t unexpected given the more robust baseline that xG provides. Similarly, don’t expect them to continue at quite this pace.

Manchester City’s Achilles Heel: The Aging of Fernandinho

Manchester City had one of the best seasons in English history last year, hitting the century mark for points, 19 more than second place Manchester United. What’s more, due to their Emirati owners, they were able to strengthen an outstanding squad by adding the 24-year-old Aymeric Laporte to their defense in the January window. They followed that up by poaching Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City this summer—whose 12 goals and 10 assists were the most for any player outside the Big 6 clubs last year.

Benjamin Mendy’s return to fitness means that even their one problem position has been sorted, and City now look balanced and accomplished across the entirety of their squad. It’s no wonder they have been crowned favorites to become the first Premier League repeat champions since 2008-09.

Despite all the positive news coming out of the blue half of Manchester, there has been one notable area in which the team has failed to strengthen. After January stories linked the squad to Fred, and a prolonged flirtation with Jorginho this summer, City lost out on both players to rivals. Surprisingly, they addressed this failure by deciding not to pursue any further backups.

This leaves Fernandinho as the sole defensive midfielder in the side.

 

 

Even though he was one of the least heralded members of City’s record-smashing side last year, Fernandinho was also one of its most critical. In fact, his 2900 Premier League minutes were the third most for an outfield player on City last year, behind only (suddenly) dependable center back Nicolás Otamendi and supernova offensive fulcrum, Kevin de Bruyne.

But Fernandinho’s minutes played are significant for another reason—he is now entering his Age 33 season and is still expected to provide strenuous outputs. Despite functioning at a high level for Guardiola’s team last year, Fernandinho is quite a ways beyond the age when a midfielder would be expected to slow down, and is inching ever closer to the point where players of his caliber look to bring their abilities to a less demanding competition level.

In fact, of the 200 leaders in outfield minutes played last season, only 10 were in their Age 33 or older season (defined as turning 33 before January 1). Of those, the only non-defenders were Darren Fletcher, Gareth Barry, Chris Brunt and Glenn Murray. Non-coincidentally, three of these players’ teams were relegated. Putting enormous burdens on midfield players of Fernandinho’s age just isn’t done. And yet City enter the season not only expecting Fernandinho to handle the lion’s share of the minutes playing at the 6, but also that he continue to produce at an elite level for a defensive midfielder. 33 may not seem too old, but in soccer midfielder terms, it’s ancient.

 

 

Statsbomb has already published on Andrés Iniesta’s age-related decline, and there’s no reason to expect Fernandinho to avoid Father Time’s march. So City is walking two tightropes—they are hoping he will be able to play many minutes and they are hoping his production will not tail off.

These are two huge bets to make on a player of Fernandinho’s age, and they are amplified by the lack of backup in the squad. The two closest players to Fernandinho’s skill set are Ilkay Gündogan and Fabian Delph, neither of whom fully replicates what Fernandinho brings to the table.

Delph was a nice story last year, but he doesn’t remotely approach Fernandinho’s impact as a passer on the ball. He played 7 fewer passes per 90 and was less enterprising with the ones he did play. Fernandinho was the fulcrum for City’s passing attack and the key catalyst for their ability to progress the ball from deep. His 12.3 deep progressions per 90 led not only the team, but also the entire league (among players with over 1000 minutes played). Delph is a tidy passer who can handle a high load in City’s system, but he’s unlikely to be able to match the same creativity as the Brazilian.

Despite playing a high number of passes and functioning in a similarly deep area to Fernandinho last year (while nominally playing as a leftback), Delph lagged behind in expected assist numbers, key passes, passes into the box, and long balls per 90. He contributed to deep progression numbers 30% less frequently, a nontrivial amount. And despite his more risk averse play, he lost the ball almost exactly as often as Fernandinho did.

Gündogan, conversely, can match Fernandinho for passing aptitude, but he lags behind in defense ability. Fernandinho put up a possession adjusted 4.7 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes . Gündogan played a key role in City’s impenetrable press, but he wasn’t the same force protecting the back 4; he only had 3 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes.

If you combined the play of Delph and Gündogan, you would have a perfect replacement for Fernandinho ready-made. As is, no one on the team can replicate his combination of defensive prowess and passing assuredness and progressiveness.

If Fernandinho is largely the same player in 2018-19 as he was last year, City can occasionally rotate Delph or Gündogan into his place and save him some wear and tear as he ages. But if he gets injured and winds up missing a prolonged stretch of the season, or if his play regresses due to age, City will struggle to replace his poised play in the middle of the park.

While they have a larger margin for error than most defending champions do to retain their crown, any problems that arise around Fernandinho will be central to any scenario that sees them lose their crown. This is why their decision not to pursue further reinforcements after missing out on Jorginho is so curious.

It has been a confident start to the inchoate campaign, but Kevin de Bruyne’s set back has put City in a more precarious position than they would have liked. It further accentuates Fernandinho’s importance as well, since Gündogan is tasked with providing depth to both positions. A setback to Fernandinho could complicate team balance enough to open the door just enough for a rival team to mount a serious challenge to the title.

Still, City were historically good last year and remain favorites for both Premier League and Champions League honors. It’s more likely that they repeat as champions than that a chasing challenger dethrones them. If, on May 13, some other team tops the table, we’ll likely look back on Fernandinho as a critical cause.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Remember Adnan Januzaj? He’s Good Now

There were very few positives to come from Manchester United’s 2013–14 season. David Moyes inherited an old squad that was pushed to their limits the previous season as they won the Premier League to give Sir Alex Ferguson a fitting send off. The calamity that ensued took years to undo. One of the few glimmers of hope during such a dour season was that as a teenager, Adnan Januzaj was a positive contributor and showed promise, performing like a live wire act at his best. You weren’t quite sure just how good of a prospect Januzaj was, but the fact that he held his own against grown men in a top league was encouraging, similar to what happened with Marcus Rashford a few seasons later.

The next three years eliminated all of the goodwill built up from that debut season. Januzaj couldn’t reclaim his starting spot at United after the managerial switch to Louis Van Gaal, his loan stint at Dortmund went horribly, and he wasted away at Sunderland during their relegation season. No longer was he viewed as a bright young talent that United could bank on playing 2000+ minutes per season, but rather a player in his early 20’s who was trying to reclaim his former glory. And that’s why last season at Real Sociedad was such a breath of fresh air for Januzaj’s career. On the surface, producing a non penalty goals + assists per 90 rate of 0.44 was decent, but peek behind the curtains and his overall statistical resume showed that he performed like one of the best attackers in La Liga.

Januzaj found a home in Spain, especially playing at a club like Real Sociedad that prioritized projecting a sense of calmness during possession regardless of the pressure by the opponent. This started all the way at the back where Real Sociedad loved to play from the goalkeeper. Either Gerónimo Rulli or Miguel Ángel Moyá, whenever they were given the chance to do so, played the ball short. If the opposition brought men forward so it wasn’t a viable option to play a short pass to one of the wide CBs or the players coming infield to support the keeper in possession, then, and only then, would they go long to bypass the first line of defense and find openings higher up the pitch.

Real Sociedad used their ability to keep calm position to create combination plays, keeping a compact shape which would help in creating passing outlets near the ball carrier and create openings for players to receive the ball and create forward momentum. In Willian Jose, Real Sociedad had a striker who could act as a focal point whenever they wanted to move the ball further forward quickly. Their fullbacks, particularly with Álvaro Odriozola on the right side, were important and turned Real Sociedad’s wing play and spells of possession into dangerous crosses into the box. They were above league average in regards to penalty box entries that came from crosses. All of this, along with midfield players like Asier Illarramendi and David Zurutuza, helped the team function as a possession based side without it turning towards sterile. At their best, they played attacking football that could tear opponents to shreds.

The value that Januzaj brought wasn’t necessarily as a wide player who could advance the ball by himself from deeper areas. He wasn’t Malcom or Hazard, though he could fill that role in a pinch. Instead, he played as a spark plug, a player that could amplify the structure behind him and create chances for himself or others during spells in possession. He was the type of player who you could give the ball in an isolated duel on the wing and feel good about him doing something positive. If there was an opening when on the right wing, he could get back infield onto his left foot and shoot. Otherwise, he was able to create just enough separation off the dribble that he can go to near the touchline and deliver a cutback to an open teammate in the box. He was that dash of spontaneity to amplify the disciplined possession behind him.

Januzaj was also able to operate off-ball to get on the end of passes and turn them into dangerous shooting opportunities, which was why his xG/shot of 0.10 was solid for a wide player. Between Sergio Canales, Xabi Prieto and others on the squad, Real Sociedad had a number of capable playmakers which meant that Januzaj could lurk into the center and take advantage. Whether it was finding gaps between the defensive line or just arriving at the penalty box at the right time, Januzaj was given the freedom to operate off-ball and not just have to settle for low efficiency shots after cutting inside off the dribble.

It wasn’t totally seamless for Januzaj, as he turned the ball over quite a bit and his heavy shot usage meant he was prone to taking some questionable shots, but the good definitely outweighed the bad. Januzaj was a high impact player in the minutes he played, even though his minutes weren’t sky high because of a string of niggling injuries. If his goal scoring contribution matched up with his expected output, his season would’ve been held in a better light than it perhaps was. What’s interesting is trying to figure just how much stock we can put into his 2017–18 performance moving forward. On the surface an attacking player, especially a wide player like Januzaj, making a leap in his early 20’s is totally reasonable because that’s usually when those type of players move into the next stage of their career. His numbers were legit so there’s nothing necessarily to worry about from that department, and yet it’s hard to ignore that there were basically three dead seasons between his promising debut season in 2013-14 and what he produced last season 2017-18 campaign.

But it wouldn’t be impossible to explain a lot of what happened in those three years. The Louis Van Gaal era at Manchester United was so weird and chaotic from a roster standpoint that Januzaj didn’t have much room for error as a teenager to maintain a consistent spot. His short loan spell at Dortmund was bad with maturity issues being a sticking point at the time, and perhaps two years of added experience means a greater sense of maturity compared to what was shown in Germany. As for his Sunderland tenure in 2016–17, it would be harsh to use that as a relevant data point against him considering Sunderland been relegated in back to back seasons and now reside in League One. It could very well be that Januzaj getting minutes in a decent but not necessarily great team like Real Sociedad was just what the doctor ordered for a career reboot.

To some extent, Januzaj’s career resembles what’s gone on with Florian Thauvin. Thauvin was a hot prospect in France a few years ago during his days at Bastia, but his career stalled out during his first stint at Marseille and those disastrous few months at Newcastle. It’s been the last two seasons back in France where Thauvin has become the caliber of player that many saw in him. Januzaj is following a similar trajectory and it shows the volatility that can come with prospect development. While more young talents than not follow a more traditional pattern, some take a different path to their final destination for a bevy of reasons.

There are numerous stories within La Liga that should make the 2018–19 season an exciting one. Real Madrid and Barcelona will continue to operate in their own space, with the former trying to navigate their squad without having Cristiano Ronaldo to suck up a lot of shots, and the latter trying to cobble together one last great side during Lionel Messi’s latter years. Perhaps Atletico Madrid have enough fire power to put a scare into the two La liga giants, with the acquisition of Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins injecting some new talent into the squad. Go further down the table and you’ll find clubs like Real Betis trying to replicate the high octane football they displayed last season and Valencia building on a successful 4th place finish under manager Marcelino.

Somewhere in the list of La Liga story lines is Adnan Januzaj, and his encore to what was a vibrant first season in Spain. No one really knows just how good Januzaj’s second season at Real Sociedad will be, and whether what we saw in year one wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation of his true talent level or the beginnings of a new stage in his career as a top player. The 2018-19 season will help in figuring out whether it’s the former or the latter.