Barcelona Season Preview: Messi the Great Facilitator

By any realistic measure Barcelona had a dominant season last year. They won their domestic league by 14 points, while losing only a single game. They also won their domestic cup. But Barcelona are a club destined to fail to live up to expectations that only they can set. And what came to define their season, more than the raging success of their domestic campaign, was a stunning Champions League quarterfinal defeat to Roma. And so it is that the team which ran up 93 points in La Liga set about correcting for a failed season.  

A Different Defense

Perhaps the defining tactical characteristic of Barcelona’s first season under new manager Ernesto Valverde was their somewhat more restrained defensive approach. It’s been a long time since Pep Guardiola was manning the sidelines at Barcelona, but despite the intervening years, and the four managers to have helmed the team since he left, an active counterpress had remained a huge part of the team’s success. Losing the ball had always been followed by winning it back immediately. That changed under Valverde. Their defensive actions still largely occurred in their opponents half of the field. The heatmap below shows a lot of red a long way from their own goal. But it’s much less pronounced than the most aggressive defenses in the world. Here, for example, is what Guardiola got up to last season with Manchester City. Now, that’s a press! It's an absolutely unbreakable wall of red around the opposing team's goal. The other defensive factor that becomes apparent when looking at the heat map is how lopsided the side was. Barcelona seemed to be better and more aggressive pressuring the ball on the right side of the field than the left. There were a couple of reasons for that. The first is a personnel thing. Not infrequently Paulinho would be playing on the right. Valverde’s system was a little strange and lopsided and would often result in both Paulinho and Ivan Rakitic playing on the same side. Nominally one of them would be a winger while the other would be partnerning Sergio Busquets in midfield. Although Busquets would also, at least in possession, continue to function mostly as a single pivot. Regardless the result was a bunch of players good at being aggressive defensively on the right side of the pitch. On the left side…we need to talk about Andres Iniesta. There’s a reason last year was his final one at the top levels of the game. Iniesta has long been a difficult player to categorize, one who excels at the quieter things, and was understated at the louder things. And he still did a lot of good work in possession for Barcelona last season. But, defensively, his age showed. His declining mobility meant he simply wasn’t able to pressure the ball as frequently or effectively as he had been earlier in his career. And he noticeably dropped behind his fellow midfielders when it came to pressing the ball. Iniesta will obviously be missed, but this season his absence will likely upgrade the team’s defensive solidity. On top of that, Barcelona acquired Arturo Vidal from Bayern Munich, and shipped Paulinho back from whence he came. Pauliho proved a useful, if limited, player, both adding defensive stability and goals to the side, but Vidal does all the things that Paulinho was good at but better, and he also does all the things that Paulinho was bad at at a world class level. At 31 years old Vidal probably doesn’t have that many great years left, but right now he remains one of the best all around midfielders in the game. Expect Barcelona’s defense to be better this year than last.  

Messi Facilitates the Attack

Lionel Messi. You might have heard of him. He’s pretty good and stuff. He’s 31 now, and evolving into what will likely be his final form. Last season he became an extraordinary facilitator, who just happens to score a ton of goals. When Barcelona were running out a front three of Neymar, Messi and Luis Suarez, the creative duties were largely split between the two wingers with whoever didn’t have the ball at their feet joining Suarez to torture opposing back lines. With Neymar gone, Messi just did all of the creative work. He led the team in assists (among players who played at least 1000 minutes) with 0.37 per 90 minutes which was right in line with his expected goals assisted of 0.38. He was also second on the team in deep progressions per 90, that is, bringing the ball into the final third either by passing or carrying it, with 10.37 (Iniesta was first at 12.87). Often times, Messi and Suarez were listed as a pair of strikers, but obviously their roles differed dramatically. Suarez led the line and Messi dropped into midfield to get the ball. Accordingly Suarez had just under 19 touches in the penalty area per game and Messi had just under 12 (although that was still second highest on the team). Oh, and in addition to all that passing, Messi just managed a casual 32 non-penalty league goals. One potential concern here is that given his duties as a facilitator, Messi’s goals came from a weaker selection of shots than he’s historically taken. His expected goal tally was only 22.61, and even perhaps the greatest player of all time isn’t entirely immune from the laws of finishing gravity. This year it seems likely that either his goal scoring will end up declining somewhat or the system will end up being tweaked to relieve him of some ball progression duties in order to let him get in better positions to score. The main beneficiary of Messi’s passing was Suarez. Suarez had an interesting season. He scored 24 non-penalty goals from an expected goal total of 22.1. That’s a really good return, and a mild overperformance of his xG. And yet, he, like so many strikers before him, felt worse. It seemed like he missed buckets of good chances, wasting the genius passing of Messi that set him free time and again. And to a certain point, that’s true. He missed a lot of good chances. He missed 22 shots with an xG of over 0.2. That’s enough to stick in your brain. It’s also what happens when a player has an extremely high xg/shot. Because Suarez had lots of great looks at goal he both scored as many goals as we’d expect and missed more great chances than most players in the world will (because he had more great chances than most players in the world will). Despite Suarez and Messi having the scoring seasons they did, Barcelona’s attack remained limited. In large part because their third most prolific scorer last year, both in total goals and in expected goals was Paulinho, which is….not great. And the xG gaps were large, both from the two goal scorers to Paulinho, and from the midfielder to everybody else. This year things should be better. For starters, there’s Vidal who we already talked about. Then there’s Philippe Coutinho who arrived last January and after half a season of bouncing around the formation should finally get to settle into his role as Iniesta heir apparent. Ousmane Dembele, who never really got off the ground last season, thanks to chronic hamstring problems, should bounce back. He’s only 21 years old, he’s got buckets of talent and is as unstoppable as it gets with the ball at his feet. If the rest of his game can catch up a little, he absolutely provides the kind of creative thrust that Barcelona missed last season. And finally, Malcom arrived from Bordeaux and he provides another young, dynamic wide scoring option. He’s a little bit wild, and his shot selection leaves a lot do be desired, but the talent is undeniable.

Focused on the Now

There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Barcelona’s future. The core of their team is all over 30 with Messi, Suarez, Rakitic, Pique, Busquets, and now Vidal all being closer to the down side of their careers than their peaks. Their most exciting younger player, Dembele still needs to develop, the same goes for Malcom. They might not. Really only Coutinho, centerback Samuel Umtiti, and fullback Jordi Alba are in their prime years (and that's being generous to Alba at 29). Father time is licking his chops waiting to get a hold of this side. But, right now, Barcelona look like they could be great. They’ve upgraded where they need to upgrade, added attacking options to a squad in desperate need of them, and are improving from what was already an extremely strong foundation. Take into account that Cristiano Ronaldo is now plying his trade in Italy, and not at Real Madrid and you’ve got a Barcelona that will be an overwhelming favorite to win domestically. Then again, for Barcelona, winning the league isn’t success, it’s the bare minimum they’ll accept.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Celta de Vigo: A Spanish Midtable Transfer Success Story

Slowly but surely more clubs in the major European leagues are becoming smarter about recruitment. Stats usage, good scouting of lesser known markets, smart Directors Of Football, a holistic approach that helps newcomers fit a club’s playstyle, or a combination of any or all of these options – many are the ways to make a club’s strategy more calculated. It's impossible to judge a club's methods from the outside, but from the look of transfers it's possible to find relatively accurate patterns in their business. Liverpool and Brighton have had consistently great windows by bringing in players that fit their style and show up well in analytic models. In Spain, Sevilla had success under Monchi's leadership and the same thing is slowly starting to happen under his watch at Roma. Monaco have invested a large majority of their budget in young players over the last couple of seasons, a perfect fit for a great developmental manager in Leonardo Jardim. Celta de Vigo might be smaller than they other clubs on the list, but they're no less smart. They’re now entering their seventh season in the top tier of Spanish football since being promoted in 2011/12. After a pretty rough initial season, they managed to break into the top ten three times and finish safely mid-table in the last two campaigns. They even put together a Europa League semi-final run. Their managerial appointments have proved mostly successful, as well. With coaches like Luis Enrique and Eduardo Berizzo getting moves to Barcelona and Sevilla, after their time at Vigo. After missing the target with their appointment of Juan Carlos Unzué last season, they went for another unorthodox choice this time around with Antonio Mohamed – known for his entertaining pressing style – coming in from Mexico. When it came to transfers it, they consistently brought in some South American talent, alongside players that didn’t make the step up into bigger Spanish sides – taking advantage of La Masia graduates that didn’t make the cut with Barcelona’s main team among otherse. Over the last few seasons, though, their market focus has shifted further north into Scandinavia – an unusual direction for clubs from the South of Europe. Miguel Torrecilla, Celta’s previous Director of Football, was a fan of these leagues and paid €1 million for Michael Krohn-Dehli from Brondby back in 2012. He added Daniel Wass and John Guidetti three years later, both Nordic players but arriving from France and England, respectively. Felipe Miñambres is the club’s current Director of Football and he seems to have doubled down on Torrecilla's approach. Since 2016, the summer he took over took over, Celta have signed Pione Sisto, Andrew Hjulsager, Stanislav Lobotka and Mathias Jensen – all from the Danish Superliga – as well as Emre Mor, who came from Dortmund but developed at Lyngby and in Nordsjaelland’s youth ranks. They're all 23 years old or under. Sisto finished last season fifth in the league for assists (just like Daniel Wass) and, between his crossing and key passes, made a huge step up from his first campaign in Spain – becoming one of the team’s main creators from wide (again, much like Wass). Starting four World Cup games helped push his value even further and the initial €6 million fee seems a bargain now. Lobotka spent the summer window constantly associated with incredibly lucrative moves to the Premier League after just one season of showing his immense press-resistance as a deep-midfielder in Spain. He seems to be staying for another campaign, but Celta is almost guaranteed to make a good profit on him soon enough. Emre Mor finished the season with a record amount of successful dribbles /90 in La Liga but played just under 700 minutes. Reported issues with the old manager explain a bit of the situation, and he should get a new lease on life under Mohamed. Hjulsager seems to be the only failed purchase from this list, not even asserting himself on loan in the second tier. Guidetti and Wass, the oldest Scandinavian players at the club up to this season, both left this summer to Alavés and Valencia, respectively, but both at a profit and after several fruitful campaigns with Celta. Buying from Scandinavia means less direct competitors and, by consequence, cheaper prices. Celta are also taking advantage of the Nordic academy set-ups, which are producing much more technical players nowadays, but are still stereotyped as producing players more fit for physical leagues. On top of that, the language and integration issue that would be a big hurdle for any other Spanish side is diminished due to the pipeline the club has established. And while the focus of their market is there, it hasn’t stopped them from making the odd useful addition from another countries – whether it is from South America or eastern Europe. Like Maxi Gomez who arrived from Uruguay for €4 million and will eventually bring in plenty of profit, after scoring 17 La Liga goals last season. Celta are in this great position to profit off young players: they’re in one of the world’s best leagues, they prioritize attractive football, they always have a slight chance of a European campaign and their players have enough quality for relegation not to be a pressing worry. It's the perfect environment for a team whose model seems to be buying, developing and selling a diverse set of promising players. All of Celta's smart tendencies have been on display in this summer’s transfer window, arguably the best one since Miñambres took over and one that could push Celta to be one of the most fun teams in La Liga this season. Mathias Jensen was one of the best Superliga players last season and is the latest Denmark export: a 22-year-old centre-midfielder whose influence in the final third, both setting up his teammates and being a threat on goal himself, is somewhat reminiscent of Christian Eriksen. Okay Yokuslu is another midfield addition and one that data flagged throughout last season. He not only posted great defensive numbers, he also managed a spectacular 1.9 successful dribbles per 90 with a 90% take-on success rate. Arriving from Turkey might make his adaptation slightly more difficult, but the player quality is clear and makes the transfer a no-brainer. Partnering up with Lobotka, Yokuslu and Jensen could make for one of the most press-resistant and fun to watch midfield trios around. They also invested in Nestor Araujo from Mexico, who the manager is familiar with, Juncá on a free to replace the ongoing Jonny Castro, as well as the loans of Junior Alonso and Sofiane Boufal. Two seasons of Boufal at Southampton weren’t enough for him to impress, but if Celta can recreate the production he had in France they’ll get a quality wide attacker in a deal with little to no negative consequences. To finish up they made 19-year-old Fran Beltran their third most expensive player ever, a midfielder arriving from Rayo Vallecano who should be integrated slowly into the team while still getting plenty of minutes this season. And, through the sale of a bunch of players – most of them on the wrong end of the age curve –, they actually made a profit this window, all while undeniably improving the squad available to them. Celta’s project shows us the importance of having an actual transfer plan, shows us the role of the Director of Football, how key it can be to explore of new markets, as well as how to make the most of your place within the football pyramid. All of these serve as foundation for successful displays on the pitch and that’s why all of us should watch out for them as they kick off their season this weekend.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The Best Premier League Transfers of Summer 2018

The annual fun of the transfer window is over and now we return to the grind of actual football.   There were a lot of concerns coming into this summer related to the window closing before the start of the season, and there’s no doubt that some clubs did not manage to get everything they wanted in the market. That said, the general quality of player purchased was perhaps as high as it’s ever been, with fewer and fewer clubs looking to spend silly money on the kind of ageing “Premier League proven” British player who apparently has a great attitude that we see so often. Last summer, StatsBomb identified Mohamed Salah as the best purchase of the window, and one year on, we feel pretty good about that claim. This year, there perhaps wasn’t a single individual who stood out to the same extent, but with the standard generally being high, here’s five we feel particularly optimistic about.  

Jorginho, Chelsea

Buy what you know. In hiring Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea embarked on a process that will see them shift to a much more possession focused system, one that will require a lot of progressive passing from the central midfield trio. Of Chelsea’s options here last season, only Cesc Fabregas offered much of this, managing 10.85 deep progressions per 90 and 2.49 open play passes into the box (per StatsBomb Data). Next best in both cases was N’Golo Kante with 7.4 deep progressions and 1.05 passes into the box, but as magnificent as Kante is, if you’re primarily using him as a passing presence, you may be lacking in that department. Making matters worse, Fabregas is 31 years old and not exactly looking the spry all-action midfielder we saw at Arsenal anymore. A valuable passing midfielder who can still be relied upon defensively was necessary.   Jorginho does these things about as well as anyone else in European football. The Brazilian born Italy international showed himself to be one of the best progressive passers around in a Napoli side managed by, yep, Maurizio Sarri. Playing as the deepest midfielder in a 4-3-3, he still put up 3.8 tackles and interceptions per 90 in a side that dominated possession so much that there were only so many balls to be won. In a Chelsea squad that is still learning the new system, Jorginho will know exactly what is asked of him in the defensive midfield role, exactly when to drop between the centre backs and when to push up, when to make a safe sideways pass and when to take the more adventurous option. At 26, he’s arriving at peak age, and while it’s possible that his defensive work will decline as he ages, his passing is unlikely to do so at the same rate, so Jorginho should be a critical part of Chelsea’s midfield for several years.  

Ricardo Pereira, Leicester

Even when Leicester City won the Premier League, right back was never particularly a position of strength. After some early defensive frailties that season, Danny Simpson replaced Ritchie de Laet in the role primarily to offer more defensive solidity behind the attacking threat of Riyad Mahrez down the right flank. The partnership worked well enough to remain across three seasons, and the balance never really shifted. Last year, Mahrez was Leicester’s most important creative outlet, ranking first in the squad for both deep progressions and open play passes into the box per 90. Simpson, meanwhile, was 12th and 11th in these categories. So when Leicester decided to take the cash and allow Mahrez to move to Manchester City, a full rethink was required down the right hand side.   While Rachid Ghezzal has a relatively similar skillset to the departed Mahrez, it is unlikely that he will be able to perform it to such a high level. Thus Ricardo Pereira has arrived to offer greater impetus as part of a revamped flank. His primary role is likely to be as a conventional overlapping attacking right back, staying wide and providing a crossing threat while Ghezzal cuts inside and makes use of his dominant left foot. The secondary role should be as a right midfielder, the position he played in the opening game against Manchester United. Using a full back in a wide midfield role against specific opponents is a tactic Puel has employed in the past with Ben Chilwell on the left, and Pereira looks to have the tools to do it. Having played under Puel for one season previously at Nice, there should be a clear understanding of what the right back offers, and at age 24 he is in no danger of hitting the downside of the age curve. That is how you upgrade a fairly weak position in your team.  

Jean Seri, Fulham

Fulham have had quite the overhaul upon their return to the Premier League. High profile signings from top European leagues such as André Schürrle and Sergio Rico are complemented by relatively young domestic talents like Alfie Mawson and Joe Bryan. Surely, the most exciting addition, though, is Ivory Coast creative midfielder Jean Michaël Seri. It seems likely that Fulham will continue with the 4-3-3 formation they deployed against Crystal Palace, with Aleksandar Mitrović as the striker flanked here by Schürrle and Ryan Sessegnon (though they now have a number of options). That front three has a good blend of pace and aerial threat, though none are especially noted for outstanding creative passing.   Enter Seri.   The midfielder’s outstanding passing ability has been noted on StatsBomb by Mohamed Mohamed, who described him as a player 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”. Playing next to Tom Cairney (no slouch in the passing department either) and protected by Andre Zambo Anguissa (a more natural destroyer who should help provide balance to the side), Seri should have plenty of opportunities to receive the ball to feet and help pick out Fulham’s pacey forward options. At 27 he’s coming in at peak age, though with his contract potentially running until age 31 there should probably be an attempt to sell him before then, even if he does have a skillset that ages relatively well. For now, though, Fulham are getting a very high quality player in their first season back in the top flight.  

Lucas Torreira, Arsenal

The Arsenal rebuild has begun, and in truth many of the signings have been underwhelming. A number of players are at the wrong end of the age curve, including the transfers from head of recruitment Sven Mislintat’s former club Borussia Dortmund. It is of great relief, then, to see these players accompanied by 22 year old Lucas Torreira, a midfielder with a wide range of skills.   One of the most obvious changes from the Arsene Wenger era seen in Unai Emery’s opening game against Manchester City was a greater emphasis on a compact, aggressive midfield. When looking at where Arsenal pressured the ball in this weekend’s home game against Man City, there’s a clear aggressive attempt to stifle the opposition in the centre of the pitch. By comparison, when looking at last season's home game against Man City, there's much less of a clear pattern, with Arsenal seemingly unwilling or unable to press City in central areas. This football requires a different type of midfielder. Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, known for their talents on the ball but somewhat limited off it, have left the club, while Torreira has arrived. The Uruguayan is able to combine a strong ball winning game of 4.9 tackles and interceptions per 90 last season while completing his passes to an impressive level. There are concerns that he is sometimes too patient with his passing, often taking the simpler option of retaining possession than a more ambitious move, and this may hinder Arsenal slightly in their ability to break at speed. Standing at 5’6, he is unlikely to dominate in the air, either. But those are essentially the only faults one can find in this versatile midfielder, and someone who can be a key element in a new Arsenal more focused on pressing in central midfield.  

Naby Keita, Liverpool

If one were to build an ideal midfielder for a Jürgen Klopp side in a lab, you might end up with Naby Keita. The Guinean signed from RB Leipzig never seems to stop moving, being very aggressive in pressing and winning the ball back while offering huge value in possession. His trademark move is to dribble through congested central areas almost as though the opposition players aren’t there, and he has the decision making in the final third to make those runs worthwhile. With the exception of his small stature, there really isn’t much one could ask from a midfielder that he doesn’t offer.   The injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, ruling him out for the whole season with questions over whether he will ever fully recover, lefta hole in Liverpool’s midfield. The squad is generally filled with midfielders like Jordan Henderson, James Milner, and Gini Wijnaldum: useful players, but ones who do not hugely excel in any aspect of the game other than work rate. While this wasn’t the initial plan when he was purchased, Keita can offer the dribbling threat and ball progression previously delivered by Oxlade-Chamberlain at an even higher level than the Englishman. Keita’s arrival at Liverpool took a year longer than originally planned, but there’s no reason at all to think that this will prevent the 23 year old from being a success this year. Good things come to those who wait.

Courtois and Pickford: The Tall and Short of Keeper Styles

At 19 years old, Thibaut Courtois was Diego Simeone’s first choice keeper at Atletico Madrid. After three full seasons in La Liga he was being touted as the best young goalkeeper in the world. Four seasons on, people were more likely to tout David De Gea, the man Courtois replaced at Atletico, as the best keeper in the world. Then, at the World Cup, over the span of a few games, De Gea has a nightmare, Courtois did well, won the Golden Glove, and suddenly he, and not De Gea, who’s on his way to Real Madrid. Welcome to the football merry-go-round.

In the last two seasons at Chelsea, Courtois has conceded one more goal in the Premier League than models expect for the shots on target he’s faced. In Russia, his shot-stopping was worth one full goal during his seven games and he had the most work to do out of all the keepers out there (Here’s lookin’ at you, Bobby Martinez!). In the middle of it all he even managed to get into a mini spat with tiny, little, Jordan Pickford.

Given time to pluck the ball out of the air from a long looping cross, there’s barely anyone better than gigantor, Courtois. He dominates aerially. He faced just three shots on target from the centre of his six yard box. He saved two of them. Pickford faced 11 and saved one. Pickford does not dominate his six yard box. He doesn’t dominate aerially. Size is important. Thibaut was right! Pickford responded to the comments by bigging up his own power and agility and not caring if he was the biggest. Power and agility is important. Jordan was right, too!

Last season Courtois had a real problem in dealing with shots coming from central positions in the area around the penalty spot. Pickford didn’t. Whisper it quietly, but it’s almost like keepers have different make ups and different strengths and weaknesses. Because of his size, Courtois doesn’t often need to power from his set position into full length dives. He doesn’t do it often, and when Courtois does need to get power from his set position, he frequently fails to do so. Because of his size, Courtois is far too in the habit of just collapsing down in order to get to the deck quicker. He has to do this because he takes up fairly aggressive positions which restrict his reaction time. Courtois’ size also goes against him when situations develop quickly. He reacts once the thing has happened. He keeps by numbers, and is reactive rather than proactive. He decides to close out shooters when the ball is already at their feet rather than anticipating the play early. He is s-l-o-w. 

Nit-picking? Maybe. But these are the small differences that make or break a goalkeeper’s season.

Courtois’ save % from this area was 50% and way below average. Pickford’s was 64%. And those shots from wide areas in the penalty box like Adnan Januzaj’s goal against this summer Pickford? Last season Pickford saved 19 out of 22 of those. Courtois saved 10 out of 17. But, given time to react from longer range shots outside the area centrally, Courtois swallowed them whole. Pickford struggled. These patterns were exactly the same for season 2016/17, even with Pickford plying his trade at a different club with a different set-up.

Football’s analysis is often confined by week to week constraints. There’s always a game around the corner during the season that needs to be prepared for. But, if you don’t break down a keepers’ numbers it’s difficult to break down their game. You could watch every game in real time and not note these patterns. The record of what actually happens, the information in the long term data highlights the problem. Long term success needs long term analysis and planning. Football has more flashes in the pan than a wok chef with pyromania. The need to ignore short term narratives is huge.

Courtois’ weaknesses also highlights another keeper coaching bugbear of mine. Look at all the publicly available coaching videos. There’s more repetition in the drills than a Jive Bunny track. The keepers know what’s coming. Footwork steps, dive, get up, speed back to start position, footwork steps dive, get up, speed back to start position. Yes, developing some muscle memory is important, but how are you teaching visual clues as to what’s going to happen during the actual match if it doesn’t match your rigid training exercise? Saving a shot involves footwork, it involves diving technique, agility, power, handling. But, first of all, it involves making dynamic decisions about how to handle each situation as it develops. Coaches are taking this away in their sessions.

Every recorded shot on target in a model has all this information built in by virtue of it simply happening in thousands and thousands of top level matches over many years. Long term data tells you what’s working and what’s not. Use it. Or don’t.

At window’s close, with Courtois off to Madrid, Chelsea spend a whopping £72 million to replace him with Kepa Arrizabalaga. Pickford, who was briefly rumored to be on Chelsea’s list to replace Courtois stayed at Everton for at least another season. Kepa is, as yet, unproven in the Premier League, but to prove himself better than Pickford he’ll have to clear a very competent bar. In the last two seasons, Pickford has saved three more goals in the Premier League than models expect for the shots on target he’s faced. Meanwhile, De Gea, sitting pretty above this summer’s transfer fray, he’s saved about five or six times that.

Crystal Palace: 2018-19 Season Preview

They got there in the end.

After failing to get a single point on the board until October, and spending almost the entirety of the first half of the season in the bottom three, Palace were fairly comfortable by May. The team settled on an eleventh placed finish, a respectable eight points away from 18th place Swansea. Thus we had a clear narrative: new manager Frank de Boer’s absolutely disastrous reign came to an abrupt end with firefighter Roy Hodgson gradually taking the side from an unspeakably terrible embarrassment to a solidly respectable team capable of staying in the league. Right?

About that…

Palace may not have been entirely broken under De Boer. They weren’t great, exactly, but for a club transitioning to a completely different style of play under a new manager having done very little preparation for it in the transfer market, an expected goal difference per game (over a small sample size of five games) of -0.28 was entirely reasonable. The problem they had was some horrific finishing, which saw them score not a single goal from an xG of 4.77.

 

Shit can happen over 58 shots. There was not significant reason to think that this horrific finishing run was likely to continue, or that it was caused by bad coaching. We will never know what a full season of Palace under De Boer would look like, but the underlying numbers were solid, with a possibility that things would improve with greater coaching time. Nonetheless, bad results caused unrest both in the boardroom and the dressing room, with the decision makers at the club making the sudden move to bring in Roy Hodgson, a supposed safe pair of hands who plays a style more traditionally seen at smaller clubs in the Premier League. Though Palace were not in need of “fixing”, Hodgson did actually improve the side, and they were really quite good at times, putting up the best expected goal difference outside of the top 6.

 

 

Playing a low block system, ranking as the second deepest side in the league terms of where defensive actions took place, Palace were an effective unit in a fairly uninteresting way. Luka Milivojevic and one of either Yohan Cabaye or James McArthur in central midfield would sit in front of the back four. The wide midfielders, often Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andros Townsend, would take up very narrow roles on the opposite flank to their stronger footed sides. This narrow 4-4-2 is the approach Hodgson deployed to success at Fulham and West Brom (and to abject failure at Liverpool, but that’s an article for another day), and it made Palace reasonably solid here.

On the attacking side, things were somewhat less settled, though not bad. For much of the season, Christian Benteke led the line, and things got somewhat strange. Having been a reliable goalscorer in the Premier League throughout his senior career, he managed a total of 3 goals for the whole of 2017/18, one of which was a penalty. He didn’t have a problem getting chances either, picking up 8.76 expected goals. For whatever reason, be it bad luck or a genuine problem with his game, Benteke suddenly had a historically terrible finishing year.

 

The good news for Palace is that everything we know about finishing suggests this is extremely unlikely to happen again. The outcome one would expect is for Benteke to return to the goalscoring form of his first season at Selhurst Park and Aston Villa, and for it to be as though last year never happened. Hodgson, however, disagreed with this view, and took Benteke out of the side towards the end of the season, often favouring an unconventional strike partnership of Wilfried Zaha and Townsend. Though neither are as much of a goalscoring threat as Benteke, this led to a much more fluid and mobile attack. With Loftus-Cheek developing into an excellent ball carrier on the left, he was able to fashion numerous counter-attacking opportunities for Townsend (at this point a serviceable player for a non-top 6 side) and Zaha.

 

 

There is no doubting who the key player was, though. Having been moved from his traditional wide role to generally being part of some kind of strike partnership, Wilfried Zaha had the best season of his career. Only two players outside the top 6 were able to put up better expected goals and assists per 90 than the Ivorian, and of the top ten only Riyad Mahrez came anywhere close to replicating Zaha’s 2.89 dribbles per 90. That he’s added more in terms of shot involvement while still maintaining his dribble value is really impressive, and Palace now have a genuine star to build around.

 

 

 

 

In terms of the transfer market, things have been somewhat mixed for Palace. Loftus-Cheek has returned to his parent club Chelsea, taking his excellent value in progressing the ball with him. His reported direct replacement is Jordan Ayew, noted veteran of mediocre Premier League sides. Ayew is a hard working player, and his mobility should allow him to fit in fairly seamlessly with the fast, fluid attack of Zaha and Townsend. It’s hard to imagine him offering the creative work of Loftus-Cheek, though, and expectations should probably be of merely a solid contributor.

 

 

The other notable outgoing is Yohan Cabaye on a free transfer. Cabaye never came close to replicating his Newcastle form at Selhurst Park, but he still did some useful things. Despite his reputation from earlier in his career as more of a cultured deep lying playmaker, his main asset last season was as Palace’s most aggressive presser, with his 21.2 pressures per 90 the most of any player in the side. The most obvious replacement for him is Cheikhou Kouyaté from West Ham for £9.5m, the only real transfer fee Palace paid this summer. In his time at West Ham, it often seemed like Kouyaté’s main skill was finding himself out of position, so it’s not clear how he will help a Palace team in which Hodgson wants his midfielders to take up disciplined roles in front of the back four. And on purely statistical grounds, there doesn’t seem to be much that he does better than Cabaye. At age 28, this is very much a move for the here and now, and as such this doesn’t seem like an inspiring signing.

 

 

Perhaps the highest profile arrival, however, is Germany international Max Meyer on the now familiar free transfer from Schalke. Meyer spent his youth career being touted as one of the most prodigious talents in German football, so that he’s ended up moving to Crystal Palace instead of Bayern Munich suggests things haven’t quite panned out for him. Having often featured in more advanced roles without ever really settling on a defined position, Meyer finally seemed to settle as more of a defensive midfielder in his final year in the Bundesliga. As such, it’s not obvious what role Palace will play him in, or even what his main attributes are, but Hodgson has generally been good throughout his career at getting players to concentrate on their core strengths. At 22 years old, there’s still a chunk of development left for Meyer, so this is the one move that does look to have a higher upside.

In comparison to sides like Fulham and Brighton buying a number of high profile exciting talents from abroad, it’s hard to be too impressed by Palace’s window. It’s not clear who will step up and replicate Loftus-Cheek’s ball progression, making arguably a weaker first eleven than last season. That said, Palace were better than many thought last year, with the strange finishing issues most notably of Christian Benteke leading to them scoring 14.5 fewer goals than expected. In order for this side to push on and achieve more than last term’s 44 points, what probably needs to happen is for Hodgson to find a way to integrate Benteke’s target man role with the more fluid attacking moves of Zaha and Townsend. Whether that is doable remains to be seen, but Palace still have a solid side, and another midtable finish is probably a reasonable aim.


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Huddersfield Town: 2018-19 Season Preview

A strong start, including a 3-0 win away at Crystal Palace on opening day, catapulted Huddersfield Town to joint second in the table after three matches. They finished 2017 in 11th place thanks to a bunch of low scoring draws and six wins including a home victory over Manchester United. That win was a lone bright spot, however. Before it, they lost nine matches and failed to score in seven of those and after that win they lost five in a row at the start of 2018; conceding fourteen goals and scoring only one in reply. In the end they ground out survival, not scoring more than once from the start of March onwards, but battling for draws away to Manchester City and Chelsea and clinching 16th place at the end of the season. Given that more than half of the teams relegated since the formation of the Premier League have been ones in their first or second season in the division this was a remarkable achievement. It seems likely that Huddersfield will be involved in a fight against relegation again this season so is survival a feat that they can repeat?  

Soft Rock Defending

Huddersfield Town had a goal difference of minus 30 and the worst expected goal difference in the division. A major factor in that was their attack - they scored the joint fewest - but there were also some issues with their defence. Huddersfield tended to use a 4-2-3-1 formation in most matches and switched to a 5-3-2 against the 'top 6' teams. Their average defensive event location was ninth furthest from their own goal in the league but this was not an aggressive all over the pitch counter pressing style that the oft-used narrative of manager David Wagner's long professional relationship and friendship with Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp may have led some to imagine. Huddersfield Town, in the 2017/18 season, tended to concede the opposing team's half and then press, individually man on man, only once the ball entered their own half and particularly if the intended ball recipient had their back to goal. If this press was broken, or the opposition maintained possession in Huddersfield Town's half, they retreated into a very deep block which helped them to allow both the eighth fewest deep completions (passes completed within twenty metres of their goal) and the eighth fewest non penalty shots against; ranking behind only the 'top 6' and Watford in both of these areas. In fact, five teams conceded more goals than the Terriers and, incredibly, only seven teams kept more clean sheets. The problem for Huddersfield Town was that the chances they did allow were very good ones. The average xG open play shot they faced was 0.13 and as a result, despite limiting the number of shots they faced, they conceded the fifth highest non penalty xG per game in the league. As well as the style of press meaning that it was relatively easily evaded by quick players and good passing teams, they were not helped by a real lack of mobility in their central midfield. Aaron Mooy was fourth in the league for successful passes into the final third for teams outside the 'top 6' but lacks the athleticism to play as part of a defensive double pivot at this level and his usual partner Jonathan Hogg, while possessing the name and appearance of a middle manager, isn't equipped to manage the middle of Huddersfield Town's defensive half on his own. Against the bigger teams Wagner did include young Dane Philip Billing as a third midfielder but, while he appears to be a good passer and his height was a welcome addition given Huddersfield Town were among the worst in terms of xG for and against from set pieces in the league. They really required more of a positionally aware ball winner in front of the defence to help them avoid lapses of the sort that led to them losing three or more goals in eight separate matches last season. If, in terms of the way they defend, Klopp's Liverpool are Heavy Metal and Sean Dyche's Burnley are a Spector-esque Wall of Sound then Wagner's Terriers could be considered an unadventurous soft rock group - a bit predictable and about to face difficult second album syndrome.  

All Bark and No Bite in Attack

That unadventurous style shows up most obviously in Huddersfield Town's attacking statistics. There are some fairly dramatic top notes;

  • Scored the joint fewest goals in the league and failed to score in 21 of their 38 matches
  • Attempted the third fewest non penalty shots per match
  • Lowest xG per shot in the league
  • Lowest xG per match on average

So, they weren't shooting very often and when they were it was from poor locations. Not exactly a shock that this led to them scoring so rarely. Apart from passes into the final third by Mooy Huddersfield Town tended to attempt attacks by crossing but they weren't very effective at it. In fact, the Terriers had the highest box cross ratio (percentage of their entries into the opposition's box being crosses) in the league while also having the second worst cross completion percentage. A lack of certainty about which players should be the first choice in the wide attacking positions was compounded by Elias Kachunga's two serious injuries which sidelined him for almost all of the second half of the season and although Rajiv van La Parra completed the fourth most dribbles per 90 in the league his end product and that of Tom Ince was lacking. Steve Mounie was tasked with the lone forward role and often found, on the rare occasions he got in behind the opposition defence, there were a lack of options in support. In fact, Huddersfield made the fewest successful passes inside the opposition box per match in the league. The passing options available in attacking areas did improve once Alex Pritchard was recruited in January 2018 to play in the central attacking midfield role but throughout the season there were clear issues in terms of creating quality chances for Mounie. The barrel chested, blunt instrument of Laurent Depoitre sometimes joined Mounie in attack but he was mainly used against the top sides as an aerial outlet and defensive weapon and only managed to attempt just over one shot every 90 minutes. In addition to attackers not managing to take many shots, there were the aforementioned issues with where they were shooting from. Huddersfield Town took the eighth highest percentage of open play shots from outside the box in the league. Even when they were on the front foot, they struggled to create good opportunities and score goals. In their home tie against Swansea City in March 2018 they dominated possession after the opposition were reduced to ten men and took thirty shots to zero but drew 0-0.  

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

In the summer of 2017 the Terriers brought in a significant amount of players under the recruitment guidance of David Moss, their newly appointed head of football operations. Moss, who had overseen the scouting department at Celtic for the previous seven years, was suddenly dismissed after less than six months and Olaf Rebbe, himself let go by VfL Wolfsburg after a failed attempt to poach a Bundesliga rival's general manager, was appointed as Sporting Director in April 2018. This summer Rebbe and Wagner have secured the goalkeeper Jonas Lössl, rightback Florent Hadergjonaj and left sided defender Terence Kongolo on permanent deals after their loan periods at the club last season. This means that the defence can remain unchanged and can easily switch between a four and five man set up given Kongolo's capability at both leftback and centre back. In addition Erik Durm, surprisingly still only 26 years old, has arrived on a free transfer and can add experience and depth in both full back positions especially as Scott Malone has returned to the English Championship with a move to Derby County. Ben Hamer, a free transfer from Leicester City can provide competition for Lössl in the absence of Rob Green who has moved to Chelsea. Moving up the pitch, Juninho Bacuna, younger brother of Reading's Leandro, has joined from FC Groningen and while he seems to be capable in possession is only 21 years old and does not appear to be the ball winner the midfield appears to really need. The question remains - what have Huddersfield done to move the needle on their inability to create good chances. They don't appear to have added much mobility to their central midfield in terms of starters, although Billings may be a first pick in more than the eight starts he managed last season. Ahead of central midfield, Ramadan Sobhi has joined from Stoke City and, while it remains to be seen how much more he can contribute than Ince who moved the other way, he is clearly talented and has a strong upside given he is only 21 years old. Finally, Adama Diakhaby has joined from Monaco. While it is a concern that he has been allowed to leave only one season after joining from Rennes he can play all across the front line and could be a strong threat running the channels. We may also see more of the promising attacking midfielder Abdelhamid Sabiri and Kachunga will return from injury. The outfield players that have arrived this summer are all, except Durm, 24 or younger. Huddersfield Town do have a young team and while having so many of their players in peak age range is clearly a positive there could be some concerns over a lack of experience especially once the new recruits are taken into account. Perhaps a move for an attacking midfielder with a bit more experience and clear end product such as Pablo Sarabia, currently in stalled contract negotiations at Sevilla FC and with a release clause of €18 million, or a high quality central midfielder like André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, who newly promoted Fulham acquired from Marseilles, could have really addressed the deficiencies in the starting eleven but Wagner is certainly a dedicated coach and maybe he can help some of his existing players to have more of an impact offensively this season.  

In Search of Attacking Identity

There's a lot to admire about Huddersfield Town; incredible pedigree in the game. They were the first club to win three successive top tier league titles. They've been managed by legends such as Bill Shankly and the pioneering Herbert Chapman. They maintain close ties to their community, and have affordable season ticket prices. And that's all before taking into account recent success in terms of promotion to, and survival in, the Premier League despite their financial constraints relative to their rivals. Wagner, in tandem with the chairman Dean Hoyle, has helped to modernise the club off the pitch and fostered a strong bond within the squad and an identity rooted in fearlessness and self belief. Clearly, survival in the top flight is possible. The problem, apart from the underlying numbers we've laid bare which show just how difficult they found it to create chances and quite how good the chances they were conceding were, is that a lot of their competition is likely to be a lot tougher this season. Instead of the dead wood, comprising a combined twenty five years of consecutive Premier League football, that was relegated last season they now face the Portuguese all-stars of Wolves with added football twitter dribbling fave Adama Traore and increasingly smart recruitment from the likes of Fulham and Brighton. If Huddersfield Town can repeat their strong start, this time against Chelsea and Manchester City before a very early proverbial six pointer versus Cardiff City, while bringing more of that identity into the attacking side of their play they might not avoid being in the relegation fight but they just might be able to scrap their way out of it once more.  


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Fulham: 2018-19 Season Preview

Meet the new Fulham, relatively different from the old Fulham. On the heels of an exciting promotion campaign, Fulham have undergone an audacious summer makeover. They return to the Premier League with an upgraded squad, an exciting style, and ambitions for taking the bottom half of the table by storm.

A Unique Championship Approach

Most teams in the Championship are not built around their attack. The tried and true method to success in the Championship is to, more or less, be Steve Bruce. Build a solid disciplined defense. Be difficult to break down. Have enough resources to plug a couple of above average goal scorers up top, and let them do the hard work. If you must have possession, build through the wings so that your midfielders can maintain defensive solidity, and cross the ball a lot. Sure, it’s not the best way to score goals, but it’s good enough, and it minimizes the risk of getting caught on the counterattack. Steve Bruce has been a successful Championship manager doing that, he was successful at Aston Villa last season doing that. Aston Villa lost to Fulham in the promotion playoffs.

Manager Slaviša Jokanović built a team heavily invested in having and using the ball. They were the most possession oriented Championship team. They shot the ball 14 times a game. Fulham trusted in their attack to win them matches, even if it meant frequently leaving their defense exposed. The approach was the direct opposite to the four teams right behind them in the Championship, not just Aston Villa, but Derby County, Middlesbrough and Preston North End as well, all of whom built attacks which worked within the constraints of responsible defending, instead of the other way around.

But, there’s a reason that teams have traditionally used a defensive approach to get back to the Premier League. Actually, there are lots of reasons, but the one of particular concern to Fulham is that a strong Championship defense translates reasonably well into the Premier League, while a strong attack is much harder to execute. Attacking teams need the ball, defensive teams don’t want it. A more defensively oriented Championship team will get promoted and go on to play it’s preferred style in the Premier League. An attacking oriented one almost certainly will not. They simply won’t have the talent to allow them to possess the majority of the ball against a new set of opponents, almost all of whom have better players.

Fulham then had three choices. They could either change the style they played, significantly change the talent level on the team, or lose. They went with option two.

Upgrade Button

Fulham spent the summer building an almost entirely new starting eleven. They looked at their squad, decided that, other than a few notable exceptions, it probably wasn’t strong enough to attack in the Premier League, and spent the money to fix the problem. Those exceptions were Ryan Sessegnon, and Tom Cairney. Sessegnon started out as a precocious leftback, but he has the kind of nose for attacking the penalty box that demands to be played higher up the field, and he’s evolved into an extremely dangerous winger. He’s also only 18, and has the potential to be an absolute superstar. Cairney pulled most of the creative strings in midfield for the team in the Championship. At 27, he’s a poster boy for the way creative passing midfielders can get lost in the lower levels of the English game. He’s not a star, but he’s a player who thrives in a system that prizes possession, and as such spent the first half of his career not getting to take full advantage of his skill set. Fulham found him and unleashed him, and now he’ll get to ply his creative skills in the top tier. Fulham also signed Aleksander Mitrovic on a permanent deal after his loan stint last season. So that’s three players from 11 that are definitely staying around. After that, the flood of signings.

Fulham announced their transfer presence with authority back in July with the signing of Jean Michael Seri from Nice. Seri was linked with clubs as far up the European food chain as Barcelona, so Fulham snagging him was quite the coup. He’s the kind of midfielder who does a lot of the basic possession work and defensive pressure that makes a possession side tick, and should be a perfect fit in this Fulham side. The hope is that he and Cairney combine to make sure that the possession Fulham has is actually used to good effect, and facilitates opportunities for the attackers further up the field.

 

 

That attack has been bolstered not only by the permanent arrival of Mitrovic, but by a number of other attacking pieces. Andre Schurrle arrives from Borussia Dortmund after two exceedingly mediocre seasons. While Schurrle’s name is well known, his output over the last five to six years has been extremely mediocre. The 27 year old hasn’t managed to play over 2000 minutes since his days at Bayer Leverkusen, specifically the 2012-13 season, which was also the last time he scored double digit goals.

The hope is that Schurrle’s career has been slowed by a combination of injuries and the Peter Principle. That is, that Schurrle performed well enough when healthy at clubs like Mainz, Leverkusen and Wolfsburg that he earned moves to places like Chelsea and Dortmund where he simply wasn’t good enough to be a regular contributor. At Fulham, it’s certainly possible that he will find the sweet spot where his skills will feature, but he won’t be buried on the bench by other, better players. Fulham are also taking a similar bet that Atletico Madrid forward Luciano Vietto, a 24 year old who has failed to gain purchase at La Liga’s top sides, might come good in a slightly less competitive environment.

Fulham built themselves a whole new defense too. Alfie Mawson arrives at center back from relegated Swansea, the incredibly French named Maxime Le Marchand from Nice, and Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal. At fullback, as Sessegnon moves higher, Joe Bryan from Bristol City arrives  to take up the leftback slot and across the field Tim Fosu-Mensah is a new rightback option. This isn’t exactly an all-star unit, but Fulham’s defense last season wasn’t anything to write home about either. The new group could end up significantly below Premier League average and still be a hefty upgrade over last year’s crew.

Fulham’s biggest defensive acquisition came late on deadline day, when the squad swooped for Marseille defensive midfielder Andre Zambo Anguissa. The move addressed Fulham’s major looming weakness. A team that wants to use the ball in possession has to be good at winning possession back. Upgrading the attack, and even upgrading the defense to be more resilient, isn’t enough. Fulham will need to take the ball from opponents. That’s what Anguissa specializes in.

 

 

Anguissa was an all action defensive midfield machine for Marseille. He put up great numbers in every defensive action category. Importantly for a possession based squad, he’s comfortable doing that defending in space.

 

 

And, while the focus might be on his defense, and the way he’ll be able to clean up behind Seri and Cairney, it’s worth noting that he’s not a liability in possession. His passing range might not be excellent, but it’s good enough, and he’s comfortable enough on the ball to contribute to the attack, especially since he’s likely to have time and space on the ball as Fulham’s third most creative midfielder.

 

 

If everything goes according to plan for Fulham, Anguissa will be the glue that knits together a better defense and a robust attack, turning the two halves into a cohesive whole.  

An Optimistic Outlook

Despite the incredible transfer window, Fulham is still a newly promoted side and will have some of the typical struggles that any new side will. Depth is likely to become an issue over the course of a long and physical Premier League campaign. Fulham has done a lot of upgrading, but that means that the squad which was generally not deemed strong enough, is still sitting there waiting to fill in in the case of injury. It’s not a knock on Fulham to say that any newly promoted side is just the wrong injury or two away from the middle of a relegation battle.

Similarly, should the season not go strongly, this is not a squad built to eke out points and stay above water. In a relegation fight, a good defense is slightly more important than a good attack. If this squad gets to April hovering around 16th or 17th place, with just a point or two separating themselves from the drop, they’re likely going to be in worse shape for the home stretch than a similarly situated more defensive oriented side.

Those dire scenarios are certainly in play, but they aren’t Fulham’s most likely outcome. Their average season probably sees them comfortably avoiding the drop as they settle comfortably into the non-threatened zone of the bottom half of the table. They’ll likely struggle against better sides, their insistence on attack is fun, but not conducive to challenging the best sides in the league. They’ll also take more than enough points against weaker sides. For a newly promoted side, surviving comfortably while also being pleasing on the eye meets any definition of success.


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Burnley: 2018-19 Season Preview

Burnley enter the new season holding ‘the best of the rest’ crown following their highest place finish since 1974 last time out. The club are breaking new ground in their recent history, with a third consecutive season in the top flight plus the visit of European football to Turf Moor for the first time since the mid-sixties. According to StatsBomb’s underlying numbers, Burnley’s finishing position was reasonably well-merited, with the ninth best expected goal difference in the league. That performance was powered by the sixth best defence in the league in both their outcomes and expectation. Fifty-four points wouldn’t usually be enough to secure seventh but Burnley can hardly be blamed for the deficiencies of others; eighth place Everton sitting on forty-nine points tells the story well on that front. With all of the above considered though, seventh seems like the very top of Burnley’s potential outcomes given they don’t have the financial means to vault into challenging the top-six, so where do they go from here?

Defensive Foundations

Unless this is your first time visiting StatsBomb towers, you’ll no doubt be familiar with Burnley’s annual dance with expected goal models. Over each of the last four seasons, they’ve conceded fewer goals than expected based on traditional expected goal models, with their extreme form of penalty box defending thought to at least partially explain these divergences. StatsBomb’s new shot event data includes the position of the players at the moment of the shot and it’s fair to say that Burnley keep the data collectors busy. StatsBomb’s expected goal model includes all of that information and puts their average expected goal conceded per shot at 0.084, which is the lowest in the league by some distance. It’s an impressive feat and it is what powers their defensive performance as only Stoke City and West Ham conceded more shots last season, which would usually put you amongst the worst defensive teams in the league. Sean Dyche has instilled a defensive system based around forcing their opponent’s to take shots from poor locations and getting as many bodies between those shots and the goal as possible, even if those bodies don’t necessarily pressure the shot-taker. To give an overall picture of this, Burnley's shots conceded rank:

  • Third longest distance from goal (the fundamental building block of expected goals).
  • Lowest proportion of shots where only the goalkeeper was between the shot-taker and the goal.
  • Fourth highest in density of players between the shot-taker and the goal.
  • Seventh highest in proportion of shots under pressure.
  • Ninth shortest distance between the shot-taker and the closest defender.

No other team comes close to putting all of those numbers together and when you add it all up you get a potent defensive cocktail that sees the highest proportion of blocked shots in the league and the lowest proportion of shots on target. Even with all that added to the model melting pot, Burnley still out-performed their expected goal figures to the tune of 12 goals, which is similar result to traditional expected goal models. However, StatsBomb’s model rates them more highly relative to the rest of the league. There was still some air in their numbers, but the process has a more-solid footing. While their bunker-like approach might sound reminiscent of your ‘typical’ English defensive style, Burnley actually differ markedly further up the pitch where they apply a blanket of pressure on their opponents. The average distance of their defensive actions sat at a league average level, as did their opponent’s pass completion rate. Burnley counter-pressed at a league average intensity, sitting tenth overall. Based on a simple model of the strong relationship between counter-pressing and possession, Burnley counter-pressed more than any other team relative to their level of possession. The midfield pair of Steven Defour and Jack Cork led their defensive-pressing efforts, with able support from their wingers and attacking midfielders. Defence has been the bedrock of this Burnley side and there is no reason to expect 2018/19 to be any different.

Attacking Concerns

On the attacking end, Burnley were thirteenth in both shots (10.6) and expected goals (1.1) per game, which you can likely surmise meant their expected goal per shot was distinctly league average. They actually under-performed their expected goals to the tune of six goals, which caused them particular problems at home where they were down seven goals against expectation. Chris Wood provided very good numbers in his debut season, contributing 0.45 expected goals per 90, which was tenth highest of players who played over 900 minutes and third highest of those not at one of the top-six. His shot map illustrates his fondness for the central area of the box, with his expected goals per shot sitting fourth of players taking more than one shot per 90 minutes. Even his shots from outside of the penalty area were reasonably high quality, with two of them coming with the keeper out of position and no defender blocking his path to goal, one of which yielded a goal against Crystal Palace on his full debut. While Wood’s numbers were very good, there was a drop-off in goal-scoring contribution across the rest of the squad; Ashley Barnes and Welsh legend Sam Vokes were contributing at a 1 in 3 game rate in both expectation and actual output, with the midfield ranks providing limited goal-scoring support. Wood’s medial ligament injury just before Christmas and two-month absence coincided with Burnley’s attack dropping below one expected goal per game. This was compounded by a poor run on the defensive side as well, leading to them collecting just 4 points in 9 games with Wood out of the starting eleven. Gudmundsson carried the creative burden, with Brady chipping in when in the team but both relied heavily on set pieces when examining their expected assist contribution. Burnley were likely a touch unfortunate to not score more from dead-ball situations as their underlying process was good. However, there is certainly a lot of room for improvement in creativity from open-play. With perhaps less scope for improvement on the defensive side, Burnley could do with improving their attacking output to really establish themselves in the top-half of the table. If Chris Wood can remain healthy and maintain his form then that would certainly help but ideally you would want to see an attack that is less reliant on one individual.

Transfers

From a departures point of view, Scott Arfield is the only player to leave who contributed reasonably significant minutes last season. After going most of the summer without an incoming transfer on the horizon, things have got busier over the last few days of the window It is unclear whether proper football men or air-conditioned analytics practitioners were more excited by the signing of Joe Hart, with the latter intrigued how a goalkeeper with a history of poor shot-stopping numbers will fair at a club where the previous incumbents have consistently out-performed said numbers. With Nick Pope’s dislocated shoulder expected to keep him out of action for several months and Tom Heaton’s calf strain disrupting his own return from a dislocated shoulder, Hart is likely to start the season between the sticks. Ben Gibson arrives from one of the better defensive teams in the Championship to provide competition and depth to the central defensive ranks. He could potentially ease Ben Mee out of the starting eleven and form a peak-age partnership with James Tarkowski once he is up to speed with Burnley’s defensive system. Another arrival from the Championship is Matej Vydra, whose 21 goals last season saw him top the scoring charts, although his total was inflated by 6 penalties. His 15 non-penalty goals put him joint-fourth across the season in terms of volume at a rate of 0.50 goals per 90. However, his goal-scoring record over his career could be charitably described as ‘patchy’, while his two previous stints in the Premier League were mostly spent on the side-lines. Those concerns aside, the hope is that he can form an effective partnership with Wood and provide more creativity and a greater goal-threat than Jeff Hendrick, which is a practically subterranean low-bar. Burnley have a recent history of reasonably successful recruitment from the Championship and are seemingly following that model again with the signings of Gibson and Vydra. Adding a more creative option in open-play looks like the area where they could have clearly upgraded the existing squad. It’s hard not to wonder whether they could have used their success last season and the draw of European football to improve their first-eleven. That said, being financially prudent isn’t the worst strategy and has seen them progress over recent years, so it’s hard to be too critical.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Burnley’s prospects this season are likely closely-tied to whether they qualify for the Europa League group stage. Injuries aside, they played essentially a first-choice team against Aberdeen, so are clearly aiming to progress. İstanbul Başakşehir are ranked 66th in Europe based on their Elo ranking, with Burnley in 53rd, so their tie is expected to be evenly-balanced. Burnley ran with the most settled line-up in the league by a wide margin last season and squad depth is a major concern with the potential Thursday-Sunday grind that comes with Europa League qualification. Add in whatever the league cup is called this year and the next few months could be perilous. The range of potential outcomes for this Burnley squad seems quite broad and the bookmakers are certainly unconvinced. On one end of the scale they could secure another top-half finish and put together a European adventure to bore the next generation of fans with, while on the flip-side they could struggle with the extra strain on the squad and find themselves at the wrong end of the table. The backbone of their past two campaigns has been their form in the first half of the season, which has kept them well-outside the relegation battle. That wasn’t the case in 2014/15 when they spent the entire season in the bottom four and struggled for goals when they needed to put wins on the board. A similar scenario playing out this term amidst a potentially stronger bottom-half could well be in play heading into 2019. However, Burnley have made a habit of defying expectations and even have the opportunity to expand their exploits abroad this year. We’ll see if Sean Dyche can weave further sorcery from his spell-book.  


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Chelsea: 2018-19 Season Preview

Chelsea are a challenge to the premise of data driven previews. One major idea of analytics is that change is relatively rare. Filter out enough noise, control for the right factors, understand the way things work, and the past will be the best guide to the future. Then there’s Chelsea. Nothing causes whiplash quite like Chelsea. In the past four seasons they’ve won the league twice and finished fifth and tenth. They’re on their third manager in four years (fourth if you include Guus Hiddink’s caretaker stint). And to top it all off they’re going from a committed defensive manager in Antonio Conte, to an attacking maestro in Maurizio Sarri. Figuring out how exactly Chelsea’s recent past informs their immediate future is a complex task to undertake.  

The Departed Defense

For two years Conte’s success was built on defense. He constructed a Chelsea side the zagged defensively while everybody else was busy zigging themselves into a high pressing aggressive tizzy. Last season Chelsea conceded 38 goals, tied for fourth with Liverpool. They were also fourth in expected goals conceded with 0.99 per game. But while the teams that pup better defensive numbers focused on winning the ball high up the field, Chelsea were ruthlessly effective at maintaining their shape, shepherding the ball to the sides and then pouncing. All that red on the flanks in their own half of the field, that’s the team’s collective eyes lighting up as they corral opponents and take the ball back. A dedicated back three, protected by N’Golo Kante is impossible to break down, so teams eventually stop trying and filter it wide. Then either Chelsea would pounce or force a hopeful cross, which is a pretty effective strategy when Thibaut Courtois is standing there like a Redwood in goal to come collect. All of that is gone now. Courtois is going to be doing is great big giant ball gathering act in Madrid. Conte’s conservative, positionally based back three is a distant memory as Sarri implements an aggressive back four playing a high offside trap designed to squeeze opponents and facilitate winning the ball back quickly. There are positives and negatives to the change. Most of the positives will be seen on the attacking side of the ball, which we’ll get to in a second. But, there’s real reason for defensive, if not concern, at least trepidation. Cesar Aziplicueta was a revelation as an outside center back. He contributed mightily to the attack while leaving no space defensively, and somehow managed to never allow his height to be exploited. He will be fine as a rightback, but being fine is a far cry from being a quiet star. Chelsea seemingly have infinite center backs to occupy the two roles, from the still there Gary Cahill, to the still apparently still exists David Luiz, to talented but still with questions to answer Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christiansen. It was easy for lots of those players to look good under Conte. His system protected them and allowed them to protect each other. Under Sarri they’re going to be exposed. They’re going to have to make plays. They’re also going to hope that Emerson is ready to be a consistent starter on a big time club, or that Marcos Alonso who excelled as a wingback is able to play as a top level fullback for the first time in his career. It’s not that these things can’t happen, it’s that it’s not a foregone conclusion that they will. Shifting a squad that had excelled defensively in a conservative back three and was crafted to be deployed that way into a wide open back two comes with substantial risks.  

Jumpstarting the Attack

The rewards for that risk come in the form of actually scoring goals. Conte’s defensive side relied on precision in attack, creating relatively fewer opportunities than the other top Premier League sides. They only created 1.59 expected goals per match, significantly behind all of the other big six. Largely that was because with such a dedicate defense Chelsea were often times dedicating only a striker and Eden Hazard to break quickly at defenses. It’s hard to create great chances that way. Striker Alvaro Morata, who was brought in last season to replace Diego Costa as the tip of Chelsea’s attack had a disappointing season. And, while 11 goals is slightly disappointing, his xG totals were closer to 13, and he had a very respectable 0.15 expected goals per shot. On average when he shot it was from pretty effective positions. His xG per 90 of 0.53 was fifth among all players that played over 1200 minutes, which might seem comical given how he walked out of last season with a reputation for missing the net a lot. But his scoring record was actually quite respectable. Those 11 goals came in only a little over 2100 minutes, giving him a goal scoring rate of 0.45 was ninth among players with over 1200 minutes. On a minute for minute basis Morata’s scoring was fine if slightly disappointing, but he created shots opportunities for himself at a rate more than adequate for a striker at a top team. The problem with Morata is that all of his success was frontloaded. He scored his goals early… Then limped to the finish line. A healthy and productive Morata will likely be better next year than last, and should be able to thrive in a Sarri side that’s interested in using the midfield to play through opponents. And what a midfield it is. Chelsea added Jorginho from Sarri’s old club Napoli and Mateo Kovacic on loan from Real Madrid. They’ll partner with N’Golo Kante, the best defensive player in the world, to contend for being one of the strongest midfield units in the game. Napoli is extremely committed to moving the ball into the final third and using possession to attack their opponents. They had by far the most deep completions of any team in Serie A last season. They are reluctant crossers of the ball, and use lots of midfield movement and interchanging to pry open spaces from their base 4-3-3 system. Adding Kovacic and Jorginho means that all three of Chelsea’s midfielders (assuming that’s the starting unit) will be able to cover loads of ground. Kante’s presence means his two partners will have to worry less about getting caught up field, and both will be able to attack the penalty box when the situation calls for it. Courtois’ replacement in goal is also, in an odd way, motivated by Sarri’s attacking style. Kepa Arrizabalaga arrives from Athletic Bilbao with a reputation for being good with the ball at his feet, and an excellent shot stopper. Those are the kinds of skills necessary in a system designed to play on the front foot. While Courtois was perfectly suited for commanding a crowded area, shutting down crosses and making himself big in front of goal when necessary, Kepa’s remit will be different. He’ll have much more space to command, much more passing to pull off, and in general he’ll likely face a difference profile of shot.  

Different or Better?

It’s quite easy to predict that Chelsea will be different. Different manager, different formation, different style, different different, different. It’s harder to predict whether that will make them better. The default is to assume that teams always eventually rise and fall to their talent level, and that generally speaking their talent level is determined by their finances. That methodology while dependable is more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel. That would put Chelsea roughly third. That’s reasonable, and it’s a reasonable estimation of where they’ve been over the last half decade or more. It’s also not particularly helpful when it comes to figuring out where they’ll finish this particular season. The midfield is better, the defense is probably worse, not through any fault of it’s own, but because the club molded itself to a back three under Conte’s short time in charge, and an adjustment back will take time and some personnel changes. The attack despite an unending string of transfer rumors to the contrary is the same. Does that all add up to a team that can challenge Manchester City? Probably not, but it’s not impossible if things break absolutely perfectly and Sarri-ball takes the Premier League by storm. City’s mostly unassailable perch atop the league though is more about the defending champions than Chelsea. Chelsea can, and should, compete for a top four spot, however. They were in the thick of that hunt for most of last season, after all. A little improvement thanks to the upgraded midfield, a step back from Spurs and Manchester United and Chelsea will be right back in the hunt. There’s also at least some chance that Sarri’s success in Italy doesn’t translate. Possession based football is hard. In his first season Pep Guardiola struggled to adjust with Manchester City, finishing third in the process. The league possesses a depth and physicality that Serie A does not, and it’s both harder to keep the ball and harder to keep from being exposed on the counterattack. There’s a chance, albeit a small one that Sarri’s preferred method of play simply doesn’t end up working. So, in summary, Chelsea might be better, they might be the same, or they might be worse. This isn’t exactly illuminating from a preview, of course, but that’s the unique challenge of Chelsea. The changes make them different from last year. Their recent history suggests that there is a high degree of variability around their talent level. Sometimes the only answer really is to wait and see.

Brighton: 2018-19 Season Preview

So far, so good?

Brighton and Hove Albion’s first season of top flight football since the early 1980s went about as planned, hitting the mythical 40 point mark exactly and sitting fairly comfortably in fifteenth. The side followed the fairly well worn path for a newly promoted team of never being entirely out of the relegation fight, but never appearing hugely likely to go down either. They backed those results up with fairly agreeable numbers too. They had a respectable expected goal difference which ranked them as the thirteenth best side in the division. The defence was fairly stable in “better than relegation” territory throughout the season, while the attack gradually improved before a brutal run in when the side faced all of the top four in the space of the last five games which brought things down to Earth (as such, the dip at the end of the season should not ring too many alarms).

In terms of how they go about doing it, Brighton are best described as doing the basics really well. They play a compact 4-4-1-1 that often looked more like a 4-4-2 without the ball. They ran out a very consistent eleven, ranking as one of the sides that rotated the least across the season. On the attacking side, Glenn Murray did a serviceable job leading the line, though his widely praised goalscoring pursuits drop down to a less impressive 8 for the season when you strip out the penalties. José Izquierdo was a crucial outlet from left midfield, often making valuable runs without the ball that didn’t contribute much to goals and assists but helped the side get up the pitch. The keystone, though, was clearly Pascal Gross. Playing nominally as a number ten but often drifting into wide areas in possession, he was the most important creative force both from set pieces and open play, with his 8.97 expected goals assisted being nearly a third of Brighton’s total assisted xG. This compared favourably to the rest of the league, with only Riyad Mahrez putting up better xG assisted per 90 for a club outside the top six.

 

Gross was also arguably Brighton’s key player out of possession. Despite being more of an attacking midfielder by trade, his role in this system often asked him to push up alongside Glenn Murray as an additional striker without the ball, and it was the German who was the key pressing trigger in the side. Though they played a fairly conventional British style deep block system, it was this defensive work from the front primarily from Gross that often ensured that the defenders were not exposed.

No team in the Premier League defended deeper, with Brighton’s defensive actions coming 38.7 metres away from their own goal. They were certainly aggressive in these deep areas, though, being truly all action in their own half, as we can see with the amount of red on the left side of the defensive activity map.

A lot was made of how comfortable the centre back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy looked, and this was certainly true, though they benefited from the side’s compact shape at almost all times. That 37 year old Bruno was able to play regularly at right back without being embarrassed by some of the faster wide players in the league is a testament to this compact shape. There was an obvious trade off in attack, with central midfield pairing Dale Stephens and Davy Propper offering very little by way of forward emphasis. The pair combined couldn’t average even a single open play pass into the box per 90, leaving Gross to do most of the creative work himself. This lack of ball progression in central areas led to the team taking an awful lot of shots from outside the box, though for a promoted side with an emphasis on a compact shape this is perhaps more forgivable than it would be for “better” teams.

With the possible exception of Liverpool, no team in the Premier League has more visibly embraced analytics in the transfer market than Brighton. First among these would be Florin Andone from Deportivo La Coruña, and he very much fits the mould. There perhaps isn’t a more obvious move from a statistical standpoint than to sign a striker who significantly undershot his xG, having scored barely over half as many as one would expect him to last season, with a very strong xG per 90 of over half a goal a game, as well as a solid finishing record in previous years. It seems likely that he should be able to match the performances of the ageing Glenn Murray at least, with a potential upside of a much higher level that would see his value rise to several times the £5.4m Brighton paid for him. It’s hard to find anything of fault in this deal.

The £17.1m purchase of Alireza Jahanbakhsh from AZ Alkmaar was another who drew a lot of attention. Jahanbakhsh has been covered in great detail by Mohamed Mohamed for StatsBomb. I’d recommend reading the full article, but if you just want a flavour of what he can offer, here’s a snippet:

“There are things to like about what Jahanbakhsh could bring to the table for teams looking for wide players: dynamic passing skills, fludity with his dribbling to create shots for himself or others, but there are flaws to Jahanbakhsh’s game. Because of the heavy usage that he was entrusted with, his shot selection definitely emphasized quantity over quality… Despite the obvious grace that he has when at full bloom and the coordination he has on the ball, it’s still hard to call him an elite athlete, and that might be an issue against higher level competition if he does make a post World Cup summer move. It’s always difficult to tell exactly how much of his impressive numbers, should be chalked up to the massive talent disparity that exists in Holland between the top and bottom clubs along with the defensive frailties in the league.”

 

That his 21 goals last season came in the famously easy to score in Eredivisie makes it unlikely that he will replicate this in the Premier League, but he does have enough of a wide range of skills to suggest he can still be valuable. As Mohamed mentioned, his creative passing and chance creation is very good, which has generally been a more transferable skill from the Netherlands than goalscoring. Considering how much Brighton relied on Gross last season for creativity, Jahanbakhsh should diversify their options in this regard and help share the workload. At age 24, they’re getting him as he comes into his peak years and there’s the potential for a higher upside, but he should at least be a solid contributor.

Yves Bissouma is also an eye catching signing. The 21 year old central midfielder has arrived from Lille for £15.2m having so far only played one season of regular first team football in Ligue 1. In this time in France, Bissouma managed an impressive 5.7 tackles and interceptions per 90 combined with 2.2 dribbles per 90. Playing as a central midfielder, dribbling tends to be a more difficult skill than in the less congested wide areas, so this suggests he can offer much in terms of ball progression. The respected opinion of StatsBomb’s Mohamed sees him as someone who is “able to undergo defensive actions in different areas of the pitch, and immediately help the team transition the ball whether it be with his own dribbling or one of his teammates collect the ball”. Considering how little Brighton’s central midfielders were able to progress the ball last season, Bissouma should be able to offer more in this regard while still contributing defensively, though he may require a period of adaptation. At his young age, it also seems likely that he’ll see a performance boost at some point, so it’s another deal that looks wise on paper.

Elsewhere, left back Bernardo from RB Leipzig looks capable of replacing the ancient Bruno while offering additional depth at right back. Leon Balogun on a free transfer should give them more cover at centre back in an obviously low cost move. There’s really no way of knowing how Percy Tau might adapt from the South African Premier League, but at a £2.88m transfer fee and presumably low wages it seems a fair punt if the recruitment people think there’s something there. Really, all of this seems like a switched on recruitment process, looking in the right places for value players with potentially high upsides. There is a gradual improvement in the transfer work done by clubs, but in a league where teams still pay a huge premium for “Premier League proven” English players, it’s hard to fault Brighton for looking at more obscure leagues.

All this has taken place without losing any important players from last year. With the summer business in mind, it certainly feels like Brighton are in a stronger place now than twelve months ago. Within the club, survival will presumably be the target, and achieving that will generally be seen as a success to the outside world. With the recruitment that has been done to supplant the already solid foundations, though, one can be optimistic that more is possible. A midtable finish is not out of the realm of possibility this season, and this feels like a football club that could even build on that in the next few years.

 


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.