5 Easy Ways Data Can Give Football Clubs an Edge

In something a little different today, I’m going to discuss five simple ways data can help football teams gain an advantage. There’s this idea among football’s old guard that data is complicated and difficult, but the reality is, we try and provide useful insight that is easy to understand and interpret. 1) Corner Touch Maps This is what we call a corner touch map. Marek and I designed it back in 2014 to help out with the set piece program, and it’s probably the dumbest, simplest vis we’ll ever build. What it shows is the first touch by either team after a corner is taken. Why? Because I can show you a shot map of where teams have had shots off corners, but that only tells you about when they have been successful. These maps more clearly show their plan and – generally – their intended delivery zones. Check out the map from right-sided corners from Manchester City last season. This immediately tells you two things. First, they take a lot of short corners, and you need to be ready for those. Second… City apparently only took outswingers from that side last season, and as a result, neither team had a touch in the box on the left HALF of the six yard box. And honestly, if I am an opposing coach facing City, my life is nearly impossible as it is, so I am thanking little baby jesus for making my life much easier by allowing me to generally ignore marking that zone (unless there are runners) and overload the zones along the curve. This is just a tiny glimpse of how we use data to help execute set pieces at both ends of the pitch. 2) Arsenal’s Left Lane This is what we call a Defensive Activity Map. Teams are attacking from left to right. The vis attempts to profile where teams are making defensive actions (including pressures), and then compares their defensive activity in each area to the rest of the teams in the league. Zones where they make more actions than average are hotter, and zones where they have fewer actions are greyer or blue. Arsenal this season are slanted right, possibly because of personnel issues (left back injuries), but maybe as part of a plan? This type of vis doesn’t deliver a magical recipe for how to solve/attack tactical issues, but it does help coaches and analysts ask interesting questions. As a coach, I go to the video and try to figure out what is weird. If I am an analyst, maybe I compare the success of attacks down Arsenal’s left compared to the right/center and see if there is a vulnerability that way. 3) Similarity Scores We use these a lot in recruitment, largely because it’s easy to talk to coaches about who their ideal player for a position is as opposed to all of the precise things they need that player to do on the pitch. Once you know which players fill their ideal archetypes, you can then dig into the data for what those players do on metrics you care about, and then plonk down a list of players to scout in the leagues you can afford. Coach, who is your ideal wide forward?I want Lionel Messi.” (Seriously – this always happens. Every coach says this exact same joke.) And because we are indulgent number wonks who have this already set up in StatsBomb IQ, we can answer the question honestly. The most similar players to Messi 17-18 in our current data set are: Neymar Messi (18-19 edition) Eden Hazard Raheem Sterling and Nicolas Pepe, who has been on fire so far this year. But the fun part of this is that you can actually narrow down the data to the leagues you can afford to buy players in and still have the exact same conversation. Who is the Lionel Messi of League One? 2017-18 Bradley Dack, maybe? Or Conor Chaplin? How about in Austria Bundesliga? Uh… Andrei Ivan? Look, I’m not saying the data is always right in these situations, but shopping for the poor man’s Messi apparently comes with serious limitations. 4) Evaluating Goalkeepers On Monday, we released phase 1 of the Goalkeeper Module into StatsBomb IQ. It allows teams to profile goalkeepers statistically across a broad range of metrics that haven’t really been available before because in other data sets, we never knew where the keeper was when a shot took place. We were messing around with some of the visualisations in testing and came across this fun one for last year. David De Gea and Joe Hart faced almost exactly the same amount of xG in shots on target last season, but how that xG came about and what happened after that was dramatically different. The vis above is broken into xG buckets, and you’ll notice that the shots Hart had to content with were generally much higher quality than those De Gea dealt with. Sadly, nearly every high xG shot Hart faced also made it into the back of the goal. When it comes to analysing and evaluating GKs with stats, we’re just getting started. Expect to see a lot more from us on this topic in the coming weeks. 5) Passing Tendencies at the Team and Player Level TL;DR Stats don’t have to be complicated to deliver powerful, useful insight. And often the simple stuff is the most effective IF you know where to find it. Ted Knutson ted@statsbomb.com @mixedknuts

What’s Up with Barcelona?

Despite a knockout performance against Real Madrid this weekend, across this season there seems to have been a notable dip in Barcelona’s performance levels. We take a look at what’s happening. After ten games, Barcelona are top of the La Liga table. Alternatively, after ten games, Barcelona are seven points worse off than at this stage last season. Two things can be true at once. It’s worth mentioning that the Camp Nou faithful are famously quick to describe anything below perfection as a crisis, and last year’s almost unbeaten season was a feat unlikely to be repeated. Still, there are legitimate questions about their performance level so far this season.. A look at their expected goal trendline shows that the issues didn’t arrive from nowhere this season: (all data current as of 21st October) That’s a fairly alarming rise in xG conceded over the second half of last season. The crucial context is that Barcelona were so far ahead in the league at this point that these fixtures were not usually “must win” games, but you still don’t want to see your defence suddenly deteriorate at this rate. Manager Ernesto Valverde seems to have found a way to restore a level of solidity on the defensive side of the ball this year, but it has come at an attacking cost. The 1.87 expected goals per game that the team is currently creating remains the best in the league, but it is a significant step down from last year’s stratospheric figure of 2.14. When averaging out for the whole season, the expected goals conceded don’t look as different (1.18 per game this year vs 1.06 last season), but it still puts their defence as merely the ninth best in the league. So we have an attack that is down significantly but still the best in Spain, and a defence that has come close to maintaining last year’s level, yet is barely better than league average. Clearly, Barcelona’s issues need to be examined on both sides of the ball.  

Defence

The aforementioned uptick in expected goals conceded towards the end of last season seemingly did not go unnoticed by Valverde, who has made some very noticeable tactical tweaks without the ball. In terms of raw shot numbers, this has been a big success, with the Catalan side now conceding just 8.67 shots per 90 minutes compared to last year’s figure of 11.71. Suppressing the volume of shots conceded is a telltale sign of a high pressing system, and Barcelona have indeed seen an uptick on StatsBomb’s high press metric, up to 48.76 from last year’s 47.50 (a more significant increase than it sounds). This pressing increase has also been noted by friend of the site Michael Caley, with his data showing that Barcelona are now quicker to break up opposition possessions. Looking at their defensive activity map, Barcelona are now very clearly much more aggressive in the opposition half than their own. But while Barcelona are defending differently, it is not particularly clear that they are defending better. The xG per shot conceded has risen from 0.08 to a fairly horrific 0.14. No other side in La Liga has a figure this high. It’s worth saying that while Barcelona were still conceding chances last season, they were able to rely on the excellent form of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, rated the best shot stopper in La Liga last year by StatsBomb’s data. While last year’s significant defensive overperformance was unlikely to be repeated, even with such a high quality goalkeeper, it’s possible that the shift in style has not helped ter Stegen. He is now facing different types of shots from last season, fewer in frequency but harder to save. With Barca merely conceding as expected this year, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if ter Stegen might be less suited to making excellent saves in this kind of system, though it will take more games to be confident of this. The high pressing style is of course not unfamiliar to the Camp Nou faithful. The famous Barcelona team at the start of this decade managed by Pep Guardiola built there approach without the ball around a proactive attempt to win it back quickly, starting with Lionel Messi and the other forwards. Any team looking to instigate a high pressing approach would need to rely on a front line consistently harrying the opponent. But when looking at the players making the pressures for Barcelona, it is not the attackers doing the most work: Holding midfielder Sergio Busquets is the only player making more than 20 pressures per 90. Of players that could very loosely be defined as attackers, it is only Ousmane Dembele appearing as a high volume presser. Luis Suarez, lauded in his Liverpool days for never stopping without the ball, is making just 12.45 pressures per 90, below average for a striker (albeit in a team with the majority of possession). Messi, truly the first line of defence in Guardiola’s side, is down among the least active players at 9.59. That both Suarez and Messi are now 31 years old may not be a coincidence here, and if the two of them cannot get through the pressing work that they once could, this could be a serious problem if Barcelona stick with the high press. When looking at the players pressing for Guardiola’s current club Manchester City, it is a different story. Bernardo Silva (who plays as both a more advanced central midfielder and in the front three) leads the way, followed by attackers Riyad Mahrez, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. While his equivalent at Barcelona led the way, City’s holding midfielder Fernandinho is having to pressure the ball infrequently. The pressing in front of him is so good that he is rarely called upon. Busquets cannot say the same for the players in front of him at the Camp Nou.  

Attack

Let’s start by emphasizing, again, that expected goals still rates Barcelona’s attack as the best in La Liga, so any issues are by their standards and theirs alone. But still, there are issues. The attacking situation mirrors the defensive one in that everything looks great if you just look at raw shots. They’re taking a very healthy 17.89 of them per 90, a nice chunk more than last year’s 15.47. But, just as with the defence, the issue is not of quantity but quality. The xG per shot of 0.10 is middling for any side, but for Barcelona, it is downright uncharacteristic. As our fearless leader here at StatsBomb once said, “they just don’t take long range shots”. Or at least, they didn’t. Last year, 57% of the shots Barcelona took had an xG value of less than 0.10. This season, that figure is 64%. The shots they have added are mostly speculative efforts. It’s an effect that has happened across the team. When looking at their radars, it’s obvious that the side’s two primary shot generators, Messi and Suarez, just aren’t getting the same quality of chance as before: Looking at personnel changes, of course Andres Iniesta has been sold, but his skillset has been replaced fairly naturally by Philippe Coutinho. The one player who featured regularly last season and hasn’t seen a like for like replacement is Paulinho. No, seriously. Paulinho, though lacking in some other areas of the game, has shown in his career a great ability to get chances from excellent positions, with his xG per shot of 0.206 the highest of any Barcelona player last year. It is not just the goals Paulinho scored for himself, though. As Mike Goodman (who is editing this article, so any further compliments have been put in by himself) (ed. note–I would never!!) noted last season, “Paulinho’s primary job at Barça has been to charge forward from midfield into space and make runs that have the same kind of effect on a defense that a winger’s might. Time it right and get free for a pass, or suck the defense in and open up secondary options”. Barcelona do now have a genuine winger to make those kinds of runs in Dembele, fully integrated into the side after last year’s disrupted campaign. The Frenchman, though, has struggled to make the off the ball runs that the side requires, mostly functioning as more of a ball carrier with his dribbling threat. This is surely the most obvious solution to the team’s attacking issues. Dembele needs to look at the way Pedro used to play with Messi at the Camp Nou: doing most of his attacking work without the ball. Many others have had to curb their instincts to play with Messi, and Dembele needs to do the same in order to make this team tick.  

Conclusion

On both sides of the ball, it’s the same story: Barcelona have become all about dominating in terms of shot volume, and are paying the price in shot quality. Defensively, this seems to be due to a switch to a higher pressing system of which the suitability of the current personnel is debatable. In terms of the attack, the issue seems to be more about players’ specific roles, with no one quite filling the job Paulinho did last season as an additional runner into the box. In both cases, there are tactical tweaks that could help smooth things over, perhaps by turning the high press down a bit and adding an extra central midfielder for solidity, and by coaching Dembele into someone who can make more off the ball runs into the box (or trying Malcom if he can’t). These are, though, merely short term tweaks around the edges. There remains the elephant in the room of a squad getting worryingly old. Sir Alex Ferguson said that a football team should never be allowed to grow old together. Barcelona have found themselves in a position where the core of the side is built around Messi, Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, Busquets and Gerard Pique, all of whom are over the age of 30. Attempting to return to something closer to the old style of Guardiola isn’t paying dividends because the players can’t exert the same energy they once did for a high pressing system. While Valverde may find a way to patch things up for this season, the long term prospects for Barcelona do not look as strong as they have been for the past decade.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Examining Chelsea’s Set Piece Routines

The major question surrounding Chelsea this season was how long it would take Maurizio Sarri to have Chelsea play the type of attacking football that helped Napoli turn into Serie A contenders under his watch. Could he successfully translate his possession based style, based on synchronized movements and a manipulation of space, to the Premier League? The early returns have been promising. There have been moments where Chelsea have approached Napoli’s level of automation in attack, faithfully copying the patterns of one of the more exciting sides in recent memory. Chelsea have only gotten to that peak version of themselves in spurts though. While they’ve been able to generate shots at a high level, their expected goals per shot from open play is less than 0.10 through nine games is indicative that their attack isn’t quite humming at its peak.

While what’s gone on with Chelsea in open play will ultimately decide whether they’re a solid team or something closer to great, an interesting subplot has been what’s gone on with their set pieces on the attacking front. On the surface, scoring two goals through nine games from dead ball situations isn’t anything special, but a closer inspection shows that Chelsea have been really productive in this department and to this point, that’s been their best avenue in creating high quality chances.

It’s fair to be skeptical of Chelsea’s ability to maintain this level of production for the rest of the season. Not a lot of teams in general are able to go an entire season taking 125 or more shots with an xG per shot at 0.12 or higher. Sarri teams haven’t been this good at generating scoring chances over the past few years, and in only two of his five seasons in Serie A (2014-15 with Empoli, 2017-18 with Napoli) did a Sarri led side produce an ample amount of goals from set pieces. But the fact that we’ve basically reached the quarter pole of the league campaign and Chelsea have been prolific in chance creation from set pieces should warrant a further investigation as to how they’ve been able to do it this season and the mechanisms behind their early season success. A lot of Chelsea’s work during corner kicks involves setting picks for teammates to lose their marker and get them open for headers, especially when there’s a looping run from the far post to the center of the box. The usage of picks during corners isn’t a novel concept and we’re starting to see more and more sides use pick plays to help a teammate generate momentum during their runs and attack open space. England, for example, relied heavily on this tactic during the World Cup. Of course, you also need proper spacing so there isn’t a jumbled mess in the middle of the box once the corner is delivered. You can see below two examples of Chelsea corners from the right side where they have a pick being set for a runner to get into the center of the box for a header. The second example versus Manchester United was especially good because the other elements in their routine worked considerably better than it did in the example against West Ham. Mateo Kovacic makes a run to the near post to occupy two United players. Alvaro Morato drags his marker with him to the center-right area along with Marcus Alonso making a run to the far post and taking his man with him. That opens the middle for Antonio Rüdiger to get into the open space because of miscommunication between Paul Pogba and Victor Lindelöf on potentially switching the assignments following the pick, and a headed goal is the result. Chelsea have an alternative plan during corner kicks which involves crowding the goalkeeper by sending a bunch of players to the near post and creating havoc. David Luiz will peel off to the far post and take his man with him. At times, Rüdiger will start at the far post and come all the way to the near post to add to the number of Chelsea players trying to make it hard on the opposition keeper. This hasn’t been as successful a routine as the one above, but you can see the logic, you can either get a header at the near post and the keeper has next to no chance of saving it, or a headed flick for the back post if Luiz wins his individual duel. Chelsea will also go short on occasion, and they had this nice play against Bournemouth that caught them napping and nearly ended in a goal. Hazard retreats quickly to Willian, the corner taker, and does a quick 1-2 with him to give him a better opportunity at delivering a hard pass into the six yard box. Luiz darts into the six yard box from the top of the penalty area and goes near the post. While that’s going on, Morata peels off to the far post just in case the ball gets there and he can tap it in. While this ultimately led to nothing, it’s the type of play you might be able to get away with using again later on in the season. The video drives home just how reliant Chelsea are on picks for their set pieces. It’s not just for corner routines, but you’ll see this as well during free kicks. The example below is probably the most explicit example of a pick being set. David Luiz makes a curling run from the far post to the center of the box and his marker gets held up, a lot like what happens during corners. If the ball by Willian was better, it could’ve led to a half-decent shot attempt. It’s interesting looking at what Chelsea do during free kicks that are further away from the box. They like to have a player start his positioning just a bit further back from the initial line, and then dart to the wide areas of the box. While that’s going on, one of the players within the line will get to the other side of the net for potential close range shots. The tap in for Ross Barkley against Southampton was notable because it once again showed the value of using picks during set piece routines. As Giroud starts his run, his marker is late to recognize it and when he tries to catch up, he runs right into Luiz and Giroud is wide open in the box. Chelsea probably won’t end up finishing the season with the over 20 xG and more than 150 shots that they’re currently on pace to achieve. That would be a ridiculous level of output from set pieces in a single season. Leicester City were perhaps the best Premier League side last season in generating chances from set pieces and their xG output of 16.38 on 127 shots would look small in comparison to what Chelsea are doing. It could very well be that teams get smarter and snuff out the things that Chelsea are doing during their routines, particularly with better communication and switching during man-marking alignments if teams continue to set-up their defense in that fashion. But even with the likely decline in production, Chelsea stand a real chance of finishing as one of the best three to five clubs in the league  this season in generating chances from set pieces. That would be a real bonus for a team that’s been dealing with the struggles of having to adjust to a style of play that’s different from previous managers. It’ll be interesting to see if set pieces remain Chelsea’s best avenue to creating high quality chances.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Will Fulham’s Substance Ever Match Their Style?

It wasn’t enough for Fulham to simply  return to the Premier League. The club wanted to stay up with style. Owner Shahid Khan did not approach this pursuit half-heartedly. He locked down Tom Cairney and 18-year-old Championship Player of the Season Ryan Sessegnon, and then backed manager Slavisa Jokanovic in the transfer market to the tune of £100 million. This expenditure has not just been plentiful but largely seen as well-scouted and soundly considered.. The most eye-catching signing of the bunch was central midfielder Jean-Michael Seri, a player linked  with a strong share of the world’s elite clubs. While the eye-popping sums of money Fulham threw about surely turned turned off some, Fulham’s sexy style of play and intelligent expenditure had most neutrals intrigued. Their return to England’s top division had the potential to be a celebration of football, but, nine games in, Fulham have dropped into the relegation zone, a fact which should come as no surprise considering their expected goal difference of negative 0.97, the second worst in the Premier League A team averaging 530 passes per game, the seventh most in the league, while losing games is certain to bring the familiar faces of punditocracy’s old guard out of the woodwork. They bring with them questions over whether newly promoted teams can succeed while playing a possession based brand of football. There are some issues within Fulham’s play on the ball. There’s a general lack of organisation, that is to say, it doesn’t appear as if Jokanovic is utilising a positional play system that is the supporting structure of all of the world’s best possession coaches, with perhaps the exception of Maurizio Sarri. Further, Jokanovic’s temptation to start games with both Sessegnon and Schurrle, two players whose major contribution to attacking play is to arrive in the box at the right moment to make their first touch a shot, is going to have an inevitable effect on final third play which may be connected to Fulham’s tendency to shoot from distance. Schurrle is a particularly egregious culprit. These quibbles in mind, Fulham’s  attacking xG of 1.12 is still better than seven other sides, despite having already played Spurs, Man City and Arsenal. They can aspire to improve in this department but so far it seems their attacking efforts can largely be interpreted as functional is not outstanding. It is the other end of the pitch which is the issue, with The Cottagers having conceded the highest number of both expected (2.10 per match) and actual (25) goals. Fulham’s dedication to passing sees the ball somewhat regularly stolen from a defender or deep midfielder before a dangerous attack immediately ensuing for the opposition. These turnovers are always the most visceral argument against a short passing game but, to an extent, they might just be an acceptable systemic tradeoff, just as any tactical method has its own strengths and vulnerabilities. Fulham’s success or failure either way will in no way provide a definitive answer to the question of promotion sides and possession football. The mould has already been broken by Swansea under Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup, Southampton under Mauricio Pochettino and to a lesser extent Bournemouth under Eddie Howe. However, just as all three of these teams have shared similarities on the ball they also have a familiar method off of it, namely, counter-pressing. Conventional coaching knowledge tells us that if you want to push your entire team forward and play the game in the opposition’s half of the pitch then you need to be defending in those areas too. Via the defensive activity map we can see this is going catastrophically badly. Exactly where Fulham need to be exceeding average activity they are instead almost entirely absent. The map also highlights a horizontal imbalance in their own defensive third. Whether that’s a reaction to being repeatedly targeted on one side or an inability to perform defensive actions on the opposite is a big issue either way.   The term counter-pressing means exactly that – apply pressure to the counter-attack. Fulham’s failure to do that leaves them vulnerable. Failing to stop counter-attacks far from goal is how a team that has so much of the ball also ends up leading the league in passes allowed in their own penalty area. But this style of play is not new to Fulham this season and neither is the manager. Jokanovic is fully aware of these issues and has demonstrated his ability to coach an efficient counter-pressing system as he achieved promotion with the club. Fulham finished in third place before winning the playoffs. They had the highest average share of possession throughout the season and conceded a, for the Championship, respectable single goal per game, showcasing their ability to control the opposition. https://giphy.com/gifs/fulham-pressing-derby-ljzyPiVfRWutEI3OJz The reality is developing a counter-pressing system takes time. Just look at the difference between first and second year Guardiola’s Man City, or Sarri and Emery’s current shaky starts – at least in the underlying numbers – this season. Reading and reacting to an opposition misplaced pass. Chasing forward without hesitating to check behind for your teammate picking up the player you’re leaving behind. Stepping up from the defensive line when instinct tells you to retreat. All these things require a level of group cohesion that can not be found over the course of a single pre-season, heavily interrupted by glamour friendlies. These challenges can be seen in specific relation to Jokanovic’s style of play as he arrived at a Fulham side in the Championship, gradually taking them from relegation threat to 3rd place over the course of two and a half seasons. The large investment into the squad, while likely needed to adapt to a considerably higher level of competition, can also act as something of a reset for the manager’s coaching process. Given all this, patience carries a considerable value but with every dropped point the pressure mounts. If there is one team Fulham should be beating it’s Cardiff with their very Championship squad and style of play. Instead, they conceded four goals, a result which was a fair, if slightly exaggerated, representation of their performance on the day If the board are considering reaction to the results thus far then they should likely consider Jokanovic and possession football as one and the same. His ability to coach it appears high level, and Fulham will have a hard time finding someone who can enact a pressing method quicker than he can. A panic move away from Jokanovic, therefore should also be a move away from the possession approach. Given the squad the club have put together and the money spent in doing so this may well be considered a risky approach in of itself. Just as Swansea and Southampton have demonstrated the viability of possession football for bottom 14 sides they also highlight the dangers in moving away from it with the former relegated and the latter under threat having moved to a more direct approach. The real question for Khan then, is not the suitability of the play-style to the league, or the manager to the challenge, but the new players to the pressing system – and the difficulty of applying it in such a high quality league. It’s probably safe to be optimistic over interception monster Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and ex-Dortmund player Andre Schurrle. If we consider Seri, though excellent on the ball, the most ‘leightweight’ of the new players and also operating in a crucial midfield role then we may have concern over his output of more traditional defensive metrics. However, nearly three pressure regains per90 for Nice last seasons suggests he should at least have a means of contributing defensively. Jokanovic has yet to start a game with the midfield trio that would be considered their first choice – Anguissa, Cairney and Seri – perhaps this could be considered reason not to judge them on this short sample. Further, he has trialled a two man midfield, a three man defence and in the process put no less than seventeen players on more than 250 league minutes. These changes, likely attempting to find a balance between the systemically established players of old and the higher talent ceiling of new, all while managing early season fitness, hits the catch 22 of stalling the growth of cohesion while attempting to find the formula in which to grow it – and win games in the process. As the aforementioned Rodgers once said, managing a football club is like building a plane while it’s in the air. While Fulham may be struggling to take flight right now, changing the architect mid season will only make an ultimate crash more likely.   Header Image courtesy of the Press Association

Guardiola’s Manchester City are Breaking the Premier League

We need to talk about just how good Manchester City are. For years, the selling point of the Premier League has been its relative unpredictability. It was hard to know what was going to happen. Each individual season might not have been competitive, but year to year there were always changes. Over the past decade the league has had four different winners. That might not seem diverse, but it’s more varied than most of Europe’s top leagues. That dynamic is gone.

Manchester City won the league last year with 100 points, 19 points clear of the field. This season they’re even better. It’s hard to make clear through numbers exactly how much better they are than everybody else. But let’s start here. Everything they did last year, they’re better at this year. Their expected goals are up from 2.13 to 2.97. Their expected goals conceded are down from 0.66 to 0.51. They’ve gone from taking 17.92 shots per game to taking 22.56. If you were to insist on finding a fly in the ointment it would be that they now allow 6.44 shots per game, up from 6.37. That’s a very small fly.

Their defensive activity has become even more concentrated on pinning opponents not just in their own third, but in their own 18-yard box. They’ve gone from this seemingly perfect defensive pressure map.

 

 

To this seemingly impossible one.

 

 

On an individual player level the numbers are similarly hard to believe. Pep Guardiola has turned City into an unstoppable fire breathing juggernaut which generates great chances at a rate that’s simply impossible to understand. Players feed off each other and build statistical profiles that you can’t find in the rest of the soccer world.

In the Premier League this season, among players who have logged at least 500 minutes, there are a grand total of seven players who have an expected goals per 90 rate higher than 0.30 and an expected goals assisted rate of over 0.20. Three of those players play for Manchester City. Of the other four two play for Liverpool, Mohammed Salah and Roberto Firmino, Eden Hazard appears unsurprisingly for Chelsea, and the only true surprise on the list is Callum Wilson of Bournemouth. But it’s Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, and the ageless David Silva that really stand out. It’s boring to talk about Silva, I guess. He’s old, he’s been doing this forever. But, I mean, come on.

 

 

Sergio Aguero is here to score goals, assist goals, and chew bubble gum. And he’s all out of bubble gum.

 

 

Also, Raheem Sterling. It may not be clear that he’s the best attacking player in the Premier League, but it’s definitely not clear that he isn’t.

 

 

And these are just the more pure attackers. A quarter of the league’s 20 leading deep progressors of the ball play for City. Fernandinho and Kyle Walker are fourth and fifth in the league with 10.74 and 10.61 deep progressions per 90. Aymeric Laporte, Benjamin Mendy and, remarkably, David Silva, who seems to do everything, are also in the top 20 in the league.

Scarier still City have done all this while missing maybe their best creative midfielder in Kevin de Bruyne. No outfield player played more minutes than Kevin De Bruyne last season. He led the team in expected assists per 90, open play key passes, open plays passes into the penalty box and was second behind Vincent Kompany in unpressured long balls and trailed only Fernandinho in deep progressions. He was the engine that made City tick last year, both bringing the ball into the final third and creating for his teammates once the ball was there. He’s barely contributed so far this season.

This team is also more versatile than its ever been. As Guardiola continues to customize his squad and mold players into what he wants them to be we’ve seen players develop into more customized roles. Both John Stones and Laporte are now not only deployed as center backs but also as the kind of hybrid half center back, half fullback that Guardiola likes to use to blur the lines between a back three and back four. Stones is additionally slowly but surely being worked into shape as a possible defensive midfield option.

The emergence of Bernardo Silva in year two gives Guardiola yet more options across the front five. Silva can play both on the wing and internally, and combines an ability to score goals with an endless defensive motor. The addition of Riyad Mahrez means that at the very least Sterling can move around the front of the formation and Guardiola has plenty of options on the right wing. With so much depth in attack Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus have ended up being incredibly productive substitutes with game changing ability, rather than regular starters. It’s an unfair amount of depth.

There’s no clever analysis here to bring it home with. There’s no counter-intuitive take to suggest things might change. Manchester City are an unbelievably strong team. They’re the best side the Premier League has seen, possibly ever. They’re currently the best team in Europe. It’s hard to see any way that changes. Guardiola is currently flirting with completely breaking the game of football. The Premier League has a new best team. And for as long as Guardiola stays there, and he has endless resources behind him, it will remain that way. The unpredictability of the Premier League is gone. It’s Guardiola’s league now, everybody else is just hanging on.

The Era of the Big Three in European Soccer is Over

For almost a decade the top of the soccer pyramid was clear. The world order was Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and then everybody else. Those three teams combined have won the last six Champions Leagues (though to be fair, Madrid won four of the last five on their own) and seven of the last eight. But, the times they are a changing. The big three are, for various reasons, all struggling this year. At Real Madrid the drop off is easy to understand. After years of doubling down on featuring Cristiano Ronaldo’s talents at the expense of everybody else, Ronaldo left last summer. The man who got the most out of latter day Ronaldo, manager Zinedine Zidane also left. It was the end of an era. They didn’t prepare for a new era. You can never replace a player like Ronaldo, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Madrid didn’t bother to try, and it has resulted in a predictable struggle to score goals. At Barcelona and Bayern the causes are more difficult to tease out. But, to some degree there are explanations to be found in the fact that both teams rely on players that are the wrong side of 30. At Bayern it’s Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery who are not only in their mid-30s but are also, still, the creative engine that Bayern rely on to make their entire side tick. In Barcelona the list of aging players is even long. The (now injured) GOAT Lionel Messi might show no signs of slowing down but the same isn’t true for Sergio Busquets, Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic, and Gerard Pique. There are a lot of miles in those legs. The reasons might be complex, but the result is simple, the big three is no more. A new group of teams are storming the top of Europe’s elite. Two teams from outside the big three have clearly distinguished themselves as the best in Europe this season, another three or four might consider themselves, at least on par with the big three. The question is no longer will the big three maintain their dominance, but rather will another, different group of teams form a similar elite club in the wake of the big three era. Right now, the two best teams in the world are Manchester City and Juventus, and it’s not particularly close. Both have statistical profiles that absolutely blow away their domestic league. City have an expected goal difference of just under 2.5 expected goals per match. Nobody else in the Premier League has an expected goal difference over 1.00. They allow 6.44 shots per match, two fewer than any other Premier League team. They take 22.56 shots per match, 4.5 shots more than any other team. They’re simply blowing everybody else out of the water. They’ve also done much of it without injured star Kevin De Bruyne who is just now coming back. Juventus’s domination in Serie A is similar, if not quite as extreme. Their expected goal difference of 1.37 is half an expected goal better than anybody else’s. They take 21.78 shots per match which is 3.5 shots more than anybody else. Juventus are also the only team that concedes fewer than 10 shots per match, giving up 9.22. Also, while Manchester City are still climbing the European competition mountain, the modern-day version still has only progressed past the quarter finals once, a relatively tame semifinals appearance in Manuel Pellegrini’s last season, Juventus have been hovering just off the summit for the entire big three era. During the big three era, Juventus have twice come up one game short of Champions League glory, losing to both Barcelona and Real Madrid. As this year’s version of the Champions League progresses, the question isn’t whether City and Juventus can catch the big three, it’s whether the big three have enough juice left in the tank to put together once more run to catch City and Juventus. And whether Barcelona, Bayern and Madrid are even the most likely teams to do so. Paris Saint-Germain remain a great team still waiting for European campaign that sees them perform to a level equal to the sum of their parts. Their level of domestic dominance this season isn’t quite as extreme as the big two but they’re still far and away the best team in France. And Kylian Mbappe is doing this. Which, remarkably, is overshadowing that Neymar is doing this. PSG have been great, and remain great. Their place in Europe’s pyramid remains fairly stable, just outside the very top and in with a Champions League shot if everything goes right. It’s just that while they’ve remained the same the teams ahead of them on the list are changing. Liverpool also deserve prime contender status. They made the finals last year, and through a quarter of the season this year, are clearly England’s second best side. While City are hitting new heights and pulling away at the top, Liverpool have, at least in results matched them step for step. There’s no reason to think that they’re less of a contender for the Champions League than a side like Madrid. The equation is fairly simple, look at last year’s final, subtract Ronaldo from Madrid and add Salah (and a non-concussed goalkeeper) to Liverpool. Atletico Madrid deserve honorable mention as a member of the chasing pack. They, like Juventus have twice been one match away from hoisting the Champions League trophy. They haven’t been able to capitalize on the erosion of the big three, however. While their grind it out style is always difficult to capture numerically, they have seemed to take small steps backwards so far this season. In attack their expected goals per game dropped from 1.16 last year to an even 1.00 this year. And in defense they’ve gone from 0.90 to 1.09. Diego Simeone’s hard-nosed style will always give the team a fighting chance in a knockout competition but similarly to PSG, they’ve retained the status they’ve always had, rather than taking advantage of the chaos at the top of the pyramid to take a major step forward. Nowhere is that more evident than in the La Liga table where despite Barcelona and Madrid struggling, Atleti only sit fifth in the table with a disappointing 16 points from their first nine games. The age of the big three is over. For almost a decade the super clubs of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich dominated the world stage. Now, those three are no longer the prohibitive favorites to win Europe’s biggest competition. That doesn’t mean they can’t ultimately hoist the trophy, of course, only that others have surpassed them as being the most likely candidates. Manchester City and Juventus are dominant teams this year. The big three, they’re just contenders like a handful of others. The shape of the challenge is clear. City and Juventus rule the roost, it’s Barcelona, Bayern, Madrid, PSG, Liverpool, and possibly Atleti who are the chasing pack. Europe’s different this season. It’s about dang time.

StatsBomb CEO Update – October 2018

Yo, boss… international break is a really good time for a piece from you talking about StatsBomb in general, and what’s coming next. Do you have time to do one of those?” asked Goodman. Sure, should be no problem,” replied yours truly. *international break ends* *crickets chirping* My only real defense here is that we did get two podcasts out over the break, which is probably one above expectation. It has been a spectacularly busy year. Anyway, Mike was right in that now seems like a really good time to talk about what we have done in the last year, and to look forward at what’s coming in the next year. For those who are new around here, or who have their own busy lives to keep up with, it’s worth a recap: What have we done? Launched StatsBomb Data This is a massive one. We decided that existing event data on the market wasn’t good enough, so spent ten hard months developing our own. Upgrades include

  • Positions of GK and all defenders and attackers in the frame on every shot
  • Pressures (off the ball defensive actions)
  • Actions Under Pressure
  • Passing footedness
  • Pass height
  • Ball receptions
  • Intended Pass Recipient

…and much more. All of these upgrades result in StatsBomb collecting about 1000 more events per Premier League match than the competition. Customers tell us we have created the world’s best football event data and having done a massive amount of our own research in this area, we are forced to agree. We’re also collecting this data on unique leagues like Poland Ekstraklasa, Scottish Premiership, England League One and Two, and the completion of our new collection centre will allow us to double the number of leagues we collect in the coming months. What else have we done? Turned StatsBomb.com into a daily content site. Added Free Women’s Data to the Resource Centre of StatsBomb.com, including FA WSL updated weekly. Added Free FIFA Men’s World Cup data to the Resource Centre as well. One of the problems for people interested in working with football data is access to football data. Another of the problems is a lack of qualified, interested women in an obnoxiously male-dominated field. By releasing women’s data, we are trying to support growth in the women’s game while providing great data to anyone who is interested. Oh… and we gave the world our 2018 FIFA World Cup data set to play with because that just seemed like a cool thing to do. Begun to Unlock the Power of StatsBomb Data in StatsBomb IQ This is a big one too, because all this new data delivered new information that we don’t understand, which triggered new research and analysis. We now have xG models that incorporate GK and defender position into evaluating chance quality. We just passed 100K shots in the model data set and we’re seeing standard errors as good as anything we saw on competitor data with ten times as many shots. And our data collection isn’t biased around big chances, which may not matter for media use, but really really matters when it comes to predictive models. We also visualise pressure at the player and team level. This has allowed our customers to better evaluate their own players and potential transfers in a new light based on defensive work rate that has never been available before. Customers tell us StatsBomb IQ is already the best football analytics platform on the market*, but the only way it will stay there is if we keep relentlessly improving it, which is why we do upgrades at least monthly that include new data science research, new visualisations, and basic quality of life improvements. The way I view IQ is that it’s our Amazon Prime – we’re going to keep packaging in so much good stuff into the platform that it becomes a value proposition customers simply can’t live without. *I know it sounds like marketing, but customers are almost weirdly positive about StatsBomb stuff even when my first question to them is usually, “Okay, tell me what you hate.” Absorbing and incorporating negative feedback about our work is hugely important to our future improvement. We’re not perfect. We know we’re not perfect. We tell people up front we’re not perfect. But we are really honest about what our imperfections actually are, and how we’re going to fight to constantly improve them. So that’s what we’ve done since May… what’s next? The StatsBomb IQ Goalkeeper Module Those of you who listen to our podcast know that I have been very cautious about using stats to help evaluate GKs over the years. I never felt comfortable the data we had access to allowed us to add meaning to GK impact on stopping shots. Now that we have GK position on every shot, that has changed. This week, we release the first phase of our GK Module into StatsBomb IQ that will help ourselves and our customers evaluate GKs in a way no company has before. (And yes, slightly to my chagrin, data scientist Derrick Yam has forced me to add GK radars to the spec, but that will have to wait until we release phase 2 next week.) The amount of stuff we don’t know or understand about goalkeeping, at least from a statistical perspective, is astounding. xG, post-shot xG, optimal positioning on shots, range factors, cross collection activity and its value, distribution, and so much more probably matter, but analysing and quantifying it is all new, and the perspective is NOT the same as it is for outfield players. I’m sure we’ll talk a lot more about this in the coming weeks, but this is a fundamental game changer in player analysis and recruitment. Unlocking More on Actions Under Pressure I think I said it at the Data launch, but I view Actions Under Pressure as the most dramatic improvement we have made on this data set. Understanding what happens at the team and player level when players are put under pressure versus how they behave when free is a monumental step forward when it comes to understanding the game. Our analysis department has finished a significant project in this area, and we’re just waiting for free development cycles to add it to StatsBomb IQ, where it will trickle into our analysis on the website and off. Engine Room 2.0 Engine Room is the tactical suite inside StatsBomb IQ, though at the moment, the size of it is more like a studio apartment. We did an initial release last year, but I put further development on hold while waiting for pressure information to come online from SB Data. Once the GK Module is out the door, Engine Room will probably be the last major set of development sprints we have for 2018. Why does it matter? Because using data to profile team tactical information, from broad top down trends to granular player level insights, is one of the most valuable possible uses I can think of for football data. We are committed to understanding the game better ourselves, but also in making that understanding available to coaches and analysts in easy-to-digest formats. At the end of it, ER 2.0 should be the best tactical profiling tool for team analysis and opposition scouting anywhere. And as I noted above, we’ll then let our customers tell us if we got there or not. Secret Project Due End of 2018 We are doing a massive amount of analysis on [REDACTED] right now that we’re delighted to be involved in and quite proud of, but I can’t tell you any more about it until everything is complete. No one has done this type of project before, but the hope is that the report will be released at the end of the year or early 2019. StatsBomb Conference Last year, we held a private launch in May for SB Data, and it was a complicated little dance to get people to show up to something that was mostly secret until launch day. We mostly succeeded, but we also recorded all the talks for posterity. (Top tip: Always have a back up plan.) This year we’ve pivoted a bit and decided to host our own conference, probably in May again. The good news is that you – the general you – are invited. That’s because we’re making our conference focusing on analytics, innovation, and new research in football data open to the public. There will also be some segment of tickets reserved for specific yous as well (helloooo customers and team invites), but the goal here is to deliver a day long conference with outstanding speakers in the sports data space. Additionally, with a nod to our data launch, this will remain the place where we announce new, cutting edge shit that we are working on, and that is ready for primetime consumption. I’m going to stay light on further details here until we get everything completely nailed down, but know that we’re doing it, it’s going to be great, and you should be excited and want to attend because you will learn new things and probably laugh once or twice as well. (Possibly with/at James… Because there will be a StatsBomb Pod Live.) Conclusion So there you have it – a monster year leading to even bigger plans for the future. I feel like I have been running a million miles an hour since this time last year when we were first developing the prototype for SB Data, but that’s what we needed to do to get here. That choice unlocked the entire football analytics space for us, and allowed us to deliver fantastic new insights to our customers and the world that were simply not available before. Our team is doing great things at StatsBomb, both in the public-facing work you guys see, and in the private stuff available only to customers, and I could not be more proud of the progress we’ve made in a year. Keep watching this space though, because we are still just getting started. –Ted Knutson CEO, StatsBomb ted@statsbomb.com

Inter Milan Has a New Old School Attack

Qualifying for the 2018–19 Champions League was a massive achievement for Inter Milan, a club that had been in the wilderness for the majority of the 2010s. It was a feather in the cap for Luciano Spalletti in his first season as Inter manager. The return of Champions League football meant that one of the giants in Italian football were finally back on the path towards success and big European nights under the lights. This was reflected in their transfer recruitment with the acquisition of talents like Radja Nainggolan, Keita Balde, Lautaro Martinez, and Stefan De Vrij: notable talents brought in with the hopes of building off of their successful 2017–18 campaign. This made Inter one of the more exciting clubs to follow coming into this season and while it was probably a bit much to ask them to become title contenders instantly, there wasn’t much reason to think that Inter shouldn’t be able to complete for a top four spot once again

The results have been solid. Inter are in 3rd currently, on pace for 80 points which would be their highest point tally since winning the Scudetto in 2009–10. Their statistical profile looks solid enough for a club trying to finish in the top 4 in Italy. They’re controlling a healthy share of both shot quantity and shot quality. While Inter’s attack isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, it’s been perfectly functional as one that uses volume to eventually break down the opposition.

When Inter play from the back, they progress the ball at a deliberately slow pace, probing for passing lanes through the middle of the pitch and if nothing is present, they’ll recycle the ball backwards and start again. In Milan Škriniar and De Vrij, Inter have center backs who are comfortable in possession of the ball and have the requisite skillset to make passes that bypass defensive lines. If they’re playing against a side that is happy to cede territory, the center backs are comfortable enough carrying the ball into the opposition half. Their usage of fullbacks is interesting because at times it can look asymmetrical with Kwadwo Asamoah as a wing-back on the left side while Danilo D’Ambrosio is closer to the center-back pairing. When things are right, Inter can progress the ball into the opposition final third with relative ease. They even uncorked this play that I don’t remember seeing before, where Marcelo Brozović set a pick for Nainggolan to get him open and receive a pass in stride.

Inter’s match against Sampdoria, however, was an example of just how jumbled Inter’s approach could get when matched with an opponent that combined both aggressive pressing and discipline in covering passing lanes. Off of goal kicks, Inter would split their center backs and bring a midfielder through the middle to present another option for the keeper, a common setup for teams playing out from the back. Sampdoria were ready for it and played an almost exclusive man marking setup that junked up their approach and didn’t allow many chances to find passing lanes through the middle. This caused Inter to turn the ball over on numerous occasions, even at times within their own final third.

Inter’s buildup as a whole has been okay though what is perhaps more fascinating with them is what goes on in the final third. In an age where there’s a greater sophistication about shot locations and the process that goes into accumulating good shots consistently, Inter ignore all that. Under Spalletti, they’ve been the highest usage crossing side in Serie A and they’ve continued that this season. Through eight games this season, Inter were tied with SPAL 2013 for the highest proportion of entries into the penalty box that come via crosses at 40%. While not a completely linear relationship, the general trend is that as you accumulate more talent as a club, you’ll tend to be less reliant on crosses as a vehicle towards generating shots in the penalty box. Inter are one of those teams that runs counter to that argument.

There’s an interesting cross sport comparison between crossing in soccer and isolation basketball (going one on one against your defender) in the NBA. It’s been proven that shots in the box that come from crosses on average have a lower likelihood of going in than shots in the box that don’t come from crosses. Crossing is hard and it’s not appreciated enough within mainstream football analysis how inefficient of a strategy it can be. This is especially true for headers given that shot quality is noticeably influenced by opponent pressure and just the act of heading a ball is hard. Among play types in basketball, isolation is among the most inefficient and something that’s been generally phased out i over the past five to 10 years. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either play in their respective sport so long as there’s some form of moderation that goes into it, or if you do have a scheme that features heavy usage of crossing or iso ball, you have the personnel to tilt the balance in your favor (2016–18 Real Madrid and the 2017–18 Houston Rockets are examples of this).

All of this is to say that through the first two months, the degree to which Inter have relied on crosses to gain access to the penalty box has started to hit the upper bounds of the personnel they have to work with, and it’s made Mauro Icardi look like an isolated figure at times up top. It explains to why despite having a healthy expected goal output per game, Inter’s xG per shot at just under 0.10 leaves a bit to be desired. When the ball gets to the wide areas, especially on the left wing, it’s a common sight to see Ivan Perisic get the ball in an isolated duel with his marker and launch a cross into the box. Among players who have played at least 300 minutes this season for Inter, no one has come close to completing as many crosses as Perisic.

At their worst, Inter will settle for the type of crosses that would make fans moan in disdain. The play will be labored with little to no flow, the ball gets to the flanks and is whipped into the box with a numerical disadvantage that makes it easy enough to defend. This has happened a fair amount with Inter this season and it represents the worst type of crossing. If as the opposition you’re forcing an attack to attempt crosses from long distance and you’re not outnumbered in the box, you’ve pretty much done your job.

This isn’t to say that all of their crossing attempts are low quality, because that would be false. Not all crosses are equal, just like not all isolation plays in basketball are the same and there’s some sophistication that goes on with Inter’s crossing. When Matias Vecino is part of the double pivot, he’ll come into the penalty box and turn a potential numerical disadvantage into a neutral setup and make it easier for the teammate to find a target for his cross. Inter have been able to create crossing opportunities that have been worthwhile. This for example was a nice play off of a throw in. Vecino drags his man just far enough that it allows Nainggolan to run into the free space and make a low cross off into the six yard box. The cross didn’t work but it’s one that came from a shorter distance and had some rhythm preceding the attempted pass.

This was another play that I thought was a nice way of turning a three against three into a potential dangerous shot. Inter have a tendency to cross/lob passes into the box from longer distances. Some of those attempts don’t have much of a chance of succeeding, but this one was different. Two of the three Inter players in the box are higher up which creates space to exploit near the six yard box. Perisic makes a run into that area and would’ve had a goal scoring opportunity had the pass not been blocked.

Inter are an interesting case of blending some of the modern day principles regarding ball progression with an old school penchant for finishing a high volume of sequences via crosses. Through the past year and change under Luciano Spalletti, the pluses have outweighed the minuses and the club is in a better position as a result of this gameplan in attack. The worry with having an attack so dependent on crossing is that there’ll come a point where the returns start to diminish. In the event that Inter reach that point, can they conjure up a plan that is more focused on accumulating higher quality shots?

Inter haven’t quite hit the heights that some may have hoped for coming into the season, as they’re trying to gel and get some of the new additions that were brought in over the summer up to speed, but they’ve still been a functional attacking unit that grinds opponents into submission. Along with a solid defense, that’s been good enough for 3rd place through nine games and an 80 point pace prorated to 38 games. The focus moving forward should be adding a bit more diversity to their attack, even if that does come at the cost of a little bit of their shot volume. From there, we could perhaps see Inter’s attack kick into a higher gear.

  Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The Can’t Shoot Straight Club, the Premier League’s Biggest Expected Goals Underperformers

All player struggles are not created equal. Some dips, like the mysteriously disappearing shots of Harry Kane (the currently drop is from 5.19 last season to 2.84 now), should be cause for concern. Others are less worrisome. Like, if a player is getting into good positions, taking good shots, and just, well, missing. Players who are underperforming their expected goal totals are, by and large, just fine. Here’s the list of players that are probably fine, the top 20 underperformers by expected goals this season. It doesn’t mean that there can’t be something specifically going wrong with some of these players, it just means that our default assumption should be that everything’s fine, and that’s where our analysis should begin. The list consists of a handful of different kinds of players. There are the great players who take a lot of shots. Those are the guys you really shouldn’t worry about. Mohammed Salah is totally fine, he’s just missed a few shots. Granted, the city of Liverpool seemingly went an entire season without being subjected to the indignity of Salah missing a good chance, but it really does happen to everybody. Dele Alli and his lone goal show up here as well. But, similar to Salah, Alli has a long track record of good goal scoring rates, he’s still doing all the other things that make him a wonderful player and if he’s healthy and on the pitch Spurs should have no concerns about him eventually coming good. The pair of Manchester City attackers on this list also should raise zero signs of alarm. It’s incredibly that Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus have even generated enough chances to make this list. Between them they’ve barely played 600 minutes. Sane has taken 10 total shots, Jesus has taken 15. The fact that they’ve both missed a couple of really good chances and ended up on this list is more indicative of just how bananas good Manchester City’s attack is, and how fast and furious the great chances are flying over at the Etihad than of anything potentially problematic with Sane and Jesus’s games. Elsewhere on the list are a handful of truer midfielders. Paul Pogba is here. He’s yet to score any non-penalty goals this season. What lands him on the list though isn’t so much the fact that none of his Pog-bombs have detonated yet, it’s that he’s had too relatively high value shots from relatively close range saved. That’s similar to Mateo Kovacic who makes the list despite only taking 12 shots. It just so happens that one of them was a great chance after Olivier Giroud (himself on the list and nothing to worry about) played him clean through on goal. When it comes to players that don’t take a ton of great shots, performance against expected goals is going to be very very swingy. Slam one into the corner from 30 yards and you’ve bought yourself a bucket of potshots to miss while your numbers stay pretty. Fall victim to a fingertip save when you’re clean through on goal and you may not come across a similar chance to claw back your bad luck for a month. It’s just another example of why the level of expected goals is important, and the level of performance as compared to expected goals is going to fluctuate wildly. That doesn’t mean you always ignore those fluctuations. Christian Benteke is on this list. Benteke has no goals from 14 shots, and that’s exactly the kind of thing you’d ignore if it wasn’t for the fact that he also had two goals from open play last year on 57 shots, significantly undershooting his 8.36 expected goals. This might be nothing. But he’s also 27 with a horrific injury history and an unorthodox game that has always combined typical target man skills with some outrageously outlandish goals. It is reasonable to be skeptical of Benteke right now and to suspect that perhaps his game has deteriorated in a way that is opaque to expected goals. That doesn’t mean we should assume that to be the case, but we should at least be open to the possibility. In a related case, Danny Ings has a very robust 3.9 expected goals and a much less robust two actual goals. At 26, he’s actually not all that much younger than Benteke. After several years in the wilderness thanks to injury and lack of form at Liverpool, his Southampton revival marks a return to relevance for the striker. It’s worth asking whether his underperformance should raise similar concerns to Benteke’s given their similar age and injury history. The short answer is no. While Benteke’s underperformance has been going on for over a year, Ings is now only eight games into his renaissance. If he keeps missing at an understated rate all season long, then maybe it will be time to reconsider at the end of the season. If there’s one slight niggling concern with Ings it’s that he’s never put together a strong top-flight season before and he’s only had two total seasons where he’s scored double digit goals. He scored 21 goals on the way to getting Burnley promoted in 2013-14, and then scored 11 Premier League goals for Sean Dyche on the way to relegation in 2014-15. That’s kind of a thin track record for a 26-year-old. The question is how to reconcile that history with the current eight games which feature a robust expected goal tally, and a more limited goal tally. The easiest thing to do is just to adjust the excite-o-meter from super optimistic to cautiously optimistic. Ings looks good, his goal scoring should catch up to his numbers, but it’s worth being aware that without a track record things could end up not being quite as rosy as they seem. This, by the way, is equally applicable to Raul Jimenez at Wolves who has similarly impressive numbers at a similar age and with a similarly thin top-level track record. There are stories you could tell about why any given player might or might not be performing to the level expected goals predicts. It’s important to remember that most (but, crucially, not all) of these stories are wrong. Usually, everything works itself out eventually. But rarely, something weird is going on. To be nerdy about it, using tools like expected goals allows us to set a very strong null hypothesis. Expected goals is almost always right in the end. Good analysis means internalizing that fact while also being on guard for the potential exceptions. It’s a constant dance of assuming the stories you’re looking for will be wrong, but looking for them anyway just in case this one time is the exception to the rule.

Scottish Premiership Review: A Title Fight, Tactical Variety In Mid-Table And A Relegation Battle Already

Eight matches into the Scottish SPFL Premiership season and there’s an unfamiliar feel to the top of the table. Celtic, treble winners in each of the last two seasons, are third. Despite being primed for a title challenge after the arrival of Steven Gerrard as manager Rangers are way off the pace in sixth. Grinning smugly from the other end of the M8 motorway are top two Hibs and Hearts. At the bottom end of the table Motherwell, finalists in both cup competitions last season, are struggling in tenth. Below them St Mirren and Dundee FC have already blinked and joined the sack race. A genuine title fight brewing, the lines in the relegation battle drawn and the sweet relief of club football to dull the pain of Scotland’s international break. Welcome to StatsBomb’s review of the Scottish season so far.

Title Fight

Craig Levein, multi-tasking as Director of Football and manager at Hearts, has been prime box office for his knowingly provocative press conference comments. He’s also been quietly putting together a formidable playing side. They’ve won six of their first eight matches.  How have they done it? They were never higher than fifth last season. They lost goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin to Sunderland in the summer. They lost captain Christophe Berra to injury in early August. And yet they’re up there in first. Their active defense certainly helps. Hearts are something of a heavyweight boxer. They work the body with midfield aggressive actions by Peter Haring and Olly Lee. Steven Naismith buzzes around in your peripheral vision. They hit you a lot; taking both the second most shots and generating the second most expected goals per match in the league. Uche Ikpeazu and Steven MacLean rock your center backs relentlessly. Finally, either Haring or one of their young center back partnership of John Souttar and Jimmy Dunne delivers the incisive knock out blow from an expertly delivered set piece. A shot map of their set piece shots shows just how relentlessly focused they are at putting the ball on somebody’s head right in front of goal. Hearts have the second highest xG from set pieces in the league. Just look at that central delivery from corners. They know how to keep their guard up in similar situations at the other end, conceding the lowest xG from set pieces in the division. However, there are some underlying reasons to suspect that they will not stay at the top. They are outperforming xG at both ends of the pitch. The average xG of the open play shots they take is the second lowest in the league. They concede at least two and a half more shots per match than the three teams sitting below them. They actually allow the second highest average xG per open play shot conceded. They’ve only conceded six goals but the StatsBomb xG model indicates they should have let in ten. Finally, this week they lost Souttar and Ikpeazu to injury for six months. An admirable start but that’s a dizzying list of reasons why the Edinburgh club might not be quite ready for a shot at the title. A few miles east and just two points below their Edinburgh rivals are Hibs. Neil Lennon is another manager that’s often ready with a wry quip to satisfy the narrative hungry Scottish game. Fortunately he’s also pretty good at the on field side of things. Hibs have won their last four matches. They haven’t conceded in the last three. This is all despite losing last season’s first choice midfield; John McGinn to Aston Villa, Dylan McGeouch to Sunderland and Scott Allan to Celtic. Lennon has adapted, and his side are playing some excellent, brave football. Their goalkeeper takes the second shortest passes and they make the second most passes per match in the league but they move up the pitch quickly. Their wingers, led by Martin Boyle, are heavily involved in creating chances. If that doesn’t work their midfielders are poised to win the ball back rapidly. Emerson Hyndman is making almost five pressure regains every match. They’re not just winning the ball back to pass it about. They take the third most shots in the league. Tellingly, they top the table for ‘high press’ shots – ones shortly after they’ve regained possession. In addition they are second for ‘clear shots’ – ones with only the goalkeeper between shooter and goal. Although they do concede the third highest average xG per open play shot they are good at limiting chances.  The centre back combination of ball player Efe Ambrose and young, aggressive Ryan Porteous has helped them concede the second fewest shots and third lowest xG per game. Back to the west and there have been dark clouds hanging over Celtic Park. Grumbles about player recruitment persist from both fans and the manager. Rival fans are joking about fancy lighting bought for Champions League nights, a competition they failed to qualify for. There are rumors of a dressing room split after last minute transfer window maneuvers. That all sets the scene for a start in which the teams has only scored seven goals in their first seven matches. Third place for a club which were invincible and scored 106 goals in the 2016/17 season? It doesn’t look good. But, despite the doom and gloom, things might not actually be all that bad.  Celtic have the highest xG per match. They concede the lowest xG per match. They have the highest xG from set pieces per match. They take the most shots per match. They concede the fewest shots per match. They allow the lowest average xG per open play shot conceded. They’ve been slow out of the blocks but those are the underlying numbers of champions in waiting. There have been problems. Early season criticism was aimed at defensive errors especially from Jack Hendry. Odsonne Edouard was viewed as not managing to shoot enough. The key issue is that Celtic have struggled to make high quality chances. Sure, teams sit deep against them but that’s been the case before. The Hoops miss the central combination play of Moussa Dembele and Stuart Armstrong. There has been a real lack of quick ball progression out of defense. Scott Brown is now thirty-three but still demands the ball like a young pup. He is needlessly slowing progress into dangerous zones. Kristoffer Ajer hasn’t made the line breaking runs into midfield that seemed to be his standard operating procedure. Mikael Lustig has been deployed as a third center back. His sole function there appears to be to exchange sideways pass after sideways pass with Dedryck Boyata. Consider the difference in Celtic’s most recent match with Brown rested and Lustig played as a right back. There are still issues. An imbalanced squad heavy on wingers. Wastefulness from James Forrest (don’t be fooled by that four goal haul in one match). Firefighting is often needed behind Lustig. However, if Celtic can continue to play this way they should be at the top of the table soon.

Tactical Variety In Mid-Table

Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock are conceding the second lowest xG per game despite allowing the sixth most shots. Their well drilled structure leads to their matches having the lowest xG overall in the league. Dull? Tactically intriguing? Your mileage may vary. What is certain is that the combination of their center backs heading away crosses, midfielder Alan Power pouncing on second balls and Greg Stewart dribbling to ease pressure has been effective in keeping the Ayrshire club high up the table. It would help though if they encouraged Eamonn Brophy to ease up on his four and half shots per 90 and be a little more selective with his shooting. In fifth place is the season’s surprise package. Livingston are little changed despite the departure of manager David Hopkin post promotion and the hiring and firing of veteran striker Kenny Miller as player manager. Playing at the Tony Macaroni Arena, sponsored by a local Italian restaurant, they aggressively attack all over the plastic pitch. A flood of pressure smothers the opposition. It’s hard not to think of their sponsor’s Macaroni Cheese Lasagne smothering arteries with a mix of four cheeses and two types of pasta. On field, the goal is to funnel the opposition into directing high balls into the box. Livingston’s defenders eat them up like they were dough ball starters. The West Lothian club are profiling like a mid table side, creating the seventh highest and conceding the fifth lowest xG per match. They could be due a bit of a dip though as they have outperformed xG defensively quite significantly. Exciting times over at Ibrox with Rangers creating the second highest xG per game. They do this by carving out really good chances. They make the most ‘clear shots’ and have the highest xG per open play shot in the league. Often they overload the right side with James Tavernier, Daniel Candeias, Scott Arfield and Alfredo Morelos linking up well. On the left, young loanee Ryan Kent has stepped in for inured Jamie Murphy to great effect. When Steven Gerrard has altered this 4-3-3 set up to introduce Kyle Lafferty as an aerial weapon they have struggled. This was the case against Motherwell, Livingston and Celtic. Apart from having courage in his convictions, what is needed for Gerrard to get Rangers up the table? Smart squad management given Europa League commitments and some work on set pieces given they concede the second highest xG from them per match in the league. Aberdeen finished the last two seasons in second. This time they look very much like a mid-table team. They take the fifth most shots and allow the sixth fewest shots. They create the sixth most and concede the fourth lowest xG per match. How are they achieving all this mediocrity? Well they lost two of their central creative outlets, Ryan Christie and Kenny McLean, in the summer. Now they get it wide and swing crosses in. Not the smartest route to goal. Stevie May is yet to score and Sam Cosgrove is only getting low value headed opportunities. At the other end they tend to man mark in midfield and then manfully block from the edge of the box. Aberdeen are marginally overperforming xG conceded but are within a position or two of where they deserve to be. An even more blocking orientated team are St Johnstone. They allow the most opposition passes per match. They concede the most shots per match in the league. A massive 21.63. However, they allow the second lowest xG per open play shot. They have managed to block just under a third of all the shots they’ve faced. Defending like this can backfire. They’ve conceded eleven goals in their matches against Rangers and Celtic. Up next are critical matches against struggling Motherwell and St Mirren. Fail to win those and they will be drawn into the relegation battle.

Relegation Battle

In ninth place are Hamilton Academical. They have failed to score in half of their matches. In fact they attempt the fewest shots in the league. They also have the lowest xG per attempt from a corner. No shock that they have the second lowest xG per match. It doesn’t get much better at the other end. Once the defense is breached they have conceded eleven goals from the twenty seven open play shots that have landed on target. This from an xG of just 3.69. Whether they’ve been a bit unfortunate or not in this regard remains to be seen but either way, it doesn’t help results. Motherwell haven’t won a match since September 1st. Three of their next four matches are against St Johnstone, Dundee and St Mirren. This is a key period for the Steelmen to show their mettle and turn their season around. Given that they make the eighth highest and concede the sixth least xG per match they might be considered unlucky to be in tenth. They are an aggressive team. Their keeper kicks it the second longest in the league on average. They employ the second highest press. They allow the second fewest passes per defensive action and allow the joint lowest opposition pass completion. However, they do allow the fourth most shots per match. A lot of the open play shots they are conceding are from the zone Cedric Kipre defended before his August move to Wigan Athletic. An upturn in goalkeeper Scott Carson’s form and a replacement for Kipre might be vital building blocks for Motherwell’s resurgence. St Mirren’s new manager Oran Kearney has his work cut out. Poor recruitment has left the side looking ill equipped throughout. One loanee, Nicolai Brock-Madsen, has been sent back to his parent club this week after the striker managed just one shot in over four hours on the pitch. He’s not been the only failure in this area. The side have created only fifty shots from open play and have the lowest xG per game in the league. No surprise that they’ve scored the fewest goals. They’re also passive defensively. They allow the highest opposition pass completion, give up good shooting opportunities and struggle to save the resulting shots. Of the thirty seven unblocked shots that have landed on target from open play against them fourteen have gone in. In dead last with one win and seven losses are Dundee FC. After persistent rumors they sacked Neil McCann this week and replaced him with Jim McIntyre. Under McCann, they liked to pass it around but were a bit unsure of themselves when they entered the final third. They made the sixth most passes per game but took the fourth fewest shots. Those shots had the lowest average xG in the league. Fifty three of the seventy five open play shots they’ve attempted were blocked or off target. They’ve made the third fewest aggressive actions per match and concede great swathes of territory out of possession. This has led to them conceding the second most shots in the league. Worse still the open play shots that they faced (shown below) had the highest average xG in the division. All this stacked on top of each other computes quite simply as the third lowest xG for and the highest xG against in the SPFL Premiership. Major improvements are needed if they are to have any chance of survival. So, after eight weeks no team is winless and no team is undefeated. The table does have an unfamiliar feel. However, Celtic’s underlying numbers make it look like they should win the league. Hearts, Hibs, Kilmarnock and Rangers will contest the European spots and be a real threat in the Scottish Cup. Motherwell should rise clear of the dogfight and join Livingston, Aberdeen and St Johnstone in mid-table. It’s going to be a real scrap for survival between Hamilton, St Mirren and Dundee.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

StatsBomb – The People Behind the Tech

If you mention ‘sports data’ people tend to conjure up visions of robots, computer vision and magical new ways of creating data. People often ask us at StatsBomb what technology we use in our data collection, as if that is the most important part of the process. Of course we have a brilliant team of highly skilled software engineers who have built our own proprietary data collection software and are constantly enhancing our process and data spec with new innovative technology. Our software is packed full of validation and intelligence that comes from combined decades of experience in using data to analyse Football for coaches, managers, and owners of clubs. But, even the latest, most high tech tracking data companies need humans to sort out collisions and things like tackle outcomes, especially when there are a bunch of players bunched together in a small area of the pitch. The often overlooked gem in data collection is the role of people making these critical decisions in every single match. In some cases, around 90% of a game can be left to technology to capture and validate, but the remaining 10% is not always obvious, even to the trained eye. Take this example, did Giroud mean to pass his assist or shoot? It’s a bit cliche to say the most important asset in any organisation is the people, but it’s true. We went from being a data collection team of 5 to a team of 85 in just over eight months – hiring, training, and monitoring new recruits at this pace has been a huge challenge! Every collector has to go through intense training, tests, they watch hours and hours of video, and are measured not only on their speed, accuracy and attention to detail but on their attitude, their ability to work closely with their team and contribute towards common goals – to motivate not only themselves, but their team members as well. We encourage everyone to have and share ideas, to contribute towards the continuous improvement of our products. I have worked at many companies who create an ‘Innovation Team’ – at StatsBomb we purposely do the opposite. Everyone is encouraged to innovate – across our tech teams, data science and analysis teams, right through to our data collectors and helpdesk operators. The psychology involved in this is fascinating – how do you create a motivating culture that includes leaders, innovators, young team members, experienced team members? How should we create bonus systems that reward performance on quality and quantity at individual, team and company level – given that not all teams have equal amounts of experience and every league has its own nuances in style of play that impact data collection? There are frameworks for reward management, all acknowledge the importance of business and cultural issues, but I still mostly find they ignore the people factor. The impact of ‘one bad egg’ is legitimately worrying, and the retention programme is equally as important as recruitment and training. It’s not about fruit bowls, unlimited holiday, and standing-desks. Although that stuff is fun and contributes towards engagement, it can feel pretentious and a bit over the top in a new and growing business. The relationship between the leaders and the team members really matters. Possibly still my favourite moment since the launch of StatsBomb was when our data collection leader gave his birthday speech – he knows every single member of the team personally and had genuine tears in his eyes as he told them all how building this team is his proudest achievement so far in his life. StatsBomb is a data and tech company. We have clever tech and will continue to develop even more clever tech.  But behind this will always be our ever growing team of dedicated people, who care and worry about the happiness, motivation and well-being of the team itself. This is how you build defensible IP in data collection. Which is why we have built (yes built) our data collectors a new office that doubled the size of our original collection centre. With more space, it houses everyone under the same roof – important for quality control across the whole company – with plenty of scope to double in size again as demand for sports data continues to grow. We are more than ready to build upon the early success of our new data operation. With our awesome workforce, we can now expand the number of leagues we cover, and start to go further back in history, and we are genuinely excited about the future! If you want to know more about our data coverage and QA procedures do get in touch… Charlotte Chief Operating Officer StatsBomb charlotte@statsbomb.com