Despite a Lack of Goals, Alexis Sanchez Remains Good at Football

Lord knows how much money it took to bring Alexis Sanchez to Old Trafford. And his arrival at Manchester United hasn’t gone smoothly. But after scoring the winner against Newcastle, he looks like he might finally turn things around.

Just three goals since signing in January is, on the face of it, a terrible return for someone of his reputation. That’s a shade under his expected goals total (especially if you include the penalty he missed), but we’re still left with a very unremarkable volume of chances nonetheless:



Adjusted for time on the pitch, he’s generating 0.27 expected goals per 90, a very middling figure for a wide forward at a club with as much talent as Manchester United. In his last season at Arsenal, by comparison, he was hitting an xG per 90 of 0.42, achieved mostly through a higher volume of shots than he’s attempting at the moment, even if a fair few were from range.



The numbers show what most can see with their eyes: Sanchez is much less of a goalscoring threat at United than he was at Arsenal. To many, this is the end of the story. Of course, football isn’t just about scoring goals, so let’s take a look at what else the Chilean can do.

Evolving Role

For such a widely acclaimed talent, it’s notable that Sanchez hasn’t had a fixed position over career. Having played in a range of roles at Udinese, Sanchez went to Barcelona at a time when Pep Guardiola was experimenting with a back three. The plan seemed to be for the Chilean to offer a wider threat than the inverted forwards David Villa and Pedro. This system was similar to that of coaches’ coach and Guardiola favourite Marcelo Bielsa’s approach with Chile at the 2010 World Cup, and Sanchez’s experience in that role was surely a big part of why he was signed.

Of course, Guardiola left Barcelona in the summer of 2012 and his successors Tito Vilanova then Tata Martino both returned to the more familiar 4-3-3 associated with the Catalan club’s best sides. This meant Sanchez competing for the inverted wide forward roles either side of Lionel Messi. Playing so close to the five time Ballon d’Or winner tends to force players to sacrifice their own games, and Sanchez was no exception, with his volume of shots and dribbles taking a significant hit in this system. Still, he proved extremely effective at the limited things he did do, contributing more than one goal or assist per 90 minutes in his final season at the Camp Nou. Sanchez was a player performing a specific role, and performing it to an extremely high level.

After that specific role came the freedom. Sanchez joined Arsenal as a marquee purchase to add speed and directness to the attack, and he could not have found himself in a more different environment in North London than the Catalan capital. Arsene Wenger (remember him?) always believed in keeping things relatively simple, opting to let the players figure things out, rather than overload them with complex instructions. This allowed Sanchez the chance to finally do his thing largely unrestrained. Usually playing on either flank in a fairly basic 4-2-3-1, Sanchez found himself with team mates well suited to complement him. In the number ten role was the perennially unselfish Mesut Ozil, extremely uninterested in much other than facilitating those around him, while striker Olivier Giroud has often been a target man who likes to link up with a goalscoring wide player. This generally saw a much more involved and active Sanchez, putting in dominant performances even if he was prone to frequently giving away possession in the final third of the pitch. In some ways he had come full circle from his Barca days, now heavily involved but with some poor involvements.

With Wenger looking to move away from the focal point and unable to sign a high profile striker, Sanchez was moved to the centre forward role himself for much of the 2016-17 season. This was clearly a big part in him reaching a career best 22 non-penalty goals that season, though it led to Arsenal having an overall less cohesive attack. Sanchez’ link-up play was significantly less tidy than Giroud, in part leading to an Arsenal side less fluid in possession in the final third. The solution that Wenger stumbled upon was a switch to a 3-4-3 formation, with Sanchez and Ozil both in relatively central attacking roles behind a true striker (initially Giroud, then Alexandre Lacazette after his summer purchase). This system certainly had its drawbacks, particularly in the way that it would expose the midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey. It did, though, get the best out of Sanchez, allowing him the freedom to do what he does without sacrificing the rest of the attack, as it did previously. The problem with him bleeding possession remained (as seen with the high number of turnovers on the radar below), but there was still little doubt that he was a highly productive attacking threat.



Which brings us to…

United’s Number Seven

Alexis Sanchez wasn’t supposed to go to Manchester United. He was expected to end up at Manchester City, where he would find himself reunited with Guardiola. While the City boss knows the player well, this always felt like it would’ve been somewhat of a luxury purchase, and Sanchez, who had at this point spent several years with limited tactical instruction under Wenger, may have found it difficult to adjust to the Catalan’s strict positional play.

United and Jose Mourinho made more sense in this regard. Existing wide options consisted of players like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, full of talent but still yet to deliver significantly in terms of goals and assists, or players without the dynamism of Sanchez, such as Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. In the case of Mkhitaryan, it also seemed that he was never going to be a good fit with Mourinho, so moving him on was logical, especially when he could be replaced with a player of Sanchez’s quality. Mourinho, while certainly someone much more defensively disciplined than Wenger, does like to keep it simple in attack, and allows his players much more of a licence to work it out themselves on that side of the ball than someone like Guardiola. The specifics of United, though, have proven not quite as ideal. Sanchez has generally featured in either wide role in a 4-3-3 system, which is fine. The central striker, though, has been Romelu Lukaku. There is no doubting that Lukaku is a terrific out-and-out striker, but he is someone who thrives as the side’s primary goal threat. Someone like Giroud was happy to allow Sanchez to dominate the team, but a club with Lukaku leading the line need to use the Belgian as someone to get on the end of chances, not facilitate them. With the sale of Mkhitaryan at the same time as Sanchez’s arrival, and Mata’s role being largely as a substitute, there was also a lack of an Ozil style playmaker. The best creative passer already at United was probably Paul Pogba, but the Frenchman has such a wide ranging skillset that it doesn’t always make sense to define him by simply one task. As such, Sanchez would have to take on more playmaking responsibilities himself. In this new team, the Chilean has had to reinvent himself as someone who both works harder defensively and does more of his work as a creator rather than a scorer.

On the first count, he is certainly a more active defender than before. Looking at StatsBomb’s pressure event data shows us that in his final half-season at Arsenal, Sanchez was making 13.09 pressures per 90. Since arriving at Old Trafford, that figure has risen to 20.92. Looking at Sanchez’s output on the midfield radar, we can see that while the attacking side has dropped off a little, he is working harder defensively.



On the playmaking side, it has gone largely unnoticed that Sanchez has taken on much more responsibility. When looking at open play passes into the opponent’s box per 90 minutes, Sanchez is the clear standout among players at United (this graph only covers last season, but he is also currently top of the stat this year, too).



His contributions have often come at big moments, as well, with the aforementioned winning goal against Newcastle not his first game changing moment. In the now famous 3-2 win to prevent Manchester City winning the title that day, Sanchez was involved in all three United goals, providing two impressive assists and a delightful “hockey assist” (the assist to the assist). Sanchez recorded the highest xGChain of any United player that day. He changed the game.


Sanchez has proven to be something of a chameleon over his career. The roles he has filled for Chile, Udinese, Barcelona, Arsenal and now Manchester United have all varied in what is required, and he has always adapted to the challenge. It is his time at Arsenal that most Premier League fans primarily know him for, and as such those are the kind of performances they expect, single handedly grabbing games and driving the team forward, scoring plenty of goals in the process.

For all of the issues that Mourinho has caused himself at Old Trafford, opting not to use Sanchez in this way is not one of them. In Lukaku, United already have a primary goalscorer, while Martial and Rashford offer threat in terms of wide forwards getting in the box and on the end of chances. What Sanchez does better than those players is offer a more complete threat, as someone who works hard defensively while getting involved in the build up play. This might not be a hugely beloved era of Sanchez’s career, but it isn’t without merit, and certainly shouldn’t be considered a write-off.

Why Arsenal's Bad Stats Matter

We’ve written a lot about Arsenal recently. It makes sense. The current Gunners storyline, a team that’s winning a lot without the underlying numbers to back it up, is right in StatsBomb’s wheelhouse. We live for these stories. When a team’s results diverge from its performance you might as well send up a StatsBomb bat signal. But, just because we love this stuff doesn’t mean that it necessarily must be covered more broadly. The question of how these instances should be covered by the wider media remains an open one. And it’s complicated. There are lots of stories about Arsenal, and Arsenal is only one of many teams. Exactly how important is this one story?  

Some People Need to Care

There are obviously some groups of people for whom understanding Arsenal’s underlying numbers is a must. If you work inside the game, then the primary thing you need to be concerned about is separating performance from results. If Unai Emery doesn’t understand that his team’s defense has holes you could drive an 18-wheeler through then he’s not doing his job well. If Arsenal’s analysts aren’t telling him that they need to improve, and fast, they are failing the manager and the team. It’s also possible, in the interest of fairness, that those analysts might disagree with our assessment, and have reasons to think their team is doing well, and that their underlying numbers suggest something different, more hidden, than ours do. That would be fine, and if that’s the case they should keep on keeping on, doing what they believe. But, in that case, it’s not that the numbers don’t matter; rather it’s that having seen and understood the numbers, they disagree. There’s a small but important difference between ignoring what numbers suggest and disagreeing with what certain numbers might seem to show. Regardless, it’s obvious that people who work inside the game need to care about this stuff. When it comes to the Arsenal story that doesn’t just mean people at Arsenal. It means analysts at teams who will be playing Arsenal. Leicester City head to the Emirates on Monday. Claude Puel needs to decide exactly how conservative his team will be. Facing a team that’s in fourth place, only two points behind first might seem like a daunting task, but facing a side whose expected goal difference suggests they’re closer to midtable is something else entirely. Arsenal’s expected goal difference is actually worse than Leicester’s. That should certainly inform Puel’s preparation and planning. All of this is true for some people outside the game as well. Gamblers need to understand the numbers, although if they don’t they won’t remain solvent enough to be gamblers for very long. In theory, anybody who makes predictions about the game in public should be doing it while understanding the numbers that give us the most insight into what’s to come (although realistically most public punditry is not held to an actual accounting of their predictions). But, understanding the story of Arsenal is not necessarily the same thing as telling it.  

Fans Don’t Have to Care

Certain people are obligated to get what is happening at Arsenal right. It’s literally their job to do it. They have to understand what’s going on and why, to predict what will happen, and to plan and make decisions around those predictions. Those people are not supporters. Supporters are under no obligation to be right about anything. If Arsenal supporters want to believe that their team is the best in the world and will surely defeat Manchester City and Liverpool and hold the Premier League trophy aloft in May, God bless ‘em. That’s their right. For some supporters it’s all about that irrational hope, and they don’t want to hear a thing about a vision of the future that doesn’t involve the best case scenario being the only case scenario. Not all supporters feel that way. And, even more broadly, not all consumers of news about Arsenal will be Arsenal supporters. Some people care a lot about tactics and understanding what goes on on the pitch, some don’t. Some people are finance geeks and want deep reporting of their team’s (and every team’s) books. Some think that reporting on wages ruins the game. If there are numbers that suggest dark clouds on the horizon even though it’s sunny right now, some fans want enough warning to bring an umbrella, others don’t want today’s picnic ruined by tomorrow’s thunder. Fair enough, it takes all types.   Media in the Middle People in the game have an obligation to understand the numbers, their job is to get stuff right. Fans have no obligation to understand anything, they get to enjoy their sports exactly how they choose to. The media is stuck in the middle. On the one hand, they’re there to serve an audience. This manifests itself in both good and bad ways. Listen, the reason you get transfer stories is that lots and lots of people like and read transfer stories. StatsBomb is going to do transfer stuff, complete with radars and all the other goodies you’ve come to expect from us, because we know that you read it. You share it. You link to it and talk about it, and that’s good. It’s also why reporters will work their contacts and report on stories about transfers and who is thinking what and which teams are planning things. Journalists work hard to give fans more information than they’d have otherwise. And part of the reason they focus on transfers is that everybody in the business knows that fans really (really really really) want information about transfers. Unfortunately that's also why lots of less reputable people make crap up. There’s good and bad. It’s perfectly reasonable for some outlets to conclude that people simply aren’t interested in a story specifically about why Arsenal’s winning may not continue. Maybe they conclude it’s too niche, or too negative, or simply not as important as six other stories they want to run. Sports media is in the business of mediating the space between the professional and the passionate and part of that remit is figuring out what fans are interested in and delivering that content in good, smart and engaging ways. Any story about why Arsenal are winning is telling an incomplete picture without those numbers, but there are plenty of stories out there which aren’t specifically about why Arsenal are winning. In fact, generally speaking, fans tend to be less interested in why a team is winning than in the simple fact that they are. That said, just because those numbers don’t merit a story in and of themselves, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t inform coverage. There are innumerable stories which, while not explicitly about Arsenal’s underlying numbers, should be informed by knowledge of them. When Emery downplays his team’s title chances and talks about how they still must improve, the media’s ability to contextualize those comments for fans is improved by understanding underlying numbers. The same is true when evaluating how strikers talk about their chances, are they confident that despite misses if they keep getting into good positions the goals will come? Or, are they focused on being clinical with the few chances they’re getting? Being familiar with advanced numbers helps contextualize the kinds of quotes players give to the public. More importantly, being familiar with what the numbers look like now is important for understanding the season later. If, as the numbers suggest will happen, Arsenal’s season hits a speed bump, then understanding what’s happening now will be of the utmost importance. When a team struggles, everybody covers it. It’s one of those times when fan interests line up almost universally. Everybody wants to know what’s wrong and how to fix it. Media both wants to, and has to, cover it. As well we should. And that’s when ignoring this story now becomes a problem. Analytically, what we see right now is a story waiting to happen. Arsenal will struggle because they haven’t been all that good. Despite not being all that good they’ve gotten results. In a month or two if the results fade, and everybody starts asking questions about what happened, ignoring the numbers will inevitably lead to people giving fans an answer that is actively wrong. Because the answer almost certainly will be, “nothing happened.” The team was never that good, and the results are just finally starting to catch up. Right now, it’s possible to cover Arsenal and not explicitly cover the fact that their results are better than their performances. When the worm turns though, that will no longer be the case. People often don’t care about why a team is winning when they’re winning, but they always care about why a team is losing. It’s reasonable for the media not to focus on the concerns lurking beneath the surface. But it’s extremely important that even if we don’t focus on it, we understand it. Because when Arsenal begin to struggle, that’s when people demand explanations. And those explanations start with the fact that they were never that good to begin with.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

What Happened to Monaco Under Leonardo Jardim and Will Thierry Henry Fix It?

For the past two years Monaco was one of the more interesting clubs in European Football. The team's performance over the past two seasons has made them one of the great statistical outliers across the Big 5 leagues, flummoxing models left and right. They’ve consistently surpassed their expected performance by large margins. From a macro point of view, Monaco earned plaudits for their seamless transition from failing to match financial might with Paris Saint-Germain to being experts in knowing when to sell high on players in the transfer market, operating with the precision of a seasoned Football Manager user.

The 2018–19 season initially looked like another season in which Monaco's expertise would navigate another summer of key departures. Getting over £90 million for Thomas Lemar and Fabinho looked to have been another example of getting close to full value on players who were good but not necessarily great. That money was used in a very typical Monaco fashion: taking numerous cracks on young players like Aleksandr Golovin, Benjamin Henrichs, Willem Geubbels, and Samuel Grandsir and hoping enough of them pan out. In Leonardo Jardim, Monaco could feel confident knowing they had a manager who's had experience dealing with squad turnover and giving minutes to young talents, so the club could be confident they would still remain in one of the Champions League qualification spots during the transition.

Except, that hasn't been the case this season. The exact opposite has occurred. Monaco sit in 18th place through nine games, a full 10 points off of third. That last part is crucial because what's allowed Monaco to perform well in the transfer market over the years has been their ability to consistently qualify for the CL. Without CL football, their bargaining position is weakened. It was fair to be skeptical that Monaco could once again have a summer of upheaval and finish in the top three by spring, though even the most pessimistic of projections wouldn’t have pegged them to have such a rough start to the season. And in fact, Monaco's struggles are happening in part because they are failing to achieve the levels expected goals suggest they should be at.

Monaco have probably been unlucky to have a -4 goal differential, it's also true that their performance while at an even game state has not been good. One of the great things about Monaco over the past couple of seasons, especially in 2016–17, was their ability to dictate play relatively well while the game was tied and then pile up the score once they went ahead. A one goal lead would turn to two, two would turn to three and it’s a wrap. When you’re not even breaking a 50% share both in shot quantity and quality, it’s makes it harder to break games open.

Monaco this season is a team that is still searching for that level of cohesiveness that top sides usually have. This isn't surprising when you consider that the starting XI has been constantly tinkered with through the first two months. A remarkable 22 players have already logged over 150 minutes in Ligue 1 this season. While it's optimal to have some squad rotation in place when dealing with the rigors of domestic and continental football, having that many players be part of the rotation is a sign that you're throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Monaco's ability to play from the back has been hit or miss. When teams have largely remained discipline in closing the passing lanes into the central midfield by angling their bodies while sprinting to press one of the center backs, Monaco have had to resort to going long as a counter. Once this happens, you'll see switches in position where one player goes deep and a teammate tries to find space behind the defense. At its best, it can cause confusion for the opposition and create openings for the most forward player of the two to run into open space.

Even during scenarios in which Monaco have no problems progressing the ball through the middle of the pitch, the team is still missing that little bits of tactical automation that can turn the screws in their favor. Kamil Glik makes a nice pass through the middle into Moussa Sylla and lays it off to Radamel Falcao. There’s a small window where Adama Traoré has the opportunity to make an off-ball run that could bend the defense in his favor or for someone else but he doesn’t choose to take it. Instead, it just ends up with a low efficiency shot from Antonio Barreca.

Once the ball isin or near the final third, Monaco often have a player dart into the wide areas to try and drag his marker with him. The man on the ball can try and beat his opposition marker off the dribble and then commit other defenders to him so passing options into the box could be open for the likes of Falcao and Moussa Sylla, or try some quick combination. The downside of such a strategy is that there's a lot of responsibility placed on the man in possession to either win his individual duel because there's really no one in the halfspace area to help him out.

A crucial aspect in Monaco's attack that has declined from years past has been their ability to strike fear during transition play. At their best, Monaco were able to gather the ball near midfield, have fullbacks Benjamin Mendy and Djribil Sidibe make aggressive overlapping runs and either create cutbacks for players arriving late into the penalty box or hit low crosses to the feet of Falcao or Kylian Mbappe near the six yard box. That hasn't really been the case this season as their transitions from defensive actions has lacked that same level of dynamism. Even when the fullbacks join in the attack, they haven't been able to connect on those low crosses that create the high value shots that teams look for.

Faced with those issues, Monaco's defense would have to be near elite to make up for their attacking deficiencies. Monaco's defense has been better than their goals against record would indicate, but not good enough to balance their woes going forward. The good news is that they're only giving an xG per shot of just over 0.08 in open play, which is around the mark you would hope for from a solid defense. Monaco defend in a shape resembling a 4-4-2, whether they're applying pressure higher up the pitch or defending in a mid-block. When a switch of play occurs, the wide player closest to the ball applies pressure and force a pass back to the CB, which in turn triggers the forward to press the center back and eventually force the ball back to the goalkeeper for a punt. Monaco can do this rotation solidly, and it explains why they have a large intensity of defensive actions in the wide areas.

There have been some holes with Monaco's defensive structure. Gaps can emerge between the front two and the midfield bank of four when Monaco try to pressure the opponent higher up the pitch, allowing the opposition to have their deepest midfielder receive the ball with enough time to turn and make his next action. There's a lot of man-marking when Monaco have to defend and when they're defending in their own third, they can have members of their backline dragged high enough to create openings that opponents can exploit for potential shooting opportunities.

In the range of possible outcomes for Monaco's 2018-19 season, what's happened through nine games would rank in the bottom 10 percent. It's fair to point out that one of the drawbacks of constantly retooling with younger talents is that there will be down year(s) where you’re working with a talent base that might not quite be ready for primebtime. While I'm quite partial to how Monaco have operated and leveraging their security as a top side in Ligue 1 to aggressively hunt for star talents, even going as far as to spending ample amounts of money on teenagers like Pietro Pellegri and Willem Geubbels, the downside of such an approach is that you’re susceptible to below average seasons.

None of those mitigating factors were enough to save Jardim's job as manager of Monaco. I’m of the belief that there are only a few managers who are clear outliers, either good or bad, while most are bunched in the middle and rank somewhere between slight positives and slight negatives. It’s fair to conclude that Jardim ranks as a net positive manager and perhaps could be considered someone who is an outlier on the positive end. Despite the variance that benefited his clubs over the past two years, the seamless transition from the 2014–15 iteration that relied on compact defensiveness and opportunistic transitions to the aesthetically pleasing football they’ve played in recent seasons was quite impressive, especially considering this was all done while having to deal with constant turnover in the squad. That isn’t an easy feat at all and it's a credit to Jardim that he helped make the Monaco project work as well as it has. How much of a net positive Jardim is as a manager is where things get more interesting. More than anything, it comes down to how much you believe he’s someone like Lucien Favre, where there's constant positive variance outperforming shot and expected points models season after season. His Monaco sides from 2014–16 performed like the 3rd or 4th best team in the league and finished 3rd in both seasons, while the last two were about as outlier-y as outliers can be.

Thierry Henry is taking over for Jardim. Outside his stint as an assistant for the Belgium national team and his constant use of the word "freedom" while working for Sky Sports, we don't know anything about his capabilities as a manager. That cuts both ways: while there'll be an inherent skepticism of a first time manager taking the reigns of a major club like Monaco, maybe Henry turns out to be someone who's just good at his job. I lean more towards the skeptical end of the spectrum, particularly given that he's coming in during the season to a team that's in a rut, but it's possible that Henry has a smoother transition into the managerial role than most of us are giving him credit for. I still believe there's more than enough talent for Monaco to steady the ship and not have to worry about being in the relegation zone 5-10 games from now, though having to make up the gap between themselves and the Champions League spots might be too hard of a task to accomplish. There's been a few bright spots: Benjamin Henrichs has performed ably in the minutes he's played at fullback, Youssef Aït Bennasser continues to be an intriguing midfielder, and Moussa Sylla has had his moments as an 18 year old attacking prospect in a major European league. Monaco's overall numbers are better than your typical 18th place team, but it's clear that there's been a deterioration in performance once you dig a little deeper. For a first gig, Thierry Henry has got himself into a tricky situation with a mishmash of talent that's nowhere near close to firing on all cylinders. Whether Henry's the guy to turn Monaco's fortunes around or he's biting off more than he can chew is anyone's guess.

  Header image courtesy of the Press Association

StatsBomb Mailbag: Real Madrid, Declan Rice, Penalties, Marriage Advice and More!

It’s been a while since we did a mailbag. You have questions and I have definitive answers that are the result of years of careful study and calculation and aren’t at all being thrown together to generate content during an international break. Is it cheating to take a question from one of your own writers? Don’t care, I’m doing it anyway. The last few years at Real Madrid contained an unlikely amount of continuity. There were no international megastars coming and going, no managerial feuds, and really no upheaval of any sort. Florentino Perez’s name was barely in the news at all. That continuity helped contribute to three straight Champions Leagues and an era of general happiness and success at Madrid. Then Zinedine Zidane left, and Cristiano Ronaldo was sold, marking the definitive end of the era. And leaving the cupboard just a teensy bit bare. I think even as Madrid struggle right now, and they are struggling, it’s hard to second guess their decision making to let it ride with Zidane and Ronaldo. Mostly, they were just dumb not to turn around and buy a star after their previous one departed. The problem isn’t so much that the team failed to prepare for Ronaldo leaving, it’s that when he did leave, they declined to replace him. Even now, they keep getting linked to Eden Hazard, who is decidedly not the kind of player Madrid need at the moment. It seems like some degree of magical thinking took hold. Madrid tried to convince themselves that losing one of the two best players of a generation wouldn’t make them worse. If indeed Madrid have thrived after losing Ronaldo and not replacing him, then it would have been cause to reassess exactly how good he was. But, unsurprisingly, they are not. The bottom line is that Ronaldo is a shot monster like no other, and the team hasn’t replaced that attacking output. They could have though. That’s the mysterious thing. There are plenty of good high volume attacking players they could have pursued, instead they went and bought Mariano Diaz. Being Real Madrid is supposed to let you get away with letting it ride for three years by splashing the cash the summer you need to. Madrid just forgot to splash the cash. The question looming over West Ham’s season was always whether Manuel Pellegrini could figure out a way to make this team’s midfield work. It seems like after struggling for the first month of the season they’ve got it figured out. The combination of Pedro Obiang, Mark Noble and Declan Rice are getting the job done. After four straight losses to open the season, seven points from their next four sure seems to indicate they’ve righted the ship. And sure, they lost last week to Brighton, but even that disappointing result was accompanied by a respectable performance. It’s important to differentiate between players playing well, and the team playing well though. The system Pellegrini has implemented is one that works not because he’s discovered a star in Rice (or Obiang or Noble) but one that instead puts three mostly mediocre midfielders together, and lets them be mediocre in ways that complement each other. Obiang moves, Noble passes and Rice cleans up. None of this means that Rice can’t be good. He’s 19, there’s plenty of time for him to develop. Right now though, he’s not doing anything particularly special. At his young age, he’s a fairly limited player. He’s just being deployed in the exact right fairly limited role. A lot. The obvious answer here is Manchester United. They have lots of money. They also haven’t ever had a sporting director. You get to come in and build the whole front office from scratch. And the reality is that the resources that United have, as opposed to any other team that conceivably need a rebuild, just make the question impossible to answer any other way. No. And definitely not in year three. This is an interesting question because it gets at some of the fundamentally different goals analytics can have. The kinds of tools of the trade you’d apply to penalties in order to make better guesses about who should and shouldn’t take them, are all things that help you deal with small sample sizes and extrapolating information from very few observed instances. There simply aren’t a lot of penalties taken. But, there’s no point doing that if you are actually working with a team. There’s no reason to worry about null hypotheses and binomial distributions and how confident you should be in your confidence intervals. Instead, you can just go out and get more information. Teams can and should (and some do) spend some time taking penalties. By doing that, they won’t actually have to guess at who is good and who isn’t. Is it a perfect solution? No. Obviously in game penalties are always going to be somewhat different than practice. Even so, it’s a simple solution to a difficult problem. Figure out who is good at taking penalties in practice, and then have that person take penalties during matches. Sometimes, the insights nerds have to offer are really basic. If you want to find out who is good at taking penalties, practice penalties a bunch. Then, after you’ve figured out who is good at taking penalties, have that person take penalties during matches. Truly revolutionary stuff. Seems like it would be a good idea! So, good old Paco got the big leap to Barcelona and then washed out to Dortmund. Except, he wasn’t actually all the bad at Barcelona when he played there. He just rarely played. He was a good passer, a good presser, and took good shots. He just didn’t take enough of them. He also played with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, so maybe that's understandable. He’s 24 now and hitting his prime, and while he’s obviously not going to stay this hot forever, six goals on ten shots sure isn’t anything to complain about. He's also played less than 100 minutes this season for Dortmund so there's really no point in breaking down the stats yet. It’s hard to say exactly where his career goes from here, but it’s also not quite fair to suggest that being a strong contributor to a Dortmund side isn’t playing at the highest echelons of the game. Is starting for Dortmund right now a less prestigious options than starting for Arsenal? Or Manchester United? It certainly doesn’t pay as well, which is why, all things being equal, I imagine Alcacer would rather make his way to one of those teams, (just like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan did) but that’s a slightly different question. It seems unlikely that Alcacer is going to turn into one of the best couple of strikers in the world, but he seems good enough to play, in some capacity, at the level below that. The question then is one of it and role, more than absolute ability. Yes! Congratulations! Let me start with some wedding advice (knowing nothing about your wedding). First. Eat food. Everybody says you won’t have time to eat, they’re right. Make time. Second. Don’t get drunk by accident. If you and your newly minted spouse like the booze and want to party hard, go nuts. If not. Remember you probably didn’t eat. Also, you’ll probably have a well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) friend or family member hand you a drink or two with a drink or two in it. Third. Whatever your wedding looks like, from courthouse to gazillion dollar eat the rich gala, it’s about y’all. Lots of people want to make other people’s weddings about them and start to finish the day might often be a hectic mess. Take time with your partner over the day to center yourselves for each other. It’s your day. Give yourself moments that will let your remember it that way. Okay, onto marriage. It’s great. I’m married. I love it. Like, I really like being a married person. I’m very into it. I assume you like the person you’re marrying, so that’s awesome. People like to offer trite advice like don’t go to bed mad or whatever. Meh. It’s hard to offer real concrete marriage advice from the outside. People’s relationships are all so different. What makes people tick, and what makes them work as individuals and as a couple is unique. So, what I’ll say is this. Just pay attention. Pay attention to what works for y’all and what doesn’t. Building a life together is awesome work, but that doesn’t mean it’s never work. Being conscious about what works, what helps you communicate better, what makes you happy, what brings out the best in you, makes the hard times easier. All relationships require maintenance from time to time, and having a full and effective relationship toolbox makes that maintenance easier.

Shots Under Pressure Part 3: Shooting Locations

Welcome back to our data exploration of shot pressure using StatsBomb data. In part 1, we laid the groundwork for our definition of shot pressure. We showed how overall shot pressure, and specifically pressure from certain angles, influences scoring likelihood. We continued that analysis to investigate players’ tendencies to shoot in the midst of pressure.

In part 2, we looked specifically at headers under pressure and teased you with some insight on passer’s ability to find open shooters. Unfortunately, we’re not quite ready to leak our player’s decision making analysis. Instead, in this article we are going to take a visual tour of the effects of shot pressure from different locations.

In this analysis, we continue with our shot pressure definition from part 1, which split the shot pressure into equal quadrants to the right, left, front and back of the shooter. After filtering for only shots from open play, we present a visual representations of how pressure from each direction effects the scoring rate.

How does the direction of pressure effect scoring rates in different locations of the pitch?

We present a series of figures with an interpretation for each one below. Please note that in the figures below, the color scale changes to make it easier to see the differences between shot locations. We calculate the change in scoring rate as the scoring rate under pressure (defined for each direction) minus the scoring rate without pressure from that direction. We tested these figures with various bin widths and they were not highly sensitive to the number of bins which is encouraging, but with even more data we will be able to fine to our spatial analyses.

Pressure left


In the figure above, we see that on the left side of the pitch, when the pressure from the left is greater than the pressure from the right, the change in scoring rate varies from approximately a 3% increase to no change (except for the top and bottom tiles). The intuitive explanation for this is that on the left side, the pressure is forcing shooters inside the field and giving them all of the goal to shoot at.

Closer to the goal frame, we see a drastic decrease in the scoring rate when there is pressure from the left and this is likely due to the proximity of the defenders to the attacker this close to the goal easily influencing the shot outcome by being more likely to block the shot or simply put the attacker under psychological pressure. On the right side, the pressure from the left is forcing shooters away from the goal and taking away part of the goal frame so we would expect scoring rates to decrease, however we see no such trend.

Pressure right


When we look at pressure from the opposite side now, we see an increase in the scoring rate on the right side of the pitch, but essentially no change on the left side of the pitch when the pressure is forcing the shooter outside. A possible explanation for this is the plethora of right footed players shooting through pressure on the left side of the pitch despite the pressure coming from the right, which could be confounding the effect of pressure in these regions.

Pressure Front


Pressure in front of the shooter shines again, just like in part 1 of this series. Note the change in color scale. In almost every tile, the scoring rate decreases when there is pressure from a defender forcing a shooter backwards. It is also important to note that the effect diminishes as the shooter gets further away from goal.

This could be due to the extra space behind the defender allowing for more uncertainty in scoring. But, it could also be due to how we are defining shot pressure as a radius growing with the distance from the goal. If the latter is correct, then we will have to revisit our shot pressure definition. That would also have implications for defensive technique when it comes to blocking shots further out from goal, and the optimal levels of aggression for closing players down..

Pressure From Behind


In a completely converse effect from pressure from the front of a shooter, pressure from behind a shooter hardly ever reduces the scoring rate. Almost everywhere on the pitch, the scoring rate increases when the pressure is coming from behing the shooter. There's a reason that defenders harassing players from behind is a method of last resort, it's because it generally has little impact on the shot the attacker ends up taking.

Pressure forcing the shooter outside


When we looked at pressure from the left and right above, we alluded to defenders forcing shooters outside and away from goal. We tried to tackle that idea by looking at when a defender forces a shooter outside by defining pressure pushing outside as more pressure from the right when the shooter is on the left side of the pitch and more pressure on the right when the shooter is on the left side of the pitch.

This is essentially the left half of the pressure from the right being greater than the pressure from the left plot, and the right half of the pressure from the left being greater than the pressure from the left plot. It is largely unknown, whether or not pressing a shooter towards the touch line effects the probability of scoring. It's worth noting that defensive positioning aimed at forcing players wide may not be an adequate defensive system, and specifically on the right side, where it forces many players onto their stronger foot, could be detrimental. We look forward to investigating this further, especially to figure out the big differences between the right and left sides.

Take Aways.

We made these figures to illustrate some of the raw numbers we saw in part 1 and present them in a manner that is easier to digest. Most conclusively, we have reaffirmed the importance of pressing a shooter backwards, away from goal and identified some key distinctions on each side of the pitch. Shot pressure can be defined in a number of ways and we are by no means claiming we have cracked the code, but there is indisputable football insight to take away from these analyses.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

France's Didier Deschamps Found Success Through Boredom

Would it really be an international break if there wasn’t some speculation that Zinedine Zidane would soon be managing Paul Pogba? The spectre of managerial change — especially a sexier name, which would be almost anyone; most especially Zizou — has followed Didier Deschamps for most of his time managing France. Yet here were are in the sixth year of his tenure. For once, Zidane is being linked to Paul Pogba’s club instead of his national team. When France takes to the pitch against Iceland on Thursday, Deschamps’ job will never have been more secure. The reason for this, in a sense, is exquisitely simple: The World Cup. Lifting the Jules Rimet Trophy buys a manager time and goodwill. It does not necessarily result in his being better understood or appreciated. The memory of Raymond Domenech, a charlatan of the highest order who nominally managed France to a World Cup final, is fresh and works against Deschamps in this regard. One win against Croatia should not meaningfully change your assessment of a manager. Six years into Deschamps’ tenure, however, it is fair to examine his approach to management. Les Bleus have appeared in three major tournaments under Deschamps: they narrowly lost to eventual winners Germany in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals; they made the final of Euro 2016, where they lost to Portugal in extra time; and they won the 2018 World Cup. That’s a good run. Measures of team strength suggested France was roughly the fourth-best team at those last two tournaments. Making a tournament’s final is at the upper end of the distribution of possible outcomes — even for one of the better teams. That France lost one of those finals on a weird goal against a Ronald-less Portugal both proves that point and has served to obscure France’s achievement in making it that far. France making the World Cup final would likewise have been a good performance even if Croatia had prevailed. Insofar as a manager can be credited with such results, Deschamps’ France has consistently performed at or above its level. Deschamps’ tactics make some sense when approached through the prism of the possible outcomes in tournament play. A lot of things can go wrong, and Deschamps’ has consistently sought to minimize France’s downside risk. This might have been understood as a reflection of his squad’s weaknesses in 2014, when France was a team in transition. But serious influxes of talent in both 2016 and 2018 did not turn him into an attacking coach. He fielded attacking sides in the opening matches of both tournaments only to revert to simpler team shapes in subsequent matches. In 2016 and 2018, he repositioned Antoine Griezmann centrally and placed a central midfielder on one of the wings. In 2018, he added Olivier Giroud to give a team that had started with the smaller trio of Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembelé a clearer focal point. This, one can reasonably argue, is who Didier Deschamps is as a manager. Conservatism can take on a variety of forms, but usually it manifests as a clear defensive measure: passing teams to death or taking a bevy of defensive actions in a deep block or pressing aggressively higher up the pitch. In 2018, France didn’t really do any of those things. In fact, France didn’t really do all that much of anything. Of the 32 teams at the World Cup, France was 17th in passes per game. In terms of defensive actions, Benjamin Pavard was notably active on the right flank, but France was pretty quiet across most of the pitch, especially in central areas. Les Bleus allowed more opponent passes per defensive action than the average team at the World Cup while pressing less. France nevertheless conceded the second fewest shots of any of the teams in the knockout rounds and those shots tended to be of low value. All told, France was second to Uruguay in expected goals conceded per match. So what exactly was France doing? An educated guess is that Didier Deschamps relied on a mix of player positioning and talent. France sat back but didn’t have to frantically defend because it had bodies in between their opponents and Hugo Lloris’ goal. Opponents could out-pass Les Bleus without being constantly pressured, but couldn’t translate any of that into shots, especially valuable ones. When things broke down, France relied on individual talent to clean up any messes (much of this is an elaborate way of saying France had cherubic genius N’Golo Kanté at the base of midfield.) Even if you like defensive football, France made for boring viewing, but it’s hard to argue with the results. France’s attack, while not a juggernaut, capably complemented this defensive base. Deschamps’ men didn’t take many shots, but those they did attempt were of a higher value than the average team. Les Bleus amassed 11 non-penalty goals against 8 expected goals despite striker Olivier Giroud’s persistent futility. Kylian Mbappé is an elite finisher who might consistently outperform expected goals. Other players just had good tournaments. Defenders Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane each finished with a goal on about 0.15-0.2 expected goals while Benjamin Pavard lobbed in a golazo. The latest edition of France was both notably efficient and benefited from a certain amount of finishing luck. That mix of efficiency and luck also extends to the sequencing of goals in France’s matches. Deschamps’ strategy was assisted by France barely trailing at the World Cup. Their only deficit came against a chaotic Argentina side. The bulk of France’s expected goals advantage over its opponents came in the opening 45 minutes of matches. France was therefore able to stick to its plan and never get overextended. Insofar as France’s tactics prioritized avoiding opponent goals above all else, this was somewhat by design. But the extent to which game states favoured France leads one to suspect that Deschamps’ team also got a little bit lucky. Still, Deschamps’ basic risk-benefit calculations have repeatedly proven correct. That leaves us with the basic aesthetic criticism of his work: A team with France’s talent, some argue, shouldn’t be so scrappy. Some versions of this critique are imprecise, failing to differentiate Deschamps’ conservatism from that of a Sam Allardyce-like figure. Whereas the latter type drags bad teams over the line, Deschamps’ France has actually relied on individual skill, albeit in an un-sexy way. The likes of Pogba, Kanté and Griezmann can do so many things well that one can plausibly build a team around asking them to use 70% of their skills. Kanté contributes next to no creativity for France. Pogba is tasked with a lot of ball progression while taking relatively few shots. The one-on-one talents of Umtiti and Varane solve all manner of problems. France, with the possible exception of Mbappé, may not be exuberant, but it’s built on star power. Most of those stars will hit their peaks between Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup. The last two tournaments were arguably transitional or at the beginning of France’s real competitive window. In part because Deschamps recognized that a team’s best chances may come before it truly peaks, the likes of Kylian Mbappé won’t have the “will he win a World Cup?” question hanging over them for the next decade. This, in theory, could free France to take some more risks. A more dynamic France team would have more moving parts (this, I swear, is not an Olivier Giroud joke) and downside risk, but the entire core developing together might mitigate some of those risks. But who are we really kidding? France, with the possible exception of exciting feints in friendlies or easy qualifiers, will play like this so long as Didier Deschamps is managing. That’s who he is, it’s the form he’s always come back to since taking over from Domenech. When it comes to international football, Deschamps is not bad, not necessarily fun, and most crucially not wrong.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Huesca Star Cucho Hernandez Poised for Colombia Debut

On the back of a promising start to the season with Huesca, Juan Camilo Hernandez received his first call-up to the Colombia national team for their friendlies against the United States and Costa Rica this international break. At 19, the on-loan Watford forward would become one of the 15 youngest debutants in Colombia’s history if he were to appear. Hernandez is used to achieving things early. He made his debut for Deportivo Pereira at 15; as a 16-17 year old, he was the top scorer in the Colombian second division with 21 goals; early last year, at 17, he scored twice as the second youngest player in Colombia’s squad at the South American Under-20 Championship; and last season, he led Huesca’s successful push for promotion to the Primera Division in Spain with 16 goals and six assists. This, though, is the first time we’ve had the detailed underlying statistics to support the credentials of the forward nicknamed ‘Cucho’. It is still early into the season and so the sample size isn’t great, but even as part of a Huesca team who have struggled to adjust to the step up to the top flight, Hernandez is posting some impressive numbers. To provide an idea of how good they are, last season in La Liga, only seven players managed to combine over three shots per match with an expected goals per shot of more than 0.10. Four of them played for Barcelona or Real Madrid. This season, nobody younger than Hernandez in Europe’s big five leagues is achieving that. That has not yet translated into more than a single goal (away at Barcelona), but as he himself said last week: when another comes, others will surely follow. There are perhaps a few too many hopeful potshots there, but given the limitations of his team (Huesca are bottom of the table and only a couple of teams are generating less shots per match, a fact which contributed to manager Leo Franco getting his walking papers this week), and that he is largely working those positions himself, it’s understandable. Along with the ball-carrying and passing ability of midfielder Gonzalo Melero, on whom Villarreal have already agreed a first-option deal, and the all-round dribbling, passing and shooting contribution of Alex Galler, scorer of three of Huesca’s seven goals to date, Hernandez is one of the three pillars of Huesca’s attacking output. The 19-year-old provides more than just shot volume. His nimbleness on the turn and powerful burst of acceleration are useful attributes in terms of progressing his team upfield. While he has a tendency to get lost in central areas, when he drifts wide and is able to find more propitious physical matchups, he has the necessary strength to receive with his back to goal and lay the ball off or spin away from his marker and move forward. Hernandez is a very active player on both sides of the ball. With it, he is an effervescent presence, sometimes imprecise but always looking to make things happen. Without it, he covers good ground; his defensive contributions (18.84 pressures, 2.07 pressure regains per 90 minutes) to date have been solid on a team who are relatively passive out of possession. He is still very young and there are undoubtedly a number of rough edges to his game, but Hernandez looks to have all the building blocks to eventually become a highly productive attacker. Statistically, he profiles more like regular-shooting wide forwards such as Lyon’s Bertrand Traore and Everton’s Richarlison than as an outright central striker, and unless he makes a leap forward physically over the next couple of years, that is likely to be his position. Somewhere in the region of 10 goals, which his xG total to date suggests could be possible if he remains fit, in his first season in the top flight would represent a good return and further suggest that he has a bright future ahead of him. By the eye and by the limited numbers we have to date, Hernandez looks a real thoroughbred. The next two or three years will provide a clearer picture of just how good a player Watford and Colombia have on their hands.

Possession Football Remains Alive and Well for Spain and Germany

‘Tiki-taka’ died for the umpteenth time in Russia this summer. What with Spain and Germany’s possession game going home earlier than usual from the World Cup, there could be nothing else to conclude. Both these nations had been found out.

Rio Ferdinand said: "Spain have been so successful with that style of possession football but there comes a time when you have to get the ball into the strikers. You have to change it up a bit. Spain got what they deserved.”

Gareth Southgate said: "It has been unusual to see them (Germany) struggle as much as they have but the level of all of the teams is strong and they have played teams who have been tactically very good against them.”

Since then, in the UEFA Nations League, Spain have beaten Southgate’s England and whooped World Cup finalists Croatia 6-0. Germany have drawn with World Champions, France, and beaten Peru.

What. A. Crisis.

The problem is that most of football - the professionals in it, and the fans watching it, still really struggle to look beyond the score line to back up their takes.

In terms of shots, expected goals and creating chances, Germany battered everyone they played in the World Cup:

Germany dominated the ball too, completing three times as many open play passes as its opponents. It wasn’t all sideways and backwards either.

Germany proportionately played more balls vertically into the opposition box from the middle of the final third than any other team. No other side crossed the ball into the box more than Germany either. Maybe as Gareth said, the level of all teams is strong now and all the teams Die Mannschaft played were tactically very good against them. The only numbers that back that up are the score lines. They’re the only numbers that matter! scream the real football guys. As usual, here at Statsbomb, we beat the drum that the underlying numbers count for more in the long term and give a better reading of performance now and in future. The score lines since back that up.

Spain didn’t actually lose a game in normal time during the World Cup. This is how the game Spain went out to versus Russia looked on the shot map:

That big red square there on Russia’s map was a penalty. After Artem Dzyuba scored that spot kick on 40 minutes, Spain proceeded to have 24 shots to Russia’s 3. They also passed them to death for the entire game.

Spain only allowed seven shots on target during its four game tournament but David De Gea conceded goals on six of them. Two were penalties, one was a peach of a free kick from Ronaldo and one he fumbled in from outside of the box.

This was not a team in crisis (despite the loss of its manager on the eve of the tournament), it was a team whose path crossed with misfortune.

Maybe it’s like Rio said. Spain had to change it up and get that ball into the strikers more. The only numbers that back that up are the score lines. They’re the only numbers that matter! scream the real football guys. As usual, here at Statsbomb we beat the drum that the underlying numbers count for more in the long term and give a better handle of performance now, and are a better predictor of it for the future.

We repeat that message. A lot.

Spain only did enough to get one or two goals versus Croatia last month according to expected goals. However, Luis Enrique’s men still totally controlled the ball with 70% possession. Keep dominating games as Spain do, and the cliff you occasionally fall off will, at the bottom of it, have a dinghy in the water to handily catch you before you get wet. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the opponent’s goalkeeper.

A quick search of Google throws up all manner of newspaper articles looking at the secret of Croatia’s success both during and after the country’s run to the final. Much of it surrounded the wealth of character the people possess after what the nation’s been through over the years. I’m #justsaying the underlying numbers had them as a side dominating possession and shot counts.

Presumably, a 6-0 drubbing precipitates calls for a change of style and play from our English soccer (yes, soccer) pundits. A quick Google search throws up nothing. It wasn’t a World Cup game after all, and it’s only Croatia. They’ve never won anything anyway so we’re not desperate to find a chink in their Balkan armor.

Back in the Premier League, our pundits currently wax lyrical about the teams at the top of the table: Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool – the teams that, funnily enough, dominate the ball and most importantly, the shot count. But the pundits will never frame it that way.

Remember Gary Neville questioning Guardiola (who’s won loads) and City last season? “Every single team that’s won the league, barring none, has had power and strength at the heart of them - that spine. I just wonder whether they can play that way. That’s the fascinating thing over the next 12 months. Can you play that way, with those players and win this league? That will be the real test.”

Forget all the other nonsense, and get on board. City absolutely smashed everyone for shots and in the expected goals table last season. It’s the actual real test and measures the strength, heart and spine of any good side.

Tartan Transplants: English Based Players Can Help Scotland Qualify For First Time In Over 20 Years

Ten members picked for this month's Scotland squad for a UEFA Nations League match against Israel and friendly against Portugal play their club football in England. A look at how they've played so far this season will help explain how they can help Scotland build on last month's 2-0 victory against Albania and ease the pathway towards qualifying for the nation's first international tournament in over twenty years. Scotland last played in a European Championships in 1996, when the competition was hosted by England, and it has been a similar length of time since they participated in a World Cup. The 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign resulted in a third placed finish behind England and Slovakia with Scotland conceding half of their goals from headers. Then manager Gordon Strachan, somewhat comically, bemoaned the nation's genetic failings in terms of height. The real issues were an inability to limit balls into the box to begin with, immobile midfielders failing to track runs, poor ball retention particularly out of defence and most significantly a lack of chance creation on Scotland's part. In fact, if we exclude dead last Malta, Scotland only scored ten goals in eight matches and they really struggled to break teams down. Almost half of their goals came in the last quarter of the 90 minutes. Can this group of tartan transplants improve on that?

Andy Robertson

Andy Robertson was named as Scotland captain last month and is a certain starter on the left. Manager Alex McLeish is likely to continue with a system of three central defenders and wing backs on the flanks. Whether this is the ideal system for Robertson, or in fact Scotland, is debatable but it does mean Kieran Tierney can also be included with the young Celtic star moved infield from his club position of left back to a left sided center back role. A moment of silence for Barry Douglas who, despite his tally of fourteen assists in the English Championship last season, was jettisoned by Wolves upon their promotion to the Premier League and also can't get a look in at international level due to Scotland's best two players both being left backs. If it's any comfort for Douglas his replacement at Wolves, Jonny, is keeping Jordi Alba out of the Spain squad so he's in pretty good company. Robertson has the fourth most caps in the squad and, highlighting the team's difficulties in front of goal, is also the fourth highest scorer among the players with just two goals. (Editor's Note--All stats current as of October 5th) Despite a tough loss away to Napoli last week and a hard fought draw at Anfield against top of the table rivals, Manchester City over the weekend, City have made an incredibly good start to the season. Undefeated in the Premier League, joint top with the joint fewest goals conceded. The underlying defensive numbers are great too with Liverpool allowing the second fewest shots and the second lowest expected goals against per match. Liverpool are among the best in the league at limiting the amount of 'clear shots' from open play where only their goalkeeper is between the shooter and the goal. Robertson is a key part of the process which leads to this; he makes almost four interceptions and tackles every game which ranks behind only James Milner for the club and he is behind only Milner and Naby Keita for the amount of blocks he makes per shot faced. While having Virgil van Dijk operating as the left sided center back is clearly a major factor, Robertson's scurrying, relentless nature certainly seems to help limit the amount of quality attempts on goal Liverpool face from his side of the pitch. In addition to his defensive duties, Robertson will be expected to be an outlet in possession and a creator of chances for Scotland. In more than half of Liverpool's matches this season Robertson has been at least their third most involved player, in terms of touches of the ball, and he makes 1.75 open play key passes every 90 minutes and assists 0.26 xG from open play every 90 minutes which is second only to facilitator-in-chief Roberto Firmino within the team. He's currently one of the best all-around fullbacks in world football and he has a huge role to play for Scotland.

John McGinn

After three successful seasons at Hibernian, John McGinn seems to have transplanted his all action style well to the English Championship at Aston Villa. Despite a disappointing start to the season for the club which has led to heads rolling; both of cabbages on to the pitch and managerial ones on the block, McGinn is still weaponizing his behind as a means to shield the ball and shake off opponents. He's harassing opposition all over the field, forcing mistakes and winning the ball back. Given their slow start to the season Celtic might just be regretting the slow negotiations with Hibs that led to McGinn, who turns 24 during this international break, heading to the West Midlands despite his family connection to the club. His grandfather Jack McGinn was chairman of the Glasgow side. Despite being culpable for the opening goal in last month's friendly loss to Belgium, McGinn is a likely starter for Scotland in the match against Israel and hopefully he can carry his club form onto the international stage in his twelfth cap. He is among the league leaders in terms of helping his team win the ball, with over four pressure regains per 90 minutes and leads Villa in terms of interceptions and tackles combined with 3.57 every 90 minutes. McGinn must be wary of being drawn out of position as he hunts down the ball, particularly if Scotland pair him in midfield with a less defensively minded partner like Stuart Armstrong. He should also perhaps ease up on the hopeful efforts fro distance. His recent wonder strike, an incredible volley that swerved and crashed in via the bar, for Villa against Sheffield Wednesday was not his first attempt from long range. McGinn has taken 19 shots for his club with an average xG per shot of 0.05 so his return of one goal, that wonder strike, is almost right in line with expectation and he could be accused of being a bit wasteful which Scotland, given their attacking difficulties, cannot afford to be.

Ryan Fraser

Bournemouth have made a strong start to the season, defying expectations to sit seventh in the league after seven matches. They've changed their approach and now move the ball quicker from back to front, take among the most high press shots, attempts resulting from possession won within five seconds of a defensive action in the opponent's half, in the division, and generate high xG shots. Ryan Fraser, a 2013 signing for £400,000 from Aberdeen, is a key part of this system. After having some dietary struggles, Eddie Howe initially weaned the youngster off pizza and ice cream before his form took a dip in 2017 which was attributed in part to struggling for energy on a no carbohydrate plan, the diminutive Scot appears to have found his fighting weight. He is making 2.5 pressure regains every 90 minutes for the Cherries and makes the most open play Key Passes in the team which is leading to an excellent 0.24 xG assisted per 90 minutes. Against Belgium he played as a right wing back and, while he is versatile and has helped to contribute to Bournemouth's decline in xG conceded since the tail end of last season, Stephen O'Donnell seems likely to start in that position and Fraser may be better used higher up the pitch by Scotland as the left sided attacker in a 3-4-2-1 ahead and slightly inside of Robertson. In a more advanced role he can use the skills he has developed at Bournemouth to help win the ball back quickly and create high quality chances for Scotland.  

Oli McBurnie

Leigh Griffiths and Steven Naismith are set to duke it out for the starting center forward position but, waiting in the wings, is Oli McBurnie. Given Naismith's age and Griffiths' tendency to pick up injuries it seems likely that the twenty-two year old will get the opportunity to add to his three Scotland caps soon. Despite McBurnie's height, accentuated by his short socked leggy style, Scotland should not really expect him to operate as a target man or penalty box goalscorer - they might need to wait for Everton's Fraser Hornby to graduate from the under 21s for that. A Swansea player since the summer of 2015, McBurnie made a bit of a breakthrough on loan to Barnsley in the English Championship during the second half of the 2017/18 season. While at Barnsley, he tended to operate as the left sided forward in a 4-3-3 and he still does most of his defensive work in that area of the pitch, leading the Swans in aggressive actions per 90 minutes. The immediate red flag on those radars is of course the low number of shots he is taking. Despite sitting tenth in a twenty-four team league Swansea take the fewest shots in the division and McBurnie is taking less than 1.5 every 90 minutes. Given that his output at Barnsley was so similar, except for an interchange between dribbles and headers probably affected by position played, it seems likely this is a reliable indicator of what to expect from McBurnie throughout his career and unless he moves the needle significantly on his shot volume Scotland should view him more as a link up man, capable presser and facilitator of others. All valuable qualities, of course, but basic stats like the number of goals he has scored in minutes played may set false expectations for Scotland fans.

The Rest

Robert Snodgrass is back in the squad after missing the September fixtures. While he did score seven goals and contribute fourteen assists on loan at Aston Villa in the English Championship in 2017/18 he has not started a match since the first day of September for West Ham. New signing Andriy Yarmolenko seems certain to keep Snodgrass from enjoying regular minutes as the right sided attacker and the Scot may not even be the deputy given competition from the likes of Michail Antonio. In Snodgrass' favor is the fact that he makes the second most presses of opponents per 90 minutes for the Hammers but at just 0.87 open play Key Passes per 90 minutes he is not contributing enough offensively. With seven international goals he is the second top scorer in Scotland's squad and indeed six of those were in competitive matches but a major caveat is that three of those were against Malta. There's a hole in Scotland's defensive midfield due to the international retirement of Scott Brown. McGinn can, to an extent, pick up the slack in terms of ball winning but in terms of replacing the physical presence and high level footballing nous at the 6 position, the options are limited. Kevin McDonald of Fulham and Scott McTominay of Manchester United appear to be the options under consideration. While McTominay has the greater physical presence he has played limited minutes this season and in fact there could be concerns over his development and mental state given Jose Mourinho has chosen, in the apparent death throes of his third season at Manchester United, to deploy him at center back and shower him with confusing praise in high contrast to how he has tended to speak about his other players. McDonald has played the seventh most league minutes of any Fulham player so far this season but it hasn't really gone well. Fulham are in 17th position, are allowing the opposition the second most shots per match and have the worst xG difference in the league. Perhaps not the start envisaged for them given the summer transfer market moves they made and it could be that McDonald is one of the remaining old guard who will be phased out in the very near future. Judging by how he played for Marseille last season Andre Zambo Anguissa can do all McDonald does and then some (although against Arsenal this weekend it was Anguissa who struggled mightily as Fulham conceded a miserable five times). Conversely, over at Southampton, Stuart Armstrong is a new signing who can't get in the team ahead of Mario Lemina and Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. The lusciously haired Scot isn't really suited to playing in a double pivot so may continue to find club minutes hard to come by but does offer the ball progression and creativity from midfield that Scotland, and indeed former club Celtic, currently lack. Clearly there are some concerns over the playing time the latter quartet are getting. There could be some valid regrets over the fact that Tom Cairney appears disinclined to accept future call ups and that Matt Phillips, despite recording the second most open play Key Passes every 90 minutes for a West Bromwich Albion side sitting atop the English Championship has been overlooked in favor of Sporting Kansas City's Johnny Russell, overall this is a fine Scotland squad. <any of the selections from the English leagues are developing at a very high level. Robertson and McGinn are key players, Fraser deserves a greater opportunity to show what he can do for Scotland and McBurnie adds excellent depth upfront. Together they can help Scotland win their UEFA Nations League group and take a step closer to qualifying for an international tournament for the first time in over two decades.      

Arsenal Aren't This Good. Nor Are Dortmund. Here's Why

Once in a while, we here at StatsBomb have to be the unfortunate bearers of bad news. We prefer to deliver good news like, "check out this great young player" or um... James Milner. Or "wow, this team/player has been crazy dominant and waiting to explode." But sometimes we have to step in and combat narratives espoused by really smart people, especially during the early season. I've got my battle gear on right now, so here we go. Arsenal Are Not This Good Look, I'm an Arsenal fan. Have been for ages. And contrary to Twitter opinion, I actually enjoy seeing them win. But... it's our duty in statsland to be honest about where we think they stand now and in the future. "The Gunners have won a million games in a row across Europe and the Premier League, and the Unai Emery project is going swimmingly!" Not so fast, my friend. The above is a chart of expected goal (xG) difference vs actual goal difference from 2012-13 until now. We're using Opta data here to give a big fat chunk of history across all the Top 5 leagues for analysis purposes. The teams in blue are current season teams and the teams in red are historic ones. Now note the blue teams way above the line like Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal, Sampdoria, Hertha, Alaves, and to a lesser extent PSG. Those teams are outperforming Expected Goals at a level that has never been done in the data. Ergo they will almost certainly revert to the mean. Arsenal's expected goal difference thus far in the 18-19 Premier League season is right around zero. Their actual goal difference through eight matches is +9. That's a gap of over a goal per game, which is massive. Arsenal won't continue to win this many matches unless their underlying performances somehow dramatically change for the better. Now xG isn't perfect. In fact, the limitations of traditional xG are one reason why we we built StatsBomb Data. Recent teams that have had major overprformances in xGD include Monaco 16-17, Juventus 17-18, and almost all iterations of Sean Dyche and Favre teams. However, at this point across many thousands of team seasons in the data set, we have some strong ideas of what levels of overperformance are and are NOT possible. Scoring on 25% of your shots like Arsenal are doing currently just does not happen across a full season of matches. The table lies. Especially in the early season. Football has a lot of randomness and a lot of variance, and eight games isn't remotely enough sample for all the "luck" to shake out. Skeptical people can certainly ask why should they care, and it comes back to the fact that xG is a much better predictor of future performance than almost any other early season indicator like points, shot difference, goal difference, etc. One thing that is very obvious is that Arsenal's performance right now is unsustainable. I don't want to beat a dead horse about this, and Goodman covered the bigger issues well in his piece last week, but if you are an Arsenal fan, I strongly suggest you savour the thrashing of Fulham this past weekend. Partly because there were some amazing goals and winning always feels good, but largely because there's almost no chance they will sustain anywhere near this level of results for the rest of the season. And if they do, boy am I sure I will hear about it from fellow gooners. But What About Borussia Dortmund and Lucien Favre? Here's where things get weird. Lucien Favre has a long history of high performance in the table with his teams spoofing how good xG models expect them to be. He's done this consistently enough at Gladbach, then Nice, and now Dortmund that I believe his style of play basically exists in all the holes of naive xG models. However... while Dortmund's underlying numbers are comparatively better than Arsenal's, even a Favre team will regress from these current numbers in the future (especially on the attacking side). One point hugely in favour of Dortmund's title challenge though is how Bayern have plummeted on early season numbers. When Ancelotti was let go, Bayern's numbers looked massively dominant. Now? Merely very good. It's possible the German giants are, dare we say it, almost human? They may finally be vulnerable to a challenge from both Leipzig and Dortmund this season unlike at almost any point since the last Klopp title. Would I bet on it? Eh... But at least it's possible, and to be honest, any time Bayern aren't 10 points ahead of the pack during a season feels like at least a minor victory for the Bundesliga and its fans. Conclusion I'm totally not trying to be a buzzkill to fans in either red or yellow this international week, but the noise on Twitter was such this weekend that I felt I needed to step in with a small dose of realism. xG is far from perfect, but when it comes to evaluating sustainable performance in football, it's still better than pretty much everything else humans have concocted thus far. --Ted Knutson @mixedknuts