Atletico Madrid Aren't Dead Yet (But They're Not Getting Any Younger)

On Thursday, Diego Simeone inked a new deal with Atletico Madrid, one that will see him stick around in Madrid until 2022. The deal was announced shortly after Spanish media had begun writing their obituaries about Simeone’s team -- claiming it was the end of an era, and that we’re no longer witnessing the greatness of Atletico, the team that was so tactically sound just a couple of years ago.

But that Atletico are deemed as a team that’s suffering a painful death, all at a time where they lie third-place in La Liga and are going into a Champions League knockout tie against Juventus, only illustrates the bar they’ve set for themselves -- a bar which was non-existent before Simeone’s arrival.

In the 1999 - 2000 season, Atletico Madrid beat Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. They didn’t beat their cross-town rivals again for another 13 seasons -- a staggering streak that finally ended when Simeone came along. They followed that up by going undefeated against Real in La Liga for three years, outscoring them 11 - 4 in the process. During Simeone’s reign, Atletico became league champions, never finished below third, and made two Champions League final appearances. That’s the bar.

Somewhere along the way, Atletico stopped exceeding old expectations and started falling short of new ones. This is a team built on their defensive identity and a “we’ll outwork you and win every 50/50” mindset. They’ve consistently scraped narrow wins through tenacity and defensive organization; and despite creating very little offensively, have had efficiency in front of goal. As expectations rose, as Antoine Griezmann gained stardom, and as the club began spending, Simeone felt pressure to make the team look better offensively. They’ve yet to improve.

For years, Atletico’s defensive scheme was almost impenetrable. No team showed more patience without the ball than them. They closed the half-spaces and coaxed teams into switching the field to an open player, only to snuff out space as soon as the ball got there. Against Barcelona in the 2016 Champions League quarter-finals, they churned out one of the greatest defensive performances from a side this decade.

They are not that far removed from that side defensively. This season, they’ve conceded the fewest goals in La Liga until now, and have the second lowest xGA of anyone in the country. But they’ve failed big tests. They were blown away by a rampant Borussia Dortmund side 4 - 0 earlier this season, where their wing-backs were exposed and unable to deny overloads, and Griezmann -- Atletico’s only consistent attacking threat -- was denied space by Favre’s suffocating press.

Nearly four months later, Atletico conceded three at home to Real Madrid in a game where they pressed aggressively and unnerved Santiago Solari’s men early; but had their right flank torn apart by Vinicius Jr before capitulating defensively in the second half -- falling apart vertically and spreading themselves thin defending counters.

Atletico are still fine as an elite defensive side. They coast through the majority of La Liga games unscathed at the back. It remains all the more impressive when you realize how much time their defensive stalwarts have missed through injury this season. Juanfran, Lucas Hernandez, and Diego Godin have all missed nine games; Gimenez has missed 12; Felipe Luis has missed 10; Stefan Savic has missed 14. That Atletico have maintained such good defensive numbers despite their health issues is remarkable.

Those defensive numbers bode well for Atletico -- they haven’t yet let their identity slip. They now have their defenders healthy, and the first half against Real Madrid was encouraging enough to think they can maintain their defensive control against a dangerous side like Juventus in the Champions League..

Atletico’s struggles will come mostly on the offensive end, where they just don’t create nearly enough as they should as an elite side. Simeone has tried possession-based schemes in the past two seasons and it hasn’t looked convincing. He’s tried to decrease the offensive load of Griezmann by surrounding him with technical midfielders, fast wingers, and traditional finishers -- but none of the offensive pieces around him have been on the Frenchman’s level. Atletico’s xG is currently lower than all but five La Liga sides.

Griezmann has been really good, but he’s alone. Even with an Alpha-Grizzy pulling the strings offensively, the team labors to spring efficient counterattacks after their defensive line comes away with an intervention. The attack is slow. The team just doesn’t have a high enough block to get numbers in transition quickly, meaning Griezmann, or one of the other attacks in question, has to slow the tempo and wait for others to catch up. The scouting report is out -- most teams have a good enough transition defence to stifle Simeone’s slow counters.

New signings Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins were supposed to help bridge that gap -- but Lemar has been underwhelming, and Martins has already been sent out on loan. Angel Correa has brilliant moments, and is quick and dangerous, but he’s not been consistent. Thomas Partey has a stinging long-distance shot and has chipped in sporadically, but he’s ghosted during big games. Diego Costa is not the same Diego Costa as before, and Alvaro Morata is, well, it’s unclear if even the supreme motivator Simeone can light a fire under him and unearth his form from two seasons ago. Morata is low on confidence, extremely self-critical, and has made a habit of missing sitters.

That leaves Saul, who’s been dangerous arriving at the top of the box to meet a cut-back. But he’s scored just two goals this season, and no Atletico player other than Griezmann has scored more than two goals total this campaign. The Frenchman leads the team in goals, assists, and key passes, and it’s not close.

Griezmann needs help, but getting him a wingman is easier said than done given the tough market. Atletico’s budget has increased over the years, but it’s been hard for them to attract stars to play alongside their main man, which has led them to overpay for players like Lemar (Lemar’s signing in a vacuum made sense. He can get the ball up the field quickly, play as a two-way winger, and put in accurate crosses to Diego Costa and Morata. He had one flash of brilliance against Real Madrid, but not enough, and certainly not enough over the course of the season). That Griezmann resigned with the team this summer was a huge victory for them in itself.

None of their offensive problems will  get any easier against Juventus in a fascinating Champions League encounter. Juventus are not a high-pressing team, nor do they care to counter-press much (although, head coach Massimiliano Allegri will implement a press sporadically throughout certain games, he just doesn’t use it as the focus of his defensive scheme). They will put emphasis on slowing Atletico’s already sluggish counters. They’ll put bodies behind the ball. Leonardo Bonucci has had his moments switching off when defending crosses, but both he and Giorgio Chiellini have been brilliant. It will be tough for Simeone’s men to crack Juve, and if they do, they’ll have to be air-tight defensively while coming away with a narrow victory with a goal from… somewhere.

Juve may look to man-mark Rodri Hernandez -- a tactic they’ve used in the past to unnerve the opposing team’s defensive midfielder while thwarting the offensive funnel. There are a lot of different tools Allegri can use to make it tough for Atleti to transition into a fluid offense.

Atletico have also had trouble defending pacy full-backs who bulldoze the flank. As Juve hunt for overloads with Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro, they’ll look to get the ball into two behemoths in Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo. That’s tough to defend, but not impossible, given Simeone’s resources and tactical acumen. Atletico can pack the flanks, as they’re good at doing. They may also look to press and hound Miralen Pjanic to make those cross-field switches less possible -- daring Bonucci or Chiellini to act as a ball-carrier from the backline instead. That’s fascinating about this entire tie is that neither of these teams are prone to exposing themselves defensively.

Whether they get past Juventus or not, Atletico have a ton of questions that need answering. This may not be a dead team yet, but they are an aging one. The heartbeat of the club, Diego Simeone, has signed a new deal. His tactics may have grown stale and unimaginative, but letting him guide the ship he did so well to navigate in the first place was the right move.

But what of the ageing core? Gabi already moved on. This is likely Diego Godin’s last year with the club. Felipe Luis is one of this generation’s most underrated full-backs, but both he and Juanfran are the wrong side of 30. Diego Costa has regressed. All of those important pieces need replacing, and doing so is going to be difficult.

Now it’s on the board and Simeone to get the transfer market right. They already won big by resigning Griezmann, purchasing Rodri from Villarreal, and striking gold with Lucas Hernandez who’s been a revelation for them. Saul will be at the Wanda long-term, and Koke is still young. But other pieces need filling. Simeone has a big job to ensure those obituaries don’t resurface.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The Best of the Rest All-Stats All-Stars

The rules are simple. The players have to play for a team outside the top six. They have to have played at least 1000 minutes. They have to lead the league (among players outside the top six) in some statistical category that we track (or be behind only another player on this team). And, finally, the team has to be, in some sense or another, realistic. No Garth Crooks nonsense here. Let’s see, if using those stringent criteria, we can come up with some sort of cohesive team that wouldn’t be an embarrassment to field week in and week out.   Keeper – Lukasz Fabiankski This one’s easy. He’s the best shot stopper outside the top six in the Premier League. He’s also the second most aggressive keeper in the Premier League when it comes to collecting balls in his area, coming for the ball 1.5% more than an average keeper might. In other words, he good.   Forward – Ashley Barnes Wait what? Burnley’s Ashley Barnes? Yep. Dude has 0.43 xG per 90 this season. I don’t make the rules. I mean, I did make the rules, like less than 200 words ago, but nevertheless! Ashley Barnes. Wingers – Felipe Anderson, Ryan Fraser Ryan Fraser is just an absolute assist machine. His 0.26 expected goals assisted is tops outside the top six and eight overall. He doesn’t do a lot of different stuff, but the thing he does do, is get into lethally good crossing and cutback positions to feed the striker. It’s a skill that is hard to find outside the top six teams. It’s cheating a little bit to put Anderson on the right and Fraser on the left when Anderson has played on the left all season, but I’m doing it anyway. Anderson plays more open play passes into the penalty area than anybody with 2.36 (including the top six only David Silva, Xherdan Shaqiri, Eden Hazard and Kieran Trippier play more). Also Anderson is going to do a little bit (or a lot) of basically everything else on the pitch to make this team good. On a team that’s built to be scrappy (and, like, we’re starting Ashley Barnes up top here, scrappy it is) Anderson’s defensive contributions will be essential. He averages over three combined tackles and interceptions per game.   Midfield – Idrissa Gueye, Pascal Groß, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg This three man midfield can do it all. Gueye is the defensive linchpin and his presence mopping up behind his two midfield partners will free them to do a lot of the more aggressive things they’re quietly very good at. He leads the entire Premier League with 4.06 possession adjusted tackles. Nobody else is even close. Ander Herrera at Manchester United is second with 3.66. Next to him are two players who are both very effective at applying defensive pressure in midfield and at moving the ball forward. Groß is the more active presser. He’s second in the league with 33.86 pressures per 90. A great number, but one which technically doesn’t qualify him for this team. We get to smuggle him onto the team for his crossing though (which Ashley Barnes will surely be thankful for). He completes 1.77 crosses per 90, the second most in the Premier League (only Kieran Trippier is ahead of him) and he completes them at a 54% clip which is truly impressive. Groß and Juan Mata at Manchester United are the only players completing over 0.75 crosses per 90 who maintain a completion rate of over 50%. But while the crossing is definitely a nice bonus, it’s the pressing that we’re really here for. The missing part of the puzzle is how does this team move the ball up the field. Right now it seems like Felipe Anderson is going to be all by himself picking the ball up from defense and trying to wriggle his way up the wing. But, not to fear, that’s where Højbjerg comes in. The vast majority of players who rack up a lot of deep progressions play for the top six teams.  Højbjerg is the exception. He leads the non-six group and, along with Huddersfield’s Aaron Mooy is one of only two players outside the big six in the top 20 in the league at progressing the ball up the field from deep. His 8.27 deep progressions per 90, with a healthy assist from Groß who averages 6.42 should provide the team enough creativity on the ball to keep things ticking.   Center backs – Michael Keane, Steve Cook Things break down really quickly when trying to do fun but ultimately pointless data experiments with defenders. So here, have Michael Keane and Steve Cook the top two players outside the top six in the league in possession adjusted clearances. They have 5.99 and 5.92 clearances apiece. Does that make them good? Probably not. Does that qualify them for this silly little team? You bet.   Fullbacks – Lucas Digne, Florent Hadergjonaj As with center backs, fullbacks are simply impossible to actually evaluate statistically. So who knows if this will work at all. Lucas Digne has seemed mostly fine with Everton this season and he’s a big part of their attacking approach. He’s right behind Groß in completed crosses per 90 with 1.55 completed crosses per 90, so…yay? And speaking of crossing! A whole 73% of Florent Hadergjonaj’s passes in the final third are crosses, that’s the highest in the league, so please welcome your new right back.   Put it all together and what we’ve got is a starting 11 which emphasizes denying the opposition control of the midfield, moving the ball upfield quickly and then crossing smartly. Also, there are a couple of defenders. It’s all so crazy it just might work.

The Great Burnley Keeper Switch

Sean Dyche is at it again. After an absolutely miserable start to the season, Burnley have now gone seven games without a loss. After spending the first half of the year looking like relegation candidates they now sit in 15th place, tied with Brighton and Hove Albion three points above the drop. Burnley’s improvement is real. It’s supported by a dramatic change in their underlying expected goals numbers. The vaunted Burnley defense had simply utterly collapsed over the first half of the year. The most plausible story of Burnley’s success (at least the most plausible won’t that wasn’t based on them being a cosmic joke instigated by the soccer gods on evil number wizards everywhere) was that Dyche’s teams did something in defense that tricked expected goals models. Somehow they turned modest defensive success into nearly unparalleled defensive solidity. Of course none of that really matters if instead of putting together defensive numbers indicative of modest success, the team is out there dumpster fire-ing every week. And that’s more or less what going on for the first half of this season. But then, something happened. Burnley changed keepers. Seven games ago Tom Heaton stepped back between the posts, and Burnley changed. The relationship between a keeper and his defense is difficult to untangle. There are things like shotstopping which are almost entirely within a keeper’s purview which we can measure, but other things get more complicated. The kinds of shots the opposition is taking for example are often a complicated mix of decisions made by attackers, defenders and defenses. So, it’s important to be cautious about making bold claims about causality. But, what’s absolutely clear is that Burnley’s defense when they play in front of Heaton looks totally different than when they play in front of Hart. Let’s start with the easiest stuff though. Heaton has been much better at stopping the shots he’s faced this season than Hart was. In 19 games this season, Hart gave up roughly four more goals than expected. Not great. The difference between his save percentage of 66.7% and his expected save percentage of 70.1% is negative 3.4%. Of the 24 keepers who have played more than 600 minutes this year only five have a larger negative difference. Heaton, on the other hand, has been fantastic. He’s already saved 3.32 more goals than an average keeper would. His save percentage of 83.3% is not only the highest in the league, it’s 11.1% higher than his expected save percentage. That gap is also the highest in the league. He’s been absolutely phenomenal. So, one thing that’s going on is that Heaton is just saving a lot more goals than Hart was and that makes a big difference. But, there’s more. Because Burnley’s defense is absolutely also playing better. With Hart in goal, Burnley gave up a whopping 19.58 shots per game and an xG per shot of 0.10. With Heaton those numbers have both improved. The side is currently conceding 13.57 shots per game at 0.08 xG per shot. They’ve both improved in terms of the volume and the quality they’re giving up. Some of that probably has something to do with the level of competition Burnley are facing. Their recent hot streak has come against West Ham, Huddersfield, Fulham, Watford, Manchester United, Southampton, and Brighton. There’s only one potent attacking team in that mix. But, even against that backdrop the defensive improvement is stark, and it’s worth investigating how the two keepers might be influencing it. No Burnley keeper is ever going to come across as aggressive. The conservative style the team plays means that a keeper’s job is to mostly stay at home on his line while defenders deal with things in front of him. Accordingly, Heaton has only attempted to claim 12 balls in the seven matches he’s played, when the StatsBomb model expects average keeper to come for just over 21. However, that conservatism is only evident in balls that are relatively unlikely for any keeper to claim. He’s claimed only five balls that the model suggests have a 20% chance or less of a keeper collecting, while an average keeper might collect 14. On the mode dangerous balls, the ones that keepers collect 30% of the time or more, Heaton is much closer to expectations. He’s attempted seven claims on 16 balls, right in line with what the model predicts. He’s succeeded on six of those seven attempts. Hart is similarly conservative overall, attempting to claim 21 balls when the model expects he’d have gone for 33, but the distribution of his conservatism is different. In his 19 games he’s faced 20 total balls that the model expects a keeper to claim at least 30% of the time. He’s come for five of them (and was successful four out of five times), when the model predicts a keeper would come on average 9.5% of the time. Over the course of the season Hart has shown to be unable to prevent teams from putting high value crosses right on his doorstep. Now, let’s zoom out to the team level again, equipped with the knowledge that Hart has a tendency not to come for balls played into areas where many keepers attempt to collect them. Here are all the shots Burnley gave up within 12 yards of the goal with Hart as keeper. That works out to 5.84 shots per match at a 0.19 xG per shot. Now, let’s look at Heaton. That works out to 4.42 shots per match and an xG per shot of 0.15. That’s a pretty huge difference, like half an expected goal per match difference. Even if we allow that the difference is probably fairly exaggerated by the level of competition it seems quite clear that when Heaton came back into the side it all of a sudden became harder for Burnley’s opponents to generate shots closer to goal. All this keeper data is new, and because of that it’s always worth remembering that using it is a bit of a high wire act. It’s possible that all this Heaton performance is just dumb luck and he’s come plummeting back to earth. It’s possible that we should look at Hart’s failure to come for crosses as not necessarily indicative of his abilities. It’s possible that Burnley will go back to conceding shots close to goal against tomorrow. None of this is proof. What it is is circumstantial evidence. And boy is there a lot of it. Burnley’s performances suddenly turned around when they removed Hart from goal and replaced him with Heaton. Their defense suddenly stopped conceding as many chances close to their keeper. Their keepers have dramatically different records both when it comes to stopping shots and when it comes to claiming balls in their area. Put it all together and it makes a powerful case that the reason Burnley’s season has turned around is that Joe Hart is bad and Tom Heaton is good. Keepers, it turns out, might just be important.

Nikita Parris is Critical to Manchester City Women's Super League Title Challenge

The fight for the Women’s Super League title looks like it will decided on the last game of the season when Manchester City travel to Arsenal in May. Manchester City have clawed their way to top spot (having played two games more than the Gunners!) which seemed unlikely as Arsenal had demolished every opponent in sight up until early December.  The two sides also come face to face at the end of the month in the League Cup final at Bramall Lane which should be a spicy encounter. One of the main reasons why City might pip Arsenal to top spot is the form of Nikita Parris. While most media attention has been focused on the goal scoring prowess of Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema (rightly so as she has smashed many records this season), one should not neglect the contribution that Nikita Parris has made to last season’s runners up. Parris is Manchester City’s top scorer in the league with 14 goals (11 from open play and 3 from the penalty spot) with her xG numbers from open play being quite similar.  Only Miedema at Arsenal has scored more goals than her in the league with 16. When looking at her shot map, it’s clear that she shoots consistently in high value areas. She takes high quality shots, with a lot of attempts inside of the 6-yard box (with both head and feet). She's only taken two shots from outside of the penalty area. That is almost the opposite of City’s second top scorer, Georgia Stanway.  Her expected goals numbers are half of her actual goal numbers, due to many shots from outside of the penalty area and non-central positions inside of the 18 yard-box. Stanway's goals might be flashier, but it's Parris's that are more likely to continue. From looking at Parris’ radar below, what is impressive is that beyond offensive output, she has excellent defensive numbers, constantly pressuring the ball and winning it back. It’s easy to see why Nick Cushing has played her more centrally this season. With Manchester City looking to put opponents under pressure as high up the pitch as possible, Parris’ pace, work rate and pressing qualities are vital in order to box in opponents and start attacks close to the opponent’s penalty area. Parris's ability to lead a press has been key to Manchester City's counterpressing attacking style this season with her defensive contributions keying quick attacks. Parris haunts opponents just outside their own penalty area. And the rest of the City squad follows suit. By unsettling opponents high up the pitch, City is able to create chances quickly and effectively. Parris is part of that process too. In addition to her scoring and defending contributions, she is second in the team in expected goals assisted from open play. Parris is a top contributor for City in every phase of play. Her disruptive pressing wins the ball back, her passing helps others take advantage of those opportunities and her goal scoring his second to none. The combination of her stellar overall play with Weir's creative contributions and Stanway's sharp shooting is a potent mix that opposing defenses simply have not been able to stop. But, beyond just City, Parris's contributions bode well for the England's chances this summer at the World Cup. Her versatility in attack suggests that Phil Neville could depend on her to fill any number of roles if necessary. She could either facilitate the rest of England's talented attacking score, or do the bulk of the shooting and scoring herself depending on what is required. A player who is an elite attacking force, an elite defender from the front, and a stellar creator is the kind of luxury any manager dreams of being able to deploy. Parris is in an exciting battle with Miedema for the golden boot, one in which, like the title itself, could be decided on in a winner takes all heavyweight clash in May at Meadow Park. With the Continental Cup final between the two sides later on this month, Manchester City’s chances of silverware depend a lot on Parris maintaining her impressive form with and without the ball. If she can do that, and then replicate that form all summer, Parris will literally have the world at her feet.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Fiorentina's Federico Chiesa and the Art of Shot Selection

There’s been a general trend in football over the past few years towards greater efficiency with shot locations at the expense of overall shot volume. Compared to the late 2000s and even the early 2010s, teams are considerably more judicious about what constitutes a good shot and not settling for a heavy amount of low quality shots during possession play. This is especially true when looking at football at the highest level, where the migration of talent has become so pronounced that teams can structure their attack to constantly hunt for good shots and minimize the effects of variance. This isn’t to say that European football has become totally monotonous (a criticism that’s been recently levied at other sports like the NBA and NFL), but there's more awareness around not wasting possessions by settling for sub-optimal shots.

That’s what makes Federico Chiesa an interesting test case for where football is heading. It’s undeniable that he’s incredibly talented, even though his scoring contribution rate of 0.30 is on the lower end of highly rated young attackers. Whether using traditional shot metrics (shots and key passes) or using expected goal contribution, Chiesa has been producing at a high enough level that it’s no surprise that bigger clubs will heavily consider acquiring his signature during the summer, especially given his age.

Chiesa’s xG per shot is where things get interesting, and the reason why he’s an intriguing data point. The league average for xG per shot among wingers and attacking midfielders is at 10% in Serie A, so Chiesa’s rate of 7% is meaningfully below the league average. One could argue that this is merely a reflection for the environment he’s in, but that doesn’t really pass the smell test as Fiorentina are middle of the pack in both xG per shot and average shot distance in Serie A. Given his low shot quality and the volume of his shooting, this paints the picture of Chiesa as something of a wild shot taker.

If Fiorentina, a notable Serie A club but certainly not a major European force, decide to cash in, a player with Chiesa's upside would command serious money both as a transfer fee and then a long term contract. Before doing that, clubs should worry about his scalability and how Chiesa would function as a smaller cog at a larger club. This was something flagged when discussing Nicolas Pepe earlier in the season. It’s not impossible to think that Chiesa could become an all-encompassing force at a larger club if he develops on a certain path, but the odds of that happening are probably on the lower end. Assuming he ends up as more of a supporting artist who takes closer to three shots per 90 mins, would his shot locations bump up in a meaningful manner or would he still have his xG per shot still hover around 7.5–8%?

This isn’t to say that taking shots from outside the box as a whole is necessarily a bad thing. Players who have shown the ability to score from distance (Coutinho, Christian Eriksen, Gareth Bale during his peak years) should be given a bit more leeway to take longer range shots. I’m sympathetic to the notion that within reason, taking shots from distance can help with the diversity of a team’s attacking approach. There are also times where it’s clear that the possession isn’t going anywhere and taking a 3–4% shot is the best outcome at play. But Chiesa settles for long range shots too often for someone that isn’t an outlier as a long distance shooter. He’ll load up for shots outside the box when they’re 1–2 other teammates who present themselves as options for potentially higher quality shots.

In general, Chiesa’s decision making could be described as somewhat erratic. That’s not necessarily an awful thing. Young attackers in the 18–21 year old age bracket aren’t fully formed players, so it’s expected that there’s some irrationality in the way they operate as they’re gaining more game experience under their belt. Chiesa’s insistence on taking long shots and doing it at such a high volume is where it gets to the point that he’s starting to leave stuff off the table for the team. It’s clear that if anything hinders Chiesa from being a top tier talent in the future, it would be in the decision making department.

The upside with Chiesa is obvious: he’s a quality athlete who’s able to cover ground with effortless strides. There’s extra value to be had as an attacking player who could bring the ball from deeper areas and help progress the team during counter attacks, and Chiesa is able to do that. Once he kicks it up to a higher gear with his speed, it’s very hard to catch him and the opposition is left with having to use dark arts mischief to slow the play down. It will be interesting to see just how much this aspect of Chiesa’s skillset would transition if he played on a major club, but he’s a legit threat as a counter attacking outlet.

In addition to his athleticism, Chiesa has been able to create chances during semi-transition opportunities when there’s been a turnover. His decision-making during these instances has probably been better than when he’s playing against a more set defense. He can switch play with both feet if he senses that there’s an open teammate on the opposite side, or attempt to thread the needle in between defenders to varying degrees of success. That he displays more nuance and overall awareness during chaotic situations is encouraging, although he is still prone to jacking up shots at inopportune times during transition.

Against opposition that are more set, Chiesa can still show explosion off the dribble. On the left, he’s almost effortless in gliding into the middle of the pitch when he's insistent on shooting from distance. On the right side he has enough athleticism that he can push the ball to a certain spot and get it before the opponent does, something that a player like Oussama Idrissi in the Eredivisie has had issues with himself. Because of that athleticism, he’s able to function as a right winger on his dominant right foot and be threatening as a playmaker once he gets into the penalty box, trying to find teammates for cutback opportunities.

Chiesa’s positioning and off-ball movements are unorthodox in some ways. While nominally listed as a right winger, he’ll often take up position in numerous other areas of the pitch, whether it be as an inverted winger on the left side or occupying central areas. It’s not uncommon to see Chiesa in between the center-backs trying to punish space behind the backline. It’s this diversity of positioning and movement that helps trigger his abilities as a threat during counter attacks, particularly if his starting position is from the halfspace or middle. Whether he'll be given the same freedom at a bigger club to be all over the place on the pitch is a legitimate question, but there's enough to think that he should be able to function in multiple roles whether as a more traditional right sided player or something different.

Given what's already been described, just how good of a young talent is Federico Chiesa? If you took out the concerns with his shot volume + locations, it's not hard to find things to like with his game. He's a very fluid athlete both on and off ball, he's shown a level of competence with his playmaking when the defense is unsettled, and his positioning is diverse enough that he could perform in a number of roles. But the shooting concerns are legit, especially because he's not an amazing playmaker but rather a solid one so he's not making up the value lost with his shooting (He's not a player like Hakim Ziyech, the preeminent example of someone who has sub-optimal shooting tendencies but makes up for it with elite playmaking). Unless Chiesa becomes a dominant winger at a bigger club (not impossible), he's going to have to scale down his shot volume and exhibit better discipline with his locations, and it's fair to wonder whether that'll actually happen. There's an interesting comparison that could be made on some level between Federico Chiesa and Malcom during his breakout season last year. They both played on teams that during good seasons would normally challenge for Europa League spots in their respective leagues, and each were very good, maybe even great, athletes in their own right. What helped Malcom generate buzz last season was his ability to act as an outlet during counter attacks and drive play forward, all the while possessing enough coordination and awareness to hit teammates when they were making runs into the penalty box. That is something that Chiesa has been able to do at similar levels. The obvious difference between the two players is that Chiesa's shot volume vastly outstrips Malcom's along with a greater propensity to be in the box. Malcom serves as a bit of a cautionary tale for Chiesa. While Malcom was good enough that bigger clubs around Europe were wise to think hard about acquiring him last summer, there was nothing to suggest that he was ready make the leap to a superclub like Barcelona and get consistent game time, and now it looks like he's going to lose an entire year of development as a result. Young talents in general need ample minutes for their development, and that especially applies to prominent youngsters like Malcom or Ruben Loftus-Cheek as another example. Chiesa would be best off finding a CL level side that he could feel reasonably confident in getting at least 1500 league minutes in a season. There have been reports that Chiesa's future transfer fee will be upwards of £60m, which would be a rather staggering amount for a young player that's a net positive contributor but not necessarily one that's shown to be an unambiguous star talent. Paying close to that fee as a club would be betting that there's a fully realized version waiting to come to the surface, that his shot selection will get better over time. Everton's acquisition of Richarlison last summer was an example of a club spending a premium on a young talent that they judged to be a future star, and to this point that transfer looks to be more of a mixed bag than an undeniable success. While Chiesa is perhaps better than Richarlison, spending £60m or more on him would come with similar downside risk. The outline of a star player is there with Federico Chiesa, whether that turns into something more substantive is anyone's guess.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Jadon Sancho's Youth Coach Explains the Star's Greatest Strengths

When Louis Lancaster first set eyes on Jadon Sancho, he knew he had been given a special talent to work with. Sancho had just been promoted a year above his age group into Lancaster’s Watford Under-15 side, and it quickly became clear that he was more than ready for the challenge. The focus shifted on to how to make the most of his obvious ability. “There are a lot of players who play the game of football but don’t actually contribute,” Lancaster, recently named the new head coach of the Taiwan national team, told StatsBomb. “We sat down and thought: how can you contribute? It’s easy with a player of his qualities: it’s goals, assists, and playing forwards. There are two types of possession. There is possession for possession’s sake, which I get, sometimes you need it, but there is also a style of possession that can hurt the opposition, where you’re breaking lines and eliminating players from the game. That was what we stuck to: score, create, purposeful possession.” It was a lesson that Sancho quite clearly took on board. At just 18 years old, he is already one of the key attacking contributors to the Borussia Dortmund side that currently leads the way in the Bundesliga. He has provided a goal or assist for every 90 minutes he’s been on the pitch, and he leads the team in successful dribbles and passes into the area per 90. It is an impressively well-rounded contribution, but it is all built around his outstanding ball control and dribbling ability. Lancaster has a theory he picked up from a table tennis coach about the best performers in that sport. He was told that the top 200 in the world is filled with players who are seven out of 10 across the board, but that it is only those who have at least one outstanding attribute, even if they are slightly below average in other areas, who populate the top 10. The rest of their game coalesces around that quality. It feels that way with Sancho. With 4.17 successful dribbles per 90, he ranks in the top 10 among players in the big-five leagues with more than 500 minutes of action to their name this season. Defenders find it very hard to prevent him making progress. “Players can either move the ball, which is what most do, or move their body,” Lancaster explained. “With him, it was completely unorthodox. I’ve never seen a player do that. The way he can drop his shoulder, the disguise he has. When someone else drops a shoulder, you can kind of read it, the patterns of the body. As a defender you say, ‘I’ve come up against this pattern before.’ But with Jadon, it’s completely unique. It would have been the first time a defender had ever seen this sort of movement. He lifts his leg one way, he moves his hip another way, he drops his shoulder another way. He’s just free-flowing.” Bundesliga defenders have regularly found the most the effective method of stopping him is to bring him down. While his 1.68 drawn fouls per 90 minutes is fairly average for a player in his position, some opponents have been much more aggressive. He was fouled four times in his 65 minutes on the pitch against Eintracht Frankfurt last weekend. “He keeps it close,” Lancaster continued. “For instance, in some one-on-one situations, if you actually just take a picture of the situation, how do you actually know who is defending? Because the distance from my foot and your foot to the ball could be the same. Whereas his foot is so close to the ball, is he actually making a decision for himself in his head when he goes past you or is he waiting for you to make his decision for him? His foot is so close to the ball, if you come for it, he’s now gone because he can move the ball instantaneously.” That Sancho keeps the ball close and well-protected also helps in a manner not fully captured by the data. As a child, playing in the enclosed areas of his South East London estate, against opponents older and younger, he refined the ability to make himself just enough space to get off his shot, pass or cross. That is still how he plays. One of his former England youth coaches once described him as the country’s answer to Neymar, but there is something in his shuffling strides, in the poise and pause in his game, in its innate efficiency, that is more reminiscent of Luis Figo. His ability to take players on isn’t something Sancho only utilizes in attacking areas. It is also a valuable tool for Dortmund in progressing the ball forward in transition. As this dribble map below shows, he quite often first picks up possession in deeper areas and helps move things upfield. That doesn’t even count the times when players back off him, giving him space to carry the ball uncontested.“Players on the ball have two options,” Lancaster said. “They have the soft option and the hard option. We always try and encourage players to get the ball and face the player up. So, you might receive it so you are facing the defender immediately, which is great, you can go one-on-one. Or if your back is towards the defender, sometimes people just take the soft option and pass it back. Jadon wasn’t happy with that. It was turn and go at this player...  If he did turn, and he did attack, that was helping us defensively. He’s now progressed the ball 20 yards up the pitch. If he loses it 20 yards up the pitch, we’re 20 yards further from our goal. So it was all complementary in transitional phases.” There is a recurring pattern in Dortmund’s transitions involving Sancho where he receives the ball, takes on and beats his initial marker and then seeks to initiate a one-two with a teammate to advance forward and infield. Sancho is comfortable moving into central areas in part because Lancaster, aware that he had an elite talent on his hands, regularly deployed him there. “If he’s in the center, he’s more involved,” he explained. “Not just in terms of touching the ball, but his brain is more involved. Even if he’s not getting the ball to his feet, he’s making decisions: does he shuffle in there, does he move over here, when does he move in there, how does he move in, what could he do better in this situation. He’s got more players around him. That was the idea, to constantly keep him overloaded with decisions.” Now that opponents are becoming cognizant of Sancho’s ability, the fear factor is beginning to play to Dortmund’s advantage. As teams have begun to adjust, to close Sancho down but not necessarily commit to a challenge, so Dortmund have started to utilize the channel inside of him, drawing his marker wide to the touchline and pushing a runner into the resultant space. All of this isn’t to say that Sancho is already the finished article. He is, after all, still just 18. “He knows that he still has a lot to improve,” as Dortmund coach Lucien Favre said earlier this season. But he has leveraged his outstanding attributes to become a regular contributor to a team challenging for the Bundesliga title and still hoping to make further progress in the Champions League, where they meet Tottenham Hotspur in the round-of-16. To Lancaster, it is clear that the opportunity to play regular first-team football at Dortmund has been of great benefit to Sancho. “When I watch him now, the way he defends, the way he gets into shape, he’s very disciplined,” he said. “I think watching him at Dortmund, week-in, week-out on the television, he’s unpredictable now. He’ll get the ball and just pop it, one touch. He’ll get the ball, have two touches and then pass it. When he was younger, it was attack, attack, attack, and now when you watch him, he’s calmer, he knows how to restore his energy, to rebuild it, which comes with maturity.” And he doesn’t think his former charge will be overawed by the occasion in the first leg against Spurs at Wembley this Wednesday. “I honestly believe that it doesn’t matter if he’s walking out onto South London recreational pitches with his mates or he’s walking out at Wembley, it’s the same environment for him,” Lancaster explained. “He just wants to play and have fun.”   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Can Gonzalo Higuaín Make Sarriball Tick?

We’re about two thirds of the way through Maurizio Sarri’s first season as Chelsea manager and it’s fair to say there are some grumblings about how well his football is being implemented. Chelsea haven’t exactly been terrible. Their expected goal difference per game of 0.60 is a touch up from last season’s 0.56. The results broadly match this,  goals, both scored and conceded are within the normal range of what we’d expect considering the side’s chances. The 50 points they’ve picked up so far this season is identical to their total after 25 games last year. If Antonio Conte were managing Chelsea this season and picked up the same results, with around the same standard of performances, the narrative around Stamford Bridge would be that, in the words of our dearly beloved Prime Minister, nothing has changed. Of course, this is all happening under not just a new manager, but one billed as a coach who can specifically build a new philosophy, moving away from Chelsea’s “defensive” reputation (a reputation that was often reductive if not wholly inaccurate) to a possession-heavy brand of entertaining football. This looked like it was happening in the early months of the season, but the club now find themselves in, if not a crisis, then at least a slump. As seen in the xG trendline, the attack has been declining since November while the defence hasn’t managed to pick up any extra slack. All of this, though, is well within the normal peaks and troughs we saw last season. The issue everyone has pointed towards is difficulties in the system, with the view becoming that the players Chelsea currently have are not suited to the rigid style of play Sarri is insisting upon. This does have some merit. With the exception of Jorginho, an alumnus of Sarri’s Napoli side, it’s not obvious that another outfielder in his preferred starting eleven is filling exactly the role they would want to play. What this seems to lead to is all of the build up play in the first two thirds of the pitch going through Jorginho, who is not especially difficult to press out of the game. Once the ball gets into the final third, we don’t often see clear patterns of play so much as Chelsea’s traditional fall back of giving the ball to Eden Hazard in the hope that he does something brilliant and unpredictable. Since he’s Eden Hazard, he often pulls this off, but it’s not exactly the vision of sarrismo that Chelsea fans imagined when the manager was hired. While Sarri has picked a largely settled team, upfront is where he’s been the most indecisive. The player he used most often in the role at the start of the season is Álvaro Morata. Across a season and a half at Chelsea he earned himself a reputation for missing chances, which does feel unfair. Over his full Chelsea career, he barely underperformed expected goals, scoring a well within normal range 11 from an expected total of 12.9. Hitting 0.54 xG per 90 over his whole spell at Chelsea, Morata was totally fine at scoring goals. His pressing was also fine for what Sarri needs, with his 14.89 pressures per 90 not amazing but better than strikers such as Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku. Where there is a case for frustration, though, is in his link-up play. The Spaniard assisted just 0.21 expected goals at Chelsea this season, 0.02 per 90, a figure poorer than César Azpilicueta, David Luiz and N’Golo Kanté. He failed to complete a single open play pass into the box. This passmap in the defeat away to Wolves speaks to an all too frequent problem where Morata just wasn’t connecting with his teammates. Olivier Giroud has had very different issues. The Frenchman has always combined aerial threat with very tidy link-up play, being the ideal sort of striker for a wide player who looks to cut inside and dominate the game such as Hazard. This has been noted by Hazard himself, who stated that “when [Giroud] gets the ball he can hold the ball and we can go in deep with him, so for us it’s a pleasure to play with him”. He’s also a surprisingly good presser, with his 19.69 pressures per 90 better than any striker at a top six club not named Roberto Firmino (who doesn’t even play striker a lot of the time). Where his game doesn’t quite have an impact is goals. He’s probably a little unfortunate to only get the one in the league this season with an xG of 2.62, though that in some way speaks to the strange variability of the finishing for target men like Giroud. Even if he were scoring as the model expects, 0.32 xG per 90 isn’t great, so it’s reasonable to have some concerns. Chelsea were in a situation where neither striking options could tick both boxes of goalscoring and all round play, particularly linking with Hazard. The experiment of playing the Belgian as a striker himself rather than on the left was worthwhile, but seemed to very much irritate the club’s most talented player who seems to be agitating for a move. With the club’s recruitment process seeming very opaque since Michael Emenalo left the club, it was understandable that Sarri suggested bringing his former Napoli star Gonzalo Higuaín to the club. Sarri supposedly wanted this deal to be permanent, but a loan is what Chelsea ended up with, including the option to extend it into next season. This certainly lowers the downside, but can he be the goldilocks striker Sarri craves? A thing that is extremely obvious to anyone who thinks about it for two seconds but nonetheless often seemingly missed in transfer deals is that footballers age. Higuaín was incredible for Sarri’s Napoli in 2015/16, scoring a record breaking 36 goals, 33 of which were not penalties. That’s something else. The following year, after a move to an admittedly more conservative but still very dominant Juventus, he managed a respectable 24 non-penalty goals. Then last year, that figure fell to 15, or 0.48 per 90 minutes. In the first half of this season, he made a fairly notable step down from Juventus to Milan, so we should cut him at least some slack for a downturn in performance. But this, well, isn’t great:   When you look at his shot map, something becomes notable visually: he’s not getting into “poacher” positions right in front of goal so frequently. Whether that’s about Milan not creating the chances, Higuaín not being told to get there, or simply a 31 year old not quite having the same burst to get ahead of defenders anymore is an open question. Let’s be charitable for a second. Let’s say that Higuaín’s numbers declined at Juventus not due to what he was doing but because Massimiliano Allegri’s side are built to defend first and rely on the attack only when they really need it. And let’s say that his issues at Milan were about the Rossoneri being such a mess more than anything else. Thus Higuaín should be fine at 31 now that he’s playing attacking football under a manager who knows exactly how to use him. It’s a stretch, but one you have to believe completely to say this signing will work out. But ignore questions of his age for the time being. Will Higuaín fit in at Chelsea? We know he understands Sarri, but the question becomes about whether he understands Hazard. Player chemistry is a strange thing. Certainly, it’s possible to predict that things might work tactically, and Higuaín should be able to offer a bit more in terms of passing than Morata while holding a position and letting Hazard drift wherever he wants. But sometimes players just hit it off and sometimes they don’t. No one would have predicted that Diego Costa and Cesc Fàbregas would spark like they did. On the other hand, you can get Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll, the specialist crosser and specialist target man who never at Liverpool combined to score a goal. The very early evidence so far is interesting. The first league game to feature Higuaín was a terrible 4-0 loss to Bournemouth. As one would expect from the scoreline, Chelsea were generally very poor in this match, so it’s hard to blame the new guy too much. But he also just wasn’t involved. He had the fewest touches of the ball of any outfield player in a blue shirt, with 71. He didn’t manage to produce a single shot. When looking at the passmap of the game, Higuaín and Hazard are averaging touches in almost exactly the same place, except Hazard is much more involved, while the Argentine striker is a shade of turquoise. And then the exact opposite happened. Chelsea were superb against admittedly weak opposition in Huddersfield. Higuaín managed to not just score two goals, but also offer a much greater general threat. He had 132 touches of the ball, nearly twice as many as against Bournemouth (though he did play the full 90 minutes, rather than being substituted after 64), with a healthy five shots. Hazard looked happy playing off him, but perhaps the most pleasing thing was Higuaín’s understanding with Jorginho. Since the midfielder’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, he’s been a high volume passer who has often looked like he’s doing exactly what he’s been instructed to do, without any real connection to what’s around him. Here, he played some excellent balls through to the striker, offering a link that just hasn’t been seen this season, and one that shows up quite clearly on the passmap. Is this the start of something? It’s very hard to say. Perhaps this team just needed one additional player who understands the system, even if he’s not quite as sharp as he once was. Maybe he really does still have it, and will thrive once more. Maybe Huddersfield were just very poor and sterner tests lie ahead. I remain something of a sceptic on whether Higuaín is the player he once was. But there is at least an idea of how this signing might actually fit into a coherent side. Chelsea’s recruitment has seemed totally at odds with various managers at times, so having someone who fits a clear profile is a step in the right direction. What it is, though, is a temporary solution to what Chelsea surely hope will be a permanent system. If Sarri is to succeed at Stamford Bridge, it cannot be in a way that is entirely reliant on an ageing loanee starting upfront. A striker owned by the club will eventually have to fill that role, and Higuaín is only keeping his seat warm.   Heaer image courtesy of the Press Association

Three Stories From Lovable, Entertaining, Messy Scottish Football

Scottish football is a lovable, entertaining mess. From profiling, in terms of passing, as stylistically comparable to the lower reaches of English football to Hibernian's head scratching statement that manager Neil Lennon had left the club but 'had not been dismissed and had not resigned'; from the flagship highlights show airing in the wee hours and featuring a pundit known for stating in an interview that he doesn't actually like watching football to the almost one hundred incomings and the almost one hundred outgoings shared among just twelve top flight teams in the January transfer window; from the four penalties given for one team in one match to the subsequent obsessive speculation about our footballing officials' tribal loyalties, Scotland has it all. Believe it or not, underneath the confusing, distracting loud noises and divisive narratives, it also has some football happening. Let's attempt to make sense of three big stories from the Scottish Premiership.

What Happened To The Edinburgh Title Challenge?

At the time of our week eight review of the Scottish Premiership Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian held the top two positions in the league. That article did point out this might not last and the Edinburgh clubs have since slipped down the table to fifth and eighth respectively. In that period Hearts struggled due to injury to several key players and Hibs seemed to stutter in front of goal with then manager Neil Lennon repeatedly questioning center forward Florian Kamberi's commitment. What actually changed for both clubs? Hearts had a spell from the start of November to Christmas Day during which they lost six of eight games and two of those defeats were by 5-0 scorelines. As noted this was a period when their squad was depleted. Injuries to center back pairing Christophe Berra and John Souttar robbed them of a complementary duo as both can deal with high balls and the former contributes aggressive clearances while the latter can seek out teammates with good long balls. Uche Ikpeazu finally returned to first team action this week and his high volume of shooting, dribbling and aerial wins has been missed. Steven Naismith was out for eight league matches and he was a loss for his goal threat and ability to set standards for others. Since the eight week marker Hearts are taking fewer shots and, although when they do shoot they're now doing it from slightly higher xG situations, they are generating less xG per match on average. Their underlying numbers have been heading in worrying directions at both ends of the pitch. During this period Hearts lost a great deal of intensity and aggression in midfield and also experienced a serious change in their performance from set pieces. After eight weeks of the season they had conceded the lowest xG from set pieces in the league but they have now conceded the fifth highest amount. In the fifteen weeks since that eight week marker they have only been able to double the number of shots from set pieces they had taken. And that more recent set of set piece shots are poorer quality too. Not a shock that a decline in a couple of the areas so key to the Jam Tarts' early success has led to a drop off in results. The drop off has been even more pronounced for rivals Hibs. They are now managerless and eleven points behind Hearts. The loss of the entirety of last season's midfield, especially John McGinn's unique blend of grit and glitter, has caught up with them. Add in the departure of ball playing center back Efe Ambrose, the loss of defensive starlet Ryan Porteous to serious injury, rumors of training ground bust-ups and it has been a tough few months. Hibs have been taking fairly mediocre shots from the outset of the season and some early luck in front of goal has dried up. Well, in front of goal is perhaps a little incorrect given the distance that Stevie Mallan attempts pot shots from. In fact, the average distance of a Hibs shot is the third furthest from goal in the league and they take the most shots from outside the box per match. In addition, fewer of their shots since that eight week marker are clear ones at goal or ones straight after winning the ball back in a high press. They're really quite poor at creating good opportunities to score; even their set pieces generate the eighth least xG in the twelve team division. Add in the fact that they are now conceding more shots and significantly more xG on average and it is clear that there is a real lack of sunshine on Leith. While Hearts appear to have turned a corner, are even showing signs of life at set pieces and could be considered to be entering a third act of their season Hibs have lost four of their last five matches and desperately need the renewed sense of direction and fresh tactical ideas a new managerial appointment might bring.

Survival Of The Least Terrible

A positive for Hibs is that at least they cannot get relegated. There are three teams so much worse than everyone else in the Scottish Premiership that their fate has been clear almost from the first kick off. Hamilton Academical, Dundee FC and St Mirren, currently separated by just six points, will finish in the bottom three spots. Dead last will be automatically relegated and the team in eleventh will face a play off with the second placed team in the SPFL Championship. So, who will claw their way to tenth place and survival? Hamilton have moved into tenth place after a draw and a win in new manager Brian Rice's first two matches. Previous boss Martin Canning had managed the team for four years and if last season's finish outside the relegation spots only on goal difference wasn't a sign that it might be time to move on then the underlying numbers so far this time around certainly were. The Accies take the fewest shots and generate the lowest xG per match in the league. They also concede the most shots, the most xG from set pieces and the second most overall xG per match. This is a team with real issues all over the pitch. One contributory factor could be the age profile of the squad as an alarmingly low number of minutes have been given to peak age outfield footballers. Hamilton might have had a small upturn in form under their new manager but there is certainly no guarantee their issues are fixed. Their stadium is sponsored by a local medicinal cannabis oil firm and fans might still need hand outs of their chronic pain relief products to get them through the remainder of the season. Jim McIntyre may have replaced Neil McCann as Dundee FC manager but they are yet to fully shake off their former boss's style of play. The eleventh placed team make almost twenty fewer aggressive actions than their relegation rivals each match. That lack of aggression until it is too late leads to, no surprise, conceding the second most shots, allowing the highest average xG per shot and giving up the most xG per game in the league. The Dee average 49% of the possession in their matches but having a reasonable share of the ball doesn't seem to help them where it matters. They take the third fewest shots and generate the third lowest xG per match. This team gives up really good chances and just don't have the talent to walk it into the goal at the other end. The January additions of goalkeeper Seny Dieng and striker Andrew Nelson could help change Dundee FC's fortunes but fans of the club must be looking at their city's new Victoria and Albert design museum's facade, built to represent Scotland's eastern cliff edges, and picturing their club's precipitous descent to the division below. Dundee may be the city of jute, jam and journalism but Paisley, home to St Mirren, is famous for another kind of print. Paisley Pattern print. The iconic, Kashmiri influenced clothing design features an abstract motif. Is it a fig leaf? An almond? No, come on, those are tear drops. This season St Mirren are on their second manager, their fourth goalkeeper and their fans must have lost track of the number of teeth gnashed, fists clenched, angry words said and, fittingly, tears shed. St Mirren are bottom on twelve points and have lost their last six matches. The club from Paisley take the second fewest shots and create the second least xG per match in the league. They lack creativity and any successful methods for progressing the ball up the pitch. As a result they shoot, on average, a whopping 19.06 meters away from goal. The Buddies concede the fourth most shots per match and the third most xG on average. While this is better than their relegation rivals there has been a lack of any sort of improvement in those underlying numbers throughout the season whereas Dundee FC and Hamilton have shown a capability to do better at times. Unless some of St Mirren's January transfer window additions can make a major difference, and keep in mind that they have already tried out forty different players this season, automatic relegation seems likely. More Paisley pattern shaped tears are yet to come. My feeling is that Dundee FC will rise to tenth and Hamilton will land in the play off spot.

Valencia A Pressing Concern For Celtic

Celtic have won five league matches in a row since their Old Firm derby defeat late last year, building up a six point lead over second placed Rangers in the process. That points difference is underpinned by an average xG difference per game which is significantly superior to that of any of their domestic challengers. The Hoops are taking an average of almost twenty shots in each match and their miserly defense is giving up an average of just 0.47 xG each time they play. It may be early February but Celtic are well on course to clinch their eighth Scottish Premiership title in a row. Europe has, naturally, been a different and tougher proposition for Celtic. Just look at the contrast between those defensive activity maps. In their Europa League group they were pressed smartly and aggressively by Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig, in a way they just don't experience in Scotland. Celtic managed an average of just ten shots per match and finished the group stage with a negative xG difference on average. However, they made it through - underlying stats be damned - thanks in part to a Rosenberg victory over RB Leipzig on the final match day. Next week the Glasgow club face Valencia CF in the first leg of the round of 32. Celtic are in the midst of a bit of an injury crisis with Filip Benkovic, Olivier Ntcham, Odsonne Edouard, Tom Rogic, James Forrest and Kieran Tierney sidelined. Manager Brendan Rodgers was optimistic after the midweek victory against Hibernian that a few of those players would be available for the Valencia match and, despite that lengthy queue at the treatment table, there is a groundswell of optimism around Celtic Park. Five wins with five clean sheets in a row will do that for you. There's also been the small matter of some exciting January transfer window incomings. Timothy Weah and Oliver Burke have added pace, directness, pressing and goals while the arrival of Jeremy Toljan on loan from Borrusia Dortmund adds, well, a right back that can do normal right back things: get forward at speed, stretch defenses to create chances and not add unduly to Scott Brown's defensive workload. He might not be the long term replacement for Mikael Lustig that Celtic desperately need but he could be a game changer for the remainder of this season. Celtic's fullbacks could be very important against Valencia given the Spanish side's normal approach is to deploy a 4-4-2 formation and apply pressure high up on both flanks. On the right Carlos Soler has added a great deal of industry to his game this season and is making almost six pressure regains every match. Further danger to Celtic could arise from center forward Rodrigo Moreno, a capable dribbler with good shot locations, and playmaker captain Dani Parejo who makes almost ten deep progressions each game. Santi Mina is another dangerman, particularly when he is inspired to play aggressively, but he does lose the ball fairly often and Celtic could pinpoint these turnovers as a starting point for counter attacks. Scotland's champions might also find that, although Valencia do not give away many clear shots at goal, they may be able to exploit space behind center back Ezequiel Garay if he is drawn forward and win high balls against the less aerially dominant Mouctar Diakhaby. Valencia have had a strange season in La Liga. They had only won four games by the start of January and even now are down in eight place. So far things haven't quite worked out in front of goal;  they have only scored fifteen times from open play whereas they've created an open play xG of 24. They have been accused of not seizing the initiative in games and manager Marcelino has faced criticism for not being able to evolve the team successfully from last season. However, they create the second highest average xG and concede the lowest average xG per match and have the second best average xG difference in the league! All those underlying stats underline the fact that Los Che are high quality opposition for Celtic to face. If Rodgers continues with the selection of Scott Bain instead of Craig Gordon in goal his superior ability with the ball at his feet should assist the Hoops backline in coping with Valencia's pressure. In addition, Kristoffer Ajer will need to move on quickly from the red card he received after being caught in possession against St Johnstone and be ready to evade the press with passes and dribbles out of defense. Add the electric, in form, Weah to the mix and this match, one of the few remaining ones likely to challenge Celtic this season, could be yet another historic European victory for the Hoops.

Real Madrid and the Quest for a Striker

Real Madrid need a player who is good at scoring goals. Sometimes analytics can lead you to counterintuitive answers. The process of working with numbers, marrying those numbers to game film, and then drawing conclusions from what you see can reveal previously hidden nuance. A player who seems to be good at one thing actually draws his value from something else. The root of the attacking struggles of a team might in fact be in their defense’s inability to turn the ball over. Discovering these little nuggets of information, is half the fun of doing the work. The rest of the time, however, analytics is useful for reinforcing what is blindingly obvious. The latter situation is the case with Real Madrid. The issue has once more become relevant as Eden Hazard makes news for maybe kind of sort of saying in an interview months ago that he has made up his mind about leaving Chelsea for Madrid come summer time. That doesn’t mean it will happen, of course. Hazard could change his mind, or Madrid, who have been mostly radio silent on the Hazard front, might actually not be interested in spending eye watering amounts of money on a 28 year-old winger. But, if the interest is real, it’s a giant mistake. Hazard is a marvelous player, he is also not what Madrid need. Madrid need a goal scoring forward, other skills optional. Hazard has all the other skills, and also sometimes scores goals. Last summer Madrid shipped out the best pure goal scorer in the world. They did not replace Cristiano Ronaldo’s attacking output. Shockingly the team’s shooting and scoring has decreased. It’s not just that Ronaldo was a great goal scorer, it’s that over the last five years Madrid built their team to rely on that goal scoring. It’s why Karim Benzema could thrive while never taking many shots. Last season the fact that Benzema was only taking 2.28 shots per 90 minutes was a feature of Madrid’s attack. As the world revolve around Ronaldo, Benzema could facilitate his strike partner while only taking the best shots available. He averaged 0.16 expected goals per shot and a healthy if not spectacular 0.37 xG per 90. This year it’s gone from feature to bug. His shots have only crept up to 2.78 per 90 minutes while his xG per shot has dipped to a still respectable 0.13. That leaves his xG per 90 virtually unchanged at 0.36. That’s a fine number if your playing next to Ronaldo, it’s not nearly enough from a 31 year-old striker leading the line in his absence. It isn’t like Madrid, a team that is presumably constrained by a lack of funds, would be lacking for strikers to buy should they remember this summer that in fact scoring goals is important and they should field players who are good at that. Let’s even presume that the two biggest ticket items, Harry Kane and Kylian Mbappe are unavailable. There’s still plenty left to choose from. If they want to pursue a glitzy big ticket item there’s Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi. Superficially Icardi’s profile looks a little bit like Benzema’s. He doesn’t shoot the ball all that much but when he does, they’re incredibly high-quality shots. This season his numbers look almost identical to the Madrid striker’s, he’s averaging 0.37 xG per 90 while taking 2.5 shots per match. It’s worth noting that that’s significantly worse than last season’s haul where he was at an extremely robust 0.58 xG per 90 while still only taking 2.55 shots. Icardi’s 2017-18 season was absolutely huge. The case for Icardi is that while Benzema is proving himself unable to provide quite enough thrust as the main option, Icardi’s whole career has been about him being the central scorer for his team. There’s a real chance Icardi’s production in the box would increase dramatically as he played for a Madrid side with superstars feeding him the ball on a regular basis as opposed to working in Inter’s heavily cross based system. The concern of course is that while Benzema’s scoring comes with really good creative work, Icardi’s does not. But, Real Madrid don’t need a center forward who can facilitate somebody else, they need one who can score goals. If Icardi’s shooting volume goes up as he gets a higher level of service, he could end up as a mainstay of Madrid’s attack for the next five years. But, let’s say that Madrid are wary of Icardi’s relatively low shot totals. They don’t want to pay a hefty price for a forward that might not give them more goal scoring than the one they’ve got. Sure Icardi looks likely to thrive in front of Madrid’s midfield but it’s not a sure thing. Well, there are plenty of other options. Timo Werner stars for RB Leipzig. He’s taken 3.57 shots per 90 and averages 0.52 xG per 90. He’s much closer to a traditional shot machine. Icardi has tendencies to lurk around and then pop up for a great shot. Werner just shoots a lot. It’s not the best shot map. He lets fly from odd angles and doesn’t necessarily camp out in the center of the box, although Leipzig play a style that is more about getting Werner the ball in space than creating opportunities to pop up in the box after sustained possession. But you can’t knock the production. But, maybe the difference in styles spooks Madrid. They’d want to be confident that his game could adjust to a situation where he was playing in front of a team with lots of possession, rather than one looking to break all the time, Sure he’s only 22 and puts up huge numbers, but Bayern Munich are also likely to want him. Who wants to get into a bidding war over a striker that may not even be a stylistic fit. Not to worry there are still plenty more options. If Madrid wanted to take an ambitious swing there’s always Luka Jovic. At 21 he’s even younger than Werner. At Eintracht Frankfurt he plays on a worse team than Werner, but he puts up numbers that are just as big. Dude literally does nothing but sit in the box and score goals. While Werner creates for himself with the ball at his feet, Jovic does not. Jovic gets himself into the middle of the box, sees ball, thwaps ball. Rinse, repeat. There are some teams where that might be a concern. Some teams might struggle to get Jovic the ball enough to take advantage of his skills in the box. Madrid certainly aren’t one of those teams. Stylistically he certainly seems like he’d be a fit for a team like Madrid. The concern here is that going from Frankfurt to Madrid is a major jump. Madrid would be gambling that he’d be able to perform not only week in and week out in the league but also that he’d be able to lead the line in the Champions League, that he’d be good enough to go toe to toe with the best defenders in the world and provide enough attacking thrust to come out ahead. It’s reasonable to think that he has that ability, but playing at Frankfurt he certainly hasn’t had the ability to show it yet. If Madrid don’t want to take any of those risks they could always look for a slightly better bargain in Arkadiusz Milik. Milik is only 24 and already has one catastrophic knee injury in his past. He’s also absolutely killing it this season for Napoli. A 24 year-old player putting up these numbers without Milik’s history of tissue-paper knees would command a gigantic fee. The list for players who take four shots per 90 and also average over 0.15 xG per shot is exceedingly small. Across the big five leagues this season it’s Sergio Aguero, Kylian Mbappe, Milik, and Paco Alcazar. That’s it, that’s the list. Milik will likely come cheaper than his numbers this season indicate, which is justified because knees are important, and his may not exist. But, Real Madrid have the luxury of not necessarily needing Milik to be healthy forever. If they can buy him and get three good years out of him, and then he’s shot at 27, that’s a scenario that works out just fine to a team that has the resources to go replace him. When you’re operating at Madrid’s level there are very few perfect transfers. But, slightly below the can’t miss superstar level there are endless options that have different kinds of risks associated with them. Madrid’s focus should be on evaluating those risks and choosing which one makes the most sense. Instead, if Eden Hazard is to be believed (and who knows if he should be) they’re just avoiding trying to fix their main problem altogether.

An Overview of Pass Heights In the Premier League, English Football League and Scottish Premiership

StatsBomb’s dataspec was designed with a view to capture more of what happens on the football pitch. To that regard, passing was an area in which it was felt that improvements could be made from the perspectives of simply recording how the game is played right through to the functional utility of applying analytical processes on top of that data.

Pass footedness is one of the primary upgraded features of StatsBomb data and a useful indicator for player evaluation, but today we are going to look primarily at graded pass heights. Passes within StatsBomb Data can be either "High" (above shoulder height), "Low" (below shoulder height) or "Ground" (self explanatory). For some added clarity we will omit headers from the following charts. As you will see, team and league styles can be quite pronounced.

One of the benefits of collecting data across the entire 92 Premier League and Football League clubs, as well as the Scottish Premiership is to enable stylistic comparisons. We can see that at least in relation to the volume of ground passes. The big six Premier League clubs are in a league of their own--as are Celtic in Scotland. This is no surprise, but as we move elsewhere, there are further intriguing comparisons: Cardiff are complete stylistic outliers in the Premier League this season, and their completion rate here of 83.6% is third lowest of all 104 clubs in the sample.

That's a full six percent beneath the rates that Crystal Palace (89.7%) and Newcastle (89.9%) connect with their ground passes. Of course opportunity impacts volumes, but we see that the Championship possesses a clutch of teams that focus on a ground passing strategy: Graham Potter's Swansea, Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United, Daniel Farke's Norwich City to name just three. One stylistic feature not shown here that emerged strongly from Leeds' overall profile was the high volume of low passes attempted; with over 48 per game, they try a full six more than any other team listed. With Bielsa ever interesting as a manager to study, this statistical quirk could well be worth further investigation. Far more compressed are Leagues One and Two.

They appear similar in general scope, but surprisingly, League One sees a slightly lower average volume and completion rate for both low and ground passes. Individual teams that stand out are Barnsley and Forest Green Rovers, both organisations that have forward thinking inputs, despite their relative positions in the league ladder. Discussions around the quality of the Scottish Premiership often yield arguments, but at least here, stylistically, the pass volumes and completion rates look more like the lower two leagues than the Championship, with Celtic a considerable outlier.

If we flip this to high passes, again clear distinctions between the leagues are apparent. Have Swansea refound the Swansea Way? The last two charts imply that they might have. Celtic once more look different to everyone else in Scotland and Leagues One and Two are again very similar in profile. One standout trend from this whole chart is the way that pass completion rates of high passes trend differently to ground passes.

In the last chart we saw a fairly simple and logical correlation between the volume of passes attempted and completion rate (r=0.84), here we see a weaker negative correlation (r=-0.50) but also what appears to be a skew towards completion rates for high passes at their highest in the Premier League. This offers ideas around player quality, both in passing ability and the ability to make space to attempt and receive such passes. Again logical, but nonetheless distinct.

To get ideas around attacking intent we can extend our look into passes into the box from open play. General trends persist and once more most of the big Premier League clubs and Celtic stand out. But what of Bournemouth? Or Sheffield United, Burton or Bury? All clearly use a ground based philosophy when attacking their opponents' box and appear to have reasonable success.

At the other end, teams are attempting just a handful of such passes and completing barely any. These are teams that likely use the set-piece as a weapon or prioritise higher balls over low and ground passes. Overall trends we saw in general play appear weaker when filtered down to this level.

Now we see genuine stylistic curiosity--recall these are open play box entries via high passes. Would anyone expect that Liverpool would lead the Premier League numbers here? It's clear that they are well capable of attacking the box either on the deck or aerially and they show high volumes for both. Tottenham and Arsenal both show up less so for volume but for the rate in which they complete these type of passes.

Swansea are disinterested in this method as are Norwich, but Leeds--purveyors of high "ground pass" and "low pass" volume-- frequently put the ball in the air in the final third. Sheffield United, like Liverpool, show a varied and successful method of box entry. AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons top their respective divisions showing that regardless of which direction the club went, the old Wimbledon way looks to have persisted...

Hopefully this look at pass heights has offered some insight into how considering trends within the whole league pyramid can be informative. We've just scratched the surface, but when recruitment is so often local, it makes sense to understand the dynamics of teams across a whole market, and detailed data such as that collected by StatsBomb can help identify teams that play preferred styles for loan opportunities too. Look out for more of these charts on the twitter feed soon.