Ritsu Doan, Stefano Sensi and Enock Kwateng: Scouting Europe’s Less Heralded Prospects

Around this time last year I looked at five Ligue 1 prospects outside of the four traditional big clubs in France, as a way of illustrating the deep talent pool that exists in Ligue 1. Looking back a year later and it’s interesting to see where each prospect stands. Both Nordi Mukiele and Yves Bissouma made moves to clubs outside of Ligue 1 in RB Leipzig and Brighton respectively, Jonathan Bamba was signed by Lille, while Wylan Cyprien and Ismaila Sarr stayed at their respective clubs.

With Mukiele, his sample size of 711 minutes in the Bundesliga makes it rather hard to have strong opinions on his season either way. In the case of Bissouma, it’s fair to say that Brighton haven’t gotten their full value in season one. That’s not to say that Bissouma hasn’t shown signs of the upside that he has but the totality of his season has been shaky (though there’s also something to be said about how tough it can be for new players to transition their play style into a Chris Hughton led side). Both Cyprien and Bamba have more or less been at the same level that they were the season prior, but at least Bamba moved to a club that has a very good chance of playing in the Champions League next season. Sarr is arguably the only player to have their stock rise a year later, as he’s added more functional playmaking to complement his direct style of play and become a more well-rounded threat, setting himself up for a potential noteworthy transfer this summer.

In the spirit of last year’s iteration, this article will follow a somewhat similar format. Instead of focusing solely on Ligue 1 young talents, we’ll be looking more at Europe as a whole. None of the three players profiled currently ply their trade in one of the big clubs in their respective leagues. As well, each player is 23 or under as of March 29, 2019. It follows the same idea where we’re trying to profile players that at the very least will have several prominent years ahead of them.

Without further ado, let’s get to it:

Ritsu Doan (Groningen, 20)

As the modern game has continued to evolve, it’s become more apparent that to succeed at the highest level, wide players must have a requisite level of passing skills to go along with high level athleticism. Though it’s not uniform across the board, as you’ll find wingers who don’t necessarily fit that combination and still perform at a top level, more and more of the best teams employ wingers that have that combination of on-ball skills and upper tier athletic gifts. That’s what makes someone like Ritsu Doan an interesting winger to profile. On the surface, Doan’s statistical production doesn’t necessarily jump off the screen as both his shot and xG contribution is rather ordinary.

Yet, when watching tape of him, it’s hard not to get intrigued. Sure, playing in the Eredivisie can make it a bit tough to judge young attackers, but given that Doan plays for a smaller Eredivisie side in Groningen, those worries get alleviated to some extent especially given that they rank below average in both shot generation and expected goals for. In particular, Doan’s awareness to attempt high value passes is cause for some optimism. He’s first among Groningen players in both throughball passes created and open play passes into the box on a per 90 basis. He’s got half of what you would want from a young attacking talent: when he sees an opening to try a high value pass, he’s not afraid to take his shot.

As well as his passing, Doan’s dribbling abilities are quite pronounced. He’s able to apply his skills on the ball to a number of situations, giving himself some versatility. If he’s covered in tight areas, he can maneuver himself into some open space to ponder his next action. He can beat people off the dribble in one on one situations on the flanks, and he has the sudden explosion to pounce on an opening and put an opponent on their heels. Combine that with good balance and some shiftiness when on-ball, and you’ve got yourself a wide player with some dynamism.

That dribbling ability can also act as a bit of a curse for Doan, as he’s prone to having tunnel vision and not picking out an open teammate while he’s in full stride. As well, it’s not uncommon to see him running into people when he’s carrying the ball forward. But these things are forgivable for a young wide player who isn’t on a good team, given that the upside he flashes is tantalizing. Ritsu Doan seems like a good candidate for a bigger Eredivisie club to take a chance on, perhaps not quite yet for the likes of Ajax or PSV, but more so clubs on the next level.

Stefano Sensi (Sassuolo, 23)

Of the three players listed, Stefano Sensi is the one most likely to make the jump to a major European club. At age 23, it makes sense given that he’s close enough to his prime years that bigger clubs can envision him coming into their midfield and making an immediate impact. Sensi is a fascinating figure within Italian football given that he’s been looked at as a potential dynamic midfielder for the future. As for this season, he’s been part of a Sassuolo side that’s had some success playing an adventurous possession game in attack, doing a little bit of everything from the midfield and linking things together.

It isn’t hard to see the appeal of Sensi’s game. He has decent mobility and the shiftiness to carry the ball on occasion, especially during transition opportunities. On-ball, he’s a smooth operator with an array of passes in his arsenal. He’s constantly aware of his surroundings because of his scanning, and in situations where he feels that he’s going to be pressured by the opponent, he’s happy to recycle the ball and continue possession via one touch passing. Sensi’s scanning gets to another part of his game that’s quite effective, because of his awareness, he’s able to position himself during buildup play where he presents himself as an option for the CB in possession. If the oppostion tries to take him out as a possible passing option during buildup, he’ll try to shift a little bit in one direction to get himself into open space and receive a pass. When you add in the recognition and awareness to attempt difficult long passes, you have the type of midfielder that should fit well at larger Serie A clubs.

One area that will be interesting to monitor is how Sensi would fit defensively at a new club. Sassuolo have not been good on defense this season as they’re 5th from the bottom in Serie A in xG conceded. Sensi’s defensive output is decent when accounting for Sassuolo’s defensive style. In metrics that try to analyze how much a club presses, like passes allowed per defensive action or how far away from their own goal a team perform’s defensive action, Sassuolo rank at the lower end of the table. Even within Sassuolo’s defensive inadequacies, you’ll see moments where Sensi’s defensive awareness is present, whether it be shutting off passing lanes or making timely gambles on defensive actions. The reported links to Milan make sense given that Milan have similar pressing metrics to Sassuolo, but they’ve done what Sassuolo haven’t been able to in ably suppressing shot volume and location, so transitioning could be smoother there than at other clubs.

Enock Kwateng (Nantes, 21)

Ligue 1 is always fascinating to analyze when it comes to young talents, as the league offers the best balance of high upside prospects at affordable pricing. This upcoming summer will be of particular interest because there are three right-backs who don’t play for major French clubs that have relatively high ceilings: Enock Kwateng, Valentin Rosier, and Youcef Atal. Atal has the highest ceiling of the three, and it’s been interesting seeing him play further up the pitch as the season has progressed, but Rosier and Kwateng aren’t slouches in their own right. Kwateng in particular has had a productive season with Nantes at age 21.

The defensive output is what stands out here, but I’m more fascinated with what Kwateng can do during possession. He’s a decent dribbler but I wouldn’t necessarily call him a very good one as a full-back. Where he’s particularly good is when he collects a loose ball and immediately makes a snap decision to try and beat the initial man before laying it off to a teammate. When he’s positioned high on the right side, he’ll try to make an off-ball run behind the backline to receive the ball in space for potential crosses into the box, though his crossing to this point is fine but nothing special. Kwateng’s passing outside of crosses is where I’m most intrigued. It can look a bit awkward at times, but he’s shown some decent passing abilities. If a teammate makes a run to the right wing near the box, he’ll attempt lob passes to that area. He also has some comfort attempting passes into the right halfspace if someone is open.

Kwateng’s defensive work is a bit of a mixed bag despite the high defensive output. His high positioning during possession means that a quick turnover in play would leave him exposed when play goes the other way. Kwateng has a penchant for gambling when trying to pressure opponents and that leads to him playing a part in unraveling the team’s defensive structure. His awareness off-ball can be lacking as there’ll be times where the opposition gets on his blindside and makes runs to the edge of the box. However, his recovery speed is quite good so more times than not, he’s able to compensate that with applying late pressure on the opponent to make up for earlier mistakes. When he has to defend in isolation situations on his side where he’s not had to move much previously, he’s disciplined in not overextending himself.

It’s certainly encouraging that in his first full season in a top five league, Enock Kwateng has held his own, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s tipped for future stardom. What makes him intriguing is that reports suggest that his contract will be expiring after this season, making him a candidate for a free transfer in the summer. While I don’t necessarily think that Kwateng has star-level upside, it’s certainly reasonable to think that he can be a solid right-back for years to come. Getting young fullbacks of that caliber for cheap represents massive value for the club, especially for mid-level Premier League clubs in the market for right-backs who are trying to find value in the transfer market while the rest of Europe uses them as an ATM machine. For clubs in Europe, Kwateng represents an opportunity to secure an affordable first XI caliber fullback and reap the rewards in the future.

Bayern Munich Begin Reloading

This summer’s transfer season is already off and running. Bayern Munich dropped a cool 80 million euros to bring in Lucas Hernandez from Atlético Madrid. The left footed French center (and left) back is the second young defender Bayern have acquired, joining with Stuttgart’s Benjamin Pavard as a pair of young talented defensive reinforcements for Germany’s top team.

This is likely just the beginning for Bayern. Their squad is old. Up and down the pitch this is a team in need of good young players to take the reins from the next generation. There is, in fact, such need at other areas of the pitch that it raises the question of whether acquiring Hernandez is the best use of resources given that in addition to Pavard, Bayern also have Niklas Süle. Arguably the one place on the field Bayern were set was at center back, now they have a true embarrassment of riches.

But, given that Bayern have approximately infinity money, let’s assume that acquiring Hernandez won’t get in the way of doing a whole lot more work. Because this squad is going to need a lot of work.

 

This is the constant challenge for the best teams in the world. Competing at the highest levels means constantly finding the best players in the world at the height of their powers and then moving on from them quickly as they begin to decline. That means a constant churn as yesterday’s fresh faced 23-year-old babies become tomorrow’s 28-year-old grizzled veterans. Or, in the case of Bayern’s wingers, Arjen Robben is 35 and Franck Ribery is 36. The fact that those two stars are, at least in sporting terms, not just old, but rotting corpse old, has overshadowed that the rest of the first choice attacking unit is also past it’s prime. Robert Lewandowski is 30, Thomas Müller is 29, both of those guys are at the point where most players start getting worse, sometimes fast.

Bayern need to freshen up that unit in exactly the same way that acquiring Pavard and Hernandez freshened up the defence. Currently the heirs apparent are Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry. Coman is only 22 and has shown flashes of brilliance but optimism around him has to be tempered by a serious injury history and a consistent inability to make it to the field. Even if he has the ability to perform at an elite level on the field, relying on him week in and week out is a recipe for injury filled disaster.

Gnabry is a more difficult call. He’s 24 and just entering his prime. He does a lot of things well in and around the penalty area. He creates a respectable amount of average shots for himself, and does a wonderful job of creating great shots for his teammates. He’s also an able and willing defender. What he isn’t particularly proficient at is doing the work of moving the ball up the field. He wants to get the ball in advanced positions, not move it there himself. This has been challenging at times for Bayern who often look to suck teams into the middle before spraying it wide to advance the ball up the field and unsettle defences.

 

If Bayern believe in Gnabry, and expect him to start for them on a regular basis over the next three years they’ll need to make sure that he is part of a team that has lots of other players tasked with moving the ball forward and allowing Gnabry to create magic in the box. That player is unlikely to be a forward. As Lewandowski hits the wrong side of 30 his most likely replacement is rumoured to be Timo Werner. Werner is a lot of things. He’s great in space on the counterattack and perfectly proficient, although not as good as Lewandowski, at finding space in the penalty area (then again who is) but what he isn’t is a facilitator.

 

 

Bottom line for the attack is that it will require at minimum not just the purchase of Werner (or a similarly high profile, young, prolific striker) but additionally one very high quality winger to play the majority of minutes across from Gnabry.

One possible solution for a team looking to rely on its attackers to stay high and around the penalty area is to get a bunch of creativity from midfield. And Bayern is, of course, stacked with midfielders. But there too, they aren’t exactly young. James Rodriguez is in his prime at 27, and Thiago at 28 isn’t old, but won’t be around forever and is often hurt. While neither of them are immediate concerns this offseason (especially given the pressing need on the wings), they are both nearing the point where a succession plan needs to be considered.

And Bayern do have a lot of young midfielders floating around. The best of the bunch is Leon Goretzka who looks well up to the task of stepping into this midfield and starring for years to come combining unspectacular but necessary passing in possession with an ability to get forward into the box. Past him, Corentin Tolisso is entering his prime but also lost this entire season to injury. And in the defensive midfield spot, Javi Martinez might be a rock, but he’s a 30 year old rock.

This midfield unit wouldn’t be a concern if everything else on the team was settled. An attack brimming with creativity would balance out a midfield focused on getting and retaining the ball. A young and vibrant midfield could carry an attack focused on poaching in the box. The concern for Bayern is that both things could collapse at once. Fail to find a star on the left wing, and a creator in midfield to lighten the load on Thiago and the team could end up with a strike force that needs the ball delivered to them and a midfield incapable of providing it.

None of this is to say that Bayern doesn’t have a lot of young prospects. They do. From Renato Sanches to Alphonso Davies to their rumoured interest in Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, Bayern are clearly interested in young talent. The challenge though is that when you’re Bayern Munich prospects don’t cut it. They need players who are young and great at the same time. Davies is only 18 and maybe by the time he’s 22 he’ll be good enough to be a regular, but Bayern can’t afford to twiddle their thumbs while they wait. Talent development is important but it has to come along side fielding a team that’s one of the best in the world right now.

These are all champagne problems of course. Wondering whether the clearly excellent Gnabry is good enough to shoulder a large load for Bayern, or wondering whether they have enough creativity should Thiago get hurt and Tolisso not recover is basically wondering whether Bayern is a top tier Champions League contender or a fringe Champions League contender. And they’re going to be favorites to win the Bundesliga either way. But that’s the challenge of being Bayern. When you have the gigantic resource advantage they do, you don’t get to rebuild, you have to reload, and you have to do it fast.

Bayern have a lot of work to do. In Hernandez they added further strength to the strongest part of their squad. It’s how they strengthen the weaker parts that will determine whether they’ll merely be great, or continue to contend at the very top of the European pyramid.

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Three Premier League Numbers To Watch

Usually when the Premier League crosses the 30 match threshold, teams are what they are. While it’s not impossible for a team to deceive for 80 percent of the season only to come whooshing back to reality, it’s pretty rare. But, that doesn’t mean there’s no uncertainty left. With the title and the Champions League spots hanging in the balance, here are three numbers to watch which might shed some light on how the season’s biggest races will wind down.

Manchester City’s shots

When most great teams have hiccups in form it comes because they struggle to get great shots. A handful of particularly dogged defenses force the favorites to pile hopeful launch on top of hopeful launch, successfully opting to defend against quantity over quality. That’s not what happens to City. For whatever reason, when City struggle, they simply don’t get very many shots. Perhaps Pep Guardiola’s side are so insistent on creating tap-ins in front of empty nets that they simply won’t settle for pot shots, so when a defense prevents those, City just keep butting their heads up against the wall.

Guardiola’s side has only struggled briefly this season, a four game stretch in December when they lost three games, first understandably to Chelsea, then shockingly at home to Crystal Palace and away to Leicester City. But, the alarm bells for that stretch of time started earlier. On November 24th City beat West Ham 4-0, the problem is they took only nine shots while doing it. They followed it up with 15 and 16 shots in wins the next two weeks, numbers that might seem high (and would be for any group of mere mortals) but aren’t for a City side that averages 17.50 shots per match. Then came the struggles.

So, as Liverpool look on and pray for signs of weakness, is anything amiss with City? They keep winning, but two of their last three victories have been accompanied by subdued 1-0 score lines. And, sadly for Liverpool, the answer is no. The side has taken 19, 20 and 23 shots in their last three matches. That’s about as healthy as it gets, even if the goals haven quite matched.

The moral of City’s shooting story is that the team is firing on all cylinders right now. Technically they’re two points behind Liverpool but with a game in hand they control their own destiny, and they’re favorites to defend the title that they won last season. If that ends up not happening it will be because some unexpected struggles set in somewhere in the last eight games. The first place those struggles will be likely to show up is in their shooting.

Tottenham Hotspur’s defensive woes

It hasn’t been a great season for Spurs defensively. Thanks in part to a struggling midfield, Spurs have largely relied on a high speed attack at the front and Hugo Lloris in goal at the back to keep them on track. But there’s a difference between having a defense that’s bad for a top six team, and a defense that’s bad, period. For the last month, Spurs defense has trended towards the latter stages. Over the course of the season Spurs have conceded 1.05 expected goals per match, the seventh best total in the league. Over the last four games, a stretch where they’ve taken a grand total of one point, well, they’ve been a lot worse.

The 1.25 xG per match Spurs have conceded over that four game stretch is way down towards the bottom of the league with only six teams performing worse. And while it’s true that two of those matches were against Chelsea and Arsenal, fellow top six contenders, the other two were shocking losses to relegation candidates in Burnley and Southampton. The drop in form isn’t a result of a particularly skewed stretch of schedule. It’s just a result of a team playing badly.

The good news for Spurs is that they had built up quite the cushion, so even after dropping all these points, they’re still in third place. The bad news is that three teams are within four points of them in a wide open race for the top four. Given how close the race is, if Spurs defense doesn’t improve it’s easy to see them getting overtaken by not one but two teams (especially considering that Spurs have the two hardest matches of the season yet to come with trips to Liverpool and Manchester City on the horizon). On the other hand, if this is just a temporary run of form, and four games is only four games after all, then their lead should be enough to carry them through if they revert to simply being the seventh or so best defensive team in the Premier League.

The Chelsea spiral

Chelsea sit in sixth. They’re four points behind third place Spurs, three points behind fourth place Arsenal and a point behind Manchester United. A look at their aggregate statistics on the season portrays them as a third place team that’s simply gotten unlucky. They have an xG difference of 0.50, the third best in the league. They take 15.60 shots per match, the second most, and they concede only 9.17, the third fewest. Stop looking there and what you see is a team that is simply unlucky. With only eight games left in the season maybe there wouldn’t be enough time for the to claw their way back, but it wouldn’t be for want of trying.

Look deeper though and the worrying trend emerges. Their xG difference is going the wrong direction. A ten game rolling average shows a team that looked as though it peaked relatively early and has gotten worse since. And while that trend is exacerbated by changes in fortune, when Chelsea were performing well they were also running hot, and now both the performances and the variance have changed direction, it seems quite real.

This is doubly concerning given that the hope for Chelsea’s season was that as new manager Maurizio Sarri settled in and implemented his approach Chelsea would improve, rather than regress. Instead, Chelsea’s xG difference over the past ten matches is 0.25, or half of what it is over the whole season. Playing at that level over the next eight games certainly won’t get the job done.

Figuring out the best window to use to predict a team’s future performance isn’t a trivial problem. Broadly speaking using the full season works better in aggregate than using a shorter sample. If you just blindly judged every team by their last ten games then you’d do worse at predicting their future performance than you would if you only looked at the most recent ten game window. But, that doesn’t mean that in every single case the longer view is more accurate, just that it’s comparatively much harder to separate out signal and noise is the window gets shorter.

The distinction is crucial for Chelsea. If that last ten games are truly a representation of where they’re at now, then they’re toast. If the longer window is more accurate, then they’ve got a fighting chance.

A Tale of Two Struggling Managers: Marcelino Survives at Valencia, Sevilla Axes Machín

Sevilla and Valencia have consistently had some of the best underlying numbers in Spain throughout the current campaign yet that has not always translated into on-pitch results. Both have had rough patches of form, but while Valencia stuck with their head coach Marcelino following a poor start to the season, Sevilla recently parted company with Pablo Machín after just two wins in his last 11 league matches at the helm and an unexpected exit from the Europa League at the hands of Slavia Prague. It is hard not to feel a little sorry for Machín. He was criticised for being tactically inflexible, for struggling to find solutions to injury problems, and for pushing his players too hard early on, leading to fatigue. But not only was he dealt a difficult hand with an imperfectly constructed squad and an extended season that began way back in July in the Europa League qualifying rounds, but the underlying statistics suggest his side were still one of La Liga’s best even through their recent poor run of results. Sevilla have undeniably tapered off a tad over the course of the campaign. As it was ostensibly a 11-match run of results that led to Machín’s dismissal, it seems apt to split the campaign into rolling 11-match chunks. In doing so, it is notable that Sevilla’s top five runs of that length in terms of expected goal difference (xGD) came within their first eight 11-match chunks of the season; five of their six worst came in the five immediately preceding his sacking. But even then, Sevilla ran an 0.40 xGD average through Machín’s final 11 matches in charge — not the league-title-chasing, 0.60+ rates they carried through the first 16 matches of the campaign, but still the fourth-best of any side in that time. They were a little worse but not enough to warrant the downturn in results that accompanied those numbers. If we are objective, the team are doing more things right than the results indicate,” Machín said the day before he was fired, and he wasn’t wrong. A positive xGD of 4.35 through his final 11 matches yielded a -4 goal difference: a negative swing of 8.35 goals. While Sevilla’s attack finished chances more or less as expected, the defence massively underperformed, conceding eight more goals than expected. Much of that appears to rest on the shoulders of goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík. Across the entire campaign, Vaclík has been a solid performer, conceding just over a goal more than the average goalkeeper could be expected to. He has undoubtedly been an improvement on last season’s primary number one Sergio Rico. But his form over Machín’s final 11-match stretch was far from impressive. He conceded 18 goals from shots with a post-shot xG sum of 12.03 — nearly six more than expected. It is difficult to identify other explanations. Sevilla began to defend a little deeper towards the end of Machín’s time in charge, but their number of aggressive actions (tackles, pressure events and fouls a team makes within two seconds of an opposition player receiving the ball) was actually above their seasonal average. They were not conceding chances of significantly higher quality — 0.087 xG per shot versus 0.083 — and our model also takes into account the positioning of defenders, so it wasn’t a case of tired legs leading to fewer bodies goal-side. The defensive underperformance appears to simply have been the result of the vagaries of fortune and an out-of-form goalkeeper. Had he been given the opportunity to continue, Machín could have changed nothing and results may very well have improved anyway. Instead, in what certainly had shades of an internal coup, Joaquín Caparrós, the man responsible for appointing Machín and constructing the squad he had to work with, stepped down from his role as sporting director to replace him as head coach. “I am not a good negotiator,” he admitted upon taking charge on a temporary basis until the end of the season. “Negotiating is an art and I don’t know how to negotiate. I don’t like the office… I like everything that the life of a head coach comprises… Now, I am once again where I really enjoy being and where I think that I can perform best.” A few days later, Caparrós was joined by returning sporting director Monchi, fresh from leaving Roma and rejecting interest from Arsenal to retake the position he previously held for 17 years before his departure a couple of summers ago. It all happened in such quick succession that it would surely be naive to believe that Monchi wasn’t at least consulted about the decision to part ways with Machín, despite his words to the contrary. Caparrós is now tasked with getting the results Sevilla need to reclaim the top-four place that was still theirs as recently as four rounds ago. Even a reasonable swing back towards Sevilla’s underlying numbers would provide him with the opportunity to stake a decent claim to remaining at the helm. Things certainly started off well for him, with a Wissam Ben Yedder penalty leading his side to a 1-0 win away to Espanyol last weekend. His first big test comes after the international break, at home to a Valencia side with the same objective. The decision Sevilla made was certainly one that was being mulled over in Valencia after a similarly poor 11-match run of results right at the start of the season. They picked up just 11 points in that time, and it was probably only the good will that Marcelino had built up from the club’s fourth-place finish in 2017-18 that earned him the benefit of the doubt. That, and perhaps the fact that his side’s underlying numbers were far superior to results. In terms of xG difference over those first 11 matches, Valencia were actually the second best team in La Liga, behind Barcelona and ahead of Sevilla. The reality was very different. They performed at par in terms of goals conceded — eight non-penalty goals off of 7.94 xG conceded — but they underperformed heavily in attack, scoring just six non-penalty goals off of 159 shots valued at 14.44 xG. Even since, it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing. Valencia have drawn far too many matches, are still yet to record more than two consecutive victories and have only won two of their last seven. They’ve taken 28 matches to reach the same points total they accumulated in just the first half of last season. Marcelino was said to be on the verge of losing his job as recently as mid-January, when his side were down in 11th, 10 points off the top four. It has taken a long time for their strong underlying numbers to be reflected in reality, and even then only for very short spells. But that initial 11-match stretch remains their worst in terms of points accumulation, and their general trend is upwards. They are La Liga’s second best team in terms of xGD — and are still six goals behind expectation in their actual goal difference — and the decision to keep Marcelino looks a good one. Valencia will return from the international break just six points shy of fourth-placed Getafe with 10 matches left to make up the difference. They are still in Europe (albeit in the Europa League, rather than the Champions League where they began) and also have a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona to come at the end of May. Two similar situations; two different outcomes. There are certainly other factors at play — Valencia have a good young squad suited to Marcelino’s approach; Sevilla’s is ageing, unbalanced and in need of reworking after two sporting directors and four head coaches in less than two seasons — but on the evidence of the underlying numbers, Valencia made the right decision, while Sevilla erred in not giving a demonstrably competent coach the support he deserved to work his way through an unfortunate run of results.

Solving England’s Creativity Issue

Most would agree that Gareth Southgate’s time in charge of England has seen the side improve in a number of ways. The Three Lions’ run to the semi finals of the World Cup was an achievement in finding solutions to clear squad issues, namely a lack of creative passers. The 3-5-2 system Southgate switched to at times seemed primarily about placing more emphasis in possession on the wing backs, as Kieran Trippier was perhaps the only starter who could be considered “creative” (Danny Rose’s poor form was a blow here, as the other wing back role was thus taken by the limited Ashley Young). While Jordan Henderson screened the back three, the more advanced central midfield roles were thus taken by Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, both of whom are more adept at pressing and making runs into the box than picking out a pass. The result was a resilient side, and England grinded their way through the tournament until meeting an opponent with genuine creative talents. This stylistic choice meant England were somewhat limited in terms of how to attack. Southgate’s men scored twelve goals in the competition. Three were penalties. Four were from corners. One was a direct free kick successfully converted while another came off an indirect free kick routine. Just three were from open play. The FA sacked Sam Allardyce in disgrace nearly two years earlier, but it seemed like that brief spell was enough to implement his attacking ideas. All of this is understandable for a tournament where England had a talented but poorly balanced squad, but the Southgate era is supposed to be about bringing through promising young players and building a more cohesive style of football. Thus it wasn’t a huge shock to see England ditch that system last autumn. It was a shift that many, including StatsBomb’s Paul Riley, had advocated for. The new formation is a fairly conventional 4-3-3 shape. The front line has seen Harry Kane flanked by two wide forwards, initially Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, though Jadon Sancho has deputised in Rashford’s absence. As Kane himself put it, “the wingers stay wide, and then sometimes, when I drop deep, they go in behind”. It’s these moments when Kane has drifted into a deeper role that England have looked particularly dangerous. The first goal against the Czech Republic was a good example of this, with Kane moving deep to pick out Sancho high and wide, who was then able to put in a low cross for Sterling to score the kind of poacher’s finish he’s managed so often at Manchester City. That Kane, obviously a prolific goalscorer at club level, is doing his best work for England outside the box speaks to the composition of the rest of the side. Southgate’s team just doesn’t have anyone who can consistently play penetrative passes from midfield, and thus Kane is dropping deeper to fill some of that role. England started the game with Alli joined by the now infamous pair of Henderson and Eric Dier. In Dier’s case, he generally benefits at Spurs from the better passing ranges of Christian Eriksen and (the unfortunately injured) Harry Winks in that team. Henderson is often a better passer than his reputation suggests, but as the deepest lying midfielder with others having to do the heavy lifting of moving the ball closer to the goal. Here, he was forced to start the game in a more advanced role that he hasn’t played for several years. Not since Jürgen Klopp’s first season at Anfield has he been trusted as anything other than a holding player, and even so, Fabinho has often been preferred this season in part due to his better passing range. A midfield for fluid passing and quick interplay with the forward line, this is not. Of course, what happened during the game was that Dier picked up an early injury to be replaced by the more forward thinking Ross Barkley. The idea of Barkley is exactly the player England are lacking. An attack minded midfielder who combines natural athleticism and close control dribbling ability with an excellent eye for a pass in the final third. This is not, however, the reality of the Chelsea midfielder. In fairness, there have been signs of progress this season, with Barkley at least showing he’s capable of being an average contributor at a side challenging for Champions League places, but the traits seen at Everton, around being too dawdling on the ball, too unwilling to appreciate the game taking place around him, remain. Barkley has completed 6.18 deep progressions per 90 this season for Chelsea. Looking at his midfield colleagues, even the supposedly unsuited for possession play N’Golo Kanté has more. He perhaps shouldn’t elicit the groans he once did, but it’s a worrying state if Barkley is to be the solution to England’s problems. The aforementioned Winks was certainly a loss in this round of fixtures, as his performances in the UEFA Nations League implied he could be an important cog in Southgate’s machine. It’s been something of a strange season for Winks, with Spurs consistent injury problems (and, well, not signing anyone) in midfield have denied him a settled role in his best position. Since the turn of the new year, though, he has hit a strong vein of form in which he’s been able to contribute well on both sides of the ball. Leading Spurs in deep progressions per 90, it looks like Winks could be the player the national side have been lacking, though injury problems seem to be persistent with him. Ruben Loftus-Cheek had to pull out of the squad through injury and almost certainly has the talent to contribute here, but Maurizio Sarri almost never plays him, so it’s hard to get a good read on his level right now. His replacement in the squad, James Ward-Prowse, doesn’t feel like a great fit here. Though an active presser, much of his value comes from being a dead ball specialist, with about half his 0.15 xG assisted per 90 coming from set plays. His deep progressions and open play passes into the box are middle of the road for even lowly Southampton, so his selection here feels like a mistake. James Maddison, meanwhile, might feel disappointed not to be included. He’s playing open play passes into the box more than twice as frequently as Ward-Prowse, and with similar defensive work to match it up. Having spent all season playing in the attacking midfield band of a 4-2-3-1 for Leicester this season, sliding into a deeper role could be problematic and this seems to be Southgate’s main concern. However, he does seem a player particularly suited to creative passing in the areas where England have not been able to provide it. It would be nice to see him included at some point. There are some slightly more speculative options out there. Jack Grealish continues to light things up in the Championship, particularly since Dean Smith’s arrival at Villa Park, and has led to many arguing a break from the unwritten rule favouring top flight players. Morgan Gibbs-White has set a promising standard in his first year of senior top flight football, and seems as though he’ll trickle his way up from the youth sides eventually, as does the clearly special but stuck behind the best in the world Phil Foden. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury recovery makes him something of an open question, but the form he showed for Liverpool last year should be more than good enough for England. Southgate is having his side play a more cohesive, aesthetically pleasing game since the switch to 4-3-3. It’s not a tiki-taka style, with fast transitions certainly an important feature, but it is one that relies much more on the playmaking abilities of the individuals on the pitch. In the long run, these personnel issues look likely to fix themselves, with the talented younger generations not having this same achilles heel as the 2018 squad. As such, it looks as though Southgate’s tactical switch will pay off in the long term and see an England side playing better football in future tournaments.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The Modern Midfielder: Ball Mover

There’s a nostalgia about the Premier League of the late ’90s and early 2000s that makes one position in particular especially romantic. For all the Henrys and Shearers of the day, there were those behind them making the team tick. These iconoclasts of lad-ism, purveyors of proper football, were generally known as hard men. Tasked with a vague description of adding ‘steel’ and ‘heart’ to the center of the pitch, the ability to impose their masculinity on inferior players through physicality allowed many average midfielders to achieve legendary status as they fouled, fought and intimidated their way into the annals of history. Outside of the moralizing rhetoric ascribed to the necessary, if uncomplicated, job they performed, the importance these players assumed at the time made sense. Without a universal implementation of team tactics, a superior physical presence in the middle of the pitch would’ve surely made the difference in a time where manipulating space and tactical positioning was but a twinkle in a tactics blogger’s eye. It was, after all, an era revolutionized by the idea that simply cutting back from two packs a day might make running easier. Alas, as postmodernity began its wholly encompassing creep upon a mainly white but sometimes black world, the death of the hardman came fast. Though the words of these ancient heroes would forever echo in the places of punditry mere meters away from the pitch, the players who replaced them were far from the cardboard cutouts of yesteryear. Midfielders with supreme technical ability, ones whose awe-inspiring passes could palpably harness the movements made by cogs perpetuating more advantageous footballing ideologies, were now preferred to the ever-aging figureheads of fear. The Alonsos and Pirlos of the world set forth a basis for which the next ideal form could exist. With better use of spacing, pressing, and passing all taking hold, it’s no wonder the current crop of influential midfielders all maintain some confluence of everything that came before them. As much as one might jest, there would be no Frenkie De Jong without Roy Keane, no Jorginho without Vinnie Jones. However different their jobs may appear to be, each step in football informs the next in the same way each evolution of players influences those who grew up watching them. This generation, like any other, has a class of individuals endowed with special abilities that make them uniquely talented.     Everyone’s favorite twitter clip-up player, Frenkie De Jong, is probably the most obvious example of someone with special individual qualities. What allowed a 21-year-old to command such a high price is down to the way he progresses the ball, but dribbling and incisive passing is just a part of how De Jong draws defenders towards him and clears out space further up the field. Barcelona, the spiritual and commercial successor to Ajax in Europe’s top five leagues, will be looking to harness what’s at the base of his exceptionally high deep progressions. His holistic understanding of relative positioning allows him to seamlessly transition between defense, midfield, and attacking lines without leaving gaping holes in the team.     Tanguy Ndombele is another case of a player with an innate-ness worth its weight in gold. Similar to De Jong, his elite dribbling ability and inclination to do so in midfield areas makes him extremely dangerous in transition and when the opposition is looking to press high up the field. Amazingly, Ndombele’s game-changing ability carries over to his passing and pressing attributes as well, making him a safer prospect than midfielders like Tiémoué Bakayoko and perhaps even Naby Keïta- ones who benefitted from the tactical dynamic of a team that saw a lot of space in midfield because they weren’t expected to monopolize possession. Once they made their moves to teams who are forced into having less space in transition or during their average game, they had less space to operate. They’re still the same, amazing players they were before, but they’re in a different environment. NDombele’s passing, pressing and general play suggests that his wide range of abilities would supersede a transition from any tactical dynamic. What strings these elusive transfer targets to players like Georginio Wijnaldum or Miralem Pjanić, however, is how they distribute the ball. The common, almost necessary attribute underpinning any well-known midfielder of this ilk is their intelligence on the ball. Though that may seem like something that makes any midfielder during any era of football great, the underlying conditions most possession teams must operate in relation to have called for today’s deep-lying midfielders to be everything their positions were before and more. Jorginho might not have the physicality of a Patrick Vieira, but the circulatory manner in which he uses Maurizio Sarri’s structure to circumvent pressing actions can achieve a similar result. These players are not only ensuring the passage of possession to the final third, but they’re distributing in a way that protects the team from a counterattack. It’s what coaches like Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino are talking about when they refer to players who “see the space.” It’s not about directly assisting an attacking player or literally playing a forward into an open area; it’s about ensuring the entire team is at equilibrium. Possession nowadays is more about knowing how to possess the ball than it is merely maintaining the players and structures to do so. A good example of this frustratingly unquantifiable kind of distribution is Miralem Pjanić’s performances against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. Plagued by flu-like symptoms, Pjanic’s passing was slow and labored in the first leg. His distribution, in addition to a strange positional experiment where Rodrigo Bentancur only served to open up space for Pjanić, allowed Atletico to corral possession in areas where they could win it back and counter from. The second leg was a different story. In that game, Pjanić was back to his brilliant best when Juventus needed him most. Tasked with deciding whether the ball was best used at the feet of Leonardo Spinazzola and João Cancelo or directly to Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, and Federico Bernardeschi, Juventus were able to overcome their 2-0 deficit without the presence of traditionally creative number ten. The crossing used by the fullbacks was relatively risk-averse considering the midfield of Blaise Matuidi, Pjanić and Emre Can were ready to sweep up if Atleti wanted to spring forward. When the more direct option presented itself, Pjanic bypassed the eager, ball-winning Atletico midfield through lofted balls from himself, Leonardo Bonnucci, and Giorgio Chiellini. The entire approach addressed the gravity of their situation while never erring into the rashness of overexposing themselves in places the opposition would’ve wanted them to. One might argue that if Massimiliano Allegri had deployed someone like Paulo Dybala through the middle from the start -the kind of player that was going to take risks in possession for the sake of creating attacking opportunities- they might not have survived to face Ajax. That isn’t to say Pjanić is better or more valuable as an attacking player than the Argentine, but it does underline the subtle role players like Pjanić serve. It’s a similar case with Georginio Wijnaldum. Though his performance in many of the categories pales in comparison to his midfield compatriots, Wijnaldum finds himself an increasingly important cog in Klopp’s current Liverpool. With their greater emphasis this season on beating teams who ask questions of their possession game, Wijnaldum’s intelligence in distribution sees him selected over players who are more gifted in other, more directly observable ways. As much as Liverpool fans might cry out for a more ostensibly attack-minded midfield option, because of how he moves the ball, he’s as essential to the chances their front three ends up creating as he is snuffing out the moments where Liverpool are vulnerable. It’s Liverpool’s system that has the most influential part in creating chances, not the individual brilliance of sole players- an ethos carried over to the dynamic of their title rivals, Manchester City.     Despite İlkay Gündoğan being touted as Guardiola’s next necessary midfield component when he first arrived at City, it’s been Fernandinho that has dominated the position. While much of Gündoğan’s absence can be attributed to injuries, Fernandinho’s understanding of what Guardiola needs, in addition to an extraordinary ability to foul, foul, and foul some more for the sake of stopping counter-attacks, is part of what has made him indispensable to the team. Guardiola still speaks highly of the German’s ‘scent for goal,’ and with recent performances in the league and at Schalke, it appears that just three years on, Gündoğan is finally understanding the role he needs to play to justify a place alongside Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. But whether Gündoğan can temper his own individual attacking inclination with the intelligence and defensive attributes Fernandinho brings to the team remains to be seen. With football forever synthesizing by reacting to its own evolutions and revolutions, each period distinguishes itself by the exceptional players its time gives birth to. We rightly associate a previous era with Keane and Vieira because they’re the ones who were in the right place and the right time to define it. Strength, a body full of intangibles, and some skill allowed them to command the landscape that existed at the time. Now, with sports science, data, and a metaphysical focus on how to best succeed in an increasingly rocky environment, the players we’ll remember when our children’s children are mocking up hologram clip-ups for the twenty-minute shuttle ride across the planet will be those who defined the era with their attributes — those who knew how to move the ball.  

Three Smaller Premier League Stories to Watch

What are some smaller story lines to follow over the last two months of the Premier League season? As the season begins to wind down, the focus understandably narrows. There’s a title race and a top four race which means all of the league’s top six teams are actively competing for a prize. At the other end of the table Fulham and Huddersfield are all but assured of relegation, which leaves Cardiff, Burnley and Southampton competing to avoid the doom of an 18th place finish. That leaves everybody between seventh and seventeenth more or less forgettable (unless you really want to count the race between Wolves and Watford for seventh place and the last possible Europa League spot). But buried amongst the nothing-to-play-fors are some interesting story lines.  

Can Wolves crash next year’s top 6 party?

The space in the table between Wolves in seventh place and Chelsea in sixth is a gigantic 13 points. The goal difference gap of 15 is just as large. Yet, somewhat awkwardly, the underlying expected goals numbers tell a somewhat different story about Wolves. The team has an incredibly strong defense. Based on the back of their defensive performance the team actually has (by a narrow margin) the fourth best xG difference in the Premier League. There are reasons to be skeptical of this of course. The story of Manchester United’s season is one of disfunction that likely spilled over into their performance, for example. Arsenal’s defensive numbers have improved over the course of the season in ways that look like they may sustain. The difference between Wolves and Spurs is so small (.03 xG differential per match) that Spurs might pull ahead next week. But still, while the table presents Wolves as clearly the best of the rest, the numbers suggest Wolves might at least be competitive with the top six. The reason that this season has presented that story is that the newly promoted side’s early season results were simply well below their performances. Flip that season around, put the more fortunate results at the beginning and the tougher bounces at the end and Wolves season would look like a possible miracle in the making, a newly promoted team hanging around the race for the Champions League well past Christmas. So, while it’s reasonable to argue that the numbers overstate Wolves abilities, it’s also quite clear that the table is understating how good they are. As the season winds down it will be worth watching to see if either side of the equation budges. Are Wolves just the best of the rest, or are they building to something more?  

Was Claude Puel actually a problem at Leicester City?

Leicester City’s numbers looked fine when they fired Claude Puel. They were a little boring to watch perhaps, committed to a fairly rigid but cohesive defensive press. They also played tons of young kids and turned over the roster from the aging group that miraculously won the Premier League to the likes of James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, and Wilfred Ndidi. All of that came with one major problem. The team didn’t really win a lot of games. Starting in January the bottom just fell out of the teams results, even as the performances seemed to indicate that nothing much was wrong. Sometimes that can happen when there are serious problems behind the scenes. Goals and expected goals always converge eventually, but sometimes eventually means after a manager that the players hate gets fired. Other times the manager really has nothing to do with it, and it’s just the fickleness of how the ball bounces that’s messing with the natural order of things. Either way, it seems like a smart time for everybody’s favorite old new manager Brendan Rodgers to step back into the Premier League. He is now at the helm of a team that is due to stop somehow fumbling results that they play well enough to capture. He has experience from way back in his Swansea days taking over a project in midstream. And as long as he doesn’t do anything to drastically mess things up, Leicester City should be just fine. The interesting question to analyze is how much of the team’s expected improvement as the season winds down (and into next year) is actually because Puel did something wrong, something that Rodgers is correcting, and how much is simply that Leicester’s results couldn’t stay that far below expectations forever.   What are Bournemouth? After a surprisingly strong start to the season, Eddie Howe’s team have trailed off badly. Neither the beginning of the season nor what came afterwards were particularly a fluke. Their results moved in concert with the levels of their performance (at least until a recent swoon). The culprit seems to have been their defense. After a strong start to the season, Bournemouth’s ability to prevent other teams from getting shots against them has deteriorated dramatically. There are several possible explanations for this. Bournemouth have had a rash of injuries up and down the squad including to Callum Wilson and David Brooks, two of their three most important attacking players. They also started with an easy stretch of schedule which may have juiced their numbers only for the cold hard light of more difficult matches to bring them back to earth. The good news for Howe and his team is that if their inconsistency has been schedule driven, then success may once again be just around the corner. The Cherries have seven matches and remaining, but only one against a top six opponent, a home match against Spurs. They also have three matches against relegation candidates, hosting both Fulham and Burnley, and traveling away to Southampton. Trips to Leicester, Brighton and Crystal Palace make up the balance. A strong close might suggest that the early days of the season weren’t a mirage, but rather a real step forward which injuries eventually derailed, albeit one that was turbocharged by the schedule. However, if Bournemouth continue to struggle right up until the closing bell, well that would end up looking more like a team that’s nothing more than a bottom half side that benefitted from the mirage of a soft opening schedule. Bournemouth may not have anything concrete left to play for besides pride, but there last seven performances will go a long way towards demonstrating where next year’s expectation levels should start.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Regretting Regression: Arsenal, Spurs and the Limits of Regression Analysis in Football

As the season approaches the home stretch, the table looks pretty much as expected, and as expected goals predicted it would. But ignoring the journey to highlight the destination misses the point. I write A LOT about analytics. Obviously. There’s a word, however, that I avoid like the plague. I don’t use it in my writing. If I can edit it out of other writer’s work without too much pain I put the proverbial line through it. On podcasts (especially of the non-analytics bent) I do all sorts of linguistic gymnastics to talk around it. That word is regression. And that goes double for its nerdier, more technically accurate cousin, regression to the mean. Unless I’m absolutely cornered and there’s no way to avoid it, I simply won’t type, or tweet, or say those words. There’s no problem with the concept of regression. Two separate flavors of it generally operate in the football world. First, team performances generally regress to their resource levels. That is, spending eventually equates to points. It’s not a perfect relationship (no relationship ever is) and spending both fluctuates and can have a time lag involved. But, as a rule, it’s a pretty good one. The more a team spends the more points they’re likely to have. Second, teams’ goals scored and goals allowed generally regress to their expected goals levels. That’s what makes expected goals the gold standard of predictive stats. It works. When it comes to predicting the future, expected goals is a better indicator of where things are going than anything else, including shots or goals themselves. That’s what it was designed to do and that’s what it does quite well. So, why don’t I use it? Well the first issue is a technical one. Regression, which is a true thing that happens, all too easily slips into gambler’s fallacy which isn’t. A team that’s getting lucky isn’t due to get unlucky to balance things out. They’re just due to stop getting lucky. That’s a small but crucial difference in how to best analyze these things. Without being very careful with argumentation it’s simply very easy to slip into the language of gambler’s fallacy on the world evening things out, when what’s closer to the truth is that the world doesn’t really care. But there’s another more fundamental reason I avoid regression, and that’s the way it reduces discussions to a single variable. That’s the power of expected goals, it reduces it to a single number, which is what makes it useful. It also hides everything that’s going on under the hood. And that’s the interesting stuff. The reason expected goals, and by extension regression in general, works is that there are a million factors that go into the equation. The reason things become unsustainable is precisely because it takes any number of things lining up just right to break loose of the underlying numbers, even for a limited time. Talking about regression makes it seem like an issue of one thing changing, when really it’s about weighing which of the 17 different things currently going right is likely to go wrong. Which brings us to this season. The table looks pretty normal. The top six are the top six. Manchester City, as expected, are odds on to win the title with Liverpool second. The battle for fourth is alive and well. There are, from a big picture xG perspective, relatively few surprises. What that misses though, is all the ways that teams might have done something unexpected, even though they ultimately didn’t. At every point this season there have been things that have been tantalizingly close to becoming interesting and defying expectations. The way the world works is that most of those things won’t come to pass. This season maybe none of them will. That doesn’t mean they’re impossible. Take Arsenal for example. The beginning of their season was a classic case of regression to the mean waiting to happen. The combination of a ridiculous winning streak with mediocre underlying numbers screamed unsustainable. There was a shot, however, that under a new manager that mean might improve. That Unai Emery might implement his new system and improve the team so that as their luck was running out, their numbers would improve. Such possibilities are the things from which xG defying seasons are born. It didn’t quite happen. What did happen is that Arsenal suffered a rash of injuries right when it appeared things might be coming together and that’s all it took. The beauty of using regression as a tool is that you can be fairly confident that eventually something will go wrong, without having to predict exactly what. The beauty of sports is in the exactly what. Across North London something similar is happening for Spurs. Spurs under Pochettino are the rare side that can claim to regularly beat their xG numbers. But there’s beating your xG and then there’s what Spurs were doing at the height of this season. It seemed like absolutely nothing was going to slow that train down. Don’t have a midfield? No problem. Star player after star player gets hurt? No big deal. Even losing Harry Kane didn’t slow them down. And then, right as everybody got healthy, and it seemed like a great season was looking nailed on, bang, they’ve taken a exactly one point in the last month, a four game stretch which included losses against relegation candidates Burnley and Southampton. While the Arsenal story is easy to tell, the Spurs one is harder. What exactly changed? Maybe they were just getting lucky all along and that luck ran out at precisely the wrong moment. Maybe their short squad was fatigued and as the miles piled up they lost whatever little edge their cult leader of a manager had managed to install. For Arsenal, the story of regression obscures the story of exactly what happened this season. For Spurs, it obscures a still unanswered question (a question which may not have an answer beyond the whims of the gods). Understanding the concept of regression to the mean is important. It’s the landscape on which the story of the season is set. But the work of analysis, of watching football and breaking it down, and mining the ins and outs in a search for the why of it all, that’s what brings the story to life. Understanding the underlying math makes it clear that most of the things that could, in theory, happen over the course of a season will not. But some will. And relying on regression closes off avenues of investigating what, if anything, causes those departures. Understanding why unsustainable things happen is as important as understanding that they’re unsustainable. And that’s why, while regression is important, it’s best use is in the background. The Premier League season so far has been an eventful and fascinating journey, but all that a typical regression will point out is that the destination seems pretty dull.

Evaluating Mohamed Salah

When you call a transfer the “Signing of the Summer” and then the player proceeds to score 32 league goals and 10 Champions League goals in a season, it’s fair to say you can be happy with your work. Hell, I even mocked up a picture of Mo Salah in a Liverpool tracksuit for the accompanying artwork. I was high on this guy and Salah chipped in on his end of the deal. Good lad. This season had been progressing very well too, at least until recently. He has recorded 20 goals in the league and Champions League (albeit with four penalties), it’s just that while last season saw an overwhelming overperformance–StatsBomb model had him at 31 non-penalty goals from about 20 expected– this season he’s basically matched expectation. As such, there is a view in the darkest corners of the fan world that perhaps he’s been a bit disappointing. In general this would be wrong. But there is no doubt that specifically recently, his contribution to scoring both in expected terms and in reality has somewhat slowed down. He has only one goal and one assist in his last ten club matches, and he’s been out there: he has only been substituted once. As I discussed last week, in the aggregate, all this might not matter, since Liverpool’s dynamo front three are scoring at a rate commensurate with what came before, it’s just Sadio Mané has received the goodwill of the footballing gods this season, and his goalscoring has matched that of Salah. Two forwards, 20 goals each. Let’s have a look at Salah from a data perspective and see if we can identify any aspects of his game that have changed. Here are his Premier League shot maps year to year (prior to the Fulham game): To get one thing out of the way; we’re not being ignorant to the slightly different position he’s played at times this season, more central. The general shape of his shot map hasn’t really changed, there’s still a skew to his most usual right sided starting position. I’ve highlighted some segments that I think are of note though, so let’s work through them: 1. Salah’s opposite side saw him finish at a fantastic rate last season, by my reckoning he converted nine goals from around 27 shots in that zone left of the penalty spot. So he had a decent volume there and finished at a very high rate. This season he simply hasn’t gained shots over on that side at anything like the same rate. He has a couple of goals in there, but despite being nominally more central at times, it hasn’t translated into shots or goals. 2. This zone fascinates me because it’s the zone I envisage Salah operating in; cutting in from the right, perhaps beating a defender or creating space for a shot, nicely faced up in front of the keeper. Another nine or so of his goals last season came from this area, whereas this season he’s barely even shooting in there. He has one goal from that zone but there’s a huge gap where last season shots existed, and this season they just don’t. If there is one specific aspect in which the league as a whole may have become somewhat accustomed to Salah’s shooting tendencies, this might be it, the Robben zone. Whatever you do, don’t let him onto his left foot in that area, if you can help it. 3. This feeds into a smaller factor which I think is borne out in zone three. If Salah is diverted away from that golden shooting spot, where does he go? That little cluster of shots derived from throughballs in there feels like the resulting aspect of Salah having had his shooting angle closed off, before ending up with a tight finish with his right foot further in. Even right footers struggle to finish from these kind of zones, so for Salah to struggle there with his off foot, would be quite normal. Slowing down is normal, and was always likely, but we have a window there into where shooting locations are actually different. Here’s an simple experimental viz to identify where players move to generate their own shots. It shows the position in which they received the ball (start of the line) and the resulting shot location as well as a footed indicator for the shot. It’s important to recognise that the actual movement of the player may or may not be in a straight line (as represented), so what we’re mainly interested in are the starting and finishing locations. There’s a cut off of 3 metres so as not to overload the visualisation and also to highlight events in which the player has made a significant move, be it a dribble or a carry, between receiving or recovering the ball and shooting it. Now some of this will be in the eye of the beholder, but it looks to me that Salah was more proficient at generating shots from his right sided starting position, these kind of 5 to 10 yard snappy bursts in a North West direction during 2017-18, while this season, has tended to move inside or take it down towards the touchline. This chimes with what we saw earlier regarding overall location of shots too. He’s perhaps starting his shooting moves in that back quarter of the penalty box less frequently too. Let’s try and segment the season to see what’s changing elsewhere: Usefully Salah has appeared in every one of Liverpool’s games this season, so we can slice up his season into tidy ten game segments (data is from prior to the Fulham game, he has one substitute appearance in there too). Ten games is probably about as small as you might want to slice this for analysis purposes, and the schedule is fairly balanced through here too (3/3/2 games vs top 6 rivals) but we can see significant differences. First ten games: High shot rate, over four per game (same as last season) feeding into high xG (nearly 0.6 per 90) and solid but unspectacular xG assisted (0.26 per 90). Next ten games: Shot rate has come down by 1.5 per game to 2.6, and xG has followed (0.37) however he’s taken some slack in creativity (0.40 xG Assisted per 90) Last ten games: Tough times. Shots moved closer to three per game, but xG is down again (0.31 per 90) powered by a big drop off in xG per shot (0.14 in both prior segments, 0.10 in this one) and the xG assisted has gone AWOL (0.14 per 90). Segmented shot maps bring out that xG per shot decline clearly: First ten games: few too many blocked shots from range, nice xG boost from a bunch of shots deep in the six yard box. Next ten games: where did all the blocks go? Really quite a nice mix of shots, then that odd little cluster in a bit of a no man’s zone outside the edge of the six yard box. Last ten games: I don’t like all these wide shots from range. It’s hard to score from out there, even with an open look at goal. Not saying it’s easy to achieve but Salah somehow needs to work to shift these 5 yards closer to the centre. Look at the lack of shots closer in than the penalty spot and within the width of the six yard box. It’s worth reframing this whole discussion around expectation too. Without last season, this season would look like an excellent return for a new wide forward. Mané is another player who has had stick at times, entirely unfairly when factored against his general contribution as a non-traditional forward rather than a typical goal-getter. And the team itself is having one of the great seasons of the Premier League era, yet amazingly remain in a title race. I had a look at Salah’s passing high up the pitch, but could see little difference season to season in how he interacts with those around him, or how he progresses the ball. He will always turn the ball over quite frequently, it’s a trait related to his tendency to try and carve out his own chances through ball carrying, but he is a good passer in dangerous areas (ninth in the league for open play passes into the box). Salah is going through his first major quiet period as a Liverpool player. It’s to his credit that it’s taken the best part of two seasons before he has reached this point. One concern could be around tiredness. He played a full season last year then got injured in the Champions League final and rushed back to the World Cup then has been nearly ever present again in 2018-19. The recent drift towards wider and rangier shots is something to keep abreast of moving forward but luckily, we well know that Liverpool have some of the smartest guys around working on analysis, so one would presume it’s in hand. And spending time with the video will shed further light on the story too. It’s tough for Mo. He had a season which lit up like Messi, and as we saw again this past weekend, nobody is a Messi but Messi. Salah will shin one in soon enough and people will forget about this blip. The battle between defenders desperately trying to shift him onto his right foot will rage on, no doubt for years to come. How well he adapts to that will be fascinating to follow.  


@jair1970

How Much Have Arsenal Changed Under Unai Emery?

There’s nothing like a big win to get people excited.   And thus, with Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United, the footballing world is looking rather more kindly on Unai Emery’s first season at the Emirates. With eight games remaining, the team is just one win away from equalling last season’s points total. A year-to-year improvement in terms of results is all but a done deal. It’s all looking good for the Spaniard, but how much have they really improved, what has changed, and are things moving in the right direction?   The bad news is, when looking at the expected goal trendlines since the start of last season, there have been plenty of ups and downs, but it’s not obvious that Emery has significantly improved things from Arsène Wenger’s last year in charge. On the attacking end, Arsenal’s xG per game is down a smidgen from 1.54 to 1.45. Defensively, things have barely changed at all, moving from 1.23 xG conceded per game last year to 1.25 today. As you’ve probably worked out already, Arsenal’s good results are thus down to the level at which they’ve outperformed xG. This was very prevalent at the start of the season, and seemed to tail off as one might generally expect, but it seems to have picked up again, and they are once again seeing a better goal difference than expected. The question thus becomes about sustainability. It’s on the attacking side where things are really overheated, having scored 60 non-penalty goals from an expected return of 43.47. The first temptation is to wonder if Arsenal simply have very good finishers, with top scorers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette often thought of as among the best marksmen in Europe. The pair are only a tick ahead of where the chances they’ve taken would expect them to be. Nor is the answer to be found simply in set pieces, with the side beating expectations both there and in open play. The more one looks at the data, it seems like Arsenal aren’t consistently scoring certain “types” of goals so much as just converting very well across the board. Add in that sides managed by Emery do not have a reputation for breaking xG models (see: Favre, Lucien), and the suspicion is that this trend will not last forever.   Defensively, the overperformance is more modest (conceded 33 non-penalty goals from a pre-shot xG of 37.53), and can be put down in no small part to the excellent form of goalkeeper Bernd Leno. StatsBomb’s shot stopping metrics have Leno as the best ‘keeper in the Premier League this season. Considering his general reputation in Germany, this seems to be quite the uptick in form. Whether this is a more accurate picture of his ability, a genuine improvement, or just a good run is to be determined. But the signs so far look good that Arsenal have a long term solution to what was often a problem position under Wenger. Ok, so it seems like Arsenal haven’t played substantially better this season than last. But, you’re probably saying, this is the first season of a radical break from how things have been done at the club for the past two decades. It’s not about playing well right now, but building something that can be successful in the long term. So let’s take a look at the stylistic changes Emery is implementing.   “Pressing” was something of a buzzword when Emery was appointed in the summer. Perhaps this was because of the success that fellow Premier League managers Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have had with variations on the approach, or then Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis’ description of Emery’s “progressive style of football”. A proactive, high pressing approach was what became expected, but it is not what has manifested. Arsenal are actually allowing opposition sides to complete slightly more passes on average (9.61) before making a defensive action than they did last season (8.96). When looking at their defensive distance, it has continued to largely fluctuate, and Arsenal are in fact doing their defending from slightly deeper positions than last year. What we are seeing more of, though, is aggression. This has been felt in Arsenal’s performances this season, with many bringing out the usual cliches of “desire” and commitment” after the win against Manchester United, but it can also be seen in the data. The team have seen a 24% increase in aggressive actions (tackles, pressure events and fouls a team makes within 2 seconds of an opposition ball receipt). Similarly, there has been a 12% increase on the percentage of opponent passes that are “aggressively” pressed by Arsenal. Emery might not necessarily be having his side press more or higher up the pitch, but when they do it, they apply an aggression that wasn’t previously seen.   On the flip side, some of the nice passing everyone associated with the Wenger era seems to be falling away under the Spaniard. Passes inside the opposition box has traditionally been an “Arsenal stat”, seeing the side generally lead the league for some time (though this was before the arrival of Pep Guardiola). There has been a 12% decrease in Arsenal’s volume of passes in the box, with Manchester City putting them well in the shade. This is the essential transition to Emery in a nutshell: harder, more aggressive, uglier.   We can see this in the players who are and are not thriving this season. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, for example, has filled in for Héctor Bellerín at right back and taken to the role like a duck to water. His very active form of defending seems ideal for this side, perhaps even more so than Bellerín, who still seems to be more comfortable with the Wenger style of play. Youngster Mattéo Guendouzi has enjoyed a terrific debut season at the club, with a combination of decent defensive output with a decent creative passing threat suggesting the 19 year old could go on to have the full skillset. But of course, if we’re talking about players not doing so well under Emery, there’s no place to go but Mesut Özil. Always treated with suspicion by some, the attacking midfielder nonetheless functioned as a key cog in keeping things fluid in the final third for Wenger. It does, unfortunately, seem as though things might be a little to frantic for him under Emery. Having started just three league games since the turn of the calendar year despite reportedly being the club’s highest earner, it’s obvious the manager isn’t sold, and the numbers certainly point toward him having less influence on the game than last season. There are serious squad construction questions to be asked of why his contract was renewed only for the new boss to decide he wasn’t convinced, but that is a brief that goes above Emery’s head. That might get at Arsenal’s biggest problem right now. All the decisions taken at the club, since well before anyone currently involved arrived, have been geared towards Wenger’s methods. Emery is trying to introduce some new ideas to a squad accustomed to doing things a certain way. There are signs that his ideas are taking hold, even if it has not led to a substantial performance improvement, but it still feels too early to judge whether this is the correct course. Emery is turning a cruise ship around, and it will take time, but we can at least see that things are changing at Arsenal.