Getafe’s push for Champions League qualification should be a fairytale story. A small team from a small commuter city to the south of Madrid, with a small budget, small stadium and even smaller crowds, they should evoke widespread sympathy and support. Even more so when one considers that their squad is filled with stories of toil and perseverance. Stories like those of Jaime Mata, who made his top-flight debut aged 29 after scoring at every level from the Tercera División (the fourth tier of Spanish football) upwards and is currently La Liga’s top scoring Spaniard; his strike partner Jorge Molina, who first got out of the fourth tier at 23, made his debut in the Primera at 29 and now, at 36, is providing a goal or assist every other game; and José Bordalás, who started his coaching career nearly quarter of a century ago but didn’t reach the top flight until the start of last season, a year after gaining promotion with Alavés only to be ushered aside having done so. It should be a fairytale story, but that isn’t the way it has largely been portrayed. That is because Getafe practice a style of play that has variously been described as negative, aggressive, even thuggish. Add in the consistently inflammatory utterings of their president Ángel Torres and you have a team who are not well liked. Supporters of Valencia and Leganés recently chanted in unison: “Fuck Getafe!” Bordalás bristles at the suggestion his side are primarily spoilers, but it is true that they foul more often than any other side in La Liga, and that their matches feature fewer combined passes (858) and shots (20.6) than other team. There is no getting away from the fact that they like to break games down into distinct passages of play, that they take few risks in attack, and that they are supremely well-organised out of possession. But they are also a very interesting team from a statistical standpoint, one with a unique profile across the big five European leagues. Getafe have little use for extended periods of possession. In the big five leagues, they are one of only 10 teams to complete less than 400 passes per match. Only Cardiff complete less. But Getafe neither defend nor attack like a typical team of that type. It is very rare to see a team that hold such a low share of the ball press as high and aggressively as Getafe do out of possession. There is certainly far from perfect correlation at work, but three of the top four teams in La Liga in terms of possession share are also in the top four in terms of the distance from their own goal they perform their average defensive action. The two major outliers are Real Betis (with the second highest possession share and 14th deepest defensive distance) and Getafe: second in terms of defensive distance but bottom of the league for possession, at just a 40% share. Amongst a group of 10 teams who complete less than 400 passes per match, only Getafe and Burnley rank within the top three in their respective leagues in terms of defensive distance. The others defend much deeper. And while Burnley are similar by that measure, they are much less proactive in contesting the ball and forcing turnovers, or at least have been in 2018-19. That is where Getafe really stand out. They only allow around nine opposition passes per defensive action (tackle, interception, foul), the eighth lowest in La Liga, while 27% of their defensive actions are classified as aggressive actions (tackles, pressure events and fouls that a team makes within two seconds of an opposition ball receipt). It is simply very difficult for opponents to pick a way through and get off shots, as their league third-best rank of just 10.5 shots conceded per match indicates. Their defensive activity map shows the extent to which their defensive work primarily occurs in opposition territory. At a player level, much of the pressing is done by the central midfielders and the two wide players in the 4-4-2 formation favoured by Bordalás. Mauro Arambarri leads the way with a league sixth-best 28.9 per 90. Arambarri is one of a cadre of Uruguayans (alongside Leandro Cabrera, Damián Suárez, Mathías Olivera and Sebastián Cristóforo) well-suited to a committed and competitive outfit. His ability to get about the pitch, sense danger and block off routes forward is perhaps best encapsulated by this clip of his foul on William Carvalho early into Getafe’s recent win away to Real Betis. See the way he anticipates the turnover of possession and quickly makes up ground to get right on top of Carvalho, who only escapes by means of some neat footwork. It also displays another key element in Getafe’s game: the tactical foul. This is a team who seek to consistently maintain an orderly shape out of possession. Whenever that is in danger, they have no qualms about bringing play to a halt. Again, it is notable how many of these fouls occur in high areas. Compare where Huesca, La Liga’s second most frequent foulers, commit their infractions. To where Getafe enact theirs. Add all of those elements together and you have one of the best defences in Spain. Football is a continuous and dynamic game, and the manner in which a team attacks is indivisible from the way they defend. As such, it is very much the case that Getafe’s strong defensive numbers and structure are directly linked to the way they attack. Getafe’s attacks are focused down the flanks. It is relatively rare to see a team where both full-backs are the ones primarily responsible for moving the ball into the final third. Last season, Eibar and Getafe were the only two sides like that in La Liga. This time around, it is again right-back Damián Suárez and left-back Vitorino Antunes who lead the way. The general route forward is a ball down the line to one of the two forwards pulling wide or a pass into the feet of a player dropping into the inside channel on that side, either the other forward or the wide player drifting infield. Three or four players are accumulated in relatively tight confines to try and work an overload to get in behind. If possession is lost, there are sufficient bodies in and around the ball to immediately pressurise it. It is easier to collapse upon the opposition there than in central areas where there are more potential out-balls. If progress isn’t made on one side, the ball is quickly switched to the other flank. No team in La Liga move forward as quickly as Getafe do. Most possession-light teams generate a significant percentage of their xG from set pieces and open-play crosses. Indeed, among those aforementioned 10 in the big-five leagues with less than 400 passes per match to their name, four of them create over half of their xG that way. Getafe, though, create less than 35% of theirs by those two methods. In La Liga, only Barcelona create a lower percentage that way. Getafe seek better shots. They may take less of them than all but Athletic Club, but when they do create chances they are generally high-quality ones, among the very best in the league. And they manage to do so without ever committing too many men forward. The second goal in the recent win over Real Betis demonstrates Getafe at their incisive best. From the relatively nothing situation of a contested high ball forward, a series of swift interchanges see Francisco Portillo and Molina combine to release Mata in behind to score. The end result is that while Getafe have been very marginally outshot (10.1 for; 10.5 against) this season, their xG balance is a favourable 0.14 per match. They are La Liga’s sixth best team by that measure, and while there are sides with a better xGD still within distance of them, four wins in their last five have not only seen them leapfrog fellow surprise act Alavés and a floundering Sevilla side into fourth place but also establish a four-point cushion there. It may not be the prettiest way of playing, it may engender complaints from opposing players, coaches and supporters, but it is working. The team with the fifth lowest budget in La Liga have a good chance (47% by FiveThirtyEight’s reckoning) of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history. In Getafe, at least, that would represent a genuine fairytale ending.
The swap deal last summer that saw Radja Nainggolan move from Roma to Inter, with Nicolo Zaniolo and Davide Santon (along with piles of cash) going the other way, is the type of transaction that will remain fascinating for years to come. Players with the type of stature that Nainggolan has, who move from one Champions League side to another, will generate a certain amount of fanfare.
Only focusing on Nainggolan’s involvement in the deal is intriguing enough, as Roma likely did a good job in timing the transfer given that Nainggolan was 30 years old and was susceptible to the aging process that many players around that age suffer. To this point, Nainggolan has had a decent season with a 0.42 scoring contribution (goals + assists) per 90 rate, but you rather be one year early than one year late with older players (especially someone like Nainggolan with questions surrounding his conditioning).
It’s Nicolo Zaniolo who has made that deal go from a mildly curious transaction, to one that has Roma fans jumping for joy and Inter fans looking over with envy. Fans take notice whenever young players show some signs of breaking out, and Zaniolo is no exception. Young attackers who show enough in their debut season to suggest they already belong against grown men are often positive indicators for their future in themselves (Marcus Rashford in 2015–16 as an example), and given Zaniolo’s decent shot volume + xG contribution, stardom may well be his long term outcome down the line.
However, there are some who aren’t convinced that Zaniolo has star-level upside to his game, specifically that his passing lacks a forward emphasis. These are fair criticisms and they put a strain both individually and on a team context. For the team, it means that you’re having to manoeuvre the squad with an extra constraint to work with. From an individual standpoint, it means that Zaniolo will have to be close to special in other areas to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere.
He can be quite conservative with his pass selection and has a tendency to recycle possession when opportunities arise for him to be more daring and attempt difficult passes. Even for the best attackers, it’s unfair to suggest that they complete these passes with great regularity, but you would hope that at times, at least they would attempt the pass.
With young players in particular, there’s greater leniency in terms of execution on home-run passes, but it’s important that they have the awareness to see these situations. Recycling the ball to a teammate is not the worst thing as a outcome, but you’re leaving potential value on the table by constantly opting for the safe option rather than trying to find something more advantageous. What makes this even weirder is that Zaniolo doesn’t necessarily have bad touch with his passes, so perhaps an optimist would say that with better coaching he could be coaxed into spreading his wings with his passing.
Where else does Zaniolo contribute? While he’s good in other aspects to his game beyond passing, it’s hard to say that he’s elite in any of them. His recognition off-ball is solid for a 19 year old. He can sense space that he can attack into with the hope of gaining the ball for shooting opportunities. The problem is that while he’s got the instincts, he doesn’t have elite speed off-ball to truly wreck teams with his runs and be a dynamic threat. To this point it hasn’t been a problem in Serie A, in part because of the different style of play that the league has, but I’m more hesitant to say that he’d be able to attack space in the same manner in other leagues.
Zaniolo’s dribbling is probably his best asset as a player, but not necessarily in the manner that you would think. His dribbling is quite impressive in congested areas whether he’s closer to the center of the pitch or hugging the touchline. He’s got impressive balance and guile in manoeuvring tight areas to execute dribbling sequences and evading multiple defenders. Given that he’s just over 6 feet tall, he can also use his size in certain situations to hold up play and seal his opponents, along with the ability to not get nudged off the ball as easily as others.
These traits have been valuable to Roma because he’s been able to keep possessions alive in situations where others would be more susceptible to dispossession. Where it’s fair to have some skepticism is that with his lack of elite burst, Zaniolo has a harder time using his dribbling abilities to unlock defenses during 1v1 situations higher up the pitch for shot opportunities in the same manner that players like Jadon Sancho or Leon Bailey (last season) have shown.
Analysis on Zaniolo should be grounded with the knowledge that this is his age 19 season, so in theory, he’s got a handful of years before he reaches the beginning of his prime. It could very well be that the current flaws in his game get ironed out by the time he gets to age 22–23, which would raise his value by an appreciable amount. As well, that in his debut season he’s putting up roughly league average shot metrics should allow for some level of optimism.
Yet it’s hard not to be skeptical of certain parts of Zaniolo’s game in the present. He’s not an overwhelming athlete, which wouldn’t be a major problem if he was a good to great passer, but to this point it’s hard to make that case. If you envision him moving forward as more of a conventional #10, the tunnel vision he exhibits is worrisome. If you envision him as a wide player, his conservative pass selection is slightly less of a concern but you’re still dealing with the worries regarding his athleticism.
While it’s entirely possible that Zaniolo gains greater awareness when in possession through more reps, along with having incremental athletic growth, if that doesn’t happen it will make it hard to see him in a great team as a key figure. Maybe with his size and ability to hold off opponents, there’s the slight chance that he’s able to transition into more of a striker as he gets closer to his prime years, which would change the equation and would make most of these points moot. As a more conventional attacking midfielder/winger, you’d almost have to compensate his lack of passing value by having close to exceptional passers elsewhere if he doesn’t improve, which isn’t impossible but given that Roma aren’t ludicrously flushed with cash, it’d certainly be a hard task.
The good news is that Roma are a long way away from having to worry about how Zaniolo would fit on a title contender, so this is the type of conversation that can wait for another day. Roma’s squad is an odd one: they’ve tried to simultaneously build a quality side that can compete in the present with numerous veteran players (Dzeko/Kolarov/Nzonzi/Florenzi), while covering their bases with young players that can both contribute in the present and have future upside (Kluivert/Schick/Pellegrini/Under). The arrangement hasn’t quite worked out yet, but the young players by and large have ably performed which is encouraging for the future outlook of the club.
It’s not hard to construct an argument that Nicolo Zaniolo is a solid prospect. One could take the optimist viewpoint and believe that with a more innovative coach at the helm, the concerns about his passing would dissipate and make it easier to project future stardom. To some extent, I am sympathetic to this argument given the effects that coaching can have on young attacking talent. Zaniolo is a fun example of thinking about young talents and their ceiling outcomes as a player, but as it stands now, there's reason to be hesitant about the hype that's surrounded his maiden voyage in Serie A.
Expected goals are in the news again as Man Utd have rocketed back into the top four race under the tutelage of Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer. In the wake of an odds-defying result in the Champions League (they were around 4% to get through v PSG) things looked great, and a defeat in an open game against Arsenal has only slightly reduced the shine on the Norwegian’s halo. To anyone switched on to evaluating football though there is a simple truth: Borne out by both actual analysis and the general feeling of watching the team, during 2019, at times, Man Utd have got the breaks.
What this has done, in part, is create a schism between ideas around Solskjaer’s future. I think it’s straightforward: he has improved results and the basis in which they have been achieved, so points and expected goal accumulation are heading in the right direction. He also gave everyone a fun night by “masterminding” a last minute comeback, something that heralded memories of 20 years ago, when he himself did it before. It’s all very romantic and sweet but even through an analytical prism, I’m not sure what more he could have done in his time at the helm, ergo, give him the job.
This isn’t the only idea though, notable analytics post-match chartist 11tegen11 got a ton of grief for suggesting that as Solskjaer had outperformed metrics and was likely to never have it so good, he should turn down the job if offered. This was a clumsy way of representing the point and clearly a step too far, but the core truth was valid: ahead of the defeat at Arsenal, Solskjaer had been riding the top of the wave. Some that were offended by stats jumped in to the debate too, including ESPN editor Alex Shaw, who opined that:
Just seen someone say Solskjaer may not be the right man because 'United are out performing their xG, long term that will revert.' What a joyless phrase that is.
One person’s joylessness is another’s useful information. Again, to reiterate, Solskjaer has improved Utd, but arguably only to a level that matches their undeniable talent, so in the mix behind Liverpool and Manchester City for the top four. Whether he can take the job on and move them up to the next level--to challenge for the title--is a key point. The gap to bridge is enormous, and will be for anyone. Man Utd still hold many of the same problems they did under Jose Mourinho, yet harbour ambitions of the highest realm. Aspects of the squad are aging and the defence appears to need remedial work, in truth it has done for years. That improvement will be a challenge and with Liverpool and City well bedded in to long term projects, it doesn’t feel like they will be careering back to the pack any time soon.
StatsBomb editor Mike Goodman noted that this round of “xG versus the world” featured a distinctly broader base of invested parties and perhaps that this represented progess. And that’s a healthy move. The stylised nerds against Real Football Men war may well rage on, but an increasing group of younger, engaged fans and people involved with football are interested in any aspect or analysis that broadens out their knowledge. Expected goals are well past the realm of niche outsider chat, for all that it probably hasn’t reached your dad’s mates down at the golf club. The future has arrived, as it tends to.
The essential wins created by following and understanding the numbers are frequently obvious and arrive often: Man Utd were always highly likely to drop back this season, Arsenal’s underlying quality was not very well reflected by their unbeaten start, Dortmund were never away and clear in Germany, Real Madrid are a declining unit full stop. There are further elements that are showing themselves even more recently as both Liverpool and Tottenham’s results quieten down to varying degrees. We can easily understand that both were ballooning over expectation throughout the autumn and early winter:
All the narratives exist in the difference between the red (reality) and blue (expectation) lines. However, the blue (xG) line gives us a strong idea of a team’s definable quality and quickly shows us that Liverpool are very good, but also that they were last season. Has the team actually improved? Now that’s hard to say. For Tottenham, the reality is rose-tinted, while expectation shows tangible decline. That they have hit a bumpy patch eventually in this season, feels long overdue, especially given issues around multiple injuries and a lack of squad reinforcement. None of this is to denigrate the enjoyment of the game, and you will find that people who are engaged in this stuff are every bit as interested in the sport as those that aren’t, perhaps moreso.
For players it can be more nuanced: Harry Kane’s shooting flagged him as a Premier League starter quickly, Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal drought during 2017-18 was always going to fade out as long as he was peppering the goal. It can work otherwise too: Marcus Rashford never had the shot volume to match his early goal totals when he broke through in his first season. It’s only now having been empowered into a striking role with an engaged manager in Solskjaer that we have seen his shot and goal volume enter the territory where he is no longer just an attractive attacking prospect, he’s now an attractive goalscoring prospect too.
Rashford’s emergence at such a young age mirrored that of Raheem Sterling. That they were even on the pitch for top clubs at early points in their development was a huge signifier. Sterling’s best season in a pre-Pep Guardiola world was arguably for Liverpool in 2013-14 but how did we really know that he had made the leap into becoming one of the league’s top performers in 2017-18? Clutch goals helped the casual fan notice, as did the sheer volume of goals, but plenty of players have hot scoring streaks. The reason we knew he was now undeniably the real deal was that the goals and creativity were backed up by the expected numbers, so more than likely were sustainable. Between 2016-17 and 2017-18 his expected goal contribution nearly doubledl. That's huge. These rates have continued this season too. The kid grew up and delivered.
Expected goals do help us make solid preliminary evaluations. Luka Jovic has had two goal filled seasons at Eintracht Frankfurt, and he has both good expected numbers and looks to be overshooting expectation:
The main point here is not a fear of unsustainable overachievement, but that his expected totals are extremely solid. For a 21 year old to be recording around 0.6 xG per game is a hugely positive indicator and that his goalscoring has landed on the positive side of that is a bonus. It's no wonder he looks to be attracting attention from Europe's top clubs as a versatile scorer who can shoot with either foot or his head, and scores freely.
But he's an obvious pick. Elsewhere, Lille’s Rafael Leão is intriguing. He has seven goals in Ligue 1 this season and at just 19 years old, there's certainly a touch of the Rashfords about his early profile; even moreso when you realise his shot volume (just over two per game) and expected goals (0.30 per 90) are more modest than his outputs (a goal rate of double that).
That’s not to denigrate his achievements, and you would certainly look at him as a young talent, but despite the goals, it could be that he is more of an forward prospect than a goalscoring prospect. He has converted most of his decent probability chances and expected goals helps us rationalise the expectation.
Expected goals also showed us Mohamed Salah was likely an elite player when he joined Liverpool rather than the Chelsea wash-out that many idle viewers thought. They backed up that he was having a season for the ages in 2017-18 too on two levels: his rates were superb but also that he was overshooting them. They also helped us understand that he was performing at a fairly similar level this season, and that a more “normal” goal return--which has still been enough to be high in the scoring charts--was more than fine too.
In fact Liverpool’s elite three man strikeforce as a whole are an informative case. Between them taken as a total (obviously they weren’t on the pitch 100% of the time) their expected goals per 90 were a combined 1.28 per 90 minutes in 2017-18 while their actual goal output was 1.73. This season their expected output is basically the same (1.24) while their output is 1.44. Everything around this conversation is elite, but to suggest that they’re less productive because they are exceeding expected goals by less than before fundamentally misunderstands the variable nature of finishing. Different levels of “great” are still great.
I started writing about football analytics in March 2014. Five years on, the uptake has been enormous, and what was once niche has found its way into the mainstream. There still remain challenges to broaden out analysis outside the expected goal framework, and to ensure that the key concepts are understood and not misused, but we have more and better information at our fingertips in 2019, and there is no excuse for the old tropes (“my grandmother could have finished that”) to take precedence any more.
Man Utd should give Solskjaer the job, but they should also give it him with a realistic expectation of what he can achieve in a given timeframe. They have a large upwards gap to traverse and it will take them time even if they get everything right. As one of the world’s wealthiest clubs, they should have a long term strategy to achieve those goals. Now, who is going to decide which players they buy this summer?
Brighton and Hove Albion are odds on to stay in the Premier League for a third season. This is the best it has been for The Seagulls since the early 1980s. All good, right? Upon winning promotion to the Premier League in 2017, Brighton manager Chris Hughton had a plan. Keep it tight, play a compact 4-4-1-1 system, get players behind the ball, and rely on grinding out enough low scoring wins to avoid relegation. He already had a well organised core of players from the Championship, with a sturdy defensive shape that was supplemented by adequate additions. It just needed a little sprinkling of quality to let the defence do its thing. Thus, it was the signing of Pascal Gross that proved to be key. Bought on a £2.7 million (per Transfermarkt) release clause, the German attacking midfielder put up the best expected goals and assists per 90 for any player outside the top six not named Riyad Mahrez. He led Brighton in open play passes into the box. If being the key to all the side’s attacking work wasn’t enough, he also led the team in pressures per 90. It’s hard to understate Gross’ importance to this team. So, with an emphasis on strong defensive organisation met by an attack powered by Gross, Brighton were able to do enough to stay in England’s top flight. 15th place and 40 points was an entirely respectable end point, though it perhaps undersold things a touch, with the team slightly underperforming xG at both ends. In the summer, Brighton looked to continue in the existing vein with interesting, analytics-friendly signings, largely from outside England. The aim here seemed to be both to recruit long term replacements for ageing members of the squad as well as helping balance the attack and decrease the reliance on Gross. The two most expensive signings, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Yves Bissouma, were in the latter category. As I wrote at the time, “Jahanbakhsh should diversify their options in this regard and help share the workload”, while Bissouma would offer creativity in deeper areas, “considering how little Brighton’s central midfielders were able to progress the ball last season”. Overall, I was very optimistic about Brighton’s business, believing that “all of this seems like a switched on recruitment process, looking in the right places for value players with potentially high upsides”. The signs looked good for a really positive season, taking the good defensive work done and adding more attacking firepower, building a side that wouldn’t need to worry too much about relegation and push for a midtable place. And how have things gone in reality? Well, not bad, but not quite as hoped. Hughton’s team sit in 15th place, just where they finished last season, an adequate 5 points from the relegation zone with a game in hand. FiveThirtyEight estimate that their odds of going down are just 5%. But the way they’re doing it has not shown much evidence of a team moving forward with a long term plan. When looking at the xG trendlines, it’s obvious that the team suffered a horrible slump in the first half of this season that they are only just now recovering from, with both attacking and defending output taking a hit. An important piece of context here is that Gross suffered an ankle injury at the start of September that kept him ruled out until late November. In the 8 fixtures the German missed, Brighton generated just 5.01 expected goals, or 0.63 per game. Since Gross’ return, this has ticked up to a not great but at least adequate 0.94. For Brighton to attack at all, it seems like the main man has to be there doing his thing. Gross now finds himself with a hamstring injury, and while Hughton insists it is not too serious, the team will need to find a strategy without the attacking midfielder if these problems are to become not infrequent. But what of the players brought in to help mitigate the Gross overreliance? It’s hard so see any successes. Jahanbakhsh, the club’s record signing, has been Hughton’s least used outfield player this season. In the limited time when he has actually been on the pitch, there hasn’t been too much to suggest it is where he belongs. And Bissouma? While he has also failed to become a regular starter, he is at least getting a reasonable volume of minutes. It seems clear that Hughton does not trust him to form part of a double pivot, instead generally switching to a three man midfield to accommodate the Malian. When comparing this season to his last at Lille, not only is he offering less in terms of ball progression, but his (possession adjusted) tackles and interceptions have fallen. What he is doing instead is pressuring the opposition a lot. This might sum up Hughton’s approach at Brighton. In its most charitable reading, he is having his players sacrifice their own styles for the greater good of the team. In its least charitable reading, he is constricting everyone’s performance in favour of extreme caution. Further up the pitch, 35 year old Glenn Murray is still leading the line. It’s certainly impressive that Murray still scores goals at his age in such a conservative side, even when you consider the number of penalties he takes. Like everyone else, though, Hughton is making him defend. A lot. Typically one would expect a mid-thirties striker to do as little as possible outside the box. The “Jermain Defoe role”, so to speak. How long Murray can keep doing all this hard work before his body gives way is an open question. In Jürgen Locadia and Florin Andone, Brighton have alternative strikers whose record at previous clubs suggests they should be capable of stepping in but, as has been the case with many players, have struggled for minutes under Hughton. It is of course the case that we have no idea what is happening within the club. Hughton is working with all of these players every day and it is not unreasonable to think that he has his reasons for the decisions he makes. Players are obviously human beings, and perhaps those brought in last summer generally aren’t settling in well. Perhaps the overly conservative set up is shielding frailties in certain defenders that would be consistently exposed in a more open style of play. Maybe he’s simply making fair assessments of the players’ ability, and Solly March really is just a better wide option than Jahanbakhsh. There is also the view less charitable to Hughton that would compare him to Brendan Rodgers’ time at Liverpool. Like Brighton’s recent recruitment, Liverpool’s business at the time was often driven by the “transfer committee” looking to make analytics favoured purchases often against the logic traditional managers go by. Rodgers found this approach very frustrating and often froze out signings made by others that didn’t fit his own plans. Plenty of those players have since failed at Liverpool or other clubs, such as Lazar Markovic and Javier Manquillo, while others like Luis Alberto and Roberto Firmino have shown themselves to be very good footballers. What might be more damning about Rodgers’ approach is how Liverpool have doubled down on the transfer committee approach since the Northern Irishman left, promoting Michael Edwards to sporting director. Under Edwards’ stewardship, Liverpool have been widely credited as among the shrewdest operators in the transfer market, a far cry from the disorganised mess in previous summers. It’s more complicated than simply saying that Rodgers was wrong and the committee was right, but what the situation made clear is that a consistent process where everyone is on the same page is one of the key changes Liverpool made. Perhaps the same might be true at Brighton. Hughton clearly has very specific ideas about what he wants from his team, while the recruitment seems aimed at something slightly different. Dan Ashworth has joined the club as director of football, and one of his first tasks should surely be to coordinate the transfer process better so that everyone is on the same page. Perhaps there needs to be a better sense emphasis in getting the specific requirements Hughton needs, but that should then be accompanied by a greater willingness to play new recruits. Or perhaps, and whisper it quietly, the style of football Hughton wants has a ceiling. Perhaps bringing greater talent to the attack will not significantly change the team when they do so little attacking anyway. If this is the case, and it is not certain that it is, then Brighton should possibly think about moving on from him in the not too distant future. One way or another Brighton’s mandate is to improve, not merely tread water slightly above the relegation zone. If they can do that by improving the players within Hughton’s system then great, but if they can’t then they should be bold enough to make more dramatic changes. Header image courtesy of the Press Association
Let us talk for a minute about Manchester United. The team is revitalized under Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The Jose Mourinho cloud is gone. The points are coming fast and furious. The side just completed a historic comeback in the Champions League and sent Paris Saint-Germain packing. There is also the small matter of the fact that their results seem, by the numbers, to be well outstripping their performances. Does it matter? First, let’s lay down some parameters. United are clearly better now than they were. Obviously that’s present in their results, but it’s also present in just about every aspect of performance we can capture in the numbers. Their xG trend lines aren’t exactly telling an ambiguous story. Since Solskjær came to town, the team is fourth in the Premier League in expected goals per match with 1.48 per match, and third in shots with 14.42. Under Mourinho they were sixth with 1.30 and fifth with 13.62. On the defensive side of the ball they went from seventh with 1.11 xG per match conceded and ninth with 12.54 shots conceded to fourth with 0.92 and seventh with 11.58. Those are legitimate steps in the right direction. On top of the improvement in their underlying numbers, they’ve also improved beyond them. This is the shot map of a team that’s running very very hot. And a defense that is similarly playing above its head. There’s nothing particularly ambiguous about what’s going on with United. They have both improved and gone on a hot streak at the same time. And here it’s important to talk about what exactly it means to get hot. From an xG perspective it simply means whatever is causing the team to score more and concede less is not accounted for in the model. Because the model works, and we know that teams over time largely converge to where the xG model predicts they will be, whatever is causing United’s hot run of form, is likely to be temporary, even as the underlying improvement proves more durable. The next question, at least as it relates to Solskjær, is how much of the temporary stuff that the team is riding is he responsible for, and how much truly is just the soccer gods. Some stuff is clearly out of his control. The fact that a referee awarded a marginal handball decision to keep United alive in the Champions League on a Wednesday night in Paris doesn’t make him a better manager. Similarly, if the ref hadn’t awarded the penalty it doesn’t make him worse. Some things, even things that massive results hinge on, are truly out of a manager’s hands. Other things are harder to judge. There’s the so-called new manager bump. It’s easy to understand how a team might respond positively to a new manager, especially after a contentious end to an old regime. Sometimes those changes are easily reflected in xG. And United’s xG has improved. To boil it down to its simplest terms. Mourinho had benched Paul Pogba. Then Mourinho got fired and Paul Pogba started playing again (and in a more free role than he ever had under the Portuguese manager) and voila, improvement. A new manager bump explained, and completely under the auspices of improvements in xG. Of course, there could be more than that going on. Maybe the sense of comradery and common purpose around the team contributed to the backup midfielders being more ready to play than one might expect on Wednesday (though conversely you might also have to wonder about the rash of injuries that led to having to play a backup midfield and what role the new manager has in causing that). Maybe there really just is a sense of magic around the squad generated by a club legend walking in and giving them free rein to play how they want to play. The beauty of methodology like xG is that you don’t have to deny that those things exist. You just have to properly situate them and understand that in the grand scheme of things they are fleeting. Which, when you think about something like a “new manager bounce,” is obvious. The whole idea of a new manager bounce is that it’s a temporary uptick in form brought about by the new voice, that fades as the new manager becomes, simply, the manager. There is tremendous amount of room for debate about why things happen in football. Nobody knows better than people immersed in analytics how truly long the long run is, and how frequently the results of a team can diverge from their underlying numbers, and for how long those divergences can persist. As the old saying goes, the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. And Leicester City won a Premier League title. What does that ultimately mean for United? Well, the questions surrounding them right now are interesting. How much of what’s going on right now should be laid at the feet of the manager and how much of it is simply proverbial VAR calls that he has no power to influence going the right way for this squad over and over again? What analytics adds to the table is a hard boundary on those questions. Whatever the answer, even if lots of it is down to Solskjær, it won’t continue forever. Whether it’s tomorrow, next month, or next season, the ball is going to stop flying into the top corner for United, all the penalty calls will stop going their way, and their performances will drift back to what their numbers suggest they should be. The good news is that those numbers are better than they used to be. That bad news is that those numbers suggest worse results than those that have been rolling in under Solskjær so far. Ultimately that discussion is relatively unimportant for the rest of this season. Solskjær is the manager. After seeming adrift of the top four, the team is in the thick of the race for the Champions League spots, and now, they’re in the quarterfinal of the Champions League itself. But, come this summer, when this year’s race is run, the cold reality of the numbers will again come to the fore. Manchester United will have to decide whether Solskjær deserves the job permanently. And if analytics tell us anything, it’s at that point, the numbers contain more information about what the future holds than the results do. Header image courtesy of the Press Association
The midfielder strides forward ball at feet, he looks up for options, no teammates are making themselves available. He beats one opponent and attempts a slide rule pass into space but the striker doesn't anticipate it and the ball runs harmlessly into touch. The crowd sighs - there he goes again, he seems to have all the skill in the world but no end product.
But what happens if this skilled player moves to a club with better quality teammates? Does he have more passing options? Are his dangerous through balls anticipated by better quality strikers?
What happens if you take the best player from a midtable team and put them in a great team?
Or, conversely, what happens if you put a single player from a great team into an average side? Does he raise the level of his teammates or does he get dragged down to the level of his new side?
And where is the tipping point? If you slowly added Aston Villa players into the Barcelona team when would they start to resemble Aston Villa more than Barcelona? They could probably take Jack Grealish in place of one of their midfield three and still be good. Maybe even Tammy Abraham as one of the front 3. But when you start swapping out Rakitic for Whelan and Messi for Kodjia you aren’t going to be playing like Barcelona anymore.
So can we test what happens when players move from great teams to average teams and vice versa?
Yes, by examining the impact on player outputs when they move between different level clubs.
To do this I have selected 22 players who transferred between clubs in the summer 2018 transfer window. For each player, I looked at the relative league position of the team they left (when they left it) and the team they joined. Moving from a midtable team to a Champions League regular would be seen as moving up a level. From midtable or higher, to a relegation fighting team would be moving down a level.
We will also look at players from relegated teams to see if moving down a league makes your outputs increase as you come up against lower level players.
It is relatively easy to find players who have moved to clubs of a similar level. As you might expect there are fewer examples of players who played for a high-level club a lot in 2017/18 and moved to a lower level team for the 2018/19 season.
Because it is believed that attacking output is less dependent on the team's style of play than defensive output (for example we would expect Burnley defenders to make more clearances than Manchester City defenders) I am looking mainly at midfielders and forward players.
The players selected are:
Giovani Lo Celso from PSG to Betis = Down a level
Andre Gomes from Barcelona to Everton = Down a level
Yuri Berchiche from PSG to Bilbao = Down a level
Victor Camarasa from Betis to Cardiff = Down a level
Cheickou Kouyate from West Ham to Crystal Palace = Same level
Ki Sung-yeung from Swansea to Newcastle = Same level
Richarlison from Watford to Everton = Same level
Gerard Moreno from Espanyol to Villareal = Same level
Kevin Gamiero from Athletico to Valencia = Same level
Sergio Canales from Real Sociedad to Betis = Same level
Daniel Wass from Celta Vigo to Betis = Same level
David Junca from Eibar to Celta Vigo = Same level
Ibrahim Amadou from Lille to Sevilla = Same level
Steven Nzonzi from Sevilla to Roma = Same level
Thomas Lemar from Monaco to Athletico = Same level
Jean Eudes Aholou from Strasbourg to Monaco = Same level
Jefferson Lerma from Levante to Bournemouth = Same level
Xherdan Shaqiri from Stoke City to Liverpool = Up a level
Fabian Ruiz from Betis to Napoli = Up a level
Rodri from Villareal to Athletico = Up a level
Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City to Manchester City = Up a level
Eric Maxim Chopou-Moting from Stoke City to PSG = Up a level
Yannick Bolasie from Everton (Prem) to Aston Villa (Championship) = Lower level
Sam Clucas from Swansea to Stoke (Championship) = Lower level
Gareth Barry - Relegated with West Brom = Lower level
Players who have moved down a level
A good place to start would be with Giovani Lo Celso. He seems to have settled in really well with Real Betis and 12 goals and 4 assists in all competitions have seen talk of interest from Barcelona and Real Madrid. So surely his radars will reflect this improvement in form?
We can see some elements have improved, with more dribbles and higher rates of xG assisted. But big drops in other outputs like xG buildup, passing accuracy, and interceptions. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of a different, more attacking, role with Betis? What about Andre Gomes, he had a torrid season with Barcelona and has been a fan favourite at Everton.
Andre Gomes has dropped in almost all key areas, with fewer pressures, worse passing, and fewer successful dribbles. The same is true of Berchiche and Camarasa. A star player on a poor team is likely to have lower outputs than an unwanted player on a higher level team.
Players who have stayed at the same level
This is our largest group of samples but the most interesting finding is that every player looked at has pretty much maintained their output, as measured on radars. Even those who have moved between leagues.
None of the players looked at have a significantly differently shaped radar in 2018/19 compared to 2017/18. They may have slightly changed due to the style of team they are playing in, or their individual form, but overall it looks as though output tends to be replicated when players move between clubs at a similar level.
This isn’t a bad thing, in fact it is a positive sign for scouting players as you can target areas of weakness within your side and be fairly confident that if a player settles into your system they should normally be expected to maintain their output levels.
Players who have moved up a level
When we talk of moving up a level we are normally talking about a midtable player being signed by a Champions League side. And if we look at Fabian Ruiz and Riyad Mahrez we can see that the impact on output is significant. Both players have increased their output significantly by playing alongside better players.
But what if players move up several levels. From a relegation-threatened team to title-chasing team.
Unfortunately, we don’t have many examples of this in the data set.
We do have one though. Xherdan Shaqiri, relegated with Stoke City he now has significant minutes in a Liverpool team chasing the title.
Looking at the 2017/18 radar from his time at Stoke City there is little to suggest a player who could be wearing a league winners medal this May.
But by 2018/19 he has the profile of a good attacking midfielder.
It is fair to say that everyone has known Shaqiri to be a talented player. With Bayern Munich and Inter Milan on his CV, and nearly 80 caps for Switzerland he has simply lacked consistency. Perhaps he is just a case of a player moving back to a level he should be at?
A more surprising move than Shaqiri to Liverpool was former Stoke City teammate Choupo-Moting moving to Paris Saint Germain.
Admittedly the sample size is small as he tends to take the role of a backup striker, but it is clear just how much impact on his output is due to the quality of the supplied passes and the dominance of his team.
This doesn’t mean you can take any random player from a relegated team and put them into a Champions League team and they would be a superstar. But it might suggest that there are plenty of players who would be adequate if surrounded by better players.
Some players going up several levels may even grow into the role and become genuinely good players, like Andrew Robertson who followed relegation with Hull City, to Champion’s League finalist with Liverpool.
The final output test to look at is the impact on relegation on a player’s output as measured by a radar. Team’s who are relegated from the Premier League will play the next season against lower quality opposition. Would we, therefore, expect that their relative ability would be higher. And if you measured that on a radar they would show up as better players.
As we can see dropping down a level has maintained the shape of the radar but increased the volume. They are the same players, but their output increases by playing at a lower level and their teammates are no longer worse than average players, but better than average players.
Conversely, we would expect the promoted players radars to shrink in size on promotion as the skill of their teammates relative to the opposition falls.
So what can we conclude?
Players moving to play alongside worse teammates will see a decrease in their output measured on a radar. Players moving to play alongside better teammates will see an increase in their output measured on a radar. This can be very large if moving up several levels. Players transferring between clubs at a similar level will usually maintain their output. Teams playing worse opposition will see individual performances increase. Teams playing better opposition will see individual performances decrease.
The important thing is to look at how relatively dominant the team the player is playing on is. A player with average numbers on a bad team may have higher potential than a player with good numbers on a great team.
Why does anybody do analytics? Another Sloan Sports conference has come and gone. For those who don’t know, the conference, held annually at MIT in Boston, is basically a trade show for sports analytics. Panels abound, there is glad handing galore, resumes are passed, and on panel after panel numbers are endlessly hashed and rehashed. Oh, and also, Meek Mill was there, because reasons. There’s also math. Papers are submitted, awards are handed out, posters are posted. And the thing about the math in the modern days of analytics is that it’s really complicated. There was a time when the bulk of analytics work was doing basic math and applying it to sports. That time is not this time, at least not at Sloan. When the math gets as complicated as it has, it presents a new set of challenges for the people doing the work. Part of the reason that football analytics coalesced around expected goals is that it fits comfortably within how people, both coaches and fans, traditionally think about the game. How many chances were created? How good were those chances? Would you rather have a lot of speculative efforts or a couple of golden chances? It’s not only that the questions xG sought to answer were ones that people intimately familiar with the game were already asking, it’s that it’s methodology was fairly simple as well. Look at all the shots, factor all the things that went into them (where they were, what part of the body they were with, now increasingly where the defenders in front of them were) throw in just a little dash of math to figure out how best to weight the variables, and you have an answer that works well (but clearly not perfectly) for both descriptive and predictive purposes. But, as analytics increasingly moves into the spaces behind the shots, into they “why” of it all, the chasm gets harder to bridge. The next step, one which we’ve presented some methodology on, is building a passing model. The idea is to do for everything before the shot what xG did for shots, answer the same questions everybody is asking, but do it in a rigorous stats based manner. Who is moving the ball forward into the best areas? Who is too aggressive with their passing, or too conservative? Who uses space to spring attacks, who consistently wastes it and fails to play the ball into advantageous areas? How much credit does a player who started a move deserve? Which passes are the most important and unique ones, and which ones are the kinds of passes that most players can make? These aren’t easy questions to answer. And while xG involved taking factors that everybody understood and adding in a sprinkling of math in order to get results, passing models are the opposite. Because, from a stats standpoint, the problem is so hard, the math to try and solve it becomes, well, a whole lot more mathy. There’s no avoiding the fact that building a passing model involves doing a lot of work that people will have neither the inclination nor the training to unpack. So, why do it? For people working inside the game that’s an easy answer. To get an edge. The hope is that a good passing model well implemented will turn up players that other methodologies miss. With limited time and limited scouting budgets, the ability to use numbers to unearth a handful of hidden gems to then send your scouts off to further investigate provides great value for teams. It’s hard to access that value of course. The process needs to run smoothly. A manager needs to communicate what he needs from a potential new player, the scouts and analytics department have to work together to unearth possible players that fit the bill, and then everybody has to crosscheck, see where their Venn diagrams overlap, and finally the business people need to execute the deal on any gems you may find. It’s hard to do it well, but it’s easy to explain why you’d go about that task. It’s a little bit harder when that task moves over to the media side of the game. On one level, I, as managing editor of an analytics website, find the process of analysis itself interesting. There is clearly some degree of public interest in how teams try and improve themselves, and what they could be doing better as they try and get a leg up on their competitors. Whether it’s youth systems, or set piece coaches, or state of the art medical facilities, or any of a million other little edges teams pursue, it’s interesting to supporters to report on what teams are doing to try and get better. But, at a more basic level, using analytics is also supposed to help us understand the game we’re covering better. Using xG helps people covering the game explain what’s happening. It’s easier now to pinpoint which teams good results are coming from a streak of hot finishing that’s unlikely to continue (think Arsenal earlier this year for example) or which struggling goal scorer is likely to come good. It will be more challenging for analytics writers to do the same with passing models. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but the added layer of math abstraction requires more translation. It’s not enough to say that a model demonstrates a player being good, it’s important to understand the model well enough to understand in football terms what he or she is good at. Similarly, if a model doesn’t rate a player, but that player seems to do some obvious things well, it’s incumbent upon the person citing the model to be able to explain in football terms what they’re taking off the table. Complex modeling is valuable. It will often pick up on things that the human eye does not. Used in concert with other tools it makes scouting and understanding the game easier. But modeling doesn’t explain itself. It’s never enough to shrug and defer to the model. Model’s, for them to work, must be integrated into a fundamental understanding of the game they’re modeling. When the models are relatively simple, like with xG, that’s a small hurdle to overcome. As the math gets more complex, the explanations get harder. That doesn’t make them any less important. Header image courtesy of the Press Association
Tomás Lanzini was relaxing on La Cala beach in Benalmádena, Málaga, soaking in the sun, staring out across the Mediterranean, when the call came through from his younger brother Manuel. It was 8th June 2018, six days before the start of the World Cup, and his brother bore bad news. He had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during an Argentina training session in Barcelona. He was out of the tournament.
As soon as the call ended, Tomás booked a flight to Barcelona. Not just because that’s what brothers do, but because he knew he could be of genuine, practical assistance. Manuel Lanzini is neither the only professional footballer in the Lanzini family nor the only one to have suffered that injury. Tomás, 15 months his senior, a forward most cherished for his spell at Ñublense in Chile, was in the latter stages of his own recovery from his second ACL rupture when Lanzini called.
“The injury that Manuel suffered, I had already suffered twice,” Tomás told StatsBomb. “Everything I learned during those recovery processes helped me help Manu through the process, let him know what to expect along the way. It is a difficult injury, and a long recovery process that demands a lot from you both physically and mentally, but I knew that with patience, calmness and above all, a lot of hard work, it is possible to get through it.”
Tomás was there by Lanzini’s side after he was operated on in Barcelona by the renowned surgeon, Dr. Ramón Cugat, and during the early days of his recovery. He took him to Málaga to continue the process, and then offered support and encouragement from afar once Lanzini returned to London to begin working directly with the medical team at West Ham and gradually closed in on a return he could never be certain was going to come.
“It is difficult to know if everything is going well,” Tomás explained. “In truth, you only really feel good once you get back to training out on the pitch, playing football and touching the ball without pain or other problems. That is the reality. There are months before in which you start to doubt yourself, when you are afraid. In those moments, maintaining faith in yourself and the work you are doing is very important. If you can maintain faith in those moments that is half the battle won.”
Lanzini did, and few were as delighted as Tomás to see him step back out onto the pitch for the first time during the final quarter-hour of West Ham’s 3-1 win at home to Fulham on 22nd February. Few, apart perhaps from coach Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean is used to working with talented playmakers. From Juan Riquelme to Robert Pires, Isco to Santi Cazorla, David Silva to Yaya Toure, he’s coached some of the best. But at West Ham, he has lacked a consistent figure capable of regulating the tempo, progressing the ball forward and providing a creative touch in the final third.
In a recent interview with The Independent, Pellegrini bemoaned the lack of availability of the players in his squad he considers playmakers: Lanzini, Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Andriy Yarmolenko. Whether or not you agree with his classification -- or indeed, the wisdom of investing in the salaries of players with injury histories as extensive as those of Nasri and Wilshere -- that last-mentioned trio had combined for just 935 minutes of action prior to Lanzini’s return against Fulham -- just 40% of the available game-time. No wonder he is glad to have Lanzini back.
“[He is the perfect player for us], not only in the way I like to play football,” Pellegrini said recently. “I think Manuel Lanzini for every manager would be a player that makes a difference.” The respect is mutual. “The style of play and the methodology of Pellegrini very much suits my brother,” Tómas explained. “A coach like Pellegrini is going to be great for his game.”
Even last season under the stodgy approach of Pellegrini’s predecessor David Moyes, Lanzini proved effective. He was both West Ham’s primary ball progressor, leading the team in deep progressions and passes into the box per 90, and their primary creator, likewise topping the charts in terms of xG assisted, key passes and set-piece xG assisted. All of that while completing a team-best 83% of his passes, making him one of only 16 players in the Premier League last season to combine at least six deep progressions and one key pass with a completion rate of 80% or higher. His scoring contribution (goals and assists) rate of 0.45 per 90 bettered his output during his previous two seasons in England.
A glimpse of what he will provide to the side was given in his first start since his return, a 2-0 home win over Newcastle on Saturday. From the opening minute, he drifted in search of the ball, provoking short combinations and seeking to manoeuvre his team forward.
By the end of the game, he had touched the ball more often (162 times) than any other player. He wasn’t directly involved in the creation of any chances, but he helped link things together and provided purpose and tempo to West Ham’s play. “You see Manu... he looked really good tonight,” Mark Noble, one of Lanzini’s closest friends at the club, told Sky Sports. “He’s such a fantastic player, and I think when we get him back to full fitness and we’ve got him and Felipe [Anderson]...”
There were certainly signs of an aesthetically pleasing and potentially fruitful partnership between Lanzini and Anderson. They exchanged passes more often (31 times) than any other pair of players, and made good territory with some of their cuter combinations.
In the absence of a central playmaker, Anderson has done much of the work expected of that role this season, carrying and passing the ball forward, creating opportunities for teammates. Perhaps with Lanzini alongside him to take on some of the load, he can be even more productive further up the pitch during the club’s run-in.
Lanzini is clearly not going to be a panacea for all the minor problems that combine to leave West Ham with the worst underlying statistics of any of the teams now in with a realistic shot at claiming seventh in the table and the European spot that might come with it. But in a congested race in which inconsistency has been a problem for all, his return certainly won’t hurt their chances of getting the results they need down the final stretch to maybe just sneak ahead of the competition.
The 26-year-old will also have a return to the international stage on his mind. It bears remembering that not only did he make the World Cup squad last summer, just a year removed from his international debut, but he was being spoken of as the ideal foil for Lionel Messi, the missing link that would bring everything together. Instead, he watched on from his Barcelona hospital bed as Argentina spluttered to a round-of-16 exit. Obviously, nothing can replace that lost opportunity, but if he could win a place in the squad for this summer’s Copa América, it would represent the first step towards getting another chance at Qatar 2022.
“It is the dream of every footballer to experience a World Cup, and he was on the verge of doing it, so it was very hard at the time,” Tomás recalled. “But later we realised that he still has time to return and be part of another one. Now that he has recovered, I don’t have any doubt that he will be there in Qatar.”
Header image courtesy of the Press Association
With ten games to go in the Premier League, the race for the Champions League is well and truly on. Three teams, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are in a virtual dead heat for the fourth spot, with a fourth, Tottenham Hotspur lurking slightly above the fray. Let’s set the stage for the run in.
Technically in sixth place, Chelsea are three points behind Arsenal and two behind Manchester United, but also have a game in hand. They also, despite their well publicized struggles, have the best numbers of the bunch. Their expected goal difference of 0.51 per match remains third best in the league. They still just take so many shots, 15.22 per match, second in the league, and concede so few, 9.15 the third fewest.
It’s easy to focus on their faults. The shots they create aren’t great ones, and they leave themselves vulnerable to create them. Jorginho has been shorter on incisiveness and longer and defensive vulnerability than expected. Teams really can carve Chelsea open.
But, it’s important not to overlook that on balance, over the course of the season, Chelsea simply keep the dang ball so much that it tilts most matches in their favor. Despite being behind in the standings that still leaves them as favorites, albeit small ones, to nab that fourth Champions League spot. The season hasn’t been pretty, and the last month has been brutal, but with a strong Cup final performance against Manchester City, and a surprisingly robust 2-0 against Tottenham immediately in their wake, Chelsea remain the likeliest of the bunch to qualify for the Champions League.
After struggling to find equilibrium over Unai Emery’s first couple of months in charge, Arsenal have finally accepted the destiny this awkward set of players have thrust upon them. They’re a wide open swashbuckling attack at any cost kind of a team. And it’s working. They average 1.45 xG per match, that’s the third best total in the Premier League. The problem is that they just can’t keep teams away from their goal. Defensively they’re very very average. Their 1.26 xG allowed is 12th best in the league. Not great.
There’s no real mystery surrounding why Arsenal’s defense is mired in mediocrity, it’s because their defenders aren’t very good, and the ones who are the most capable are hurt. So, on the whole there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Despite having terrible defenders they’re in the thick of the top four race. The team is getting younger, and seems to have hit on a real star in Matteo Guendouzi. He’s 19 and he’s doing this.
Further up the field Emery continues to get production out of all the really good players he has. Things haven’t been frictionless and there have been plenty of struggles off the field as Mesut Ozil continues to both make a lot of money, contribute when he’s playing, and only play from time to time. Similarly, though less controversially Alexandre Lacazette is now not an automatic starter, despite putting up great numbers when he’s out there. There are only so many minutes on the pitch for a lot of really skilled players, and every time out somebody who’s deserving gets the short straw. That may chafe some egos, but even so that chaffing isn’t showing up on the pitch.
The Gunners are also going to know a heck of a lot more about their future in the next two weeks. With the North London Derby this weekend they could do their chances a lot of good by pulling Spurs firmly back into the top four race. Four teams for two slots is a lot better than three teams for one and Manchester United come to town the following weekend. Right now Arsenal are slightly less likely to finish fourth than Chelsea, but their chances are going to shift a lot before we get to mid March.
The Manchester United revival continues apace. By the overall numbers their stats are more mediocre than the other teams in the top four race. Of course, most of those stats were accumulated under Jose Mourinho and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in charge.
United’s new lease on life has seen them play an open, attacking style which frees Pogba to do Pogba things in support of an attacking three who are largely freed from defensive responsibilities. This has made them potent against mediocre teams, but still leaves unanswered questions when it comes to facing the game’s elite. So far, the results have been mixed at best. The steely draw at home against Liverpool had a lot to recommend it, less so getting trounced by PSG, and a win against Tottenham that required David De Gea to stand on his head.
With ten games left to play, that’s the test that will make or break United’s season. With an away match to Arsenal and home matches against Manchester City and Chelsea still left to come, the real question for this new look United is can they do it against other good teams. If they find that gear they could squeak into that fourth spot and complete a pretty miraculous comeback for a team that looked dead in the water before the managerial switch.
The fact that it’s safe to say United are better now than they were. We just don’t yet know how much better.
They aren’t quite in the top four race yet. If they weren’t about to face Arsenal they probably wouldn’t even make the list. But the team has hit the skids at just the wrong time. Two losses in a row, even if one of them, an away defeat to Chelsea, is quite understandable, while everybody else is picking up steam has closed the gap quickly. A third would move the team which had seemed entirely safe and above the top four race to merely being favorites in a four team rumble. Oh, and they also have their two hardest matches of the season left on the schedule. Going to the Etihad and Anfield is a lot less scary when you do it with room to spare.