James Maddison and the Tantalizing Potential of Leicester City

Rebuilding a Premier League squad isn’t easy, especially when the memories of achieving such great heights are still so fresh, as it was for Leicester City with their Premier League title win in 2016. One of the dangers that Leicester faced was that because of the extraordinary feat that they accomplished, it would be hard to exist as a normal PL club afterwards. The next couple of years were filled with shaky transfers and the slow disassembling of their title winning squad, all the while there was the gradual accumulation of young talent that was sorely needed.

As we approach the end of the 2018-19 season, and with the growing pains that have occurred, Leicester have finally moved onto a new era and remodeled their squad in a way that’s more optimum for a club outside the big six. They’ve assembled a collection of young talent that not only ranks favorably with the non traditional powers in the PL, but also within some of the big players higher up the table. Players like Harvey Barnes, Wilfred Ndidi, Kelechi Ihenacho, Çağlar Söyüncü, Ben Chilwell are young and thread the needle between providing solid current value and still having future upside. A major reason why it’s smart to load up on young talent as a mid-table PL club is that any opportunities to break into the top tier will likely come through one of the young talents breaking out and becoming a star. Having more tickets to the lottery is a better strategy for upward mobility as a smaller club.

The headliner of those young talents is James Maddison, who’s transitioned quite seamlessly from the Championship. Maddison didn’t come cheap, with his fee in the region of £22m, but it looked a sensible deal given that he was one of the best players in the Championship last season. It was easy to see the appeal with Maddison coming in: he was a high volume shot contributor as a central midfielder for both himself and teammates at Norwich along with being a capable passer, and that player archetype is something that Leicester have not had over the past few years. For the most part he’s been as advertised, which is an encouraging return on Leicester’s investment.

 

 

Maddison’s role with Leicester has changed as the season has progressed. Under Claude Puel, Maddison played more like a traditional #10, playing high up the pitch and constantly hunting for space between the opposition midfield and defensive lines to receive passes. He would maneuver himself to be able to progress the ball upon receiving. If buildup was done properly, the defense would either put emphasis on his positioning and open space elsewhere, or Maddison would free himself in dangerous areas towards the final third. This was largely effective for Maddison, though there were times where there was a disconnect between his positioning and the double pivot behind him.

When Brendan Rodgers took over in late February he changed Maddison’s role. While you still see plenty of moments where he functions like a #10, you’re also seeing him more often collect the ball from deeper areas and trying to dictate play during buildup through recycling possession. Under Rodgers, Leicester have more often used a midfield three featuring Maddison, Ndidi, and Youri Tielemans. Of the three, Maddison has the most free rein to change his positioning depending on the situation.
On a team level, the early returns under Rodgers have been promising, though it’s important to note that Leicester have played seven out of their eight Premier League matches with Rodgers at the helm against clubs outside the big six.

In this role as a free roaming central midfielder, a lot of what makes Maddison an intriguing player is still on display but in slightly deeper areas. He’s just constantly on his toes trying to get himself into open space for teammates to get him the ball. Whether it be moving a couple of yards diagonally to be between two opposition players, or making in-out cuts on the blindside of his marker to lose him, he’s got a lot of tricks in the bag. Because of how much he’s on the move, there’ll be times where he’s open for a couple of seconds but he doesn’t receive the ball in the middle third. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see Maddison visibly show frustration when this happens.

 

 

Upon receiving the ball, Maddison does a very good job of maintaining balance if he’s pressured by the opponent. Maddison isn’t a physically imposing midfielder, he has more of a wiry frame, but he is able to use a quick burst to get the initial step on his opponent, and from there position his body so that all his marker can do is pull him down to draw fouls. This can be seen in Maddison’s near elite rate in drawing fouls, making up for his own individual dribbling numbers not necessarily standing out.

 

 

This play is illustrative of the multitude of skills that Maddison has in his locker. As he retreats back to help with buildup, the littlest of sidesteps helps confuse his marker and create enough space for a passing angle. When he’s about to receive the pass, he opens his body positioning so that once the ball is played to him from the CB, he’s able to immediately move forward in one motion instead of turning beforehand. With the littlest of bursts, he gets initial separation from his opponent and baits him to committing a foul by being in front of him and leveraging the threat of leaving him in the dust.

 

 

Given his intelligent positioning, ball progression into the final third and overall chance creation (in addition to everything else Maddison adds value with set piece creation) along with the ability to sporadically produce individual moments of ball carrying, the Ndidi/Maddison/Tielemans midfield has been quite harmonious in the limited sample size. Ndidi handles the brunt of the defensive work, while Maddison and Tielemans are positioned in the halfspaces, tasked with unlocking defenses. Maddison’s move to a deeper role hasn’t had an effect on his individual shot volume, as he’s taken more shots under Rodgers than Puel, 2.86 per 90 minutes as opposed to 2.41. His positional change has meant that he’s been starting his runs from deeper, being able to sneakily get into the edge of the box for shooting opportunities. It’s not the most optimal marriage of shot volume and location, but you’ll live with it given what else Maddison brings.

 

The most encouraging thing that can be said about James Maddison’s debut season at Leicester is that he’s largely been the same player that he was at Norwich, which is impressive given the jump up in league quality. His positioning and ability to interpret space is arguably his greatest strength, constantly hunting for openings within the opposition. His ability to pass into tight windows in the middle third has been solid, along with his capacity to either be the initiator of combination plays or act as the link-man. I’m interested to see if under Rodgers, his open play expected goal assisted rate increases next season given that he already ranks in the top three among Leicester players in either open play key passes or passes into the box. Maddison’s skillset is quite favorable to a permanet switch to the free roaming eight role, though there are the concerns with potential injuries because he gets kicked around a lot.

Next season will be fascinating for both Maddison individually and Leicester as a whole. With a smart transfer window (which should include keeping Tielemans on a permanent basis), Leicester should have a squad capable of contending for a top six spot if one or two of the giants has an off season, and it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that could happen. Manchester United and Chelsea are facing turbulent near futures for different reasons, while Arsenal have the unenviable task of having to massively retool an aging squad on limited funds. The door is ever so slightly open for some upward mobility by non-big six clubs, and for Leicester to take advantage, one or two of their young talents has to make the leap. Maddison is a good candidate given that he’s already got the rough outlines of an very good-perhaps-even-great center midfielder, and the limited sample size has been promising. If Maddison could even slightly increase his xG contribution in open play, not only will that take him to a higher level as a player, but it could be the jolt needed for Leicester to do big things next season.

The Champions League Underdog Bracket Preview: Spurs v Ajax

When Ajax and Spurs kick off in their shock Champions League semifinal match on April 30, it will be nearly 10 months since Ajax began their Champions League campaign. The Dutch runners-up entered the competition in the second qualifying round, opening on July 25 at home against Austrian side Sturm Graz. They won 5-1 on aggregate and then defeated Standard Liege of Belgium and Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv on their way to the group stage.

Tottenham’s path to the semis is, if anything, even stranger. After the first three group stage fixtures, from which Spurs took one point from nine, FiveThirtyEight gave the team a 12% chance of making it out of the group. But thanks to a massive turn in their own form along with a bit of help from Ajax’s Dutch rivals PSV, who drew against Inter Milan on the final match day, Spurs made it to the round of 16.

This is Tottenham’s first ever time in the Champions League semifinals. It is also the first time a team from outside Europe’s top five leagues has progressed this far since PSV reached the semifinals in 2004-05, falling 3-3 to Milan, with the Italian giants advancing to face Liverpool in Istanbul. The last time a team from outside the big five made the finals was when Jose Mourinho’s Porto won the tournament in 2003-04. So everything about this matchup is deeply weird and unexpected.

That being said, if you look at the tactical battles, things start to become a bit more predictable. Both teams have fairly established ways they prefer to play this season.

The Ajax Way

Ajax, in vintage Dutch fashion, set up in a 4-3-3 with center halves and midfielders who are all comfortable with the ball at their feet. Their most regular center back pairing features the up-and-coming Mattijas de Ligt alongside veteran ex-Man United man Daley Blind. Up top they are led most regularly by the attacking threesome of Hakim Ziyech, Kaspar Dolberg, and ex-Southampton attacker Dusan Tadic. The three have combined for 51 goals in the Eredivisie alone this season.In recent weeks, David Neres has become a more regular presence in the team, taking a spot on the wing with Tadic moving into a false nine role in place of Dolberg. That is the trio that took the field in both legs of the quarterfinal tie with Juventus. Given that the line between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 diamond has always been a little blurry in Dutch football, this move isn’t terribly surprising and is reflected in the passing charts you can see in recent Ajax matches. Here they are against Juventus in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals:

As you can see, Tadic has dropped off into a deeper role than wide forward Neres, as much a number 10 as a true striker, while Ziyech and Neres tucked into narrow wide attacking roles and combine with the nominal striker. The players that link midfield to attack are Donny van de Beek and Lasse Schone, who scored the free kick goal against Real Madrid that conclusively buried the three-time defending European champions in the round of 16.

This system is a fairly consistent one for the Dutch side. Here is another passing map, this one from their recent league victory against Willem II:

While it can be a little difficult to parse the midfield positioning, the shape, whether domestically or in Europe remains a 4-3-3 morphing into a 4-4-2 diamond.

The engine for the Ajax attack is Barcelona-bound midfielder Frenkie de Jong. You can see that in both charts above, as de Jong is the deepest midfielder and is used both as a bit of a possession metronome and as a primary ball progression outlet as he consistently supplies both the striker, Tadic, and his more aggressive midfield partners Schone and van de Beek. de Jong averages 14.57 deep progression per 90 minutes in the Eredivise far outstripping his teaamates. The only other player with double digits deep progression numbers in Daley Blind with 10.67, but Blind attempts more long balls, 4. whereas de Jong is focusing more on short, progressive passes into the central attacking zone.

The key for Ajax is successfully progressing the ball into the attacking third. Once they have done that, the creativity of Tadic and Ziyech has been a nightmare for opponents to deal with. Ziyech is currently averaging 2.17 open play key passes per 90 minutes while Tadic averages 2.5.

Not only are the Dutch giants dangerous with the ball in the attacking third, they’re also dangerous when the opposition has the ball in their own defensive third. Here is a defensive heat map for the Eredivise this season:

The Champions League map is similar, though not quite so extreme:

There is, in fact, an argument to be made that this Ajax side is built a bit like Luis Enrique’s Barcelona: They have elite technical players across the pitch, they focus on progressing the ball into the attacking third quickly, and once it is in the attacking third they rely on an aggressive press and elite playmaking attackers to create a high volume of quality chances.

Tottenham’s Tactical Revolving Door

Telling a single story about Tottenham’s tactics this season is impossible. Virtually the entire squad has missed significant chunks of time due to injury. If you define the core of this season’s Tottenham as Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Moussa Sissoko, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Son Heung-Min, and Harry Kane (which leaves the fullback roles and one midfield role open to rotation around this general core) then Tottenham’s core have started together in four of the club’s 53 competitive fixtures. Those seven players have also all appeared in four additional competitive fixtures, though they did not start together. Those four games in which they have started include two league fixtures and two European matches.

Because of how irregular the Tottenham best XI has been this season, it’s hard to say anything that can be backed up with a high degree of certainty and analytics. The team just hasn’t been stable enough due to the lack of summer signings, World Cup hangover, international duty, and general injury issues.

That being said, you can still discern some themes in how this version of Tottenham want to play. The defining problem for Spurs this season is that the team basically has no midfield. Eric Dier has missed most of the season, Mousa Dembele had limited minutes before being sold to China, Victor Wanyama has struggled for fitness, and both Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko are not vintage Pochettino midfielders. So Tottenham’s tactics this season have, by necessity, been reactive and specifically a reaction to the problem of not having a midfield.

How has Pochettino dealt with this? At  Cartilage Free Captain, Joel Wertheimer, has likened Pochettino’s solution to a soccer version of the “air raid” offense often seen in American football. The idea behind the air raid is that you eschew shorter plays and consistently attempt more aggressive, direct attacks. But this isn’t a hoof-it-and-hope strategy. It’s a considered tactical approach that recognizes a few key things:

  • Tottenham could no longer  rely on Mousa Dembele to do all the advanced defensive work in midfield.
  • Spurs have two excellent ball progressing center backs.
  • Spurs have four elite attacking players who are all excellent on the ball and clever with their movement.
  • Spurs one reliable midfielder, Sissoko, is a capable runner and linking player but is very limited in ball retention.

Given those factors, we have seen a predictable shift in Tottenham’s play this year. In the past the team played a relatively high block system and attempted to squeeze the game into the attacking half or even attacking third. The system depended on having attackers willing to press, midfielders who can sweep up what the attackers miss, and defenders who are generally excellent and are especially comfortable playing a high line and have the judgment to know when to step up and when to drop off. When the team included Dembele and Dier in midfield (or a fit Victor Wanyama) this system worked. But with all three unable to contribute at their peak level this season, the team needed a rethink and that is what Pochettino did.

The defenders now play a middle block—it’s not a deep-and-narrow countering style like Simeone’s Atletico or a vintage Mourinho team. But it also is not as high a line as in previous years under Pochettino. This is necessary because if the first line of the Tottenham press fails to win the ball, there is no second line to sweep up. Because of that, playing a high line would be suicidal.

There is a second benefit to playing a deeper line: It stretches the opposition and creates the mismatches that Spurs can exploit whenever Jan Vertonghen or Toby Alderweireld are able to quickly advance the ball into the attacking third.

The result of this system is reflected in the data. This heat map shows where Spurs defensive actions take place relative to the rest of the Premier League. As you can see, the front wave of the press still wins back the ball a lot in attacking areas, but if teams break that initial wave they are likely to progress the ball into the Spurs attacking third, as Tottenham basically does not defend in midfield.

When Spurs are at their best, their front line is buzzing around disrupting the opposition buildup and creating quick-developing chances off the fast build-up play facilitated by Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Sissoko, and, sometimes, fullbacks Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier.

Three Matchups to Watch

As you may have noticed, there is some overlap here between how the two teams want to play. Both want to keep the ball in the attacking third as much as possible, both have a forward line that likes to press and win back possession, and both rely on a couple deep lying playmaker types to handle much of their ball progression into the attacking third.

That being said, whereas Ajax does much of this through an elite midfield built on de Jong progressing the ball through the middle of the field to a couple box-to-box midfielders or a false nine, Spurs do it through the running of Rose or Sissoko and the passing of Alderweireld and Trippier. And while Ajax look to work the ball around inside the attacking third, Spurs play far fewer attacking third passes because their chances come very quickly after the ball has entered the final third. Given these stylistic points, a few matchups are likely to be especially important.

Can Tottenham’s front line disrupt de Jong?

With Harry Kane and Moussa Sissoko injured and Son Heung-Min suspended for the first leg, Spurs will have to play a makeshift attacking line. That being said, we’re likely to see a 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2 diamond hybrid with Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, Lucas Moura, and Fernando Llorente as the six forward players for Spurs. The team could also drop Llorente, play Lucas up top, and go for a 3-4-3 system with Dier and Wanyama in midfield and Dele and Eriksen supporting Moura. In either case, Dele, Eriksen, and Moura are all capable high pressers who could potentially disrupt de Jong, Blind, and de Ligt as they try to build the Ajax attack from the back. If Spurs can limit what Ajax’s deeper playmakers can create, it could strangle the Ajax attack before it can start.

How do Tottenham’s defenders handle the Ajax front five?

Neres, Tadic, and Ziyech all excel at playing tidy possession football in the attacking third, culminating in the creation of high-quality chances in the box. However, Vertonghen and Alderweireld, both former Ajax players who were partners in defense in Amsterdam before moving to Spurs, are both elite defenders who read the game well, anticipate opposition movement, and position themselves well to defend in the box.

That being said, Ajax is likely to have a lot of chances to run at their former defensive pairing. The lack of a midfield means that once the initial attacking press is broken, there is very little between the Ajax attackers and the Tottenham defense. It is probably not too much to say that the winner of this tie will be determined by how well Vertonghen and Alderweireld defend against their former team.

Can Spurs use their air raid to full effect?

It’s not just in defense where Tottenham’s two Belgian defenders figure to have a large impact on this tie. They also will play a major role in the Tottenham attack. If the defense can successfully progress the ball rapidly—which will be even more important since Sissoko’s ball progression in midfield will be missed in at least the first leg—then Spurs are likely to be able to create a lot of chances. Ajax’s back line is much less solid than Tottenham’s and so while Spurs can likely afford to cede some possession to Neres, Ziyech, and Tadic, one suspects that Ajax will be far less willing to give Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen, and Lucas Moura similar time on the ball in attacking areas.

Conclusion

The most unlikely Champions League semifinal in at least a decade may also be one of its most interesting ties. This Ajax side is the best non-big five team in Europe since Jose Mourinho’s Porto won the European crown. Spurs, meanwhile, are continuing to thrive thanks to the genius of Pochettino, the defensive excellent of Vertonghen and Alderweireld, and the fact that even if they never play all their elite attackers together due to injury, the one or two that are available keep delivering in clutch moments. If those trends continue, we will likely see the north London side making their first ever trip to the Champions League final. But if Dele and Eriksen struggle or the Belgian duo at the heart of the defense falter, Ajax will be headed to Madrid, looking to win their fifth ever European cup–a total that would bring them level with both of their potential opponents in Madrid.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association


Pass Footedness in the Premier League

One of the many enhanced features of StatsBomb Data is pass footedness. Today we’re going to look at some results from looking at this feature of the data and show how pass footedness manifests within the Premier League. Footedness has historically been a feature that has been added to shot data and not passes, but shot volumes are small, and genuine clues around footedness can be concealed by player style or availability or opportunity; for example a centre back who finds the ball at their feet in their opponents six yard box will likely swing whatever boot is nearest to generate a shot. Back in their own half comfortable in possession, they are more likely to make a conscious choice as to which foot they pass with. Already we have a more detailed cut to look at player preferences.

Right: since this is new, let’s get some simple facts out of the way.

  • There are an average of 870 passes in a 2018-19 Premier League game.
  • Of those passes, around two thirds are made with a player’s right foot.
  • Of the players, around three quarters are dominantly right footed.
  • Right footed players average around 87% of their passes with their dominant foot, left footed players around 85%.
  • On average, right footed passes are one metre longer than left footed passes.
  • Right footed passes are completed around 81% of the time, left footed passes 78.5%. This trend holds regardless of the foot dominance of players.
  • The difference between left footed players completion rates for their left foot (78.3%) and right foot (81.2%) is slightly larger than that of right footed players: left foot (78.6%) and right foot (80.9%).
  • These trends all generally hold if you shrink the width of the pitch to the width of the penalty box, which was my idea of how to minimise the effect of full backs and wide players versus the touchline.

These are just counted stats, modelling work would no doubt start to highlight confounding factors but it’s interesting to see nonetheless.

We can see trends towards fewer left footed passes being completed across the pitch:

Here we see a fascinating signifier, every team in the Premier League bar one, Wolves, completes passes in the final third at a higher percentage with the right foot than left.

Team Breakdowns

Most teams will have a minimum of one left footed player–their left full back–but usually more. We can contrast opposites in the Premier League by looking at the two teams that attempt more passes than any other teams: Chelsea and Manchester City.

Even allowing for the effect of positional switches, a season long overview gives fairly strong indicators of player location and team structures and tendencies.

Of Chelsea players to have appeared in ten or more games, only their two left backs can be considered to be left footed. Pedro is the only attacker to approach two-footedness from a passing perspective and his Left/Right split is 27%:73%. Manchester City’s squad is chock full of left footed enterprise, with centre back Aymeric Laporte, converted midfielder-cum-full back Fabian Delph (who with a 35%:65% split would actually be a top three in the league two footed player, but lacks minutes, more on this later), Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko all nominally part of the defensive corps, while David Silva and Phil Foden patrol midfield and Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva usually occupy the right-to left orientated location so many left footed attacking players now do. Even keeper Ederson is left footed.

The example of Man City is extreme, but it’s notable that five of ten high priced outfielders they have signed since the summer of 2016 are left footed, including the one player we’ve omitted so far: Leroy Sané. As a left footed, left sided forward, Sané is legitimately unique in the Premier League:

There’s only one Leroy Sané, literally.

That chart shows every left footed player (minimum 10 games) who has an average pass location within the final third, and the chart for 2017-18 shows the same trend. Not only are Sané’s pass locations on the other side of the pitch to all his inverted lefty compadres, but his passes are recorded higher up the pitch than any other player in the league. Raheem Sterling may have acquired the starting left forward role for Manchester City in recent months, but Sané remains a useful and different attacking weapon.

Two footed players

Part of the motivation to look at this was the search for that most elusive of player: a two footed genius, for which every pass is a decision made by the unconscious mind and for whom the balance of footedness is entirely natural. To my surprise, it turns out that idyllic vision is inhabited currently by just one player in the Premier League, Cardiff’s Harry Arter:


Credit @etmckinley for the viz concept

We’ll see some different scales on these as we go along so stay alert, but here we can see that although Arter doesn’t make a ton of passes (around 25 per 90), there’s a fair split between each foot. He also completes passes at the highest rate for his team at 78%. No player in the league comes close to his 48% : 52%, left to right split (sounds familiar…) and his range of mid to long passes forward with either foot have been a useful pressure release as Cardiff looked to remain in the Premier League this season.

We can see just how scarce this balance is here with this chart of open play passers:

(1000 minutes played to qualify)

The solitary red dot is Arter, and you can see the rest of the top twenty most two footed passers highlighted within and listed adjacent. There are simply very few players who balance their passing output between feet, especially at high volumes and even for those that do here, there’s perhaps a skew towards those who spend time in mostly central positions, which is logical. İlkay Gündoğan is the highest volume passer in the top list, and as we can see here, his general profile skews strongly towards his favoured right foot:

It’s interesting to think of players in these terms though. Even if a player is using their off-foot infrequently, it still feels like a useful skill, if only to avert trouble. The player with the least diverse footedness profile this season is Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi:

There’s no 48 to 52 split for Mustafi, he literally attempts one left footed pass for every 48 right footed attempts. The features of his passing; often long and upfield, or to his left, and far less to his right, gives a window into his positioning in possession, Arsenal’s use of a fairly high right full back, and perhaps a weakness, after all there are a limited set of directions Mustafi makes passes towards, and it will always be with his right foot.

Contrast quickly with Sokratis and Laurent Koscielny:

Each of Arsenal’s three main centre backs are almost entirely right footed, but have different passing profiles. Koscielny looks to switch between his fellow defenders, from side to side, while Sokratis will pass forwards with range, left or right. Should an opponent run a press against Arsenal, and consider blocking passing lanes and preventing easy outs, there is information here to work with.

We’ve just touched the surface of ideas around pass footedness here, but hopefully it’s given a flavour of how useful and informative it can be as a standard feature of a modern data specification. The reason why it helps as an aspect for pass modelling work or an input into recruitment analysis or opposition analysis: it scales. Every pass, in every game, in every league that StatsBomb collects holds body part information. Do remember too that StatsBomb has provided free data for women’s football and the 2018 World Cup, so if your interest is piqued by some of the ideas enclosed here, there are datasets available for you to work on too.

Now i’m off to petition the PFA to correct their Team of the Year oversight and replace Paul Pogba with Harry Arter.

Set Pieces Remain An Underutilised Gamechanger

This week I was lucky enough to present a comprehensive analysis of the Danish Superliga to an audience of 300 coaches, analysts, and administrators in Danish Football. The report was commissioned to not only analyse how the league has changed over the last five seasons, but also to benchmark it against the German Bundesliga and English Premier League. Our analyst Euan Dewar did a great job on the analysis and preparing the report, and it was fun to once again be in a packed room of football people, discussing data analysis. My understanding is that the entire report will be made available to the public at some point in the future.

StatsBomb do this type of analysis for clubs, federations, and governing bodies fairly regularly, and it’s a huge compliment to be trusted to produce honest, insightful analysis about the game.

One thing that was absolutely clear in the report was that Danish teams remain innovators in one specific area: set pieces. Danish teams score consistently more goals from set pieces than pretty much every other league in the world, including ones with considerably more money and more talent. (For more analysis on this, check out my earlier piece I Think We Broke Denmark.)

Let me also make something else clear – more goals are not being scored off set pieces because the defenses are bad at defending this phase of the game. More goals are being scored because a number of Danish teams are simply better at executing them. And they are better at executing because they do things differently.

What are the differences? First of all, they shoot more often off direct free kicks.

This might seem a basic point – OH GEEZ TAEK MORE SHOTS, SCORE MOAR GOALS RAAAAR – but they also score a higher percentage of those shots. Danish teams convert 8% of their DFKs compared to 6% in the Premier League, and 5.7% in the Bundesliga. That’s a significant gap, and one that seems to suggest there is a lot of slack in execution for teams in the bigger leagues.

Alright, what else?

Danish teams also target and succeed at exploiting different spaces off corners. If you know the better positions of maximum opportunity and are able to deliver balls to those areas, you can score more goals off what is traditionally a low-return phase of the game. (Teams score off corners between 2 and 2.5% across the full data set. We have seen certain teams double or treble that for multiple seasons.)

And…?

Well, remember how Andy Gray mocked Liverpool hiring a long throw coach?

Look ma, nearly free goals! (Approximate value in the Premier League, £2.5M each.)

Only possible in Denmark? Nope:

Find the edges, then exploit them. One team in Liverpool is suddenly scoring a bunch of goals from long throws. The other one hired our favourite long throw coach–Thomas Gronnemark.

Set piece execution is one main reasons Liverpool are having their greatest ever Premier League season. We have Liverpool scoring 17 goals so far in the league and conceding 6 for a goal difference of +11 in this phase of the game. Manchester City are +2 (9 scored, 7 conceded). Without that gap, the goal difference between the two contenders would go from a gap of 8 to 19, and there would likely be no title race.

The same is true further down the table as well. Given how tight the Top 4 race is right now, it’s entirely possible a difference of a few goals off this phase of the game could swing Champions League qualification for next season. When qualification is an automatic passport to tens of millions, and the least an English club will receive this season is a minimum of £86m, any edge to traverse the gap or maintain participation is worth every penny of outlay. We’ll take some time to revisit this once the season ends.

A couple of notes before I wrap this up…

Set Piece Program
We are taking applications from professional teams that want to work with us on set pieces for next season. We only work with a couple of teams on this max every season, and are exclusive to one team per league. If you work for a professional team with significant budget (bringing you goals does not come cheap), please send me an email to ted@statsbomb.com. We will choose who we work with by the end of May, so if your team wants to be in the mix, now is the time.

Set Piece Courses
For everyone else, we have tickets available for three set piece courses in June in New York, London, and Los Angeles. The courses will be taught by me, and cover both process and execution of set pieces from a coaching and analysis perspective.

To my knowledge, no one else in the world teaches a course like this, and certainly no one who works with professional teams. I made the decision to teach this information to interested parties quite simply because I feel the game is ready to change, but needed more talented people with education to carry it out. Part of my commitment to StatsBomb and its audience has been to teach people more about the game and how it operates instead of hoarding the info, and this once again falls squarely under that umbrella.

Links to buy tickets can be found here:

New York – June 2nd

London – June 11th

Los Angeles – July 7th

I hope to see a lot of you this summer.

Ted Knutson
CEO, StatsBomb
ted@statsbomb.com

Header Image Courtesy of the Press Association

Can Wolves Leave the Chasing Pack and Join the Premier League’s Big Six?

The case that Wolverhampton Wanderers are the seventh best team in the Premier League is an easy one to make. They’re seventh in the table, you don’t get a better intuitive starting point than that. The question, as they look towards next season is, how much better can they become?

There’s an interesting dichotomy to Wolves results. When they go toe to toe with England’s biggest clubs they are consistently able to put up big results. At the same time, the gap between Manchester United in sixth and Wolves in seventh is a massive 13 points. Wolves recent history backs this up. Over their last six matches they’ve taken a whopping seven points from big six sides, with home wins against both Arsenal and Manchester United as well as a draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. But, in their other three matches they took a grand total of a single point, losing away to Burnley and Southampton while drawing at home against Brighton and Hove Albion.

The results seem to suggest that Wolves are a team built on a very strong defense, but one that has trouble transitioning into attack against weaker sides. The numbers, at least to a certain, extent back this up. The top six have spent the season absolutely beating up on everybody else. Looking at expected goals per match against only the bottom 14 teams, there’s a real gap between them and the top six. They’re still the seventh best team when it comes to scoring on the best of the rest, but if they want to be on par with the best sides, they’ve got work to do.

Against good teams, Wolves can leverage their defense into creating counterattacking opportunities. They’re so good at absorbing pressure that they can invite teams onto them, and then attack into space using only three or four players. But, against everybody else, Wolves are left having to create their own space. They’re great at exploiting the holes teams give them, they’re less strong when they need to break through the wall themselves.

Theoretically speaking there are two ways to deal with a committed defense. Either ramp up the number of shots, a strategy that can be combined with remaining structurally sound defensively, or ramp up the positional risk taking to try and create great shots despite the number of players committed to stopping the attack (or be Manchester City and do both). Wolves do neither.

Against fellow teams in the bottom Wolves take just under 14 shots per match. That’s eighth best in the league.

That’s a fine number, and with the sides stellar defense it’s absolutely enough to keep them right there competing for the best of the rest, probably going to qualify for Europa League trophy. It would even be enough to push them towards the top six if they were augmenting it by taking great shots. The problem is, they aren’t.

Looking at the two tables makes the challenge ahead for Wolves crystal clear. If they want to run with the big boys they’re going to need to do something to juice up their attack against everybody else. Chelsea piles on the shots, Arsenal and Liverpool commit to getting high quality looks (Arsenal by sacrificing their defense and Liverpool by being awesome). City do both. Manchester United and Spurs aren’t quite as extreme, but rather are somewhat better than Wolves in both departments.

It should be possible for Wolves to overcome that challenge. This team, after all, didn’t simply defend their way to promotion. In the Championship they were a juggernaut on both sides of the ball. There are essentially two ways they might approach the problem, one is tactical and one is personnel. Or, possibly more likely, they’ll look to do both.

First, they could just continue to play exactly the same way but upgrade some of their players. In attack Wolves rely on their front two of Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota to do the majority of the work, supported first by right wingback Matt Doherty, and then by midfielder Leander Dendoncker from midfield. Dendoncker’s midfield partners rarely get forward, and the left wingback is consistently more conservative than the attack first Doherty. Either upgrading Dendoncker (who is himself technically on loan from Anderlecht) to a more complete and dynamic midfield option, or doing the same at left wingback, might boost the attack all by itself. Wolves will need to add depth to their thing squad anyway, and adding pieces at the top of the depth chart might solve the attacking dynamism problem.

Secondly, they could loosen the tactical shackles they’ve placed on themselves. A little less focus on their defensive structure might make their defensive structure slightly less sound, but allowing a non-Dendoncker midfielder to get forward from time to time would likely more than make up for it. It’s possible that this will happen naturally. This is, after all, Wolves first season in the top flight. It was reasonable for them to treat away matches against pretty much everybody as affairs to be approached cautiously. Next season, with higher expectations, the team should be less interested in approaching matches from a defense first, happy just to get a draw approach. That doesn’t mean they should go hog wild and starting throwing eight men forward, but that they should be more willing to try and ratchet up pressure in more situations.

Those two options feed off each other. If they upgrade their talent either in central defense or midfield, it’s possible they might be able to play a somewhat more expansive game without sacrificing the superior defense that’s gotten them to this point. What Wolves can’t do is invest in talent that would allow them to play more expansively while not giving them the freedom to do so. That’s how you waste money and tread water, rather than continuing what has been a meteoric climb.

The exciting thing for Wolves is that their recent history suggests they have the capability to ratchet up the attacking intent if they choose to do so. It’s understandable that they didn’t this season. Next season there’s at least a chance they could build the squad that supports that approach. And if they do, there’s no reason they couldn’t close the gap to the top six, and with a couple of breaks, join the upper tier of the Premier League themselves.

Obviously Mohamed Salah Should Have Been on the PFA Shortlist

It doesn’t take advanced statistics to understand how absurd Mohamed Salah not even being shortlisted for the Professional Football Association men’s Player of the Year award is. Six players make the list, and there’s a case to be made that Salah is more deserving than five of them.

Let’s start by taking Salah’s teammate, defender Virgil van Dijk off the table. Van Dijk is an imposing granite statue given magical life and mystical defensive powers beyond our ken. Nobody particularly disputes that he’s the best defender in the Premier League, and since it’s impossible to compare defenders to attackers anyway, let’s assume he deserves to be there, quite possibly deserves to win the award, and that there’s no real reason to think otherwise.

Everybody else on the other hand, well, let’s break it down. There were five phenomenal attackers nominated for the award. Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Sadio Mane and Eden Hazard are all great. Its not clear that any of them are having a better year than Salah though.

Ageuro and Sterling are probably the two with the most impressive resumes. Aguero’s 19 goals are tied for the league lead with, you guessed it, Salah. And, to Aguero’s credit, he’s scored only two penalty goals while Salah has scored three, and he’s run up the goal total in less minutes, 2221 than Salah’s 3169. The assists tell a similar story, Aguero has eight and Salah has seven. Both impressive numbers to go alongside their goal scoring, Aguero’s more impressive, given the shorter minutes.

It’s worth noting here that Salah’s expected goals assisted per 90 tally is actually significantly higher than Aguero’s, 0.23 to 0.15. There are good reasons to not use xG when looking at end of the year awards. The metric is great at predicting what will happen, and how players that overperform will eventually come back to earth, but awards are backwards looking, not forwards looking. It seems both right and appropriate to award a player credit for having a great finishing season. But, assists are a slightly different matter. A player with a lot of assists, but with a relatively low xG assisted is, more or less, getting rewarded for his teammates’ finishing. At some point, the topline numbers are the topline numbers, but when it comes to passing it’s at least worth considering what’s going on under the hood.

Regardless, while you might make the case that Salah’s season is as good as Aguero’s it’s certainly not clearly better.

The same is true of Aguero’s teammate, Raheem Sterling. Sterling is having an amazing season. His goal scoring is based on some incredibly strong finishing, he’s averaging 0.60 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes, and “only” 0.40 xG per 90. Either he magically learned how to kick the ball last summer while he was in Russia, or finishing is itself a noisy skill that often times is divorced from talent level, and the arguments that he lacked the ability to finish before this season were greatly exaggerated.

But, incredible as it seems to say about a man with 17 goals, it’s his passing that sets him apart from everybody else. His nine assists leave him tied for fifth in the Premier League, but he’s gotten those without the benefit of his teammates excelling at finishing his passes. He leads the league in xG assisted per 90 with an eye watering 0.35. There are only two other players in England that have played 1000 minutes and cleared 0.30 and they happen to be his teammates Leroy Sane and David Silva. If you want to make the case for the best attacking passer in this season’s Premier League, Sterling might be your guy. Combine that passing with a great finishing year, and again it’s hard to argue that Salah is having a better season than Sterling. Aguero and Sterling are the only two players with combined goals and assists per 90 that are higher than 0.90, hard to see how they should be here.

And this is where things start to get interesting. Eden Hazard’s major claim to this list is his creative ability. His 16 goals are a lot, but a fully quarter of them are penalties. His non-penalty goals per 90 rate of 0.37 is below Salah’s 0.45. Of course, Hazard makes up for that in the assist department where he has a league leading 13. But, while his assist total far outstrips the Egyptian’s he only assists 0.03 more xG per match. In effect the reason Hazard is on this list and Salah is not is that his teammates have done a better job finishing his passes than Salah’s have.

Of course, things are never that cut and dry. Hazard has been performing on a team which isn’t nearly as good as Salah. He is often asked to shoulder all the attacking creativity himself, while Salah gets to share it across the frontline. In fact, Hazard is the only player not from one of the top two teams on this list. Great team effects are a thing, and it’s easier to rack up the assists if you’ve got another top player or two to interact with. The argument for Hazard is that if the attackers swapped teams, Hazard’s numbers would go up and Salah’s would go down, demonstrating that in fact putting up lesser numbers on the poorer team is the greater achievement. It’s not a bad case, even if it is ultimately a theoretical argument that’s impossible to prove.

That argument isn’t available to Salah’s teammate, Sadio Mané. Mané has exactly one thing going for him. He’s scored 18 goals, none of them penalties. His non-penalty goal scoring rate of 0.55 is higher than Salah’s 0.45. Salah is better at literally everything else. Mané only has one assist, and his xG assisted rate of 0.15 is lower than Salah’s. And hey, scoring goals, non-penalty ones even, is important, but it’s not the only thing an attacker does (and if it was, well, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has scored more total goals and at exactly the same rate for non-penalty goals and he didn’t make the list). It’s just hard to find a real reason to include Mané over Salah that doesn’t amount to getting bored with last year’s winner and casting around for some new blood.

And that’s before we even get to Bernardo Silva. City’s younger Silva is a wonderful player. He has also scored a grand total of six goals and assisted on seven. His creative output isn’t higher than Salah’s, and it’s not a result of his teammates’ finishing either, his xG assisted per 90 is 0.21, higher than Mané’s but lower than every other attacker on this list. The case for Silva over Salah would primarily be a defensive one. Silva is truly a wonderful presser of the ball, and since he often plays as somewhat more of a midfielder than an attacker, it’s understandable that his attacking numbers are a little bit lower. And looking at their radars side by side it’s clear that Salah and Silva really do completely different things.

But, even so, it’s just hard to wrap your brain around Bernardo Silva being on this list because he’s a good pressing midfielder. He’s not even the most important midfielder on Manchester City when it comes to defensive contribution, that’s Fernandinho. In fact, Fernandinho would have a larger claim to this list than Silva, and it would be easier to make the case for him over Salah than it is for the all around game of Silva. Silva is a very good player, and he’s had an excellent season, but it pales in comparison to Salah.

Ultimately awards are silly. They exist only so we can argue about them and players can feel slighted by not receiving them and thus fuel their emotional and competitive fires. But, even understanding that, it takes some extreme mental gymnastics to make a list for player of the year that leaves off last year’s winner, especially given that he’s currently the joint top joint goal scorer in the Premier League. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter that the PFA made a bizarre decision to leave Salah off this list, but that doesn’t make it any more right.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

What Does a Fullback Do in 2019?

It used to be so simple.

A fullback’s job was to stop the opposition winger from putting crosses in. It was about providing support to the centre backs and maintaining a good shape without the ball, preventing spaces between the back four which the opposition could exploit. This understanding of the role began to be challenged in the 90s and especially into the twenty first century, with the left and right backs taking up more and more advanced positions to the point where some less enlightened commentators would say they are “really wingers”. That players in these positions used their deeper starting points to gain acceleration, and thus would be less suited to a classic wide midfield role, often seemed to be misunderstood.

Pep Guardiola, ever the tactical innovator, took this to extremes with Dani Alves at Barcelona, and the rest of football followed suit. But when he moved over to Bayern Munich, he surprised somewhat with his very different ideas about how a fullback should play. This was not in small part down to personnel, with Philipp Lahm and David Alaba both outstanding footballers, but generally better in possession than as outlets bombing down the flanks. So, the Catalan opted to play “inverted” fullbacks, who would effectively become central midfielders at times during the side’s build up play. It seemed at the time as though Guardiola, the man who so frequently set the tone for how football tactics would evolve, had invented the next big trend. In five years’ time, every top side in Europe would surely be employing the inverted fullback role to some extent.

But something else happened. The inverted fullback role exists, yes, but it’s hardly a dominant trend. The overlapping fullback, far from dying a slow death, has arguably hit new heights. Liverpool, with the 6 players in front of them generally very narrow and compact, have seen full backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold become the club’s top assist getters. The position, rather than adopting a new norm as it previously did, has become more diffuse than ever. By my count there are roughly four main types of fullback in the modern game. Let’s take a look at them.

The Overlapping Fullback

The dominant form of full back at top sides in the twenty first century continues to play a big part in football. As the sport became less about two conventional 4-4-2 systems battling against each other, wingers started adjusting to attack more central spaces, and fullbacks started to find themselves with more opportunities to break forward. And the prominence of these more narrow, often inverted, wingers made it important to get the width from somewhere, so fullbacks were bombing down the flank all the time. Thus what the role requires perhaps most of all is a high level of athleticism, allowing the player to contribute in wide areas of the final third while still getting back quick enough for defensive duties. This is difficult, and it leads to a lot of players getting exposed in this role, especially as they hit the later years of their career and can’t move as they once did. One player who does tick these boxes is the aforementioned Robertson, currently leading the Premier League in assists for fullbacks.

A thing that marks Robertson out among some others in the role is his relatively low volume of dribbles. The Scot generally offers an outlet without the ball, often arriving on the edge of the box, but rarely beats a man himself. This is in stark contrast to someone like Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who also likes to overlap, but interprets the role differently.

Wan-Bissaka is much more all action than Robertson, managing to get through a huge volume of defensive work while still pushing forward. But, as most fullbacks can’t do everything he does, there has to be some kind of strategy for preventing the side getting exposed when they push up the pitch. The most simple answer is to only have one fullback join the attack at a time, but this obviously limits the attacking options. For a while, a popular approach was to have the centre backs split wide, while the defensive midfielder drops in between and plays almost a sweeper-esque role. A more recent strategy can be seen at Liverpool, where the left sided central midfielder (most commonly James Milner or Naby Keita) drops into the backline to fill the space left by Robertson, while the right sided centre back moves across slightly to occupy the territory vacated by Alexander-Arnold. What is certainly the case is that, if your side wants to avoid easy counter attack situations for the opposition, there has to be some kind of attempt to cover the space wide of the centre backs when fullbacks overlap.

The Inverted Fullback

The Guardiola special. When the Catalan arrived at Bayern, not only did he inherit fullbacks more comfortable in possession than running down the flanks, but also a different kind of wide player than what he was used to at Barcelona. Previously he had operated with the likes of Thierry Henry, David Villa, Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and at times some bloke called Lionel Messi in the wide forward roles. These were all very much wide forwards, more comfortable taking up roles high and narrow, especially once Messi moved to the false nine role and created space for the “wingers” to attack in the centre. At Bayern, however, he inherited Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben who, yes, like to cut inside (we’ve all watched that one Robben move over and over), but start from wider positions, preferring to dribble more frequently. Thus it made sense to have the fullbacks take up narrower positions and help the team structure in other ways. Crucially, allowing them to fill the gaps in midfield helped prevent counter attacks from sides that defended deep, possibly the only weakness of Guardiola’s Barcelona team. After the mess that was the fullback positions in Guardiola’s first season at Manchester City, he began to implement the approach especially with Fabian Delph. A natural central midfielder, Delph was able to dovetail with Leroy Sane wonderfully, as Sane took up classic winger positions as a natural left footed player on the left, with Delph thus taking up narrower positions and coming inside to join the midfield. Delph occupying this more central position thus allowed central midfielders David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to push higher up, in turn making sure Sane kept a wider role.

This season, with Delph’s injury, alternate options Oleksandr Zinchenko and Danilo not being of the same ability, and Raheem Sterling’s form on the left as more of an inverted wide forward, Guardiola has been more flexible in his left back approach. Benjamin Mendy has often been deployed as an overlapping fullback. But there is another question of Kyle Walker’s role at right back, which brings us to…

The Auxiliary Centre Back

During last summer’s World Cup, much fuss was made over England manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to field Kyle Walker as a right sided centre back in a 3-5-2 system. “He’s playing one of the best right backs in the world out of position at centre back”, said many. But anyone who had watched Manchester City closely in the preceding season would have seen that it was a role largely in keeping with what he was already doing. As Delph would move inside on the left to at times form a double pivot with defensive midfielder Fernandinho, on the other side, Walker would shuffle along to become a third centre back, keeping Guardiola’s preferred 3-2 defensive structure. This doesn’t mean Walker interprets the role as a purely defensive one, far from it, as he really becomes an extreme example of a ball playing centre back at times.

The rise of back three systems, and increasing use of formations that oscillate between three and four defenders, has blurred the lines between fullback and centre back. A player like Cesar Azpilicueta, a natural fullback if ever there was one, was deployed as a right sided centre back under Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system. It was ultimately only a slight shift from his naturally defensive focused fullback game. As we are in an era where formations are particularly fluid, this kind of not-quite-one-not-quite-the-other role is common. But sometimes, systems are not very fluid at all, and make use of…

The Classic Defensive Fullback

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As much as many teams like to play fluid, interchanging football, there’s still a time and place for teams primarily trying to keep a compact defensive shape, and if said shape involves two banks of four, then you need classic defensive fullbacks. Take Burnley’s Phil Bardsley, for example.

Everyone knows how Sean Dyche likes his team to play. Burnley operate an at times aggressive but always compact 4-4-2 system. That means that a lot of the fullbacks’ work doesn’t show up in the numbers, with maintaining a good position being the most important thing. Being able to do basic defensive tasks such as dominating in the air are also useful, so it’s not shocking that all the radar shows him doing is winning aerial duels and not giving the ball away. If Burnley were to try and do anything more expansive, one imagines Bardsley would be continually exposed, but as it is, he does what is required of him and nothing more.

The fullback position has never been more diverse in terms of how it can be interpreted. Once largely understood in the same way, it gradually became a question of how attacking or defensive a side wanted to be. Now, however, it can mean many different things to many different players and systems. Just like every other position on the pitch.

Villarreal’s Samuel Chukwueze Could Become a Star, if His Right Foot Doesn’t Get in the Way

Heading into the 2018–19 season, there was little to suggest that Villarreal were going to have a difficult league campaign. Having talents like Rodrigo and Samu Castillejo depart over the summer was a blow, but the club spent amply ion the market for capable players like Santiago Caseres, Karl Toko Ekambi, and Gerard Moreno. There was still enough collective talent on the squad to think that Villarreal would once again hang around the Europa League spots. However, that’s not been the case. They’ve had a campaign from hell, flirting with relegation for the majority of the season. It’s been chaotic enough that their current manager Javier Calleja is on his second stint within this season alone, coming back in late January after his initial firing in December.

Even with all that the disappointment, there have been a couple of bright spots. Given the severity of the medical procedures he’s endured, Santi Cazorla playing over 2000 league minutes at a high level is a minor miracle. The other bright spot has been the emergence of Samuel Chukwueze, who has been electric on the wing for Villarreal recently in La Liga. Given the overall struggles that the club has faced, having a scoring contribution per 90 rate of 0.47 as a 19 year old in his debut season is no small feat and it’s easy to see why he’s been tipped to do big things in the future. Putting up higher than league average shot volume with around league average xG contribution are positive indicators for future success

It hasn’t been all rosy for Chukwueze in his maiden voyage, as he was limited to sub appearance for a two month period between January and March, but he’s still on pace to play over 1500 league minutes, which isn’t an insignificant amount. Though it’s by no means definitive, the mere act of getting consistent minutes in a big five league for young talents is encouraging. And when he’s at his best, the young winger has a sort of electricity that’s made him must see TV. What’s interesting with Chukwueze is that his dribbling is sort of one dimensional; he always wants to get to his left foot and cut inside. He doesn’t use his speed to pose much of a threat to get to the byline and cross the ball, but he’s effective in using feints and his first step when cutting inside because he’s possesses a high level of burst.

Another area where you see Chukwueze’s athleticism is whenever he tries to make off-ball runs, especially during transition opportunities. He can make either looping runs where he sees an opening in the middle between opposition defenders, or be on the blindside of an opponent before bursting into the right wing and isolating himself against a lone defender. Sometimes he’ll combine both his off-ball movement with quick flicks off his first touch when receiving the ball to get the defender off-balance (his ability to control passes during counter attacks without breaking stride with his running is quite strong).

Chukwueze’s passing and shooting are more of a mixed bag. The ample shot volume is a positive at just over three shots per 90 minutes. His shot map is not a surprise for an inverted winger, especially one that doesn’t play on a high powered attack. Wingers who don’t play in highly coordinated systems are more susceptible to having a high volume of shots taken from the wide areas, which are tough areas to score from on a consistent basis and help contribute to a lower xG/shot. When looking at film, it was noticeable to see that a fair amount of Chukwueze’s shots were ones where there weren’t better options besides shooting into traffic from the right channel and hoping for the best.

I think it would be a stretch to say that Chukwueze is a net-positive as a passer at this point, but it’s not like he has cinder blocks for feet. He can make functional passes from the wings into the channels, or switches of play when more attention is being shown his direction. During counter attacks, he’ll spot a teammate get into open space and try to feed him the ball to varying levels of success. Where Chukwueze’s passing falls off is when he tries to make the type of impact passes that lead to high quality scoring chances. He’s just doesn’t have quite the touch to connect on incisive passes with a higher degree of difficulty. That isn’t necessarily a death knell. It’s good that he’s at least got the awareness and gumption to attempt these passes, which is half the battle with young attackers. It’s fair to wonder how much of this can be improved over time with more experience, but there’s a chance that he’s simply not going to grade out as a decent playmaker.

Probably the biggest concern with Chukwueze is the degree to which he is one footed. If you think of footedness as a spectrum, Ousmane Dembele would represent one end of the spectrum among young attackers. He’s someone who brings clear value because he can do productive things with both feet. As you start moving from that end of the spectrum of the other side, there’s more polarization and an increasing percentage of on-ball events become located on a player’s favored foot. Chukwueze is all the way at the one footed end end, because it’s very clear that he’s left-footed. We already alluded to this with his dribbling and ball carrying during transition. His shooting comes almost entirely from his left foot, as well as his passing. It’s not uncommon to see instances during transition opportunities where the ball swings to him, he’ll carry the ball into the box and square passes with his left foot rather than try lob passes to the far post with his right.

Chukwueze’s left-footed dominance is similar to another attacking prospect in David Neres, which makes for an interesting comparison. Both Neres and Chukwueze aren’t threats to attack the byline with their right foot and create chances. In terms of overall passing and on-ball coordination, Neres suffers from his lack of right foot usage but he’s still shown considerably more self-belief than Chukwueze. Chukwueze’s advantage over Neres is that because he’s a much better athlete, he’s has more impact as a dribbler because he can create a greater level of separation when he uses feints and sidesteps to get to his left foot. Whenever Chukwueze gets the ball with his back to goal he can quickly turn with the ball and create distance from his opponent allowing him to move into the halfspace with relative ease, whereas Neres can’t do that.

All-in, Chukwueze seems like a relatively strong prospect. He’s dynamic enough as an athlete that he can get away with being so reliant on his left foot, at least to some degree. A bit of my optimism stems from overvaluing highly athletic wings that show snippets of awareness with their passing. There is the possibility that his passing never really evolves from its current state, which would make the path to stardom fairly hard, so passing is a big swing skill for him. There’s also the fear that even with his near elite athleticism off the dribble, his left foot dominance could be scouted harder and lead to more growing pains. Even though his shot locations and volume aren’t optimal, I’m not particularly worried given that a lot of it could be chalked up to the environment he’s in at Villarreal.

Perhaps the biggest fear with Chukwueze is whether there are enough low-hanging ares of improvement n his game to make notable gains. He already doesn’t have tunnel vision so rarely gets himself in trouble dribbling down dead ends, nor is he shooting at such a ridiculous volume with poor locations. It’s going to boil down to his passing and growth in off-foot capabilities. If we see noteworthy growth in his passing and any shred of progress in right foot usage, then the odds are good that Chukwueze will become a star level talent. If not, then it’s going to be harder for him to justify a big price tag on a future transfer fee. Year one for Chukwueze has been a success, and how years two and three pan out will be vital in projecting the type of player that he becomes.

Iago Aspas Is Celta Vigo’s One Man Rescue Operation

Celta Vigo would almost certainly be on the road to relegation if they didn’t have Iago Aspas.

Their points-per-match rate from the 20 matches he has started this season would see them in contention for a top-eight finish if it had been maintained through the campaign to date; their points-per-match rate in the 12 matches he hasn’t started is so low that they would barely have made it into double figures if that had been their season-long average.

On a per-match basis, Celta have scored 64% less goals, conceded 17% more and taken 76% less points when Aspas hasn’t been in the starting XI. In the three month period at the start of this year in which a couple of calf injuries prevented him from making a start, Celta recorded just one league victory, alongside nine defeats and a draw. His return coincided with a haul of seven points from three matches that have at least temporarily lifted them out of the bottom three despite a 2-0 defeat, with Aspas suspended, to Atlético Madrid at the weekend.

When Aspas is involved (in his 20 starts and one substitute appearance), Celta Vigo take 33% more points than their average (1.33 to 1) for the season, ranking him fifth in La Liga by that measure amongst players who have seen more than 1,400 minutes of action, as per TransferMarkt. He is one of only two attacking players to have made more than a 20% difference to his team’s outcomes.

The expected goal figures posted by Celta with and without Aspas are not quite as dramatically opposed as those top-line numbers, but there is still a significant drop-off when he isn’t involved. Prior to the defeat to Atlético, with Aspas on the pitch they had averaged 1.11 expected goals (xG), 1.41 expected goals conceded (xGC) and average expected goal difference (xGD) per match of -0.29. Without him, they had averaged 0.69 xG (38% less) and 1.51 xGC (7% more), leading to an average xGD of -0.82, just over half a goal worse than with him present.

That Celta struggle to such a degree when Aspas is absent is unsurprising when one notes the degree to which he dominates their attacking output. Despite missing over a third of their matches this season, he has still made a direct contribution (scoring or assisting) to 18 non-penalty goals (0.90 per 90), five more than any other player. He has scored 13 times from open play (significantly over-performing his xG in the process) and twice from the penalty spot.

 

 

On a per 90 basis, he leads the team in shots and key passes, and in both xG.

 

 

And xG assisted.

 

 

Across the whole of La Liga, only Lionel Messi of Barcelona has provided a higher percentage of his team’s xG contribution (xG + xGA) on a per-match basis, with 61% to Aspas’ 54%. Alongside Ángel of Getafe, they are the only three players with contributions above 50%. Widening it out a little, Aspas has touched the ball at one stage or another of the moves that have led to 76% of Celta’s xG output per match.

It can be of no surprise that all within the club are happy to have him fit for the run-in. “He is a decisive player because of his quality and what he provides to the group,” coach Fran Escribá said recently. “Aspas is different kind of player, our reference point,” defender Gustavo Cabral said last year. When he broke down into tears after scoring two goals in his first start back against Villarreal last month it was partly because of the pressure that had been building up on him during his layoff — the pressure he had put on himself and the pressure that was applied externally by the expectations of supporters and even teammates on what is the youngest squad in La Liga. “For many of my colleagues, the fact that I was out on the pitch helped them emotionally,” he explained afterwards.

Aspas was not quite such a talismanic figure at the time, but this is not the first occasion on which he has had a key part to play in saving Celta from a relegation battle. He was one of five members of the current squad (and two of the coaching staff) involved in their miraculous escape in the 2012-13 season. Given just a 4% chance of survival, they recorded back-to-back wins over Real Valladolid and Espanyol to leapfrog three teams and maintain their top-flight status. Indeed, it was Aspas who skilfully skipped past an opponent and squared for Nacho Insa to score the decisive goal in the final-day win over Espanyol.

But it also possible to go back even further than that, to June 2009, when a 21-year-old Aspas was just starting to work his way into the first-team picture at Celta having come up through their youth ranks and B team. The club were struggling badly at the bottom of the Segunda División, with relegation a real possibility. In a crunch match against Alavés, Aspas came off the bench for only his second appearance and scored twice, including the winning goal deep into stoppage time.

Can he inspire Celta to another survival? Even with him in the side, their underlying numbers are still some of the poorest in La Liga. With six matches to go, they have just a one-point cushion over the bottom three. Home matches against fellow strugglers Girona and Rayo Vallecano are likely to prove key. “I’m not going to give up until the very last match,” Aspas said after the win over Villarreal. With him by their side, his teammates won’t either.

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Under the Radar xG Stories: Gabriel Jesus Struggles, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Three Stars, and Kevin Gameiro’s Quietly Strong Season

While you were paying attention to things that mattered like who won matches and who lost, some under the radar storylines are bubbling along that might eventually impact teams in important ways.

Can Gabriel Jesus Score?

This seems like the most absurd question in the world. He’s averaging 0.49 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes, so clear he can score. That’s a pretty good, if not absolutely spectacular number. For player that have played over 1000 minutes in Europe’s big five leagues this season, he’s narrowly in the top 50. That’s…fine. It’s probably even good enough to be the back up on perhaps the best team in Europe. It’s also significantly behind the man he backs up, Sergio Aguero who clocks in at 0.71 non-penalty goals per 90.

Expected goals, on the other hand, tells a much much rosier story. Jesus’s xG per 90 is at a whopping 0.70, that’s the fourth best total across Europe’s big five leagues, and a whisker ahead of Aguero’s 0.69. Jesus is also just 22 years old. Aguero is, of course, now on the wrong side of the 30. So, if the only thing that matters is xG then expect Jesus to be inheriting the reins of the attack any year now.

There are of course, mitigating factors here. Jesus is generally a substitute and generally plays against weaker opposition than the first choice forward, so his numbers probably get a bit of a boost. Everybody on that City machine reinforces everybody else, a training dummy parked at the penalty spot could probably put up a positive xG total. It’s nice to be the tip of a spear wielded by the likes of David Silva and Raheem Sterling. But still, there’s no denying that Jesus’s underlying numbers are excellent.

But, boy does that kid miss a lot.

Does it matter? From an analytics perspective it does not, the best bet is to play the kid, let him shoot through the yips and expect, as the numbers suggest, that he’s about to be a superstar. But, part of the reality of leading the line at the very top of the game is that if you haven’t proven you can do it, you don’t get a lot of time to prove you can do it. People (and coaches) remember the misses, the pressure mounts, fans get restless and eventually you become Alvaro Morata (who to be fair has never had xG like Jesus’s, but who has also, to be fair, never gotten to play striker on a team quite like City), and everybody just kind of agrees that while the numbers are fine, maybe it’s time for a change of scenery.

For now, Jesus has the luxury of being a backup, but if he does eventually get the job then he’s not going to have the luxury of all these whiffs going basically unnoticed.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Other Star Forwards

Luka Jovic gets the most attention, and well he should. He’s averaging 0.56 xG per 90, the 11th best total across Europe’s top five leagues, and it doesn’t hurt the old hype-o-meter that his actual goal scoring rate of 0.73 non-penalty goals per 90 is ahead of that pace. But, it’s not happening in a vacuum and the team’s other two main attackers, Sébastien Haller and Ante Rebić are right there with him with 0.40 and 0.42 xG per 90 and 0.48 and 0.52 non-penalty goals respectively.

While Jovic does a little bit of everything his teammates have slightly more defined roles. Haller as the more traditional forward gets the bulk of his shots from point blank range. He’s ruthlessly disciplined and almost always fires from 12 yards or closer.

Rebić on the other hand is as often a playmaker behind the striker partnership ahead of him as he is a striker himself. Consequently his output is less about efficiency, he averages 0.14 xG per shot as opposed to Haller’s excellent 0.21, and more about volume, he takes 2.93 shots per game as opposed to Haller’s 1.93.

Jovic, given his age and production, has garnered much of the hype, but the story of Eintracht Frankfurt’s season is that they have three attackers all of whom are 25 or younger, all of whom are putting up strong numbers and all of whom are outperforming those numbers. Either by strong planning or dumb luck, the team has put together the perfect attacking unit, one that is young, dynamic, and perfectly complementary. It’s no wonder that in addition to currently being the only German team alive in European competitions (even if only barely) they’re also holding onto fourth place in the Bundesliga and on track to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

The Old Man of Valencia

Valencia have had a fascinating season. It’s not just that they started so slowly and are now coming on so strong, it’s that the team as currently constructed is an interesting hodgepodge of young and old.

The kids, players like Carlos Soler,  Gonçalo Guedes, Ferrán Torres (as well as Mouctar Diakhaby further back on the field) provide skill and hope for the future, but it’s some of the old hands who have done much to steady the uncertain ship. Specifically, Kevin Gameiro, less than a month from his 32 birthday continues to put up important numbers leading the line for Valencia.

Despite his age, he’s an active defender. He’s happy to drop into Valencia’s shape and harass the opposition as they attempt to enter the ball into midfield.

He pairs that defensive willingness with a lethal nose for goal. He only has four goals this season, though his expected goal total is somewhat higher at 5.41. But, he’s also only taken 27 total shots. He’s one of only six players across Europe’s top five leagues this season who have managed at least 0.33 xG per 90 and over 0.20 xG per shot.

Gameiro has shown to have a perfect set of skills for this Valencia side. He doesn’t need the ball a lot, which allows their younger, more exciting players to feature but he’s happy to do all sorts of dirty work from the striker position that lets them shine. Then, on the rare occasions when he does shoot, he does it from absolutely lethal positions. His game is perfectly suited to letting the kids have the spotlight, because he has enough edge to pounce when the opposition fails to take him into account. If Valencia manage to finish their remarkable second half of the season comeback, and nip fourth place at the wire, it will provide them a Champions League platform to feature their exciting prospects next season, but it will be thanks in no small part to the veterans that they got there.