What Watford Got Right

Watford’s 2018-19 season is not yet over, but it’s safe to call it a success. The questions that remain unanswered — Can the Hornets finish better than tenth? Can they win a cup final? — are the kinds that point to things having gone right.

To figure out what’s gone right, it’s worth revisiting the pre-season assessment of Watford’s prospects. This gives some structure for thinking about the team’s pre-existing strengths and the problems they have subsequently solved. Disclosure: I wrote StatsBomb’s preview. Parts of it hold up, but it also concluded “The team’s upside is not high enough to expect big things or rule out relegation, but its downside risk is limited.” The first half of that formulation guarantees that this will not be a victory lap.

Watford is conceding 1.26 expected goals per 90 minutes this season, good for 11th in the Premier League and a slight improvement on last season’s total of 1.31. This slight improvement doesn’t really mean that the team’s approach has changed. In the first half of 2017-18, under Marco Silva, Watford pressed high and was regularly torn apart on the counter. Their defense stabilized under Javi Gracia, who maintained the team’s high press but cut out its tendency to be easily picked apart. (Watford is now a touch worse than league average in counter-attacking shots conceded.)

The Hornets press high up the pitch, but are prepared to drop back and defend in their third. The only defensive difference is that Watford’s shot suppression has regressed to league average. This has largely been counterbalanced by the expected goal value of the shots the Hornets concede — a serious issue last season — moving closer to average. With more than a year of Javi Gracia to consider, it seems clear that his defensive improvements were not a blip. His strategy is solid and produces consistent mid-table results.

The bigger questions about Watford going into this season concerned the attack. Fixing the defence without losing much of the offensive output the more gung-ho Silva had produced was Gracia’s big achievement in 2018. This season, he would have to repeat the feat without Richarlison, who accounted for 20% of Watford’s shots in 2017-18 and had been a fertile source of expected goals (if not actual ones) in Gracia’s half-season. Moreover, Abdoulaye Doucoure could hardly be expected to score more than double his expected goals total. (Reader: He has not.) Replacing all this output without sacrificing the team’s defensive solidity would be an even bigger challenge.

The good news is that the attack has remained basically good enough. Watford’s shots are of league average in quality but slightly fewer than the average team, all of which adds up to 1.15 expected goals per 90 minutes. That attack, which ranks eighth in the league, generates goals in two ways that merit further consideration.

Watford’s first offensive option is to turn defence into attack. Last season, they went from having 2.38 high-press shots per 90 minutes under Silva to 3.21 in Gracia’s half-season. This season, they’re generating more high-press shots (3.28) per 90 minutes than league average (3.17). Generating shots off the press is the main way Gracia maintained Watford’s scoring rate while fixing its defence. The strategy also works well with the available personnel (more on them in a moment.)

Watford’s other attacking strategy is to lump it long. Passes by the team’s goalkeepers are 20% longer than the league average.

Calling Troy Deeney a fantastic aerial target actually undersells his dominance: Deeney’s amassed 5.06 aerial wins per 90 minutes this season, which is five times what the average striker produces. At the end of the 2017-18 season, it was not clear if he could combine that skill with meaningful scoring. “If a rumoured  £15 million Cardiff bid for the decidedly washed up and exceedingly replaceable Troy Deeney actually materialized,” I wrote, “Watford would do well to take the money.” Oops! While not prolific, Deeney’s scored a credible 8 non-penalty goals on 7.21 expected goals so far this season.

If all of this sounds like a roundabout way of saying Watford’s midfield doesn’t offer much build-up play, that’s because it is. (One could say this article, in homage to Watford, bypassed the midfield.) Abdoulaye Doucouré leads Watford midfielders in open-play expected goals assisted with 3.22 over the entire season. That is not to say the midfield is without value; it defends and presses and chips in a few goals here and there. Doucoure, Etienne Capoue, Roberto Pereyra and WIll Hughes are the sorts of useful-but-limited players who thrive in these roles. “None of this screams “Shock Title Winner!,’” I wrote before the season, “but you can see something functional being pieced together with this squad.” That is largely what has come to pass.

That prediction may have held up, but here’s one that didn’t: “In 2018, one can safely say Gerard Deulofeu is not the answer.” Oops again?

A subset of Watford fans, from whom I will surely and deservedly be hearing, took umbrage at this description of a very talented player. My riposte was that Deulofeu, while talented, rarely translated his skills into extended periods of production. He also had a tendency of falling out of favour at clubs after a hot start — only he hadn’t even conjured a hot start at Watford as a loanee in 2017-18. To Watford and Deulofeu’s credit, both of those problems appear to have been addressed.

There are two ways of thinking about what’s happened this year. Some of the change has been tactical. As a loanee, Deulofeu took — and failed to convert — low-value shots from distance or wide angles. This season, he’s been deployed as more of a second striker, with the effect that he takes more shots and takes them from more productive positions. Free kicks notwithstanding, he’s taking nearly 80% of his shots inside the box. The new role, where he starts wide but moves centrally, combines his winger-ish dribbling and pressing abilities with a decent scoring return.

Deulofeu’s change has also been temperamental. For whatever reason, he’s tended to start brightly at clubs and then fall out of favour. That has not happened at Watford. Last season, it looked like they weren’t even getting his new club grace period. Now we must consider the possibility that Deulofeu, like Marko Arnautovic a few years ago, is simply a flighty player stabilizing in his mid-20s. If Gracia has unlocked Deulofeu’s potential, both tactically and temperamentally, Watford is in good shape going forward.

There are still reasons for caution with Deulofeu. He’s scored 1.5 more goals than expected. Moreover, he could still have yet another falling out; the sample size is not yet large enough to outweigh his priors. But the signs are promising, and Deulofeu has helped fill in for Richarlison’s lost production.

Deulofeu fills out a squad has plenty of useful-if-not-great players. (Maybe one day the promising-on-paper Andre Gray will be more than a super-sub.) Javi Gracia is a good manager who can deploy those players to considerable effect. In that respect, the Watford story is an object lesson in what it means to be “league average” in the current Premier League. The club is about league average in a wide range of measures, but that puts it in a position to finish between 10th and 7th. Mean and median aren’t the same thing. The superclubs pull up the averages, Fulham and Huddersfield drag it down, and when the dust settles, a smart club that is “average” can be in the top half with a chance of winning a cup. Watford’s floor never appeared to be low. This season, the club has made the case for having a modestly high ceiling.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Riding Marco Silva's Everton Rollercoaster

You’re never as good as you look when you win, or as bad as you look when you lose. It’s a quote that’s been ascribed to a number of different coaches over the years, and a sentiment that all coaches, across all sports, almost assuredly share. And Everton are a walking, talking, currently playing out of their minds example.

Everton are flying high right now. They’ve recorded three strong wins in a row. The streak has taken them to 46 points (almost 20% of the teams points this season have come in the last three matches), tied with Watford one point behind Leicester City and Wolves for seventh place (although Wolves and Watford have a game in hand). For a team that seemed to be falling short of its aspirations for a seventh place, best of the rest season, the last month has seen the dream revived.

The team’s underlying numbers support their case. While their attack has been somewhat underwhelming, 1.06 expected goals per match places them 12th in the league, their defense has been stronger. Marco Silva’s men allow opponents only 1.09 xG, the eighth best total in the league. Put it together and the xG difference of -.03 lands them tenth in the table, or roughly where they currently are.

But, Everton’s season has not been steady. It’s been a rollercoaster of ups and downs. The nine points from the last three matches are only slightly less than the ten points the team took from the 11 matches before that. The first thing to check in a situation like this is to wonder if perhaps the team’s level of performance has stayed constant, but their luck has drastically shifted. Maybe they were playing fine for 11 games but had sinned in some way in the eyes of the soccer gods and were enduring punishments meted out by the fates. Or, maybe it’s the other way around and Everton’s performances remain bad, but after ten games of suffering the gods relented and rewarded them with ill-deserved points.

As it turns out, neither of those things are true. Looking at a ten-game rolling average of their xG difference shows a team that’s goal difference hangs pretty consistently around where the model predicts it should be, and if anything they were overperforming even while struggling.

In fact, if we look at the component parts of Everton’s xG difference, it’s clear that there have been real and dramatic changes in their performance level over the course of the season.

Both the attack and the defense have varied wildly as the season progressed, and fairly faithfully mirrored the side’s results. Early on as Everton played well to start the season, they were a positive xG differential side, then came the dark times, and now, once again, the light.

Clearly this isn’t schedule driven either. Everton’s three wins, and the accompanying strong performances came against Arsenal, Chelsea, and West Ham. It’s certainly true that the tougher two matches were at home, but so were matches they lost against Wolves, and Leicester during their struggle months. And crushing West Ham away from him stacks up pretty favorably against Newcastle, Brighton, Southampton, and Watford, all matches they failed to take even a point from before the switch flipped.

It might be possible to explain away Everton’s swingy performances if they had suffered from a rash of injuries. Maybe for a few months they simply couldn’t put their good players on the field. But, that too isn’t the case. The side has been remarkably healthy and consistent this year. Ten different players have played at least 2000 minutes so far, and two more have cracked the 1500-minute barrier. Silva has a settled side and a couple of preferred substitutes, but for the most part the Everton team is the Everton team, and there’s not a lot of tinkering going on under the hood.

So, how to explain the wild swings? One way is to suggest that perhaps Silva, in his first season is only now, 30 games deep, getting the team to play the way he wants. The early season results were nice, but largely built on the back of a team still throwing off the big shackles of Big Sam Allardyce. They won because they successfully played a more conservative brand of football than Silva wanted. The bad times were just growing pains, as the team slowly transitioned from one style of play to the other. Sure they weren’t playing well but it was all in service of the plan. The plan that is now coming to fruition.

The other option is that there is no particular reason for the swings and roundabouts of the Toffees' season. Sometimes teams play well, and sometimes they play poorly. Variance, good and bad, is part of the game. Everton weren’t as bad as they seemed for those months, aren’t as good as they seem now, and the truth will inevitably work out somewhere in the middle. The good and the bad averages out, and the truth of the team over the course of the season lies somewhere in the middle.

This may seem like an academic argument. What exactly does it matter in the grand scheme of things if Everton are improving or just floating adrift around their average level of performance? Points are points, and at the end of the season that’s all that matters. And that’s certainly true as far as it goes, you don’t get bonus points for moving the right way, or demerits because you got lucky. But, as the season winds down the Everton brass are going to have to make a decision. And that’s not academic.

Everton management are going to look at the season, see the performance and decide whether to keep Silva in charge. And making that decision involves a judgment call. What does the future hold? Is the story of improvement true? If it is then keeping Silva and investing in his vision of the team is a no brainer. If Everton are closer to the team that’s showed up the last three weeks, than the team of the previous three months, than the future is bright indeed. But, if the other story is true, that Everton are both things at once, then the call becomes a lot harder. On the balance of the season Silva has been just ok, but nothing special, on the balance of the last three matches he’s been amazing. The question is which window is telling the fuller picture?

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Luka Jović, Europe's Next Big Thing

Right now, Luka Jović might be leading the line for Entracht Frankfurt against Benfica in the Europa League, but he's also auditioning for a much bigger job.

Sunday June 2nd. Twenty-four hours removed from the Champions League Final, European football’s second season begins. Clubs across Europe take stock and evaluate. When they do so, there is only one name that will cross the lips of those searching for a new striker, Luka Jović .

Eintracht’s Serbian attacker has drawn many admiring glances in plundering the Bundesliga this season, firing Frankfurt into the hunt for Champions League football in 2020. He has managed 16 league goals from an expected goals total of 11.31, accounting for 25% of his team’s total in the process.

In Catalunya, Barcelona are rebuilding one final team around Lionel Messi. Latest signing Frenkie De Jong joins Arthur Melo, Ousmane Dembélé and Malcom (if he’s not shipped out) as youngsters who will be key figures at the Camp Nou over the next decade. Amongst these facilitators is the ideal landing spot for this prodigious striking talent.

Luis Suárez is an aging force, but the role he plays in allowing the Blaugrana and Messi to be effective often goes unnoticed. Jović’s feisty personality and central-centric playstyle are the most akin to the Uruguayan in Europe. Physically and statistically he would not have to make much of a leap to fill the considerable void of El Pistolero.

At 5’11 he is not overly big compared with the prototype centre-back of 2019, yet neither is Suárez at 6’0.

Jović takes up advanced positions, trying to play on the shoulder of the deepest central defender. In a Frankfurt team that has 251 less passes per game than Barça he still manages to register 12.71 touches in the box per 90 minutes as well as accumulating 3.21 deep progressions per 90, highlighting a willingness to get involved in the buildup before positioning himself in the box, something key to the Barcelona pattern of play.

Comparatively, this season Suárez has 15.34 touches in the box but fewer deep progressions (2.38) than Jović. The differentials are easily explained by the gap in possession figures between the sides and what Jović is asked to do by manager Adi Hütter.

Already adept at playing with his back to goal, Jović’s tendency to spin and move directly into the box after the layoff meshes well with Messi’s predilection for moving laterally in possession before playing passes between the opposition centre back and fullback for the Barcelona wingers to move onto. Visually, a lot of Suárez goals come from balls played across the box that he subsequently finishes, an observation backed up by his shot chart.

Jović doesn’t have quite the same tendency to end up virtually on top of the goal, but his shots still come from extremely central and dangerous areas, and it’s not hard to imagine that given the gift of receiving the ball from Messi, he too would pop up on the end of an endless barrage of tap-ins. The difference in location is why despite having the exact same expected goals per 90 (0.55), Jović’s comes from slightly higher shot volume 3.90 as opposed to Suárez’s 3.25.

In defense, Jović’s youthful mobility and endeavor make him the perfect foil in the press quick and high system employed by the Blaugrana. While his current team are not particularly committed pressers (Frankfurt’s average defensive action takes place 44.35 yards from their own goals, five Bundesliga teams are more aggressive), Jović still acquits himself well.

And while Suárez continues to fly around in Barcelona’s press, at 32 years old the perpetual pressing machine is the first thing that’s likely to slow down. As his movement declines it will definitely hinder Valverde in his attempts to impose a proactive pressing philosophy on the team.

The biggest statistical gap between them is in aerial duels, where Jović completes four times as many as his Uruguayan counterpart but this can be put down to the German team having a more even split of possession with their rivals and a more distinctly direct style of play.

Moving away from the nitty gritty numbers, the striking similarities between the two are even more apparent. Suárez has excelled as one of Barcelona’s great central strikers by owning the area of the pitch between the box. He is rarely required to take up positions in the channel or move from outside to in, both of which would not be strengths of Jović’s game. He prefers to use his imposing muscular frame to promote verticality in the team movement.

Suarez has been lucky enough to be part of the greatest club team of all time with Messi, Neymar, Iniesta, Xavi et al and in their latest spending splurge, Barcelona are preparing to solidify that dominance once more before Messi leaves for his Argentinian swansong at Newell’s Old Boys (a romantic can always dream).

The current group will have a lot to do to emulate that vintage, but it looks as if Eric Abidal is trying to go as like for like in replacing some of his legendary former team-mates. In Jović he could have a plug and play replacement for a player that has given 129 goals in 159 games since arriving in 2014.

Eintracht are well aware of the growing interest in their prized asset with Bayern and Chelsea, if they dodge a transfer ban, also both sniffing around the Frankfurt stands. The asking price appears to grow exponentially with every goal, and may currently stand at 60 million euros, but you imagine it will come down to the players preference with all three teams having an endless bankroll.

If Jović does become Barcelona’s eighth signing aged 23 or younger in the last two seasons, there won’t be a team in Europe with a greater balance of youth, quality and depth.Brace yourselves for another period of sustained Catalan dominance at the forefront of European football.

Modeling Passing Uniqueness

StatsBomb is unveiling three new (to us) passing metrics to better profile passers in professional football. Why passing metrics? Because this is football and passing is omnipresent. For better or for worse, the ubiquitous event may need even more attention than we’re already giving it. It is our objective through these metrics to evaluate a passer’s creativity, their predictability and frankly their overall passing ability.

Thanks to some of the great work by peers made publicly available, we were able to put these together without too much time consuming innovation. We will release the metrics in a series of posts to spread out the joy and peak the eagerness for all you nerds. The first metric we are releasing today is “Pass Uniqueness”.

Pass Uniqueness Methodology

“Pass Uniqueness” is a variation on previous work (I am not claiming the novelty of this idea in the slightest, but I am expanding on it thanks to the vast amount of data over here at StatsBomb). The original methodology is available  on FC RStat’s GitHub, you can even find the original code. The advantage of a uniqueness metric is to see which players make less common passes than others. Although, as the original write up notes, a less common pass is not necessarily an advantageous one. It could be completely erratic, but in and of itself it is unique. In a follow up post, we will talk about identifying advantageous passes.

The basis for these methods is largely the same as previous iterations, however we make some key extensions that require a bit different methodology.  We extract the similar following variables describing each pass:

  • duration
  • length
  • angle
  • height.id (1 = Ground Pass, 2 = Low Pass, 3 = High Pass)
  • body_part.id (1 = Right Foot, 2 = Left Foot, 3 = Other)
  • location.x
  • location.y
  • end_location.x
  • end_location.y

At the competition level, we then do a KNN search for the 20 most similar passes (k = 20) to each individual pass (target). Most similar is defined as the closest passes in Euclidean distance to the target pass. The “uniqueness” metric is calculated as the sum of the euclidean distances for all k = 20 passes. More formally,

There is some controversy in using Euclidean distance with categorical variables like height.id and body_part.id. However, for simplicity, we make the intentionally, naive assumption that their numeric IDs are continuous and we order them intuitively so that Ground Pass is closer to Low Pass which is closer to High Pass.

There are other metrics to better account for categorical variables and a good reference for KNN distance metrics can be found here. Since the euclidean distance is aggregated across all variables in the search, it is important that we scale all variables to have the same mean 0 and standard deviation 1. Otherwise, variables on a larger scale would unjustly carry more weight just because their individual distance metric would be larger than the other covariates.

The R package FNN makes this search very quick, a data set of 3.2 million passes takes about 2 minutes to run. To reduce dimensions and to keep the sample for each search more homogeneous, we only search for nearest neighbors inside of each league and backdating up to one season. It’s important to note a limitation here. The limitation is that with larger sample sizes there is a higher propensity for more similar passes and as a result fewer unique passes due to the lower euclidean distances. In order to make the uniqueness metric more scalable across bigger and smaller competitions, it would make sense to set k equal to a proportion of the total population within each competition.

We account for that limitation in a different way. We extend the KNN search into a model based method. Using the “uniqueness” value calculated from the KNN search in each league, we then regress the uniqueness value on the same covariates in the original search. We could do this in a simple linear regression, but one would have to properly specify the non-linear relationship between location coordinates and the uniqueness. Instead, we use a tree based method to handle the non-linearities seamlessly. Using extreme gradient boosting (xgboost), we construct trees with a maximum depth of 12 different predictor combinations training for 1000 rounds.

We then check the correlation between the actual uniqueness from the KNN search and the predicted uniqueness from the xgboost method. A scatterplot of our results is shown below:


It looks like we did pretty well! The correlation between observed uniqueness and predicted uniqueness was 0.967!

Now, why is this model based extension helpful? There are a few reasons. The first is that the original framework of the uniqueness metric requires searching an entire competition at each update. That can be computationally expensive especially if you have to update competitions 2-3 times a week. Secondly, the results are dependent on the individual competitions that they are in and therefore cannot easily extend into new competitions, especially competitions with fewer matches.

Using a model based approach allows us to quickly extend the “uniqueness” metric to new passes in new matches and competitions. The model based approach also allows us to further investigate the most important features influencing the actual “uniqueness” value.


With that long winded methodology out of the way, let’s get into all the cool and intriguing applications. The uniqueness metric describes passes that are more unusual than most. It can separate extraordinary passers from the ordinary and it can be used to better grade pass difficulty, pass predictability and positive attacking contribution. Let’s first look at the distribution of pass uniqueness for different player’s positions.

The density plot above proves a very interesting point and also highlights a potentially limiting factor of this metric. Goalkeepers are the most “unique” passers in the game!  Much as I’d like to shout out my beloved and under-appreciated position, unfortunately, that just can’t be the case. If goalkeepers were the most unique passers in the game they wouldn’t be playing in net.

What we are actually seeing here is a flaw in the KNN search, because goalkeepers physically pass less frequently than their counterparts in the field, their passes have less similar matches in the KNN search and therefore garner higher “uniqueness” values despite their passes probably being insignificant. The next most unique position category are forwards. These two groups being more unique passers than others actually makes sense. They are making passes in places where the fewest passes exist, and therefore are the least common passes in the game. Recalling this potential positional bias, we will continue to make comparisons inside of position categories.

Let’s see what some “unique” passes look like for each position. Recalling the importance of the duration variable in the uniqueness value, we filter out all passes with a duration greater than 2.5 seconds; these passes are likely long balls out of the back, which for convenience we’ll lump together for now.

At this point, I hope the metric is starting to make sense. Our most unique passes are short passes high in the air or high passes into strange areas on tight angles, long ground passses whipping across the pitch and low driven passes on interesting angles. I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable with the effectiveness of the metric, so let’s get deeper into what this metric could do.

Everyone’s first inquiry is; who are the most unique passers? You must proceed with caution when investigating this, if we simply ranked players based on their median uniqueness or some other quantile we would make heavy passers suffer more than occasional, possibly, frantic passers. Instead, we rank passers based on the count of completed passes that were more unique than the 90th percentile of passes per 90 minutes played (this is also how players were ranked players in the original uniqueness framework).

The results passed the ever-rigorous eye test from our analysis department. Although that may seem like a piece of cake to the average reader, let me assure you it is not too easy to sneak names by Euan,James and the crew. Nonetheless, we’re still left with a few questions. How are these player’s more unique? And, why does that matter? To answer the first question, we can look at an example match for our most unique passer in the EPL this season, David Silva.

In the plot above, we match these passes to the video and see why they are so unique. As you can, see the passes aren't anybody's definition of great, but they certainly stand out as unusual.

We then of course have to answer the next question why is this important? And the reason is simple, the uniqueness metric extends easily into other areas of research. Are some players more creative than others? Well, yes. Can we find out which ones? Yes, we just did that. Can we see which of these unique passes made the attack more dangerous? Not yet, maybe soon, but not now. Can we use the uniqueness to predict completion probability? I thought you’d never ask.

Pass completion probability is our next application. Starting simply, is the effect of pass uniqueness related to the probability a pass is complete? This extension was proposed in the original framework, but lacked the sample size to really test it. I am lucky enough to have plenty of data at my finger tips. Using only the pass uniqueness to predict the probability of a pass is completed we constructed a simple logistic regression model. Given the assumed non-linearity of the pass uniqueness metric, we fit the model using a natural spline with 5 degrees of freedom.

The relationship between uniqueness and pass completion is pretty clear. For very common passes, there is a quadratic relationship with pass completion probability, reaching a peak completion probability of 90+% around a uniqueness of 2.4 or the lower 25th quantile of uniqueness and then there is a sharp decline in completion probability until a uniqueness of 3.5 (70th quantile of uniqueness) where the passing percentage continues to decline as uniqueness increases albeit less drastically. Intuitively, the more common the pass is the more likely it will be completed, and the more unique it is, the less likely it will be completed.

We checked the accuracy of the model using an ROC curve and found favorable results.

The model is performing better than assigning the average completion rate to every pass, but there is definitely room for improvement. The area under the curve is 0.71 which is far greater than no model at 0.5 but also a ways away from a perfect model at 1.0. In a follow up post, we will work through a more comprehensive pass difficulty model.

The extensions of this metric are endless and we are excited to dive into them further. For starters, the uniqueness metric is already summarizing some pretty complex relationships between pass characteristics and pass difficulty. It’s already teasing out passers who regularly defy football norms for better or for worse. This leads us to our greatest challenge, extracting unique and positively contributing passes that don’t just move the ball forward but improve build up play for the entire possession, not only the immediate reward. We’ll catch up with you soon with our next passing article in this series.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Can the Juventus Crossing Machine Defeat Ajax's High Pressure Defense?

Wednesday night’s Champions League clash between Ajax and Juventus showcases two teams that put together tactical masterclasses in the second leg of the previous round, as they both came back to advance past their respective opponents in the round-of-16 against all odds. Ajax blitzed Real Madrid at the Bernabeu with a classic Dutch counter-press and impressive transition defending. Juve had an onslaught of crosses against Atletico Madrid, and even Simeone’s famed defensive scheme just couldn’t cope with the presence of Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo in the box.

Ajax isn’t afraid to go at anyone, and the way they hunt you off the ball gives them an edge against even the best opponents. Juventus are a pragmatic side that can shapeshift and suffocate teams. This entire tie will be fascinating because both Erik Ten Hag and Max Allegri will pose so many questions to each other.

Let’s take a look at two of the big questions that need to be answered.

How will Juventus deal with Ajax’s press?

Ten Hag’s entire scheme is designed to make ball-carriers uncomfortable. Ajax will press you into awkward situations. They force goalkeepers and defenders to play long balls -- hitting prayers up the field to a striker heavily marked. Real Madrid learned this the hard way. Courtois, Varane, Ramos, and Nacho couldn’t find outlets against Ajax over the course of two legs. They would frantically look for their wing-backs without much space to work with, or hit long balls into Karim Benzema who was quickly swarmed.

In the first leg, Real Madrid couldn’t escape their third. Once the ball got to Carvajal or Reguilon, Madrid’s full-backs struggled to come up with the next step in the attacking sequence. They often forced a pass to a player already under pressure:

Of the remaining Champions League teams, only Porto and Manchester City had a lower PPDA (passes per defensive action) in the opposition’s half. Ajax’s press is hyper-aggressive and efficient:

Juventus didn’t have to deal with that kind of pressure in Turin against Atletico. Emre Can, who slid back as a pseudo-center-back, was allowed to bring the ball up the field. Simeone concentrated his team into a low block and allowed Juve to move the ball vertically and get to their spots.

The first leg, when Atletico pressed high, was more testing for Juve. Chiellini was forced into a bad giveaway early, and that set the tone. Juve found it difficult getting the ball into good offensive positions. Ajax are what Atletico were for large chunks of the first leg -- only they have the energy to sustain it for 180 minutes. That’s one of the most underrated traits about Ten Hag’s side: Their barrel of energy doesn’t run out. It’s as if Ten Hag harnesses his press from the sun.

How Juve cope here will be interesting. Ajax are not just a good pressing side -- their cohesive shape and natural understanding of the game through their collective nervous system makes them difficult to attack. They can recover when their press gets bypassed, can swarm outlets that think they’ve just received the ball in a good offensive space, and both Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt can cover on the flanks for their full-backs.

When Allegri runs out of ideas offensively, he instructs Chiellini (his most capable defender) to act as a ball-carrier to break lines and gain numerical superiority in midfield. Ajax won’t let that happen easily.

How will Ajax defend Juve’s prolific crosses?

Atletico knew the crosses were coming in the second leg against Juventus, yet, they still treaded water defending them. You could argue they coped well -- Jose Gimenez, Diego Godin, Juanfran and Santiago Arias combined for 21 clearances on their own -- but the sheer number of Juventus’s crosses, 22 in total in Turin, coupled with the presence of two of the best off-ball movers in the game in Mandzukic and Ronaldo, was too much to deal with for Atleti.

Ajax had to deal with crosses in another way -- against a Real Madrid side out of ideas. Apart from two great chances from Varane in the second leg (one of which hit the crossbar) from crosses, Ten Hag’s men cleared everything that came at them. Real Madrid don’t have the same presence that Juve has aerially. In Santiago Solari’s scheme, crosses often came in towards Lucas Vazquez or Vinicius Jr, and neither player is an aerial threat. Benzema can be, but he couldn’t find space. Ajax didn’t have to worry about multiple behemoths throwing them around. Juve have two who are better than Madrid’s best.

It is almost unfair having Mandzukic and Ronaldo in the same team. Dealing with both of them is one of the toughest defensive assignments in football. They expertly navigate their runs to bamboozle defenders -- one of them makes a run to the near post to drag the center-back, and whichever undersized wing-back is unlucky enough to be defending the weak-side, will be sacrificed to the Gods. The way Mandzukic and Ronaldo create space for each other is breathtaking:

This will be the biggest test yet for Matthijs de Ligt and Daley Blind -- two center backs who’ve been great in the Champions League this season. No remaining team in the Champions League is as reliant on crosses as Juventus. Miralem Pjanic and Federico Bernardeschi are a big part of that, but Joao Cancelo and Sandro create dangerous overloads from their fullback roles which adds another layer of unpredictability to their attack. Ajax will have to be tighter on the flanks than Atletico were, and on occasions when they inevitably do concede a cross, they’ll be scrambling to deal with the targets in the box.

These two teams provided Europe with some of the most exciting football in the round-of-16, and they will now provide each other with new tests. For Juve, they’ll have to prove they can cope with Ajax’s relentless high-octane press and flair in the final third. Ajax will need to prepare for an incursion of crosses. Juve are favourites, as they should be with Ronaldo as the trump card, but it’s not inconceivable Ajax can come away with a convincing win over two legs -- especially if Ronaldo isn’t 100% healthy for the first leg as he’s just returning from injury.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The Meteoric Rise of Porto's Eder Militão

Eder Militão is the son of a footballer, but it took him a while to embark on the path trodden by his father. When he was younger, he could more often be found riding his bike and flying his kite than playing with a ball out on the street. His interest arose suddenly, and his ascent was even swifter. He started playing for a local team at 12, signed on with São Paulo at 14, made his first-team debut there at 19, and then moved to Europe with Porto at 20.

Last month, three quarters of the way into his first campaign there, Real Madrid confirmed that they had agreed to pay his release clause of €50 million and sign him to a six-year contract that starts this summer. At 21, he became the most expensive defensive signing in their history.

“He has surprised everyone with how easy the transition has been for him,” says Michael Beale, who worked closely with Militão during his time as an assistant coach at São Paulo under Rogério Ceni. “I think he is naturally growing with each game he plays and each challenge he is set. He has risen to the challenge extremely well and it’s a big accolade that Real Madrid wanted to sign him.”

“He is a very intelligent boy who likes to listen,” his usual central defensive partner (and fellow Brazilian) Felipe said back in October. “He takes everything in straight away. He found his level quickly, as if he had been playing with us for a long time.”

Not only has Militão been part of the best defence in Portugal this season (in terms of both actual and expected goals conceded), but he is also a member of the side who have put together the club’s best Champions League run since the 2014-15 season. The first leg of their quarter-final against Liverpool takes place at Anfield on Tuesday.

Since the January return of Pepe -- at the time, Madrid’s most expensive defender when he made the same move from Porto for €30 million back in 2007 -- Militão has often been shuffled over to right-back, but it is in the centre of defence that his future lies at both the club and international level. In that position, he has shown the same qualities that originally convinced Ceni and Beale to move him up into the first-team group at São Paulo.

“Eder had big qualities,” Beale tells StatsBomb. “He was a player who was playing for the junior Brazilian national teams and had already alerted a few of the big European teams. He was athletic, strong and technically very good. He was also confident (in a nice way) and eager to take his chance.”

Once promoted, Militão formed part of an exciting young squad that also featured David Neres (Ajax), Luiz Araújo (Lille), Lyanco (Torino), Júnior Tavares (Sampdoria) and Lucas Perri (Crystal Palace) -- a group that Beale says was as good as any he worked with during his time with the youth teams of Chelsea and Liverpool.

In the first team, Militão was initially employed as part of a back three, tasked with using his ability in possession to help build play out from the back. It was an attribute that had been evident during his time in the club’s youth teams, where he sometimes played in midfield, and has carried over to his initial experiences in Europe. His willingness to carry the ball past opponents into space, even if it means moving onto his weaker left side, makes him a valuable asset for a team seeking to move forward out of defence.

Most of his shorter passes are fairly simple, but he does occasionally pick out some interesting angles.

He also does a pretty neat impression of the sort of casually lofted ball forward that Sergio Ramos, the man he will be expected to deputise for and perhaps eventually supplant in Madrid, has long made his trademark.

When Militão first began training with the first team at São Paulo, there were a couple of things that really stood out about him. “Personality,” Beale explains. “That is the key for all young players. He came into the first-team group and immediately wanted the ball and wanted to show what he could do. That, and his aggression out of possession.”

On that second point, there is more than a little bit of Ramos in the way Militão tackles every defensive situation with full confidence -- rightly or wrongly -- in his ability to resolve it. He occasionally takes risks, but always with the knowledge that he has the pace, physique and tenacity to rectify anything that doesn’t initially work out for him.

Brazil coach Tite recently highlighted Militão’s supreme recovery pace as a quality that would give his side the ability to play with a higher defensive line, and that is just one of a number of physical attributes that give him the necessary reach to hedge his bets when taking up a defensive position. Despite standing six foot two inches tall on a relatively gangly frame, he is still supple enough in changing direction to cover off various angles.

Take this example of a period of play from Porto’s 0-1 defeat away to Benfica earlier this season.

That is not exactly textbook defensive organisation. A lot of space opens up between Militão and his central defensive partner Felipe. But Militão has nevertheless put himself in a position whereby he is well-placed to defend any attempt to play the wide runner in behind, has covered the clearest angle for a pass slipped into the penalty area, and can use his height to provide a barrier for a near-post cross -- the eventual outcome.

Playing in that manner requires good understanding and a solid supporting structure, which Porto usually have in place. That was particularly the case with the Felipe and Militão defensive partnership that took them through the Champions League group stage. Militão was normally the more proactive of the pair in stepping forward to deal with danger, but their roles were fairly interchangeable, with each covering for the other when necessary. If that same support network isn’t there in Madrid, he could be more exposed.

Beale, though, believes that next step will not be beyond the capabilities of a player whose desire to push and improve himself has always been clear. “He had a big talent and matched it with a big motivation and need to be successful,” he explains. “Then it’s all about opportunity and how a player reacts to that opportunity and increased expectation. You can see his energy now at Porto. He hasn’t lost any hunger to achieve more and more.”

If there is one final nagging question mark hanging over Militão’s assured and impressive performances this season, it is the quality of opposition he has come across to date. Porto are yet to play any of the top 25 teams in FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Rankings, while Benfica (3oth) are the highest ranked of the three top-50 sides they have encountered. By that measure, and surely general consensus, Liverpool and their fearsome front three will represent by far the sternest exam Militão has yet faced.
“I think it’s the greatest challenge,” Beale says. “Knowing him, I’m sure he is looking forward to testing himself against Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. He is a young and fearless right now. I’ll be watching with interest.”

Center Back Scouting Report: Nice's Malang Sarr

When Issa Diop made the move from Toulouse to West Ham over the summer, I couldn’t help but think a little about Malang Sarr. What made Diop a curious prospect was that as a center-back, he’s been logging extensive minutes since age 18. Even given that Ligue 1 is a league that is more conducive to young talent, playing nearly 2000 minutes at 18 years old is quite noteworthy. While it was fair to wonder just how good he was when he made his move to the Premier League, it was hard not to be optimistic for Diop given that he didn't drown in Ligue 1 when he was tossed into the deep end as a teenager.

Malang Sarr is in a similar boat. Sarr has played over 6000 Ligue 1 minutes spread over the last three seasons, with his 2016–17 season being of particular note given that he played over 2000 minutes on a 3rd place club. Given the amount of turnover that Nice has had over the past few transfer windows, along with Sarr being so young at a position of need, it’s surprising that he's still there. Going back to Diop, if one was to compare where each player was at their development in their 3rd season in Ligue 1, the general consensus would be that Sarr is the more well rounded CB.

As for this season, Sarr has once again been a staple in the starting XI for Nice. The quality of talent on the squad has been in decline over the past three seasons, and that's reflected in their decline in both shot and xG differential. Nice's non-penalty xG difference per game of -0.21 ranks 14th in the league and their -1.6 shot differential also ranks 14th. The only saving grace is that if you're going to be bad, it's better to do it with lots of young talent at hand. The average age of a Ligue 1 squad, weighted for minutes played, is 26.4 years old, and Nice clock in at a staggeringly young 24.6.

What also makes Sarr an interesting figure is that among CBs in the 18-21 age bracket, he's one that doesn't get a lot of press. That's understandable given Nice's slide, but it does make one wonder just how good Sarr is at season three of his development. It's hard to evaluate center backs via data given that their production is tied heavily to team context and the type of role they're being deployed in. More than anything, center back radars are more useful for interpreting style of play. With those caveats acknowledged, Sarr's statistical output looks fairly promising for a 20 year old.

Sarr's high pressure output is apparent when watching tape of him. All three of Nice's CBs, including Dante and Christophe Herelle, record significantly higher than average pressure output, but Sarr is on the higher end of the trio. He'll use his mobility and race out to pressure the opponent whenever they have their back to him waiting to receive a pass. It's not terribly uncommon to see Sarr get as high as the opponent's own half and try to put the squeeze on them.

Being a center back is a thankless job, particularly in today's era. You're constantly picked on in the media for even the slightest mistake, even if analysis on center back's in the mainstream media can be a bit simple at times. I think in general, Sarr is able to read the game at a decent level. He'll cover for the space that's vacated on the left side whenever the fullbacks push up high. He's able to track runners and know what to do in different situations. When he is defending in a two against one situation on his side against an overlapping run from the fullback and another opponent is bringing the ball up, he'll try to make himself big so he can make it easier on himself to transition to the fullback and block incoming crosses. If he sees that an opponent is going to make a potentially dangerous run, he'll try and shift over to them to make sure that potential threat is nullified.

Sarr's defensive work is not perfect. While he's got fairly solid recognition, he will have his gaffs when trying to defend in space. One question is how much Sarr's mobility will scale up against tougher competition. It's clear that he has good wheels, but whether he'll be an unambiguous positive in that department will have to be monitored. I'm also interested in how Sarr is able to deal with long balls and how his mobility will hold up when he has to turn around to guess the trajectory on the ball and sprint to keep up with a runner trying to receive the pass. Something that's a bit worrying is that though his possession adjusted tackles and interceptions are on the higher end of what you would expect from a center back, Sarr's Tack/DP% (percentage of times a player makes tackle when in a duel vs being dribbled past) is only at 54% which is below the league average of 67%. So, while Sarr can show technique and stay disciplined, he also has a penchant for being aggressive in chasing potential tackles and interceptions.

It would be fair to say that Sarr on the defensive end is a slight positive with room to grow as he gets older. His value on the offensive end is where there's perhaps more untapped potential. He's displayed legitimate passing abilities, both on the ground passes and long balls. His aerial passing hasn't been as prominent this season as its been in previous years, but he's still been solid. What makes Sarr's passing stand out is that he's comfortable getting that ball into the halfspace area when there's an opening to attempt a pass.

Given that Sarr has an intersection of solid mobility and passing, I think he could be even more aggressive with his ball carrying. Over the next few years, one area in which football will change will be that center backss carrying the ball will become even more normalized than it currently is, as the next evolution of giving more playmaking responsibilities to the backline takes hold. This isn't to say that you're going to see a bunch of players pushing the ball up large distances in a manner like Frenkie De Jong, but rather escaping the first line of pressure with their dribbling to destabilize the opponent and then laying it off to a open teammate. With Sarr, when he puts his mind to it, he's effective in pushing the ball up just enough to provoke the opposition and getting the ball to a teammate.

There's enough evidence to suggest that Malang Sarr is a good CB, and that he compares rather favorably to other CBs in his age bracket. It's impressive on some level that he's played as much football as he has in one of the big 5 European leagues. He has a number of skills that fit with what the modern center back archetype is currently, and there's some low-hanging fruit to be had with him on offense. His defensive work has its strengths and weaknesses: he can track runners and shift defensive priorities at a fairly high level, but his eagerness to record tackles and interceptions can get him burned and he needs more refinement in that area. While he'll probably be an above average athlete for the center back position wherever he goes, how far above average he turns out to be will also factor into Sarr's true ceiling as a young talent.

There have been reports that Sarr has a release clause of around €40 million with a contract running until 2021, though it should be noted that release clauses are officially technically illegal in France. Though transfer fees on high end center backs have slowly increased over the past few years in relation to the greater spending power clubs currently have, if Nice are looking at a future Sarr transfer in the region of €40 million, that would still represent a hefty fee. Would Sarr be worth it at that price? I would tentatively say yes. I recognize that he needs to tone down his aggressiveness a bit defensively, but the untapped offensive potential he has along with how young he still is makes it enticing enough that I would take the €40 million plunge. Sarr's upside is high enough that a club could convince themselves that spending lots of money on him is reasonable, and if he hits his higher end outcomes, you'll have yourself a very good player in a position of need for numerous clubs in Europe.

Are Southampton Making Progress Under Ralph Hasenhüttl?

When Southampton replaced Mark Hughes with Ralph Hasenhüttl in December, there was a real sense of getting back on track, of returning to the values that served the Saints so well in their first few years back in the top flight. So is it working?

In the crudest possible terms, Hasenhüttl’s primary job this season has been to keep Southampton up. The club are currently five points from the drop, and the bookmakers only have their chances of starting next season in the Championship at around 1.2-2.5%. Things should be ok. Hasenhüttl can not unreasonably expect to keep his job and look to take things further next year.

But the promise of the Austrian was more than a simple firefighter. The hope, the dream, was that he could have a similar impact to that of Mauricio Pochettino several years ago. Though a different brand of football, more the Austrian-German counter-pressing and transition-heavy style than Pochettino’s Marcelo Bielsa-influenced pressing to the goalkeeper, there was a belief that Hasenhüttl could implement a playing style into the club and build a side with a clear identity. This is a longer term project and it’s obviously too early to judge the success of this, but it’s worth evaluating how much has been achieved so far.



Quantitatively, it’s not obvious that this edition of Southampton are currently any better than the side we saw under Hughes. The Welshman saw the Saints put up an expected goal difference per game of -0.29. Hasenhüttl has seen that figure rise all the way to an incredible -0.28. In that regard it feels as though the “Alpine Klopp” is on a not too dissimilar first season in England than the German himself. Though Jürgen Klopp took over Liverpool in October 2015, it took until the following season for the side to really develop the identity one associates with them today. With a tactical structure yet to be introduced, the main thing Liverpool did that season was just a lot of pressing, often incoherently. Hasenhüttl’s Southampton, so far, have been not too different.


That’s a lot of red in the defensive activity map. Southampton may not be very good, but it isn’t due to a lack of effort. And they’re not just pressing harder, but higher. The side’s defensive distance has risen from 41.84 to 43.60 since the Austrian turned up.

This is in some ways a return to what Southampton are supposed to be doing. Hughes’ predecessors, Mauricio Pellegrino and Claude Puel, weren’t always producing the most entertaining football to watch, but both favoured something of a more proactive approach to defending. Looking at the graph of the number of opposition passes allowed before an attempt to win the ball back below, it’s obvious that Hughes’ team were much more relaxed about letting opponents have long spells of possession, and Hasenhüttl has overseen a return to Pellegrino levels. Hughes is less associated with defensive organisation than someone like fellow Welshman Tony Pulis, but he’s still a British manager at heart, and his instincts without the ball are for the side to stay relatively deep and compact, so he had the players cut down on the pressing. Less so with Hasenhüttl, and it’s not a surprise that everyone seems to have largely been able to switch back to what they were doing before. The crucial thing, though, is that the way Hasenhüttl ultimately wants Southampton to play is not simply to do plenty of pressing, but to press at specific moments, to win the ball back at the right times to force fast transitions. This, one would expect, will take a longer period of time to teach.



Another similarity with Klopp’s first season is that Hasenhüttl just can’t seem to settle on a formation. Southampton went for the kind of 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 we saw Hasenhüttl embrace at RB Leipzig in last weekend’s win at Brighton, but this broke a recent run of favouring a back 3. Obviously Hasenhüttl, arriving in December, has not been immediately clear of who his strongest personnel are and how best to use them. When he is attempting to teach his players a clear system, though, switching between different systems does feel as though it will slow down the process of imprinting his approach on the club.

In terms of players, there are some signs of things settling. Mario Lemina’s fitness problems have led to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oriel Romeu establishing themselves as the first choice midfield double pivot. Romeu is a fairly conventional defensive midfielder, getting through a reasonable volume of work without contributing hugely to the attack, a fairly classic fit in the genre of “unglamorous” midfielders.



Højbjerg offers more of a two-way option. A decent all-rounder, the Dane leads Southampton in deep progressions per 90 (passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third) while still providing defensive output. It does seem like Hasenhüttl’s system is capping his attacking output at least a little bit, with a now greater focus on pressuring the opposition, but this midfield pairing seems reasonably stable.



Yan Valery has emerged fairly suddenly as the right back replacement for the departed Cédric Soares, but purely based on numbers, the 20 year old still looks like a work in progress. A relatively active defender who looks stronger in the air than one generally expects in that position, he will have to learn to offer more on the ball to become a serious talent in this role.



Higher up the pitch is where some squad construction issues seem to lie. Dušan Tadić, a key creative outlet for a number of years, was sold to Ajax. Southampton’s leading players in terms of open play passes into the box per 90 last season were Tadić and the talented but frustrating Sofiane Boufal. This year, with summer signings Stuart Armstrong and Mohamed Elyounoussi not being write-offs but not quite offering this skillset, the responsibility has fallen to Nathan Redmond.


That the next three most frequent passers into the box are all full backs shows the issue here. Southampton lack great creative passers in the final third. James Ward-Prowse has seen a lot of praise come his way recently, but he is much more of a set piece specialist than a consistent threat in open play. Redmond offers a solid dribbling threat, while Danny Ings has shown himself to be a useful striker when fit, but it still feels like a creative passer is a must buy this summer.

It’s really a point of transition for Southampton right now. The first hurdle Hasenhüttl had to clear, avoiding relegation, is well in sight. The second, to build a counter-pressing side that can gradually move back up the table, is rather more complex. The team hasn’t yet shown signs of really improving under his tenure, but he seems to be attempting to move towards a cohesive system very different to what was done under Hughes.

Assuming he keeps his job, this summer will be crucial for the Austrian in multiple ways. The transfer market, obviously, is a chance to reshape the squad at least a little bit toward what he wants to do. But the chance of a long preseason of serious tactical work could really help get his ideas across. Many of these Southampton players have been asked to press before, but no two pressing systems are quite the same, and what Hasenhüttl wants might be quite different to anything they’ve done in the past. It’s still entirely possible that his time in the south coast ends up being a failure, if the side fail to improve on this season. But there at least seems to be a coherent plan this time, rather than the bizarre attempt at short term thinking with Hughes. Southampton have the right idea, even if we can’t yet tell if the execution is there.


Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Germans Have the Most (Footballing) Fun

It’s been a difficult season, internationally, for Bundesliga clubs. Not a single German team has made it to the quarterfinals of the Champions Leagueand Only Eintracht Frankfurt is still kicking in the Europa League. But, domestically, the league is enjoying its closest title race in years and, perhaps more importantly, the Bundesliga remains a league where the goals go flying in.

German teams, generally speaking, don’t play defense. The top three teams in the league have strong expected goals allowed numbers, with 0.91, 0.63 and 0.86 xG allowed respectively for Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, they’re the only three teams in the entire league that have allowed less than 1.2 xG per match. There’s an absolutely gigantic gap, over a third of a goal, between Dortmund, and the fourth best defensive team in the Bundesliga, at least by xG, Wolfsburg.

In England, by contrast, a full half of the league allows less than 1.20 xG per match, and Arsenal narrowly miss out, allowing 1.21. It’s a difference that’s easy to miss.

But, England only has one more team that allows less than a single expected goal than Germany, and looking at a round number as a natural cutoff point makes it seem like the two leagues have similar dynamics, each with only a handful of strong defensive teams. But, slide a little further down the ladder and what’s clear is that the average English team is simply much more committed to defending than the average German one.

Unsurprisingly, on the flip side of the ball, Germany teams are more invested in attacking. There are only two German teams that tally less than a single expected goal per match, Nurnberg and Hannover, the two worst teams in the league. The Premier League meanwhile sports five inept attacking teams. It’s helpful to look at those totals as a percentage of the league in order to compare the Premier League’s 20 apples with the Bundesliga’s 18 oranges, and what it amounts to as 25% of the Premier League is inept when attacking while only 11% of the Bundesliga is. If we look at the most attacking teams in the league we find that only the big six in England average more than 1.2 xG per match while in Germany ten teams do. They also happen to be the top ten teams in the table.

There are of course more than two leagues at the top of the European pyramid. But, Italy and Spain tell slightly more complicated stories. Serie A actually looks quite a bit like England. The league has six teams, Juventus, Napoli, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta and Lazio that allow less than one xG per match and nine that allow less than 1.2. On the attacking side of the ball there are eight teams that rack up more than 1.2 xG per match, and five teams that are below the expected goal line.

England and Italy have similar contours. Both leagues are significantly more defensive than Germany, and they both have a larger group of dominant teams at the top that tick the box on both sides of the ball. In both leagues teams up and down the table demonstrate the ability to defend, while it’s only the elite cadre of clubs that pour on the attacking hot sauce. Despite their reputational differences, and the clear stylistic divergences, both leagues by and large end up at a similar place, one that’s an entire continent away from Germany.

Then there’s Spain. Nobody can score in Spain. There are a whopping eight teams in Spain that average below a single expected goal per match. And while only four teams allow less than one expected goal per match, there are also only three teams in the league that allow more than 1.2. Two teams fall are both allowing more than 1.2 and scoring less than one, Celta Vigo, having a surprisingly poor season and battling relegation in 18th place, and Deportivo Alavés, a team currently in fifth place. Yes, fifth place. Why? How? Sometimes absolutely everything breaks right for a team.

What sets Spain apart from the other three leagues is that the teams in La Liga just refuse to cluster around one side of the ball or the other. In England the six teams at the top of the table are the six best attacking teams, in Germany the three teams at the top of the table are the three best defensive teams. In Italy the six teams at the top of the table are the six best defensive teams. At least, as far as expected goals can tell. In Spain, who the heck knows.

On the defensive side of the ball, the four teams that allow less than a goal, are Atlético Madrid in second, Getafe in fourth, Valencia in seventh and Leganés in 12th. On the attacking side of the ball there are six teams that score more than 1.2 xG per match, they are Barcelona in first, Real Madrid in third, Sevilla in sixth, Valencia in seventh, Eibar in 11th, and Espanyol in 14th.

Looking at the numbers this way is a little bit dry. It misses out on tons of nuance, and glosses over the exceptions to the rule, when generally the exceptions are the most interesting part. But, it provides a window into why leagues are perceived the way they are, and whether those perceptions are correct. In some ways they hold up. Germany really is an attacking league, Serie A really does have a number of strong defensive sides. There really are more teams in Spain that don’t put up an attacking fight against the giants of the league. On the other hand, other stereotypes don’t hold up nearly as well. The Premier League isn’t the all action league its often portrayed as, and Italy’s best teams are largely as proficient in attack as the best in the rest of the world. The game, as always, contains multitudes.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Manchester United's Sancho Pursuit Risks Repeating Old Mistakes

Spring is here. The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and the transfer rumors are starting to fly in earnest. Especially in Manchester. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is officially United’s new manager, and as such it’s time to talk about what Manchester United are going to give him to work with.

Today’s big rumor is that United is hot on the heels of one Jadon Sancho. There’s a lot of logic to this. For starters, Sancho is brilliant.

At 19, he might be the best teenage footballer in the world. His unique career path, from youth star at Manchester City, to plain old star at Borussia Dortmund might well have been concocted by a mad scientist to be the ultimate catnip to United. It is nearly impossible to find a young English star who is already established at the highest levels of the game. With an added bonus of sticking it to crosstown rivals throw in, how could United possibly say no?

And then there’s the positional need. Despite a squad that’s top heavy with attacking talent, United really don’t have a player whose best position is the right wing. Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez, and Juan Mata are all more comfortable playing through the middle or on the left. So, there’s real need. (Just how Manchester United have managed to spend so much money over the years and acquire so many attacking players without finding one who is comfortable on the right is another matter entirely).

The problem with acquiring Sancho isn’t that the move wouldn’t make sense. The problem is that there are a lot of other moves that would make more sense. That’s because, right now, Manchester United are already a very good attacking side. What they aren’t is a very good defensive one. Sancho might very well improve them, but a lot of other cheaper moves would improve them more, and improve them more quickly.

Nemanja Matic is Manchester United’s defensive midfielder. He’s 30. While he remains an assured passer and decent defender in tight spaces, his mobility is in steep decline and he simply can’t patrol the wide swaths of the pitch and attacking team needs him to. And it’s not like as he enters into his footballing golden years that’s going to improve. He’s paired with Ander Herrera. Herrera has finally found the form that brought him to United’s attention in the first place.

He’s also 29. He also reportedly may be on his way to Paris Saint-Germain this summer. So that’s basically an entire midfield that needs replacing. Even if, somehow, United talk themselves into Fred, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira all being ready to contribute in deep midfield roles next season, that still leaves extra minutes to be filled behind Paul Pogba. It’s hard to look at the state of that midfield and not see United needing one if not two major pieces and needing them much more urgently than they need Sancho.

Then there’s the defense. Luke Shaw’s resurgence at left back has at least temporarily settled one position.

It has also freed up Ashley Young to play the majority of the minutes at right back. Young has performed admirably there. He’s also going to be 34 this summer. Young was preferred there to Antonio Valencia, who will be leaving at the end of the season and Matteo Darmian who is a person that still exists (and had the option year of his contract picked up by United). That leaves only Diogo Dalot. He’s 20, and maybe he’ll be good one day, but for now the 33-year-old winger who was converted to left back before being converted to right back is preferred to him. So, draw your own conclusions about how far along the developmental path he is.

The center back situation is a little more in the eye of the beholder. After Jose Mourinho’s departure, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof have settled into a clear partnership. They are…fine. It’s possible if they had a stronger defensive unit around them they might even be good. Having a couple of center backs who are good enough to get the job done under the right circumstances isn’t a problem, if you give them the right circumstances. The optimistic case for United’s defense is that if they improve at midfield and right back then the center backs will be able to perform at a top level. Alternatively, they might just need a top line central defender as well as their other upgrades.

None of this is new. The names might have changed but the story remains the same. United needed to beef up defensively when they went out and acquired Sanchez last season, a year after acquiring Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a year after acquiring Anthony Martial and Memphis Depay, a year after acquiring Angel Di Maria, a year after acquiring Juan Mata. At some point the continued attacking merry-go-round needs to give way to a defensive focus or the results will just keep being the same.

None of this is to say that acquiring Sancho is a bad move, only that it’s one that doesn’t solve the core problems that this United team has struggled to solve since Alex Ferguson left. The team needs strength in midfield and better defenders. If they add the right players at those positions in addition to adding Sancho, then this summer will be a huge success. If they miss out on Sancho, but bulk up elsewhere then it’s still likely this team will improve, perhaps dramatically. But, if all that United does is sign Sancho, and not give the rest of the squad the full tune-up it needs, well then it’s likely the summer will be a failure even if Sancho himself is a huge success. United need an overhaul, irrespective of whether they land an attacking superstar. Without it, Sancho will just be another shiny coat of paint.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Atalanta, Italy's Almost Cinderella Story

Poor unfortunate Atalanta.

The top rungs of Italian soccer are populated almost exclusively by household names. Clubs like Juventus, Napoli and crosstown rivals Inter Milan and AC Milan along with Roma and Lazio dominate the upper regions of the table. But, amongst the giants there is one side that has managed to thrive. Atalanta probably won’t qualify for the Champions League, they currently sit in a thee team tie for sixth place, six points behind fourth place Milan (albeit with a game in hand) and two behind fifth place Roma. But the table can be cruel, and despite their position, there’s a real case that Atalanta have been the third best team in Italy this season.

On a very basic level, their goal difference is the fourth best in Italy. They’ve scored 18 more times than they’ve conceded this season, only Juventus, Napoli and Inter Milan have managed a better return. It’s just that they’ve failed to turn that goal difference into points at the necessary rate, a factor which tends to be largely out of a team’s control.

A deeper dive tells a similar story. Atalanta’s expected goal difference of 0.61 per match is bettered only by Juventus and Napoli, the two titans of Italian football. Atalanta are a world class attacking team. The sides 57 goals are second best in Serie A and only three behind Juventus for the best mark in the league, this despite having played one fewer match. Their xG scored per match of 1.58 trails only Napoli’s 1.72. They do this while taking 16.54 shots. One of the keys to the team’s success is that they take better shots, on average, than any other top team (there are two more efficient teams, though both of those bottom half of the table teams take very few shots).

Atalanta’s shot chart makes it crystal clear that they are focused on getting the ball to feet in the most dangerous areas.

There’s nothing particularly complicated about how they approach that task. The team has three very good attacking players, all of whom are skilled at both creating for themselves and for each other. Usually Alejandro Gómez plays behind both Josip Iličić and Duván Zapata. Gómez leads Italy (among players with at least 1000 minutes played) with 0.33 xG assisted per 90 minutes. Zapata is seventh with 0.25 while also being fifth in the league in xG per 90 with 0.42. Iličić trails his strike partner slightly in both categories with 0.23 xG assisted and 0.40 xG.

Gómez is also an integral part of how Atalanta moves the ball into the final third. His tendency to drop deeper while Atalanta is in possession means that despite playing a 3-4-3 the side always has bodies in midfield to move the ball forward. He is seventh in Serie A with 9.13 deep progressions per 90, while teammate Remo Freuler, a purer central midfielder, is fifth with 9.43. Freuler is the beating heart of Atalanta’s midfield combining his creative output with a high level of defensive contribution as well. After adjusting for possession he’s ninth in Serie A with 3.67 tackles per 90, and extremely adept at winning the ball when he pressures opponents. His 5.42 pressure regains per 90 are fifth in Serie A. His proficiency covering the left flank means that Atalanta can deploy either Robin Gosens or Timothy Castagne on the wing without fear, despite the fact that left wing back is neither of their natural position.

Overall, Atalanta’s defensive numbers are strong, though not as notably excellent as they are on the attacking side. They allow 0.97 xG per match, the fifth best total in the league and they do it primarily by suppressing opponent’s shooting. They allow only, 10.96 shots per match, the fewest in Serie A. Numbers like that suggest a team that press aggressively, and sure enough their defensive activity shows a team that works hard to win the ball back as far up the field as possible.

The topline number of 39 goals conceded is an ugly one, tied for only ninth best in Serie A, but under the hood things are a number of mitigating factors. Seven of those goals are of the flukier variety. They’ve conceded four penalties and put the ball in the back of their own net three additional times. Arguably their high octane, high press style could contribute to a tendency to scramble in their own box when they’re beaten, but in general even for pressing teams, penalties and own goals come and go at the whims of fate.

That leaves 32 goals to analyze against an xG of 27.21. That’s certainly the kind of result that could stem from nothing more than bad luck. Looking at post-shot xG tells a similar story. They’ve conceded those 32 goals from a post-shot xG of 28.80. 

A slightly better keeping season from the combination of Etrit Berisha and Pierluigi Gollini (both of whom have save percentages below their expected save percentages) and this season might have had a storybook ending. That doesn’t seem likely now. They’re like too far behind, especially with away dates at Inter, Napoli, Lazio and Juventus still left to come. Atalanta are good but they probably aren’t good enough to overcome that.

Atalanta are a fun and exciting squad. They have a superstar attacking unit, a two way midfielder who can do it all and enough supporting pieces to make it all work. Sadly, what they haven’t had over the length of this season is the ability to turn consistently strong performances into enough points to leave them in position to really chase a Champions League spot. Sometimes the good plucky underdog season comes up just short through no fault of its own.