Can Tottenham’s “Air Raid” Attack Overcome Liverpool’s Dominant Defense?

Tottenham Hotspur have a weird, broken, magical squad. Because the club didn’t sign any players either over the summer or in January, this special group was too thin to put together that unique alchemy week in and week out. But, the team’s peak, which has only existed for a stretch of perhaps five matches this season, demonstrated a high flying act constructed by Mauricio Pochettino that I’ve dubbed the Air Raid Offense. It’s that tactical system that has been the framework for Spurs’ success this season.  

Air Raid is an American football tactical system. What undergirds the Air Raid is a belief in stretching the field vertically, sending receivers down the field, spread out horizontally, with staggered depths, each reading the defense. I quoted Roger Sherman in my original piece breaking down the Air Raid’s basics, explaining the system’s classic play, called Four Verts:

Take the Air Raid’s signature play, Four Verticals. It sounds like an 8-year-old’s preferred play call, the real-life version of Da Bomb from NFL Blitz, but it does more than just stretch defenses deep. Four Verts also exploits the field horizontally, by having four receivers run evenly spaced routes across the gridiron. Not every pass is a deep shot; in fact, many Four Verts plays end with midrange attempts to receivers whose defender is trying to prevent a deep heave. As Smart Football’s Chris B. Brown explains, the idea isn’t “just run into the end zone.” It’s “stay in your vertical lane, but get open.”

While traditionally in American football, coaches sought to move the chains (keep the ball) through short throws and runs and occasionally throw the ball deep, the Air Raid offense threw the old playbook out to ask, why? What if we took more risks, tried to gain more yardage quickly, and played a higher risk, higher reward strategy? What if we stretched defenses and just didn’t bother with offensive plays near the line of scrimmage? Let’s make opposing defenses cover more square yardage and make tougher decisions. The Air Raid prioritizes speed, quick decisions, and relatively accurate passing from quarterbacks that can sling the ball around the field. It deprioritizes size, strength, breaking tackles, and short gains.

In December of 2018, Mauricio Pochettino lost every semblance of the midfield he used to have. Mousa Dembele, once one of the strongest defenders and most technically gifted press resisters in soccer, was a shell of himself and was shipped off to China where he was able to dominate once again despite being 1.5 shells of himself. Eric Dier had appendicitis and a case of the being awfuls. Victor Wanyama was yet to play. Tottenham’s two true midfielders were a recently recovered and improving defensively Harry Winks and a no-longer awful Moussa Sissoko. Gone was Pochettino’s ability to play the 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 systems that had allowed him to press, control, and bruise results in 2016-2017 and 2017-2018.  Tottenham’s shot differential plummeted.

What remained of Tottenham’s squad in December was seven foundationally great players and four players that Pochettino had to manage around. Harry Kane and Son Heung-min are two elite strikers with immensely complementary skills. Kane and Son are two of the best finishers in the world. Son is incredibly fast and has the ability to crush the ball with both feet, from anywhere on the pitch. Kane is not only one of the great shot getters in the world – especially after mostly recovering his proprioception from his March 2018 ankle injury (we’ll get to this more) – but also incredibly adept at receiving the ball in the middle of the park and picking out a pass to continue the attack going forward.

Dele and Eriksen are very different players who share some important similarities. Both have incessant motors, receiving passes constantly when Spurs have the ball and pressuring constantly constantly when they don’t.

Dele runs with long strides that allow him to be everywhere on the pitch, all of the time, pressuring the ball and finding space in the box to get a shot or find a pass. He leads Spurs in, and was 13th in the Premier League with 6.32 pressure regains per 90 minutes but still manages to find himself on the end of chances constantly.  

Eriksen roams the pitch, harrying opposing players, recovering the ball, and using his passing ability to create plays from all over the pitch. He led Spurs in both overall key passes with 2.31 per 90 and open play key passes with 1.70, figured that placed him eighth and tenth in the Premier League respectively. Together, they allowed Tottenham to seemingly have extra attackers and midfielders, while lacking both.  

Then there are Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.  The longtime, multiclub and national teammates are two of the most skilled defenders in the world, both in defense and going forward. Alderweireld in particular can hit diagonals for sixty yards like almost no defender alive. It can often be hard to quantify passing in numbers, but Spurs clearly relied on Alderweireld as an engine to move the ball into the final third. No outfield player in the Premier League played more successful long balls than Alderweireld’s 9.17 per 90 minutes and no center back attempted more unpressured long balls than his 11.48. Despite that he maintained an overall passing completion percentage of 89%. His combination of assurance on the ball and accurate long distribution paint a picture of a player who looks more like a midfield quarterback in possession than one of the league’s most assured defenders.

Those six players and the best shot stopper in the season’s Premier League campaign in Hugo Lloris are the sorts of players you can win a Premier League title with. With no solidity in midfield and this collection of talents in the squad, Pochettino improvised the Air Raid by asking the following: if we cannot win or control the ball in midfield, why grant that a midfield should exist?  

With Kane and Son up top, Alli and Eriksen able to play two positions at once, and Vertonghen and Alderweireld able to function like quarterbacks, Spurs were able to do soccer’s version of “four verticals.” This is not the stuff of Big Sam’s POMOs, Tony Pullis, or Cardiff. What the Air Raid unleashed was the ability to play short, intermediate, and long passes to create an attack from a turnover, as long as it was vertical. “Stay in your lane, but get open.” What it also meant, was trailing runners coming at all angles into the box when the ball had been advanced.

Statistically, Tottenham’s Air Raid showed in the numbers in a variety of ways this season.  Spurs are fifth in the Premier League in non-penalty expected goals per 90 with 1.30 per match, but just tenth in passes completed in the penalty area with only 2.37 per match. They have the most direct attack in the league measured by looking at a ratio of the distance towards goal from the start of a possession that ended in a shot, divided by the total distance traveled in buildup to the shot.

The blazing attack allowed Spurs to get their great finishers in space, without many defenders between them and the goal. They had by far the most counter attacking shots per match in the Premier League (defined as shots generated within 15 seconds of a possession that originates from their own half).  

  

The tactical recognition of Moussa Sissoko’s deficiencies as a midfielder was also the move that finally unleashed the best of him, forcing Pochettino to think about what he does bring to the table rather than what he takes away. Sissoko has been a paradoxical player for most of his time at Spurs and mostly a bad one. He’s not good enough to play against the best teams and not technical enough to play against the bottom half of the Premier League where teams force Spurs to break them down in the final third. But his physical talents have always been there, it was just a matter of figuring out what to do with them. He has no ability to be a press-resistant midfielder because his ability to hold the ball is relatively mediocre. He’s not a particularly great passer. What he does have is incredible top flight speed, an indefatigable motor, and good open field dribbling.  

By playing in transition constantly, Sissoko was unleashed to get up and down the pitch, carrying the ball forward with driving runs and making runs in behind to stretch the defense, while also slowing attacks by getting into good spaces and protecting Kieran Trippier on Tottenham’s right. With Tottenham moving from the grinding order of the Mousa Dembele era Spurs to the helter skelter Air Raid, Sissoko climbed chaos’s ladder and earning earnest chants of his name from Tottenham fans during Spurs remarkable semifinal comeback at the Cruyff.

The Air Raid in its purest form was mostly short lived this season, when the DESK quartet of Dele, Eriksen, Son and Kane was healthy with Harry Winks at the midfield base. In a three match mid-December stretch Spurs ripped off high flying wins against Bournemouth (5-0), Everton (6-2), and Arsenal (2-0 in the League Cup). While the gaudy goal totals rightly suggest that they ran hot during those matches, the hot finishing complemented Air Raid fully taking flight.  

In the following clips from that time period you can see Kane coming deep to receive long, direct passes, and making snap decisions to find teammates in space.  In others the ball moves quickly to Kieran Trippier, Dele, and Eriksen who find Son getting in behind. The ball frequently moves from the back directly to Kane, Dele, or a full back, but rarely directly to the box as it did when Tottenham were forced to play Llorente in the Champions League. Sissoko is often running vertically, and players come trailing frequently. Indeed on two of the goals and one of the chances, it’s a late arriving player who scores off a rebound. The verticality and chaos gave Tottenham a chance to play to its strength, directly linking its great passers in the back to its talented, well-rounded attacking players, without worrying about their lack of midfield control.

 

The Air Raid Against Liverpool

Early in the season, Nathan Clark [link] put together a smart video taking Pochettino’s words after losses to Inter and Liverpool discussing how Spurs’ dealt with the two teams’ respective presses. With Liverpool’s slightly lower press this season, Spurs passed around the back, and were unable to play through the middle of the pitch, frequently sending the ball long and recycling possession to Liverpool. Against Inter, Pochettino’s complaint was that Spurs passed out of the back against the press well, but were languid in possession having broken the press.

In both instances, Pochettino wanted Spurs to play faster and more vertically. Pochettino’s Spurs had tried to go play Liverpool like for like in that match and in the prior two years, to little success. Coincidentally, one of the first times Pochettino ever went away from his battering ram, pressing approach and towards what would presage this season’s Air Raid was in October of 2017 against Liverpool.  Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier, his usual midfield two were both out. Spurs were forced to play a 3-5-2 with Harry Winks, Dele and Eriksen in midfield. The attack in that match focused on vertical passes and finding Harry Kane isolated against Dejan Lovren. Kane – then at his shot monster apex – owned Lovren, scoring early and then finding a sprinting Son for Tottenham’s second goal in that match. Lovren was rage subbed by Klopp 35 minutes in and two months later, Virgil Van Dijk joined Liverpool for a massive amount of money.

After failing to try to outplay Liverpool like for like in the fall, this spring, Pochettino once again had success against Liverpool returning to an attack that largely bypassed midfield. After starting three at the back, Pochettino eventually tucked Danny Rose inside to play a hybrid 4-4-2 and then removed Davinson Sanchez for Heung Min Son to play a pure 4-4-2 diamond. In that set up, Spurs were frequently on the front foot.  

In the 55th minute, Spurs developed a great chance off of just a four pass move. Alderweireld played a vertical pass out of the back to Sissoko, who did the thing he does and drove the ball forward before laying the ball off to Danny Rose. Kane, Lucas, and Eriksen began filling the lanes for Rose. Rose found Kane, who created a shot off the dribble, and Eriksen and Lucas both nearly put the ball in off the rebound.

In the 84th minute, the Sissoko-Van Dijk duel analyzed around the world was actually the result of yet another great Air Raid move. Sissoko drove the ball from the back and found Kane, who was an absolutely superb passer for Spurs from deep positions this year, who then found Heung Min Son. A 2-on-1 break ended in heartbreak for Tottenham when Moussa Sissoko skied the ball against Virgil Van Dijk and minutes later Hugo Lloris dumped the ball in front of goal, allowing Liverpool to steal three points at home.

Nonetheless it set the blueprint for how Spurs could beat Europe’s pressing giants without press resistant midfielders, reducing the number of pressing opportunities by eschewing the midfield touches, and forcing Liverpool’s press to sit slightly deeper lest they get broken through. Tottenham trotted out the same concept against Manchester City in the Champions League and the Premier League, leading to Spurs holding their own against Manchester City and sneaking advancement in the quarter-finals even without Harry Kane as the fulcrum of the attack.  

Liverpool seemed sufficiently scared of Tottenham’s counterattack that they were forced to sit back slightly more in their own attacks.  Looking at Liverpool’s defensive heatmaps from the two matches, makes it crystal clear that while in the first clash back in September, Liverpool were able to bring their typical pressure in midfield,

by the second time they faced off, Spurs approach forced Liverpool to adjust and made them do a lot more defending over the top and deeper down the flanks and halfspaces (especially on the right) in their own half.

This may pose a particularly difficult challenge for Liverpool, whose primary ball progression and attack do not come through their midfield this season, but their fullbacks.  

Mauricio Pochettino faces a tactical choice in the Champions League Final, but the ultimate question will be how best to use the sleek counterattacking force he created to not only create an against Liverpool’s stout defense but also to limit Liverpool’s forward thrust. Ten starters, with news of Harry Kane’s ankle injury recovering, seem to be locked in: In front of Lloris, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen will likely have Rose and Trippier outside them. Sissoko, Dele, and Eriksen will be in midfield somewhere, and Son and Kane will be up top somewhere. The remaining question is whether Lucas Moura, Davinson Sanchez, Harry Winks, or Eric Dier fills in the eleventh slot.

Semifinal hero Lucas being left off as a starter may seem harsh, but Pochettino certainly trusts Kane here.  If Lucas were to start, Spurs might run a more traditional 4-3-3, with Lucas and Son outside Kane and Eriksen at the base of a Sissoko-Dele trio.  This set up would have the advantage of hampering Liverpool’s fullbacks from getting up the pitch, but would also leave Tottenham very light in midfield. Perhaps Pochettino might take that risk, with his defense packed relatively deeply and willing to forego a challenge in the midfield.

Most likely, Lucas will come off the bench in the match, with Winks or Dier starting at the base of a 4-4-2 diamond. It was this formation that gave Tottenham their best stretches this season. Ideally for Spurs, Winks would be fit and could start over Dier.  While Dier at his best provides a heft Winks cannot match, defensively Winks came on this season as his ankle healed to provide as much ball winning as Dier. Winks also gives Tottenham a modicum of press resistance from the back, with his low turnover rate and accurate passing to his fullback outlets giving the team the chance to get a counterattack started before turning the ball over.  

Stopping Liverpool’s press and attack is more or less impossible and going toe-to-toe with their press is a fool’s errand that Spurs fans are hopeful Pochettino has recognized. By utilizing the Air Raid approach, Tottenham may be able to defend in a deeper block, not get overextended, and keep Liverpool from playing their desired full metal soccer. Of course, Liverpool is extremely talented and the advantage of the Air Raid may not be sufficient, but it gives Tottenham its best chance to beat Liverpool and steal a big trophy, which has eluded them for decades.  

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Can Liverpool Make it Six in Madrid?

How will Jurgen Klopp’s approach Saturday’s showpiece Champions League final?

The biggest difference for Liverpool between Saturday’s affair in Madrid and last year’s Champions League final defeat in Kyiv is that this time they are the favourites. The 2018 showdown saw them up against a Real Madrid team all set to make it three in a row. This time, not so much. The bookmakers give Liverpool an implied probability of around 65-69% (nice) of lifting the trophy for a sixth time, which instinctively feels about right. Liverpool ended the Premier League campaign 26 points stronger than Tottenham, with most of that disparity coming in the second half of the season. Liverpool start the stronger side, but of course it’s extremely hard to project a likely result onto a one off game like this.

The Road to Madrid

Liverpool made it out of the group stages not on points, not on head to head, not even on goal difference but on superior “goals scored” to Napoli. But for a particularly dreadful performance away at the Stadio San Paolo, the reds played reasonably well in all their group stage fixtures, even running Paris Saint-Germain level on expected goals in the defeat in Paris and falling prey to a particularly unlikely pair of finishes at Red Star Belgrade.

By xG difference, Liverpool actually came out worse than Napoli in Group C, and perhaps the Italians can count themselves a touch unlucky to have fallen at the first hurdle. Granted, we’re dealing with small sample sizes here, and games between three very strong sides and one less dominant team, so it’s difficult to evaluate what the most “fair” outcome would be. But it was the Premier League side who made it through, and if they were not of the sufficient standard, then tougher tests awaited. Though some feel that a declining standard in the Bundesliga has masked some issues at the club, Bayern Munich looked a legitimate hurdle. The first leg, though ending in a 0-0 draw, relieved any concerns, with Liverpool dominating the game and creating plenty of chances that could have seen the home side score. The second leg at the Allianz Arena saw much the same pattern, but with the finishing turning out much better, winning 3-1 both on the night and on aggregate, putting together a very dominant 3.01-0.62 xG performance across both games. The story against Porto in the quarter-final was generally the same. But for a rocky period in the first half of the second leg, Liverpool were clearly the stronger side throughout and deserved to go through.

Of course, the comeback against Barcelona is the only match everybody remembers. As much as it deflates the narrative, the story of the tie is that Barcelona were not as impressive as the scoreline suggested in the first leg, nor were Liverpool as strong in the second. At the Camp Nou, Klopp’s side largely functioned effectively in the first two thirds of the pitch, but Gini Wijnaldum’s very poor impression of the absent Roberto Firmino led to Liverpool being unable to link Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah into the game in the box as they normally do. At the other end, Lionel Messi decided to be Lionel Messi, and sometimes there’s just not a whole lot to be done about that.

The second leg was similar in many ways in that Liverpool asserted a fair amount of control over things. The goals themselves, though, came from set pieces and moments where Liverpool took advantage of Barcelona errors. The second part has always been part of Klopp’s philosophy, but the most important moments of the game felt almost distinct from Liverpool’s overall plan.

The xG ended up being close enough (3.20-2.63 in Barcelona’s favour) that either side going through was relatively in play. It’s probably difficult for any model to fully quantify something like the Origi goal that sent Liverpool through, in which Barcelona defenders didn’t seem to notice what was happening until the ball went in the net, so the xG figure isn’t the be all and end all. Even if circumstances ended up being rather dramatic, Liverpool managed to do enough.

The Shape Liverpool Are In

You couldn’t ask for much more than winning 13 out of the last 14 games in all competitions (and that one defeat was overturned in the famous second leg at Anfield). The Liverpool machine has been running largely consistently for some time now.

After a period of flirtation this year with a 4-2-3-1 shape, the 4-3-3 that has defined Klopp’s time at Anfield is once again his modus operandi. Much was said in the first half of the season about Liverpool cooling off the press somewhat, but in the Champions League this year it’s looked pretty full on.

Owing presumably to the tougher fixtures seen in this tournament, Liverpool’s numbers are a touch less impressive and more conservative in the Champions League compared to the Premier League. Liverpool in Europe are not a fun team to play against.

No side that made it as far as the quarter finals aggressively pressed a higher percentage of the opposition’s passes than Liverpool. Their defensive distance, the average position where the side attempt to make a defensive action, is higher up the pitch in Europe than in the Premier League. It’s a more defensive approach in the Champions League, yes, but via high pressing rather than sitting back.

In terms of attacking, in theory Klopp should find it slightly easier in this tournament to create counter-pressing situations. Liverpool’s 53% possession is lower here than the 62% in the league, and the performances against Barcelona and Bayern show a willingness to focus on exploiting opposition errors, more so than in the Premier League where the team inevitably dominate against lesser sides. This might be more of a classically Klopp approach in some ways, focusing on opportunities in transition rather than from possession.

So How Will Liverpool Approach the Final?

The contrast between the two teams’ choices in the run up to Saturday’s game couldn’t be more stark. While Spurs have numerous different system and personnel decisions to make, the Liverpool approach and team largely picks itself. It looks as though Joel Matip has overtaken Dejan Lovren to join Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson in the back four. Naby Keita’s injury makes it very likely that Wijnaldum will join Fabinho and Jordan Henderson in midfield (though there is a chance that James Milner could make a surprise start). If Firmino is fully fit, as it seems he is, he will rejoin Mane and Salah in the attack. Even minor tweaks to this eleven will not change the approach. The team is largely the team. Whether this gives an advantage to one side or the other is anyone’s call.

Liverpool beat Tottenham home and away this season, albeit by fairly narrow margins, with broadly the same approach as usual. Spurs generally look to press Liverpool aggressively, with one notable exception: the 4-1 win over Klopp’s team at Wembley in 2017. Pochettino’s comments in the past have suggested he does not believe that the way to beat Liverpool is to defend deep, so the instinct that they will press high and look to assert dominance on the game, with Liverpool thus continuing the transition-based attacking we’ve seen in the Champions League this season.

Joel Wertheimer has suggested for StatsBomb that Pochettino may employ a very vertical style of play, attempting not to assert control in midfield but to bypass it, and this is something Liverpool will need to be wary of.  That it’s so unclear as to how Spurs will set up probably increases the emphasis that Liverpool will place simply on preparing themselves and their plan A, which could be very effective if all goes right. Of course, the margins are fine here, so we should have a thrilling encounter on our hands.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Barcelona Season Review: So That Happened….Again

How do you evaluate a team when only one game mattered? Barcelona won La Liga by 11 points. It was the team’s second title in a row, fourth out of the last five, sixth out of the last eight and eighth out of the last 11. Their season was also, by all accounts, an utter failure. For the second straight season the team blew a massive lead halfway through a tie to get unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League. The fact that the Liverpool team that sent them home this time was significantly better than the Roma side that delivered the blow last year doesn’t really make an extremely bitter pill go down any easier. It’s hard to reconcile sustained dominance and prominent failure into a coherent narrative. One place to start, however, is by recognizing that Barcelona’s overall performance has, in fact, declined. Over the past two seasons, Barcelona’s attack has increasingly become less prominent in order to maintain a, more or less, consistent level of defensive strength. Of course, when you have Lionel Messi that decline simply means going from stratospheric levels to simply superhuman ones. Barcelona still had the best attack in La Liga, outstripping their closes competitor by 0.21 expected goals per match. This choice by manager Ernesto Valverde is reasonable. Barcelona’s squad is old. It’s understandable that the club is looking to maximize the last years of a legendary group of players, but for everybody outside of Messi (and arguably Gerard Pique) the cracks are showing. Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic both have noticeably less range than they used to. This has meant that Barcelona, in order to maintain their defensive presence, has had to carry a third midfielder who is more attentive to doing the work of an actual midfielder. Executing that approach led to more Arthur and Arturo Vidal and sometimes, especially in big matches, Sergi Roberto being repurposed as a nominal wide midfielder pinching inside to further protect the center of the pitch. And while that approach worked, it had deleterious knock-on effects. With so much emphasis on protecting the center of the pitch, Barcelona’s midfielders were less able to influence the attack. Virtually nobody playing outside of the attacking three generated any shots. It also meant that Philippe Coutinho who was acquired 18 months ago to fill the great Andres Iniesta’s shoes, suddenly found himself on a team that didn’t have room to carry the kind of midfielder who thrives on attacking possession. Coutinho might have succeeded as a player who got to control the ball with three attackers moving dynamically in front of him, but since he didn’t have the defensive presence to play alongside the slowing Rakitic and Busquets, he never got the chance. Instead Coutinho played most of his minutes as part of a front three where Messi dominated all the possession duties. Coutinho does a lot of things well, but most of them involve starting with the ball at his feet. Barcelona desperately needed another attacker who thrived moving ahead of Messi without the ball, and Coutinho is simply not that player. The problem was that Ousmane Dembele never stayed healthy enough to become that player, and Malcom wasn’t trusted enough to even be given the chance. And with Luis Suarez slowing down, Lionel Messi did everything. None of these decisions are bad. Having Messi in the side offers and obvious and easy way for a manager to cover for the sins of a squad that was otherwise surprisingly limited. But, it’s also not the way forward. As Suarez and Busquets and Rakitic and even Pique and Jordi Alba get older, those crevasses are only going to get bigger, the gaps will get harder to fill, and eventually even Messi, who is himself aging (one assumes anyway, though at this point even his actual mortality is in question), won’t be able to fill those holes. The good news is that help is on the way. Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong might as well have been constructed in a lab to fix Barcelona’s midfield shortcomings. He combines elite defensive mobility with excellent ball progression skills. He’s already a Barcelona player. Coutinho ultimately failed because he was a mix of progressive passing and final third presence, while de Jong takes the passing that Coutinho would have provided and combines it with defensive presence rather than a focus attacking contributions. Similarly, in attack, the long-rumored Antoine Griezmann move may finally be happening. He’d bring the ability to either spell Suarez or play alongside Suarez and Messi. And even if that deal for the Atletico Madrid want-away doesn’t materialize, the interest indicates a recognition on Barcelona’s part that something needs to be done to better customize the front three, and in a major way. A starting eleven which just plugs in de Jong and Griezmann puts the talent on the field to fix the major problems. But, just because the talent will be there to solve the problem doesn’t mean the problem will automatically become solved. And that’s where we come to the question of Valverde. From the outside it’s impossible to know whether his managerial decisions over the last two years were pragmatic choices which reflect the limitations of the squad at his disposal, or the reflection of a fundamental conservatism which he’d seek to implement regardless of the tools he has to work with. It’s also unclear if Valverde, even if he were retained, would have the juice behind the scenes to carry out the changes that need to be made. Featuring de Jong (and Arthur and even Carles Aleñà) means, to some degree, marginalizing Busquets and Rakitic. The same is true of Griezmann (or whoever) in attack. But, if Valverde returns it’s almost certainly in part because he has strong relationships with the very players he’d then need to start phasing out. That’s not an impossible challenge to overcome, it’s the kind of thing the best managers in the world handle regularly, it’s also the kind of hurdle that trips up lesser leaders all the time. It’s unfair to lay two shock Champions League defeats solely at Valverde’s feet, but even after sharing the blame around it still makes sense to ask if he’s the right man for the job going forward. Barcelona have been linked to a whole host of names, including some of the expected ones like Massimiliano Allegri, some ambitious ones like Erik ten Hag and some, idiosyncratic ones like Roberto Martinez. Given that the way for Barcelona to improve is for the team to play stylistically differently and use different players than they have over the past two seasons it makes sense to kick a lot of tires. Ultimately the story of Barcelona’s season is that of a manager who adopted a strategy that was good enough to cover for the fact that he had an aging team on his hands that was getting worse in notable ways. That approach won the league, but led to failures elsewhere. It was an approach that made sense, but it won’t make sense for much longer. If Barcelona keep their manager he’s going to have to change his ways next season to get the most out of a new generation of talent, rather than the old one. If Barcelona determine that he won’t or can’t do that then it’s time to hand over the reins to somebody who will.

Where Can Paulo Dybala Return to Superstar Form?

At one stage, Paulo Dybala seemed set to become a long-serving icon at Juventus. He was the key attacking contributor to perennial league title winners and an important figure in their run to the Champions League final in 2016-17, when he took over the number 10 shirt a couple of summers back it looked likely to be his for at least the next four or five years. But that doesn’t seem to be the way that things are going to turn out. “It’s possible that Paulo will leave Juve,” his brother Gustavo Dybala told an Argentinian radio station last week. “He needs a change. He isn’t happy, and he won’t be the only one to leave.” While that position might change now that Massimiliano Allegri — who, according to reports, had recommended he be sold — is no longer head coach, it seems to run deeper than that. The primary issue is the degree to which the team’s approach has been altered since last summer’s arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. “The problems are out on the pitch: Cristiano is Cristiano, and Paulo, Paulo, and he can’t compete,” Gustavo continued. “Various Juventus players are uncomfortable.” What has happened at Juventus is simply what happens when Ronaldo joins your attack: you become a bit more direct, you cross and shoot more often, and your new star striker gobbles up a big chunk of those shots (when he leaves, the reverse happens). That is only natural. It wouldn’t make sense to invest €100 million (plus €12 million in extra fees and his significant salary) in one of the best pure goalscorers in the game and then not build your forward line around his primary attributes. But it undeniably has a knock-on effect on other players. As the previous leader of the Juventus attack, Dybala has found himself marginalised. A total of 22 goals in league play last season has been followed by just five this season. After providing just over a goal or assist for every 90 minutes he played last season, he has produced less than one every two matches this time around — significantly lower even than he managed at Palermo in his first full top-flight season back in 2014-15. He’s gone from over four to under three shots per match, without any more than a marginal uptick in his key passes. A lower proportion of the team’s attacks are ending at his feet than ever before. A guy who not too long ago was considered a top-20 player in the world has provided just 0.19 Expected Goals (xG) per 90 — not even a top-300 rate in the big-five leagues. At 25 going on 26, Dybala looks in need of an opportunity to refresh and reload. “I think there are two things that have kind of changed Paulo’s sporting life,” Francisco Buteler, who coached Dybala in the youth system at Instituto de Cordóba in Argentina — and was, in fact, the coach who first played him as a forward rather than as an attacking midfielder — tells StatsBomb. “One was the World Cup, where after being relegated to a position where he received very few minutes, he lost some confidence that he still hasn’t regained; the other was the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo, which stripped him of some of his importance and resulted in him losing further confidence. From the moment he made his first-team debut here at Instituto, he has been a protagonist on all of his teams, and now he isn’t.” So, where next? “Paulo needs a team where there are another couple of players around him who treat the ball well, any team who are more of a protagonist in their playing style, who want more time in possession,” Buteler explains. “Paulo would do well in any team like that. If I had to put a name on it, a team like Manchester City, Barcelona, Liverpool. Those are some options where he could fit in perfectly.” Those teams certainly meet the brief. They are three of just 11 sides in the big-five leagues this season to have averaged 60% or more possession per match, and three of just nine to have done so whilst also averaging 90 or more pass completions within the final third (that is to say, passes that both originate and are received within the final third). City and Liverpool also rank in the top three in the big-five leagues in terms of their share of the shots in their matches. But to what degree are they likely destinations for Dybala? He is yet to click with Lionel Messi at international level, and Barcelona probably need pace in behind more than they do an additional elaborator. Unless there are other movements at Liverpool or City this summer, he would have to accept a rotational spot, and it is questionable whether he can press well enough for either of them (in fairness, it’s not something we’ve really had an opportunity to assess during his career to date). If those things could be overcome, he’d fit. Of the remaining six sides who met both of the aforementioned criterion, a likely price tag in the region of €100 million rules out Real Betis and probably an Inter Milan side only recently released from financial fair play restrictions; Paris Saint-Germain already have a suitably star-studded forward line; Real Madrid look likely to spend their attacking budget elsewhere; and unless Robert Lewandowski leaves, so too will Bayern Munich. That leaves Chelsea as an ideal landing spot, financially and tactically. It doesn’t look like they are going to keep Gonzalo Higuain, Álvaro Morata will probably remain at Atlético Madrid, and Dybala is just the sort of creative and mobile forward who could slot seamlessly into the centre of Maurizio Sarri’s attacking system. “He can play as a number 9,” Buteler explains. “Obviously, you can’t limit him to the area or put him up against two central defenders and expect him to compete physically, but he can play as a free number 9.” There are two problems: firstly, Chelsea have a transfer ban in force this summer, and there are murmurings they will elect not to appeal it and so use next season as an opportunity to see what some of their younger players are capable of; secondly, Sarri’s future at the club is in doubt, and the next coach might apply an entirely different play style. There is another kind of option: Atlético Madrid. In the wake of Antoine Griezmann’s decision to leave the club this summer (to where remains to be seen), Dybala has emerged as a possible replacement. Under Diego Simeone, Atlético play a far more counter-attacking style that the potential destinations thus mentioned, but they could certainly provide Dybala with the central role he craves. This season, Griezmann was involved at some point or another in moves that created 0.71xG per 90 on a team that as a collective averaged just 1.03xG per match. There is likely to be a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing at Atlético in the off-season, with veterans and other key players departing and new faces arriving. But if they can lock down Morata to a permanent deal — something that the player himself has said he wants to happen — there is clearly a potentially fruitful partnership to be forged between him and Dybala. “If Paulo plays as a forward, with another quick forward alongside him, he could become a very important player in such a system due to his ability to play the final pass and his goalscoring capacity,” Buteler explains. “If he finds himself with more space to work in, perhaps that would unleash all of his remaining potential.” The list of Dybala’s potential destinations doesn’t end there. Manchester United are reported to be interested, but we don’t yet have any idea as to the kind of form they are likely to take next season. As such, it’s difficult to offer an opinion as to whether or not they would represent a good fit. He certainly feels like the sort of big-name purchase that has characterised their recent transfer dealings, particularly following other failures to reach the Champions League, but that many of those haven’t come off as hoped suggests he should perhaps be wary. On the back of a difficult season, the decision Dybala makes this summer will define just how productive his remaining peak years can be and consequently, his legacy come the end of his career. At his best, he is undoubtedly one of the finest forwards in the game; if Juventus cannot currently provide him with a platform to show that, he must find a club who can.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Coding Up History: The Man Utd 1999 Project

It’s been great to see the results of the 1999 Project come to fruition these last few days.

For those who missed it, StatsBomb teamed up with The Independent to run a series of articles looking at three key games in Manchester United’s 1999 treble season through the lens of modern statistics. Twenty years on, the classic Giggs semi-final against Arsenal, the FA Cup final against Newcastle and the crowning glory, the Champions League against Bayern Munich were all coded up with the current 2019 StatsBomb dataspec and Mark Critchley did a great job reframing the narrative in which stats sit alongside the memories.

The original articles can all be viewed here:

Man Utd 2-1 Arsenal

Man Utd 2-0 Newcastle

Man Utd 2-1 Bayern Munich

Mark has covered a lot of detail across the games so do give them a read if you missed them, but I thought I’d add in a few broader notes on top. It’s scarce that we get to see historical football via any other method that our memory and the narratives that persist. Few people can think that luck didn’t play some part in Man Utd turning around a deficit against Bayern in injury time, but one comment we received was that as remembered, Bayern were better overall and United were lucky to even be in the game to stage a comeback. That was my own general recollection too. However, when you pick it apart, sure Carsten Jancker hit the bar with a speculative overhead kick, but Bayern essentially weren’t better. The shot count was fairly equal overall, but Bayern scarcely got decent chances close in and the pass volumes were 60:40 in United’s favour. United did create chances in good locations, and can perhaps be classed as unfortunate not to have drawn level before. It’s likely that our collective memory is influenced by the game state: Bayern leading for 83 minutes in a fairly even game to some extent gives the impression of control.

There is also the historical context of how football has changed. The obvious hook here is the formations the teams essentially lined up in. Man Utd started in a 4-4-2 in all three games we coded as did Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final and Newcastle in the FA Cup final. Bayern played with Jancker in a more solitary role up front and Lothar Matthäus in a sweeper role, so more of a 5-4-1/5-2-3. Is it any wonder central midfielders from this era are revered? How much space was there in the centre of the pitch?

Pressure

Here are the pressure events from the three games:

It’s probably easy to think back and presume the FA Cup final was the least intense of these three games since Man Utd won fairly comfortably, but this is the one game in which pressure events veered away from the midfield, at least for United. For Newcastle, Gary Speed put in a heck of a shift as did Dietmar Hamann before he was replaced at half time. Elsewhere, Arsenal saw Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira most active and Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Roy Keane were most active for United. Interestingly, Tony Adams and Jaap Stam score highly in this match (and Ronny Johnsen does also in the Champions League final). Their no nonsense active defending often saw them move up the pitch to engage with attackers, and this is borne out to a degree here. Adams also recorded three fouls up near the half way line. This style of defending on the front foot, stepping out of the back line to engage the opponent, is something that appears less common twenty years on, and nowadays when we evaluate pressure events, centre backs often rank low. Lastly, in the Champions League final, midfielders came to the fore again with Jens Jeremies and Stefan Effenberg patrolling midfield for Bayern, while Jancker did plenty of work up front, United, with significant possession, were less active off the ball. Their strikers were particularly inactive: see the totals of Dwight Yorke (6) and Andy Cole (5). This is a contrast to just days before and the FA Cup final which saw Teddy Sheringham (35) and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (34) racking up the effort. Game state, tactics and respect for the quality of the opposition could all play a part here but such a difference in style and personnel is notable.

Quarterback Beckham

It’s quite fun to see peak era David Beckham filling in in central midfield in the Champions League final. As his career moved on he played there more frequently, but earlier on, the very reasonable idea that he wasn’t defensively robust enough meant he wasn’t deemed an ideal fit there. Add in how effective he was as a peerless crosser of the ball and he was most often deployed as a traditional right sided midfielder (he was never really a winger per se). Here’s his pass map from that Champions League final, as the right side of a CM two:

So many long passes! 38/40 ground and low passes, and 6/22 high passes but a real lack of the shorter passes you might expect from a central midfielder. Contrast that with Nicky Butt, a player who very much eschewed the extravagant throughout his career:

Kept it simple! I’m enamoured with the idea that in the most important game of his career, Beckham got the chance to fill in as a central midfielder and proceeded to attempt his full range of passing. Was this the basis of him thinking later that this was his ideal position? Was this the birth of “Quarterback Beckham”? I don’t recall, but much like Wayne Rooney’s latter day England career, in which he appeared to feel he was more of a central creative hub than the forward he had been before, Beckham’s late England career featured many questions about whether he could play in central midfield and was more than just a world class right midfielder with an insane work ethic and top tier delivery. Regardless, in this game it translated as 71% passing from central midfield, quite a lot of turned over ball and essentially a very direct strategy.

Pass completion

This directness also pans out to the bigger picture. In this match as a whole there were 659 open play passes attempted of which around 69% were completed. This was a game between two of the strongest teams in Europe yet neither team impressed with their completion percentage (Man Utd 72%, Bayern 68%). Check out how that shapes up against every single game in the Champions League of 2019:

 

Passes were completed at a higher rate in every single Champions League game this season and only Porto v Galatasaray featured fewer actual passes. Back in 1999, against Arsenal and Newcastle, the pass volumes were much higher, but the pass completion rates were still low (Arsenal 73% v Man Utd 72%, Newcastle 72% v Man Utd 64%). It’s worth considering that the Spanish teams of the late ’00s, the influence of Pep Guardiola and stylistic hooks to value possession, slow down attacks and be less direct, are all in the distant future here. By coding up a handful of historical games, we don’t necessarily create irrefutable proof but we do get a window into the past and more evidence to consider fun questions like: Would teams of yore match or exceed modern teams? It’s most likely a different game…

____________________________________________________________________

Look out for more historical projects in the future.

Nobody’s Lionel Messi, But LAFC’s Carlos Vela Sure Is Trying

Bob Bradley, LAFC’s manager, has very specific ideas about how he wants his team to play. He frequently speaks about those ideas at press conferences and constantly communicates them to his team from the touchline. In addition, they are a recurring focus of the ESPN+ docuseries, “We Are LAFC.” While the whole series provides an interesting look at Bradley and LAFC’s expansion season, one particular scene in the first episode is fascinating, given the benefit of hindsight. Discussing his vision for changing his players’ ideas about football, he says, “I’ll talk a lot about Barca, not because they’re the only team in the world, but because there are little things there that can be good examples for us.” Once the team gets on the field, it is apparent that some of the same tactical principles that have been hallmarks at Barcelona have been instilled in the home team at Banc of California Stadium. LAFC want to maintain possession of the ball; as soon as they lose possession, they aggressively press the opponent. In attack, especially in the final third, Bradley’s side does something else that fans of Barcelona might recognize. The team relies on a talented, left-footed, right winger to produce goals.   The Barcelona nugget alone would be of note, given how LAFC have performed in their season and a half, but it’s the next exchange that’s been the story of the season in MLS so far. Bradley recalls his first meeting with Carlos Vela, a meeting which was punctuated with Bradley telling Carlos Vela that he wants him to be as good as Lionel Messi. In the 2018 season, Vela played like a star. He had 14 goals and 10 assists in about 2500 minutes played. While that’s undoubtedly very good, it is not as good as the standard that Messi has consistently set. Not being as good as Messi, of course, is hardly an insult, it’s just every other human being’s reality. Comparisons, especially those involving a soccer deity, are tricky, so let’s start with some context. La Liga is a much better league than MLS, and Lionel Messi is objectively a much better player than Carlos Vela. That said, Bradley wants his team taking ideas from Barcelona, he’s asking Vela to be as good as Messi, and so far in 2019, Vela is coming closer than you’d expect, and closer than MLS has ever seen. Vela has strung together a superlative season through 14 games, with 13 goals and 5 assists in just under 1300 minutes. For spectators, LAFC games have the same feel of inevitability that Barcelona games do. It’s not if Vela is going to do something spectacular, it’s when. That Vela and Messi share a languid style of play only adds to the parallels. Both look as if they’re calmly navigating the field as the action orbits around them. From just the boxscore numbers, Vela’s 1.22 non-penalty goals and assists per 90 minutes is right behind Messi’s 1.40, but the similarities actually grow when examining the underlying numbers. Vela is also just behind Messi in xG+xA per 90, shots per 90, and key passes per 90, while edging him ever so slightly in xG per shot and fouls won per 90. Vela’s shotmap; looks like someone cut and pasted a portion (maybe not the best portion, but certainly a portion) of Messi’s map. Recently, on 538 Michael Caley wrote about how much Barcelona have relied upon Messi to do everything this season. Vela is carrying a similar load for LAFC. Both players are responsible for at least 40% of their team’s goals while also accounting for at least 20% of their team’s assists,  xG, xA, shots, and key passes (though taking out set pieces Vela drops to 17% of key passes while Messi remains above 20%). Their respective workloads also show some of the subtle differences in how they’re deployed. Vela accounts for a much higher portion of LAFC’s touches in the box than Messi does for Barcelona, which can be partially explained by the presence of Luis Suarez. Another possible explanation is that Messi is relied upon for ball progression quite a bit more than Vela has been. Messi contributed 12.4 deep progressions per 90, which accounted for 15% of Barcelona’s total deep progressions. By contrast, Vela is only at 5.9 deep progressions per 90, which accounts for 11% of LAFC’s total. This goes without saying, but the strength of Barcelona is Lionel Messi. He is the single most productive force in modern football, and everything Barcelona does runs through him. He’s their best goal threat, he’s their best creator, and he’s their best ball progressor. Carlos Vela is LAFC’s best goal threat and their best creator, but he’s not close to being their best ball progressor. Three players on the team — Mark Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, and Latif Blessing — have more deep progressions per 90 minutes played than Vela, and they all play central midfield. Those midfielders have been the strength of LAFC. Their ability to apply pressure, and then turn that pressure into transition opportunities for their talented attackers forms the foundation that has allowed Vela to focus his efforts on producing once the ball is in the final third because he doesn’t have to worry about getting it there himself. This is, of course, why you can’t actually compare anybody to the legend himself. Vela, is having an amazing season, his attacking output is almost keeping pace, but he’s simply not asked to do an entire aspect of the game which Messi excels at. Vela might look like Messi in attack, but Messi plays midfield at the same time and Vela doesn’t have to. Vela is outperforming expected goals by a wide margin, and his teammates have been marginally better than expected at finishing off chances that he provides. He’s a thirty-year-old who, to this point in the season, hasn’t had to face the same amount of fixture congestion that he will later on.  Admittedly, there are reasons to be skeptical of this early run of form from Vela. However, it’s just more fun to believe that Bob Bradley has figured out what makes Vela tick and that someone should have told Vela they want him to be as good as Messi a long time ago.

Data Revolution in Women’s Football

It’s been nearly a year since StatsBomb announced free data for women’s football. During this time analysts, bloggers and fans have been brushing off their coding skills and navigating github to produce analysis, data visualisations and gifs all entirely focussed on women’s football. This has been really enjoyable to watch for two reasons:

  • By removing barriers to accessing quality data we are enabling a promising data analytics talent pool to develop.
  • We are making inroads to address the gender imbalance in the football industry.

However, the purpose of data analytics is not only to view the game through a different lens from a spectator capacity, but for information and insight to filter through to teams. By engaging coaches in a data-led process, information can ultimately filter down to the players themselves and help drive improvements on the pitch.

At StatsBomb, we spend a lot of time talking to teams at all levels, from the elite, through lower tiers, academies and even local grassroots teams. In 2019, teams are actively looking to incorporate data – yet about 95% of our inbound traffic is from the men’s game. We have forged relationships with women’s teams, but we want to do more to address the key barriers of incorporating quality data & analytics – cost and expertise.

So, for the 2019/20 season, all FAWSL teams can have completely free access to our industry leading analytics platform, StatsBomb IQ. The platform is designed to be intuitive, easy to navigate and enables real practical insight. Whether comparing overall team performance on key metrics, evaluating players or reviewing matches, StatsBomb IQ enables a complete, one-stop solution for a whole organisation.

 

 

StatsBomb IQ is built upon our already freely available, unique event data, and has over 200 insight metrics providing the information teams need. From straightforward metrics through to those built via deep learning algorithms, StatsBomb IQ provides guidance and understanding to all aspects of football, from passing to ball progression, shot quality to set pieces and much, much more.

In addition to providing free access to our analytics platform, we are also giving FAWSL teams the opportunity for free access to our Introduction to Football Analytics course in London on 10th June where we will be providing training to the fundamentals of using data in football analysis.

We are hoping that by making our platform available throughout the 2019/20 season and giving free training from our highly experienced analysts, all FAWSL teams can enhance their pre and post match analysis workflow. There is no reason why women’s football should miss out on the data revolution that is happening in the men’s game, and StatsBomb are delighted to be in a position to set the stage for this.

For more information, please contact sales@statsbomb.com

Manchester United Season Review: At the Wheel?

In what might sum up the last five years at Manchester United, this season saw a blend of utter chaos, false dawns, and a real sense that no one is quite sure how to get this football club going again. Looking at the trendlines, it’s pretty easy to spot what the major narratives were at Old Trafford. Another Jose Mourinho meltdown for the first half of the season led to poor numbers, while David De Gea’s heroics in 2017/18 were unable to continue and all the problems in this side came home to roost. Subsequently, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in and saw a genuine improvement in the side’s performances boosted by a huge positive finishing skew, convincing the board that the Norwegian was the man for the long haul. Then, as the fixture list toughened up, the team inevitably had a dip in performance, but this had the bad fortune of being met by a return to league average finishing at both ends, amplifying a view that everything had once again gone wrong at Old Trafford. Even considering the troubles they had down the stretch, Solskjaer was certainly a better United manager than Mourinho this season. The new boss saw the expected goal difference per game rise from a previously catastrophic -0.06 to a merely mediocre 0.28. This improvement was seen on both sides of the ball, as well, with United being slightly more effective both as an attacking and defending unit. As witnessed in the high press rating on the radar above, Solskjaer had the team defending from a position slightly higher up the pitch, even as his team were more comfortable allowing the opposition to retain the ball. That Solskjaer’s United were able to concede both fewer shots and shots of lower average quality than previously speaks to either genuinely impressive work from him or the awful state he found the club in after Mourinho. On the attacking end, perhaps because this phase of the game is more reliant on individual quality, things didn’t see quite a huge jump, but an improvement was still made. United took just under 1.5 extra shots per game, and even if Solskjaer’s less structured style saw the shot quality dip a touch, this still worked out as an improvement. Upon arriving, Solskjaer had relatively little time available for training tactics and thus opted to keep things fairly simple. A narrow 4-3-3 system that seemed to allow most of the side’s key players to shine in their best roles was favoured. The front three of Marcus Rashford Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard kept things fluid and interchangeable, offering something of a budget version of Liverpool’s attack (ok, United aren’t exactly working on a tight budget, but Solskjaer could only play the hand he was dealt). In midfield, the main concern seemed to be giving Paul Pogba a platform in which he could make forward runs and join the attackers with relative ease. Lone pivot Nemanja Matic can’t cover the ground he once was able to, so Ander Herrera was added to the starting lineup to help clean up any messes. The system found success straight away, with the Norwegian’s first game against Cardiff showing the shape clearly in the passmap. While ideally Solskjaer would want to spend time honing this system, fate had another plan, and injuries struck. Seemingly being less than entirely convinced by his options in the midfield three, and having to use the much less mobile Juan Mata in attack at times, Solskjaer began experimenting with a number of different systems. In big games, he would often favour a back three even if the ideal personnel were not available, such as the first leg home defeat to Barcelona in which Luke Shaw played at centre back. In the closing stages of the season, as some of the injury problems cleared up a touch, he often opted for a 4-4-2 diamond, here with Mata behind the two strikers. Granted, much of it was out of Solskjaer’s control, but this tactical tinkering didn’t seem to help the side much. The players were already attempting to adjust to a new style of play from Mourinho’s approach, and adding a number of new formations to learn only seemed to make things more difficult. In terms of individuals, it seems that the conversation around the club will always start with Pogba. In the first half of the season, it seemed as though he was sucked into the same Mourinho vortex as everyone else, with the manager supposedly frustrated by Pogba off the field. He continued in the broadly deeper role that Mourinho had preferred him in, and wasn’t bad exactly, but few would argue he was at his sparkling best. Things took a dramatic u-turn when Solskjaer arrived, played him as a nominal central midfielder with freedom to join the attack, and the Frenchman started having a lot of fun. This lasted throughout the winter months, with Pogba arguably performing as the best player in the Premier League over this period, until it all seemed to fall apart. The biggest factor in his disappointing form in recent months, one suspects, was Solskjaer’s tinkering forcing him to play increasingly conservative, positionally strict roles. Some have questioned his attitude, though these claims have never been backed up by any real evidence. Whatever the cause, though, Pogba’s output saw a very concerning drop off since mid-February. The story is similar with Rashford. In the part of the season where United were flying, it seemed as though he was ready to make the leap, to lead the line for the club and evolve into one of the Premier League’s better forwards. In Rashford’s case, one could point to the injury he picked up in March as causing issues, as well as the team’s poorer performances late in the season, but he was ultimately unable to perform consistently across the whole year. This was his best season in terms of goals and assists, and at age 21 he still has significant scope for improvement, but as of right now, the idea of Rashford is still more exciting than the real thing. The standout performer of the past several seasons, David De Gea, has been on the receiving end of criticism in recent months. The goalkeeper’s 17/18 season was out of this world good, and perhaps he was set to fall after inevitably failing to reach these standards again. While spring proved fairly shaky for him, his excellent form over winter put him once more as an above average Premier League shot stopper, at the very least. There can sometimes come a point in a ‘keeper’s career when they suddenly hit the wall and decline very quickly, but there is not yet enough evidence to point to this for De Gea. Don’t rule out him regaining his title as the best man between the sticks in the Premier League next season. It’s hard not to feel as though Herrera’s decision to leave the club on a free transfer could significantly hurt United next year. With Matic’s age showing, and Pogba’s best work often done in the final third, Herrera had to get through a lot of defensive work in that midfield, and he did it to great effect. With Fred seemingly unfavoured by Solskjaer, Scott McTominay showing character and height but little else, and Andreas Pereira yet to prove he is the star many United fans hoped he would be, there’s something of a void in a midfield that needs overhauling. Looking forward, United’s new structure of Solskjaer, assistant manager Mike Phelan and potentially sporting director Darren Fletcher do at least seem to be aware that this is a long term rebuilding project. The players the club are being linked with, such as Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Sean Longstaff, Daniel James, Declan Rice and Jadon Sancho indicate an awareness that United should be looking toward younger players for a side that might not be ready to challenge for top trophies in the next two years. Whether this management team is identifying the correct talent is very much an open question, as they do not yet have much of a track record to go on. Of course, United do not lack for financial resources, and a move toward locking down some of the best players in a very exciting generation of young British players would not necessarily be a mistake. What does seem likely, though, is that the next few years at Old Trafford could be something of a slog, even if they do eventually bear fruit.

Manchester City Season Review: Chasing Perfection

What is success for Manchester City? By any measure, a domestic treble, combined with the second most points in Premier League history, has to qualify. That leaves only the Champions League, where they bowed out in the quarterfinals again to chase, and a question. Going forward, is anything, up to and including a season like the one just completed, that doesn’t include European hardware, enough?

At first glance it seems unfair to group City in a category with the handful of continental teams that dominate their competitions year in and year out. Afterall, this is only their second victory in a row. It only came by a single point, and they had to win 14 matches straight at the tail end of the season to pull it off. It seems categorically wrong to assume that City’s league dominance should be guaranteed as a starting point.

But the underlying numbers are kinder to City than the table was, an extraordinary feat given that City ran up 98 freaking points. City’s expected goals per game total was 2.00, best in the league. Liverpool were second at 1.70. Their xG conceded per match was also tops in the league with 0.56, Liverpool were again second with 0.76. That means that City had an xG difference of 1.44, a full half a goal a game ahead of Liverpool’s 0.94, the second best differential in the league.

To put it another way, expected goals accurately reflects the top three teams in the table, with City first, Liverpool, second and Chelsea third but their relative expected goal differences of 1.44, 0.94 and 0.54 suggest that Liverpool were a side positioned roughly between the two. Instead they pushed City to the wire finishing with 97 points, while Chelsea finished a distant third with 72. If Liverpool had had an average season instead of a great one, City might have wrapped up the league with weeks to go, walking to the finishing line for the second season in a row. In that context, it’s fair to at least consider examining City in the same light as Juventus, PSG or Bayern Munich. Those are teams that can be pushed, or even caught, if everything goes right for a challenger, but start the season as presumed champions until a plucky underdog can convince the world otherwise.

It’s hard to overstate just how dominant City were in the league. The difference between their xG and Liverpool’s was the same as the difference between Chelsea, the third best attack, and Crystal Palace, the 13th. Defensively, their heatmap looks like this. I mean come on. Give somebody else a chance.

 

 

This Manchester City team is so scary precisely because their season was dominant without seeming in anyway to be above average for their talent. It’s true that their fire breathing attack outperformed our xG model, thanks in no small part to Raheem Sterling not missing a single chance valued at 0.40 xG or above.

 

 

But, despite that, over the course of not just this season, but last season as well, City goal difference hewed fairly close to their xG difference. Most of their overperforming came early, and down the stretch, when they needed to be perfect, they were, without very much in the way of undue help from the soccer gods.

 

 

All of this doesn’t matter all that much when looking backwards. The 2018-19 season is going to go down as one of the best title races in history, a three month long staring contest where nobody blinked. But, when looking forward it’s quite clear that City are more likely to win the league comfortable next season than they are to get run down by Liverpool, excellent though Jurgen Klopp’s team may be.

That’s before we even begin to look at what City might do to strengthen the side this summer. How exactly do you improve on a team that flirted with perfection? There are two obvious places to start. Fernandinho, as has been pointed out numerous times over the last two years is both the linchpin of this midfield, and old. If anything his production actually ticked upwards this season as he was asked to do more of the work of moving the ball up the field thanks to the uneven, injury riddled season that Kevin De Bruyne experienced. His production remains astounding, but he’s 34.

 

 

İlkay Gündoğan filled in for stretches this season, and did an admirable job, but he’s not really a defensive midfielder. Atletico Madrid’s Rodri seems to be the name their linked to now, a promising midfielder to be sure, but one who is never played in a system that will demand near the on-ball acuity that Guardiola. If Fernandhino has another season in him, which allows his backups to get minutes and experience where appropriate and get worked into the system that might work fine, but if Rodri, if he ends up being the guy, needs to step into those enormous shoes immediately, expect some growing pains.

Elsewhere, Vincent Kompany is going home to become player manager at Anderlecht, ending an era in Manchester. But, given the presence of Aymeric Laporte, John Stones, and Nicolas Otamendi, City again have room to ease in whatever younger prospect they might acquire to fill his shoes (to say nothing of Guardiola’s flirtations with deploying Fernandinho as a hybrid center back and defensive midfielder this season). The one possible weak spot that City really could upgrade is the left side of defense. Over the course of the season all of Benjamin Mendy, Fabian Delph, Danilo, Laporte and Oleksandr Zinchenko have seen minutes there. Given the team’s success, it’s the smallest of nits to pick, but the lack of one to two reliable options in that position has at times given the teams tactical hurdles to overcome.

It would be surprising to not see City address these potential weaknesses this summer. Their endlessly deep pockets mean they can go grab players who are stars elsewhere, and deploy them as rotation options for Pep Guardiola. That is, in effect, what they did with Riyad Mahrez this year, who went from being the creative engine for Leicester City, to a regular contributor, but not automatic starter for this City side. Mahrez was on the field for 1435 minutes, the 12th most on the team.

There are some possible bigger picture questions that loom on the horizon. David Silva is 33 and his ability to both be a creative maestro in the midfield and around the penalty area at the same time started to fade this season. He’s still a wizard in the box, but before too long, like Fernandinho somebody else will need to begin accepting the responsibilities he’s shouldered. Similarly, Sergio Aguero is 30, and while Gabriel Jesus is perhaps positioned to inherit the striker role eventually, despite immense numbers in a largely substitute role, he’s still relatively untested as the man at tip of the spear.

Despite those looming eventual issues, the best course of action for City seems to be to continue tinkering around the edges. Spend 70 million on an extra defensive midfielder to fold into the system here, 40 for a leftback to be first among equals. Use superstar money on players who will slot in the system, and keep the juggernaut running smoothly. The only question is will that be enough to win the Champions League, and if not does it matter.

Fairly or unfairly, teams who break the leagues they’re in get judged on the European competition. PSG are largely considered underwhelming, Bayern Munich hired Guardiola specifically to get over the Champions League hump (and then in one of the more ironic moments of European football over the last decade won the thing before he got there), Juventus have gone chasing stars, first Gonzalo Higuain, then Cristiano Ronaldo to give them the little bit of impetus to get over the top. It’s not clear that any of those teams became better chasing the Champions League, but at the same time their dominance domestically hasn’t waned.

The question going forward for Manchester City is have they transformed the big six to a big one, and if so, what comes next?

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Real Madrid Season Review: Time to Reload

This looks set to be a summer of significant upheaval at Real Madrid. A number of senior players are expected to move on, while big money will be spent on improving a team who have failed to perform in either domestic or European competition this season.

In La Liga, they finished third, significantly shy of champions Barcelona, and again behind cross-city rivals Atlético Madrid. Their final points tally of 68 was their lowest in 16 years. And after three consecutive Champions League triumphs, Madrid’s campaign ended prior to the final four for the first time since 2010 when Ajax dumped them out in the round of 16 with a crushing 4-1 victory at the Bernabeu.

None of that was particularly surprising. Zinedine Zidane’s decision to leave after last season’s Champions League final win over Liverpool was, in part, recognition of the fact that some of the squad’s experienced names were on the wane, and that a rebuilding process would be required; one that it seems Florentino Perez was not, at that time, willing to commit to. Point proven following the failures of Julen Lopetegui and interim coach Santiago Solari, Zidane returned in March with a mandate to shape the squad to his liking.

Gareth Bale will almost certainly depart, even if it has to be on loan, as will goalkeeper Keylor Navas, the returning James Rodriguez, and maybe Isco, Marcelo and others. Space will be made for a new set of stars, the average age of the squad will decrease, and Madrid will hope to establish a core group who can lead them forward into the coming years.

While it is true that certain starting positions need refreshing, Madrid actually have plenty of viable young squad members. They have brought in or promoted from their youth teams a good number of young players over the last few years: Jesús Vallejo, Achraf Hakimi, Álvaro Odriozola, Theo Hernández, Sergio Reguilón, Federico Valverde, Marcos Llorente, Dani Ceballos, Brahim Díaz, Marco Asensio, Borja Mayoral, Vincíus Junior, Rodrygo. It’s just that none of them who currently form part of the squad are receiving significant game time. Asensio is the only player aged 25 or under to have seen more than 1,400 minutes of league action this season.

Zidane appears to have certain trust issues with the younger players, but there is enough quality and sufficient numbers in that group to provide good cover across the pitch without a complete overhaul of the squad. High-quality reinforcements in key areas should be enough to again make Madrid genuine challengers both domestically and in Europe.

In La Liga, there is clearly a gap to close to Barcelona, not only in terms of points, but in the numbers underpinning each side. While their defences have been more or less equal this season, at an average of 0.98xG conceded per match, Barcelona’s attack has produced 1.67xG per match to Madrid’s 1.35. Barcelona have been nearly a third of a goal better per match in terms of Expected Goal Difference (xGD) and nearly a full goal in actual goal difference.

From a personnel standpoint, Madrid’s defence looks okay. They have already secured the signing of Porto’s Eder Militão, a highly promising central defender and a worthy competitor to Raphael Varane and Ramos for a starting berth. Right-back is well-covered with Dani Carvajal and Odriozola. On the other side, Reguilón has showed enough in his minutes this season to suggest he would provide competent competition for Marcelo if the Brazilian doesn’t depart. Lyon’s Ferland Mendy has been strongly linked, but if that doesn’t work out, you would think it would be possible to incorporate Marcelo as a kind of late-Dani-Alves-at-Barcelona tucked-in full-back if the midfield structure to work around his weaknesses. Between the sticks, evidence suggests Navas is a better shot-stopper than Thibault Courtois, but it is Navas who is all but certain to move on.

At an xG level, Madrid’s defence has been marginally better this year than it was last season, and while it isn’t close to a Europe or even league-leading number, it would be fine if coupled with a near two-goal-per-match attack, as it was, at least in xG terms in 2017-18. But that is where Madrid have really tailed off this season, as their xG Trendline shows.

The effect of Cristiano Ronaldo departure is clear to see in the downward trend of Madrid’s xG numbers, the result of both lower shot volume (15.38 per match, down from 18.58 last season) and quality (0.09 xG/shot, down from 0.10xG/shot). In every facet, their attacking numbers have deteriorated.

Take Ronaldo out of any attack and there would be some serious rebuilding to be done. His 6.64 shots per 90 last season represented the most any player has managed over either of the last two seasons in the big-five leagues. In that time, Harry Kane is only guy not named Ronaldo or Messi to have averaged over five shots per 90, and unlike the other two, he only did it in one (2017/18) of the two campaigns. Short of picking up a Kane, Kylian Mbappe or Neymar, finding a replacement capable of replicating Ronaldo’s output would have been near impossible.

Madrid elected to pursue the optimistic (if not entirely misplaced) idea that the collective could shoulder the burden of replacing Ronaldo’s individual shot output — that freed of a more sacrificial role, Karim Benzema could provide something closer to line-leading numbers; that Bale could step out of Ronaldo’s shadow, avoid injuries and increase his output a notch or two; that Asensio could build on a solid 2017-18; that Mariano Díaz, despite certain limitations, could provide good shot volume as a substitute and back up.

But none of those things happened. Benzema has provided more shots, but of worse quality, leaving him about par in terms of xG per 90; Bale has again suffered a series of niggling injuries, has contributed less than before when he has made the pitch and has been left out of the squad entirely in recent weeks; Asensio has had a down year, regressing in terms of both shooting and creative output; Mariano has provided good shot volume when he’s been fit but hasn’t been for half the season.

While all sections of a team are interconnected, and Madrid’s midfield (which we’ll get to later) could also do with some upgrading, the attack is clearly where most of their focus should fall this summer.

It is, then, unsurprising that Madrid are close to (or, according to first AS, then Sky Sports Germany, have already agreed) a €60 million deal with Eintracht Frankfurt for their striker Luka Jovic. While Frankfurt’s front-loaded attacking focus this season raises certain questions over the degree to which their three starting forwards (all of whom have averaged 0.40xG per 90 or higher) would be able to sustain their output in different surroundings, it is hard to argue with Jovic’s numbers. He is in the top 10 across the big-five leagues in terms of both shots (3.85) and xG per 90 (0.51), and he does exactly what Madrid need: he gets in good central positions and finishes well. (And also offers solid playmaking skills on top)

Another player whose arrival at the Bernabeu appears agreed is Eden Hazard. The signing of the Chelsea forward in a €100 million deal (likely to include Mateo Kovacic going the other way in some form or another) is set to be announced in the coming weeks. Most Spanish press reports suggest that the club have accepted that Neymar and Mbappe are likely to again be out of reach this summer, and so Hazard is the star name they have turned to in a bid to revitalise their attack. They believe he can up his goalscoring numbers in Spain and so bring himself into Ballon d’Or contention.

Hazard has hit double figures in the league in five of his seven seasons at Chelsea, but he has never been a prolific shooter or goalscorer. This season, in a campaign in which he’s played over 500 minutes as a central striker in addition to his more habitual left-sided forward role, he’s provided 2.59 shots and 0.23xG per 90. Certainly, if he were to be the only attacking reinforcement, it would be difficult to see how he would really represent a solution to Madrid’s problems. But if they’re adding shots elsewhere, as it seems they are, he brings an impressively well-rounded attacking skill-set capable of adapting to the shape of the forward line. He can be positioned higher and be a direct dribbler into dangerous shooting and assisting locations, but he also has the ability to drop a little deeper and help progress the ball into the final third if there is a more direct player on the other side of the central striker.

The arrival of Hazard would also free Madrid of the need to lean too heavily on Vinícius Junior, the 18-year-old Brazilian who provided a tantalising glimpse of his talent in eight starts between January and March. On the final weekend of the season, he edged just over the 900-minute mark that is usually accepted as a fair starting point from which to draw a more confident picture of a talent from their numbers, and his dribbling (3.55 successful dribbles per 90, a top-25 rate in the big-five leagues this season) and shooting (4.30 per 90, sixth in the big-five leagues) output to date has been impressive. Ration his minutes, improve his shooting locations, help him make better decisions in the final third, and there is a potential star there.

There is now also talk of Madrid showing interest in Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. He would certainly provide the icing atop the proverbial cake, but even if that ends up being no more than idle chitter-chatter, a mobile attack in which minutes can be spread between Hazard, Jovic, Vinícius, Benzema and Asensio (perhaps even Raúl de Tomás, who Zidane is said to view as a viable backup option after a strong season on loan at Rayo Vallecano, with 3.40 shots and 0.36xG per 90 amounting to 14 goals on a relegated side) looks pretty good. Especially so if you can also add more goals from midfield.

For most of the last three-to-four years, since Casemiro established himself as a regular, the usual midfield trio of him, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos has primarily provided balance and ball progression. In none of the last four seasons have any of them scored more than five times in the league. That trio will, though, most likely be broken up, at least to a certain extent, next season. Even at 33, and in the face of decreasing defensive contributions, Modric is probably worth keeping around for the final year of his contract, but he won’t necessarily be able to carry a full complement of minutes. Casemiro and Kroos (who was slightly less influential on both sides of the ball this season but has now signed a new contract through to 2023) will stay, but others will join.

The brief is to sign players capable of producing a midfield that can better protect the defence (the ease with which Ajax outmanoeuvred them at the Bernabeu made that issue painfully clear) whilst also contributing more to the attack. Two names have been strongly linked: Christian Eriksen and Paul Pogba. Eriksen would be more or less a Modric replacement with more attacking and slightly less directly confrontational defensive output; Pogba is, among other things, a very capable ball progressor, on the pass or on the dribble, and it is also fairly easy to imagine him getting close to double figures in goals if given license to get forward. They are both players around whom existing options could be placed.

The arrival of one or both of them would almost certainly signal the departure of Isco. He is clearly a highly talented player, but the fact that he hasn’t got close to breaking the 2000-minute barrier in league action in any of the last four seasons indicates that Zidane (and even more so Santiago Solari earlier this season) doesn’t trust him enough to give him the central role that he could easily enjoy (and that I, for one, would love to see him in) at another club. At 27, it might be best for both parties if he moves on.

With one deal already done, two more seemingly close to completion and others potentially in the works, Madrid are moving quickly to rebuild after a very difficult campaign. Even with the current squad, their underlying numbers have improved since Zidane’s return. The hope will therefore be that with players of his choosing, including some new star power, they will be better positioned to both overhaul Barcelona and perform better in Europe next season.