How much is Aaron Wan-Bissaka worth?

There are multiple ways that one could analyze the failings of Manchester United over the past six to seven years. Whether it’s the rotating cast of managers or the lack of direction in player recruitment, Manchester United have operated at a level that’s nowhere close to optimal efficiency given the incredible resources at their disposal. One area that shows a lack of forethought in their planning is the number of individuals who have played minutes as a right-back during this down period for the club. That list includes Rafael, Antonio Valencia, Matteo Darmian, and Ashley Young. The lack of a very good-great RB whose could hold his own at the highest level has been one of several reasons why Manchester United have been stuck in the wilderness for the greater part of the past decade.

There’s little doubt that Aaron Wan-Bissaka had a great individual season and ranked as one of the best fullbacks in the Premier League. It’s very likely that he was the best defender from the fullback position, and was a major reason why Crystal Palace once again held their head comfortably above the relegation waters. Many of the plaudits he’s been given for his performances last season are deserved, and it’s mightily impressive that he did that at his age. So it’s been no surprise to see him being heavily linked with Manchester United given their long standing hole at RB. On the face of it, it’s not hard to put two and two together to make four: Wan-Bissaka is good, United have needed a long-term right back for ages, and he’s English. Sure, the reported transfer fee that could land as high as £50 million is a large figure, but United would rationalize it by this move being one that represents both present and future value.

 

 

Well it’s not quite as straightforward as that. While Wan-Bissaka is undoubtedly a talented defender with a bright future, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s smart of United to spend so much money for his services given the questions that surround him on the attacking end. Manchester United’s end goal as a club is to get back to being a very good, maybe evengreat team, and envisioning the next good United side would involve concocting a squad that will be able to dictate play in possession with regularity. Doing so would involve have minimal weak links during ball progression. This is especially true with fullbacks given that they have a major part to play in creating chances as auxiliary wingers.

That’s the issue that surrounds Wan-Bissaka. Very few are questioning whether his defensive capabilities will translate at a bigger club, because he’s shown enough this season to suggest that’s a rather safe bet. Rather, will he be able to exist as a functional cog in the wheel offensively? Furthermore, just how good is Wan-Bissaka currently offensively? Is there enough upside that he could grow into a net positive as a play-driver? These are some of the questions to ask when evaluating Wan-Bissaka as a talent, and whether it’s a smart idea for United to allocate major resources (not just the transfer fee but wages as well) towards him. Certainly, that mystery on Wan-Bissaka’s offensive ceiling is in part due to playing on a decent but unspectacular attacking side in Crystal Palace last season. They ranked 12th in expected goals from open play and 8th in shots. If he had played on a more expansive attack, perhaps we would’ve had more of an idea on his upside as a play-driver.

If one was to concoct an argument in favor of Wan-Bissaka’s offensive ceiling, a major component would be his dribbling abilities and the luxuries it affords him that not a lot of fullbacks possess. As part of the responsibilities that modern day fullbacks have, being able to beat their marker off the dribble in the middle and final third has become much more of a necessity. Wan-Bissaka certainly has that in his skill-set, his 2.01 dribbles per 90 is nearly three times the league average rate for fullbacks in the Premier League, and his dribbling map below shows a very healthy amount of dribbles into more advanced areas along with the actions that followed.

 

 

The ease with which Wan-Bissaka can get himself out of tight situations on the flanks is quite remarkable. He could use his dribbling as an escape valve to merely continue recycling possession to a nearby teammate, or cover ground once he gains separation from his marker and progress play. As the ball is slowly moving towards his vicinity, he’s great at being able to quickly shift the ball from one foot and making his marker miss. He’s also able to use misdirection through body feints and quick changes of direction when he’s luring his opponent into a false sense of security before hitting the afterburners. He’s also quite good at general ball carrying duties.

 

 

When Wan-Bissaka is able to leverage his dribbling into more impact plays post-dribble he’s at his best and displays the kind of offensive upside you would want from a high priced fullback. Though, admittedly, he’s still at the beginning stages of combining high level dribbling with passing so he shows brief flashes rather than anything sustained. In terms of his passing in isolation, it would be a stretch to call him a dynamic passer or perhaps even a good one. Rather, he’s shown more to have a baseline of functionality in the passes he can make. The most complex pass he has in his repertoire are little reverse/lead passes into the right wing area near the box so teammates can then launch balls into the box, which is nice but not necessarily the most value-added type of pass to have in your arsenal given that the end result are crosses.

 

 

While I believe that there’s a functional level to his passing, there are moments where Wan-Bissaka shows discomfort on-ball when trying to make decisions, especially when attempting to make dangerous passes as he doesn’t quite have the touch to connect on them. There are also times when he opts for conservatism over something grander. He can look indecisive and give opponents an opportunity to seize on him telegraphing his passes and create turnovers in play. His abilities as a crosser and chance creator to this point are nothing much to write home about, though how much of it is due to system constraints and surrounding talent is up for debate. Wan-Bissaka’s passing to this point is somewhere between average to below-average.

 

 

There’s one play in particular that I go back to when evaluating Wan-Bissaka’s ability to drive play and some of the surrounding skepticism. As Wan-Bissaka is carrying the ball towards the final third, Cheikhou Kouyate is making a looping run to his right and there’s the slight opening to make a pass into the right wide area of the box. Instead, Wan-Bissaka shifts the ball to the wings, which eventually leads to a corner and represents a missed opportunity at something greater. Now, the slip pass into the right side of the box is not an easy play to pull off and there’s no guarantee that a successful pass would lead to something grand, but paying £45-50 million for a fullback would come with the expectations that these opportunities to help create scoring chances would not be left on the table.

 

 

Manchester United potentially spending up to £50 million on Wan-Bissaka represents a bet on him eventually becoming one of the better fullbacks in the world two to three years from now. For that to occur, his offensive value will have to get to a high enough level through ironing out some of the kinks. Given how good he projects to be defensively over the next few years, it might be that he merely needs to be a slight net-positive offensively rather than an no-doubt stud in attack. It’s not impossible to imagine that being the case for Wan-Bissaka: his dribbling abilities are outstanding and that alone brings value. His passing isn’t a lost cause, though it’s not a strength yet. The hope is that his dribbling abilities continue to translate and create passing opportunities for him that it wouldn’t exist for others, and with more reps in advanced areas as well as playing with talented teammates at United, he becomes a better offensive player. That version of Wan-Bissaka would be more than worth the high price tag that United will reportedly paid for his services. The more pessimistic angle would be that Wan-Bissaka’s passing never appreciably develops from its current state, and as a result, his game doesn’t quite scale up to the highest level of competition and makes him less of an asset.

One question that could be asked regarding this move is whether United would’ve been better off going with another option. Perhaps that would’ve been trusting Diego Dalot with a starting position with Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian providing backup. Maybe United could’ve gone for a considerably cheaper option in the market instead of Wan-Bissaka and split duties between that player and Dalot. Those are fair critiques when accounting for the holes that exist in United’s midfield, especially if Paul Pogba departs this summer. Getting Aaron Wan-Bissaka at his reported price is a gamble on some level and doesn’t necessarily represent the cleanest approach to squad building, but one that could still pay major dividends if he grows into an all around force once he approaches his prime.

The weight of World Cup pressure

Pressure does funny things to people. It can make or break matches, or careers, and manifests in different ways to different people. Sometimes it’s tell-tale, a placing, and re-placing, and re-placing, and re-placing of a ball on a penalty spot. You don’t even need to see missed spot-kick, much less the row of the crowd it lands in, to know the pressure that had been wracking the taker’s body. Football teams, an ecosystem of individuals with their own triggers and quirks, are just as susceptible. Curiously, some of the most susceptible teams at the World Cup might still be in the competition. Part of StatsBomb’s data is collecting when a player pressures their opponent (and, of course, when a player is under pressure). Being put under pressure can force poor passes, miscontrols, or being dispossessed, and nowhere is it more dangerous to lose possession in this way than in your own half. There are some teams who stay cool in this current French heatwave: the United States have been the second-safest team under pressure in their own half in the tournament. They’ve only given up the ball in 12% of the times they’ve been pressured here, behind only Japan, who were narrowly dispatched by the Netherlands. While most of the 16 teams who reached the knock-out rounds were the most pressure-resistant in the tournament, this isn’t always the case. In fact, Germany, who’ll face Sweden on Saturday, have one of the worst rates of all 24 teams who were in France this summer, with the stereotypically efficient nation giving away possession 26.2% of the time when they’ve been pressured in their own half. That quarter-final could be one to make a point of watching, because the Swedes are also the wrong side of the tournament average. The United States will be cheered by the fact that their opponents in the quarter-final-that-deserves-to-be-the-final, France, are also vulnerable to pressure. They fluff their lines a worse-than-average 19% of the time that they’re pressured in their own half. Should we expect to see an all out press from the US, then? Americans of a more nervy disposition might fear that France – who undeniably have a strong attack, bolstered even further by a home crowd as partisan to their own team as they’ve been fierce boo-ers of teams they take against – will tear them apart if an American high press is tried and failed. This fear might be justified, but France’s attackers are a collection of the most prone to miscontrolling the ball. Valérie Gauvin has fumbled the ball on nearly 17% of the times she’s received it, the worst rate in the tournament of players who’ve been given the ball 20 times or more. And, in Kadidiatou Diani and Delphine Cascarino, Les Bleues have two more of the bottom five, both making miscontrols 11% of the time they receive the ball. Perhaps this is a symptom of gaining the ball high up the pitch more often than other players in the tournament – the United States’ Rose Lavelle and Tobin Heath also have relatively poor rates for this – but the combination of French jitteriness under pressure in their own half and inconsistent control of several forwards is a combination that perhaps merit a roll of the dice. They might think differently if they were coming up against England’s Jill Scott, however. When she’s not under pressure, Scott – a tall and tireless box-to-box midfielder – has fairly conservative passing tastes outside of the final third. Jill Scott's passes not under pressure Just 12% of these passes are aimed towards goal, which is a large part of why they have a completion rate of 89%. Safe, but unexciting. But Scott comes alive when people apply pressure to her, the proportion of passes aimed towards goal shooting right up to 44%. Jill Scott's passes under pressure, much more direct than when she isn't under pressure At 6’1”, towering over most players on the pitch, Scott’s more than able enough to hold off much of the pressure she’s put under, roll it, and turn to go on the attack. She might be one of the few players that it’s worth taking it a little easier with rather than getting in her face. If that’s the advice for Norway, then their quarter-final opponents England can get some in the pass maps of the two Norwegian centre-backs when they’re under pressure. English players should know Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir fairly well given that both have been at Chelsea for the past few years. At the World Cup, Thorisdottir generally goes to the left-back: Maria Thorisdottir's passes under pressure, often to the left-back While Mjelde seems to be more of a fan of a more vertical ball towards goal. Maren Mjelde passes under pressure If she goes square, the plan could be to keep Thorisdottir on her left foot and pressure her into a quick pass out to the left-back, and have a player ready to pounce on them. If Mjelde doesn’t look square, England’s midfield should be creeping up and ready to nick the ball away from Norway’s deeper midfielders. This is the point at which pressure will start to tell. The round of 16 tested some teams who, quite frankly, needed it (looking at you, United States), but with the final now just ten days away it all starts to feel more real. A win here, and you’re in the semi-final; a mistake, and you might not be. How the teams, and their ecosystems of players, react to this will be both telling and vitally important.

In defense of the diving status quo

Imagine this scenario: It’s the 60th minute of a nil-nil game and you’re a forward preparing to shoot in the opposing penalty box. At that very moment, an opposing player barges in front of you, impeding your movement. This is not the most grievous of fouls. You are off balance, but it’s enough to guarantee that you’ll fall over. In this split second, you have two options: 1) Try to regain your footing and get a shot off. Or 2) Go down and hope for a penalty. What do you do? /// The dilemma at hand is an outgrowth of the rules of the game. Penalties of the non-handball variety are awarded whenever a “direct free kick offense” is committed inside the penalty box. That can be when a defender charges, jumps at, kicks, pushes, strikes, tackles, or trips an opposing player “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.” Absent these questions of intent, a defender can also be penalized for holding or impeding an opponent or throwing another object at the ball. The penalty lacks the binary elegance of “it’s a goal if the entire ball crosses the line.” You don’t always know it when you see it. It’s an epistemological minefield. In practice, the most egregious of penalties are called with relative consistency. At the opposite end of the spectrum, all sorts of holding and impeding acts go uncalled lest the game degenerate into a series of stoppages and penalties. This leaves a tricky middle category of incidents that are probably fit the definition of a penalty — a careless tackle; some holding on a corner; having your foot stepped on — but that don’t always look enough penalty-ish enough for officials. Once solution to this predicament: The attacking player can make the incident look more penalty-ish. It should not matter whether you end up on the ground. The relevant rules of the game make no mention of it. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the game, however, could tell you that this is how it is refereed. So there you are, suspended in that brief moment between falling over and furtively regaining footing. You have an intuitive sense of the probabilities at play because they aren’t all that complicated, but this is an article so we can take the time to work through them. Let’s start by considering the range of outcomes that might follow from not diving. You might stumble about and be as useless as if you’d fallen over, producing no shot. You might also recover enough to get a shot off or set one up for a teammate. In rare cases, that’ll be a good shot. In most cases it won’t, because you’ve been impeded and most shots — absent any impediment — have low expected goal values. It’s hard to come up with an argument that the average shot in this scenario will be worth more than 0.1 expected goals. What if you go down? A penalty is worth more than just about any other shot. Depending on the expected goal model and how one factors in chances created from a rebounding miss, its value can reach 0.8xG. This is a very desirable shot. Of course, you’re not guaranteed a penalty if you go down. That’s just the best case scenario. At the other extreme, taking yourself out of the play by falling down deprives your side of a chance to get even a lesser shot off. So the range of possible outcomes is from 0 to 0.8 XG. Even if going down due to some holding in the box only nets you a penalty 13 per cent of the time, you’re still getting more value than staying on your feet. The difference between these approaches is often couched in moral terms, but it is also distributional. Not diving will give you something like the average outcome most of the time whereas the outcomes of diving — penalty or bust — form an  extremely bipolar distribution. The different ways one can think about these distributions are a staple of tactical debates: Do you value getting a lot of shots off crosses? Would you rather risk an extra pass to get a good shot? Does Andros Townsend’s shot map make you cry? (It may seem obvious to you, dear StatsBomb reader, that aggregate shot quality is the answer, but that is not a universally held position.) Going down in this case is just an extreme case of going all-in on shot quality — volume be damned! There are, to be clear, other variables that play into the diving calculus. For instance, there’s the possibility of a player getting sent off: If you’re that player, diving is remarkably costly; if it’s an opposing player, the benefit is even greater. (The impact of a sending-off is a function of how much time is left in a match.) Still, amid all the concern trolling about diving, such extreme forms of official sanction are rare. Moreover, they are unevenly targeted. Some players get labelled as “divers” and can’t get favourable calls; most are fine. There is a risk of getting the Wilfried Zaha treatment if you go down all the time, but it is probably not an argument for always stumbling on. These added costs to diving can be addressed by picking your moments (don’t go down when up two goals) or limiting theatrics. /// Exaggerated falls present a particular challenge for football administrators, who wish to eradicate diving while avoiding any other changes to the game or its rules. It’s those requirements — more than the diving itself — that make diving such a thorny problem. Administrators can discourage diving, but they may not like the game that produces. Most obviously, an entire genre of dive could be undercut if officials ceased to treat a player going to ground as a prerequisite for a penalty call. This, in theory, would reward players who currently struggle to stay on their feet and encourage their peers to do the same. Players could be forgiven for initially suspecting that such a policy wouldn’t be seriously enforced. To make it stick, a fair number of penalties would have to be called. This would likely be in keeping with the rules of the game, but it would be a meaningful change. Would fans countenance this? Or administrators? The lesson of 2019’s Summer of VAR, after all, has clearly been that enforcing the rules as written may be unpopular to the point of being untenable. Speaking of VAR, the technology is often mooted as a solution to diving. This, like most techno-utopianism, is simplistic at best. Video replay may address cases where a player goes down without being touched, but it is unlikely to solve for players going down after marginal contact. Indeed, the lesson of VAR so far is that every bit of contact can look bad when replayed from dozens of angles in extreme slow motion. Again, you’re likely to end up with more fouls and penalties in this scenario — and maybe a few more players carded for diving along the way. Penalties are valuable and scarce — if not exactly finite — resources. It is not a mystery why players will go to great lengths to accrue them. (If anything, it’s a mystery that players don’t try more on this front.) For all the pearl clutching about diving, there appears to be far less willingness to change the game in a way that would meaningfully eliminate much of this behaviour. Penalties in every game is not a price anyone appears willing to pay to cut out the theatrics. The most workable compromise may be a lot of whining about diving and suggestions that change is afoot without much actual policy change. You may recognize this as the last decade; it’s also the future.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

What can difficult matches for France and the USWNT tell us about the World Cup favorites?

The two World Cup favorites are through to the quarterfinals. France and the United States are set to square-off in the match of the tournament, in a game that many expect will determine the ultimate World Cup winner. But both struggled to get there, being tested, respectively, by Brazil and Spain. And, surprisingly, rather than their weaknesses being exposed, it was the areas where both teams were thought to be strongest, where cracks emerged. The conventional wisdom about the United States is that while their attack might be high powered, defensively they can, at times, be shaky. That certainly seemed to be the case when, after taking the lead thanks to a sixth minute penalty, a horrible mix-up at the back between Becky Sauerbrunn and Alyssa Naeher led to a gift of an equalizer. But, from that moment on, despite sometimes seeming dangerous, Spain actually generated very little in attack. The underdogs took a grand total of four shots, and none from closer than the edge of the penalty area. What Spain did do is cross the ball a lot. They targeted Crystal Dunn on the left side of the American defense, and worked the ball down the flank to Lucía García, who then was asked to supply service into the box. But that service never amounted to anything. Although Dunne was unable to prevent service from coming in, the rest of the defensive line was consistently well positioned to deal with the never ending stream of crosses, and despite her reputation for shakiness, Naeher put in a strong, aggressive performance commanding her box. She claimed six of the 41 balls that were theoretically within her range, when on average a keeper might have been expected to claim only four. Spain didn’t ask difficult questions of the American defense, and the easy ones, which they asked quite frequently, were answered with ease. The problem is that the vaunted American attack didn’t live up to their reputation. Outside of the two penalties they were awarded, the favorites took nine shots which amounted to only 0.88 expected goals This might be excusable if the side was protecting a lead for most of the match, but they were not. There were two minutes between when the team scored the opening penalty, and Spain’s equalizer, and then it wasn’t until the 75th minute when the second penalty was awarded. And after the 16th minute the U.S. didn’t have a single shot from open play valued at over 0.05 xG. There are reasons for that. Lindsey Horan, who might be the best all-around midfielder in the world, was held in reserve, possibly because she was carrying a yellow card. Alex Morgan, the team’s iconic center forward had a poor game, spent a lot of time picking herself up off the ground after being kicked, and is possibly carrying an injury (she was subbed off at halftime of the team’s third group stage game against Sweden). Sometimes a team just doesn’t play well. Still, the main takeaway from Spain’s surprisingly game performance is not that the U.S. is vulnerable defensively, although it’s possible to see how a better team might have turned their copious crossing opportunities into more dangerous goal scoring chances, but rather that sometimes that vaunted attack can, in fact, be slowed down. The opposite is true of France. France’s attack has been somewhat underwhelming all tournament. The side has largely relied on the impeccable set piece skills of Wendie Renaud, and doing just enough to put opponents away before playing incredibly stingy defense. That’s what made the fact that they conceded 12 shots to Brazil so surprising (even accounting for extra time). This was a side that gave up 12 shots total in the group stage. And it’s not like the group stage was a walkover. They held Norway, a fellow quarterfinalist to just five shots, and Nigeria who took eight shots against Germany in the their knockout round loss, to just two. The moment of the match, of course, came in extra time when Debinha shook free on France’s left, cut inside the penalty area, scooped her shot comfortably around on-rushing keeper Sarah Bouhaddi only to see backtracking defender Griedge Mbock Bathy make the defensive play of the tournament and block the shot before it nestled in the far side of goal. The irony of that moment is that it’s one of only two shots that Brazil managed after the regulation 90 minutes were finished. Cristiane took an early long-range audacious effort before being forced off through injury, but other than the spectacular Debinha attempt, that was it for Brazil. France meanwhile poured on the pressure, taking eight shots (after only taking six in the first 90 minutes) including Amandine Henry’s winning header. France have an immensely talented squad but they have largely chosen to deploy that squad to win games with as little defensive risk as possible. Against Brazil that meant a conservative 90 minutes. But when regulation finished, the approach changed. They ramped up the pressure, poured on the shots, and also gave away an extremely dangerous counterattack, which, if not for a defensive miracle could have seen them shockingly sent home. On balance, they were the better team, but the France approach is supposed to insulate them from conceding exactly the kind of high value shot that Brazil put on them in extra time. There’s no doubt that France and the U.S. are the two best teams in this World Cup. They came in as favorites, and they remain so. But, if the tournament has taught us anything, it’s not that the two teams expected weaknesses can be exploited, rather it’s that both Spain and Brazil were able, for stretches of time, to make the parts of the favorites’ game that were supposed to be their strengths, appear relatively ordinary. After watching them struggle to break down Spain, France will feel better about their chances to hold the U.S. And after watching Debinha come within inches of knocking France out, the U.S. will see a defense that might be there for the taking. On Friday we’ll see if that changes either side’s plan of attack.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

An ode to Sam Kerr

It’s one of the pains of tournament football that Sam Kerr won’t be playing another match at the World Cup.

The Australian is one of the, if not the, best strikers in the world and yet must go home in the round of 16. Until this year, the more casual fans of the women’s game could be forgiven for being unaware of Kerr’s quality. She hadn’t scored a single World Cup goal before this edition, where she scored five, and in the 2016 Olympics only scored one in three appearances.

But this is the NWSL all-time leading goalscorer we’re talking about. The woman who, since 2017 (as far back as records on fbref.com go for her) has scored 52 goals in 58 league appearances. She only took up football (association, rather than her first love Aussie rules) at 12 and had to contend with an ACL injury at 18, but she’s still managed to become a truly great forward.

If you still need convincing, but don’t want to have to search for old games, the effects of her elite movement and sense for goal are clear in the stats.

Few players this World Cup have got clear shots on goal, free of defenders, like Kerr. With StatsBomb’s freezeframes, which take a snapshot of where the players are at the point a shot is taken, we can see how many players a striker has in the ‘cone’ between them and the goal.

Kerr managed eight of her ten footed shots with no outfield defenders in the cone between her and goal, an extraordinary 80% rate. Apart from Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen, who managed to make ten of her 12 shots completely unobstructed by defenders, no-one really comes close. Only four forwards in the entire tournament have managed more than five of these clear shots.

It’s this skill in slipping in the gaps between defenders and making a run at the right time that led to her having one of the best figures for the average quality of her shots. Taking out her penalty rebound which will naturally skew the figures, these shots of Kerr’s have had an average expected goals value of 0.19; none of the other six players to have taken ten or more of this type of shot this tournament can beat that.

(A less meaningful and, possibly, slightly more fortuitous symptom of this elite striker’s movement is also the fact that only a single one of Kerr’s 18 shots were blocked throughout the tournament. Kerr finds space).

But, like so many stars on teams where the gap between star and next-best shows, the striker had to try and turn creator against Norway, with her team chasing the game after conceding in the 31st minute.

She set up three shots in the game, after having only set up two in the tournament prior to that (one each against Brazil and Jamaica), and completed more passes inside the box than she had throughout the tournament up to that point as well.

 

Shot assists in blue.

 

No teammate of Kerr’s set up more shots during those 120 minutes, and none even reached half of her eight completed open-play passes inside the box. On the defensive side as well, only central midfielders Chloe Logarzo and Tameka Butt pressured the opposition more often.

Unfortunately – for her, for the nation, for her fans – it wasn’t enough. Penalties seem to haunt Kerr. Her attempt saved against Italy, then her skied effort in the shoot-out and her fellow teammates struggles. Even on club level, fbref.com has her at only two from four attempts.

But those spot-kicks have been her only negative moments. The World Cup is a time to bring together the best players that the sport has to offer, for compatriots to hitch their hopes to their wagon, and for neutrals to bask in the collected magic.

Having Kerr in France, even though she’ll go no further, has delivered on that. The same goes for Marta, one of the greatest players of all time and eliminated with Brazil while this piece was being written. At 33, she might not be seen at a World Cup again.

And, as well as their on-field quality, the pair have delivered two of the lines of the tournament. Kerr, telling critics of the Australian team to “go suck on that one” after their comeback win against Marta’s Brazil in the group stage; Marta herself, telling her nation to value women’s football more, for girls to take up football, and to “cry now so you can smile at the end.” Thank you Sam Kerr, and to Marta. The 2019 World Cup’ll miss you.

The stars of the World Cup group stage

When it comes to a sense of spectacle, of drama, and the potential for unexpected delirium, there is nothing quite like a World Cup. The compressed format only adds to the heightened expectations and the fizzing emotions. The World Cup is where heroes are made, where dreams are forged into reality, and where hearts are broken more often than not. Alex Morgan, after the USWNT clinically took apart Thailand 13-0, comforted and encouraged Thai striker Miranda Nild. One line of what she said stuck with me – “(I told her that) she’s living out a dream that most girls and women don’t get to.” Just getting the chance to represent your country in this tournament is an honour, and when it comes to the women’s game, there is more reason for it to be true. Always with the odds against it, the women’s game is, finally, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, in a place that bodes well for the future. So, who were some of the stand-out performers during the group stages of the tournament? Alex Morgan (Age 29, USA) Despite sitting out the USA’s game against Chile so that coach Jill Ellis could spread the minutes around before the knockout games begin, co-captain and public darling Alex Morgan has five goals and to her name in three games and leads the Golden Boot pack along with Australia’s Sam Kerr. Morgan, the Orlando Pride striker in the NWSL, seems to have it all in her footballing arsenal – headers, long-range strikes, poacher finishes, curlers from just outside the box – and she put on a rampant display of her range when the USWNT put 13 past Thailand, five of those hers, excluding another at the very start that was ruled offside. Morgan’s shot map against Thailand. Alex Morgan shot map vs Jamaica She is fast, strong, capable of creating space for herself or teammates just as well as she can be in the right place when needed. The scariest fact, however, is that this Olympic gold medallist and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion is not the only seasoned professional and winner up USA’s sleeve and the defending champions seem to be just warming up for when the really big games hit.   Vivianne Miedema (Age 22, Netherlands) Anna Margaretha Marina Astrid “Vivianne” Miedema has made a name for herself in the world of football at the age of only 22. She was 17 when she played at Bayern Munich in a team that remained unbeaten in the Bundesliga and won their first title since 1976. After an injury-ridden first season with Arsenal, she scored a record 22 league goals to help Arsenal to their first league title in seven years. Miedema was a huge part of Arsenal’s attack in 2018/19. As a crucial part of the 2017 European Championship winners’ side, she scored the winning goal in the semi-final versus England as well as two goals in the final versus Denmark. Miedema made every “top players to watch out for” list prior to France 2019, but this one seems as ice-cool under pressure as compatriot Dennis Bergkamp even though her idol is the more impulsive Robin van Persie. After the Oranje struggled against a well-organised New Zealand, scraping through only thanks to a Jill Roord stoppage-time header, the game versus Cameroon meant a chance to make amends. Miedema headed a brilliant goal at the 41st minute only for Gabrielle Aboudi Onguéné to equalise within two minutes. After Dominique Bloodworth quickly put the Oranje Leeuwinnen ahead again, it became even more of a battle in midfield, and the Dutch needed the third to seal qualification. It took Miedema until the 85th minute, but score she did, breaking the Netherlands women’s goalscoring record. She now has 60 goals from 77 games. Vivianne Miedema's record-breaking goal for the Netherlands against Cameroon in the 2019 World Cup   Christiane Endler (Age 27, Chile) Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Christiane Endler deserves to be on this list despite her team failing to qualify for the knockout stages. Considering that FIFA unranked the Chilean women’s national team back in 2016 for their own federation’s lack of desire to schedule games for them, the players have been fighting an uphill and many times losing battle. Yet, they should (and hopefully will) take heart from their co-captain’s Player of the Match performance against the champions, despite Chile losing 3-0 and being out possessed 32% to 68%. Endler, born to a German father and a Chilean mother, psyched-out Carli Lloyd enough for the veteran to miss a rare penalty, made six saves from their nine shots on target, and single-handedly restricted team USA, and particularly Christen Press. It was a performance special enough for USWNT legend Hope Solo to dub Endler “the best female goalkeeper in the world”. Endler has also arguably been unlucky to concede as many as she has, the goals that have got past her have been incredibly well-placed.   Sam Kerr (Age 25, Australia) Chicago Red Stars and Perth Glory forward Sam Kerr has been a star player well before she was handed the captaincy in February 2019. So, it was no surprise that she stayed cool despite fluffing her penalty in the opener versus Italy and snatched her chance on the rebound. The Matildas may have gone on to lose that game, but they fought hard and were unlucky to concede in stoppage-time for the Le Azzurre comeback. In their next game, the first at France 2019 where both teams were in the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings (Australia on 6 and Brazil 10), Australia found themselves trailing 2-0 in the first half but, this time, clawed their way to their own comeback with Kerr a strong presence. With everything to play for on matchday three in this tournament’s Group of Death, it was The Sam Kerr Show versus Jamaica as she became the first Australian to score a senior World Cup hat-trick and personally guaranteed second spot in a group where goal difference decided all three knockout qualifiers. There’s the Sam Kerr Show, and the edge of the six-yard box looks like the Sam Kerr Zone this World Cup. Sam Kerr shot map She ensured that Australia didn’t lose their grip after Havana Solaun scored Jamaica’s first-ever World Cup goal to make it 2-1 and led equally from the front as the back, tracking their players into the Aussie box, defending, harrying, and inspiring her team.   Cristiane (Age 34, Brazil) Cristiane, Marta’s replacement for their opening game as the star recovered from injury, lost no time in announcing her intention. At the age of 34 years and 25 days, she beat the record for the oldest player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup, previously held by Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiane's hat-trick against Jamaica, three goals from three shots A header, a sliding finish at the back post, and a free-kick off the underside of the crossbar from just outside the box. Brazil 3, Jamaica 0, and just like that Brazil broke their run of losing nine games on the trot. It was harder for them versus Australia who completed an amazing comeback to win 3-2, but not before Cristiane scored her fourth goal of the tournament with a powerful header into the bottom corner. With Brazil qualifying for the next round with potential opponents France or Germany, they need all experienced players in top form. Cristiane seems raring to go, and slowly but surely, so does Marta, who, with her match-winning penalty against Italy, surpassed Miroslav Klose to be the all-time World Cup lead scorer with 17 goals and counting. Notable mention to France’s Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer, Japan captain Saki Kumagai, England’s Beth Mead, Italy’s Barbara Bonansea and Spain’s Jenni Hermoso. Anushree Nande is a published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she’s a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.

João Cancelo can be a perfect fit for Manchester City

João Cancelo is an attacking force. He was a vitally important cog in the attacking system that Max Allegri employed at Juventus. He’d be an absolutely perfect addition for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side should a rumored transfer go through. In some ways Cancelo profiles exactly like you might expect a young, aggressive, attacking fullback to. He gets forward down the wing and crosses the ball a lot. Of Juventus players who logged at least 900 league minutes, only Juan Cuadrado completed more crosses than Cancelo’s 1.89 per 90 minutes. In fact, Cancelo’s service was integral to the Juventus attack. Only the attackers Fernando Bernadeschi and Cristiano Ronaldo assisted more expected goals from open play than Cancelo’s 0.12 per 90 minutes. Where Cancelo separates himself from other fullbacks is that in addition to providing attacking width in the final third, he was a huge asset when it came to bringing the ball up the field. Only Miralem Pjanić, the team’s midfield hub, had more deep progressions of the ball per 90 minutes than Cancelo’s 7.47. When teams looked to shutdown Pjanić’s passing, it was Cancelo who would step into the gap and transition Juventus into the attacking third of the field. Of course, some of this ability is system driven. On the opposite flank, Alex Sandro was third in deep progressions, and Cuadrado (who despite nominally being a winger largely played the same role as Cancelo), was fourth. But, at the same time, systems are often driven by talent. Juventus couldn’t have succeeded while playing a style that demanded their fullbacks bring the ball up the field if the fullbacks were not, themselves, special talents who were up to the task. So, it seems notable that backup fullback Matteo De Sciglio was not able to replicate those numbers in his minutes, and had a full two fewer deep progressions per 90 when he was on the field. The system empowered the fullbacks but Cancelo (and Sandro) had the ability to take advantage of it. The knock on Cancelo, from Juventus’s perspective was his defending. Over the course of the season he was often overlooked in big matches. This is probably a fair concern, especially for a team that was happy to play extremely defensively in big matches, especially with a one goal lead. And, not only to play defensively, but to defend without the ball. When they were dominating teams they were happy for midfielders to step up and win the ball, as their Serie A defensive heatmap shows. But, the difference becomes clear when looking at the Champions League, where the side’s defensive pressure is non-existent. Within that framework, Cancelo is expected to be a perfect positional defender. He needs to move in concert with his teammates, covering runners, maintaining a defensive line, closing off passing lanes, and never make a mistake. In the same way that Allegri’s attacking approach empowered Cancelo, the manager’s defensive choices made his life difficult. Sometimes the defensive needs of the team ended up outweighing his attacking contribution and he found himself riding the pine. There’s a reason he barely topped 2000 league minutes last season. At Manchester City it’s easy to see how Cancelo’s attacking talents might be used. As Kyle Walker has aged he’s gracefully transformed from the speedster controlling the entire flank he once was into a more positionally oriented fullback, often supporting the midfield in attack and playing as almost a third central defender (the role he actually occupied for England at last summer’s men’s World Cup). Having the option to play Cancelo there would give Guardiola the option of playing a fullback who provided more traditional final third contributions (much like Benjamin Mendy does when healthy on the left side). Crucially though, Cancelo brings that ability while also bringing the passing ability in the middle of the field that Guardiola craves from his fullbacks. He’d most likely spend more time in the final third than Walker, while also moving the ball up the field just as much. The interactions between City’s fullbacks and wingers are a key to their success. Guardiola uses different combinations of personnel to accomplish different tactical aims. Sometimes wingers are asked to cut inside and attack the penalty area while fullbacks provide width, sometimes the wingers stay wide and the fullback is held in reserve, while the midfielder attacks the holes that spacing creates. And sometimes the fullback is the one who gets to attack the box aided by wingers positioned wide to stretch the defense. Cancelo can, in theory, fill all of those roles should he be called upon to do so (he can also, its worth noting, fill in on the left if necessary). The major question then is whether Cancelo can pull his weight defensively, an area that Walker has excelled in. The answer is, we have absolutely no idea. He’s never been asked to play in a system like Guardiola’s. At Juventus his problem wasn’t that he got caught up field, it was that while he was defending behind the ball, his awareness wasn’t sharp enough, at least for the exacting standards of Juventus. But, he won’t be asked to defend that way for Manchester City. While it’s unclear exactly how he will be deployed, one thing is certain, City don’t ever want to defend without the ball. Sometimes the fullback is asked to engage high up the field, as part of a traditional counter-press. Other times they might be held in reserve, forming a makeshift back three with the center backs, behind the frontline press of the midfielders and forwards. These were situations he just never has to deal with when manning the right side for Juventus. Maybe he’ll be spectacular, maybe he’ll have a hard time adjusting, there’s not a lot either way to hang a prediction on. But that question, whether Cancelo is good enough defensively for what may very well be the best team in the world, is one that simply differentiates whether Cancelo will be a useful piece, or is the heir apparent to Walker as an every week starter. Cancelo’s attacking numbers are so strong, and so well rounded that there’s no doubt he’ll be an extremely useful contributor for City. But, if he adds to that, and he develops into a solid defensive option in a pressing system, then he has the potential to become truly great. He’d become just another superstar player bought at superstar prices to fill a supporting role for the two time defending Premier League champions.

What do we now know about the World Cup winner wannabes?

With the closing of the group stage, the 2019 World Cup is beginning to take shape. While individual matches may have swung to-and-fro in a way that quite often seems to have gone against the scales of justice, the qualified teams are, so far, as expected. France and Norway from Group A have qualified; Group B took through Germany and Spain, with China as one of the best third-placed teams; Italy have been a slight surprise in Group C, but larger nations Brazil and Australia have also made the round of 16. With the groups shaping up more or less as expected, the pool of potential winners hasn’t changed much (and the chances of a France-USA quarter-final are still very much alive). But, knowing a little more about how each side is performing now that the tournament is underway, it’s a good time to look into some key things to draw out about each of the contenders. Hosts France drew a lot of attention with their incredibly effective use of 6’2” Wendie Renard, scoring two goals from two headed shots against the Korea Republic in the opening game of the tournament. As Aaron West pointed out on Twitter, Renard isn’t just a threat in the air because of her height. https://twitter.com/ayyy_west/status/1137084209313583108 However, future opponents of France might want to note that they take very different corners from one side to the other. From their right, things look fairly conventional, although the amount of balls that the they lose in the six-yard box is representative of the amount of players that teams are putting in that zone since the Korea game. But from the left-hand side, France are much more prone to take the corner short (and also have fewer of them, a symbol of a bit of a right-sided skew in their attack). Whether France are varying their routines or Renard is just less of a threat than first thought, she’s been less active in the second two rounds of Group B action. After her two goals against Korea, she’s taken just one further headed shot. A possible lack, or drying up, of service is something that the Netherlands might have on their minds. After two comfortable enough victories against Cameroon and New Zealand it won’t be a major concern, but despite becoming the nation’s leading scorer, Vivanne Miedema hasn’t gotten the chances that she did in the league this season. Part of this may just be the change in levels between Arsenal’s strength relative to the rest of the FA Women’s Super League and the Netherlands relative to their World Cup opposition, but the difference in their shot maps is stark. Barring one chance, all of her World Cup shots close to goal have been headers and the average expected goals value of her shots has halved.

This will be more a sign about how Miedema fits into the Dutch attack versus the way that Arsenal play, but anyone expecting the type of output she showed this domestic season (22 goals, 11 assists, in 20 league appearances) will be disappointed. Their fellow major Group E team, Canada, may have a marginally inferior goal difference, but it seems the Canadians have one of the sharpest defences at the tournament. Far from the image as warm and cuddly sharers, the Canadians have hogged the shots in their matches, allowing just six while taking 38. And, even more impressively, all six of those shots have been low value. Expected goals value distribution of shots against Canada WNT. Looks can be deceiving though. Take a look at Germany. Although they’ve gotten through Group B as group winners on nine points, in their two games against Spain and China their expected goals didn’t even break even (0.79 vs 0.83 expected goals per game). Using expected goals over such a small sample has its limitations, but it also doesn’t fill one with confidence. They won each of those games 1-0, with the goals coming from one worldie (well, ish) and one tap-in rebound. Germany certainly might have been good enough to deserve to go through the group, and their 4-0 win over South Africa will have given the team a reason to be confident, but are they three-wins-from-three good? Maybe not. Speaking of ‘are they actually that good’, who knows how good the United States are? A 13-0 against Thailand and 3-0 against Chile is a hell of a way to run up a good goal difference but less of a good way for everyone to establish just how well they’ll fare against the other contenders when they come up against them. They were basically joint-favourites with France before the tournament for a reason, but most of the other big teams will have had to test themselves a little more. The final group game against Sweden could do the trick, but who knows. And that’s the thing! Who knows? But, finally, England. They’ll round off their group stage later tonight (on day of publishing) and it’ll be interesting to see who Phil Neville plays as the main striker. Ellen White played in the opener against Scotland while Jodie Taylor was chosen to face Argentina, and scored the only goal of the game. However, Ellen White’s work-rate defending from the front is immense. After the first two rounds of matches, she’d made the most pressures in the opponent’s defensive third of the pitch out of anyone in the tournament (31). That includes players who’d played both of their first two games. On a per-appearance basis, the next-closest players were three on 13. Carly Telford also started that match against Argentina, her first appearance at a World Cup, with right-back Rachel Daly coming on as a second-half substitute for Lucy Bronze, who’s not just considered one of the best right-backs in the world, but one of the best players full-stop. If one was being cynical (and quite possibly unfair), one might suggest that Neville was giving some of his more experienced squad players a run-out against the weakest side in the group vs Argentina, that there isn’t really a ‘Taylor or White’ decision at all, and that the latter is a shoo-in to start against Japan. Looking at the defensive work she puts in, there’d be good reason to make that choice.

Riding the La Liga coaching carousel

Last summer, nearly half of the teams in La Liga changed their coach. There has been much less turnover this time around, but the four clubs in need of new coaches have quickly moved to fill those positions. Unless there are any unexpected changes between now and the start of the campaign, 17 of the 20 coaches next season will be Spanish, alongside two Argentinians (Diego Simeone and Mauricio Pellegrino) and a Frenchman (Zinedine Zidane) who spent good chunks of their playing careers in La Liga. It is the most homogenous of the big-five leagues in that regard. That isn’t to say that everyone employs the same approach. There are unique cases like Eibar’s mix of direct attacks and supreme shot suppression, and Getafe, with their aggressive mid-block, breaking up play and then quickly moving forwards. But it is often the same names rotating through positions. Four Spanish coaches have left the roles they held at the end of last season, and in their place have come four more Spanish coaches, three of whom coached other sides in La Liga at some point during the recently concluded campaign. (Espanyol elected to promote David Gallego from their B team).

Sevilla – Julen Lopetegui

Sevilla held a top-four position through the first half of last season, only to tail off thereafter and eventually end up sixth. Their decision to part ways with Pablo Machín in mid-March following what appeared to just be an unfortunate run of results was pretty questionable; Joaquín Caparros certainly didn’t inspire any sort of significant turnaround thereafter. Sporting director Monchi is back at the helm following his spell with Roma, and his first major decision was to appoint former Spain and Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui. It was a brave one. The stigma surrounding the manner in which Lopetegui’s time as national team coach came to an end immediately creates mistrust. Despite an initial press conference in which he hit all the right notes — putting down city rivals Real Betis, praising the atmosphere at the club’s Sánchez Pizjuán stadium — his reception has been lukewarm, at best. Neither does his record during his coaching career to date necessarily suggest that he is worth the negativity that surrounds him. He did good work with Spain (although the toughest competitive fixture he faced was the worst Italy side in some time, and he didn’t confront a tournament — the time when a national team coach can have the most influence over their team) but the longest he has ever lasted in a club job is a season and a half at Porto. His first, at Rayo Vallecano, way back in 2003-04, ended after just 10 matches (six of which were defeats); his last, at Real Madrid last season, saw him sacked at the end of October following one of the club’s worst ever starts to a league campaign, and with an overall record of six wins, two draws and six defeats in 14 matches. There were certainly other issues at Madrid, many of which they are seeking to rectify with this summer’s spending spree, and his underlying numbers do suggest that they performed okay under his command. His were much better than those of his inexperienced successor Santiago Solari, and very marginally better than those of Zidane down the final stretch. Perhaps I just can’t quite get over the similarity he bears to a flustered Angus Deayton, but on a subjective level, there is just something a bit unconvincing about Lopetegui and his work. There is likely to be a fair amount of turnover in the Sevilla squad this summer, and maybe everything will come together. Just colour me sceptical.

Real Betis – Rubi

Across town, there has also been a change in the dugout at Real Betis. Quique Setién provided attractive, possession-based football and had backers within the directorship, but the increasingly negative reception he received from the club’s supporters created an awkward environment for him and the players and eventually became untenable. The initial suggestion was that the club would look for a coach with a similar approach, but finding one would have been difficult. In the big-five leagues, only Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City and Chelsea held a higher average share of possession than Betis last season, and in terms of the zones in which they attempted and completed passes, the only team who came especially close to their style were Bayer Leverkusen under Peter Bosz. Setién’s replacement Rubi does arrive off the back of two impressive campaigns. Two seasons ago, he led Huesca to their first-ever promotion to the top flight; last season, he steered Espanyol to a seventh-place finish, three points and three places ahead of Betis. In doing so, he secured them European qualification for the first time in over a decade. If Setién’s style was often characterised by his detractors as possession for possession’s sake, Rubi’s could be described as possession with purpose. Espanyol were capable of combining neat buildup play with swift and incisive counter-attacks when opportunities presented themselves. Like Betis, they generally sought to work the ball along the ground into the penalty area rather than swing in crosses. While they were marginally out shot (12.18 for; 13.05 against), they combined the fifth best shot quality in the division with the sixth lowest shot quality against for an overall positive expected goal difference (xGD) of 0.05 per match — eighth best in the league, and 0.03 per match better than a Betis side with nearly twice their budget. If there was one red mark against Rubi, it was that Espanyol were one of the worst teams at defending set-pieces in the league, ranking in the worst three in terms of both set piece xG (0.25 per match) and set piece goals (0.42 per match) conceded. With significant money likely to arrive from the sale of Giovani Lo Celso, there will be funds to reshape and improve the Betis squad, but it is already one that looks largely suited to Rubi’s approach. Without European football to stretch resources, a top-eight finish should be the minimum expectation.

Alavés – Asier Garitano

Ten weeks into last season, Alavés were riding high in second in La Liga. For a long time, they looked on course for European qualification. They were as high as fifth as far into the campaign as matchday 28. But things derailed thereafter. They picked up just six points from their final 10 matches to end up 11th. Theirs was the typical tale of a side vastly outperforming their underlying numbers early on, only to later come back down to earth. In April, it was announced that coach Abelardo would depart at the end of the season after failing to agree a new contract (“He asked for more than double what he was making this season,” was the explanation of the club’s majority shareholder Josean Querejeta). His replacement Asier Garitano spent the first half of last season at Real Sociedad, before being sacked over the Christmas break. Under him, La Real were marginally better in terms of xGD than under his successor Imanol Alguacil (0.03 per match vs. -0.03 per match), and it felt as if he deserved a little more time to get things right. In the 2017-18 season, at Leganés, his side finished 17th (albeit a full 16 points clear of the bottom three) but actually had the 11th best xGD in the division, with the 13th best attack and the sixth best defence. They tried to keep things tight; their matches averaged the third least number of shots in the league (22.16) and the fifth least xG (2.01). Garitano also looks a good stylistic choice for Alavés. His Leganés side were basically a better version of last season’s Alavés, particularly so in defence. Garitano is taking over a side who had the fourth worst underlying numbers in the league. It won’t be an easy task, particularly with expectations raised by the last season’s high points. But if the club can recruit well over the summer, he looks like a good fit to put them solidly in mid-table.

Celta Vigo and Villarreal – Sticking not twisting

Celta Vigo and Villarreal both performed way below expectations last season, finishing 17th and 14th respectively. Both teams changed their coach twice during the season, and both have elected to continue into 2019-20 with the coaches who finished the campaign. Celta Vigo were genuinely bad last season. They were the league’s second worst team in terms of xGD, with the seventh worst attack (0.96xG per match) and second worst defence (1.30xG conceded per match). Things might have been different had they had Iago Aspas fit and available for more of the campaign; as it was, they were fortunate to avoid the drop. The decision to keep Fran Escribá in charge for next season does, at least, have some solid basis in the underlying numbers. Of their three permanent, or “permanent”  coaches, he had the best xGD per match, at -0.21, compared to -0.33 under Antonio Mohamed and a ghastly -0.52 under Miguel Cardoso (a rate that would have been comfortably the worst in La Liga if extended over the entire campaign). Escribá is a safe pair of hands who can be expected to continue the defensive improvement evident towards the back end of last season. But for a club whose ascension was driven by shrewd recruitment and the appointment of a series of interesting and progressive coaches, he feels like a pretty uninspiring choice. Villarreal also changed coaches twice, but the second of those changes was simply to reinstate Javi Calleja following the disastrous and very brief mid-season reign of Luis García Plaza. For two seasons now, with Calleja in charge for all but 12 of the matches, they have had pretty similar underlying numbers that have been between the 10th and 12th best in the division. In 2017-18, they converted that into fifth; last season, they flirted with relegation. If things balance out in 2019-20 (and the team reinvest well the money raised from the sale of Pablo Fornals to West Ham, with the centre of defence an area clearly in need of strengthening) Calleja could be trusted to lead Villarreal to a solid mid-table finish. But given that they had the seventh-highest budget in La Liga last season, they might hope for a bit more.

Japan are struggling, Australia might be fine and other early World Cup statistical nuggets

As far as sample sizes go, two games is minuscule. There is nothing to be found in two games worth of data that a third can’t immediately nullify. The challenge of international soccer is that while two games don’t tell us much, a full third of the 2019 World Cup field will be back on their couches after game number three. So, let’s stretch those numbers to the breaking point and see if they can tell us anything useful.

Here are all 24 teams ranked by their expected goals scored per match.

 

 

One thing this list makes crystal clear is that with only two games played, the most determinative factor is the level of opponent faced. It’s not surprising for example that the United States tops the list, but Sweden at the second spot, that’s explained more by having the good fortune of a group with Chile and Thailand in it, than any distinguishing factor the Swedes might bring to the table.

Similarly, Canada and the Netherlands in third and fifth respectively have had Cameroon and New Zealand to hammer away at. And while each of those less heralded sides have had their moments, those matches have largely consisted of the favorite throwing punches and the underdog flirting with being able to absorb them before ultimately succumbing. The same is true of England, sitting in pretty in fourth place on this list.

Which brings us to Japan. Despite, like England, having a relatively easy opening couple of matches against Scotland and Argentina, they are nowhere to be seen at the top of this list. They’re actually below average. Only nine teams have less xG per match than Japan’s 0.60. Given who they’ve played, that’s a really bad sign.

A major part of the problem is that they can’t generate good shots. They’ve taken 12.50 shots per match. That’s a more respectable ninth in the tournament. But they just can’t create good chances.

 

 

Mana Iwabuchi scored a banger from outside the box but other than one (soft) penalty, only Hina Sugita’s clang off the post in first half stoppage time against Scotland really moved the xG needle.

 

 

If Japan had put in these attacking performances against strong sides, it wouldn’t merit concern. But they didn’t, they put them in against two of the weaker teams in the tournament, the same two teams that England did this to.

 

 

Japan’s four points will see them through to the knockouts, but they certainly seem to be limping there. Tournaments are short and all it takes is a game or two to shift things dramatically, but right now 2015’s finalists are heading into the latter stages looking much more like an easy out for a strong side to put out of their misery rather than a contender looking to make a real run at winning the thing.

Australia, on the other hand might be better than their numbers indicate, and their numbers are quite respectable. Down 2-0 to Brazil after an opening match loss to Italy, they were staring down their World Cup mortality before scoring three to complete a stunning comeback victory. Australia’s numbers this tournament are mediocre. They’re eighth in non-penalty xG which is respectable. On the defensive side of the ball, long thought to be their weakness (and where they’ve conceded five goals) they are also eighth.

But, unlike Japan, Australia haven’t had the benefit of playing the cupcakier end of the field. Italy have been the tournaments biggest surprise, following up their surprise opening match win against Australia with a dominating 5-0 performance against Jamaica, one of the tournaments weaker teams. Italy wasn’t tested in that match, but 5-0 is the kind of summary execution of subpar opponent that meets expectations for a top international team. We don’t yet know how good Italy is, but they might be a legitimate unexpected force.

Then there’s Brazil. Brazil aren’t at their best. Marta is coming off injury. Formiga is 41. Their “young” dynamic stars, Debinha and Andressa are 28 and 27. But, they’re still Brazil. They’ve still been above average both in attack and defense. With their own win over Jamaica under their belt they will likely make it to the knockout rounds. Australia’s win against them doesn’t say as much about them as it might once have, but it’s more impressive than some of the wins that the tournament favorites have put up.

And Argentina still have Jamaica left to play in the group. If they put up the same kind of giant numbers against one of the worst teams in the tournament that Italy and Brazil did, Jamaica’s negative eight goal difference is the second worst in the tournament, then their numbers will put them near the top of the pack, despite their shaky start.

The reason these comparisons are useful is that by comparing teams within groups it’s possible to grasp towards some understanding of how the numbers might be misreading their accomplishments. This stands in opposition to groups that have clear divides between the two haves and the two have nots. Group E and Group F have very little for analysts to sink their teeth into. Canada and the Netherlands are obviously better than Cameroon and New Zealand and the United States and Sweden are obviously better than Chile and Thailand.

The order of events has served to further obscure meaningful differences. The top teams have each gotten to beat up on both minnows first. That means that all four teams have already clearly punched their ticket to the knockouts. Their third group stage match, where, for the first time in the tournament, they square off against capable competition is now as much about managing minutes, squad rotation and preparation as it is about getting three points. Happenstance means that we won’t learn much about these four sides until the knockouts start and the margin for error decreases dramatically.

Finding interesting nuggets in the statistics early in a tournament is more of an art than a science. Sometimes the numbers point to something obvious, like Japan not being very good this time around. Sometimes, they point to something contingent, suggesting that given a certain set of assumptions, Italy are good, and Brazil are fine, then the conclusion that Australia is good is justified. And sometimes, like with Canada, the Netherlands, the United States and Sweden, all you an do is shrug and wait for more information.

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Ahead of Cameroon’s Africa Cup of Nations title defense, Ajax’s André Onana strives for goalkeeping perfection

André Onana enjoyed an excellent season between the sticks for Ajax. He was ever present in a side who claimed the league and cup double in the Netherlands and came so close to reaching the Champions League final, eliminating both Real Madrid and Juventus before losing out to Tottenham Hotspur in injury time of the second leg of their semi-final. By StatsBomb numbers, he was a solid performer in the domestic league, preventing 3.51 more goals than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to, and ranking in the top six in the league in terms of both shot stopping (goals saved above average as a percentage of shots faced) and positioning. But it was in the Champions League where he really shined. There, Onana ranked in the top six in various categories amongst all goalkeepers who started at least six matches, and was the best of all of those who reached the knockout stages in terms of shot stopping. Over the course of Ajax’s run to the final four, he prevented 5.37 more goals than the average goalkeeper would have been expected to. His pair of superb reaction saves to deny Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski during the thrilling, back-and-forth group stage encounter between the sides in December were worth just shy of one expected goal all by themselves. The 23-year-old now turns his attention to the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, which begins on 21st June. He will be the starting goalkeeper for a Cameroon side seeking to successfully defend the trophy they won in Gabon two years ago. Onana describes himself as someone who is able to accept criticism and learn from his mistakes, which makes him the sort of player that analytically minded coaches love to work with. For Cameroon, that coach is Pablo López. Part of Clarence Seedorf’s staff during the former Dutch international’s brief spell as Deportivo La Coruña head coach in the 2017-18 season, he is now working alongside Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert with Cameroon. He is also a product manager for ADESTRapp, the video recording and analysis solution that he uses in his work. “Onana is a very professional player, and with his talent, his curiosity and his desire to learn, he is improving day by day,” López tells StatsBomb. “He is very receptive to video analysis because he knows that it will help him during the matches and help him improve as a goalkeeper. He asks for videos of the opposition players responsible for penalties, direct and indirect free-kicks and corners, the players who usually provide the final pass, those who cross and finish, and the movements and shots of the forwards. Also, after the match, he wants to see all of his actions in order to correct and strengthen certain concepts and actions.” Onana is one of the most invested players he has ever worked with — although he also cites Newcastle’s Fabian Schär and Fulham’s André-Frank Zambo Anguissa as others who have shown a keen interest in using video analysis to improve their games. “He has very few weaknesses, but he tries to improve every detail, both offensive and defensive,” López says. “He is very receptive to improving and fine-tuning what is already good about his game.” López provides some specific examples of the videos shown to Onana, all taken from Cameroon’s 0-1 friendly defeat to Brazil last year. The first couple relate to the build-up phase.

López: “In this video we can see, and we indicate within the video, other options that he could have chosen, so that he has in mind that sometimes alternatives to what he did or had thought about doing can appear. In this case, it was a direct pass to the full-back who can receive with space and time to put together the next move. But in the end, it is the player who has to decide in the moment, and it could be that he interpreted things differently. He has to make decisions in milliseconds and with the risk that comes with being the last man.” López: “In this video, we show a great, high-quality action with which he was able to overcome three lines of opposition pressure with a measured pass to [Eric Maxim] Choupo-Moting that allowed the whole team to advance.” As that second example shows, the content of the videos isn’t always critical in nature. It is also important to reinforce the things that players do well, as the following two videos of saves made by Onana demonstrate. López: “In this situation, we can observe how he is well-positioned throughout and stays on his feet, which allows him to react and be able to divert the shot and avoid a goal.”   López: “In this situation, we can see how he closes down the space by coming out to the opponent without taking his eyes off the ball at any stage prior to the shot, which demonstrates bravery and determination. In doing so, he reduces the possibility of scoring and covers more of the goal.” Onana was one of the best positioned goalkeepers in the Champions League last season — only Hugo Lloris, Jan Oblak, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Wojciech Szczęsny ranked ahead of him among those who made the knockout stages. “His positioning, concentration and his power and bravery are amongst his best qualities,” López affirms. Cameroon’s national team is a competitive environment for goalkeepers. Onana’s understudies are Fabrice Ondoa, the team’s starter as 20-year-old in 2017, and 35-year-old Carlos Kameni, who, in López’s words, “puts his substantial experience, knowledge and leadership skills at the use of the younger goalkeepers and the entire squad.” They all work under the supervision of Alioum Boukar, himself a former national team goalkeeper. During Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, most of the focus of the limited time the coaching staff had with the squad was on opposition analysis and outline tactical work. But with more time together in the build up to the tournament itself, their work will become more granular and iterative. Real-time feedback will be used to immediately correct and improve. “We are introducing the ADESTRapp training method to obtain instantaneous visual feedback during pauses in the training sessions,” López explains. “This allows us to work on things in real time and for each player to instantly analyse their own actions in order to become conscious at a physical and mental level of their initial position, the timing and manner of their reaction, the execution and the end result.” He provides an example video from his time at Deportivo La Coruña. https://youtu.be/B6Yk2fsEkjY The three goalkeepers cycle through a two-man routine. The one who isn’t involved steps to the side to watch footage of their actions. They are told to focus on their foot movements and hand positioning. “It is an innovative methodology that we will establish as a normal way of working in the preparation period prior to the Africa Cup of Nations,” López says. Cameroon are the competition holders, but all of the major bookmakers list at least five teams ahead of them in their rankings of the favourites for this year’s tournament — the first held in the summer and with an expanded field of 24 teams. “There are strong national teams like Egypt, Tunisia, Senegal, Morocco and Nigeria, the five African teams who played at the World Cup in Russia,” López says. “There are also Algeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, all of whom have legitimate stars on their teams and are very well coached.” All of which is to say that if Cameroon are to hold onto their trophy, they will need their goalkeeper to be at his best. If nothing else, Onana will be well-prepared.