The mental change that has transformed Martin Ødegaard from lost talent to decisive playmaker resembles the one that helped Zlatan Ibrahimović step up his game. The year was 2004 and the Swede had joined Juventus from Ajax, where he had averaged about a goal every two league games. That wasn’t good enough for Fabio Capello, the Juve coach, who told him that he was going to knock the Ajax style out of him. What Capello wanted was fewer tricks and more goals, so he put Zlatan through relentless shooting drills. The drills flicked a switch. “A little of Ajax has stayed with me – the quality,” Zlatan has said. “But even if I now play out of the area more and always look to do the kind of move that motivates me, the first thought I have is to score and to win. That’s Capello’s lesson.” A similar decisiveness has galvanised Martin Ødegaard, the Norwegian wunderkind. When Ødegaard joined Real Madrid at the age of 15, he began to flounder in the reserves, and the comparisons shifted from Lionel Messi to Freddy Adu. But at 20 Ødegaard has returned to Spain with Real Sociedad, whom he joined this summer on a two-year loan from Madrid. The playmaker has become a key cog at La Real after two games and struck a late winner at Mallorca on Sunday. While his touch is as silky as ever, his approach has changed since those troubled days in Madrid. Back then Ødegaard arrived as a mini galáctico, having toured Europe with his family in search of a top club. As a kid who had danced around defenders twice his age (and size) in the Norwegian top flight, Ødegaard could pick and choose. Alongside his father, Hans Erik, a former professional footballer, he opted for Madrid, who told him that he would train with the first team and play for Castilla, the reserve team, who had just slid to the third division. Florentino Pérez invested a lot of time and personal prestige in luring him to the capital, and when Ødegaard touched down in January 2015, Madrid presented him in front of the press. Then the season turned into a disaster. Castilla were on course for promotion under Zinédine Zidane, who was making his debut as head coach. But when Ødegaard showed up, their form dipped. Sections of the Madrid press reported that his wages – said to be £80,000 a week, but never confirmed – were causing jealousy in the squad. Ødegaard, it was reported, was failing to integrate with his teammates. By summer Castilla had finished seventh, Zidane looked bad and Ødegaard had his critics. Whether Ødegaard had actually made a negative contribution was questionable – Zidane looked lost as a tactician, and plenty of players deserved blame – but this was not the start anyone had in mind. While Ødegaard settled more over the next 18 months, he seemed to have lost confidence along the way. The ambitious through balls had been replaced with square passes. Playing it safe made him harder to criticise, but also harder to praise. Then in January 2017, Madrid decided that a division packed with bruisers and muddy pitches in Basque mountain villages perhaps wasn’t the best place for a skinny 17-year-old to develop. When Ødegaard went on loan to Heerenveen, he had played 62 games for Castilla and scored five goals. Another rough start awaited in the Netherlands. During the first months Ødegaard was benched and picked up an ankle injury, and he did not become a regular until the 2017/18 season. At that point everyone could see his talent: the silky first touch, the neat close control, the pirouettes, the killer passes weighed with perfection. At his best Ødegaard glides across the pitch, light as a feather, cutting inside on his left foot. Yet Ødegaard finished his first full Eredivisie season with two goals and one assist. How could such a talented player create so little? While some stats suggested his output should have been better, Ødegaard needed to change something. By the time he had joined Vitesse on a one-year loan, he was working hard to boost his stats. He was practicing his shooting. He was focusing more on making the final pass. He did mental visualisation. The goal was to become more aggressive, direct and decisive. Stats are not everything, Ødegaard told a Dutch newspaper, but they do form the basis of trust. After his first eight league games yielded one assist, Ødegaard got the boost he needed with a goal in a cup game against Heracles. Playing as a right midfielder in a 4-4-2, he went on to fire home nine goals and rack up 12 assists in 35 league games. Vitesse came fifth and he made the team of the season. He never burdened the team with slack defensive work, but showed the combination of creativity and industry that so many of the top coaches treasure. His expect assist per 90 of 0.34 was the fourth highest in the league. The key to his creativity was not just a new resolve to try the unexpected, but the freedom granted to him by the coach, Leonid Slutsky, to drift into central positions. Ødegaard might struggle to maintain his goalscoring rate at Real Sociedad. At Vitesse he would let rip near the edge of the box, which led to a modest non-penalty xG of 4.56. To keep up his average he might have to improve his ability to take up positions in the box, à la Mohamed Salah, although this is hard for a player who is so often involved in creating the chances in the first place. Alternatively Ødegaard might have to become a sniper à la Philippe Coutinho and hope to keep beating his xG from outside the box. In any case Ødegaard’s primary function is as a playmaker. Real Sociedad missed a player of his kind last season, having lost Sergio Canales to Real Betis a year ago. The coach, Imanol Alguacil, has told Ødegaard to organise their attacks and make the final pass. Ødegaard has thrived in his first two outings. In his debut, a 1-1 draw at Valencia, he played as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 and completed nearly twice as many final-third passes as anyone else. At Mallorca on Sunday he was less influential – until he started a counter-attack that he finished off by lifting the ball over the keeper. The promising start indicates that Ødegaard is back on track. He is yet to be taken off the pitch by Imanol, who is used to working with youngsters after spells with the club’s youth teams and the reserves. Ødegaard recently extended his contract with Madrid to 2023, a sign that Madrid have him in their plans. His aim for the next two years will be to show that he can be a key player in La Liga, and win a place at Madrid when the loan ends. Based on his displays so far, that goal at last seems to be within reach.
Month: August 2019
What's Happened In La Liga So Far?
We are two weekends into the new season in La Liga and a few trends are already starting to emerge. Here is what has stood out so far. Cross Heavy Real Madrid The Real Madrid revolution will not be televised. Not yet at least. I momentarily wondered if I’d stepped into some of kind of time machine when I saw their starting XI at home to Real Valladolid on Saturday. This was prime Carlo Ancelotti-era Madrid: Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo, Casemiro, Kroos, Isco, Rodríguez, Bale and Benzema. With summer recruits Eder Militão and Luka Jovic on the bench, Eden Hazard and Ferland Mendy on the treatment table, and the much-needed starting midfielder yet to be signed, this was a very familiar Madrid in terms of both personnel and play style. Over the last couple of seasons, Madrid have been the clear outlier amongst the established top three teams in terms of how they’ve sought to get into the penalty area and create chances. In both of those campaigns, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona created around 15% or less of their expected goals (xG) from open-play crosses, and recorded the league’s two lowest percentages of penalty box entries achieved by crosses (between 17% and 25%). In contrast, Madrid created 21.77%, then 25% (both top-six figures in the league) of their xG from open-play crosses in 2017-18 and 2018-19 respectively, while 37%, then 33% of their penalty box entries were achieved by crosses. That has again been evident this season. So far, they’ve created over half of their xG from crosses, while their percentage of penalty box entries achieved that way stands at 41%. They are not otherwise penetrating: they’ve created just one shot combined off of throughballs and dribbles. Things will even out a bit over time -- Valladolid were the team who defended deepest of all in La Liga last season -- but the early signs are that Madrid, and coach Zinedine Zidane, aren’t yet ready to transition away from a cross-based attack. Combine that with a midfield that struggles to adequately deal with transitions and you have a recipe for results like the 1-1 draw with Valladolid. Yes, Madrid comfortably outshot their visitors; yes, they generated over double their xG; but if you are just creating a high volume of relatively low-quality chances and then give up a one in three opportunity (as Sergi Guardiola’s equaliser, at 0.36xG, was) to your opponents, it is difficult to complain too much about the final result. Hazard is clearly a guy who can help change things. He led Chelsea in open-play passes into the box in each of the last two seasons, and he is also a very adept ball carrier inside the final third, as this chart of his dribbles and carries into the penalty area last season attests. Current reports suggest Hazard could return to action after the September international break. Until he does, Madrid will have to muddle on as is. Short Goal Kicks The updated laws of the game now allow for goal kicks to be received by players positioned inside the penalty area, and this new opportunity is certainly being put to use by La Liga’s teams. So far, there have been 67 goal kicks taken that way, 18.82% of the total. Only five teams are yet to attempt one. It feels like everyone is still working out the possibilities that these goal kicks provide. Only 11 of them have begun moves that successfully progressed into the attacking half. Just two of them have begun moves that have ended in shots, including this from Mallorca at home to Real Sociedad. Villarreal have, though, already provided us with a perfect illustration of how not to utilise them. They have been the most prolific takers of goal kicks into the box so far, with 57.89% of their kicks taken that way (Barcelona and Real Sociedad are joint second, on 46.15%). Only they and Real Sociedad have progressed past the halfway line more than once. But all that practice didn’t stop this disaster from occurring. Goalkeeper Andrés Fernández plays the ball left to central defender Pau Torres, who returns it to him. Upon receiving, Fernández takes a heavy touch that allows the fast-approaching Roger Martí to nip in ahead of him. Fernández clatters into Martí to concede the penalty that provided Levante with their winning goal in a 2-1 defeat for Villarreal. It came just five minutes after Levante had equalised from another clumsily conceded penalty, and meant that Villarreal failed to convert an entirely dominant first half into three points. It all seemed to get a bit too much for coach Javi Calleja, who had, after all, watched his side give up a 4-2 lead to draw 4-4 at home to Granada the week previous. One shot showed him slumped in his seat, limp quivering, desperation etched across his face. If his side continue to make such elementary errors, hopes of a return to the top 10 might have to be put on hold. Goals Are Still Hard To Come By Last season was the lowest scoring season in La Liga in over a decade, with an average of 2.54 goals per match that was down from 2.69 the previous campaign. That also held in terms of xG. Taking penalties out of the equation, the average non-penalty xG per match in La Liga fell from 2.26 in 2017-18 to 2.14 last time out. That downward shift has continued into the new season. There have been just 2.2 goals per match so far, and an average non-penalty xG of 1.71 per match. Minus a couple of aberrations like the aforementioned 4-4 draw between Granada and Villarreal and Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Real Betis, chances and goals have both proved hard to come by. Espanyol’s Attacking Struggles No team have struggled to create chances as much as Espanyol have. We are only two matches in and it is clearly far too early to draw substantive conclusions, but their attack has been nothing short of putrid so far. They are one of only two teams yet to score (Leganés are the other), and their shot map shows that isn’t simply a quirk of fate. In 180 minutes of action, against Alavés and Sevilla, Espanyol are yet to even create chances that add up to one third of an expected goal. They’ve taken just 10 shots and haven’t managed a single effort on target from inside the penalty area. Even allowing for the departure of last season’s top scorer Borja Iglesias that is a disastrous return. David Gallego’s side were expected to make a fast start to the campaign after beginning competitive action earlier than everyone else due to their participation in the Europa League qualifying rounds. After two defeats in two, they can at least take solace in a relatively accessible set of fixtures over the next couple of months, starting with Sunday’s match at home to Granada. But their attack will have to function much more effectively if they are to start getting some good points on the board.
Anatomy Of A First Half: Liverpool v Arsenal
Games between top six sides do not tend to look like this:
That's just the first half, but the whole of Liverpool against Arsenal very much looked the same. A remarkable congruence of tactics and the new goal kick rule that meant that Arsenal played really, really deep and essentially invited Liverpool to play ahead of their box, which in the main they did. Seriously, even Jose Mourinho back in late 2017 parking the bus at Anfield while shopping for a 0-0 and getting one looked very different, this Arsenal set-up was something else entirely: Was it fear? Last December, Liverpool hosted Arsenal and Unai Emery was chastened by a 5-1 drubbing that was 4-1 at the half with a pass network that looked like this: Just too open? Interestingly, only five players started both fixtures for Arsenal, which feels representative of the player flux that we've seen at the club. What really piqued my interest about last weekend's game was the half time shot count. Arsenal conceded 15 shots while taking five of their own in a half that as we've seen was played predominantly in one part of the pitch. Now the expected goal values of all these shots were closer together, Liverpool's 15 shots rated a mere 0.83 while Arsenal's measured at 0.6. So through one lens--expected goals, this was a close half. By other lenses, it wasn't. Many, many first halves of football finish with the two sides within a quarter of a goal in xG, just as in this game. Last season there were 122 in the Premier League alone. Of those 122 games, the maximum shot differential at the half was eight. So already here we have an outlier game: very close xG but not remotely close shot counts are scarce. How often did a team ship 15 shots in a first half last season? It's well known that shot rates tend to increase as matches progress, so even when you see a 30-plus shot beatdown, most of the time, the shots get racked up in the second half. And that's true here. Only four times in 2018-19 did a team reach the half time point having allowed 15 or more shots. Three of those matches were small teams flailing around against Manchester City and the other, oddly, was Newcastle versus Huddersfield. All this brings to the boil a personal frustration of mine. Expected goals is a useful tool in many aspects of analysis, but it's not the only one. What actually happened in this half of football over and above the modelled value of the chances? To allow 15 shots of any kind in a half is a clear sign that a defensive plan isn't working. Take Liverpool's left flank, expertly patrolled by Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mané with Georginio Wijnaldum shuttling across. It was very easy for these guys to progress, here are Robertson's first half ball carries and passes:
Long carries down the flank, deep into Arsenal territory, which on another day may have caused greater pain. Four times in that half, Robertson put balls into the box that went straight through. Twice, David Luiz judged to let the ball through with players lurking behind him. Mané misplaced two open play passes in the half, Wijnaldum just one. This flank was just open and easy to travel through. If we evaluate the half we can see a theme of space and time. Here are my notes: 2nd min: Robertson advances, fizzes the ball across goal, Firmino behind Luiz stretches but can't get there 3rd min: Set piece, through the box, Luiz lets it go again 8th min: Alexander-Arnold open cross to nothing nb. Three times in opening 8 minutes Matip is making passes on edge of final third, Arsenal super deep 11th min: Adrian error, Aubameyang over 13th min: Mané gets in round the back to nothing 15th min: Robertson advances, 3 seconds nobody comes to him, cross/shot 16th min: Robertson to an open Mané on halfway line, Mané carries to edge of box unchallenged 20th min: Robertson cross, straight through 21st min: suicidal clearance, good chance for Mané, saved 22nd min: Salah shot from 30 yards, no pressure on him, blocked 22nd min: Robertson low cross, straight through 23rd min: Firmino, skill, space in box, shot blocked 24th min: Mané open but wide, skies it nb. Arsenal when trying to attack spread right across the pitch, no linkage 30th min: Pépé bends one from range 33rd min: Henderson error, Pépé misses highest value chance of the half At this point it's seven shots to five, and perhaps Arsenal feel good, but time and again, Liverpool have found space in good positions, they just haven't done anything really useful with it or contrived to convert. Then the last ten minutes of the half are a complete disaster for Arsenal. In the 36th minute, Liverpool cross the half-way line in possession. A shade under five minutes later, they score. In the interim, Arsenal do not touch the ball outside their own half. These are their open play passes during that phase:
That's four completed passes and two failed in five minutes of play. Liverpool found a way to enact extended pressure and finally were rewarded for it. Every time play restarted, they were faster to the ball, and quicker to react, as you can see in the notes: 36th min: Liverpool complete 5/6 passes, Alexander-Arnold overhit cross. 37th min: Arsenal win consecutive throws then give away ball with aimless punt to halfway, Liverpool complete 4/5 passes, keeper claims Robertson cross, Liverpool quickly win cheap turnover and are fouled on edge of final third, centrally. 38th min: Robertson high free kick cleared by Luiz, Liverpool win corner, Van Dijk header, blocked, Alexander-Arnold speculative volley, blocked out for a throw. 39th min: Salah snap-shot from throw in. 40th min: Arsenal try to play out, fail, Liverpool win ball back comfortably, Firmino makes space outside box, shoots, blocked, recycle possession, Alexander-Arnold picks up ball, crosses, blocked out for a corner. 41st min: Alexander-Arnold corner, met by Matip (Van Dijk being fouled), goal, 1-0 At this point, Liverpool have added five more shots, and they were to add three more in the remaining minutes of the half, while Luiz also cut out a Firmino throughball and Salah found the return pass from a one-two with Mané nipped off his toe. Without ever having to really exert themselves extensively, Liverpool turned the screw and finished the half extremely strongly. The next shot they would take would be the penalty to make it 2-0 and effectively seal the game. We can see Liverpool pressed high up the pitch during that first half--they could hardly do anything else--and Arsenal very much allowed them to: They let Liverpool push onto their full-backs and this made outlet balls difficult to complete. The point here is that the outcome of this half was inevitable when factored against the tactics Arsenal deployed. It's easy to grasp the Pépé chance and feel it was potentially decisive, but it's only a one in three opportunity, and he's not even in the box. A style of play that struggles to even gain possession outside its own half is fairly doomed to failure. We saw the same the week before during Manchester City versus Tottenham. Here's Tottenham's pass map for minutes 30 to 50:
Does it matter? Well yes, Tottenham allowed nine shots with an expected goal value of 0.83 during this period, and Sergio Agüero scored. Nobody is suggesting that matches away at Manchester City or Liverpool are easy to approach but these Tottenham and Arsenal performances certainly land on the leaner side both stylistically and via fundamental metrics. By attempting to outflank the best counter-pressing teams in the league with neat play around your own box, you're almost certainly inviting trouble. And I think this is what frustrates me in particular about Arsenal's approach. Liverpool had shown a potential defensive weakness in their first two games in the Premier League this season. Norwich scored and hit six shots on target from 13 with 1.1 xG, while Southampton also scored and landed 1.6 xG from their 11 shots. Unai Emery's gameplan felt like one which respected the Liverpool team of last season, the team that was firing on all cylinders when demolishing his team 5-1, not the team that hadn't quite clicked into gear in 2019-20. They afforded Liverpool too much respect while negating their own strength--their attacking prowess--and ended up on the wrong end of a one sided match regardless. Emery has been accused of being timid before, especially in away games. It's an obvious area to work on for the future. These points may well have been dropped regardless, but in the long term, any ambition towards progress and success will dictate that his team is more competitive when traveling to high quality opponents.
Can Antonio Conte's Inter Milan Step Up And Dethrone Juventus?
Why should Inter be considered a candidate for the Scudetto? The short answer is Antonio Conte.
The coach from Lecce, unemployed since Chelsea decided to fire him at the end of the 2017/2018 season, signed for Inter Milan this summer and is certainly not a man who lives by Pierre De Coubertin's motto "the important thing is taking part". Quite the contrary. Conte embodies the most famous quote of Giampiero Boniperti, who in 1991 convinced him to sign for Juventus when he was 22 years old: "winning is not important, it's the only concern".
As a matter of fact, Conte has won at least one trophy in his last five seasons on the bench of a club, winning four consecutive national championships 3 Scudetto trophies with Juventus and a Premier League in his debut season with Chelsea and an FA Cup in his second season with the Blues. That FA Cup was the high point of a turbulent season and was not enough to avert his dismissal. And his pedegree in this league is almost peerless: before the start of this season, Conte had won 67% of his 122 Serie A matches as a coach and collected an average of 2.24 points per match.
The arrival of a coach with an indisputable résumé who is also considered one of the best tacticians in the world has brought back enthusiasm to the fans of Inter despite the undeniable bond that tied Conte to their historic rival of Juventus.
President Steven Zhang's club has thus reunited Conte and Giuseppe Marotta, protagonists of the rebirth of the “Old Lady” that began with the 2012 Scudetto. Seven years later, the goal is to bring Inter back to contend at the top of Italian football and possibly, also to top the table.
Conte is the new owner of a team that comes off a disappointing season, in which the Nerazzurri not only never managed to keep up with Juventus, who finished the season with 21 points more, but had to fight until the very last match to guarantee themselves a second consecutive Champions League qualification, the minimum target set by the club management. Champions League money is essential to allow Inter to continue their growth path while meeting the parameters of FFP.
All in all, Spalletti's team was decent if we examined their metrics. They were respectively 4th and 3rd in the league in non-penalty xG and non-penalty xG conceded, 4th in shots and 2nd in shots conceded.
Yet Ancelotti's Napoli, who finished last season with 10 more points on the table, were one step above them all season, averaging an xG difference of +0.84 per game, far superior than the Nerazzurri's +0.55. Besides, Atalanta, who also finished ahead of Spalletti's team thanks to the head-to-head tie-breaker, performed better than Inter last season, averaging an xG difference of +0.71 propelled by the best attack of the league (77 goals scored).
Additionally, the 2018/2019 team did not produce a brand of football that was pleasing on the eye. The antithesis of the main European teams, Spalletti adopted an old school approach, proposing an offensive phase without fuss, in which crosses were often the main weapon to enter the box and creating scoring chances. Inter was by far the team that attempted the most crosses (28.8 per game), so much so that 38% of their entries into the penalty box came that way. 57% of completed passes into the box from wingers Ivan Perišić and Antonio Candreva were crosses.
The situations of Icardi, the best forward in the team and captain who ended up on the sidelines for the frictions that arose during the negotiations for the renewal of his contract and of Nainggolan, whose disappointing performances went gone hand in hand with off-field behaviors that society did not appreciate, to put it mildly, only made things worse.
In a season to forget, it was worth noting that the defensive phase of Inter was still that of a solid team able to defend far from their own goal. Their defensive distance of 47.5 meters was the second-highest of the league and they allowed just 8.2 passes per defensive action. Although there isn't necessarily a better strategy than another, for Conte this could certainly be a good foundation from which to start, even if his approach to pressing is different from that of his predecessor.
Another of Spalletti's merits was to have finally found a place for Brozović, who became one of the best holding midfielders in Serie A. Conte immediately made him the lynchpin of his 3-5-2, and the Croatian has already repaid his manager's trust with a huge goal in the first game of the season, the 4-0 against Lecce.
What is certain is that Inter 2019/20 will be profoundly different from last year in terms of style of play and interpreters. To give you an immediate idea on how different Inter will look, here is a graph of the Nerazzurri shots in 2018/19. The dots highlighted in pink are the shots taken by the players purged during the summer (Icardi, Perisic, and Nainggolan) plus Keita Baldé, who came back to Monaco after a six-month loan spell in Milan. Those four together combined for 43.9% of Inter shots and 52.9% of their total xG.
If we add Matteo Politano, another player who does not fit into Conte's plans and that could be sold before the end of the current transfer window, to the equation, the amount rises to 56.7% of the shots and 60.7% of their xG.
The transition from Conte to Spalletti means a deep restyling of the roster, necessary both to provide the new coach with players better suited to his style of play and to replace the key players that the club has firmly decided to give up on, including the aforementioned Nainggolan, Perišić, and Icardi. The Belgian midfielder is now back in Cagliari on loan, while the same formula has allowed the Croatian wing to join his compatriot Kovac at Bayern Munich. Icardi is still in Milan, but Conte and the management decided to put him out of the team and just wait for someone to submit a bid to the Argentine striker (and that someone could yet be Juventus' Fabio Paratici).
Free-agent Diego Godín has arrived to strengthen the defense, numerically replacing his former Atlético Madrid teammate Joao Miranda, who seemed to be in decline last season and who joined the other team in the group that controls Inter, Chinese side JS Suning. Together with De Vrij and Škriniar, Conte can now field a trio of central defenders in front of Handanović who could, at least on paper, rival those of Juventus.
In midfield, Inter loaned with an option to buy Stefano Sensi, a number 8 from Sassuolo. A player who id skillful in possession, he was one of the brightest surprises of the Nerazzurri's summer and further impressed scoring in his debut against Lecce.
Together with Brozović, Sensi will be responsible for building Inter's play, while Barella, the club's big midfield acquisition, will have a better opportunity to roam and look for space opening. Inter overpaid for him (the total cost is up to €50 million depending on the bonuses), but as I wrote in one of my previous columns, this will be a pivotal season in Barella's career. Relieved of responsibility for building up play and under the guidance of Conte has the opportunity to make a quantum leap forward and become one of the best box-to-box midfielders in Italy and perhaps even in Europe.
Austrian wing-back Valentino Lazaro (€22 M) arrived from Hertha Berlin to play on the right flank, but he was immediately injured and relinquished his place to Candreva, who, if we overreact to a 4-0 win against Lecce will live a second youth under Conte. On the left, the return of Biraghi from Fiorentina seems almost certain: the Italian, an home-grown player for the club importantly to comply with Serie A rules about rosters, will face competition from Asamoah, among the best performers of last season. Neither Lazaro nor Biraghi's statistical profile are particularly impressive, but Conte's wing-backs are scarcely extremely gifted and anyhow they will both start as role players starting on the bench.
However, their biggest acquisition was Romelu Lukaku from Manchester United for over €65 million. 2018/19 wasn't his best season (and frankly, nor was it for his team), but in recent years the Belgian has been one of the most consistent strikers in the Premier League and at just 26 he has not yet reached the peak of his career. He is supposed to replace Icardi's goals and he looks like the ideal forward for Conte's system. The manager wanted the player strongly judging by the warm welcome he gave him.
The one thing that Inter lacks appears to be a bit of creativity in the last third of the field and, at least numerically, one striker. Lautaro Martínez is a modern second striker who gave encouraging signals about his potential in his first season at Inter, but Conte and the management seem to be in the hunt for another forward. And once again the reinforcement could come from Manchester United with Marotta in negotiations for the loan of Alexis Sanchéz.
The Chilean has not shone in his two seasons at United but underneath the malaise has maintained an elite production in terms of assisted xG. It is true that he played mainly from the left-wing and that with Conte he would be deployed in a more central position, but he could be the right profile to flank Lukaku.
But that's not all because it seems that there is still some hope to see Dybala wearing the black and blue shirt of Inter, with an Icardi swap a potential reality. The fit would not be immediate: Juventus' manager Maurizio Sarri considers, probably rightly, the Argentine a number 9 and judging by his production in the last two seasons certainly "la Joya" does not seem suitable to fulfill the role of the creative trequartista alongside Lukaku. Yet, it would be undoubtedly exciting to see a combination of strikers of this level, who have not yet reached their peak, play together in the best years of their career under one of the best managers in the world.
Within a summer Inter completely changed shape and the fans have found the enthusiasm that seemed lost as shown by the support received by the team in their season debut. Conte won the championship in his first season with both Juventus and Chelsea and the team seems to have quickly assimilated his principles of play. The goal is one: to interrupt the domestic hegemony of his former team.
How Have Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa Shaped Up Through Week Three?
Norwich City, Sheffield United and Aston Villa all have the sizeable task of staying alive in the big, bad Premier League, and none are showing signs of blinking and retreating to a safety first approach. England’s top flight is brutal and unforgiving, we’re told. The way to survive is to dig deep, make your home ground a fortress, become tough to beat and ride a little bit of luck, we’re told. But are this year’s crop going for that traditionalist approach? Well not at all, really. Let’s take a closer look at each.
Norwich had the easiest decision of the three in terms of how to approach this season due to the lack of business done in the summer. They had an approach that obviously worked for them last season, with a certain club in South West London seemingly becoming a cautionary tale for ripping up what got you into the top flight and changing everything (which maybe an unfair caricature, but that’s a discussion for another day). If the worst case scenario happens and Norwich go straight back down, they still have a manager and core of players who have showed previously that they could successfully execute a style of football to a good level in the Championship, so the Canaries would still fancy themselves to challenge for promotion again while reaping the parachute payments. But that’s obviously not Plan A. The real aim is to just keep doing what they were doing last season and trust that it will be enough in the top flight. In terms of analysing how that’s going, a cruel early fixture list with the side having faced Liverpool and Chelsea has skewed things somewhat on the defensive end. Their 1.49 expected goals conceded per game is a 59% increase on last season, but again, fixtures have been tough. What’s more concerning is how across the board the defensive weakness has been. Norwich have been less of a high pressing side this season, as both their average defensive distance falls deeper and they allow the opponents 2.5 more passes in an average sequence before attempting to win the ball back. What we’d expect to see from this is the Canaries to drop off in terms of suppressing shot volume, and that’s what’s happened, as they’ve so far conceded 17 per game instead of last year’s 12. But the flip side of this lower pressing, lower shot suppressing approach is that you’re supposed to form a better defensive shell, make it harder for opponents to get chances in dangerous areas, and restrict the shot quality rather than volume. And that just isn’t happening. The Canaries’ xG per shot conceded has made a small but notable tick up, from 0.080 to 0.087. At Premier League level, through three relatively tough fixtures, Norwich are having a tough time avoiding getting cut open. The lower pressing numbers feel less like a deliberate strategy than simply an inability to exert control over games against superior opposition. Of course, the good news for Norwich fans has been in attack. Finishing exaggerates the extent to which the side has been “open” so far, with Norwich seeing more goals go in than expected at both ends of the pitch, but it’s still very early. Perhaps Norwich will become a team we typically expect to do this due to an attacking emphasis (see: Liverpool 2016/17 for an example of such a skew), but we’ll have to wait for more data points on that. Regardless, the Canaries having the ninth best attack in the league so far after those games is a genuine accomplishment. Unsurprisingly, Teemu Pukki is currently smashing xG, with 5 goals scored from 1.9 expected, but even if he returns to a normal finishing rate, if he maintains this volume of chances he should end up with a very good goal return. What’s especially notable is that seven of his twelve shots so far have been assisted by through ballsm with Emiliano Buendía in particular having an eye for such a pass. In a strange way, this might actually be a benefit of Norwich being unable to enforce a pressing game on opponents. As teams push higher and higher into Norwich’s half, space seems to be opening up for such incisive passing, and Pukki has been reaping the rewards. While there would surely be a net gain, better control of the game might make it harder for the team to break so well in the opposition half. If Norwich learn how to exert a press in the Premier League, they might become a little more boring. As it is, this is one of the most entertaining teams in the division to watch as a neutral.
While things were tough straight out of the gate for Norwich, the fixture list handed Chris Wilder’s side a much kinder introduction to the Premier League. A win at home to Crystal Palace, a draw away at Bournemouth and a defeat to a visiting Leicester seems a reasonable start in terms of results for the aim of staying up, and the numbers look solid as well. The Blades’ defensive distance has actually risen a modicum from last year, and looking at the defensive activity map, they’re a pretty full throttle pressing side (with a clear lean to one side, but that’s something that could easily even out after a few more games). As it should be with a press slightly higher, the shot volume conceded has dropped off a little while the quality of those chances has risen a smidgen. Otherwise it all looks the same as last season on the defensive end. Sheffield United have yet to face the real elite of the Premier League, but the three teams they’ve played so far are still a clear step up from Championship opposition, so this is an obvious positive sign. The attack is down a chunk, at 1.13 xG per game versus last season’s 1.31, but you can’t have it all. What’s worrying is that this looks even worse when you just look at chances from open play. United were not amazing in this phase of the game last season, putting up just shy of an expected goal a match from open play. Fortunately, they beat xG here by around 11 goals, but it would be awfully optimistic to expect them to do that again. We might just have to accept that the Blades will not be a team that creates a lot of chances. The better news is that the shot quality, both from open play and set pieces, is holding up in the step up to the top flight. In the very early signs, this might be a team that mostly relies on narrow margins to win football matches. Sheffield United feel like something of a contradiction. They have a squad of players overwhelmingly from the UK and Ireland, managed by a veteran of EFL and non-league football finally getting a chance in England’s top flight, but they play a tactically innovative system. They have a statistical profile of a team that keeps things tight at the back first and foremost, but by pressing high rather than sitting deep. They’re doing it their way, and are a welcome addition to the Premier League for it.
Stick or twist wasn’t a question that Aston Villa were really able to ask themselves. The reliance on loans in the season that got them promoted meant that the squad would need reshaping. Villa did it the expensive way, and in theory their approach felt fairly scattershot and without a clear idea of what the team would be. Is there news in the early numbers that can refute this? To an extent, yes, there is. Villa currently have a negative expected goal difference, but that includes a game in which Spurs threw out the full battering ram as they spent most of the game desperately searching for an equaliser and winner. Since then, they’ve run two very close fought games against Bournemouth and Everton and picked up a fair three points. Villa’s xG numbers are almost identical to Norwich’s, though the schedule has been slightly softer. Dean Smith’s reputation at Brentford and now Villa has been of a manager who struggles to coach a solid defence while playing exciting football at the other end, That has not traditionally been seen as the way to keep a club from relegation, though a higher variance style should mean fewer draws. In recent years, too many games where the points were shared proved the death knell for Middlesbrough and West Brom, so it’s possible that Villa could avoid that fate with both more wins and losses. So far in the numbers, they’ve translated their attacking output into the top flight fairly well (1.26 xG per game against 1.33 last year), while having a 53% increase on the defensive side. So we’re taking an already fairly open side and doubling down on that. Goalkeeper Tom Heaton had an excellent reputation in a very secure defensive system at Burnley, so this will really test him in ways we haven’t seen in the Premier League. Villa look the least cohesive of the three promoted teams and the most likely to just crash and burn, but could also have the highest ceiling of these sides. Villa Park will not lack for incident this season. Header image courtesy of the Press Association
Who Wants To Dethrone Juventus? Napoli’s Quest For The Scudetto
With only one team winning the last eight championships, the fight for the Serie A title has lost much of its appeal. So much so that it has become, I dare say, boring. Juventus' dominance has been virtually unchallenged since 2012 and not even a 91-point season of Napoli in 2017/2018 was enough to break the streak of consecutive successes from the Old Lady. Across those eight seasons, Juve have collected an average of 90.8 points (with a jaw-dropping total of 102 points in 2013/14) and have maintained an average advantage over the second-placed team of +9.3 points. In practice, in most cases, the Scudetto has been already sewn to the chest of the Bianconeri at the beginning of spring. Although the major bookmakers consider the ninth consecutive championship of Juventus particularly likely (the implied probability associated with another Scudetto ranges between 67% and 71%), Serie A has a clear need for this season to be fought to the end. Not only for (neutral) fans who dream of finally having a thrilling season that keeps them glued in front of their screens, but also to reaffirm the credibility of the league internationally. Serie A is desperate for competition at the top to return to be a commercially attractive product and to increase its turnover and that of the 19 teams that are not named Juventus. It perhaps needs a team to dethrone the Old Lady; a new Queen. After 5 years with Allegri, Juventus powerbrokers Agnelli and Nedved have chosen to bet on Sarri, and he has spent the summer changing the tactical mentality of the team. Because of this important transition and the worrying downturn in Juventus' performance at the end of last season, there could be some margin to put the Turin club in trouble. Surely, the team that is in the best position to conquer Juventus, also by virtue of their results from the last few seasons is Napoli. Of the 2018/19 top-six teams, Azzurri is the only one, apart from Atalanta to have retained their coach, as well as having confirmed virtually all the players of last season. Among the players who left the team, the only one who played a significant amount of minutes was Albiol (1843 minutes). Last season Napoli led the league in non-penalty expected goals per game (1.65, tied with Atalanta), non-penalty expected goals conceded per game (0.81) shots per game(18.5), clear shots per game (3.9) and clear shots per game conceded (1.7). Analyzing their underlying numbers, they very much profiled as potential Serie A contenders, yet they were not able to seriously compete for the title and finished the season in second place, 11 points behind their Bianconeri rivals, who failed to win the last five matches of their season. They even equaled, if not topped Juventus defensive profile as a team, but it was still not enough to overcome them. Indeed, Allegri's team were an unconventional behemoth grinding out points perhaps thanks to the technical superiority of its players even without producing the numbers of a "super-team". In essence, even if Napoli was able, at least sporadically, to excite its fans, the judgment on last season has remained pending (if not negative) for the lack of appreciable results and because none of the key players made the leap that many expected, given Ancelotti's reputation as a coach capable of getting the most out of the best players of his team - every reference to Lorenzo Insigne's new role as a second striker is, alas, intentionally not accidental. In his first season at Napoli, Carlo Ancelotti made the team that belonged to Sarri his own, developing a chameleonic formation capable of adapting to the opponent and the different situations of the game, while maintaining its own precise identity of play. It's no coincidence, then, that in a team where there's no room for specialists, that Fabian Ruiz - the best rookie of the Serie A last season, if you ask me - has come to the fore, to the point of making it no pain to sell club-legend midfielder Marek Hamsik. During the summer, Ancelotti, the coach who returned to Italy last season after nine years abroad, worked further to make his team as flexible as possible (in fact almost no one, if not perhaps Koulibaly and Allan, is irreplaceable) and even more fluid in moving across the pitch to efficiently occupy spaces, especially those between the lines. It seems certain that Napoli will defend with two lines of four, but offensively Ancelotti likes to shuffle the deck and so far, he fielded his team in a 3-4-2-1 with a fullback advanced in midfield or even in a more elaborated 3-1-3-3. The idea is to have more solutions and be less predictable. Indeed, even if in 2018/19 they were the best attack in terms of xG generated, sometimes Napoli's game seemed uninspired and they were unable to turn their territorial supremacy in goals. At the same time, the management tried to improve the team via the transfer market. In their attempt to pose a serious threat to Juventus, Napoli added Kostas Manolas and Hirving Lozano to the team, while also buying Empoli's right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo and 19-year old midfielder Eljif Elmas from Fenerbache. At Roma, Manolas has for years been one of the best defenders of the league and, together with Koulibaly, will form a formidable centre-back pairing, at least in terms of speed and athleticism. The Greek is a defender with clear virtues and weaknesses but should be an improvement over the soon to be 34-year-old Albiol who left for Villareal and this move will allow Ancelotti to keep his defensive line higher. Lozano, the club's most expensive signing ever at €38+4 million, is an intriguing purchase because it is not immediately clear where he will play. At PSV he played on the left under Cocu, but last season he was moved to the right side (with occasional stints on the left) by Van Bommel. Ancelotti could even use him behind a striker or as the main striker, something he has alluded to himself. Probably, as his radar shows, the Mexican's best quality is his goal-scoring ability (he scored 17 times in both of his two Eredivisie seasons). While the transition from the Eredivisie to Serie A won't be easy, Napoli needs someone else to rely on when it comes to scoring goals other than Milik and Mertens, who generated 42% of the total xG and scored 45% of the goals last season. This is more relevent when considering the Polish striker's injury history (incidentally, he won't take part to the season debut against Fiorentina) and Mertens' drop in production likely due to aging (his shots average declined in each of the last three seasons). To add depth to their attack the Azzurri seem about to purchase Llorente, while a move for Icardi seems unlikely. But Lozano could contribute in other ways too. At PSV he had minimum defensive responsibilities and given his technical superiority a free role in attack that led to him taking high risks when passing and carrying the ball (as shown by a high number of turnovers and his low passing percentage). At Napoli, he will play in a different environment offensively in which more well-rounded qualities could emerge in multiple ways. In this sense, Lozano seems particularly suited to Ancelotti's idea of having a positionally fluid team, in which players are required to be able to perform different roles and duties. He could even put Insigne on the bench at a later stage of the season. Napoli have room for improvement in regards of the average quality of chances created and in shot distance (18.1 meters on average) and benching a trigger-happy inside forward who averaged 4.7 shots per 90 and 0.07 xG/shot last season could help. I don't consider Insigne a one-dimensional player, but Lozano seems more suited to Ancelotti's fluid system due to his unpredictability. Regardless of how the team hierarchies will change, Napoli still seems to lack something to compete with Juventus, at least in terms of overall quality. The purchases of Manolas and Lozano are certainly important to raise the collective value of the team, but it would take another effort to try to get closer to the champions of Italy. There are still almost 10 days left before the end of the transfer window and who knows if the club does not make a final attempt for Real Madrid's James Rodriguez, a player reportedly chased throughout the transfer campaign and perfect for Ancelotti's brand of football. If the roster stays more or less as it is today, Ancelotti, who said he was confident about the improvements of the team, will have to overcome a brand-new challenge for him. Turning, in pure Aristotelian fashion, a team without superstars into a team far stronger than the sum of its parts. If he can achieve this a second Scudetto for him is available. Header image courtesy of the Press Association
How Will Philippe Coutinho Fit In At Bayern Munich?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: it’s early in the Bundesliga season and Bayern Munich are in panic mode. It happened with Carlo Ancelotti in the fall of 2017, then with Niko Kovac (albeit after a hot start in the first four games) last year and well, it's happening again.
Enter Philippe Coutinho.
The basics are as follows: 27-year-old Coutinho is now a Bayern player, after the Bavarians paid an €8.5 million fee and another €13 million in wages for a year of his services, with Barca quick to disclose that there was also a purchase option set at €120 million. Without recapping his largely challenging, if not disastrous spell at Barcelona, he basically failed to live up to expectations: he couldn’t be the Iniesta they needed in midfield and suffered out on the left because as Messi is Messi, it was always going to be hard to maintain his numbers.
This was not how the offseason was supposed to work for the Bavarians: following a last-minute league and cup double, Kovac had erased the bitter taste of a tepid Champions League exit at the hands of Liverpool and won the power struggle against the old guard, with Ribéry (since signed with Fiorentina), Robben, Rafinha (who did not even get a farewell after being snubbed in the last game thanks to a Goretzka injury), James Rodríguez and Hummels all departing. Kovac and Hasan Salihamidzic had the support of the conservative club president Uli Hoeness and were able to fight off the more progressive Karl-Heinz Rummennige in a rebuilding compromise.
In Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard, they bought --for €115 million-- two versatile, French, World-Cup winning defenders who can play fullback and centre back. All was fine in June, Bayern were finally opening their wallets, pursuing Leroy Sané and a host of other targets - sure Salihamidzic did not secure some tantalising targets (Hudson Odoi, Pépé, Dembélé), but things were generally looking fine. Not for long. It only needed one pretty unlucky Supercup match against Dortmund who didn’t play particularly well but took their chances better. They won with only one new arrival (Nico Schulz) playing, while Bayern made mistakes in possession, struggled in defensive transition and Kovac’s 4-3-3 looked more vulnerable than the combined health of all their wingers from the last few years. In the aftermath of Germany’s unofficial season kickoff, Manuel Neuer and Joshua Kimmich, lucky to get away with a nasty stamp on Jadon Sancho, threw veiled darts at the board, while Robert Lewandowski outright demanded immediate help.
Hertha the bogey team
But at least, in the first league match against Hertha they could right some of the wrongs? They brought in Ivan Perisic, but he carried a Serie A suspension and wasn’t allowed to play. Surely, newly flush Hertha, with a new manager in Ante Covic, would struggle in the Allianz Arena and all would be right in the world? Well, not quite: although Bayern once again dominated throughout the match, aside from Lewandowski, nobody was able to convert their chances. Kovac’s frequent tactics (4-3-3) were rejected in favour of the problematic 4-2-3-1 that hadn’t fully worked in matches against Leverkusen, Dortmund and Liverpool. They also had wing-isolation issues, trouble progressing the ball through the centre, and much like in several matches last autumn, conceded a couple of freaky goals. The first was by former Düsseldorf man and Bayern bogeyman Dodie Lukebakio, scoring on a deflection that left Neuer helpless. Sound familiar so far?
The second goal arrived from a through ball after an aerial duel that left Pavard and probably goal-scorer Marko Grujic concussed - based on his inexplicable judo move on Lewandowski in the 56th minute. Dropped points on top of Dortmund and Leipzig thrashing their respective opponents by four goals each and Bayern are already behind in the title race. That’s at least different than the last few seasons, for which the first few matchdays started well before running to difficulties. So, progress?
Given that anything but a Bayern win was going to result in city-wide tabloid panic in Munich, further moves needed to be made. The bench looked bare. In defense of Kovac his lone forward option was Kwasi Wriedt, who has 22 Bundesliga minutes and only 25 appearances for Bayern’s amateur team but waiting until the 85th minute to make your first substitute is not an optimal situation.
Almost like a poker player on tilt after a bad hand, the board quickly approved the purchases of Gladbach’s promising Mickael Cuisance for €12 million and the Coutinho loan. How might the new pieces fit, what problems they might solve and is it going to be enough for Bayern in the 2019/20 season?
Will the real Philippe Coutinho please stand up?
Coutinho's evolution from Liverpool to Barcelona has been somewhat missed. He transitioned from being a high volume, and at times inefficient long-range shooter to a useful cog in the Barcelona machine who could afford to pick better shots. It’s a little bit like a primary volume scorer on an NBA team accepting a second/third scoring role on a title-chasing team, with the massive caveat that Liverpool of course ended up winning the title after dispatching Barcelona in an all-time classic Champions League semi-final. In the end Barcelona felt that Coutinho wasn’t quite the attacking fit Antoine Griezmann might be and perhaps lacked that burst of creativity that Ousmane Dembélé provides. That is how the consensus changed from being one of the best players in the world to perhaps the biggest big money transfer flop in recent memory. Given that until last Friday, there was not a serious offer for his considerable wages and armed with an 18 month spell of evidence of Coutinho not fitting, Barcelona rightfully, perhaps gleefully, accepted Bayern’s offer. Perhaps it’s the popularity of Coutinho from his Liverpool days, or a rightful level of enthusiasm, but at any rate over 1500 fans showed up to his first Bayern training and he’s already billed as a sort of savior.
Perhaps he will be, as there is a lot of chatter how Bayern are ready to change their system around him and play him as a ten in the 4-2-3-1. That would mean using Javi Martínez next to Thiago as the double six behind Coutinho. It also means putting the 4-3-3 on the back-burner and perhaps less playing time for the likes of Thomas Müller (backup winger and ten), Leon Goretzka or Corentin Tolisso.
That crowded midfield got more jammed with Cuisance arrived. I see him as a somewhat younger version of James, and profiled him here, but very much a long-term project. Technically he’d be ready to play major minutes for most Bundesliga teams, and he’s a great dribbler (heading towards four per 90 in limited minutes last season) and ambitious passer, though under pressure he is more turnover prone and more long ball happy than Tolisso.
Questions about his defensive desire (pressing) or attitude - he drove without a license last season, and is thought to have demanded a starting job after preseason, led Max Eberl and the Marco Rose/Rene Maric duo to cash in on him. When three of the smarter Bundesliga minds, with a reputation for scouting and developing young players, pass on an ultra-talented guy who just turned 20 last week, that’s at least a small red flag. In a vacuum, I would’ve loved this move in about May, before Bayern retained Renato Sanches and bought in Coutinho, who they are now looking to build their squad around.
This potential overhaul is interesting as Bayern under Kovac were not willing to do that for a similarly creative talented La Liga disappointment in James Rodríguez last season, who had perhaps his best overall season under don Jupp Heynckes after the Ancelotti experiment went sideways.
James’ final injury and drama-riddled Bayern season saw him still put up 2.33 open play key passes which was roughly the same as Coutinho in the first half of 2017/18 at Liverpool. In Spain, Coutinho lost about a key pass per game compared with his time at Liverpool, with the xG Assisted numbers following in tandem. Looking at the chance creation data, Liverpool Coutinho was excellent at creating a ho-hum shot for just about anyone (and himself), but with some good box entries via through balls in his second Barca season, a rate which rose up to 0.81/90 from a paltry 0.13 at Liverpool and 0.39 at Barcelona in 2017/18. Interestingly, a lot of Coutinho’s chances created were from generally similar areas to where James likes to take up positions. The Colombian on the other hand is much more about box entries, with the finishing of Robert Lewandowski (recall about two 0.5 xG chances vs Freiburg and Schalke assisted by James) perhaps letting his overall assist numbers down.
There are several upsides to the Coutinho transfer for Bayern and the player: Kovac’s change from a 4-3-3- to a 4-2-3-1 is similar to what Tite at Brazil does in some of the bigger matches, and we saw at the Copa America how Coutinho can thrive in that system. Without a bigger star like Neymar, he led the tournament for both shot volume and chances created. Much like his time at Liverpool he thrived in a system that enabled him to be the main creative force and if Bayern get that “I learned at Barcelona how better to create for others” version of Coutinho who will still take the odd long shot, they’ll be very happy.
One huge advantage over the likes of Thomas Müller or the much more vertically-playing Goretzka is that the Brazilian can operate in the spaces in the middle against a lot of the press heavy Bundesliga defenses. Even the very best of midfielders who operate here like Axel Witsel and the artist formerly known as Julian Weigl, or Leipzig’s Diego Demme and Kevin Kampl lack footspeed and change of direction to keep up with Coutinho’s fakes and dribbles. Other contenders are relying on not the most athletic number sixes in the world (Kramer, Baumgartlinger, Grillitsch, Rode) against whom Coutinho could thrive. Another bonus is that neither of Bayern’s wingers take that many shots: the breakout player of last season Serge Gnabry is in the low threes vs the five plus Messi took and Coman is right at two a game. Thomas Müller has declined to the 2.5 range from the 3.5 under Pep Guardiola and while he puts up very good advanced stats, he has been behind xG for multiple seasons. Even Robert Lewandowski was at a career low 4.4 shots per 90 last campaign, so there’s likely to be some shots up for grabs for Coutinho. If Kovac figures out how to use him better than James, admittedly a low bar to jump over, this could actually be an excellent move and short term Coutinho could well be one of the superior Bundesliga players. At the very least, it’s made an already freakishly exciting season in Germany with Dortmund’s juggernaut, Nagelsmann at Leipzig, Glasner and Rose coming in, to name just a few, even more fascinating.
Header photo courtesy of the Press Association
New Imports in La Liga, Week One Report Card: De Jong, Trippier, Felix and Fekir
A number of teams in La Liga reinforced with big money imports this summer. It is clearly far too early to draw any sort of meaningful conclusions as to how those moves will shake out long term, but here is how some of the new arrivals got on during the opening weekend.
Frenkie de Jong At Barcelona
Frenkie de Jong has quite the load to carry. Within the club, he is viewed as a player capable of updating Barcelona’s style of play; outside of it, he carries the hopes of those who would like to see a return to a more classic, Cruyyfista approach (however that might be defined). The one constant is the expectation that he will improve the Barcelona midfield.
There was a lot not to like about Barcelona’s performance in their 1-0 loss away at Athletic Club on Friday. Particularly in a first half in which their hosts pressed and harried and then broke quickly with direct balls into the channels. Barcelona’s best chance arose from an errant backpass. While there was little allowing for 38-year-old Aritz Aduriz flying through the air to begin his season-long retirement tour with a beautifully struck late winner, Barcelona didn’t really do enough to have much cause for complaint at the final result.
With Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets on the bench, De Jong lined up as the deepest of the three central midfielders alongside Sergi Roberto and Carlos Aleña. Roberto served his purpose by finding space between the lines with some off-ball runs, but with only a jittery Aleña in close quarters, De Jong struggled to spark much forward movement through the centre of the pitch.
Shadowed by Raúl García, he at least tried to use that close attention to open up passing lanes for others.
And it was clear that his teammates already have full confidence in his ability to receive under pressure.
That is what you are supposed to be getting with De Jong: a “press-resistant” midfielder. That generally held through his debut. He performed 26 actions whilst under pressure, and lost the ball just once (the yellow arrow below).
With Athletic clogging the centre, and without Lionel Messi (injured) to help link things together, Barcelona primarily built down the flanks. Right-back Nelson Semedo led the team with 17 deep progressions (passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third), six more than any other player; left-back Jordi Alba ranked third, with nine. (For an idea of how strange that is, Barcelona’s full-backs ranked seventh and ninth on the team in deep progressions per 90 last season). But De Jong did come in second on that list, with 11. The half-time introduction of Rakitic provided him with a bit more freedom to move forward.
He also displayed the advantages of having a midfielder who not only reads the game well but also has the necessary athleticism to cover ground and stem counter-attacks at source. (Notice, too, how he curves his run to prevent a pass to the right)
When Busquets returns to the base of the midfield, De Jong will have a reliable partner to bounce passes off and provide the necessary cover for him to advance. Finding the right equation there is likely to prove one of Ernesto Valverde’s easier tasks this season.
Atlético Madrid’s Shiny New Star
The anticipation was building. Would the new signing live up to his pedigree? The lights dimmed for Atlético Madrid’s NBA-style entrance routine, and a cheer roared around the ground when his name was read out. Kieran Tripper was ready for his debut in La Liga.
Atlético lined up against Getafe with a diamond midfield. Thomas Lemar headed it, with Koke and Saúl sat in deeper alongside Thomas Partey to allow the two full-backs, Trippier and fellow debutant Renan Lodi, to push up high and wide. After a few early excursions through the centre, it was down the right that Diego Simeone’s side got most of their joy.
One switch to Trippier was met by a nicely cushioned first-time pass towards Koke’s run into the inside channel that was only seen off by an excellent piece of recovery defending from Marc Cucurella. And then a sumptuous outside-of-the-boot pass from Saúl released Trippier for a first-time low cross just too close to the goalkeeper.
The third time the ball came his way, he swung a cross into the area that Álvaro Morata, doing well to maintain his position ahead of the Getafe defender Djené, headed home. That was to be the only goal of a spiky encounter that only saw marginally more shots (10) than cards (eight). The latter included a red card apiece. The first was handed out to Getafe’s Jorge Molina, who, alongside Luka Modric, became one of the two opening weekend victims of the new law that makes fouls on the achilles from behind a direct red card offence.
There will be tougher challenges to come for Trippier. Especially defensively, where he was rarely attacked directly by a Getafe side seemingly content to swing in crosses from slightly deeper positions. It was nevertheless a solid debut that garnered almost universal praise. Both AS and Marca described him as possessing a foot like a glove. “He put together a very good match,” Simeone said afterwards. “Getting forward, showing quality and precision.”
Atlético’s Other Shiny New Star
Oh, and João Félix, you know, the real, €126-million centrepiece of Atlético’s renovation, did this:
And then went off injured with a knock not long afterwards. What we saw before that was a few neat touches, one stretched effort on goal, and a player who despite his relatively slight frame was willing to compete and draw fouls from one of the most aggressive teams in Spain. It was little to go on, but what little there was showed promise.
Nabil Fekir At Betis
It would be easy to look at the fact that Real Betis lost at home to Real Valladolid on Sunday evening and assume that Nabil Fekir had an underwhelming debut following his move from Lyon in one of the most fascinating transfers of the off-season. But that was far from the case. He was one of the best players on the pitch.
The pattern of play was conditioned by the early dismissal of the Betis goalkeeper Joel Robles for a clumsy foul on his fellow ex-Evertonian Sandro Ramirez. After an initial spell in which the usually defensively minded Valladolid somewhat awkwardly took the initiative, Betis began to find a bit of rhythm, put some passing moves together and even worked the ball into some fairly decent positions.
Fekir was key to that. Borja Iglesias was left alone up top, and Cristian Tello was tasked with drifting from flank to flank to provide width as appropriate. Fekir dropped deeper and took responsibility for advancing the team forward, primarily off the dribble.
His activity chart from the match shows the degree to which he involved himself in play in all areas of the pitch.
That shouldn’t have been all that surprising. This chart of all of his carries and dribbles that began in his own half at Lyon last season shows that he has always been a player capable of individually progressing the ball from deeper areas when required.
Betis were unfortunate to lose out to a late winner after playing for over 80 minutes with 10 men yet still edging the balance of chances. Things won’t get much easier for them this coming weekend away to Barcelona. In Fekir, though, they appear to have a player who on first viewing, at least, looks capable of elevating the team in difficult conditions.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association
Are Rodri, Tanguy Ndombele and Dani Ceballos Changing The Way Their Teams Play?
New season, new look midfields.
Liverpool didn’t sign anyone of huge importance. Chelsea couldn’t sign anyone who wasn’t already registered at the club. Man Utd made the confounding choice to simply pretend the middle of the park doesn’t exist. But for the other three sides in the so called top six, arguably the most important additions they made were in midfield. It’s early days here of course, with both a period of adaptation allowed and the simple issue of a small sample size hurting any real analysis, but nonetheless there are initial signs that Rodri, Tanguy Ndombele and Dani Ceballos are changing how Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal play football. Let’s take a closer look at what each of the three are doing.
A defensive midfielder has been Man City’s biggest and most obvious position of need for some time now. It’s not one that has gone unnoticed within the club, as City tried and failed to get Pep Guardiola’s biggest target in the role, Jorginho, last summer. What it meant was that City became ever so reliant on now 34 year old Fernandinho’s fitness to maintain the midfield control the system needed to function at its best. Still, City decided against signing a less ideal player last summer after Jorginho chose Chelsea, and their patience has paid off, with Guardiola now having someone with the ideal skillset for what he wants to do at the base of midfield.
What he wants to do might be slightly different from what we have seen previously. In City’s two title winning seasons under Guardiola, Fernandinho has been a permanent fixture in defensive midfield, an invaluable pillar upon which the side is built. What the Brazilian does is quite interesting. In terms of the defensive numbers he puts up, Fernandinho barely pressures the ball. He’s not traditionally involved in City’s high pressing game at all, as that work has already been done by those higher up the pitch, though his efforts have creeped up slightly in recent times. Take a look at his pressures per 90 when broken down into half seasons:
2017/18 (first half): 12.00
2017/18 (second half): 8.24
2018/19 (first half): 9.37
2018/19 (second half): 16.36
In the final stretches of last season, Fernandinho was pressuring opponents twice as frequently as twelve months ago. Obviously it wasn’t because a team that won 17 out of their last 18 games were suddenly rubbish at pressing from the front. But what it represented was a return to more midfield-focused play that defined an earlier part of Guardiola’s career. His Barcelona sides at times felt like exercises in fitting as many ball playing midfielders in a single team, with Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara and Cesc Fàbregas occasionally all getting into the same lineup in a system where the so called striker was Lionel Messi. This began to shift at Bayern Munich and really came to completion at City. In the Catalan’s second season, the preferred system would see Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling stretched as wide as possible on their natural sides, while “free eights” Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva would frequently push high into the final third. Left back Fabian Delph would move into midfield to support Fernandinho, but the system still frequently felt like five defenders and five attackers.
This now seems to be changing. Last season saw Pep often move to playing inverted wingers, with Sterling now positioned much more narrow on the left. Riyad Mahrez seemed obviously signed as part of this plan to offer left footedness from the right, but towards the end of the year it actually ended up being Bernardo Silva taking up that role. The Portugal international is naturally more of a midfielder than Mahrez, so this tweaks the balance even further. And thus what it meant was that Fernandinho’s role changed. Before, he was more than anything else a get out of jail free card. On the rare occasion that City allowed the opposition to form any kind of real attack, Fernandinho could spring into life and fix it. But increasingly, City do have a “real” midfield, being asked to contribute consistently to both sides of the game. And that’s why Rodri has arrived.
In City’s first league game against West Ham, Rodri put up 28 pressure events, the most of any player for the away side. The following game against Spurs saw him manage 15, an obvious drop off but still quite a number considering Tottenham were barely able to get the ball out of their own half. Rodri felt like a slightly strange replacement for Fernandinho because he’s not really that similar a player, nor is Jorginho from the previous links. He probably doesn’t have the mobility to be the instant “fix” if the press goes wrong, and in possession he’s less forthright. Look at the passing sonars by comparison. On the left is Fernandinho last year, while on the right is Rodri for Villarreal in 2017/18 (chosen rather than Atlético Madrid last season because Simeone’s system is so different to Guardiola’s). Rodri’s passing is much tidier and calmer than what Fernandinho offered.
So Guardiola has someone who likely isn’t as mobile as Fernandinho, but is generally a more involved player without the ball and offers a shorter passing game. Are there any comparisons to work with here?
Ah. Looks like a move to more Barcelona-esque football is on and he’s found his new pivote.
The thing about Tottenham’s midfield last season is that there wasn’t much of one. Mousa Dembélé was previously the engine that drove Spurs’ midfield with his one-of-a-kind ability to evade pressure to dribble and progress the ball through congested areas. With his physical decline came poorer performances and eventually a sale last January. That plus Eric Dier’s poor form and Victor Wanyama’s injuries meant that Spurs were awfully light in such a key area, so much so that Pochettino adapted to a style of football that attempted to make the midfield largely irrelevant. But that always felt like more of a quick fix than something the manager really believed in for the long term, so Spurs decided to spend a big chunk of money on a ready-made solution.
In Tottenham’s StatsBomb season preview, Joel Wertheimer gave us a flavour of what the Frenchman is intended to provide in North London:
“Ndombele solves almost all of the problems Tottenham had last season. His ball winning is excellent, and while not quite Mousa Dembélé level, he offers much more range than Tottenham had in midfield last season. He also adds the ball progression that the team sorely lacked from midfield last season, and is perhaps the best deep midfield passer Spurs have had under Mauricio Pochettino. Mousa Dembélé, who had an elite pass completion percentage rarely pinged balls across the park like Ndombele can, instead beating a man and finding a good, simple pass that way. Ndombele’s 0.13 open play expected assists per 90 minutes represents attacking incisiveness in midfield Spurs desperately needed. In Spurs’ first preseason match against Juventus, Ndombele showed Spurs fans what they have been missing, picking off a crossfield pass at the edge of the final third, taking two touches, and threading a gorgeous through ball to Lucas Moura for a goal.
Rather than being overstretched as the key player in midfield, the somewhat juvenated Moussa Sissoko will be able to play a more limited role. Harry Winks and Eric Dier will now be able to play at the base of midfield for Tottenham, and perhaps Dier can return to his old self after a season of never-ending maladies”.
And what have we seen so far? Signs are positive without being sensational. The game against Man City was one in which Spurs were penned deep into their own half, with Guardiola’s structured press being specifically aimed at stopping them from getting out. This was exactly the kind of situation where Dembélé would have been so useful in previous seasons, and one could easily imagine him playing through City’s press to get Spurs up the pitch. Ndombele is better than Dembélé at a number of things, but as seen from his dribbles and carries in this game, there weren’t too many occasions were he was able to really progress the ball that far forward.
What he does have, as Wertheimer mentioned, is a better passing range. Ndombele managed three final third entries against City, and all three were passes. The former Lyon man is undoubtedly a hugely gifted midfielder, and almost certain to be an excellent signing for Spurs, but he is not an identikit replacement for his near namesake. Ndombele is at Tottenham to star in an all new midfield, not merely replicate what came before.
While Ndombele and Rodri are filling clearly defined roles for managers with very distinct systems, Ceballos is arriving to something much more flexible. The most obvious person he’s replacing in the squad is Aaron Ramsey, who certainly had his qualities but in different ways to Ceballos. Ramsey offered a somewhat interesting package of being a decently involved midfielder in possession while still getting forward to add goals and assists and also putting up solid defensive work. He wasn’t always fit, but he offered a good mix of talents. One thing he did not do so well is dribble, and that’s where things change now. If you know Ceballos for anything, it’s probably those compilation videos of his fairly ridiculous dribbling skills through tight spaces and congested midfields. When looking at Arsenal’s other midfield options, you have good passers in Granit Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi, a strong ball winner in Lucas Torreira, creators who generally like to play higher up in Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but no hugely gifted dribbler until now.
Ceballos played in a slightly more advanced role than he traditionally has against Burnley, as a number ten behind Guendouzi and Joe Willock. Nonetheless, he still ended up picking the ball in plenty of different areas, and his dribbles and carries show a player quite adept at driving the ball forward.
The question will be whether Ceballos is continually able to do this, or whether the more advanced role restricts him to being a pure number ten. That might be suboptimal, as it still feels like he produces his best work with more of the game in front of him. With Emery’s frequent tinkering he could easily tweak things if they’re not going so well. But regardless of position, Arsenal have themselves an excellent player who offers things no one else in their squad does.
Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Player Profile
It’s been a baptism of fire for Jean-Philippe Gbamin in an Everton jersey. On after 45 minutes on opening day to replace fan favourite André Gomes. Midfield partner Morgan Schneiderlin sent off 30 minutes later. Alongside new partner Tom Davies for the last 20 minutes with 10 men. And to top it off he was a starter this week to partner Gomes against tough Watford duo Abdoulaye Doucouré and Étienne Capoue. And breathe. It’s fair to say a few Evertonians wobbled at JP’s wobbles, particularly in that first game against Crystal Palace. Will the real Gbamin please stand up? We’re here at Statsbomb Towers, so let’s have a look at his radar: So yeah, moving swiftly on to a comparison with last season’s radar at Mainz. What else is in his locker? Ok, so still nothing amazing. But extra facets to his game there that we’ve not seen yet in the small sample of 120 minutes so far at Everton. His passing can be better, he can carry the ball nicely, and he can press the ball more. Good. Even though the sample is small, the different aspects of his play on the radar are mirrored in his defensive work at both clubs too. At Everton, he’s mainly stuck to the right-hand side of the pitch: Despite starting nominally on the right side of the pitch at Mainz too, he still found a ton of time to roam the pitch much more freely to disrupt play: Are we likely to continue to see a more restricted Gbamin in Marco Silva’s line up? His shot map last season in the Bundesliga featured a fair few bombs. Two hit the target: He hasn’t even pulled the trigger yet at Everton… On signing the Ivorian, Silva stated that Gbamin wasn’t a direct replacement for Idrissa Gana Gueye. Yet due to injury and suspension that’s how he’s chosen to play him so far. Can we assume Gbamin was bought so Everton could gradually switch to a three and have Fabian Delph and Gomes in there with him? Personally, I think this would be a forward step to resolving Everton’s attacking issues where Gylfi Sigurðsson either does something wonderful or does nothing at all. An extra Gbamin shaped body in the middle of the park might lead to more control than the team completing just 300 passes against Watford at home. Would this disruption of shape without the Icelander who works so hard to close down opponents at every opportunity ruin Everton’s good defensive numbers? They’re used to playing this system now and The Toffees are grinding out results with it, but will it get Everton where the club need to go? If Silva thinks it is, I was interested to look at what the radars suggest Gbamin and Gomes bring together as a two: They clearly both bring different things to the team, which is a good, but it just doesn’t look like it’s enough at this point. Stretching play with deep progressions isn’t part of either’s game or seemingly in Silva’s tactical plan. The lovely Statsbomb Tactics IQ dashboard can show us successful passes (red) versus unsuccessful (yellow). Those longer vertical balls just haven’t come off yet for the new boy: The radar also suggests both are content to sit and hold ground in the middle. The front four do a hell of a lot of the defensive work in front of them. Add in the form of centre back pairing Yerry Mina and Michael Keane and it perhaps explains those good defensive numbers The Blues have right now and showed for most of last season. It’s a safe system. I get the feeling a straitjacket isn’t a look that Gbamin’s particularly keen on. I think he naturally wants to be free. Silva might worry enough to replace him if Delph is back soon from injury. Everton haven’t bought a £25m misfit. He’s just one piece of an expensive jigsaw that isn’t all that easy to put together. The Portuguese may well change it round again for Villa on Friday night.
Don’t Forget Dele
Nearly four years into his Tottenham career it’s very easy to forget Dele - who asks not to be referred to by the surname of his estranged parents - is still only 23 years of age. Purchased by Tottenham as a teenager in early 2015, his transfer was intended to be that of a prospect. Initially loaned back out to MK Dons to complete his final season, he was then expected to be slowly introduced to first team experience at Spurs. One for later. He came off the bench for the first few fixtures and quickly impressed, earning a starting place away at Sunderland and has been considered a must-pick player by both Pochettino and fans since. English, expressive, flashy, naughty and quickly moving forward from a midfield role into a more advanced one - while still often carrying a midfield label - plaudits came pouring in from all angles. Dele was a near over-night megastar, immediately making his England debut and scoring. For a brief period of time, he perhaps shone brighter than even Harry Kane. Given this timeline to date it seems as if fan perception around Dele has never been lower than it is now. Last season was, by all reports, a quiet one for him and pre-season drew criticism - even boos. Now, just as Spurs are putting together a squad worthy of the club’s ambitions, Dele is missing out on the party with injury and disappearing from fans’ hypothetical line-ups. He is certainly not new to criticism. His first two seasons would often see him largely uninvolved in games - even destructive towards Spurs’ efforts in possession. Regularly, just as the calls came in from commentators and crowds alike for him to be subbed off, he would pop-up in the right place at the right time to score. Comparisons were made to Thomas Müller and Dele was labeled with the German’s self-described role; Raumdeuter, which translates to space-investigator. Brilliant off-the-ball movement remains his greatest attribute. The 2017/18 season did make for a developmental milestone. Dele, coming of age, was now consistently a positive contributor in possession and with 7.9 xG Assisted (at 0.23p90) he began to have a significant creative output. As his return on assists rose, his goals did decrease, but one made up for the other and all was well. Then came 2018/19. With absolute linchpin Mousa Dembélé, aged, injured and then sold, 18/19 beame the season of the midfield crisis. The effects on Dele were twofold. Firstly, he was moved deeper into midfield a near dozen times; often mid-match. In this role, the one he played for The Dons, he not only made up the numbers but helped alleviate issues Tottenham were having defensively, in terms of physicality and in ball progression. However, he was no longer freely scoring goals and so his stock fell. Fans may well have recognised this excuse for him but for the fact that being quickly returned into a more attacking position, failed to return him to goal-scoring form. Due to Tottenham’s midfield issues, even when Dele was freed of build-up play and defensive duties, he was still starved of the midfield platform and quality passes that had fueled him in the previous season and so he remained somewhat ineffectual as a goal-scorer. This is echoed in the attacking drop-off seen with both Kane and Eriksen too. Further, one of the ploys used to salve a lack of control in midfield was switching to a centrally congesting 4-3-1-2 (or Diamond) shape. This meant Dele, even when playing as the number 10, was still only the third most advanced player on the pitch, when in previous seasons, he was behind - and in fact often running in ahead of - only Kane. Add into all these mitigating circumstances two lengthy injury spells - Dele missed a total of 22 all-competition games in 18/19 - and for most fans, this was his poorest season. Radars on both relevant templates capture some of that trend into a more supportive role. Fewer touches in the box alongside less of the activities that tend to go on in and around it - shots, assists, dribbles, drawing fouls. Meanwhile a greater focus on safety - higher pass %, fewer turnovers - while significantly increasing defensive work in both pressures and tackles to the point of putting him in the world elite for defensive forwards. But it’s hard to argue these radars don’t also suggest a regression in general quality too. Along with his touches inside the box falling, between seasons, from 8.9 to 7.7, Dele’s passes into the box also dropped from 2.1 to 1.7 but his ratio of passes that were forward remained consistent at 17%, so they were still happening somewhere. This is accounted for by his deep progressions rising a small but certainly not insignificant amount from 5.4 to 5.8. A deeper look at where he’s making his carries of the ball and their length really underlines the change in roles - regardless of position. In 17/18 a moderate number of short quick carries through midfield - predominantly in the left channel. In the final third, a huge amount of, often productive, carries into the box and work in the wide areas. In 18/19, with a change in what the team is in need of, a big increase in both the number and length of carries from his own half - now much more spread across the midfield area. Conversely The final third is much more sparse for activity. There’s a lot less in the width outside the box. Carries in this zone are shorter and there’s only a single deep carry leading to a key pass on the books for this season. Under inspection there’s a suggestion here that most of his final third work, in 18/19, is being done when arriving late into attacking areas, rather than working in a back-and-forth creative combination with others that can be seen in 17/18. All this points to Dele molding his tools into a slightly, importantly, different role. This adaptability is of course a skill in of its own, but it also suggests a continued diversification of what he can offer his team due to the proximity and crossover between these roles. It remains not unfair to criticise, or at least be disappointed by, his attacking output for last season based on where expectations were for him. There’s no crazy swings of variance going on here either, Dele was pretty much matching goals and assists with his projected numbers in both sampled seasons. However, there are some very positive signs. Both in the development and diversification of his skillset last season and in the promise that comes with Tottenham’s investment in midfield, that allows Dele to return to a more attacking role, and do so in a more capable side. There is suddenly competition for attacking and midfield places at Tottenham in ways there never have been during Dele’s time at the club, but, if he can get on to the pitch and marry ‘midfielding’ growth with his attacking legacy he stands to make yet another great leap forward just as he is being counted out.
Ivan Perišić: Bayern's Cross to Bear
If your club has just moved for Ivan Perišić, its transfer window has probably not gone according to plan. That is not exactly a slight against the World Cup finalist. At 30, he’s still a useful winger. It’s just that, well, he’s a winger. And it’s 2019. The story of Bayern Munich’s uninspiring summer loanee from Internazionale actually has very little to do with Perišić; it’s about football’s evolution in recent decades. This, in other words, is an article about crossing. Under Luciano Spalletti, Inter had a cross-heavy attack more commonly associated with relegation-threatened clubs. Over and over, balls were lofted into the box for an isolated Mauro Icardi (or whomever was replacing the striker during one of his periodic fallings out.) In 2018-19, crosses accounted for 32% of the average Serie A club’s passes into the box but 38% of Inter’s. The disparity becomes more glaring if you focus on Perišić. Crosses accounted for 57% of his completed passes into the box. The league average for his fellow attacking midfielders and wingers was less than half that: 27%. To the extent that crossing is still done, it is not really a winger-y skill. At Inter, however, Perišić and fellow winger Matteo Politano led the team in completed crosses. Even on a team that used wingers in this way, Perišić stood out: His 69 completed crosses represented nearly 150% of Politano’s total. Nice? Being good at an efficient task, like converting shots, produces a clear statistical bump; being good at a fundamentally inefficient task, like crossing, produces a statistical muddle. Case in point: Ivan Perišić. He had a middling pass completion percentage and found teammates with a lower percentage of his crosses than thirteen other Inter regulars. This doesn’t mean he was one of the team’s weaker crossers. A winger tasked with chucking the ball into the box ad infinitum will always have a lower completion percentage than occasional crossers. Perišić is a prolific — and good crosser — last season. He just doesn’t have much to show for it. Crossing notwithstanding, Perišić hasn’t been a particularly noteworthy winger. Last season, he couldn’t beat defenders on the dribble or draw fouls. He had lots of touches in the box, but to little effect. He produced a respectable amount of expected goals, but that was largely a function of taking a high volume of low-value shots. (For good measure, Perišić scored fewer goals than expected.) This was a fairly typical season for Ivan. Other than the expected goals underperformance, he had the same season in 2017-18. StatsBomb supremo Ted Knutson found the same general profile in 2016-17. The last time Perišić was a remotely interesting player was in 2011-12 at Borussia Dortmund, when his game still had lots of dribbling and pass completion. Those fun days were a long time ago — an entire career, really. This is not to say that crossing can never produce a tactical advantage. If your club has Cristiano Ronaldo and he has continued to avoid process servers, lofting the ball where only his head can reach it is a serviceable strategy. This might explain why good clubs, after striking out on bigger targets, have so often looked to Perišić. You can talk yourself into his being useful on a dominant club. Jose Mourinho, near the end of his final summer of discontent with Ed Woodward, settled on the idea of Perišić as a crosser for Romelu Lukaku. (In this, Mourinho seemed to have a clearer read on Perišić than Lukaku, who is not actually that kind of big target man.) Similarly, as a key Bayern Munich transfer target saw their legs explode, the club turned to Perišić. Without wishing to be mean, he’s a major step down from Leroy Sané in a bad year: And so Bayern, needing to replace the departed Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry on the wings, brought Perišić in on loan. To his credit, Perišić's legs have not exploded in the manner of Leroy Sané or Callum Hudson-Odoiï, and he’s nearly a decade older than both players. He plays nothing like Bayern’s other targets, but he’ll eat up minutes on one wing. If you’re feeling generous, you can almost see his crossing for Robert Lewandowski being mildly effectively. Crucially, he was available. This is the beautiful irony of Ivan Perišić: He’s been in high demand in recent years because the thing he’s good at just isn’t that valuable. In an alternate universe, Perišić would have spent the last couple seasons at Everton or maybe Watford, directing high balls at Troy Deeney’s ageing cranium. “Oh Watford,” we’d say. “They’re a little zany.” There is still room for good-but-not-great wingers in the game, but it’s normally at clubs with an outside chance of Europa League qualification. Ivan Perišić, however, has consistently played at and been a target for big clubs even as he ages. It’s nice work if you can get it.