Is the clock ticking towards midnight on Eibar's long lasting Cinderella story?

Eibar are a club it is hard not to love. A small team from a small city, with a small stadium and a small budget, just the fact that they even reached La Liga was a book-worthy story in of itself. That they’ve stayed there into a sixth season is an incredible achievement. Neither have they merely scraped by in the top flight. After escaping relegation in their first campaign thanks to Elche’s exclusion due to financial issues, Eibar have finished 14th, 10th, 9th and 12th. Last season, they actually had the sixth-best expected goal (xG) difference in La Liga. This underdog narrative has undoubtedly been enriched by the presence of José Luis Mendilibar, a straight-talking maverick of a head coach with an endearingly bold style of play that has made Eibar somewhat of a litmus test for pressing models within the analytics community. If they come out near the top, you know you’re probably on the right track. This tale of overachievement, however, is in danger of coming to an end. Ten matches into the new season, Eibar are not only down in 16th, level on points with Real Betis in 18th, but they also have the second worst xG difference in the division. Only Levante, those serial xG out-performers, currently have a worse differential. Eibar’s xG and xG conceded trendlines have both veered off in the wrong direction. Eibar La Liga Trendlines The effect is particularly pronounced in attack, where Eibar’s radar looks downright sad. Eibar-La Liga-2019_2020 What xG exists is being propped up by above-league-average performance from set-pieces, but, even then, only barely. Eibar have taken a middling volume of shots of bad average quality. That they’ve even scored 10 goals, twice as many as the league’s three lowest scorers, is due to some mild over-performance of their xG and a pair of penalties. No team in the league is creating less from open play. Their defensive radar doesn’t look quite so bad in an outright sense, but the drop-off in comparison to last season is no less dramatic or concerning. Eibar-La Liga vs Eibar-La Liga Eibar are famous for their aggressive high press, but there are signs that its mechanics are unraveling. They are still defending as high as ever, but they are less often and less aggressively seeking to directly break up opposition passing chains. That is not a good combination. If your defensive line stays as high but you begin to defend more passively, it is almost inevitable your opponents will find it easier to pick a way through and create good quality chances. That is exactly what is happening with Eibar. While they are still giving up a very low 8.60 shots per match, the average quality of those shots has increased massively, from 0.12 xG/shot last season to 0.17 xG/shot this time around. They are giving up almost a half a goal worth of xG per match directly from throughballs, nearly double what they did last season. Eibar La Liga 2019_2020 So what’s up with Eibar? There are personnel issues. Joan Jordán stood out last season as a player capable of performing a variety of midfield tasks. He did his fair share of ball progression, chance creation and defensive work and in doing so earned himself a move to Sevilla. His replacement Edu Expósito produced a delicate lobbed finish to open the scoring in the 2-0 win over Celta Vigo last month but is yet to match Jordán’s overall output on either side of the ball (in fairness, Jordán didn’t start playing his best football until his second season at the club). Edu Expósito-Eibar vs Joan Jordán-Eibar Marc Cucurella also moved on (to Getafe via Barcelona). While he didn’t provide a whole lot of attacking output from the left of midfield, he was a relentless presser, leading the team in pressures and pressure regains last season. Eibar have also had some problems at full-back during the early part of the campaign. The players in those two positions have a key role in Mendilibar’s system in terms of both ball progression and chance creation. Last season, right-back Ruben Peña and left-back Cote led the team in deep progressions and ranked in the top four in terms of key passes (with Peña also at the top of the xG assisted rankings). For the second consecutive season, Eibar saw their starting right-back depart this summer. The year before, Ander Capa had left for Athletic Club; this time, it was Peña who moved on to Villarreal. New signing Álvaro Tejero hasn’t slotted in quite as seamlessly as hoped after a good season in the Segunda División at Albacate, with converted winger Pablo de Blasis preferred on occasion. Add to that the absence through injury of left-back Cote, a decent front-foot defender and varied passer, in four of their 10 matches to date, and it is clear that these two important cogs in Eibar’s system haven’t been functioning as required. More broadly, on a minutes-weighted basis, Eibar had the oldest squad in La Liga last season. Could it simply be that a few of their players are increasingly unable to carry the load of their high-paced approach? Their average age so far this season has increased from 28.8 last time out to 30.0. Their three most-used outfield players (Anaitz Arbilla, Fabián Orellana and Pape Diop) will all be 33 or older by the end of the campaign. Eibar_2019_2020_Minutes On Pitch by Age Could a combination of that and the intensity of Mendilibar’s style of play finally have worn down on the squad? He himself spoke earlier this season of the need for the team to rediscover their essence. “We are not putting together the sort of football that characterised us in recent years,” he said. “I am not a friend of statistics but it is true that in the last few seasons we have been the team who have won the ball most often in the opposition half, who have put in the most crosses, and many other things. In the start to this season, without looking at the data, we haven’t felt like ourselves in terms of those parameters.” Mendilibar has experimented with a switch to a 4-3-3 formation a couple of times in recent matches in an attempt to reverse the downward trend, but to limited effect. “We have to think about what can be done, and what it is that we aren’t doing well right now,” he said after their 2-0 defeat away to Real Valladolid at the weekend. Solutions will have to be found fast if Eibar are to avoid a season-long relegation scrap.

Stats of Interest

To illustrate what I mentioned earlier about Levante’s perennial outperformance of xG, just take a look at this chart from the start of the 2017-18 season to now. All the green area is outperformance. Paco López and his team are clearly doing something a bit different. Levante La Liga Trendlines(1) Getafe seem to have taken on Eibar’s mantle as La Liga’s most extreme high-pressing team. They have defended further from their own goal than any other team so far this season, and have also allowed fewer passes per defensive action than anyone else. La Liga_2019_2020_team_season_ppda Barcelona weren’t in action at the weekend, but it’s worth noting a little quirk about goalkeeper Marc-André Ter Stegen. Last season, he took 6% of his goal kicks with his weaker left foot; this time around that has more than doubled to 13.70%. We are still working with a limited sample size, and part of that can be attributed to the new goal kick law, as five of his 10 left-footed deliveries have been played within the confines of the penalty area. But he has also produced a couple of accurate longer deliveries. IQTactics_Events_Marc-André ter Stegen_Barcelona__2019_2020

An Ode To Adebayo Akinfenwa

If you’re a fan of a lower league club in England, you know of Adebayo Akinfenwa. If you’re a fan of any club in England, you probably know of Adebayo Akinfenwa. If you don’t know who Adebayo Akinfenwa is but are the parent of a video-gaming soccer fan, ask them. They’ll definitely know of Adebayo Akinfenwa.

Larger than life in personality and almost-literally in body frame, it’s time to pay homage to a genuine legend of the English lower leagues. A celebrity in his own right, in part due to infamously being the strongest player in the FIFA video game series, Akinfenwa boasts over a million Instagram followers and owns a burgeoning YouTube channel. But, while much of Akinfewa's notoriety is about popularity and social media age fame, he also happens to still be playing the game at the ripe old age of 37. And that's because, on the pitch, he’s still damned effective.

Currently with Wycombe Wanderers in League One, the big strike continues to lead the line , with the unfancied Chairboys so far defying the odds to sit in second place. But how ‘Bayo’ came to be a Wycombe player in the first place is itself a story worth telling.

Question marks had been lingering over his future at AFC Wimbledon for weeks at the end of the 2015-16 season and it was still unclear as the club headed into the League Two play-off final. The game ended with Akinfenwa wrestling the ball from (brave) teammate Callum Kennedy to take an injury-time penalty that would make the scoreline 2-0 to AFC Wimbledon and it soon transpired that ‘Bayo’ already knew this would be his last act in an AFC Wimbledon shirt. In the post-match TV interview, the icon revealed live to the nation that he was now technically unemployed and invited any interested managers to “hit him up on WhatsApp!”

Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth apparently did just that and, just over three years on, the team now sit in the promotion places of League One, after achieving promotion from League Two just a couple of seasons prior.

With such an unconventional shape in a footballing sense, Akinfenwa’s regularly found himself as the target of opposition fans’ attentions. There’s no getting around the fact; Akinfenwa just doesn’t look like a football player, even less so in the ultra-lean modern age. Now, that’s not to say he isn’t an athlete, it’s just he’s the type of athlete you’d more likely expect to find curling dumbbells in the gym than polishing his finishing skills on the grass.

Throughout his career he’s been able to shut the dissenters up more often than not though. The big man’s accrued 195 league goals in over 600 league appearances at the time of writing and still shows no sign of slowing down, with 200 league goals a likely milestone if he continues the form he’s shown this season.

His form this campaign has seen him play the sixth-most minutes in the Wycombe squad so far, so what is he contributing that makes him a continually reliable presence at this late stage of his career?

Clearly Akinfenwa has a unique frame in a footballing context, with that also comes a unique footballing skillset. He’s what you might call a ‘spike’ player: weak in some areas of the game, extremely strong in others. What he lacks in mobility, he makes up for with an ability to pin defenders and hold them at arm’s length, winning his aerial duels almost always by out-muscling and out-manoeuvring his opponent, rather than by outjumping them.

He's won the most aerial duels of all strikers in League One so far this season, and that remains the case even when you average it out per 90 minutes. That's half down to Akinfenwa’s aerial ability, and half Wycombe’s regular attempts to go long from the back – the average pass length from their goalkeeper is longer than the rest of the league. When you know you have the strongest player in the FIFA video game series to hit in the final third, why wouldn’t you?

As well as the colossal number of Aerial Wins he’s able to generate, there’s two other data points that standout far above the rest: the amount of Touches in the Box he gets and his Shot Touch % (the amount of shots taken as a proportion of his total touches).

The two are arguably closely linked as well. Though he isn’t just a target man, Akinfenwa still does a really effective job in the role as the focal point for attacks. If a counter attack down the wings isn’t on for Wycombe, he’ll regularly get touches on the ball in the final third and in and around the penalty area, playing smart lay offs and retaining possession for the Chairboys, and he’s also a useful outlet for the team to hang balls up to in the far post area if an obvious ground pass isn’t on.

Which brings us onto his creative prowess. Diminutive Spanish playmaker he is not, but Bayo’s ability to lay on passes to teammates either to keep the attack moving or to create chances shows up in the data. From deep, he’s regularly able to move the play forward either by a flick-on header or from receiving to feet and advancing the play into more dangerous areas: Akinfenwa has played 15 passes into the opposition penalty area this season, a league-high compared to his fellow League One forwards.

His link-play is part of the reason why he’s a regular but not a ruthless goalscorer these days – he’s not selfish enough to dominate the shot count for his side. Rather than getting his head down and going for goal when on the ball, he looks to play knock downs or tee others up, setting up 18 shots for his teammates so far this season (third highest amongst League One forwards) and assisting chances worth 1.6 expected goals so far this season (fifth highest amongst League One forwards).

Being a striker though, he’s still required to get goals and you don’t get close to 200 career league goals if you don’t know what positions to be taking up. His shot map reflects well on what an eighteen-year career as a forward can teach you: get between the posts and don’t waste a shot. This is how it’s done, kids.

What experience has also seemingly taught Akinfenwa is that energy must be conserved for the aerial battles and physical tussles he gets himself into. It’s fair to say that manager Gareth Ainsworth isn’t picking him for his work rate in harrying the opposition defenders. If the man hasn't trademarked the phrase "Press Barbells, Not Defenders" yet, he should get on it right away.

While he's still up for doing rounds with League One centre halves every week and almost always coming out on top, his future beyond this season remains to be seen: his contract expires at the end of the season. Whether he stays with Wycombe, opens his WhatsApp up to offers once again, or hangs his boots and XXL shirt up, there’s no doubt that Adebayo Akinfenwa has earned his place amongst the EFL’s most iconic forwards of all time. It’s time to pay respect to the big man.

Making sense of a bizarre Premier League table

Looking at the table is supposed to provide clarity, right? The Premier League seems to be in a strange place right now. Fifth placed Arsenal (16 points) are closer to Watford at the bottom of the table (5 points) to Liverpool at the top (28). It’s all a big mess and none of it seems to make much sense. So let’s see if we can find some answers in the mulch.

The title race is on?

Liverpool sit six points clear of Manchester City at the top of the table. The main way this has been done is by having a slightly stodgier defence, as the Reds have conceded 9.71 expected goals to City’s 11.35. It hasn’t yet mattered so much that Pep Guardiola’s team have a far stronger attack, generating 27.58 xG to Liverpool’s 16.85. Thus their xG difference looks a whole lot better, despite not translating this into points at quite the same rate. This doesn’t seem to correlate with what we know about football. City are playing a more open, more high scoring at both ends style than Liverpool. Those kind of games should theoretically lead to the better team winning more frequently. Football’s status as a low scoring sport leads to frequent occasions where the best side does not win, and increasing the scoring should decrease the frequency with which that happens. We haven’t seen it yet. It’s definitely something to watch out for as the season goes on, particularly if Liverpool’s cagier style ever starts producing more draws. Chelsea are hot on the heels of the big two. By xG difference they look only a shade behind Liverpool, though there are still perhaps some ways in which this side is incomplete. The Blues complete relatively few deep completions into the final third, with their 36 so far being below average in the Premier League. They have then turned this into just 21 passes inside the opponent’s box, also below average. The attack has been incredibly effective at turning this lack of passing in dangerous areas into good shots, and it remains to be seen whether this approach can be sustainable.

Can Leicester do a Leicester?

The record equalling 9-0 win at Southampton marks the highlight of a so far very enjoyable season for Foxes fans. In third place with 20 points, and considering the general mediocrity of much of the rest of the league (more on that later), Brendan Rodgers’ team look well in the mix for a top four spot. This is mostly through a mean defence (third best in the league by xG) counting more than a middling attack. But there’s an important asterisk here: Leicester have had two games this season featuring first half red cards to the opposition. In both these matches, the Foxes then went on to demolish their opponents (Southampton and Newcastle). In the time spent just eleven against eleven, Leicester’s xG difference is at -0.38, or -0.04 on a per 90 minute basis. The attack is particularly worrying here, generating just under an expected goal per 90. They have the points in hand, which puts them ahead of the mulch, but the position in the table looks kind right now.

What of Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham?

Leicester’s good start has looked all the brighter due to the dimming of half the so-called top six. Arsenal are, somehow, currently the best of these sides in terms of points. In recent weeks they’ve been able to get the shots conceded under control a little more, but this is still just not an interesting team. They’re moderately above average, they don’t have many exciting players, they don’t play a distinct style of football. They’re just there, and could finish anywhere from the top four to midtable in May. Things are looking a little better for Manchester United after they got a moral victory (read: a draw) against Liverpool and a comfortable win at Norwich. And things never looked as bad in the numbers as the results. United have the best xG conceded in the league, combining both a low volume of shots against with a low quality of those chances. The problem is that the pairing of this with the 12th best attack makes them deathly boring at times. It looks as though Paul Pogba’s fitness problems are set to continue, which isn’t good news for anyone who likes football teams with players who can pass the ball forward. As for Tottenham, well, they’re just not very good. The xG trendline of the past few seasons describes it better than I can. This side has had problems for some time, but now it’s really getting ugly.

The Mulch

The best of this lot might be, surprisingly, Burnley. It used to be that Sean Dyche’s ability to get results defied all metrics, that they could put up terrible numbers and the Englishman was such a warlock that it wouldn’t matter. But right now, the numbers actually look good. The main thing that stands out is that they have the lowest xG per shot conceded in the league by a fair margin. The shot map shows it: even when you work the ball into dangerous areas against Burnley, your shots end up as cheap headers or situations with a lot of bodies in the way. And then there’s the rest. Really you can throw some of the above teams in there as well. Save for the top two, Chelsea (and maybe Manchester United, but that’s a whole article), and some things going on right at the bottom, everyone else falls into a state of nothingness. 12 teams fall into an xG difference range of +2 to -4, including Leicester, Arsenal and Tottenham. At this point a team like Crystal Palace is surely favoured to finish above, say, Southampton just through having amassed more points, not by playing better football. Considering most are in the range of 10-13 points, though, any have the possibility of either pushing on and challenging for a European place or getting sucked into the relegation fight. It’s really something that we’ll have a better sense of in the new year. But there could well be a team with perfectly decent metrics who end up kicking off in the Championship come August 2020.

So who looks really bad?

By xG difference, we’re looking at Norwich, Brighton, West Ham and Newcastle as the poorest sides. Brighton are the flip side of Leicester in that they’ve suffered two early red cards themselves. Strip those minutes out of the numbers and they look like a side well within the mulch, as their points tally would suggest. Norwich look around what anyone who has watched them would expect: a respectable league average attack met with the second worst defence. That kind of high variance style isn’t typically the way to stay in the Premier League, though if it leads to fewer draws, that might be the trick. We’re still talking something of a hurdle, granted. West Ham look fine by the table, but their numbers are so completely atrocious that they could easily drift down into a relegation fight if something doesn’t change. And there’s Newcastle. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone in Tyneside needs me to tell them that it’s just not good right now. Steve Bruce has coached a nearly nonexistent attack paired with a below average defence. Big money signing Joelinton remains an able striker when it comes to winning balls in the air, pressuring opponents and linking up well, but he seems like a terrible fit for a side who just want to punt it long to a target man, despite his size. He’s getting less than two shots per 90 and most of them poor quality headers. The new midfield pairing of brothers Sean and Matty Longstaff looks like it’s ready to challenge West Ham’s double pivot in prioritising passion and loving the club over things that help you win football matches. Sean seems to have a more varied game and offers more in possession while Matty, if we’re completely honest, would probably benefit in his development by staying at Newcastle if they play in the Championship next season. These two are both young enough that they could develop into real players, but for now, this is not a serious Premier League midfield. But what, you say, of the team that’s actually bottom of the table? Where are Watford in all of this? Well, in pure numbers terms, they look fine. An apocalyptically bad finishing run in attack sees them in this position. Just on points, they’ve dug themselves a hole that it could take a long time to work their way out of. But they can be fine if they trust in what they’re doing. It’s a strange sport.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

StatsBomb Conference Videos: Valuing Player Influence and Evaluating Defensive Risk in Expected Threat Models

The videos, they just keep coming.

First up today we have Ryan Beal (@RyanBeal95) with his talk, "Valuing Player Influence Within Teams".



Next up it's Robert Hickman (@robert_squared) presenting his paper, "Considering Defensive Risk in Expected Threat Models".



StatsBomb Conference Videos: How to Kick and Save, and Estimating the xG Impact of Actions

We have two more conference videos for you today, both from the research room. First up it's friend of the site Łukasz Szczepański (@footyquant) breaking down the most basic building blocks of the sport with some football analytics for dads.   Next up it's Tom Decroos (@TomDecroos) asking, "Is Our Model Learning What We Think It Is?"  

The Incredible Tactical RB Leipzig Machine, Part One: A Uniquely Versatile Attack

Julian Nagelsmann still has big boots to fill. The thirty-two-year-old prodigy sealed the deal to make the move from TSG Hoffenheim to RB Leipzig before last season. When he arrived he had to follow an impressive season’s end led by Ralf Ragnick, the manager-come-sporting-direct-come-manager, for Leipzig in the 2018-19 season. Whilst the German coach has not come to reinvent Leipzig the wheel, he is in an environment which now suits him to the ground. His preferred free-flowing, intense, press-reliant approach fits like glove in hand when it comes to Leipzig. Up until their 3-1 home defeat to Schalke, Leipzig had only dropped two points all season – those coming at home to the reigning Champions, no less. And despite the fact that RB Leipzig have now gone four Bundesliga matches in a row without a win, their performances so far have been dazzling, showcasing not only an adaptation to each and every one of his opponents but also to the Leipzig team itself, when you compare its current approach to the one implemented by Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim. If they continue to perform like this, the points will come. So, without further ado, here is the first part of my detailed look at how the side from Saxony is adjusting to life under their new coach.

How they attack

Buildup play

So far this season, Nagelsmann has mostly set out his side in a back-three – though this has largely been opposition dependent. What has been more consistent, irrespective of back-fours or back-threes has been the double pivot, outside of the two games where they fielded 3-5-1-1 shapes – neither of those two performances were standouts, unsurprisingly. Just as important as how Leipzig attack higher up is that they ensure they can keep the ball when recycling it across the back, and they do so with certain trigger movements. When recycling it back from a wide area, the central centre-back will often step up into the number six position to move against the grain and create an alternative angle, which is also intending to drag deep the centre-forward but can instead open up the option to play inside if not.

One small feature which flows through just about every form of their attacking play are wall passes. Leipzig use them to perfection, both as they do in the clip above, or as a way of evading a press. They are so constant.

It's not only about accessing the third man between the lines, who can then step onto the ball goal-facing, but also recycling the ball between the midfield and defence to evade pressure. This was especially well used in their 3-2 victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach.

The ways they build to the next phase of play

In Naglesmann's very first league game in charge (a 4-0 win away versus Union Berlin), there were already clear mechanisms in place to try and bypass the first lines of pressure. Most of these involved the far-sided holding midfielder being positioned diagonally ahead from his partner, establishing better angles for stronger connections from the centre backs, and facilitating quick positional rotations, as well as the manipulation of opposition’s midfield.

This kind of positional awareness and interchangeability, as seen above, is what is at the core of every Leipzig attack. And there are so many other ways in which Leipzig try to tackle the first phase, a lot of which I can’t even begin to fit into this analysis. One result is a relentless focus on the defenders moving the ball relentlessly into midfield via short high percentage passes. Here we see all the passes from centre backs in their own defensive third to midfielders. They're overwhelmingly short passes aimed at both keeping possession and setting the scene for moving the ball up the field The side primarily uses the up-back-and-through strategy, which sees a forward player receive with their back to goal, only to lay it off to the goal-facing player deep of them, who will then launch it further forwards to a runner beyond the initial receiver. In their games against Union and Lyon, in particular, Leipzig attempted to do this by having the centre backs play it into Marcel Sabitzer’s feet, where the near-sided holding midfielder would – and in the case of the Union game, shift his position wider to be in line with the Austrian – receive goal-facing before they could then feed Lukas Klostermann’s runs beyond them.

Creases to iron out

However, what needs to be worked on is the pass selection. Since Leipzig are so heavily ball-sided, there is a risk that comes with playing into the underloaded side. There have been times when a far-sided fullback/wing-back or an attacker receives a pass at a time when there is no support accessible to them. There have also been instances of playing into the isolated fullback/wing-back, which has led to easy dispossessions.

Given that (as well as attackers general inclination towards being a higher turnover position), it's unsurprising that Werner, Sabitzer and Yussuf Poulsen lead Leipzig in turning the ball over. Where Leipzig have struggled altogether in buildup has been in the two aforementioned games, against Frankfurt and Werder Bremen, where they fielded 3-5-1-1 setups in attack. The offensive shape is often a consequence of how Nagelsmann wishes to defend against opponents, which is, particularly at this early stage, potentially limiting given how unfamiliar the attackers are playing in certain systems. In the former, the main tactic was to have the near-sided wide forward move out to the wing to receive free of pressure, but when they did, they had no option to play into next. Here, Sabitzer drops wide, free of any marker, but has no options once he receives the ball there.

In the latter, all the players between the lines were moving to the ball, always ball-facing, so even if they did receive in a semi-threatening position, they would have to step out again anyway.

It’s the lacking combination plays and positional congestions which are the most telling factors. In comparison to their linkups in other matches, they were scarce, as was the amount of movement from attackers to stretch the space between the lines. What is vital to counteract this is that the fundamentals of possession exchanges improve, which they clearly have, despite the Werder match being a fairly recent one.

Strong combinative play in tight spaces

In reference to those lacking mechanisms, it has been their play between the lines in other games which have illustrated some of their most impressive stuff. Either with a front three or four, usually consisting of Poulsen, Werner, Sabitzer and/or Forsberg, the way they, and the double pivot, position themselves around the ball creates a sort of rondo which consistently manages to create space for teammates when there appears to be none.

As can be seen in the examples against Bayern and Schalke below, the staggering of the forwards means they always have the attackers triangulating around the ball, so within one attack, you’ll see a 2-1 shape shift to a 1-2 – and it could be around the flank, or it could be more towards the centre, in conjunction with the movements of other teammates to exploit or open up further space. There’ll always be one or two attackers making runs into depth, where another attacker will then drop against the grain into the opened-up space. What this does is create small networks that overload areas in and around the opposition’s defence, which pull open defensive channels and can be exploited by runs in behind.

Structuring to prepare for turnovers In line with this are the positions of the double pivot. The holding midfielders are asked to squeeze up very close to play. Their presence allows for an easy layoff for when the forwards receive with their back to goal but don’t know where to play it next. Equally, these positions enable them to, if not receive the ball, be first to pressure it, should the pass not come off.

Secondly, they can be an overloading presence in attack, especially in support of wide attackers, where the far-sided midfielder can often be seen pushing onto the edge of the box, from the blind-side, to link play into the middle undetected. The vertical split by the double pivot can also result in a stronger collective shape that cuts off access to the far-side upon turnovers.

Leipzig’s incredibly narrow shape also aims to contribute to this. The far-sided fullback/wing-back is often deep, narrow and tight to an opponent already to prevent the opportunity for long balls out of pressure. It, overall, makes for very impressive viewing. There are a couple of small things that have raised slight concerns – like, on a small number of occasions, players have stepped out whilst leaving their opponent accessible via wall passes – but it seems harsh to criticise something so frequently successful.

Second balls

To begin with, it didn’t seem all too prominent but from the Bayern game onwards – where they used it to great effect to escape the unrelenting pressure and turn the game around for themselves – it has come into play far more often, and for the better. Even in matches where Poulsen hasn’t been available, it’s been core to their play simply because of how they can setup around the ball. Here we can see al the successful high passes to Poulsen this season (crosses and throw-ins excluded). Typically, you’ll see Werner occupy positions either wide of or inside the near-sided fullback since these aerial balls are directed towards either halfspace, with his position pinning open space for Poulsen to challenge in. Deep of Werner are Sabitzer and/or Forsberg either side of the Dane, with the holding midfielder(s) pushed up to form a diamond around him, meaning that any balls coming back can be played forward into runners first-time.


When looking at the kinds of chances Leipzig create, it can be hard to pin a defined route, at least in settled possessions. They frequently look to get to the byline for cutbacks and drilled crosses to the back-post. Here are all the low crosses, and passes on the ground they've played into the box this season. Clearly, though, their best chances, as you’d expect, come through quick transitions. The main way in which they’ve looked to escape pressure and set off attacks is based around the same up-back-and-through strategy they used in settled possession. This frequently involves Poulsen being readily available to receive the ball just ahead of the midfield line, where he can then lay it off to the various runners joining the attack, or simply back to the teammate who played it his way, as they will undoubtedly have more space to operate in after the exchange. Then, further ahead, you have Werner, particularly down the left side, moving as wide as possible to be both a short option and to be an attacker who can run from out-to-in.

The priority is to create those spaces for goal-facing attackers. Against Leverkusen, they didn’t have Poulsen to bounce passes off, but they did still make use of square passes to play out of pressure and tee it up for goal-facing attackers to play it in behind.

That match contained a slightly different approach, as the ball was often instantly cleared up to Matheus Cunha and Werner, who looked to exploit the opposition’s very high line, and it worked to a tee, seeing them create a handful of big chances (all of which were squandered).


It’s hard not to get excited about the variety and fluency of these attacking mechanisms, that are as productive in sustaining pressure and creating chances as they are entertaining to watch. And, believe me, the features mentioned only scratch the surface of a team filled with so many other impressive tactical tidbits that help them breakdown opponents, even when they’re not at their resounding best. As alluded to, the only thing that has pegged them back in recent games has been their poor finishing. The extent of which can be seen through Timo Werner, who netted seven in Leipzig’s first five games, has cooled off remarkably, and missed a number of big chances, more or less balancing out the opening month of the season where he just couldn't miss. However, when you’re looking ahead and debating whether the current profiles can do enough to last the whole season, the one qualm might be the depth offered by Matheus Cunha, who pales in comparison to the balance Poulsen offer, but, statistically at least, you have four central attackers who are so experienced with this club and all have outstanding output so far, both in terms of creating and getting on the end of chances. When looking ahead, the sky really is the limit for this side, especially under the most talented young coach in the World, whose ceiling is yet to be established. ~ Stay tuned for part two, which will look at Leipzig’s pressing and defending.

StatsBomb Conference Videos: Seth Partnow, Media Panel, and How to Break Down a Set Defense,

Happy Monday! We have three new videos to share with you today. First up it's Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) and his talk, Anayltics as Vocabulary:   Next, we have our media panel: Globalized Storytelling: How Media Narrates Football Across the World with Gab Marcotti (@Marcotti), Raphael Honigstein (@Honigstein) and Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague).   And finally, we have a research presentation from Daniel Girela (@girela_d), David Perdomo Meza (@dperdomomeza1), Mark Thompson (@EveryTeam_Mark) and the folks at @Twenty3sport.  

StatsBomb Conference Videos: Estafania Vidal and Thom Lawrence

Happy Friday! We've got two more conference videos for your viewing pleasure.

First up, our very own Thom Lawrence (@lemonwatcher) would like you to know, Some Things Aren't Shots: Comparative Approaches to Valuing Football.

And next, we've got Estafania Vidal (@tefavidal) and her talk, Understanding Entry Zones in Football.


What went wrong for Atalanta in the Champions League?

A version of this article can also be found in Italian at l'Ultimo Uomo Three games, three defeats, two goals scored, 11 conceded: Atalanta's debut in the Champions League could not have been worse.  Gian Piero Gasperini's team had already jeopardized its chances of entering the round of 16 with the disastrous 4-0 suffered at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb. That was followed by a last minute1-2 home defeat against Shakhtar Donetsk, a result which does not entirely do justice to what was a good performance from the Nerazzurri. Tuesday’s 5-1 debacle at Etihad Stadium could be the final blow for a team that was considered to be the second strongest in the group, behind Guardiola's Manchester City. It's disappointing for last season's third-place finishers in Serie A. Despite the offers for their many high-quality players, however, Atalanta's roster was not raided during the summer. The Bergamo club is not a one-season-wonder: the management established a consolidated growth strategy with manager Gasperini at its center and the team was even reinforced during the transfer campaign, especially with the arrivals of Ruslan Malinovskyi and Luis Muriel. Things are going reasonably well in the Serie A and Atalanta are third in the standings ahead of Napoli, thanks to the best attack in the league (21 goals so far). Looking at their numbers in more detail they look even stronger: the “Goddess” is by far the team with the most expected goals generated (2.11 xG per match), ironically a figure lower only than that of Manchester City in all Europe.  In fact, only Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich have a greater xG difference in the big 5 than the Nerazzurri (+1.04 xG per game). Atalanta is a real offensive force and their games are the most exciting in the league. There are matches in which Papu Gomez and his teammates seem to be able to bend the resistance of any defense and get into the box with a snap of their fingers.  The problem is, as Guardiola reminded us, that the team that was annihilated by Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling is the same team one that, on Saturday after the first half, were winning 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico against Lazio and then conceded a disputed 3-3 comeback from the Biancocelesti. In the Champions League, the team led by Gasperini has simply not been as dominant. Luck and variance surely played their part: they've scored just one open play goals so far out of 4.09 xG. At the same time, they conceded 10 non-penalty goals from 6.97 xG. The side's average xG generated per game is down to 1.31, better than Napoli (1.28 xG) and Inter (1.08 xG), but not up to the level of their domestic league standards. That is still a competitive number, but the amount of xG they've allowed is terrible. Atalanta is the fourth-worst team in the competition with 2.25 xG conceded per match. A figure more than twice the amount allowed in the Serie A, where they are much better than the average at 1.07 xG conceded per game. But how do you explain such an important drop in performance between Italian and European games? Is it the Champions League anthem that makes the legs of Atalanta players shake? Or is there such a difference in level between Serie A and the Champions League that the third strongest force in Italy can only be the sacrificial lamb of the group? Indeed, there is a significant gap between Juventus and the other Italian teams and the European experience of Gasperini's men is limited. But the last time Atalanta made landfall in England before the Etihad’s match, they won 5-1 at Goodison Park against Everton in the Europa League 2017-18. In Italy, much has been written about how Atalanta has not managed to maintain the same intensity as in Serie A games, simply because they played teams able to compete with them in this respect. But this is far from being confirmed by the data. Indeed, the Nerazzurri have the lowest PPDA in the CL (6.26), recorded 30 more pressures on average than in their Serie matches and they also defended slightly further from their goal. They also have the third-best aggression coefficient of the tournament at 0.31, a metric that measure what proportion of an opponent's passes are aggressively pressed. There are surely multiple concurrent factors, but there is a clear tactical motive at the root of Atalanta's struggles. Dribbles. Anyone who watches Serie A games, even if distractedly, knows that Gasperini uses man-to-man marking, especially during the pressing phase. Man marking creates a series of individual duels along the entire field. If an opponent manages to get free on an individual level, that can be the basis to unbalance Atalanta’s whole structure. By adopting a flexible marking system, the Nerazzurri can still adapt switching off players from one another. But every time a defender is dribbled the situation has the potential to become catastrophic. And in the Champions League, the Nerazzurri have been dribbled a ton of times. You don’t need to be a tactical genius like Pep is to analyze Tuesday’s game like he did “When we could get in the last third, it is man to man and if you win a duel you have an opportunity”. League rivals have understood that dribbling is a key weapon against Atalanta, which is the team with the highest opposition dribbles attempted in the Serie A (22.88 per game). Dinamo Zagreb, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Manchester City have adopted the same strategy by trying even more dribbles (31.67 on average, naturally the most in the tournament). Atalanta manages to contain the opposing dribblers in the league where they have the second-best opposition dribble percentage (55%), but in the Champions League they have been posed against top-class dribblers and the percentage has inevitably risen to 69%, for 27th in the tournament. With a higher volume of attempts completed at a higher rate, the number of successful dribbles inevitably rises from 12.5 opposition successful dribbles per game in the Serie A, to almost twice the amount in the Champions League (22.0). Obviously, Atalanta is the worst team in the tournament in this statistic. In just three games, nine players have completed at least three dribbles against Atalanta. Bruno Petkovic (10! dribbles), Dani Olmo (9!) and Arijan Ademi (4) for Dinamo Zagreb, Marlos (6) and Junior Moraes (3) for Shakhtar, Kevin De Bruyne (5), Raheem Sterling (5), Phil Foden (3) and Kyle Walker (3) for Man City. You can see a chart of all the dribbles allowed by the Italians, highlighting how a high number of dribbles have happened in highly valuable zones, where a lost individual duel could pose an enormous pressure on the defense. Even reviewing the 11 goals conceded by Atalanta, goals that often came from inside the 6-yard box, one often notices how opponents avoid man-marking or dribble an opponent in the build-up for the shot.  One of Gasperini's team strengths has been exposed to the point of becoming their main weakness. Not all clubs can deploy multiple high-level dribblers, but it is not to be excluded that we will see more and more teams use dribbling, even in an exaggerated fashion, against Atalanta which will have to find effective counter moves as soon as possible if they want to consolidate their status in high-level European football.

Bayern Munich’s injury woes will test an already suspect defense

Yes, of course. Even with the frantic, delightfully-messy start to the Bundesliga, with a mere two points separating the first nine teams in the league table, Bayern München remain heavy favorites to win their eighth domestic title in a row.

Yes, of course. Even with a shaky Champions League performance at Olympiakos Piraeus on Tuesday, Bayern have essentially qualified for the knock-out stages of the world’s biggest club tournament despite having played just three group games.

Yes, of course. Robert Lewandowski might, at age 31, be the world’s most prolific out-and-out central striker, and seems well on his way to have a career year, with 18 goals scored in his first 13 official outings in the 2019/20 season.

Yes, of course. It is impressive that Bayern have basically groomed the two ideal replacements for the succession of the famed Robbéry duo in-house, with the awesome development of Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.

Yes, of course. Thiago Alcántara, when healthy, can be counted amongst the footballing world’s very elite central midfielders. The same can be said for the fullback duo of Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba.

Sure, Bayern do some things right. No, scratch that. They do a lot of things right. This type of consistent dominance does just, like poof, ‘happen’.  But - I know you were sensing there was going to be a ‘but’ - Bayern also seem to be a little bit of trouble. Maybe even a lot, I dare say. 

Injuries are the devil, also in Munich

After conceding two goals in each of their last three games - against Paderborn (3-2 win), Hoffenheim (1-2 loss) and Augsburg (2-2); by no definition a murderer’s row of potent offenses, if we’re being honest - Bayern have now conceded 42 goals against in their first 42 Bundesliga games under the guidance of Niko Kovac.



In the six title-winning seasons before last year, Bayern on average conceded 21 goals per league season - in other words, they get scored on once every 90 minutes in the Kovac-era, while they lasted about 146 minutes between conceded goals on average in the title-winning years between 2013 and 2018. The defense just hasn’t been up to Bayern’s own lofty standards, this past year-plus. Nor has Manuel Neuer,  who has conceded more than seven goals more than an average keeper might be expected to given the shots he’s faced.


So it’s an especially bad time for a double whammy of very-bad-news, with Niklas Süle, the only fully-proven centre back that Kovac seems to always trust, set to miss the remainder of the entire season with a devastating ACL injury, and record signing Lucas Hernández being out until at least January 2020 with a nasty-looking ankle injury.

A ‘pressing’ situation

The season before Kovac arrived, Bayern were a pressing machine under Jupp Heynckes, now not so much. The defensive regression that Der Rekordmeister has been going through under Kovac, cannot be simply fully ascribed to (former) backline standouts like Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Javi Martínez and Manuel Neuer becoming older and more vulnerable.

The press, and Gegenpressing, of the frontlines is just not getting home like it used to. Which is odd, seeing that Bayern basically traded in two wingers in their mid-30s in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry for two in their early-to-mid-20s in Gnabry and Coman. 


Kovac’s frequent exclusion of Raumdeuter extraordinaire Thomas Müller seems to play a role in Bayern’s issue with a declining high-press. Philippe Coutinho has looked decisively better in Munich as a 10 than he ever did in a Barça kit in Camp Nou, but ever since the Brazilian’s left the guidance of Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool, he is nowhere near the defensive contributor that Müller is. If we look at them on the midfielder radar (so we can compare their defensive work even though neither of them are really pure midfielders) it is clear that while Coutinho does much more creative work with the ball, it's Müller that puts in the hard defensive yards.


It seems weird to talk about the defensive value of the central attacking midfielders at Bayern. Because, y’know, Bayern typically have the ball, like, a lot of the time. But with Lewandowski up top, two rapidly-developing but still somewhat young and excitable wingers in Gnabry and Coman, and a pass-first maestro in Thiago at one of the two deeper-lying spots in midfield, a weird amount of defensive responsibility comes down to this attacking position in the lineup.

But when it comes to defensive responsibility, no one has more right to complain about a tough workload than the third central midfielder. Kimmich seems to be the perfect player for this tactics-heavy, high-intensity role, but given the injuries in the backline, it seems likely he’ll be stuck at fullback for the foreseeable future. And, since he views Leon Goretzka as more of an attacking option, that boils Kovac’s choices down to two: Javi Martínez and Corentin Tolisso. An interesting conundrum, seeing that the two Sechser (‘6s’) deploy very different styles from one another.

Javi Martínez’ style is that of a seasoned veteran. The 31-year old Basque is a veteran now, but to be fair, his age has just recently caught up to his preferred style. Martínez has never been a speedster, and has to rely on intelligent positioning and pure physical strength to be of value to Bayern as a ball-winner and defensive counterweight in midfield.

Tolisso is much more of the roving type in this midfield role. It’s hard to know what his best position is, he was pretty awesome in a much more attacking role as a youngster at Olympique Lyon, but in one of the healthier spells of his recent career, the Frenchman has looked good at times in Bayern’s midfield this season. But the fact that Kovac’s squad had conceded six goals in 430 minutes wherein Tolisso and Thiago shared defensive duties this year, doesn’t bolster all that much confidence.


Running out of dudes in the backline

So let’s check in on Bayern’s depth chart for the positions in the back four, now that Süle and Hernández are out for sustained periods of time. We have an aging Boateng, Kimmich - who’s future as a world-conquering central mid is being held hostage by his dominance as a right-back - a sometimes-off-looking Alaba, summer signing Benjamin Pavard, and… And, yeah, that’s about it. Academy talent Lars Lukas Mai (19) is on his way back from injury, and if Kovac really wants to roll the dice, he can try out Martínez as a centre back - which is a bigger gamble than it used to be, with the Basque losing whatever speed he had in the past few years. 

This is not ideal, in many ways. First off, when a team has ambitions of winning the Champions League, four legitimate options for defensive spots is… yikes. Secondly, two former superstars from this foursome just aren’t up to their absurdly-high levels of years past. Boateng’s vulnerability to counter-attacks was on display on multiple occasions last year, with the former best centre back in the world lacking some of his otherworldly athleticism and reaction speed that he used to combined with his (still awesome) passing skills.


But while Boateng’s (and Hummels’) regression to human form was fully under the microscope, left-back David Alaba also has been going through an extended dip in form (though it's a testament to what a high level he's consistently played at over the years, that an Alaba dip still looks better than most mere mortal's best form), which could have something to do with the fact that the 27-year old Austrian has already appeared in 461 senior matches for club and country in his career.

The absence of Süle and Hernández throws a wrench in Bayern’s project of ‘going young’ with the squad.

In the nine league games remaining until the winter break, Bayern still have to face six of the eight teams that are surrounding them in this weird bunch between first and ninth place. Against the two ‘legit’ teams Bayern have faced in the league, they looked really solid in one outing (0-3 win at Schalke 04) and mixed a great half of football with a worrisome one in the other (1-1 at RB Leipzig). With the defensive rotation stretched extremely thin, there is a realistic chance that Bayern are not atop the league standings come winter break. Which makes it very interesting to see what will happen then, in regards to potential new signings, but also the job security of Kovac.

Statistical Standouts: Four La Liga players who are making waves in the numbers

Here are some La Liga players doing good and/or interesting things so far this season.

Arthur’s Increased Attacking Output

Frenkie de Jong has rightly taken plaudits for his good start at Barcelona (including a standing ovation from the Ipurua crowd in Saturday’s win away at Eibar). Despite a certain degree of awkwardness in set attacking situations, as is probably to be expected at this stage, in more open environments his movement and on and off-ball contributions have impressed. Frenkie de Jong-La Liga-2019_2020 Another member of the Barcelona midfield has also looked good. Last season, Arthur settled in well following his move from Gremio in Brazil. This time around, he has been set the target of increasing his attacking output by coach Ernesto Valverde. He has responded gamely, scoring his first goals for the club, doubling his through-ball and shot output, increasing his key pass and expected assist numbers, and taking a huge jump forward in terms of successful dribbles. Arthur-La Liga-2019_2020 Not since Andrés Iniesta in 2013/14 (thanks Messi Data Biography!) has a regular Barcelona midfielder completed over three dribbles per match. In an admittedly fairly low sample size that is exactly what Arthur is doing. A small, scampering figure of neat touches and tight turns, he has also carried a 100% success rate through his 15 dribble attempts to date (the most anyone else has completed without fail is Thomas Partey’s eight). Arthur has transitioned from more of a controlling role last season (with more deep progressions and a higher passing success rate) to a more aggressively forward-minded one. The arrival of De Jong has helped balance the midfield to make that possible. They are both very able ball-carriers (for the first time since Xavi and Iniesta’s last season together in 2014-15, Barcelona have a pair of regular midfielders who are both carrying the ball over 300 metres per 90), and while any statistical assessment of their impact is complicated by the fact that two of the four league matches they’ve started together have also been two of the three that Lionel Messi has started, on a subjective level, Barcelona’s best midfield lineup already looks to be the pair of them plus one other as circumstances dictate.

Loren Morón’s Scoring Start

Real Betis have made a disappointing start to the season and are currently down in the relegation zone. Amidst a series of structural and individual issues, one player has nevertheless managed to stand out. Loren Morón is La Liga’s top scorer, with seven goals. There has been a fair degree of over-performance in relation to his expected goals (xG), but even at an underlying level, the 25-year-old is still approximating the output of an elite striker. Loren Moron Radar 19-20 Last season, only 12 players in the big five leagues recorded 0.50 or more xG per 90. Most of those were high volume shooters, with only two of them taking less than three shots per 90. Loren is averaging just over two so far, which does place a question mark over the sustainability of his output. In that group, Edinson Cavani has the most similar shot profile, but he plays for a dominant team in his league. Loren has shown himself to be a sharp and decisive presence inside the area, but he is relatively service reliant. Loren Moron Shots 19-20 It is also worth noting that at this stage last season, Loren sat on 0.48 xG per 90. Of the five players in the league who were averaging over 0.50 xG per 90 at that juncture, only one of them maintained it over the course of the entire campaign (although Levante’s Roger Martí came very close, at 0.49 xG per 90). Loren ended up with a seasonal average of 0.34 per 90, a smidgen up from his mark during his first half-season in the first team. Can he sustain his improved top-line and underlying numbers this time around?

Sergio Reguilón’s Attacking Impact

Sergio Reguilón showed enough in his minutes at Real Madrid last season to suggest that he was, at the very least, a competent top-flight performer with room for further growth. This season, on loan at Sevilla, he’s arguably been the best attacking full-back in La Liga. Sevilla’s system under Julen Lopetegui puts a lot of emphasis on the full-backs to get forward and support the attack, and in Reguilón he has a player who relishes the opportunity to constantly drive forward down the left. He is one of only seven players in La Liga to have carried the ball over 300 metres per 90, while only Samuel Chukwueze and Vinícius Junior have carried the ball at a greater average speed. Reguilón also stands out in just how often he gets forward into positions to shoot or assist. His tally of 3.35 shots and key passes per 90 is far more than that of any other full-back with a reasonable number of minutes, while his 4.77 touches inside the box per 90 is again a clear league high among players in his position. He looks comfortable carrying the ball into central areas, maintaining a good panorama of play and picking out some nice passes at pace. Here are his key passes to date: IQTactics_Events_Sergio Reguilón_Sevilla__2019_2020 Defensively, he looks better on the front foot and does struggle a bit with movement in and around him in more set situations. But that is something that can be refined over time. As it is, in Reguilón and Achraf Hakimi (on loan at Borussia Dortmund), Real Madrid have two young and talented full-backs capable of competing in the first team group next season if space opens up for them to do so.

Darwin Machís: Shot Machine

Granada have exceeded all expectations on their return to the top flight. They are up in third, just two points behind leaders Barcelona and with the opportunity to go top, at least for a time, with victory at home to Real Betis on Sunday. Theirs has primarily been a collective triumph, but certain individuals have still shone. Goalkeeper Rui Silva has been a solid and assured presence, while Ángel Montoro has proved to be a key ball-progressor and creative force from both open play and set pieces. But the Granada player with the most interesting statistical profile is probably Darwin Machís. He doesn’t really seem to do anything other than carry, dribble and shoot. He attempts fewer passes than all but one of his teammates, carries the ball further that any of them (at one of the quickest speeds in the division), completes far more dribbles than any of them, and also clearly leads the way in terms of shots per 90. Granada_2019_2020_Shots A league-third-high (amongst players with at least 400 minutes) 4.53% of his total touches to date have been shots. They’ve not exactly been a stellar selection of efforts: Darwin Machís La Liga 2019_2020 But within the context of a team who don't necessarily have the personnel to consistently create good looks in open play, a player capable of advancing upfield and getting off shots can still form a useful part of a wider and more varied game plan.    

West Ham Aren’t Getting the Balance Right

Before the start of the season, many had West Ham in the upper tier of midtable sides that could potentially break the top six hegemony. It didn’t seem like an unreasonable suggestion. While Manuel Pellegrini’s side had finished tenth the previous season, this was on the same number of points as fellow “best of the rest” hopefuls Leicester and only two behind Everton. And the Hammers had signed some interesting players. Sébastien Haller had all the attributes one would look for in a striker to lead the line, while Pablo Fornals was one of the more interesting attacking midfielders in La Liga last season. There were real questions in the midfield and defence, but still, this was an interesting set of talent under a manager with a strong track record. There were, however, reasons to doubt this project. West Ham’s metrics did not look especially exciting. Their 44.62 expected goals last season was around midtable, while their 56.51 xG conceded was third worst in the league. It took a miracle of a season from Łukasz Fabiański to keep things relatively secure. StatsBomb’s shot stopping model estimates that he saved West Ham a fairly astonishing 13.75 goals against the average ‘keeper. It’s the kind of miracle that does not typically happen twice. West Ham certainly added firepower to the attack this summer, but did almost nothing to the defensive side. With a 32 year old Mark Noble still expected to play serious minutes in midfield, it looked like there was going to be real space for teams to attack the Hammers. The optimistic case for West Ham was that they could hold things together, with Declan Rice maturing into a more dominant defensive midfielder, just enough for the potentially very exciting attack to blow sides in the bottom half of the table away. The more pessimistic view was that they’d concede so frequently that the attack would have to be amazing, and anything less would be a disaster. As it is, the attack remains middling, with their 1.24 xG for only the tenth best in the top flight. Haller has settled into life at the London Stadium quickly, getting 35% of the side’s xG himself, but Fornals has not yet got going and production doesn’t look hugely different from last season. But it’s the defence where things get dicey. The xG isn’t just bad. Bad would be tolerable at this point. It’s worst-in-the-league bad. The opposition haven’t found the back of the net as frequently as the chances would suggest, but West Ham are certainly being carved open. The curious thing is that the difference hasn’t really been down to good goalkeeping. On the post-shot model, West Ham’s xG conceded falls to 12.36. The biggest factor in this seems to be opposing players just outright missing the target on a few really good shots. It goes without saying that you do not want to be relying on your opposition to have bad finishing days to bail you out. This all gives us a side with the second worst xG difference in the league. It’s not exactly the recipe for challenging the top six. Defending, of course, starts from the front. In Haller, West Ham have a hard working forward, and behind him have been generally three of Felipe Anderson, Andriy Yarmolenko, Manuel Lanzini and Fornals. None of these players could be accused of laziness. All but Yarmolenko are at over 20 pressures per 90, and the Ukrainian still puts up a reasonable 15. But a high volume of pressures doesn’t necessarily equal an effective co-ordinated pressing effort. Despite such excellent pressing attackers, West Ham are still one of the deeper defending sides in the league, with the fifth lowest defensive distance. Whatever these forward players are doing in their hard work, the defensive activity map suggests that it doesn’t seem to be making life easier for those behind them. And behind them is the best midfield in the country, if the only aim of a midfield is to love the club and show loads of passion. Unfortunately, it isn’t. There are things to like about Declan Rice as a player. He recycles the ball well while being a reasonable contributor defensively, all at age 20. This suggests he’s well on the way to maturing into a very good midfielder. What he isn’t, and will likely never be, is a firefighter who can fix the defensive issues of a team, N’Golo Kanté style. What he needs is a decent ball winner alongside him. With Jack Wilshere being the injury ravaged limited player he’s ended up being, Pellegrini has generally opted for Rice at the base of the midfield behind one of the more creative players and Mr. West Ham himself, Noble. However people may have felt about the Englishman in the past, it’s obvious that his best years are behind him. He’s still reasonable in possession, but he just doesn’t really win the ball back much at all. Rice is thus being asked to do a lot more work than he is capable of. Ryan Fredericks has established himself as the regular right back and this is interesting because of how much he gets forward. As previously found, there aren’t many players in the Premier League attempting more passes inside the box than Fredericks. This is great if you want to be doing a lot of attacking through your fullbacks, but is that really how West Ham should be operating? On the other flank, Arthur Masuaku and Aaron Cresswell have been job sharing, and while both are adequate, neither could really call themselves the all conquering defender the system requires. As for the centre backs, Mark Thompson thinks they’re broadly fine, and no one publicly knows more about evaluating centre backs than him. But fine isn’t enough when the side is being battered like this. Despite a somewhat mediocre reputation in the UK, Pellegrini is certainly a talented coach. He’s someone who places a lot of emphasis on letting the talent of the attacking individuals shine, and it worked to great effect in La Liga, while working well enough to win a Premier League title at Manchester City. He’s assembled himself something of a budget version of that talent at the London Stadium, and that might be the problem. It’s one thing for a club like Manchester City to play Pellegrini’s very open, high variance football. The side with better players is inevitably favoured in those kinds of games, and City had more talent than almost anyone else. Meanwhile Vincent Kompany did an exemplary job of holding a mess of a defence together, along with Fernandinho’s defensive midfield qualities that only recently have become properly appreciated. At West Ham, he’s trying the same trick with not that much more than league average talent. They’re playing high variance football without being the dominant side that thrives in those situations. The effects are what one would expect them to be. Is this something that can be fixed? The most straightforward solution is to just buy a really good defensive midfielder in January. It should have been a priority in the summer, but let’s assume West Ham either cannot afford to splash out or just can’t find someone in the role they really like. Can this group of players play a more conservative style of football? Can Pellegrini coach something that isn’t all action, all the time? The balance is wrong right now. But would a more defensive move guarantee better results? It’s not obvious. But West Ham need to answer these questions very soon or things could start to get concerning.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association