The Bundesliga’s other leading goal scorers

Spare a thought for all the mortal goal-scoring experts the current Bundesliga has to offer. Keyword: mortal. Because whatever Robert Lewandowski and Timo Werner are currently doing in front of goal must be illegal in some countries. The prolific Bayern striker and the lightning-quick frontman of RB Leipzig stand at goal tallies of 16 and 12, respectively, 12 matchdays into the 2018–19 season. While Lewandowski and Werner have been in ludicrous form so far, the standout performances the two stars get all the attention and glory. So let us — we, fair people at StatsBomb — shine some light on the ‘other’ goal scorers one can find in the highest level of German pro football. Exempting those two, there are seven players who have scored at least six goals this campaign. Sorry, Marcus Thuram (five goals), Serge Gnabry (four goals plus one glorious moustache) and Jadon Sancho (four), but you awesome youngsters will surely come up in a future Bundesliga digest on this here fine website. The seven non-alien penalty box poachers can be divided into four categories. The question is — are these guys for real, or just on a very nice hot streak?

The (fairly) unknowns

A big, big shoutout to Rouwen Hennings. The 32-year old Fortuna Düsseldorf attacker flopped at Burnley just three years ago. After being a bench-warmer during their 2016–17 Championship campaign, Hennings was let go on a free transfer after Düsseldorf was promoted. The veteran lefty is now enjoying the best season of his career — which took him to four other German clubs in the lower-level leagues — by a wide margin. Hennings has already scored nine goals this Bundesliga season, three from the penalty spot, the rest from, ehm, quite the hot finishing touch he’s applied in and around the box. Fortuna players not named Hennings have just mustered six goals in twelve league games so far, so the streaky shooting of their frontman has been more than welcome in the early months of a season that has the makings of a tough relegation battle for Düsseldorf. The other fairly anonymous name toward the top of the Bundesliga’s goal scorers charts seems to have more staying power given his all-around skills. Sebastian Andersson (28) is utterly crucial to surprise outfit Union Berlin. The Christmas carol club from the capital city is on a three-game winning streak, with Andersson scoring three crucial goals in the last two wins (a brace in the 2–3 road win at Mainz, the stoppage time clincher in a 2–0 home upset of Mönchengladbach). The 6’3″ frontman is surprisingly mobile for someone his size, and his off-ball work rate is solid. Andersson may have developed later, but he’s still got plenty of years left, and his aerial prowess and diligent pressing make him a reasonable option as a target man in a 4-4-2 formation, should things change at Union, or Sweden call him up. He may not take a lot of shots, with only 1.63 per 90, but when he does, they’re lethal. He’s averaging a sky-high 0.21 expected goals per shot. The third ‘unknown’ finding the net with surprising ease is discussed in StatsBomb’s guide of Bundesliga break-out players, published earlier this season. Gonçalo Paciência’s mix of on-ball skill, positional awareness and aggressive play means he’s the number one option in Eintracht Frankfurt’s rotation of strikers. A nice achievement for the 25-year-old Portuguese attacker, given the big-name competition in André Silva and Bas Dost. Paciência looks to have leapfrogged his Silva as well in the Portugal national team hierarchy.

Nils Petersen is still ‘Nils-ing’

No, Petersen is not the most elegant player to grace the Bundesliga pitches. But his somewhat janky-looking playing style leaves him perpetually underrated. The Freiburg striker continues to do what he does: score some goals. He’s scored six in twelve, bringing his total in the 1. Bundesliga to 50 goals in 113 league games. Just look at this shot map, friends. Good ol’ Nils sure knows what a good shooting opportunity looks like, even if his goal total seems somewhat generous given the underlying xG.

Playmakers who ‘have to’ score to keep their offenses humming

Please, I beg of you. Appreciate the greatness of Marco Reus while we still can. The injury-plagued superstar of Borussia Dortmund has, frustratingly, been turned into somewhat more of an out-and-out second striker under Lucien Favre than the free-wheeling playmaker slash wide creator slash box-hunting attacking force he was in years past. But Reus is still such a good player. Even in a team that is malfunctioning in all types of ways at the moment. But while we’ve gotten used to Reus chipping in as a goalscorer as well as being the team’s main creative hub, Dortmund’s arch-rivals Schalke 04 have been pleasantly surprised by Amine Harit suddenly finding his scoring boots. The dribbling expert scored just four goals in 60 official games across all competitions in his first two seasons for the Königsblauen. Yet this season he’s scored six already, and two have been late game-winners. If the 22-year-old attacking midfielder is able to continue in adding goal-scoring to his already impressive skill-set, we might see his silky smooth dribbles at a bigger club than Schalke sooner rather than later. If Harit is set on achieving that, he’ll need to improve his shot decisions quickly, though. Harit really is doing a lot of things well with the ball at his feet; however, he is neither shooting a lot (1.39 shots per 90), nor taking high-value shots (0.09 xG per shot). If the goals are going to keep coming, at least one of those two things will have to change.

Big Wout keeps surprising

A little more than five years ago, Wout Weghorst was a back-up striker at lowly FC Emmen in the second tier of Dutch football. Weghorst was deemed too tall, too slow, too immobile and too stubborn to be the ‘total striker’ Dutch coaches and scouts are often times obsessed with. But mid-level Eredivisie squad Heracles Almelo took a shine to Weghorst, who proved himself a useful target man up top in his first season at the highest level, and developed into a solid goalscorer in his second. Next up for the 6’6″ Weghorst was a move to AZ Alkmaar. AZ? The analytically-driven club that ‘doesn’t do long crosses into the box’ signed the Eredivisie’s only good aerial specialist? Yup. Turns out, Weghorst can do much more than win headers and poach goals in the box. The big frontman impressed at Alkmaar due to his almost-insane work rate when pressing the opposition’s build-up. When VfL Wolfsburg brought in Weghorst for a lofty (at the time) sum of 10.5 million Euros, Dutch pundits started their fourth ‘Weghorst cycle of doubt’. But really, this dude is just a fine footballer. It’s just his size and incredible confidence he openly exudes at times can distract from his funky, but very useful, set of skills.

Diving to the depths of the Championship relegation battle

You can drop your snorkel; we’re gonna need a submarine to get to where we’re going. It’s time to search for signs of life in the deepest parts of the Championship table. There’s only one place to start and that’s with the team currently shipwrecked on the seabed of the Championship floor: Barnsley. The side promoted from League One last season made a dream start to Championship life, claiming an opening day scalp by beating relegated Fulham, but they’ve been unable to follow that up with a single Championship win since. The team of Duracell bunnies have done their fair share of high-intensity running but have too regularly been soft right where it hurts the most: straight down the middle. Their defensive problems have seen them leak a league-high 36 goals in their 17 matches, and popular manager Daniel Stendel walked the plank in October to pay for those shortcomings. As is common with high-pressing systems, when the press gets beaten, the opposition often have space to play into and can cause damage in transition, creating clear-cut chances with more ease. The chances Barnsley have conceded have an average expected conversion rate of 12% — no team in the Championship has a worse rate defensively. The fact that they’ve conceded the most counter attacking shots  as well as the most clear shots (shots with just the keeper between shot-taker and goal) in the division probably goes a long way to explaining that high figure. All that and yet this side, winless in sixteen league games at the time of writing, are somehow not completely cut adrift. It’s still possible that a positive impact from new manager Gerhard Struber could see them safe. Stoke City finally put Nathan Jones out of his misery a couple of weeks back, appointing Michael O’Neill, he of taking-Northern-Ireland-to-their-first-ever-Euros fame, in his place. As has been discussed here and elsewhere earlier in the season, Stoke shouldn’t really be in the relegation battle, having very rarely looked like one of the worst three sides in the division. Stoke already seem to have a mid-table process in place, so don’t be shocked if O’Neill starts to pick up points at a rate you’d expect from a mid-table side even before he makes changes. Until recently, Luton Town were treading water in a deep-but-ultimately-safe tide, but five defeats on the spin has dragged them into choppier waters. Captain of the ship is former long-term Roberto Martinez sidekick Graeme Jones, so with that in mind it may not be too much of a surprise that whilst things are looking relatively healthy at the attacking end of the pitch, they appear a little sick at the back. Off the ball, Luton simply aren’t doing enough to disrupt the opposition. It’s just a little too easy for teams to move the ball into dangerous areas in Luton’s third. Their opponents’ pass completion rate is 79%, the fourth-highest in the Championship. In itself, this is not a bad thing, as long as the team are forcing their opponents to complete those passes in areas where they can’t hurt. But Luton have also conceded the fourth most deep completions (completed passes within 20 metres of goal) and are then allowing the opponent to move the ball into the penalty area, conceding passes inside the penalty box at a rate worse than only one other side in the league. Needless to say, when the ball’s spending this much time in those threatening areas, it’s inevitably going to translate into dangerous chances when the opponent decides to pull the trigger. Luton are conceding the most dangerous chances in the league per game. Transforming a Tony Pulis oil tanker into a luxury yacht was never going to be a straightforward task, but so far Jonathan Woodgate has really struggled to mould Middlesbrough into a new machine. This job was always going to be a tough way for him to cut his managerial teeth, especially with the knowledge that parachute payments will be cut once again in the summer, but the “attacking, exciting football with high pressure, pressing in different areas” football that Woodgate pledged hasn’t materialised yet. This team’s current form doesn’t pass the eye test; they look disjointed both in and out of possession. However, there’s definitely a case to be made that as bad as Boro look on the pitch, there’s something in the numbers that suggests they could be better off. After all, you can hardly lay blame at Woodgate’s door for the bizarre amount of clear-cut chances, several of which have quite literally been open goals, that have been missed by his team so far. All of these attempts had a 35% or higher expected conversion rate. Regardless of where things might go, for now the situation looks dismal. .Fifteen shots. Eight expected goals. Three actual goals. Lots of missed sitters. Woodgate tearing his hair out. Middlesbrough in the relegation zone. Huddersfield parachuted Danny and Nicky Cowley in to save the ship quickly sinking under Jan Siewert, and the East London pair have set the Terriers on an instant path of recovery, going 4-5-3 in their twelve games in charge. Given Huddersfield’s tragic record before their arrival — they’d won just 1 of their previous 31 league games going back to November 2018 — this is a dramatic turnaround. The gameplan in achieving this in the short-term was clear and epitomised in their first win, which came in their fourth attempt away at Stoke. Huddersfield played the long game and sat 11 men behind the ball for 75 minutes, then scored on a counter attack that you’d imagine was rehearsed 100 times over in training prior to the game. This bend-but-don’t-break approach has served the Terriers well; just one defeat in their last ten games has lifted them out of the relegation zone. But it’s fair to say such a dramatic improvement has been aided by a small dose of fortune, with the team finishing clinically since the Cowley brothers came in, maximising their results compared to their performances. In general, things are looking up for Huddersfield. The opposite, however, is true for Wigan. After promotion, they managed a solid first season in 2018–19, comfortably avoiding the drop. But rather than pushing on from there, the team has instead gone backward. They were roughly equally as good in both attack and defence last season, but now they’re equally as bad, having gotten worse at both ends of the pitch, creating less and conceding more. In defence, the main concern and an area they could quickly improve is in their defending of set pieces, conceding a league-high nine goals from set play situations. It’s not just that their opponents are finishing well in these situations either, as Wigan also have the worst expected goals conceded rate in this phase of play. At the other end, it’s in open play that they’re struggling. Wigan are rock-bottom in the Championship for expected goals from open play and, whilst they’re only 18th in the league based on the volume of shots they’re generating, their quality is almost always lacking. They’re rock-bottom in the Championship for expected goals per shot, with their average shot having just an 8% chance of resulting in a goal. Lastly, they may be 14th, but we have to talk about Charlton. After an electric start to the season, going 4-2-0 in their first six games, they’ve settled; their 2-3-7 record in the twelve games since is much more in line with both the underlying performances and expectations overall. They do have some good habits, like an uncanny knack for creating good chances. Their xG per shot rate is second only to Leeds in the league at 10%. Charlton have made their higher-probability chances count, converting seven of their nine shots with a goal probability of 30% or greater, whilist converting 3/3 penalties. Charlton’s issues really involve shot volume. For all their good work in creating and clinically converting the occasional good chance, their threat is fairly blunt otherwise, taking only 9.5 shots per game overall — the lowest in the Championship. This isn’t counterbalanced by a tight defence at the other end, which has conceded 15.7 shots per game, the leakiest in the Championship. Given they’re still nine points above the relegation zone at the time of writing, those early season points could play a crucial role in their survival bid. Yet the stats suggest their long-term form will more closely resemble their recent 2-3-7 record than their opening 4-2-0 . Charlton’s best chance of survival may be to just hope they sink slowly enough to avoid being caught by the sharks circling below them.

With the success of his summer signings, Monchi is up to his old Sevilla tricks

Sevilla are antifragile. Nicholas Nassim explains the concept, popularized in his book by the same name, like this: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” He complains about the lack of a word for the opposite of fragile. It’s not quite robustness or resilient because these are words that signify coping with stressors. “The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better,” he says. Sevilla, under the guidance of sporting director Monchi, are the same. They don’t just survive the transfer market, they thrive within it, and even grow from losing their players.
Under Monchi, they won 11 trophies in 2000–2017, and developed almost a monopoly on the Europa League. Monchi went to Rome for two years, where he didn’t have the same effect. “I said it a while ago: the thing that bolsters a policy is when it works,” he mentioned during his spell at Roma, noting his way of doing things didn’t work in Serie A. It was back to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan where he insisted that “sometimes the sequel is better than the original”. It looks like he is staying true to his word after a summer that saw massive turnover and a number of shrewd signings that fit Julen Lopetegui’s system.
Now Sevilla are mounting another title charge. They finished sixth and seventh and went through four managers while he was away. With him back, they are one point off Barcelona and Real Madrid and are arguably the most consistent side in the league, with the most clear ideas as to how they want to play. They signed over a dozen players this summer, and a few have already outperformed their price tags and could be the next big sale under Monchi.

Lucas Ocampos

It’s not hyperbole to say Lucas Ocampos was last summer’s best signing. In an article in the New York Times about Monchi, Rory Smith says Sevilla’s sporting director likes Ligue 1 because of its competitive balance and that’s where he fished the Argentine from. Ocampos has as many goals, 5 in 13 games under Lopetegui, as he had in 40 games last year with Marseille. To suggest Ocampos is simply a winger would be a disservice, but he does have exceptional dribbling abilities and is not afraid to use them. Only Eden Hazard, Lionel Messi and Denis Suárez dribble more than him.
His 5.21 dribbles per game is almost double Sevilla’s next most eager dribbler, Sergio Reguilon. He also loves to shoot — only Nolito is shooting more than him per 90 minutes. Luke de Jong is the only player with a higher expected goals per 90. Ocampos is aggressive and unpredictable on the ball and is the kind of game-changer that Sevilla, and particularly Lopetegui, need to create chances and keep opponents guessing.

Joan Jordán

Fighting Ocampos for the signing of the summer is Joan Jordan. In hindsight, he wasn’t that much of a risk, just unknown to those not watching La Liga regularly. He came from a tiny market team, Eibar, who play a very intense and high-pressure game under Jose Luis Mendilibar. He has scored two game-winners for Sevilla, has been great to watch and is dictating games with his effortless technique and hard work.
He doesn’t top many categories for players in his position, but he doesn’t fall outside the top five in many either. His stats reveal the all-round game he is asked to play alongside Ever Banega. The pair handle defensive and attacking duties in equal measure and both are as capable of breaking up an attack as they of creating one out of nothing. For open play final third passes, Jordán and Banega are 5th and 6th in the list for central midfielders with at least 600 minutes played. For passes into the box, Jordán is 6th and Banega is 8th.
Jordán could play in any midfield in Europe at this point and at 25, still has a chance to. On the flipside, if Sevilla keep improving and manage to keep hold of him, they win as well. His pace adjusted interceptions, tackles and pressures are above league average for his position and he also operates with plenty of attacking flair. Depending on his role, Jordán can do whatever is asked of him.

Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé

The Brazilian, Diego Carlos, was another punt taken by Monchi from Ligue 1. Just a note to start: he is the biggest, most imposing player I have ever witnessed on a football field. The word ‘unit’ is thrown around all too often, but Diego Carlos is nothing but muscle, sinew and bone with shoulders you could land a fighter jet upon and a torso that should have its own zip code.
The 26-year-old was taken off after 75 minutes against Espanyol in the first game of the season but since then has played every single minute in La Liga. He is the enforcer on this team and should likely expect a Brazil call-up if his form continues.
Jules Koundé was the most expensive summer signing and in him we could be looking at the next Virgil van Dijk. He is yet to be dribbled past in 674 minutes this season. He is winning 3.83 aerial duels per 90 and Lopetegui’s side are defending exceptionally well for how high they press. Their xG conceded is starting to come down after a couple of rough early games. Now they stand as one of the stingiest defences in the league, which is in stark contrast to their cavalier attack.

Óliver Torres

Another player that fit Monchi’s profile perfectly. In the New York Times piece mentioned earlier, Smith says Monchi likes players willing to step up or step down in order to test or prove themselves. Torres is stepping up from the Portuguese league after failing to convince Diego Simeone of his worth at Atlético Madrid. He hasn’t carved out a starting place yet, but Lopetegui does rely on him. In their most recent win, at Valladolid, he came on to wrestle control of the game back from the home side.
For attacking midfielders who have played at least 600 minutes, only Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard have more deep progressions. His 47.45 carries per 90 is also behind just the two. One area where Torres fell down was his willingness to sacrifice for Simeone. Under Lopetegui, he leads all players in his position with 600 minutes with 23.27 pressures and 5 pressure regains per 90 minutes. His 27.87 aggressive actions per 90 is also the best. We haven’t really seen Torres in all his attacking glory yet, but after five months at Sevilla he’s shown his willingness to work hard and flashes of his exceptional link up play.

 

Monchi spent between €12 and €15 million for four of the five players mentioned (he paid €35 million for Koundé). They are at the perfect age where a year or two of exceptional play should merit big moves. Selling just one could recoup the money spent to buy those four. Or, alternatively, they could stay and learn further from Lopetegui. Both will see Sevilla reap rewards.
And that’s before we into other signings who are waiting their turn and before we discuss the savvy purchases of Chicharito and Fernando, who has been excellent at the base of midfield, allowing Jordán and Banega to play to their strengths. Both players are over 30, but play vital roles in keeping Sevilla’s good form going.
Sevilla signed 15 players this summer along with a free transfer and a couple of loans. Some won’t work out and it would be folly to suggest they will. But Monchi knows this. He just needs one or possibly two to succeed, and Sevilla will be able to reinvest and go again, constantly getting better, constantly changing but always improving.
In his first season back in Spain, it looks like Monchi has done it again.

What does José Mourinho bring to Spurs?

It was as shocking as it was decisive. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy told Mauricio Pochettino to take his energía universal back to Argentina. In its place came an entirely different kind of energy, a unique electricity that surrounds José Mourinho. The change is indisputably a masterstroke, if the club’s only concerns are drama and narrative. It certainly will bring about quite a culture shift in North London. But will it work to help Tottenham’s stated aim of winning more football matches?  The most obvious thing to note is that Mourinho is not inheriting a side playing particularly well. Everyone is aware of this, but the problems at Spurs have persisted for longer than most realise. When looking at the expected goals trendlines, what’s obvious is that the side stopped being able to dominate in terms of creating and preventing good chances around April 2018. Pochettino’s side were able to outrun the xG for the best part of a year, but the results caught up with the numbers eventually. Another oft-noted factor is that Spurs aren’t able to press in the same way they once did, which is again visible in the numbers over a long period. The number of passes they allowed the opposition to make before attempting to win the ball back has gradually increased over this same period. They are no longer a pressing machine. It feels unlikely this was a conscious choice Pochettino made, but that might be irrelevant now. The question is whether Mourinho sticks with this or turns a big dial that says “pressing” on it and looks back to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium crowd for approval. The assumption from a basic reading of his career would be that he will not have this team press high, though he would argue this is unfair. He certainly perceives his own career as one in which he adapts his style to the talent available:

“You can compare my Porto team with Liverpool because the qualities of the players are there. It was my best team in defensive transition. We lose the ball, we bite like mad dogs and recover the ball after two seconds. In Real Madrid, I had my best team in direct counter attack because I had young [Ángel] Di María, young [Cristiano] Ronaldo, young [Gonzalo] Higuaín and young [Karim] Benzema. We killed everybody in offensive transitions. In Inter, I had my best team in a defensive low block. [With] people like [Marco] Materazzi, [Walter] Samuel, Lúcio, [Iván] Córdoba in the low block you can be there five hours and you don’t concede a goal. So players make teams play in certain ways.”

If we take Mourinho at his word, how will he adapt to these players? The intrigue begins with the centre backs. There are few doubts about the quality of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen; the pair have been the best central defensive partnership in the Premier League in the last five years. What they are not are “low block” defenders of the type Mourinho had at Inter. With the odds of at least one of these two leaving in the summer, the new manager could conceivably reshape his defence around a centre back more adept at clearing the ball away in his own box, but for now, he must work with defenders accustomed to taking a higher line. Davinson Sánchez and Juan Foyth, the other options, are broadly of the same mould. This might mean we see a side closer to Porto than Inter, where Mourinho has the players available to play higher up the pitch. He generally likes to employ an aggressive pressing number ten; Dele Alli is natural fit. The Englishman led Spurs in pressures per 90 for the previous two seasons, while providing exactly the kind of dynamic runs into the box and ability to get goals that Mourinho wants in a number ten. Despite the number of problems that occurred during his time at Manchester United, Mourinho was able to really get the best out of Jesse Lingard, a player with a similar skillset but lesser ability than Alli. There is no reason to think this combination of player and manager won’t thrive. Of the two games Tottenham have played under Mourinho, there have been few surprises. Harry Kane is unsurprisingly leading the line, and appears to be taking up positions on the shoulder of the defence more frequently. He has been caught offside a few times, but this might be a case of adapting to a slightly different role and learning to time his runs better. He opened the Mourinho era with three goals from four open play shots in two games, which I don’t need to tell you is not going to be sustainable. Enough has been written on Kane’s declining shot volume of the later Pochettino era, and it will take a larger sample before we can reassess him under Mourinho. Mourinho has always valued speed, so it’s unsurprising that Lucas Moura has these games on the right. The manager has a penchant for converting previously flakey wide players into disciplined workhorses, so presumably he will attempt to turn Lucas into this team’s Willian. Erik Lamela might be a more natural fit here defensively, he doesn’t have quite the same burst of pace as Lucas and seems less suited to direct counter attacking than Pochettino’s press and possess approach. On the other side, while at Chelsea and Real Madrid, Mourinho preferred his left-sided attacker to push up high, and Son Heung-min should have no issue fulfilling this duty. He doesn’t have the same majestic creativity and dribbling skills as Eden Hazard, but if you wanted a budget version of circa 2012 Ronaldo, Son is a good fit. The midfield is somewhat less inspiring. Eric Dier and Harry Winks appear to be the preferred double pivot for the time being, which creates limitations. Winks is undoubtedly a calm passer in the mould of Michael Carrick or Gareth Barry, but he primarily passes to the player who really progresses the ball, not the ball progressor himself. This is all well and good, but less so when playing next to Dier who, to put it politely, has a few weaknesses. There is hope that Mourinho might shake the once-useful Dier back into action, but considering his public acknowledgment that health issues have contributed to his poor form, this isn’t an easy problem to fix. His best form, it shouldn’t be forgotten, came when he played alongside Mousa Dembélé, who could control games through an inhuman ability to resist the press. Winks does not provide such skills. Thus the lack of creative passing in what seems to be Mourinho’s first-choice side could be a real problem. Tanguy Ndombele, Giovani Lo Celso and Christian Eriksen could fit into this side but have thus far been confined to appearances off the bench. As Mourinho cares most about attacking through fast transitions, he might worry that these players could slow the tempo of the game he wants to play (though Ndombele would argue against this). There’s a real concern that Mourinho’s side will not have a clear idea in possession and will be unable to create freely. You get what you get from Mourinho. A higher defensive line, a higher pressing version of the kind of fast counter attacking football he generally deploys. There will be games where he takes an extremely negative approach, but they won’t be the norm. The team might have trouble breaking down sides in possession, a typical issue in primarily reactive football. With all of this, it should be expected that things improve in the short term at an absolute minimum. The big picture questions won’t become clear for another year.

Stats of Interest

In Arsène Wenger’s final season at the Emirates, 24% of Arsenal‘s passes into the box came from crosses, the lowest in the Premier League. In a stat that traditionally skews towards better sides (Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were a fraction behind), Arsenal came out top. This season, however, that figure is 32%. Not only is this a notable rise, but no other top-six team is relying on crosses to work the ball into the box as much as Unai Emery’s. Arsenal just lack the imagination they once had in terms of moving the ball forward. While some sides are embracing elaborate set-piece routines to find new edges, Chelsea isn’t one of them. Frank Lampard’s side have the lowest xG per set piece of any team in the league. Lampard admits that the Chelsea team he played in did not work on elaborate routines, believing just getting it into the area with players like Didier Drogba and John Terry was enough. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s enough now. Jack Grealish is earning himself a fair bit of hype at the moment and the numbers indicate it’s much deserved. Aston Villa’s captain is completing the most open play passes into the box of any non-top-six player, while also winning more fouls than anyone else in the league. In Grealish, Villa have an excellent creator, whether he’s playing on the left or in a central midfield role.

Marko Marin and the impossibility of Red Star’s Champions League campaign

Halftime of the second game of the Champions League group stages, and Red Star fans continued to chant back and forth to the visiting Olympiakos supporters, despite being down 1-0. Was it their friendship with the visiting Greek team that kept them singing, or were they drinking from a deep well of optimism, one unpoisoned from a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich in the first round? It’s unlikely it was the latter, as Olympiakos appeared to control the play throughout the first half, fighting off few threats from the home team. But—as teams visiting the Marakana now know—the noise within the stadium can fluster even the best of teams, and despite the twinning of the teams, that noise may have thrown off Olympiakos when they returned to the field. But we have no stats for expected goals per decibel, so it’s better to focus on how much better Red Star looked when they returned to the pitch; how they looked like a team with a plan. That plan truly came together when midfielder Miloš Vulić entered in the 55th minute, replacing Dušan Jovančić, whose presence in the starting lineup remains a mystery we’ll circle back to. Olympiakos saw red in the 58th minute, and  the second-yellow sendoff combined with the next-minute entrance of Richmond Boakye, replacing defensive midfielder José Cañas and putting two men up top,allowed them to turn the game around . The first goal came in the 62nd, the second in the 87th, and the third and final in extra time. Given the way substitutes Vulić and Boakye contributed to both the first and third goal, Red Star fans, in their more optimistic moments, like to think they’d have taken all three points either way. Points are rarely a worry for Red Star in the domestic league. Going into the fifth round of the group stage, they are seven points clear at the top of the table, with a game in hand. The difference? Marko Marin. The small attacking midfielder manages to stand head and shoulders above almost all others in the league, and Red Star as a squad is also a giant among ordinary men. The gap in talent between this club and the others in the league (save, perhaps, Partizan who despite trailing points in the table actually have a better expected goals difference) is similar to the gap in talent seen between Red Star and Tottenham in their back-to-back Champions League games. In domestic play, other sides have learned to focus on Marin, knowing if they are able to eliminate him as a threat, it’s far more difficult for Red Star to put on a good performance. Yet within the league, on a good day Marin has enough individual talent to shake off his minders, and if he can’t, the team as a whole may be a drag to watch, but the talent of others in the squad—including winger Ben, who is not registered for Champions League play—is sufficient to create chances without the sparkle of their magical Marin. In the Champions League, it’s a different matter. Other sides, familiar with Marin both from the various clubs he’s played at and seeing him in action last season, know to close him down. And when this occurs in the tournament, there’s simply no way the others have enough talent to find a way to create chances when Marin is prevented from getting the ball forward. The difference is stark. This was particularly obvious in both games against Spurs, especially the first, in London, The Spurs midfield is much stronger than Red Star’s, and they were able to essentially eliminate the option of getting the ball to either Cañas or Vulić. As such, Marin had to continuously drop back, sometimes even behind the midfield, knowing the team was dependent on him to create something. Anything. Here are all the passes played to Marin during that match. He’s receiving the ball almost exclusively on the wings and in his own half. Eventually he moved so far back he was left attempting to dribble out of his own defense, losing the ball and leading to the third goal for the home side, essentially closing out the game at the end of the first half.  Going back to Bayern, the first time we saw Red Star in this year’s Champions League, we were looking at a team that was simply trying to survive. Vladan Milojević set up his side to sit deep, thinking they would perhaps have a chance on the counter, but rarely did such a chance come. One problem is that Red Star registered no right-back for the competition, opting to use Marko Gobeljić, a defensive midfielder, and not a good one at that. As for the left, Jander, a bench player, had to step in for Milan Rodić, who himself has looked out of touch all season, even playing domestically. It’s not a stretch to say the second goal was Jander’s fault. Meanwhile, the two holding midfielders, Cañas and Jovančić, could do nothing against the likes of Thiago. Remember when I said we’d circle back to Jovančić? It remains incomprehensible that Milojević continues to start him in the Champions League, particularly when he has Vulić available. He’s incredibly slow, loses the ball far too often, and attempts to dribble out of situations he has no chance of escaping. The only theory is that he’s tall, so he might win aerial duels . . . or that he’s blackmailing the coach with something juicy. The end result was Red Star neither preventing Bayern from creating good chances nor creating any of their own on the counter. Like against Spurs, Marin kept having to track back, as there was no one behind him able to get the ball into a decent position where the midfielder could create a chance. It’s not surprising, then, that he was the only player who had a chance against Bayern; his curving shot from the edge of the box just missed grabbing an equalizer for Red Star. For the rest of the game, in the rare times Red Star made it out of their own box, the ball went straight to Marin. Essentially, the entire burden of creating chances rested on his narrow shoulders. Given the 3-0 scoreline in the first fixture, and the cumulative 9-0 scoreline against Spurs, anyone who believes Red Star can beat Bayern at the Marakana is likely to be laughed at (but hey, you might win a decent chunk if you decide to bet that way). One positive is that Boakye is finally healthy, which in theory should help ease the pressure on Marin. However, Marko is one who likes to do things on his own; he seems to take it for granted that he’s far and away the best on the team, and so makes many failed attempts at goal when a better option would’ve been a pass. Marin’s creative numbers might be great, he has twice as many key passes (passes that lead directly to a shots) as anybody else on the side, the same is true for a fancier measure of creative output, xG assisted, but out of his 18 shots in league play only the penalty he’s taken has a value of over 0.10 xG. What would be much more helpful is if Red Star had a stronger midfield overall, one experienced in taking on players, winning aerial duels, making successful tackles, and moving the ball forward. There are players who can certainly do one or two of those things, but there’s no one who can do more than one of these tasks consistently well. The best option would be starting Vulić from the start, even though he’s young and slow at times. The Olympiakos game showed that together he and Boakye can manage to string together enough for a goal, especially when Marin slips in, looking for an opportunity to create a chance.

What is happening to Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona?

Ernesto Valverde, what is it that broke you? Was it that quarterfinal loss to Roma, when you were overrun despite fielding a conservative lineup? Is that when you decided midfielders should never get forward? Or was it last year’s semifinal loss to Liverpool? When you close your eyes, can you still picture a depleted Liverpool side overturning yet another 3-0 lead? Are you forever doomed to fight the last war? How did you feel when the signing of Frenkie de Jong was announced this summer? Did you not see the possibilities presented by an elite progressive passer aged just 22? Were you excited to learn he covered a lot of ground defensively? While you were at it, did you see that he could get forward in attack? After years of trying to cover for Sergio Busquets’ disintegrating legs with older signings, did none of this warm your heart?  What is happening this season? Have you instructed De Jong to pass and do little else? Why is he only covering a sliver of the right flank? Where did the interceptions go? How has he only taken one shot in 948 minutes of La Liga action? Do you realize how hard it is to get a football analytics website to beg for some long-range shooting?  Mr. Valverde, why are you turning Frenkie de Jong into Harry Winks?  Sure, you can have a player just progress the ball, but why stop there? If that player is Harry Winks, we know that it’s because he does little else well, but do you believe the same holds true of De Jong? If so, why sign him for 75 million Euros instead of Winks? Why sign him for 41 million Euros more than you spent on Arthur the season before? Did you so badly need a player who, in your system, is “Arthur with more tackling”? What was the plan? Was there one? What’s going on at Barcelona? How have they, of all clubs, become hostile to well-rounded midfielders? Remember Paulinho? Remember how he could do things at the back of midfield or in the box and basically nothing in between? Remember how he was replaced with Arturo Vidal, who had the exact same issue? Was he supposed to balance out the deployment of Arthur, who shot the ball all of five times during his first La Liga season? What is the point of signing players to make up for Busquet’s declining range when they’re not allowed to be rangy? Look, I’m not saying De Jong should become Frenkie Lampard, but maybe the balance here needs some tweaking? Have you ever read the story of Sisyphus? Did you find yourself thinking it could be improved by the addition of a gaggle of midfielders standing ten yards behind our titular hero as he pushes the boulder up the slope? On a related note, have you ever watched Lionel Messi’s Argentina? If yes, did you like it? Did the sight of Messi doing all the creative work in front of a stolid side excite you? As mileage catches up with Luis Suárez, Antoine Griezmann, and Jordi Alba, is that what you’d like this Barcelona team to become? By the by, have you noticed that those Argentina sides, despite Messi’s brilliance, don’t actually win titles? Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of your tenure? Retrenchment after retrenchment after retrenchment, until . . . what, exactly? Where does this all lead? Are all these overcorrections from the strange Champions League collapses of years past actually working? Have you noticed that your team has the second-best expected goals difference in the league? Have you realized your team is only sharing the top spot in a disappointing league thanks to an expected goals overperformance that is extreme even for a Messi team? What has really been fixed here? Do you expect to win like this? If your team is eliminated from the Champions League without a full-on collapse, but simply because it’s not that good, would you count that as progress? Mr. Valverde, when you close your eyes, do you not dream of players who might break this cycle? Have you heard of Frenkie de Jong? Use him.

Borussia Dortmund and the search for another striker

Borussia Dortmund are, in a sporting sense, in trouble. The league table fails to fully reflect the situation, but a number of performances over the last few weeks were, particularly in attack, alarmingly harmless. Before the season, questions were asked centred on the personnel situation in the striker department and whether BVB should buy another alternative to Paco Alcácer. Those questions are now more pressing than ever. Alcácer performed very well on the first five matchdays of the Bundesliga, which he spent as part of Dortmund’s starting XI. His attacking presence, contribution to shooting attempts and efficient playing style in the opponent’s penalty box make him a valuable asset. His absence after the match against Werder Bremen became noticeable immediately. Comparison of Dortmund’s values in attack until Alcácer’s absence and since. Overall, Dortmund amassed fewer shots, while at the same time being less creative in attack, which one can infer from the larger rate of crosses, for example. Obviously, the toothless attacking performances were not singularly down to the absence of Alcácer, seeing as Dortmund faced some of the powerhouses of the league in Schalke, Mönchengladbach and Bayern, who all know to be solid defensively in their own ways. Still, it became evident that Dortmund do not have an adequate replacement at hand to allow the ball progression to flow through that one important target player, particularly in the transition into the final third and even more so when playing into the box. Mario Götze adds a number of qualities, but he is often used incorrectly when played at the very front of the formation. He would be of better use in central midfield, where his footballing intelligence and compartmentalised playing style would shine through for the better of the team. For the moment, though, Götze seems to have been tabbed as Alcácer’s replacement. However, this cannot be a long-term solution for a club as ambitious as BVB, especially as Götze’s time with the club may be over in the summer. Götze and Alcácer could hardly be any more different from one another—even if we dismiss the context of the games. This holds especially true for the way they integrate themselves into general play, but also for their options in counter-attacks and fast attacks.

What, exactly, is Alcácer?

A striking thing about Alcácer is how he can adapt his playing style to respective situations in a match. When Dortmund are dominating a game, with long spells of possession, he positions himself mostly in the centre of the field of play to intuitively remain a passing option for the attacking players next to and behind him. He is present in proximity to the opponent’s defenders and occupies them, so that they cannot move up and defend more proactively or intercept inverse movements from a player such as Jadon Sancho. When Dortmund have to counter from deeper positions, though, as was the case in the first half against Bayer Leverkusen, as Bayer played a quite intensive midfield pressing, Alcácer frequently drifts to one side. In this particular game, he moved toward the left, attempted to intercept medium-high passes that came through the channels of Lars Bender and Kai Havertz and to enter sprinting contests with Jonathan Tah. In the inaugural league match of the season, BVB played quite asymmetrically, with Alcácer as a central target player. Against Leverkusen, on the other hand, Alcácer moved toward the left side frequently, especially in a tough first half. He received passes and tried to carry on Dortmund’s counter-attacking. This is Alcácer’s big strength: He is neither a classic penalty-box striker (despite his eye for goal and intelligent positioning), nor is he a true counter-attacker (despite his quickness and evasive movement). He unites both elements very well, making him the perfect striker for BVB, seeing as they have to adapt their playing style on occasion because of their vulnerability against a high press. An Alcácer copy? This short analysis then poses the question of whether Dortmund should make an effort in the coming summer to sign a “second” Paco Alcácer. The statistical numbers from this and last season show that the Bundesliga have a few strikers that would fit that bill and have a statistical resemblance of roughly 80%. First, Kevin Volland, who has transformed into a central target player recently but can still play through the half-space given his career history. Peter Bosz has used him on the left wing five times this season, from where Volland moved inwards frequently and always attempted to create proximity to the central striker. Volland can perform similarly evasive movements in a counter-attacking scheme to those of Alcácer and carry on the attack. Another tactically flexible striker who falls in the statistical category of Alcácer is Andrej Kramarić. In the current campaign, a knee injury has limited the Croatian to only two appearances. But in recent years at Hoffenheim, he has regularly proved he can play his part in the attack both from the centre and from a position in the left half-space. He distinguishes himself from Volland insofar as he generates more high-quality shooting attempts, while at the same time playing with more risk, especially when deployed up front, losing the ball more frequently than Volland. The third striker in this equation is Alfreð Finnbogason, but he cannot be an option for Dortmund based on his age, career to this point and susceptibility to injury.

A Physical Alternative

The search for an alternative to Alcácer can also be looked at from a different perspective. The cry for a physically strong striker grows louder by the day. And Lucien Favre, despite what he may have said publicly, has given chances to large target players over his career. Such a signing cannot be ruled out at the moment, anyway. Even more so since, in certain matches, BVB manage quite well to perfectly prepare breakthroughs to the touchline through a player like Achraf Hakimi. Sancho is essentially more of a half-space striker than wing-attacker. As such, one side of Dortmund’s team could create assists without sending in useless crosses. Additionally, a striker competent in aerial duels could be a receiving option for Mats Hummels’ early long balls against an attacking press. To find such a striker, the search criteria for Bundesliga players must be defined accordingly: The striker still has to be reliable on the ball, able to be a part of the general attacking play and at the same time bring a significant prowess in the air. These criteria, used for last and this season, produces four results: André Silva, Gonçalo Paciência, Lucas Alario and, naturally, Robert Lewandowski. For Paciência, the result only refers to last season, in which he played only sparingly. In the current campaign, he would fall off the radar due to too many losses of possession, but he remains an interesting alternative to Silva and Alario regardless. Those two, in turn, differ from one another in the way they participate in general play. Silva is more involved in situations in which he is not the one to look for the shooting attempt, rather setting up players from a zone ahead of the penalty box. Of course, this is also down to the playing style of Eintracht Frankfurt, in whose 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 the ball-near striker drops deeper during attacks along the wings. Particularly when playing over Filip Kostić, Silva drops back a bit, meaning he is not the furthest-most target player. Alario, on the other hand, constitutes a classic spearhead in the Bayer Leverkusen system, playing a role more oriented toward shooting attempts in comparison to Alcácer, which is why he is less likely to take part in the prepared combination play, bus also why he loses possession in the final third less often. Silva, Alario and even Paciência offer the physical qualities needed for the proposed profile. The last two seem a tad stronger in the air, which can become apparent in pressure situations within the penalty box. Silva and Alario also have sufficient footballing qualities to not represent a steep decline from the rest of Dortmund’s attack where they would only function as a last-resort target player and force BVB into attacking with nine instead of ten outfield players. The preferred option remains an attack with Alcácer. But for more tactical flexibility, for example, to increase the success rate of attacks over the wings or to play against an opponent’s isolated high press, one of these strikers could help BVB.

Appendix: A Foreign Alternative?

The current rumour mill concerning a new central striker for Dortmund mostly focuses on players from outside the Bundesliga. An interesting candidate who would also fill the postulated criteria is Olivier Giroud. Due to his age, the Frenchman cannot be considered a long-term alternative, but perhaps an alternative to Alcácer for a few seasons. Giroud naturally distinguishes himself with his physical play, but likewise with a footballing quality that would not make him an alien element in Dortmund’s attack. The 33-year-old receives the ball in the penalty box often enough, but at the same time can involve himself in the general play from the outside and play layoffs in deeper counter-attacks. His numbers suggest as much. Another name, and one that would fit the category of “Fantasy Manager”, is Erling Håland of Salzburg, arguably the most wanted young striker in Europe. His fit at BVB is not an obvious one, however. While Håland is outstanding in terms of offensive productivity, a few smaller technical mistakes in his ball-handling abilities leave some question marks. Salzburg’s playing style is predicated on a certain verticality and openness to risk, so a few losses of possession at the top of the formation are not a big problem. However, Håland does not seem to be overly stable in sophisticated combinations. Additionally, he has to prove how far he can develop other components of his finishing game given his height and physicality — especially in the air. Right now he is probably not a realistic option for BVB, even though they have a strong need for a big talent and have the ambition to attract this kind of player. You can also find this article in German on Spielverlagerung.de.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Thomas is the life of the Atlético Madrid Partey

Thomas Partey has been a good, serviceable professional footballer for four years now — particularly since the 2017–2018 season when Diego Simeone increased his playing time. Last season Partey was a mainstay in a midfield that relies heavily on the defensive discipline of its central players, with the extra contingency that they can produce efficient attacks in transition. Partey rose to the challenge. He developed into one of the team’s chief organizers and was good for the odd long-distance goal while creating from deep. Partey is now more. He’s gone from a piece of the puzzle to an indispensable cog. He thwarts the attacks of opponents with his masterful positioning, then guts them the other way with a surgical vertical pass. He’s comfortable under pressure. He still strikes stingers from long range. 

 

 

Atlético are treading water offensively, especially with João Felix missing six games (and potentially more) due to a sprained ankle. Álvaro Morata pops up for goals randomly, not consistently. The team has scored 15 league goals — the worst mark among the top 5 teams and the 3rd worst among the top 13. Strip out their one penalty and they are left with 14 goals which slightly trails a non-penalty expected goal total of 16.66, behind not only their two traditional rivals, Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Villarreal; they’re also virtually tied with Sevilla. To make up for this, their defense has to be impenetrable. It has been. And Partey’s ball retention and positioning has been a huge reason why.

 

 

Head coach Diego Simeone knew the leap was coming. Last year he deemed the Ghananian “non-transferrable.” This season it’s hard to imagine Atlético functioning without him. “If he had come from an English or German team, he would be [lauded],” Simeone said in October. “But he’s from the academy and he’s just Thomas.” Partey’s emergence is perfect for a team like Atléti that don’t like to play with pure anchors at the base of midfield. Rodri Hernández did not thrive as half the double pivot (which really consists of four central midfielders in a conservative midfield line) in Simeone’s scheme. There is no place for Marcos Llorente, who shines in a 4-3-3. Partey, on the other hand, has assumed all the responsibilities of a defensive midfielder while contributing to the attack.  Despite the narratives, Atléti do push forward — particularly on the flanks. Both Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi leave space behind them as advanced fullbacks. Partey’s role in organizing coverage for both is huge, as is his task in making sure they get the ball when they make those overloading runs:

 

http://streamable.com/pxr9w

 

Atlético are reliant on Thomas’s build-up abilities. He’s incredibly good at slinging vertical passes. And Partey will exploit any opponent’s loose defensive structure if he’s on the field:

 

https://streamable.com/f1nqy

 

That was against Real Madrid, in a game where both teams canceled each other out by shifting most of their play through the flanks. Real Madrid midfielders put up good individual performances, but were loose in their defensive shape — something Partey exploited regularly, with an astounding passing performance. As you can see below, he not only completed a high volume of passes, (73 of 82) but did so while moving the ball vertically up the pitch. Partey can hook accurate long-range balls behind presses in order to break them. If all else fails, he’ll carry the ball up the field and join the attack.

 

 

Partey’s ability to move the ball up the field is crucial for Atléti. He’s the sixth most prolific deep progressor of the ball in La Liga (among players with more than 600 minutes played), and his 8.46 deep progressions rank behind only Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos, Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong and Arthur, Ever Banega of Sevilla and Dani Parejo of Valencia. And he increasingly stands out at Atléti as the team’s main creative hub in the middle of the pitch.

 

 

And when he gets into the attacking phase, the pressure doesn’t unnerve him:

 

https://streamable.com/6kxk9

 

Partey’s rise to become one of the best midfielders in La Liga didn’t occur overnight. He’s been consistent throughout his Atlético career. But his ability is more evident now because he’s more of a focal point than in years past. Gabi and Rodri have both moved on, and Koke remains inconsistent. Saúl is often played as a winger (six times Simeone has deployed him there this season, and other times as a makeshift left-back) — making Partey the single most important central midfielder Simeone has at his disposal. The eye test with the Ghanian has been phenomenal.  Atlético may be laborious to watch offensively, but they are just one point off first place (although Barcelona and Real Madrid both have a game in hand). Partey is a big part of Atlético’s stability and defensive success. When João Felix comes back, he’ll help the Ghanaian create chances from deeper positions. The two should be a cornerstone of Atlético’s team for years to come.

Can Cagliari turn a hot start into a historic season?

Over the last decade, Cagliari have accustomed its fans to relegation battles. The side have never achieved a finish in the top half of the table and on one occasion were even relegated to Serie B.

To give you a clearer idea, these are, in chronological order, Cagliari’s final league placements in the last ten seasons. 16th, 14th, 15th, 11th, 15th, 18th (relegated), 1st (Serie B), 12th, 15th, 15th

This season the team, led by Rolando Maran, finally have the opportunity to reverse the trend and compete for something more. After 12 games, the Rossoblu have taken 24 points,  more than half of those won in the whole of 2018–19 (41).  If the season ended today, they’d qualify for the Champions League, sitting fourth in the table.

Cagliari had a bad start, losing their first two games against Brescia and Inter, the latter a game now infamous for the fans’ racist abuse of Romelu Lukaku, for which they received no punishment for verbally abusing the Inter forward. They’ve used that match as a springboard and have defeated Napoli (1-0 at the Stadio San Paolo) and Atalanta (2-0 at the Gewiss Stadium), two teams now behind them in the standings. In the last game before the international break, they trashed Fiorentina 5-2.

So, it doesn’t seem like a season like any other. And in a certain sense, it isn’t a season like any other, because this year Cagliari celebrates their centenary. In 1920 a surgeon named Gaetano Fichera founded Cagliari Football Club, which played their first game with a white uniform that Fichera had made up by fitting hospital uniforms.

To celebrate the anniversary and to raise the average quality level of the team, Cagliari’s summer transfer campaign was paradoxically built on the sale of their academy product and best player, Niccolò Barella, to Inter for a sum that, including bonuses, could reach €50 million. That’s a huge amount (although largely not yet cashed) for a club that has generated a grand total of €73 million in revenue in 2018–19.

President Tommaso Giulini and the management of the club decided to renew Maran’s contract until 2022, and to reinvest the Barella money on three midfielders who seemed unreachable: Uruguayan prospect Nahitan Nández (€18M) from Boca Juniors, skilled central midfielder Marko Rog (on loan from Napoli) and Radja Nainggolan, who turned heads at Cagliari five years ago, is back once again, on loan from Inter. Their bold transfers and the club’s willingness to spend didn’t stop there. Fans have particularly delighted in Christian Oliva (another Uruguayan), left-back Luca Pellegrini (on loan from Juventus), striker Alberto Cerri and especially Giovanni “Cholito” Simeone, on loan from Fiorentina (with that inescapable “option” to buy”) to replace injured forward Leonardo Pavoletti, who scored 16 goals last season. Pavoletti, first in the league in aerial wins, had a huge influence on Cagliari’s style of play and substantially overperformed his expected goals thanks to his crazy aerial ability, which allowed him to score 11 headers in 2018–19. Look at all those circles in his shotmap.

In addition to their battering ram, Cagliari also lost Alessio Cragno to injury, the goalkeeper who in their last edition of Serie A saved the most goals, compared to the average keeper (9.93 goals saved above average). In his place came Robin Olsen, ill-treated goalkeeper of AS Roma, currently a key performer in the success of Maran’s team. #Cagliari are indeed overperforming, having conceded just 9 non-penalty goals from 13.18 xG, a feat accomplished largely thanks to their Swedish keeper. Olsen has saved 85% of the shots he has faced, 14% more shots than the average keeper (the associated expected save percentage is just 71%). He also has the highest GSAA,, 6.68, in Serie A. In other words, he’s preventing 0.56 goals more than the average keeper every game he plays, but he won’t necessarily keep this form for the entire season.

Yet Olsen’s performances should not underestimate Cagliari’s defense, which is actually worthy of the top five, with 1.09 xG conceded per game. Despite conceding 14.67 shots per game (13th in the league), Cagliari are quite good at preventing high-quality scoring chances. While they have the third-closest shot distance, their average xG per shot is the third-best in the league at 0.07. Moreover, they are sixth in clear shots conceded (1.83 per game)—opponent shots generated when only the goalkeeper is between the shot-taker and goal—and fourth in counterattacking shots conceded (0.92).

Maran abandoned the high-pressing defensive system he tried to implement last season, when Cagliari recorded the furthest defensive distance in the Serie A (47.90) but consistently failed to prevent central penetration, and started to defend way deeper, so much so that now they are the team that defends closest to its own goal (42.72), if we exclude Lecce (currently hovering a point above the relegation zone). They now allow opponents 55% possession (+5%) and a pass completion of 82% (+3%).

As you can see from the two comparative defensive actions map, Cagliari’s passes allowed per defensive action increased dramatically this season (from 7th to 16th best in the league). But they improved their ability to defend the center of the pitch, and now concede 30% less non-penalty goals and 15.5% less non-penalty xG per game in comparison to last season, both thanks to better-suited midfielders and a tactical change.

Maran gradually switched from a 4-3-1-2 to a 4-3-2-1, a system that allows him to have five central midfielders to create defensive overloads in the center and force opponents to play wide while than giving his team a clear advantage on rebounds and contested balls. Nainggolan, currently one of the best creators in Serie A, is thriving in an offensive midfielder role next to João Pedro, and added two goals from just 0.56 xG.

This new setup is well suited to the offensive game of Cagliari, intended to function as a direct team with rapid transitions. Defending low allows them to have more space to attack behind the opposing team, while the numerical superiority in midfield permits them to take risks in their passing game, as they quite often have the chance to try to challenge for the ball immediately.

Their pace toward goal is the fourth fastest in the league at 2.82, and they are completing just 75% percent of their passes, both of which demonstrate their direct approach. They have more than doubled their average of counterattacking shots from 0.53 to 1.08, but apart from that, they haven’t improved much offensively.

Cagliari are still struggling to create chances (although they have improved from 0.94 to 1.06 xG per game) but they are currently riding on conversion, since their finishing granted them 22 open-play goals out of just 12.92 xG.

 

They generate just 11.50 shots per game, but so far, they have been excellent at converting set pieces and open-play crosses, while relying more on through-balls (from which last season they generated a meager total of 1.54 xG). With four goals Simeone is pretty much the only player who’s not currently overperforming his xG.

While it would be pretty much impossible to for Simone to fill the Pavoletti-shaped hole in the starting eleven, he brought a different kind of skill set that is arguably better suited to Maran’s 4-3-2-1. Pavoletti is a pure target-man, while the Argentine has more well-rounded qualities that allow him to open spaces for his teammates and to be a more dangerous threat when he patiently waits behind the defense. As because he turns the ball over a lot, his performances remain unconvincing, but his runs in each phase of play are certainly useful to his team.

Yet Cagliari, who complete just 1.50 passes inside the box, are still reliant on crosses (36% of their box entries) so they would surely benefit of the comeback of their main striker. They will desperately need different offensive tools and alternative ways to create chances when the wind of conversion will stop blowing their way. 

Their defensive phase set-up looks solid, but they are nothing more than a mid-table team according to their expected goal difference. To clinch European qualification and turn 2020 to an anniversary to remember, they must get better on offense; otherwise they must remain content with their first placing in the top half of the table in ten years.

Will Antoine Griezmann ever settle at Barcelona?

Antoine Griezmann’s start to life at Barcelona has not gone entirely as planned. The questions surrounding his signing with the Catalan side remain unanswered. They include where he would fit into the team: “Good question,” he responded when asked recently about his best position, both avoiding the question and ensuring there would be further analysis of the topic. There were also the lingering bad feelings over his decision to stay at Atlético Madrid the summer before Barcelona eventually signed him and, more so, why he documented it in The Decision, a cliff-hanger transfer documentary and the first of its kind. Some Barcelona loyalists said they wouldn’t go to the Camp Nou as long as he was in the team. Griezmann, therefore, is fighting a tactical battle, a dressing room that hasn’t exactly opened their arms to him and a suspicious fanbase. Rocky as his start might have been, as Gerard Piqué pointed out, Barcelona are leading the league and winning their Champions League group while adjusting to a couple of new players in key positions. Frenkie de Jong has replaced the previously ever-present Ivan Rakitić while Griezmann has slotted in to replace Philippe Coutinho. That’s two brand-new players on the left-hand side of the field. De Jong has been, at times, very good, but it’s taking him a number of games to find his place in the team. While he doesn’t have the baggage Griezmann does, he also doesn’t have the experience. Meanwhile, Griezmann has been shunted out to the left when Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez are healthy, where players tend to become the third wheel, marginalized by the flourishing and productive relationship Messi has with fulback Jordi Alba. Being a supporting conduit isn’t Griezmann’s strong point. While there are opportunities to drift inside onto his right and shoot or create, he is very left-footed. StatsBomb’s bespoke left-right footedness metric has him behind just Clement Lenglet in how much he uses his left foot (78%). If he can avoid using his right, he will, which isn’t ideal for a position where he is supposed to cut inside and cause havoc. Philippe Coutinho, the man he replaced, suffered a similar fate on the left, and was marginalized despite not having to deal with the awkwardness of preferring his left foot; he simply never found a way to add to the already excellent Alba-and-Messi-controlled territory. But this season Barcelona are suffering from a more general problem on the left-hand side of the field. It’s just being blamed on the new guy. Jordi Alba has missed six games through injury and rest, Junior Firpo, another summer signing (albeit much cheaper than Griezmann), has failed to convince Ernesto Valverde, and Nelson Semedo has been transplanted to the left from his natural position at right-back (and looked good in the process). Messi naturally turns and looks to his left where Jordi Alba used to be while Griezmann has to fight his every instinct to run toward Messi or into the box where Luis Suárez is busy scheming. Alba, on the other hand, runs away from Messi, waiting for the ball to drop onto his big toe. Ansu Fati does the same but is too young to consistently play this role and Ousmane Dembélé is more comfortable on the right. Valverde has often opted for width at home and left Griezmann on the bench in place of the speedier, width-providing wingers. Alba has been fine this season when fit, and his number of pressures have improved, which should help remedy Barcelona’s stuttering attack provided he can get and stay healthy. As Alba and Messi return to the same page, the question becomes whether Griezmann will join them. The relationship seems off to an unsure start. While the Frenchman has befriended Suárez—the pair organised Diego Godín’s wedding—he has yet to demonstrate a bond off the field with the beating heart off Barcelona. The rumours haven’t been helped by clumsy explanations as to how it’s progressing. You’d think, in such a highly-experienced dressing room, they would kill the speculation with some ready-made lines to release to the press. Defender  Clément Lenglet never got that memo. “They’re getting to know each other little by little,” he said. In terms of linking up on the field, they haven’t set the world on fire either, although Lenglet had an explanation for that too. “All of us need to understand how changing position has affected his game—he has evolved at Barça and has taken on other roles—including playing wide on the wing,” he said. That said, there have only been five passes from Griezmann to Messi inside the box; of the twelve total, three of those went backwards. It’s safe to say the hymns both men are singing are very different so far.  You don’t spend five years in a Diego Simeone team without becoming a diligent defender. Even if it’s not something you completely buy into, you tend to pick up its importance through osmosis. Griezmann’s pressures and regains are amongst the best in the Barcelona team. Fans of the club will argue that they didn’t sign Griezmann to defend, but it does serve a purpose, and will give Alba much more freedom to venture forward when he eventually hits his stride again. This should endear Griezmann to Messi further; if it means Griezmann sacrificing his best play to let Alba raid, he will likely oblige given what we have seen so far. His 3.25 pressure regains is the highest for anyone in the team who has played at least 600 minutes this season. His 1.24 counterpressures is amongst the best in the team too with just Sergio Busquets, De Jong and Sergi Roberto ahead of him.  Much of the problem is that at Atlético Madrid he almost always started on the right or in the centre. His deep progressions are as low as they’ve ever been on the right and his successful dribbles are not very positive either—a sign of a loss in confidence, perhaps, or not fully knowing his confines on the left. Griezmann is pressing more at Barcelona with less success. He has more touches inside the box, which makes sense given Barcelona’s propensity to dominate possession but his shots are down too, a consequence of playing with shot-hogs Messi and Suárez. He is also not dribbling as much as he did at Atlético and is putting up nowhere close to the numbers Coutinho was clocking with the ball at his feet either.  In terms of expected goals, Griezmann has been forced to work off scraps compared to Messi and Suárez, who shoot in bulk for Barcelona. His best performance by a distance came against Real Betis when he scored twice and assisted one in a 5-2 win. He was the centre of attention that night as the only striker and had the Camp Nou faithful on their feet. Rafinha and Carles Pérez played out wide and fed Griezmann, which suited him perfectly.  Compare that to, for example, the Levante game, when he was in on top of Suárez and had very little connection with him—or Messi, for that matter. The big question in the coming weeks is whether Griezmann can adapt to his role on the left and if he can’t, whether Ernesto Valverde is willing to change his position. His former agent, Erik Olhats, says he believes Griezmann was “sold a project that he isn’t seeing” and that he is no longer the focal point of the attack, which he has to accept and get used to. Griezmann said he wanted to dine at the same table as Messi a few years ago when he was still playing at Atlético Madrid. By playing on the same team as the Argentine, he is now invited to every meal. It’s not easy stepping into an unfamiliar and relatively hostile environment with Messi waiting for you to prove you’re good enough, but Griezmann can’t say he wasn’t warned about this before he decided to join Barcelona.

Is Harry Kane still England’s best striker?

Yes, he has scored a lot of goals in Euro qualification, but there’s more to it than that. On 2nd November 2014, Harry Kane scored his first Premier League goal of Mauricio Pochettino’s time at Spurs. Since then, the idea that the Tottenham academy graduate is the best English striker around has been as close to a universally held opinion as possible. 109 non-penalty goals in 178 league games is as much as one could reasonably ask. But as the years pass, concern about Kane’s actual numbers has grown. Meanwhile, Tammy Abraham has emerged as a viable alternative. Let’s take a closer look at both players.

Kane Concerns

Before we dig into the problems, let’s remember what was probably the best period in Kane’s career, August 2017 to March 2018, during which he scored 22 non-penalty goals across 28.2 90s. What that stands out visually is how much he prioritised getting shots and scoring goals over other parts of his game. As now-StatsBomb managing editor Mike L. Goodman noted at the time, “Harry Kane isn’t a complete forward. His job isn’t to facilitate play, or bring wingers into the game, or create holes in the defense for his teammates to take advantage of. Tottenham Hotspur’s star striker does one thing: He scores”. And boy did he score. This wasn’t always the case. In previous years, Kane assumed a more well-rounded role, linking up play while sharing the goalscoring burden with Dele Alli and Son Heung-min. But when Kane’s form exploded, everything started to funnel toward him. Spurs were, as Pep Guardiola infamously described them, “the Harry Kane team”. What happened next was rather unfortunate. Kane picked up an ankle injury that kept him out of just two games, but when he returned, it was clear he wasn’t at 100%. Things improved a touch in 2018-19, but we were still looking at a player performing well below his best. And then we arrive at this season, which just doesn’t look good at all. The obvious response is to mention Spurs’ deteriorating form which has now resulted in Pochettino’s departure. And it’s true that form a real factor; it doesn’t take StatsBomb data to tell you strikers benefit from playing in teams that create chances more easily. What we know is that Tottenham’s expected goals in attack have seen a 32.5% decrease this season compared to 2017–18, a sizeable decline to be sure. But Kane’s individual xG and xG assisted has fallen by 53.4% over the same period. The two numbers cannot be separated, but Kane’s attacking output has declined at a faster rate than Spurs overall. We should also note his touches in the box have risen, as he’s become much less efficient at turning them into good shots. It certainly can’t be claimed that this blame falls solely on him, and it definitely feels plausible that his numbers would look better in a stronger side, but it’s also hard to use stats to make a case that Kane is merely a victim of Spurs’ problems, rather than an active contributor to them. The other defence often noted is his England form, with many pointing to Gareth Southgate’s side as an environment where Kane is able to thrive due to the better service he receives. Nine non-penalty goals in just over 1200 minutes since the World Cup is a strong figure, even if it’s generally boosted in the headlines, which include the five penalties he’s scored. There is less optimism regarding his shot volume. Unfortunately, we do not have expected goals data here, but we know Kane has taken fewer than three shots per 90 minutes since the 2018 World Cup. Again, we don’t have the xG numbers to back up what we’ve seen, but unless these shots are exceptionally better than those he generally takes for Tottenham, his goalscoring for England will not continue at this volume.

Tammy Abraham, the Kane Challenger

Not unlike a younger Kane, the path to the Chelsea first team hasn’t been the most straightforward for Abraham. Both men were sent out on loan at a young age, but while Kane found it difficult, the Chelsea striker thrived, scoring 21 non-penalty goals at the tender age of 19 for Bristol City in the Championship. This unsurprisingly earned him a move up to the Premier League, where things went rather less swimmingly. Six goals over the season is the number that haunts him, though we must consider the mitigating circumstances. Abraham arrived at Swansea after they sold their most obvious creator in Gylfi Sigurdsson, and brought in no one of an even vaguely similar skillset. The team had pure strikers in Abraham and Wilfried Bony but lacked the players to create chances for them. Manager Paul Clement’s dreary defensive football saw Abraham largely isolated upfront. Subsequent boss Carlos Carvalhal had different ideas, but this often involved eschewing a recognised striker altogether. Abraham still managed to put up the best xG per 90 of any under-21 player outside the top six that season, which was probably as much as could reasonably be expected. Someone at Chelsea apparently disagreed with this assessment, though, and decided that Abraham should be demoted back down to the Championship. He scored 20 non-penalty goals for Aston Villa and proved himself one of the better strikers in the division, but to those watching, it felt he wasn’t being really tested. But even the most optimistic arguments in Abraham’s favour couldn’t quite have predicted this season. The goals are the biggest factor, and they’re backed up by plenty of good shots. Whatever questions that may have existed about his all-round game have been blown out of the water. This season, only Sergio Agüero has a bigger xG and xG assisted per 90 numbers in the Premier League. It’s an open question as to whether he can keep this kind of form up across the season. With xG focused analysis, there is a tendency to forget that generating shots is also subject to variance. Abraham’s recent form is above what he’s shown in the past, and can be said to be inflated in a number of ways. The gap in the numbers right now is so vast, though, that it’s almost impossible to argue that Kane is currently playing better football than Abraham.

So What do England do?

England will kick off their Euro 2020 finals campaign at Wembley on 14 June and, if fit, it seems almost certain  Southgate will select Kane up front. Other personnel questions remain, but several things seem to be clear in his mind: The default formation will be 4-3-3, and the core of the attack will be built around Kane dropping deeper into “false nine” positions to allow Rahee\ Sterling and another wide forward to exploit the space behind. As much as Kane’s form has become a significant talking point in the tiny bubble of the football analytics community, it hasn’t made much of a dent in the wider world, where the perception remains that the England captain is one of the undisputed best strikers around. There’s scant evidence that Southgate doesn’t share the more popular view. But should he change his mind? A tactical idea Frank Lampard is working on at Chelsea should give him pause. Increasingly, the Chelsea wingers run past Abraham into more explicit poaching zones right in front of goal. It had already been reported that Lampard was using none other than England star Sterling as a reference point for the runs he wants his wingers to make, and he as much as confirmed it himself, stating that “what Raheem Sterling’s made his own into the last couple of seasons is getting in [the six-yard box] and I love that Christian [Pulisic] goes all the way in there”. As Lampard prompts his wingers to take up more Sterling-esque positions, he seems to be encouraging Abraham to adapt, as (unusually) the striker has not yet taken a shot inside box, unlike his wide counterparts. If this trend continues, there’s no reason to think Abraham would not be able to thrive in an England system built around Sterling. Perception can be a curious thing in football. Through his good finishing, penalties and distribution of goals that has enabled him to avoid any prolonged “dry spells”, Kane has maintained an image as one of Europe’s elite strikers despite no longer having the numbers to back it up. This can’t last forever; eventually, Kane will need to close the gap in terms of taking good shots in order to avoid Abraham succeeding him as England’s best striker.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association