VARtual reality: Why offside VAR calls feel so bad even though they haven't changed the game

Offside was supposed to be the easy part of VAR, they said. It’s a black and white decision, they said. Either he’s on or he’s off, they said. It’s perfect for technology, they said. They sure said a lot of stuff. Over the last week, Premier League watchers have been subjected to watching goals get ruled off after a long video replay delay when an armpit, or a toe, or a wisp of hair has been judged to have been ruled on the wrong side of a defender by mere centimeters. It’s worth prying apart exactly what is, and isn’t, going on, as the Premier League continues to try and implement the great VAR experiment.

First, let’s ground the discussion in what has (and hasn’t) changed. Surprisingly, there’s been remarkably little change in the actual things happening on the field. By almost any measure you can find, the game is basically being played pretty close to exactly the same way it was last season. Last year teams scored on average 1.37 goals per match (to be clear that’s per team, per match, the same way I’m going to list all the stats here), this season it’s 1.36 so far. Last season, on average, a team took 12.52 shots per match. This season it’s gone up a gigantic 0.03 shots per match to 12.55. If we’re desperate to pry things apart to find a change, the best we can do is look at clear shots (shots without a defender between the shooter and keeper) and find that while last season a team would on average take 2.20 per match, this season it’s down to 1.98.

Is that something? Is that evidence that with new VAR-driven offside rules players are no longer getting in behind as much, leading to almost half a shot (remember we’re looking at per game, per team, numbers here so that’s a 0.44 total per match, 0.22 for each team) less of good old defense-splitting, goal-scoring opportunities? Well, the shift in shooting numbers might be a thing, but it’s certainly not reflected in overall expected goal totals. So, probably not. Teams are averaging an almost identical non-penalty xG per match total of 1.25 this year, compared to 1.21 last season. Their xG per shot averages to 0.10 both seasons. Penalties, interestingly, are being awarded at ever so slightly lower rates with teams getting 0.11 per match this season, as compared to 0.14 per match last season (but really that’s a tiny tiny change to read anything into).

For all the noise surrounding VAR, the good news is it hasn’t, as yet, changed the overall nature of football in the Premier League at all. Many are concerned that VAR consistently awards tight offside decisions and negates goals, thus making it harder for strikers to get in behind, harder for teams to score, and in general decreasing attacking potency across the board. And there’s ample evidence that hasn’t happened.

For all that hasn’t changed, there is one fairly large difference in gameplay that has occurred from last season to this one. It’s definitely not one I expected to see though. There have actually been notably fewer offside decisions given this season than last. Weird, huh?

We can speculate about a number of reasons why this might be. I’d be being an irresponsible stats blogger if I didn’t start off saying natural variance could be the cause. Maybe the specter of VAR has changed how teams play, with strikers already reining in their runs lest they get penalized on replay. Or maybe this is a result of assistant referees being instructed to let the game run on close offside decisions in order to better utilize VAR and a number of those situations simply don’t result in goals, and thus are never examined. Whatever the reason, the actual stats are clear. In the era of VAR, there are actually significantly fewer whistles blown for offside than before.

Yet none of this should take away from the obvious impact that VAR has had on how fans experience the offside rule. In fact, it just makes answering the question harder. If fundamentally all that’s changed is that we have fewer offside whistled, then why does everything feel so much worse?

There are, I think, two interlocking issues here. There’s a technological one about the current system’s ability to actually generate the correct decision on close calls, and there’s the experience of the VAR decision itself.

Let’s take the second one first. Before VAR, there were plenty of close offside decisions given. Many were even wrong! But they were largely forgotten because, and I think this is crucial to the experience, they didn’t actually result in goals happening. The play would be blown dead, possession awarded the other way, and everybody would rightly go on with their lives. We didn't need to listen to 30 minutes of post-match talk shows host debating whether Jamie Vardy was a toenail offside on a random pass that might have set him free just before halftime because if the flag went up, that ended the move. There was literally nothing to see here.

Now, though, the experience is entirely different. Now, that decision is close, so the flag stays down until the end of the move, and if that pass results in a goal it’s reviewed either way. Even if the linesman would have flagged it last year, and he ultimately gives it this year, now it becomes a goal that’s chalked off due to VAR, while last season it was just one more close but unremarkable call. The entire top half of this article I talked about how the stats are unchanged. Well, that’s true, but part of that is because a goal like the hypothetical Vardy one I’ve painted, which gets ruled out for offside, doesn’t count in the stats. For stats purposes it didn’t happen. In terms of the game, it didn’t count. And yet, we all saw it.

Again, the important thing to emphasize about this hypothetical is that it’s a situation in which the call was the same before and after VAR. It’s a close offside call which, by the letter of the law, is correctly given in favor of the defense. Without VAR, it’s an entirely forgettable moment, with VAR it’s a goal that’s ruled out and a contentious talking point. Is that a good thing? It certainly isn’t on its own, but you could at least make the argument that it’s a worthwhile price for getting the increased accuracy that VAR provides.

Which brings us to the technological limitations. Exactly how accurate is the VAR camera system at detecting an offside infraction anyway? As Jonathan Wilson has covered, not as incredibly precise as we’d hope. The issue has to do with frame rates and pinpointing exactly when the ball leaves the foot of the passer. It’s important not to overstate the impact of uncertainty, and in reality, though the issue of camera frame rates not being fast enough to be entirely precise on the closest of calls is real, it also has an extremely marginal effect. But, regardless, it would be a fairly straightforward fix to introduce a margin of error into the system and only overrule calls that were outside the margin of error.

That would fix the particulars of the accuracy problem, but would only serve to knock the argument down the line. Instead of arguing about whether or not the reviewed call was correctly upheld or overturned, the argument would shift to whether or not the call fell within the bounds of being reviewable. You can’t actually technologize or rule write your way out of the reality that close calls exist. Wherever you draw the offside line, or the video reviewability cut-off point, there will always be calls that narrowly fall on one side or the other of that line.

The other option, if you really don’t like close decisions being decided either by humans or cameras based on incredibly fine margins, would be to dramatically change the offside rule and insist that the spirit of the rule, “gaining an unfair advantage,” be how an infraction is judged. If you think moving from the relatively objective standard of a line to a subjective judgment will make things less controversial . . . well, let me introduce you to the handball rule.

Ultimately, the technology is the easy part. It’s not only possible, but quite likely that the game can successfully calibrate its systems, it can account for the fact that at the closest of margins some things are fundamentally unknowable. Whether that accuracy is worth the price is another question. In order to get it right, the system has to elevate a small percentage of extremely marginal calls from obscurity to center stage. These are the kinds of calls that are the hardest to get right and the most controversial even when they’re correct. Without VAR they go largely unnoticed, even when they’re wrong. Now, thanks to the system, they’re in the spotlight. The process of being more accurate by definition shows us all what might have been, and then takes it away thanks to decisions that are juuuuuust this side of arbitrary. So, when judging VAR and offside, the only question that matters is, is it worth it?

Premier League Round Up: Tottenham's Defence, Grealish, Mahrez and Jesus

1. Fixing Tottenham piece by piece It's been a mixed start for Jose Mourinho at Tottenham. A 4-0-2 Premier League record is broadly fine, but in both defeats the team has created next to nothing in attack and the win at Wolves came distinctly against the balance of play. Direct play appears to be in vogue at the New Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, with keeper Paulo Gazzaniga favouring the long bomb clearance and newly contracted Toby Alderweireld also bypassing midfield and looking for runs from the speedy Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura and occasionally Dele Alli. Midfield is currently staffed by Eric Dier and Moussa Sissoko, with Harry Winks entrusted at times, Christian Eriksen as a first change emergency substitute, Tanguy NDombele hopefully just feeling his way back to a guaranteed starting slot and Giovani Lo Celso getting splinters on the bench. Regardless, it ain't fixed yet. Son's petulant kick against Chelsea means enforced rotation over Christmas which will be enlightening given that Mourinho hasn't typically, in any job, been too happy to mix it up. The attack needs a little vigour anyway given the 11 shots per game it's currently mustering, for all that goals have followed fairly readily. Perhaps it was ambitious to think Mourinho could just wave a magic wand and fix this team? After all their metrics across 18 months or more were mediocre, and Rome wasn't built in a day. However, one hope for Tottenham was that perhaps the defence could be fixed--and quickly. A run of 2-2-2-0-1-2 goals conceded in the Premier League (plus another five in two games in the Champions League) doesn't lend a lot of support to this but if we look a little deeper, there is a noticeable trend: In those six games, Tottenham's non-penalty expected goals against is 0.76 per game and only Manchester City's is better (0.69). The volume ain't great at 13 per game, but on the whole these aren't good shots. Consider the difference in the prime location highlighted. Under Pochettino, Spurs were conceding a goal a game from shots in that close, optimal zone. Now? A couple of headers and less than one footed shot per game (I count four in total and just one goal). In fact the two goals near the penalty spot were both 95th minute efforts to bring West Ham and Bournemouth back to 3-2 with no time left to even think of an equaliser. Essentially, the majority of the goals they have conceded that mattered have been either fairly low probability (Marcus Rashford: 0.02, Willian: 0.03, Adama Traoré: 0.05) or penalties that were, well, avoidable. The average value of an opponent shot since Pochettino left has almost halved, particularly in open play with a drop down from 0.10 per shot to 0.06. What's the flip side? Three goals allowed from set-pieces compared to none before. Still, it's a start. Now what about that attack? And the midfield? 2. Riyad Mahrez should play more Over at Manchester City, Raheem Sterling has been near ever present and solid as ever while Kevin De Bruyne has rightly garnished many plaudits with an electric combination of relentless assisting and superlative finishing. However, injuries and selection choices have meant Manchester City's barnstorming attack has seen a varied mix of players contributing. As such, Riyad Mahrez's influence on the side may have been overlooked a little, not least by Pep Guardiola as he's only played about half the available time in the Premier League this season. Amazingly, the top five players for a combination of expected goals and expected goals assisted are all Manchester City players:

spare a thought for McGoldrick, hero of the spreadsheets alone so far...
Mahrez refreshingly took no interest in going easy on his former side Leicester at the weekend recording ten shots and four chances created--De Bruyne had another four shots and six chances created himself--and Guardiola's task in fitting all his pieces together remains intriguing. This time Bernardo Silva made way from the attack and slotted into the centre and he fulfilled a soldier's role. He barely featured at the business end of the pitch with no shots and just one chance created. City overall racked up the goals and the chances with 3.45 xG the most Leicester have shipped in a game under Brendan Rodgers and this the first time in his whole tenure that they've found themselves two goals behind in a Premier League game or conceded three. Mahrez starred though and in any other team, you'd imagine he would be ever present and feted as a star man; he's essentially worth a goal a game so far this season and ranks behind only De Bruyne for open play xG Assisted (his 0.41 per 90 to De Bruyne's 0.51 are both well clear of third placed Raheem Sterling's 0.27). As it is, for now, he's just one of the gang, but can hardly have done more to make the right forward slot his own for now. 3. Jesus or Agüero? One aspect that has lingers over this City team is the eventual succession plan for a post-Agüero world. Never too far from an injury, Agüero has continued to be excellent when on the pitch, and will feature deservedly in many Premier League "Team of the Decade" lists. As we can see from the chart above, he leads the league this season in expected metrics and has seven non-penalty goals and two assists to show for his work. Close on his tail though is Gabriel Jesus who actually leads the Premier League for non-penalty expected goals with 0.78, Agüero is in second on 0.69 per 90 then Tammy Abraham on 0.56. This is impressive stuff from the still-just-22-years-old Brazilian and he's turned that into six goals himself with two assists too in similar minutes to that of his older colleague. The difference between the two appears to be that you get more creative passing from Agüero but more workrate from Jesus, and it's arguable which of these two is more useful to City on any given day; but where's the added esteem for Jesus? It could be down to the fact that Jesus is two and a half goals behind expectation this season and that itself is nothing new. Last season he had a lot more substitute minutes and found himself three goals behind expectation, while the year before he was about break even. Is he a sub par finisher? It's a consideration to make, for sure. It might seem odd to conceive a 39 cap Brazilian international Copa America winner as a potential breakout player, but Jesus is probably one finishing bender away from being considered effectively world class. At his age playing for one of the best teams in the world, he should get all the help he needs to step up to the true elite, but perhaps it's a shame Mikel Arteta has gone to Arsenal, given the reporting around his help to Raheem Sterling over the years. Jesus has all the makings and has every opportunity, he's just got to find a way to score more goals. 4. Jack Grealish In April 2016, I watched a doomed to relegation Eric Black-led Aston Villa lose 4-0 to a Chelsea side that included Matt Miazga and Alexandre Pato. That day, most of the crowd were dead set on hurling abuse at Leandro Bacuna who had been recently interviewed and suggested he would like to play in the Champions League. It wasn't the best environment and with fifteen minutes to go a deluge of protest leaflets were hurled onto the pitch in paper airplane form, some travelling well into midfield as they cascaded down from high in the stands. On the bench to start and on the pitch by then as a 66th minute substitute was Jack Grealish. In warm-ups he was the only Villa player who engaged with the fans and after the match he was the only player who went round the pitch and applauded them. This bond between the local lad and his supporters may go some way to explain why Grealish remains at Villa; and the only player who remains from that ill-fated campaign. He may have been Villa's brightest future star then, but now, at 24 years old he is now clearly their best player and in his first season back in the Premier League is showing all the hallmarks of an elite talent. The parallels with James Maddison are obvious, in both hair and output as well as how they lit up the Championship before showing their worth in the top division. While Maddison's comfort in the league is certain as he occupies a top four slot with Leicester, Grealish's future remains less clear in two ways; Villa are parked precariously in 18th with the worst expected goals against in the league (1.9 per game) and his best position remains uncertain. He's on record as saying he prefers playing in midfield, but his recent burst of form has been from a place on the left side of a front three. If we dive into the stats we see a player with a fairly scarce profile: he ranks seventh for successful open play passes into the box but completes these passes at a rate higher than anyone who attempts them at this kind of volume:
oh hey Riyad, again...
He's second behind Kevin De Bruyne for open play key passes, although a good volume of these are horizontal shuttles outside the box. These two passing tics are an interesting blend, and suggest he's good at finding the pass before the key pass, and teeing up space at range. His versatility here is clear. When in his preferred "number eight" role he has the room to carry the ball, yet ultimately his passing looks more like that of a traditional number ten, facing the box, and infrequently running into deep positions. Now he's playing in a left forward role but with an emphasis that is slightly withdrawn compared to many players in that position. Either way his skill set looks like it would have a solid chance of translating to a team with a higher emphasis on ball retention high up the pitch, and heavy possession. Would Arsène Wenger have bought him? I'm tempted to say yes. He is a prodigious ball carrier too: he carries the ball in possession further than all but four players (from which are included stat favourites Adama Traoré and Allan Saint-Maximin) and he wins more fouls than anyone in the league by a large margin: 4.71 per 90, the next best is more than one whole foul behind. And all on essentially a struggling team. Four assists and five goals specs out at a goal contribution of around once every two games and he is well on target to exceed totals from his previous seasons. He dominates the Villa roster in nearly all creative and passing metrics and in a team that enters the box via crossing more than any in the league (38% of box entries are via a cross) he is the solitary antidote (his rate is 7%). If we're being critical that propensity to carry the ball and not release sooner could be worked on, but as long as his passing metrics are progressing as they have this season, it's a minor gripe. What's next for Grealish may well be dependent on his own form. With Villa under threat of relegation his creativity may be decisive in how many points they pick up going forward. With good form and good fortune, he could stay in the league as the king of a smaller castle (if a question remains-- it is if this is what suits him best?), but should they fall through the trapdoor and return to the Championship, it will be illogical for him to stay on again. A top six club is surely his next destination--after all Tottenham were thought to have pursued him in the summer of 2018--but which one?      

The rise of Lazio

Lazio, having already beaten Juventus 3–1 in Serie A this season, just lifted the Italian Supercoppa, overcoming the Old Lady once more, by the same scoreline. Their eight consecutive wins have them sitting third in the table, just six points off Inter with a game in hand. In other words, this is a side that's worthy of being discussed when talking about the Scudetto. At this time last season, Lazio were fourth, but with 11 fewer points and a +3 goal difference, excited few. They were 10 points off Napoli in second place already, and soon it would get even worse. At the midpoint of the season, Lazio dropped off dramatically, focusing on the Coppa Italia rather than the league.  Objectively speaking, Simone Inzaghi's project seemed to have reached a stalemate when they limped to an eighth-place finish last season and it seemed all that could make them better was a marquee signing or two. Yet Lazio's Coppa Italia victory convinced the club to bet again on the former Primavera team, who added only Manuel Lazzari to last year's starting XI. Now, headed into the winter break, not only are Lazio in serious contention for the title, but their attack has improved dramatically: they have the best goal difference in the league, their steady defence contributing, but their 38 goals (second only to Atalanta's 43) making a distinct impression. Lazio have bascially maintained their shooting volume from 2018–19 (from 16.11 to 16.00 shots per game), but has increased the average quality of their attempts by almost 19%, from 0.085 to 0.101 expected goals per shot, which is fourth in the league. At the same time, they've improved their finishing at the team level, so much so that they scored 31 goals while generating 25.93 xG. They have also benefited from a league-best nine penalties, of which they converted seven, thanks to their high volume of play in the opponent's penalty area, where they complete the most passes inside the box, 3.69 per match. Inzaghi continues playing his typical 3-5-2, flanking Joaquín Correa and Ciro Immobile, but it's now even more direct and fast, making Lazio is second with .89 (trailing only Bologna) in the directness index, a ratio of the distance toward goal from the start of a possession that ended in a shot, divided by the total distance traveled in buildup to the shot. This figure higher than last season’s, just as the Biancocelesti's pace towards goal is also slightly higher, increasing from 2.68 to 2.70 meters per second. As much as their tactical improvement appears undeniable, the team's stronger performances might be down to greater understanding amongst the squad and to the awareness of their coach. Lazio's offensive explosion is due to the improved performance of its best players, namely Sergej Milinković-Savić, Luis Alberto, Immobile—and of course Correa, who joined last season. If it is undeniable that a player's performance cannot be evaluated solely by goals and assists, then the regression of Lazio's Big Three from 2017–18 to 2018–19 is emblematic. The Serbian, a target of major European teams in the summer of 2018, had declined worryingly, dropping from 12 to 5 goals. And after 11 goals and 14 assists in his first season as a starter, Luis Alberto had contributed only 5 goals and as many assists. Immobile, on the other hand, almost exactly halved his seasonal scoring haul, declining from 29 goals, for which he shared the Capocannoniere with Mauro Icardi, to "just" 15 goals. In just one season, the three dropped from 52 to 25 goals and 26 to 14 assists; while they had suffered a drop in their overall playing time, it was not decisive. Even the inclusion of Correa and Felipe Caicedo in the rotation last season was not enough, and the club lost 33 goals and 5 positions in the standings. Now, just a few days out from 2020, the three are having perhaps the best season of their careers.  Milinković-Savić is better in practically every way, and has realized that his body helps him make a huge contribution to the defence. He is also more involved in the penalty area, where he averages two more touches in the box (from 5.17 to 7.13 per 90). Above all, he has improved his shooting choices, increasing his xG per shot in open play from 0.061 to 0.102. All this and he remains Lazio’s target man when they want to advance quickly, judging by the 3.39 aerial duels he wins every game, a 58% success rate. Luis Alberto leads the league with 9 assists, he improved his already stellar xG assisted average from 0.26 to 0.30 per 90, and even if he's decreased his contribution to the pressing game, he's practically doubled his number of successful dribbles. He now manages the ball with much more lucidity, so much so that he has reduced his number of turnovers by 20% and improved the percentage of passes completed by 6%, making its contribution much more decisive even when he does not directly create opportunities (+0.24 in xG build-up). Finally, he has reached elite-level production in deep progressions with a league-best 13.37 per 90. It may seem almost impossible that Ciro could score more goals than 29 in a season, yet this year everything seems attainable given he's already scored 17 and Serie A just completed its 17th round. It’s not the first time he's scored at an above-average rate, but this season he's sank 11 goals during open play from just 6.47 xG. To do so he has further increased his shooting volume and has practically doubled his number of touches into the box.  But his contribution to his teammates should not be overlooked, providing them 5 assists, one less than last season's total. In short, he's been involved in 60% of Lazio's goals—truly the side's golden boy. Finally, Correa is now a full-fledged central striker. His offensive output has increased as a result, so much so that he is at 0.49 xG per 90, fourth-best Serie A. He has also improved his shot selection, averaging 0.14 xG per shot and increased his volume to reach the same level as Immobile, 3.44 per 90. He may have scored just 6 goals, but the ratio between goals scored and his xG is still less than 1 (0.83), much better than last season when he scored 5 goals total and averaged 0.73.  To challenge for the title, Lazio need Correa to improve his finishing, as it's unlikely that Immobile will maintain a scoring efficiency of 1.70 in the side's 22 remaining Serie A matches. Maintaining their offensive production and finishing at this level is probably the only way they can continue to challenge for the title unless there is a considerable improvement in defence. The squad currently have a mid-table defence with 1.17 xG conceded, but the trend is worsening. With the side already eliminated from the Europa League, leaving them to focus solely on Coppa Italia and the league, it's still hard to argue that they can actually win the Scudetto. But what's certain is that any coach would like to have four offensive players of this level of quality.

Can Borussia Dortmund be fixed?

With Bayern München having a true rollercoaster of a season, RB Leipzig stepping up to the very top and Borussia Mönchengladbach surprising friend and foe, several haven't even noticed that Borussia Dortmund is having a pretty rough season. Lucien Favre’s squad has accrued 30 points, 12 fewer than the half-season total they put up prior to last season's winter break. So what’s going on with Die Borussen?

The attack is still solid

A true and reliable striker would be a welcomed improvement for Dortmund. There’s a reason BVB are in the high-profile mix for the winter signing of Red Bull Salzburg’s teen sensation Erling Braut Haaland. Paco Alcácer is the only out-and-out striker in the squad, and the Spaniard does not seem like a permanent solution given his injury woes and unstable form. But even without a genuine striker, and with a manager like Favre with a reputation of being ‘conservative’, Dortmund’s numbers on the attacking side of the ball remain solid. Captain Marco Reus has stepped in as the team’s false nine in recent weeks and provided significant help to the attack. In contrast to the technically gifted, but physically iffy, Mario Götze, Reus combines this important link-up role up top in possession with a scoring threat. The 30-year-old superstar is still so, so good when healthy. Unfortunately, Reus is dealing with a muscle injury during the winter break, and it’s still not entirely clear if he’ll recover in time for the second half of the season.  Dortmund’s other offensive star had a rough start to the season. Favre benched Jadon Sancho for disciplinary reasons less than two months ago. But the 19-year-old phenom responded in a major way. In a five-game stretch that started with the November home game against Paderborn (3–3), the English teen scored six and assisted four. Sancho is overperforming in expected goals, but the young winger’s dominance is not dependant on his hot shooting. He is simply the real deal. Dortmund’s short-term future as a legitimate title candidate is linked closely to Sancho’s decision to either stay in Germany or return to an elite Premier League club.  The same can be said for Achraf Hakimi. His two-year loan spell from Real Madrid ends next summer, and it’ll be interesting to see how far Dortmund are willing to go to keep their gifted fullback in-house. With central midfielders Axel Witsel and Thomas Delaney out injured, Favre switched formations to compensate. Due to their lack of defensive midfield options for Favre's favored 4-2-3-1, Dortmund fielded a 3-4-3 formation over the last five games. This elevated Hakimi to the most important player in Dortmund’s build-up, a slippery and creative outlet on the right flank. 

Defensive woes

If we add the last 7 games of Dortmund’s 2018–19 Bundesliga campaign to the numbers they've put up at the midseason mark, Favre’s squad have conceded a whopping total of 40 goals in their last 24 league games.  Dortmund made an effort to address that issue this summer with the return of Mats Hummels and the acquisition of Hoffenheim left-back Nico Schulz. And even though the duo has been playing quite well this season, the defense is still slipping. The defensive radars help illustrate Dortmund’s defensive struggles that created the worrisome xG trendline above. Favre’s squad are extremely susceptible to the counter-attack this year, and gave up a bunch more high-quality chances in comparison to last season. Player-wise, Dortmund’s backline lost Abdou Diallo to PSG and gained Hummels and Schulz this season. But form-wise, things have shifted dramatically. Manuel Akanji often looked like a world-class centerback-to-be in his first season and a half at Dortmund, but has become increasingly vulnerable when defending open space this year. The search for an ideal partner for Witsel in defensive midfield has been rocky as well. Before his injury, Delaney was still as good of a ball-winner as last season, but his limitations on the ball hindered Dortmund’s play in possession. Julian Weigl is better as a central midfield hub in the build-up, but starting the 24-year-old in midfield weakens Dortmund’s ability to limit the opposition's counter-attacking opportunities.  Dortmund’s defensive activity maps from last year (above) and this season (below) show the press has died down a bit and Dortmund are defending more in midfield. Be it at Mönchengladbach or at Nice, Favre has been most successful with teams that are able to drop back and deal a killer blow to the opponent with a swift and precise transition play. But the type of attacking talent (and defensive vulnerabilities) in Dortmund’s squad suggests a high-octane pressing style is a more logical fit. And herein lies the key question for Dortmund. A slight shift in their playing style is needed to lift them up the table. But in which way? Should the squad play more ‘Favresque’, drop a little deeper more often and gamble on the individual prowess of their fast attackers to punish the positional risks the opposition take? Or should Dortmund push harder on the gas pedal and try to outgun the opposition? Even if the Thor Amongst Young Strikers, aka Haaland, signs with Dortmund, Die Borussen have plenty of other issues to solve. 

Bolton Wanderers’ survival bid: Possible, improbable, or impossible?

It seems weird to discuss this midway through December, but it’s time to check in on a team where the dust kicked up in the summer has only just settled.

Where have they come from?

Alright, a bit of dust being kicked up is an understatement. Bolton Wanderers very nearly ceased to exist. Years of declining performance on and off the field and failure by those in charge to get the house in order caught up with them. It took a takeover completed at the eleventh hour to keep them operating as a business. It truly was the eleventh hour. The season had already kicked off with Bolton having not signed a single player, forced into fielding a team largely made up of players from the development and U18 squads just to field a squad whilst the takeover went through. They played five fixtures under these conditions, losing four by an aggregate score of 0–17, but somehow clinging onto a 0–0 draw against Coventry to claim a point in their second match of the season, under highly unlikely circumstances. All this and . . .  Bolton started the season with a 12-point deduction for going into administration whilst the takeover was in process. That unexpected draw with Coventry took them to -11 points, and begun the long road toward a positive tally. It helped that on August 28th the takeover finally went through and they could sign a few senior professionals for the season. Five games in, but better late than never. Meanwhile, manager Phil Parkinson resigned, understandably exhausted by months of constant pressure and uncertainty around the club's future, whist seldom receiving his salary on time (if at all) for his troubles.

Where are they now?

With Bolton's season effectively starting from scratch five fixtures in, fighting a points deduction and a terrible goal difference, new manager Keith Hill set about leading a squad newly assembled and without a proper pre-season behind them on their quest to achieve the improbable. Scriptwriters everywhere were incredulous as they took the lead four minutes into the squad's first ‘proper’ fixture away at Rotherham. Bolton scored their first goal of the campaign, but on this occasion that was as good as it got. A bit of a downpour on the parade, but Hill was magnanimous, “It will take time but this is just a step on a journey. One thing I do know is that Bolton Wanderers will be great again.” It took just three days to climb another step. A 0–0 draw at home to Oxford the following Tuesday set the tone. Another point chalked off towards a positive points tally. That Saturday saw them move yet closer. Another 0–0 draw, this one at home to Sunderland. Progress slowed slightly as fixtures against Portsmouth, Blackpool and Rochdale yielded just a solitary point. But then… The scenes in the away end as the final whistle went were described as ‘thunderous’. Seven months since their last league win. Three months since they’d nearly ceased to exist. 22nd October. Bristol Rovers 0–2 Bolton Wanderers. The wheels on the great escape were well and truly in motion. Points tally: -5. That first win lit the touch paper. The remaining deficit was wiped out within the next two matches as victories over Fleetwood and Milton Keynes saw them hit the milestone that had been objective number one since Hill had taken charge. Clearly the footballing gods decided this was all becoming a bit too much of a fairytale. We all know and love (what do you mean you don’t?) the sacred cliché, 'goals change games'. We all know that red cards change games too. As Bolton went 1–0 up away at Accrington on the back of their three-game winning streak, the omnipotent soccer powers above us decided that a penalty to Accrington and a red card to defender Josh Earl for the offending incident were just recourse to keep fans' feet planted firmly on the ground. They might’ve gone a bit far with the resultant 7–1 hammering, mind. The 95th-minute equaliser at home to AFC Wimbledon restored spirit and belief to keep Bolton’s unlikely mission on track before they became the latest victim to succumb to Peterborough and Ivan Toney last weekend.

Where do they need to go?

Bolton find themselves still bottom of the table, 15 points from safety and just 27 league games remaining. Keith Hill has undeniably done a sterling job just laying the foundation on which Bolton could possibly survive, and has shown that Bolton are far from the worst side in the division. Were this a normal season with a level playing field from the start, it’s highly unlikely they’d even be involved in the relegation picture. Looking at what this all might mean for the future, a benchmark of their current standard can be seen upon reviewing their performance trendlines since the start of the season. The blue marker shows both when Keith Hill was appointed and when Bolton started fielding senior players. Their league record since that moment is W3 D4 L5 from 12 games, a rate of 1.08 points per game. There are always caveats, but a simplistic projection of that rate over the remainder of the season would leave Bolton on 31 points, well short of the required total to survive. Now to colour it with the necessary context. Bolton have essentially and necessarily been running a pre-season regime during this period, playing against opposition with the privilege of correctly implemented strength and conditioning programmes, able to not only fully recover game-to-game but also play at the peak of their powers. There’s scope to suggest that Bolton should get better as the season wears on and their fitness levels match those of their opponents. It's likely there'll be another minor reshuffling of the pack and the arrival of new faces in January to further mould the side in Hill’s image. This should leave Bolton more competitive and able to pick up points at a higher rate. The major issue remains the mountain that they have to scale. For all the good work that’s been done to get them to a competitive level, that height might be too much. Essentially starting the season from scratch with just two points, they have to pick up more points in a half-season than their relegation rivals will in the full season. The clever clogs at the spread firms suggest the points total needed to survive could end up being as high as 50. That leaves Bolton needing to pick up points at the rate of a play-off standard team for the remainder of the season, which would require yet another large leap forward in their levels of performance. To put it one way, Bolton could win their next eight matches on the spin and would still need to pick up points from then onwards at around the same 1.08ppg rate they’ve managed so far under Hill. To focus in too closely on that would be to lose sight of the bigger picture. No matter what division the club competes in next season, the slate will be wiped clean, the team will start the season with a neutral points tally, hell, they’ll even get a proper pre-season under their belts. There’ll be no fretting over whether or not the season tickets fans purchased will actually manifest into a team to watch on the pitch. This season should’ve been a complete write-off, yet while Bolton’s great escape still isn’t probable, it’s certainly not impossible. And that's an unlikely victory on its own.

André-Frank Zambo Anguissa is tearing it up for Villarreal

There is quite a bit of variance in Villarreal’s expected goals difference. At least there was. Javi Calleja took back his old job last season and while there has been turbulence, the Yellow Submarine are now floating above the clouds and trending toward a more steady second half to their season. Calleja was sacked in December 2018 after 15 months in the job and replaced by Luis García, who lasted less than two months before the club brought back Calleja. The returning coach guided them to safety in La Liga and then went about replacing some key losses during the summer. Pablo Fornals, one of Spain’s most exciting talents, went to West Ham in the Premier League, and both Nicola Sansone and Roberto Soriano left for Bologna. They overhauled their defence with players like Raúl Albiol and Alberto Moreno. Perhaps most significantly, they took advantage of Fulham’s relegation from England’s top flight to bring in a player who, since signing on loan, has been sensational. André-Frank Zambo Anguissa arrived at Craven Cottage in August 2018 and never settled at the club, being played out of position and never receiving a decent run of games to showcase his ability. There were glimpses but there were also complaints that he wasn’t good enough. Or that he wasn’t worth the money spent on him (close to €25 million). The problem was Fulham's complete lack of vision upon their return to the Premier League unless, of course, you consider buying lots of expensive and exciting players and throwing them on the field together a "vision". At Villarreal, Anguissa has a role. He's started all but two of the team's games in La Liga this season, including the last 14 straight. Around Anguissa, Villarreal have some of the most exciting footballers in Spain, and Calleja has them playing a thrilling style of football. Santi Cazorla remains brilliant. Gerard Moreno is playing like an elite attacker, Ekambi is constantly dangerous and the whole of the latter’s partnership might even be greater than the sum of its parts.  They also have a high-functioning and energetic midfield with players like summer recruit Moi Gómez and the precocious Samu Chuckwueze, but Anguissa might be the most important.  On Sunday, during a surprising win over Sevilla at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Anguissa played as the right central midfielder in a 4-1-4-1, protecting Vicente Iborra and picking up the pesky and intelligent mover, Franco Vázquez, as he dropped between lines. He was forced to be more reactive than usual, creeping silently into dangerous spaces, but was also proactive in chasing Éver Banega in an attempt to prevent him from influencing the game.  But it wasn't just his defensive work that stood out. When Villarreal beat the odds to take all three points from Sevilla at home, they did it despite being subjected to intense pressure and precise passing all night, causing them to struggle for very long patches of the game. Their best moments of the attack, however, often came thanks to Anguissa serving as perhaps their most promising attacking outlet, as the passing map shows. It was a slog at the Sánchez Pizjuá, but Anguissa persisted in offering Villarreal a dribbling outlet. They needed a big-bodied ball-carrier to protect the ball from Sevilla’s fervent pressure and someone with vision to see the runs being made off the ball by Moreno and Chukwueze. They created next to nothing after going 0-1 up. Any time they did get forward, it was Anguissa carrying the load. He had 37 carries, 12 more than Moi Gómez, and received 36 passes, continuing to separate himself from the rest at Villarreal.  After the game, Spanish daily newspaper AS wrote a glowing review showing the world is waking up to how good Anguissa can be. They noted that he's giving the sensation that he has found his place and his best level. The article continued, stating he not only covers lots of ground but has started to manage play, drive the team and arrive in the opponents' penalty area. This shows that, technically, he is amongst the best in his position. It is difficult to overstate just how good Anguissa is in every facet of the game, doing everything Calleja asks him to do. The Sevilla game isn’t an anomaly, it’s the norm. Villarreal are the highest-pressing team in the league. There is no team with as many pressures per 90 minutes or as many pressure regains. In attack, only Barcelona and Real Madrid have a higher non-penalty xG. This shows they are proactive in how they understand the game. They don’t like to play a game where they are not dictating the terms. Anguissa also has the highest number of aggressive actions with 21.16. And when it comes to progressing play with the ball, there is just one player, Santi Cazorla, with more deep progressions and carries. Chuckwueze is considered an incredible talent and his dribbling ability is often highlighted, yet Anguissa has more dribbles with 3.3 per game and more successful dribbles with 2.78 per game. He also beats out Gerard Moreno, another exceptionally talented and willing dribbler.  It is Anguissa’s presence on the right side of midfield that allows Calleja’s tactics to work. Moreno often drifts wide and deep, functioning as a right winger/second striker while Chuckwueze moves past him, leaving Anguissa to cover. It’s there where Anguissa applies most of his pressure. He can play further wide, more central as a defensive midfielder, and further forward as well. Even if Villarreal end up languishing around midtable for the rest of the season, the fact that they have discovered how to draw out the Cameroonian’s best form unlocks exciting possibilities for the future. At 24, he's being compared to the best in his position in the league. Fede Valverde has emerged as the high-pressing answer to Zinedine Zidane’s midfield and transformed Real Madrid from being a team opponents could easily slice through to a far more tricky opponent to play against. He ain't got nothing on Anguissa though. The radial suggests that while Valverde has a bigger role in attack, Anguissa presses more—and more successfully—and is better at beating opponents. As we saw at Fulham, Anguissa struggled given his role and circumstance. At Villarreal, he is improving, but we still haven’t seen just how good he might be if a team accentuates all of his strengths. Whatever he is asked to do, he does it at a very high level. For now, he has the side's midfield functioning and is carving out a place for himself as a multi-level threat in LaLiga. The doubts that lingered after his move to Fulham are gone and the club will make a lot of money in the summer after his loan ends. Next season, it will be up to whoever his manager is to help him continue to develop by putting him in a position to succeed.

Premier League Mailbag, December 2019

Can Sheffield United keep this up? Should Chelsea be signing Wilfried Zaha? And more! Mailbag! Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul? Hi, I’m Grace Robertson. You may remember me from such articles as “The Rise of Press-Resistant Midfielders” and “West Ham Aren’t Getting the Balance Right”. I’m here with a real treat for StatsBomb fans — if any are out there — because today we present “The StatsBomb Premier League Mailbag”! Let’s answer a few hand-picked questions from the good people on Twitter.  

Blades in paradise? “Overperforming” is an interesting word here. The first thing that comes to mind in a football analytics context is finishing, with the assumption that a side scoring more and/or conceding fewer than their expected goals suggests they are “overperforming”. Impressively, Sheffield United are only a touch better than one would expect on the defensive side and exactly where they “should” be in attack. The signs are good here for Chris Wilder’s team. Another curiosity is how many draws Sheffield United have. Most of the seven came in pretty tight games with close run xG, so the Blades can’t really say they are too hard done by. But “overperforming” teams tend to see the high variance swings go their way, and turn a few of them into wins, adding more points even if they gain a few losses in the process. Unless you’re a terrible team expecting to lose most games, which Sheffield United aren’t, draws are not your friends when trying to overperform. Where the Blades quite obviously are overperforming is against their budget. Their wage bill is surely one of if not the lowest in the Premier League. With a second year of top-flight TV revenues all but secured, and a mid-sized stadium for the division filled with loyal supporters in a “traditional football city”, the Blades could improve this in the coming years. Considering the extremely well established and obvious correlation between money and footballing success, to maintain a solid position in the league, Sheffield United will have to start spending like a top-flight team in the long term.  

Liverpool leaving it late?   First, let’s look at how many of these goals Liverpool actually score. Of the Reds' 42 goals this season, 11 have come after 70 minutes. Liverpool have finished their chances well in these periods, but not to such an extent that it’s outside the bounds of reasonable variance. Here’s the weird part: Manchester City have scored 13 goals after the 70 minute mark this season, 2 more than Liverpool. Leicester have also scored 13. The pattern remains if we just look at goals scored after 80 minutes, where Man City have the most with 9. Wait, what!? It’s got to be goals to win games, right? Surely Leicester and Man City have just scored more in games they were already winning? Right? Wrong. Liverpool have scored 6 goals after 70 minutes when the score was level or they were behind. Man City have also scored 6, while Leicester have put up 4. To be honest, I am somewhat shocked by this. But my advice to any Liverpool supporters would be to not worry about it. The side has a huge lead in the table now. If this were a five-point gap, evidence that the side isn’t as strong as perceived might be a real worry, but not so much with the table as it is.  

Hammers concerns First of all, West Ham have issues at both ends, but the attack should be easier to fix. The Hammers have a good core of attacking players, and more time in the Premier League could hopefully see Pablo Fornals and Sébastien Haller look closer to their best. The talent is there for Manuel Pellegrini to get them to push on. Defensively it’s . . . ugly. As the above radar shows, West Ham press a moderate amount, are adequately effective at suppressing shots, but get carved open with good chances at will. Since this approach clearly isn’t providing the desired result, the solution people will suggest is sacking Pellegrini and hiring a manager who can play a low block. Maybe this would be fine, and it would likely stop the bleeding, but there’s no guarantee it won't be a lateral move that just creates new problems elsewhere. The main issue right now seems to be that a midfield of Declan Rice and Mark Noble cannot prevent teams from moving the ball through central areas with ease. The easiest, though most costly, solution might just be to try and find a really good midfielder in January.  

Zaha the man for the job? If reports are to be believed, it looks like Chelsea would like to sign Wilfried Zaha this January, and could be willing to pay a lot of money for him. Let’s take a look at what he’s been doing this season. Zaha dribbles. A lot. Only Allan Saint-Maximin is putting up more than the Ivory Coast international’s 4.56 successful dribbles per 90 minutes this season. By dribbling so much, he’s able to draw a lot of fouls, which would be of more value if Chelsea were better from set pieces (just two goals from them this season, one of which was a Fikayo Tomori once in a lifetime strike from range). He offers a good passing threat, with his 1.62 open play passes into the box per 90 easily the most of any Palace player, while only Willian and N’Golo Kanté beat it at Chelsea. Zaha is a zone mover. He’s really quite good at getting the ball into dangerous positions. What makes it complicated is that he’s the only player at Palace really progressing the ball at any real clip. As such, it might be forgivable that he doesn’t really take or create many shots. The gamble Chelsea would take is that he could do more of this in an environment where the ball progression workload was shared around much more evenly. The flip side is that he’s someone more suited to being a big fish in a small pond, and struggles to find his role in a side where he doesn’t get to receive the ball and just do his thing. It’s a question that’s difficult to answer with the data.  

Joelinton — not for the Toon? Well let’s start by looking at what he’s doing this season compared to last year at Hoffenheim. Shot volume was always something of a concern for Joelinton, with the best-case scenario is his becoming much more of an all-around threat in the air and with his link-up play than a pure goalscorer. But he’s just not getting any good chances right now, and he’s doing an even worse job at finishing them. This would be fine if there were other players at Newcastle who could get the shots. Roberto Firmino doesn’t have a huge volume of chances, but Liverpool’s attack seems to do just fine with him. But at St. James’ Park, no one is getting more than 2 shots per 90 right now. The player most frequently taking them is, somehow, Jonjo Shelvey, which is as clear an example you’ll get that Newcastle don’t have a guy to get on the end of chances in the final third. Joelinton still does what he’s good at. His 22.89 open play passes per 90 make him as one of the more involved strikers in the league, made all the more impressive by playing in a side that don’t get the ball forward all that much. He puts up a very high volume of pressures while dominating in the air. It's rare that one player will have all three of those skills, even if the cost is few shots. It does feel like Newcastle bought him expecting a conventional target man and wound up with someone very different. A wide player who can get shots away himself, in the mould of Son Heung-min or Sadio Mané, would greatly benefit him and Newcastle if there is money to spend in January.  

Gift giving Looking at the state of the world right now, we could do with spreading some cheer, so let’s see what we can do. We’re not going to worry too much about attainability here, and just give teams the players they need. As noted above West Ham lack an all-around central midfielder, so let’s give them the much-maligned Tiémoué Bakayoko, who could offer the assertiveness they crave. In looking for wide players to get shots for Newcastle to unlock Joelinton, Jarrod Bowen's name pops up, and reports suggest the club are actually interested in him. So potentially good work, Newcastle. Whatever happens, he looks ready to step up to the Premier League. Manchester United desperately need someone who can progress the ball and pick out a forward pass, even with Paul Pogba returning from injury. It remains to be seen if Martin Ødegaard has an open path to the Real Madrid first team. United have the money to make it happen. Seems like a big win all around (except for poor Real Sociedad).

Can Real Madrid and Barcelona forwards thrive in the age of pressing and transitions?

Barcelona and Real Madrid dominated European football throughout most of the 2010s by surrounding their historic stars—Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo—with defenders and central midfielders who were outstanding playmakers: Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Toni Kroos, Andrés Iniesta, Luka Modrić. Inspired by these teams and players, elite European football demanded defensive players to do more and more with the ball. Sweeper keepers and attacking fullbacks stopped being just a curiosity of South American football while deep midfield playmakers replaced the number ten role. 

As the decade moved on, however, football developed a response to this era of possession football in the form of increasingly aggressive and complex pressing systems, from the positional pressing systems of Pep Guardiola or Thomas Tuchel to the zonal pressing schools of Jürgen Klopp or the Red Bull clubs. A rising tide of teams want to dominate European football not so much by what they do on the ball, but how intense and organized they behave off it. Pressing has been a key element in allowing Manchester City and Liverpool to rack up 90+ points in the Premier League, and it's a commonality shared by three of last season’s Champions League semifinalists, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Ajax.  In this new era of pressing, modern midfielders and forwards need different skill sets to defeat opponents. Midfielders cannot be just outstanding passers, but more complete ball movers who are able to dribble past opponents from deeper midfield zones. Forwards must make longer runs to beat the higher defensive lines, so speed and dribbles in open spaces are once again considered as relevant as close control and dribbling in tight spaces. And forwards, now more than ever, must be the first line of defense. Real Madrid and Barcelona forwards seem to be lagging behind in several of these key skills, so we decided to dig into the data to find more. 

Defense and Pressing

Let’s begin by using the 2019–20 season data to compare the defensive activity of Real Madrid and Barça to two of the most mature, consistent, and high-profile pressing systems in European football: Manchester City and Liverpool.  Counting only the players with more than 600 league minutes under their belt, we see the midfielders in all four teams do similar amounts of pressing work: a midfielder at City and Liverpool averages 17 and 19 pressure events per game, respectively, while a midfielder at Real Madrid and Barça averages 18 and 15 pressures per game.  The big difference between the defenses of the English and Spanish giants pops out when looking at the pressure data of their forwards. In both English clubs, the forwards lead the way of the press, averaging slightly more pressure events than their midfielders. A forward at City and Liverpool averages 18 and 20 pressures per game, respectively, almost twice the rates of his counterparts at Real Madrid and Barcelona, who average 9 and 11 pressures.  Such a difference in the defensive work rate of the forwards is reflected in the collective pressing effort. While Liverpool and City cover the entire final third with a blanket of above-average pressure. . . . . . Real Madrid and Barça exhibit a patchier defensive activity coverage, leaving more openings for the opposition to progress through the midfield areas.  Since midfielders at the Spanish giants must compensate for the pressing work their forwards don’t do, they are forced to push up higher and higher into opposition territory to harass their rivals, leaving bigger gaps behind their backs that can be exploited. A recent example is evident in last weekend’s game between Real Sociedad and Barça. Busquets — still the most active presser in his squad despite being 31 years old — constantly moved right behind Messi and Luis Suárez to pester his opponents during the buildup. Meanwhile, also-31-year-old Ivan Rakitić often drifted wide to the right wing to press the opposition left-back to compensate for the defensive work Messi doesn’t do. Both defensive actions left big gaps behind the veteran midfielders, and neither has the legs to recover on time when overpassed by the opposition. And with Real Sociedad having a skillful midfield trio of Ander Guevara, Mikel Merino, and Martin Ødegaard, they beat the Barça press often, allowing their forward trio of Alexander Isak, Mikel Oyárzabal, and Cristian Portu to thrive in the spaces behind the Blaugrana pressing line. Real Sociedad outshot their rivals by 19 shots to 9. Barcelona managed to draw this game because Gerard Piqué put forth a titanic performance defending his own box, while Antoine Griezmann, Suárez and Messi packed a bigger goal-scoring punch than their opponents and took better advantage of their fewer chances. Moving over to Madrid, Los Blancos have avoided these defensive issues through (a) a less aggressive defensive block and (b) the excellent defensive efforts of Fede Valverde — the team’s most active presser — and Casemiro. Both midfielders have the speed burst that Barcelona’s veteran midfielders lack, so even if they are bypassed or make a mistake when marking opponents, they can recover more easily. This year, both Real Madrid and Barça appear to have acknowledged and adapted to the defensive deficits of their forward lines. As the defensive radars below show, both teams have actually improved on last season’s open play expected goals conceded by using less aggressive defensive behaviors, as measured by StatsBomb’s aggression metric. Both teams are now more selective about when they send their midfielders up to press. Given the improvement in their defensive underlying numbers, why are we so hung up on their pressing numbers? Pressing high or defending deep, isn’t that just a stylistic choice? Up to this point in the season, Real Madrid has conceded fewer goals and expected goals than Liverpool and Manchester City. If the less aggressive defense works for them, is there really a problem with forwards not doing defensive work? Funnily enough, the problems of the less aggressive approach used by Real Madrid and Barça might be reflected in the attack rather than defense.  Teams that recover the ball deeper into their own territory need faster, trickier, and more dynamic forwards who can threaten the opposition goal from longer distances. These players must make fast 30-, 40-, 50-meter runs and still have the lungs and brains to maneuver into good shooting positions and finish clinically. In their prime, Messi, Suárez, Karim Benzema, and Gareth Bale were all part of historic counterattacking trios that destroyed high-profile opponents through a devastating mix of speed and technical precision. If you’re a fan of FC Bayern, you probably remember what I’m talking about (sorry, Bayern fans). Half a decade after those events, none of these forwards retain such explosiveness in their veteran legs. Messi can still single-handedly dribble past defensive systems from time to time, but these moments are becoming rarer and rarer.

Barça’s Attack and the Deficit of Explosiveness

Barça tried to compensate for an aging Messi and the departure of Neymar by signing Ousmane Dembelé, but he has struggled to live up to his potential over his two injury-plagued years at the club. This past summer, instead of using the transfer war chest to sign another speedy trickster and goal-scorer who could play off Messi, they went for Griezmann, a striker known for his technical precision, finishing, and game intelligence rather than his speed and dribbling. And to boot, his ideal role and zones of influence are similar to Messi’s. This leads to a forward trio of Messi, Suárez, and Griezmann who accumulate plenty of goal-scoring punch, but not enough explosiveness to threaten defenses. It should thus come as no surprise that the Blaugrana team received a breath of fresh air with the surprise appearance of 17-year-old Anssumane “Ansu” Fati, the newest hot prospect from La Masía who is now the youngest player ever to score in a Champions League game. He has barely played 327 minutes in La Liga, but despite the small sample size at hand, it’s not outlandish to argue that his speed and dribbling make him a better fit for Barcelona’s left winger role than Griezmann. As seen in the passing visualization below, Griezmann’s preferred way of playing the left winger role is . . . to not play as a left winger. He’s not a dribbler, so he compensates by smartly moving across the pitch, slipping into the gaps left by the opposition defense. This is how he can end up stepping on Messi's areas of influence and becoming redundant.  Fati’s dribbling ability, on the other hand, allows him to stick to the left wing and avoid interfering with Messi and Suárez while still managing to get into the box and produce shots. 

Real Madrid’s Attack and Their Goal-Scoring Deficit 

Real Madrid not only ignored the decreasing speed and dribbling skill of their forward line for a couple of years, but in the summer of 2018, they also ignored a gargantuan goal-scoring deficit by letting go of Ronaldo without replacing him with another world-class goal scorer. This past summer they tried to make amends in these areas by signing top striker prospect Luka Jović and a superstar dribbler in Eden Hazard, but this still doesn’t solve all their attacking problems. Zidane wants to build the team around his best dribbler — Hazard — and his best striker — a Benzema who is undergoing a late renaissance — but often uses a 4-3-3 setup that relegates Jović to a substitute role, since the Serbian doesn’t have the speed to act as a goal-scoring winger beside Benzema. With Zidane barely using the forward who should be his second-best goal-scorer, an overworked Benzema must carry the team’s goal production. 45% of Real Madrid’s expected goal output (and 52% of their actual goals) in the league has been shot or assisted by Benzema. With a slow and injury-ridden start to the 19/20 season, Hazard has suffered his lowest goal-assist productivity since his 2015–16 annus horribilis, with a meager 0.27 non-penalty expected goals + expected assists per 90. Bale is doing better, with a rate of 0.47 non-penalty xG + xG assisted per 90, but his performance has once again been affected by injuries and the mistrust of a fanbase who questions his commitment to the team. With every passing year, the 30-year-old Bale seems slower and less able to get into ideal shooting positions. Given the lackluster performance of the senior forwards, Real Madrid’s hopes have shifted to their U-20 players: 19-year-old Vinícius Jr. and 18-year-old Rodrygo Goes. After his breakout 18–19 season, Vinícius continues to be one of La Liga’s elite dribblers, but he must master the art of goalscoring. While Hazard is too reluctant to shoot, Vinícius is too eager, which often leads him to shoot from subpar locations. His open play shot quality of 0.08 xG per shot ranks below league average, by far the lowest among Real Madrid forwards.  That being said, Vinícius does offer things that none of his senior teammates do. As the passing graphic below shows, Hazard will often receive the ball in his own half, aiming to dribble or combine with his teammates to help progress through midfield zones.  Vinícius performs some of these progressive runs and passes, too, but his efforts are more concentrated in the opposition half. Not only does he want to run at defenders, but he’s often willing to run behind them too. Bale, Benzema, and Hazard don’t make these runs into space frequently.  On the right wing, Rodrygo is competing against Bale for the starting role in the lineup. He’s not an elite dribbler like Vinícius, but he tries to compensate by being more cerebral and precise. Rodrygo does not shoot often but is more careful about his shot locations, averaging the highest xG per shot this season among Real Madrid forwards. While Bale seems increasingly comfortable staying on the wing and whipping a cross into the box, Rodrygo seems more willing to attack the box, which is ultimately reflected in his higher rate of touches in the box and xG. A great example of Rodrygo’s precision and composure in finishing is his debut goal against Osasuna, where he easily controlled a 40-meter pass from Casemiro, ran into the box, and waited for the correct moment to cut inside with his right foot and score. The irony in this story of Vinícius and Rodrygo is that one youngster seems to have what the other lacks, and vice versa.


Real Madrid and Barcelona have incredibly talented squads, but their players don’t necessarily complement each other, which leads to many of the tactical problems mentioned. This happens when clubs buy talent for the sake of buying talent, without a specific philosophy or game plan in mind. That represents the big difference over the last three years between the two Spanish giants and the two English giants: the latter first defined — through their management and coaching teams — an idea of how they wanted to play, and then bought players who fit their needs and the rest of the squad. By building these strong collective structures, Liverpool and Manchester City created teams who could rack up 90+ points in their domestic league or win the Champions League without needing a Messi or a Ronaldo. I’m willing to bet that the forwards in Real Madrid and Barcelona who are not doing much defensive work now would significantly increase their defensive work rates if they played at Manchester City or Liverpool instead. Real Madrid and Barça can keep buying players as much as they want, but they will keep running into problems of squad coherence until they learn to first settle on an identity, and then buy the talent that fits. At least Real Madrid can say they’ve never followed that approach, but Barça have long prided themselves in being a philosophy club, yet their current first-team squad building doesn’t seem to follow a coherent game plan.

Jorginho: What a difference a year (doesn't) make

You can tell the vibe is better at Chelsea this season because nobody is talking about Jorginho.  As Chelsea’s marquee signing in 2018 — a metronomic passer from Napoil, no less — he became the symbol of the Maurizio Sarri era, a productive year of widespread discontent that saw the club finish third in the league, come within a penalty of winning the Carabao Cup, and win the Europa League.  Chelsea’s Very Own Frank Lampard™ replaced Sarri in the summer with a mandate to improve the mood at Stamford Bridge and play lots of academy graduates. A 27-year-old Italian, the totem of the ancien régime, seemingly didn’t fit with either of those imperatives. But Chelsea were barred from replacing him in the transfer market and lacked midfield depth. He stayed. Four months later, Chelsea is in the top four, Jorginho is starting regularly and having a repeat of his first season in the Premier League . . . and everyone seems fine with it??? It turns out most managers, not just the possession-obsessed Maurizio Sarri, can use a midfielder who excels at retaining and passing the ball. Under Lampard, Jorginho completes 73 passes per 90 minutes, down from 80 under Sarri. In this more vertical Chelsea team, he's making 6.5 long passes per 90 (up from 4.02). This directness has seen his average pass attempted and completed length go up by two yards, but has come at little cost in terms of ball retention. He’s completing 89% of passes (down from 90%) while turning the ball over even less often.  Changes to the rest of Chelsea’s attacking setup have recast Jorginho’s offensive contribution. Because players in Lampard’s more direct system are turning a greater share of his passes into shots, his expected assists have shot up by more than 60%, despite the fact he passes into the penalty box less often under Lampard. Similarly, originating moves in this system have caused his contribution to expected goal buildup nearly double. These may be the most dramatic changes to his profile as a player, but they’re not actually signs that he’s playing differently.  Jorginho’s passing doubled as his primary defensive contribution under Sarri, who kept opponents at bay by retaining the ball. Defensive possession isn’t a major feature of Lampard’s system, but Jorginho continues to be a reasonable contributor out of possession. Adjusting for possession, he remains an elite interceptor of the ball. This year, he’s added more tackles to his above-average total from the Sarri year while raising his pressures up to league average for a midfielder. By the numbers, Jorginho appears to be defensively useful without the ball. Actually, by the numbers, Jorginho keeps playing like Fernandinho in Manchester City’s title-winning seasons, which . . . nope! Only one of these players can be trusted to solve problems one-on-one in the open field, and it sure isn’t Jorginho. He may be Exhibit A for the argument that “pressures,” as a statistic, tracks being near an opposing player more than actually doing anything to stop them. Fernandinho stops opponents; Jorginho is often just, all too often briefly, in their way. Even if Jorginho is less useful defensively than his numbers suggest, he’s also not as bad as many of his critics maintain. Getting in the way of opposing players is useful. Crucially, Jorginho is doing enough to justify keeping his passing on the pitch.  Having justified his presence on the team and shown he can work in systems other than Sarri’s, Jorginho’s position at Chelsea is somehow more precarious than ever. In the ten days between the assigning of this article and the writing of this paragraph, Lampard repeatedly benched Jorginho in favour of an N’Golo Kanté–Mateo Kovačić double pivot, and Chelsea were cleared to participate in January’s transfer window. Rumours abound as to how the club will now spend yet another tranche of Roman Abramovich’s money.  Nobody knows. It’s not even clear if Frank Lampard knows what his approach would be in a club that can splurge on transfers. Maybe it looks a lot like these last four months, maybe it looks like the Chelsea of his playing days. Jorginho isn’t really flexible — what you see is very much what you’ll get — but he’s proven that his set of skills can work for Chelsea in multiple systems. Is that good enough for Frank Lampard and the club’s hierarchy?

Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez give Antonio Conte's Inter Milan a superstar strike partnership

It was an exceedingly painful match for Antonio Conte and Nerazzurri fans. Despite the umpteenth goal of the season created by Lautaro Martínez and Romelu Lukaku coming in the 44th minute, Barcelona came back and knocked Inter out of the Champions League. Yet that goal once again emphasized how the pair are now irreplaceable players for Inter, that they are one of the best pairs of strikers in Europe, if not the best. Striker partnerships represent an almost iconic trait of Conte’s brand of football; he began his career setting up his players in a 4-2-4, before moving on to a 3-5-2. Think of Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tévez at Juventus, Graziano Pellé and Éder at the 2016 Euros, even Diego Costa and Eden Hazard at Chelsea, who despite being set up in a 3-4-3, the Belgian was given a lot of freedom and often ended up playing near the Spanish center forward. Although these players were all at the highest level at the time (except the national team pairing), perhaps no other pair of attackers of Conte has ever had such a preponderant influence in his side. Previously, Conte often relied on an excellent midfield to elevate the work of a pair of strikers, sometimes to the point where it was, in fact, the forwards supporting the midfielders' goal scoring. Injuries have led Inter to regress compared to the beginning of the season, but the two strikers have covered for these absences, generating opportunities out of nowhere. Take Lukaku's goal against Barcelona: Lautaro creates the assist by transforming into gold a ball that was nearly turned over, like he is a modern-day King Midas. Their offensive power was not enough to overcome Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, leaving them stuck with Thursday night football instead, but for now it has led the team to the top of Serie A, with a two-point advantage over Juventus. Inter has picked up 38 of the 45 points available to them, a sensational result for a team that last year finished 21 points behind the Old Lady. Lukaku and Lautaro, paired up this July, immediately developed an enviable understanding that crosses the white lines of the playing field, so much so that the two seem real friends, judging by how they look for each other when it's time to celebrate a goal. In various interviews, the Argentinean has stated Lukaku is a great person on and off the pitch, with Lukaku backing him up by saying they get along very well. It's unclear whether the key to their success is their friendship or Conte’s system that plays to their strengths, but it matters little now that the two have reached superstar status. They've scored 25 of Inter's 41 total goals, 7 of 10 in the Champions League and 18 of 31 in Serie A. Inter's many injuries — especially to Alexis Sanchéz, Stefano Sensi and Nicolò Barella — have forced the two to take on additional creative and offensive responsibilities, so much so that they scored 8 of the team's 9 most recent goals. And, crucially, neither is exceeding their expected goals. Their goals are almost equally distributed, as Lautaro has scored 13 goals so far while Lukaku has netted the ball 12 times. Among Serie A players with at least 900 minutes played, only Joaquín Correa (0.55) has a better xG per 90. Lautaro averages 0.51 xG per 90 (up from 0.37 last season), topping Lukaku’s 0.48 xG per 90 (a slight increase from his two seasons at Manchester United, where he averaged 0.40 and 0.44 xG per 90 respectively). No other pair of Serie A attackers generates as many xG on average (0.98 per 90), not even Correa alongside Ciro Immobile, slightly lower at 0.97 per 90. It's interesting how Lukaku and Lautaro that the two put up almost the same numbers in terms of expected goals generated and goals converted, yet have different philosophies in front of goal. Lukaku is wiser in choosing his shots, so much so that he makes less than three attempts per game (2.85, 17th in the league), but these have a relatively high average quality (0.17 xG/shot). El Toro, meanwhile, is a trigger-happy shooter; the only Serie A striker with at least 900 minutes who shoots more on average (4.73 shots by 90) is Cristiano Ronaldo (5.40). However, compared to his partner, his attempts only average 0.11 xG/shot. It's worth remembering that this is Lautaro's first full season as a starter in one of the top five European Leagues, which may be why he turns the ball a bit too often in comparison to his teammate, and completes only 15.57 passes at a 59.8% clip, Inter’s worst player in both categories. Neither he nor Lukaku are able to consistently play the last pass (they generate 0.26 xG assisted combined), as Conte's direct system means the pair are not asked to combine in attacking areas to break teams down. Instead, both are good at initiating dangerous combinations with the rest of Inter’s offensive players, who then move the ball up the field quickly to the strikers, who are free in the box. They more than doubled their average touches in the box in comparison to last season: Lautaro jumped from 7.04 to 16.22, while Lukaku increased from 6.43 to 14.43. Both are very skilled at defending the ball which makes them pivotal in the Nerazzurri’s style of play. Lukaku's size allows him to shield the ball with his body and dominate the aerial game (2.91 aerial wins per 90), while Lautaro has excellent lower body strength, planting his legs firmly when he plays with his back to the goal. This allows him to win a remarkable number of fouls (3.26, 4th in the league), integral to a team that is currently second-best in set-piece goals scored (5). Martínez completes more than twice as many dribbles as Lukaku and offers an enviable contribution to the defense. His average number of pressures (20.95) and pressure regains (3.26) are on par with that of Roberto Firmino (22.56 and 3.02), a striker universally known for his contribution during pressing. On several occasions, he literally pressed for two, especially when Lukaku's ability was affected by back pain.  On the other hand, Lukaku offers a more all-round game, playing the ball out from deep in the field and looking to advance his side. The Belgian is an essential reference point for his teammates, acting as a target man and playing the ball under pressure (40% of his passes are pressured). Now that he seems to have definitively put his physical problems behind him, it will be interesting to see whether he'll be able to level up. The €65+ million Inter spent to bring in Lukaku looks like a great investment. But it is certainly not comparable to the €25 million Inter paid to Racing Club for Lautaro, who is likely now worth four times that much. For a young striker like El Toro, it's incredibly advantageous to be coached by a manager of this level who relies so much on him, one with enough confidence in him to start him in Champions League play. And given that he's only 22 years old, he still has so much room to improve. Four months into the season, and Lukaku–Lautaro appear to be a match made in heaven. But now the question on all calcio fans minds is whether Inter can continue this impressive start, or whether they will slide down in the second half of the season, which has become somewhat of a tradition. If Lukaku and Lautaro continue to perform at this level, this just may be the year Juventus are prevented from clinching the title.

Atlético Madrid and the crisis that wasn't

Diego Simeone spoke of the inevitable “anxiety” that accompanies a lack of goals after Atlético Madrid again failed to score against Villarreal on Friday night in La Liga. Missing chances begets missing even bigger chances, and on and on it goes. Atlético Madrid have learned very quickly the problems that stem from missing these chances can grow exponentially if not quickly reversed. Heading into their key Champions League clash on Wednesday night against Lokomotiv Moscow, they hadn’t scored in five hours, weren’t sure where the next goal was going to come from and were forced to endure whispers of a crisis before Christmas.

As you can see by the trajectory of their expected goals, they haven’t been playing poorly, but their distinct lack of an effective plan in the penalty area is frustrating. They remain defensively resolute (even more so, in fact) but their purpose now, to take the lead and hold onto it, is proving difficult.


Last season, after losing to Juventus in the Round of 16 without as much as landing a glove on their opponents in Turin, and flopping out of the La Liga title race before Luis Suárez had shaken off the annual summer rust, Simeone knew it would be a summer of change at the Wanda Metropolitano; to an extent, he welcomed it. And when Atlético Madrid beat Real Madrid 7–3 in New Jersey this summer, fans hoped this year would be different.

In a long-overdue overhaul of their defence, they waved adios to Diego Godín, Juanfran and Felipe Luis. Barcelona pried Antoine Griezmann from their grip while Marcos Llorente and Héctor Herrera arrived to shore up the midfield. There was talk of progressive football, a futuristic 4-3-3, which they have implemented at times, but their execution as the protagonists in games has been poor.

Simeone said this is a year of transition, but their new status as an elite football club does not permit the use of such vocabulary, much less as an excuse. The anxiety Simeone mentioned after the Villarreal is palpable and was evident again on Wednesday night against Lokomotiv Moscow. However, this time they turned that anxiety into urgency from the very start. Maybe that’s what’s missing? Atlético Madrid might have the talent and remain sharp in knockout tournaments, but a certain weariness has set in during run-of-the-mill La Liga games this year, which they don’t seem to know how to shake off.

What are their problems?

Their sluggish campaign thus far can be put down to the integration of new players, a change of mentality or just plain old poor luck. Then there's the loss of their talisman, and need to wait for his teenage replacement to settle. When you throw all of these ingredients together, that aroma you smell is indeed anxiety wafting from the crockpot.

Diego Simeone says he would prefer a game to finish 1–0 because a 4–3 scoreline indicates a number of mistakes were made. So, while new talent necessitated a certain shift in mentality, and prompted Atléti to play different, more attacking formations and dominate games with possession, Simeone has not turned into a risk-taking manager overnight.

Atlético are transitioning into a more ball-dominant team. Given how teams set up against them, they've had little choice. This is part of their problem.

They don’t press high enough to win the ball back in awkward positions for the opposition. In fact, they have the second-fewest pressures in La Liga and are dead last when it comes to pressure regains. They are being asked to break down set defences which has not been and never was their style.


They are below league average when it comes to dribbling past players and their pace to goal is closer to Real Valladolid, who are last in the league, than to Granada, who sit ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid. They are adapting to a new way of thinking, playing and executing in attack but it is slow, reveals evident confusion, and often feels ultimately futile.

If Simeone was to trust his defence, allowing João Félix, Morata, Álvaro Morata, Thomas Lemar and Saúl to press with impunity, the opposition may become more susceptible, leading to more favourable chances for Atlético. The xG conceded might increase, but given the players at his disposal — their age profile and the energy that brings — Simone must overcome his caution to get the most from this squad. That's easier said than done. They have new players in all three lines of the field, leading to issues of integration and trust.

A brand new defence

Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi have injected much-needed energy on the flanks for Atlético after Juanfran and Filipe Luis departed in the summer. Trippier, in particular, is perfect for Simeone. He is in his late 20s, has experience in Europe and possesses a perfect blend of energy, experience, willingness to be coached and a desire to prove himself in new circumstances. He has quickly transformed himself into another version of Koke, not tactically, but as a player whose development is all about encouragement and willingness to do what he’s told. Despite playing at right-back, at times this season he's functioned as the creative hub, and his delivery into the box has been exquisite. 

Lodi, on the left, is similar but younger and has missed a few games. With no natural replacement, Saul has had to play there at times, causing him to lose his own rhythm and sense of place in the team.

Simeone has been forced to play Felipe and Mario Hermoso at the back given José Giménez and Stefan Savić’s injury problems, but they are the real deal. Their non-penalty xG conceded is ludicrously low, even for a Diego Simeone-coached side.

Midfield woes

The revamp of Atlético's midfield brought in Héctor Herrera, Marcos Llorente and saw Gabi’s torch passed to Thomas Partey. The Ghanian is having a season that should surely interest the best teams in Europe. A midfield of Koke, Saul and Partey seems it has everything a midfield needs — work-rate, incisive passing and running, athleticism to get into the box and to get back too. However, their creativity has waned and Saúl has regressed, currently mired in his worst form since emerging onto the scene under Simeone. Getting him back to his best could be the key. His involvement in expected goals is just above league average but he’s struggling in every other aspect.



His driving runs and threats from deep could change Atlético’s fortunes overnight, as they're exactly what the team are missing. Their 4.56 deep completions is third in the league but they can’t seem to dribble the ball into dangerous areas to save their lives. Take a look at the comparison between current Saúl and Saúl from two years ago to see how his pressures and dribbles have dropped, and almost every other stat has fallen. He is a shell of the player he once was.


Attacking problems

Dare I say it? There is no problem with Atlético’s attack. They’re just not being helped by their midfield and have missed some chances, leading to talk of a crisis.  Félix, Morata, Diego Costa and Ángel Correa lead the way with shots per game. Thomas Partey is next but after that, Lodi and Felipe, then Koke and Saúl way down the list. The midfield needs to produce more of an attacking threat in a hurry. But the major goal-scoring issue is that they simply aren't finding the back of the net as much as their xG suggests they should. That's the kind of problem that eventually corrects itself.

On an individual level, the team has plenty of talent and room to grow. Correa could be the answer to their creativity problems. On his day, Correa can be electric. The problem is, it’s very rarely his day. His mazy dribbles often confuse even his teammates and there is very little consistency in his game. He has Simeone’s trust now, though, and is playing more regularly. Time will tell if the 24-year-old can develop a level of consistency that will see him play a role in Simeone’s side going forward.

In every game, Félix shows glimpses of his brilliance. His feathery touches are a joy to watch, his agility and speed when running at opponents have even the most cynical of football fans salivating. Yet these flashes are not enough for him to truly dominate a game. While his €126 million price tag might suggest Atlético brought in a ready-made superstar, the club always knew they would have to wait for the real João Félix to emerge. He is shooting plenty but needs to be more involved in building play from central areas. That might be helped by getting him the ball in transition so he can take advantage of back-pedalling defenders.

The good news is that Atlético Madrid should be fine. The bad news is that Atlético Madrid should be fine. Their xG is up there with the best in the league, but Simeone’s side don’t appear to have reached the level where they might challenge for a title. They have lost ground in La Liga’s top four race but are through to the last 16 of the Champions League, where they will be eyeing another charge at the trophy that eludes them. However, they'll need to start scoring goals.

Simeone might have to embrace the mayhem of counter-pressing and winning in transition if his team continue to struggle in front of goal. Getting Saúl and Koke playing their best, most effective football is vital to a successful season. The problem is that by the time he does embrace some form of chaos, Atlético Madrid might have nothing to lose. In other words, they might have nothing to win.