What the next Arsenal manager inherits

Whatever the post-Arsène Wenger era at Arsenal was supposed to be, it wasn’t this. The thing about Unai Emery’s Arsenal is that no one really knew how good they were supposed to be. There was a sense among many that Wenger was underachieving with this squad, and someone else should be able to produce more with these players, but there was no firm sense of how much more. Emery was tasked with setting the terms of this and, if we are merely to take it by what he achieved, the answer seemed to be that this squad isn’t capable of much more than what we’d already seen. When looking at the expected goals trendlines from August 2017 to the present, that late Wenger era looks almost like a golden age by comparison. However you slice it, Emery’s Arsenal just were not good. Their xG difference per game this season of +0.09 put them seventh-best in the Premier League with a cataclysmic gap between the Gunners and the top sides. But that might not have been what frustrated fans most. What arguably grated even more was the way in which Arsenal were mediocre. This is a side that conceded more shots than they took. It’s a side that had so little ability to exert control over games that they faced more shots than all but two teams in the league. What they were able to do is keep the shot quality down, and their xG per shot faced is the second-lowest in the top flight. But is this how a club of Arsenal’s ambitions are “supposed” to be doing it? Facing a lot of shots of low quality suggests a team ceding control of the game, allowing opponents to attack them at will, but protecting against this by getting bodies behind the ball and forcing teams to put cheap crosses in or take potshots from range. This is a strategy one would expect to see from a team in the bottom half of the table, acknowledging their technical inferiorities and trying to make things difficult for better opponents. Quite why Emery seemed unfazed by conceding so many shots against sides like Southampton and Watford is a mystery. The picture wasn’t much brighter in attack. If the Wenger era is remembered for fluid, intricate football in the final third that sometimes proved effective, the Emery era will likely be remembered for functional football in the final third that failed to be any more efficient. Take passes in the opponent’s box as an example. Arsenal long dominated this stat, and their five per game in Wenger’s last season was more than even Pep Guardiola’s symphonic Manchester City. This season, that figure has fallen to 3.44, fifth in the Premier League behind even West Ham. Similarly, Arsenal are much more reliant on crosses to pump the ball into the box. In 2017–18, only 24% of their box entries came from crosses, the fewest in the league. This season, it’s 32%, slightly above average for a side in England’s top flight. The plan tends to be some form of just getting the ball into a decent area and hope one of the attackers, most frequently Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, gets something on it. We don’t yet have a sense of who the next Arsenal manager will be. Names such as Carlo Ancelotti, Mikel Arteta, Max Allegri and Marcelino have been floated, all of whom have very different footballing philosophies and managerial approaches. This suggests Arsenal have no clear blueprint outlining what they want to be going forward. What they have is a disparate set of talented players into whom Emery was unable to instill a distinct type of football. But what could someone else do with this squad? At the top end, there is obvious quality, but a strange unease with how the pieces fit together. Aubameyang has been, most would agree, Arsenal’s outstanding player since his arrival in January 2018. His game, ever since Thomas Tuchel reinvented him four years ago, has been about making himself available in the box and positioning himself to get on the end of a good number of very high-quality chances, which he subsequently finishes at a reasonable rate. Whatever he may have been earlier in his career, Aubameyang’s best work now comes within the width of the six-yard box. Alexandre Lacazette is also a definite centre forward, and has at times combined well with Aubameyang in a kind of throwback way to classic strike partnerships of old. This made the decision to recruit Nicolas Pépé all the more bizarre. Pépé is very much an inverted right winger in the mould of Arjen Robben or Mohamed Salah. We saw what he does best against West Ham on Monday, dribbling inside from the right flank and using his dominant left foot. Fitting all three of these players in the same side feels like a game of rock-paper-scissors in that someone is going to inevitably lose out. Play Pépé on the right of a 4-4-2 system and you lose his quality coming inside. Play him higher in a 4-2-3-1 and Lacazette has to drop into an unfamiliar deeper role. Play a 4-3-3 shape and Aubameyang has to move wide, finding himself less able to get on the end of chances in the box. The third option seems to be the most frequent, while also the most perplexing. Aubameyang has continued scoring goals this season, but is running somewhat over his xG (10 non-penalty goals scored from 6.99 expected) and is getting fewer good chances overall than last season. Whoever gets the job at the Emirates needs to make a decision in terms of who to prioritise and who to sacrifice. There doesn’t seem a way to get all three of these players firing. The midfield also lacks obvious answers. Granit Xhaka offers passing range from deep areas, but his fairly obvious weaknesses in terms of discipline and defensive control are likely no secret to anyone reading this. A side would need to be very confident in its ability to control a game to really trust Xhaka as the deepest midfielder. Torreira offers better defensive work rate and energy, which in theory should compliment Xhaka, but the two seem to create a strange anti-chemistry with no midfield control and little defensive solidity when playing together. Matteo Guendouzi remains the great hope of Arsenal’s midfield and certainly has a strong case for playing every week, but his weaknesses in understanding without the ball mean he’s not necessarily a fix alongside Xhaka and Torreira. Defensively, things are what might be politely called unclear. Héctor Bellerín has returned from injury as the first choice right back out of inertia more than anything else, without an obvious challenger as Ainsley Maitland-Niles has made it clear he prefers to play in midfield. Bellerín should be afforded time to regain full match sharpness, but his weaknesses defensively were obvious even before the injury. David Luiz is another player I doubt many reading this do not already have an opinion on. What has been the case in his career is that he can perform well in a well-drilled system, such as Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side, but is prone to making rash decisions when left with a lot of choices to make. Arsenal have been so far from a well-drilled system as to make this feel like a cruel joke on Mr. Luiz. Sokratis can’t be said to be doing much better, but both could make the very reasonable case that they’re not receiving anything like the protection they hope for. At left back, Kieran Tierney has yet to feature much. It's always hard to gauge how a player will adapt from the Scottish Premiership, though the better judges of football in Scotland insist he is the real deal. At the very least, he should be a significant athleticism upgrade on Sead Kolašinac. What should be fairly obvious by now is just how much of a mess this Arsenal squad is. Emery’s side lacked a clear identity, and much of that is his fault, but it’s also far from obvious what it is this group of players should do in an ideal world. It’s likely that a long rebuilding process is coming, as the first attempted reboot post-Wenger burns out. The next manager, then, has one most pressing task: decide on a vision and make the hard choices toward executing it, even if it is to the detriment of the quality of players on the pitch. Arsenal will not be fixed today, or tomorrow. A clear plan and strategy in both recruitment and coaching is the only way that change can come about.  

Stats of Interest

Leicester had the rub of the green in the early going this season, picking up a number of good results above and beyond their underlying performances. But recent games have seen a different trend. A number of xG dominant wins have caused a fairly dramatic turnaround on their trendlines. This is the form the Foxes need to put up a title challenge. Aaron Wan-Bissaka put in an excellent defensive performance against Manchester City last weekend, locking down Manchester United’s right flank. It’s well known that he makes a lot of tackles, and his possession-adjusted 4.62 per 90 puts him in the top 5 players in the league on this stat. What’s really impressive is that none of the other players near the top of this list have a better ratio of being able to make a tackle instead of getting dribbled past than his 80%. For all the challenges he makes, he rarely gets caught out, and may well be the best tackler in the Premier League. Dave McGoldrick must be feeling awfully frustrated by now, producing 4.18 xG without yet scoring a goal this season. No player in the league has put up more xG without scoring. It might be time for Sheffield United fans to pray to the finishing gods for things to turn around for McGoldrick.     Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Can Dinamo Zagreb pull off a historic Champions League surprise?

There’s no denying that Dinamo Zagreb have the ability to surprise. Manchester United fans may remember when Dinamo came to town to face the defending European Champions, only to hold the Red Devils to a goalless draw in the first round of the 1999–2000 Champions League. Arsenal went to Zagreb for their opening game in the 2015–2016 Champions League, only to see Olivier Giroud sent off after 40 minutes, and their team lose to a side that hadn’t won a UCL match in their last 15 attempts. And this season, the unexpected high-fliers from Italy, a quick and ruthless Atalanta, were destroyed by Dinamo in Zagreb, 4–0. The Croatian champions even held Shakhtar Donetsk to back-to-back draws, ensuring they remain in third—and even in contention for second and a spot in the Round of 16—should they secure a shock victory while Atalanta come away with a win in Ukraine.  This could finally be the year that, for the first time in history, Dinamo advance to the knockout stages.. Their only significant European achievement is having won the Inter-Cities Fair Cup in 1966–67, a tournament so complicated to explain that it’s best just to say that UEFA does not even consider clubs’ honors to be part of their European record. The club certainly have enough domestic honors to brag about, with 20 Croatian League titles and 15 Cup wins, as well as 9 Yugoslav titles and 8 Yugoslav Cup trophies, though it must be said that most of those came during the time of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia rather than the post-World War II federation, in which the clubs from Belgrade dominated. Considering this history, and assuming Shakhtar won’t manage to beat Atalanta, a win for Dinamo against Manchester City would be a massive triumph for the club on the international stage. And City have nothing to play for. Shakhtar can’t reach first in Group C, no matter how hard they try. Meanwhile, Atalanta could still grab second with a win in Ukraine, while their opponents want to hold their place, which might lead to a boring draw and the chance for Dinamo to sneak into second. The question is, even if City don’t field their best side, is there any chance the hosts can take all three points? Only if Dinamo have one more surprise left in them. The first surprise came in that first round against Atalanta, when they played a 3-5-2 for the first time since Nenad Bjelica took over at the start of the 2018–19 season, and they executed it perfectly. The side Bjelica fielded ensured Atalanta could not gain the numerical advantage in the midfield, something the Goddesses must do to play their own brand of attacking football. Instead, Dinamo were the aggressors, surprising everyone with the way they dominated the match.  Bjelica’s stroke of brilliance was playing  Mislav Oršić as a second striker rather than his usual place out wide. His constant runs behind the defense created many problems for Gian Piero Gasperini's side. Surprisingly, Oršić didn’t actually touch the ball much, and when he did, nothing particularly magical occurred. He executed very few passes, dribbles, or even duels. Everything he did, he did without the ball—except for scoring three goals from six shots that is.  Dani Olmo, on the other hand, not only didn't score or provide an assist, he only had a single shot. Yet he was absolutely dominant otherwise. He attempted 14 dribbles, succeeding on nine of them—more than Slavia Praha, Valencia and Zenit St. Petersburg average per match—creating a numerical advantage for his team in dangerous areas. Atalanta couldn't deal with him at all, which showed in the fact they chose to foul him more than any other Dinamo player. The first match against Atalanta aside, Dinamo’s primary problem is similar to that of other teams from smaller leagues trying to advance in the Champions League (or even secure a place in the next Europa League round). Dinamo dominate their domestic league, nine points clear at the top of the table and although they’ve not managed to beat Hajduk Split, their rivals and the team currently in second, they do have double the expected goal difference. This highlights the problem. Dinamo dominate bad teams but when they face more difficult opposition, the side retreats into a defensive formation, sitting deep and attempting to adapt to their opponents in order to counter specific threats. Although they usually begin in the same 3-5-2 formation used against Atalanta, attempting to overload the midfield, this plan is no longer a surprise, and hasn’t worked as well in their other four matches. In the fifth and most recent game, Atalanta certainly knew what Bjelica was going to throw at them, and Gasperini was ready: he turned Dinamo’s approach in the first leg against them, suffocating their midfield, a task made easier by holding midfielder Nikola Moro being unable to play due to a red card suspension. Dinamo’s determination to nullify other teams’ midfields, stems in part from the fact that it is their own central midfield that is the weakest part of the squad. Luka Ivanušec, only 21 years old, hasn’t managed to establish himself domestically in the few Croatian League games he’s played, so it’s really no surprise that he could not hold off the Italian side. Even if Moro had been present, neither have the needed characteristics of a defensive midfielder, which leaves the team vulnerable when playing against superior opposition, at least opposition properly prepared for what they’re about to face.  And yet. And yet. There are those two games against Shakhtar where Dinamo came away with a point from each, and played well to boot. They could have, and possibly should have, come away from a win from at least one of those games. In Ukraine they had the better of the chances., while at home they led a close match for well over 90 minutes before giving up two stoppage time goals in what was a truly wild finish. Given how those matches played out though, they don’t exactly inspire confidence. Blowing late leads (and in both matches conceding buckets of xG in the last 20 minutes) will give supporters the willies no matter what the final xG tally says. No wonder the fans have more questions than answers, which means they’re likely to keep the paper bags handy when City come to town. Those questions primarily boil down to whether Olmo and Oršić step up. While both lack certain aspects that would make them a complete player on the world stage—hence why they’re living in Zagreb—they both manage to do their job perfectly. Olmo, who recently earned his first call-up to the Spanish national team, plays between the lines, forcing Dinamo’s opponents to focus on him. When he does his job right, his teammates can seize the opportunity to threaten the goal. Meanwhile, as he was against Atalanta, Oršić is the main counterattacking threat, although he is obviously more easily subdued by better opposition. Finally, when Moro is having a good game (as was the case at Shakhtar), the holding midfielder can provide the team with an engine, dropping back and starting almost every attack and sending up long passes to both wings. Again, though, this is something that superior teams can adapt to after facing—or just watching—this side in action. When Shakhtar came to Zagreb, they simply avoided the central part of the pitch, focusing mostly on the wings where they had a 2 v 1 advantage. This also managed to shut down Moro’s ability to send his own players the passes they needed. Bjelica adapted, changing the formation during the game and gaining back some measure of control. It seemed like Dinamo would win, making a Europa League appearance, at the very least, almost certain. However, Shakhtar’s two goals in stoppage time complicated that narrative. Was it just one of those things, a fluke to write off and move on from, or did the match take a physical toll, leaving Dinamo unable to hang with their opponents deep in added time? Or, most worrisome of all did it simply show that the side doesn’t have the necessary maturity to to close the deal in Europe’s most important competition? While it’s possible that maturity—something the youngsters have yet to gain, and that Oršić has yet to refine, given that this is his first season in Champions League—is what stops Dinamo from beating City. But it’ll more likely come down to something that’s easily revealed by facts and figures. In the first tie, Bjelica quickly realized he needed to shift the formation into extreme-defense mode, taking on a 5-3-2 and bunkering down. No surprise, then, that Manchester City absolutely dominated possession and had 20 shots. Still, despite the ugly looking shot chart,it took more than an hour for Raheem Sterling to get his team on the board, and it was only in the last minute that City put the game to bed. Perhaps, then, the surprise will be that City don’t give a rat’s tushie about actually scoring, and will be content to pass the ball around while Dinamo hunker down, allowing the hosts a point. Or maybe Bjelica will provide the surprise, realizing that his team needs to do more than capture a point to continue playing in Europe, given Shakhtar have the advantage due to their three goals at Zagreb. If that’s the case, his side will likely approach this game like they did Atalanta, and if so, Manchester City are likely to fight back, if for no reason but the sake of their pride, and the game could turn into an unexpected thriller. That surprise, of seeing this Dinamo team actually opening up, of going full throttle in attack because they know they’ve got nothing left to lose, would be the best surprise of all.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The charge of the Leverkusen brigade

This week, Statsbomb’s Bundesliga digest takes a look at one of the most fun teams in the German league: Bayer Leverkusen. The squad of Peter Bosz has recovered just in time to shake things up in the Bundesliga title race. But how legitimate is the recent uptick in form from Bosz’ Boys? The start of the Bundesliga was shaped by a wide-open race at the top. Only a few weeks ago all nine teams in the top half of the league table were within striking distance of the top. Things are starting to take a more definitive shape: Bayern München’s play has picked up under interim Hansi Flick (the results haven’t quite caught up yet), Lucien Favre seems to have weathered the storm at Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Borussia Mönchengladbach look like squads who have a legit shot at the title, SC Freiburg keep defying the odds with their scrappy approach, and Schalke 04 has stabilized impressively under the guidance of David Wagner. VfL Wolfsburg, TSG Hoffenheim and Eintracht Frankfurt have come down to earth, and seem set for a season of mid-table football.  But hold on, here come Bayer Leverkusen. After a rough skid in October, Peter Bosz’s squad has picked up ten points from their last four league outings, and due to a late push still has an outside shot of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Champions League - that is, if they beat already-qualified Juventus, and Atlético Madrid does not win its home game against Lokomotiv Moscow. Die Werkself (The Workman’s Eleven) have rejoined the race for the top four spots, which will guarantee Champions League football in 2020/21, and even a late, surprising title run isn’t in the realm of the unthinkable. But by now, we’ve become familiar with the up-and-down tendencies of Bosz-coached teams. When they get hot, they’re hot. But the downswings of the Dutchman’s press-relient playing style are also more pronounced than is the case for most other good-to-very-good teams. So let us take a closer look at Leverkusen’s season.

Defense: rough patch over?

The strengths and weaknesses of Leverkusen’s defensive approach result in a pretty weird team radar when it comes to defensive output this season.  Bayer Leverkusen are still an elite squad when it comes to pressing. Few teams can hound the opposition’s build-up play like Bosz’ squad can on days when things click. Also noticeable are their decent set piece defense, and the low amount of shots they concede on average.  But there is a glaring weakness visible in the radar above: the shots that Leverkusen do give up to opposing teams are usually big chances. An average of 0,13 xG per shot conceded is very high.  As you can see from their rolling xG averages, the defense cratered at the start of this season, after Bosz patch things big time in this regard when he came in at the halfway mark of last season. The Dutch manager has regained a semblance of defensive stability with his decision to no longer switch between two different playing formations, but choosing a 4-2-3-1 setup definitively over the 3-4-2-1 alternative. In recent weeks, the full-backs have been fairly moderate in their forward runs. With that, plus the shielding of central midfielders Charles Aránguiz and Julian Baumgartlinger, the ‘back six’ provides decent support for the high-octane pressing of the front four.  Leverkusen could use some help with their backline. The three big-money summer signings - attacking mids Kerem Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri (both from Hoffenheim) and winger Moussa Diaby (PSG) - were  all made to boost the offensive firepower of the squad. But the defense only gained Daley Sinkgraven (Ajax), a former attacking midfielder who converted to the position of fullback during Bosz’ time in Amsterdam, and whose recent seasons have been marred by bad injury luck. With Jonathan Tah, Leverkusen’s squad counts one truly good defender, with the Bender brothers showing some signs of regression in their age 30-seasons, and left-back Wendell’s proclivity to peaks and dips in form.

Offense: guns still blazin’

The xG trendline used earlier in this article already gave a little sneak peek, but the team radar below illustrates it in more detail: from an offensive point of view, Leverkusen are elite. The roster of Die Werkself just contains a lot of good attacking depth. Kevin Volland (five goals, five assists this Bundesliga campaign) is making a strong case to be included by Joachim Löw in the national team for the Euros, possibly in a joker-type role as a substitute. Jamaican winger Leon Bailey seems to have dropped from a couple of radars of Europe’s most elite teams, but has returned in full form from a hamstring injury. The 22 year-old possesses the type of speed and dribbling prowess that’s still pretty rare. Being more consistent in his performances is still the biggest objective for the young lefty. With Volland, Bailey, Diaby, Demirbay, Amiri, Lucas Alario, Karim Bellarabi and, of course, the prodigious Kai Havertz, manager Bosz has a plethora of valid options to his disposal for the four attacking spots in his starting eleven. And, equally important, he has instilled an offensive playing style that is sound from an analytical point of view. Leverkusen’s shot selection under Bosz is quite solid, and you won’t see many high crosses lofted into the box from very wide positions from this team.  With 22 goals, Leverkusen are currently still underperforming their xG total. So it does not seem likely that the potent attack will grind to a halt anytime soon.


If Bayer Leverkusen want to follow through on their big plans, the defense cannot perform like it did in the first ten games of this season. Lukas Hradecky has been really good this year - with his heroic one-man-show performance in a stolen 1-2 win at Bayern München as the big highlight - but it’s not likely that the Finnish goalie can keep bailing out his squad like he’s done so far.  On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest room for improvement lies in the hands of the team’s absolute star. Kai Havertz hasn’t been bad by any stretch of the imagination, but also hasn’t found the superb form in which he led his team on a Champions League qualification-winning run in the final months of the season.  But the same goes for Havertz as for this Leverkusen squad. Chances are that they will be fine. A somewhat bumpy start (15 points from their first 10 league outings) has been dealt with, and their offensive firepower will, in all likelihood, give them a serious shot in the season-long battle with the likes of Bayern, Dortmund, Leipzig and Gladbach.

Bayern's pressing under Flick

Bayern Munich have undergone a conspicuous change since Hansi Flick took charge. The team are quite a bit more stable and has seized back a bit of the dominance lost under Niko Kovač. This is in large part down to Bayern's pressing, which is far less hesitant than under the previous manager, pressing on the first build-up line and consistently pushing up.

Comparing matches under Kovač and Flick, it is immediately apparent that the level of aggression increased. The match against Leverkusen, on the other hand, showed how a talented counter-attacking side can break through against this Bayern side with long balls and quick passing moves from within their own half.

Joshua Kimmich recently spoke of this aggression after a solid win over Borussia Dortmund. He mentioned how Bayern had "marked comprehensively across the pitch" and thus allowed pushing up high into the midfield. The consistent coverage also forced the likes of Mats Hummels and Co. into hastily made decisions. The defenders were ran at and could not find open receiving options ahead of them. Dortmund's midfielders particularly failed to ward off the attacks from Bayern players once they had received the ball. The pressing scheme, however, is fairly simplistic.

The opponent's build up is attacked early from the customary 4-3-3 formation. Usually an attacking midfielder moves toward the second centre-back, the one Robert Lewandowski is not already occupying. From the flanks, the wingers add to the pressure on the opponent's ball-carrier with short arching runs, thus making use of their cover shadows. In midfield, the rest of the Bayern team orientates itself toward the opponent's defensive midfielders, in theory leaving open an opposing central player, who, however, would be hard to reach with a lobbed pass given their distance to the ball, the short amount of time left for the ball-carrier and the partially blocked line of sight.

This is the structure from which Bayern usually pressed in the Dortmund match.

The pressing itself is anything but revolutionary. The individual quality in pressing was always present, as evidenced by a few early season matches. On the wings in particular, players such as Kimmich or Serge Gnabry were able to press and force defensive actions, not least because they had the added help of the touchline, creating more compactness around their opponent, which would not have been possible in the centre because of structural deficiencies.

This map shows zones of above-average and below-average defensive actions in a league-wide comparison. Bayern shine on the right side, although this is not necessarily due to a structured plan, but rather the individual talent on the right. (There are exceptions – especially when Lewandowski ran at defenders from the half-left space and led the opposition's build-up to the right side.)

The Gegenpressing

Another component of the Bavarians' defensive style is of far more interest. In a lot of matches, they do not have the opportunity to consistently run at an opponent's open build-up play from an orderly pressing formation, as they were able to do against Dortmund. Instead, they are in possession themselves and have to react to possible losses of the ball. They have rethought the gegenpressing as well.

Previously, Bayern often attempted to win the ball back immediately, one to three seconds after losing it, and otherwise dissolved the gegenpressing and assumed a more compact defensive formation. Now the team remains in the gegenpressing moment and keeps up the pursuit in case the opponent plays a successful first pass and thus renders the first gegenpressing action a failed one. The implementation causes the two players closest to the ball move into gegenpressing immediately when the ball is lost in the left or right attacking half-space after a pass toward Lewandowski. Together with the Polish striker, they create a triangle around the new ball-carrier.

An exemplary view of the gegenpressing in the Düsseldorf match

The comparison spells out the different focus and efficiency in the gegenpressing. In the first half against FC Augsburg, Bayern had a number of gegenpressing moments on the wings. In the second half against Fortuna Düsseldorf under Flick, on the other hand, the attacking half-spaces — where Lewandowski would typically receive the ball — turned out to be the spaces for gegenpressing.

This style of gegenpressing naturally only is an option because, under Flick, the two more attacking midfielders drift toward the wings less frequently, rather positioning themselves more centrally on the ball, allowing them quick access to the opposing ball-carrier in case a pass to Lewandowski or one of the wing attackers is not completed.

The structure in possession still remains the prerequisite for a functioning gegenpressing and thus a more general dominance. However, the forward-pushing movements of attacking midfielders would have to create a void in the central network of Bayern, should the attempt to win the ball back immediately, not come off — especially since Bayern have shown a tendency to keep trying the recover the ball immediately.

At times, players who are a considerable distance from the action decide to move toward the ball and join the gegenpressing attempt while compromising other spaces. Kimmich has proven, though, to have a knack for identifying the most likely next receiving option of the opponent and shortening his own travelling path toward the potential passing lane quite cleverly, so he can proactively prevent a counter-attacking move by winning the ball or applying pressure immediately after an opposing player has received the ball.

Kimmich's defensive actions over the course of the campaign again show he is quite active as a central midfielder especially in the zone before the half-way line. There, he either provides cover for the gegenpressing or functions as a coverage player in regular pressing.  

Alternatively, Kimmich drops back into the back line and makes it stronger, in order to defend potential passes from the opponent out of the gegenpressing zone more effectively. Kimmich is, therefore, the safeguard for the still somewhat wild gegenpressing of his teammates in front of him.


Bayern have made drastic changes in their focus on working off the ball. It is no longer about minimising both damage and risk; rather, it's about proactive defending. This style of pressing and gegenpressing can only function when translatory movements are followed quickly and when an automatic conception of the following movements has developed for the moment after losing possession.

Naturally, questions remain whether Bayern can follow this plan against every opponent. Leverkusen have, to some extent, already showed how quick long balls to attacking players skilled in laying the ball off can be a means to an end, if the other attacking players push into the spaces created by the central defenders staying close to the striker accordingly.

Looking at the big picture of the coaching change at the German record champions, though, the true realisation is how quickly a major strategic sea change can function as long as the procedures remain simple and rest on something that is already well-known.

A version of this article can be found in German at https://spielverlagerung.de/2019/12/06/bayerns-pressing-unter-flick/

Defending Getafe

“Let’s talk stats,” said Getafe manager Jose Bordalas after their recent 0–0 draw with Osasuna. “15 interuptions [meant as break-ups] by Getafe, 37 by the opponent. Shots on goal 14 to 4. Positional advantage and superiority . . . I say this because during the build-up to the game the opposition manager said at the Coliseum we barely play football.”

He went on to say, "The usual excuse for other teams is Getafe, I won’t allow it anymore.” The comments came after Osasuna’s manager, Jacobo Arragaste, said they are a “different opponent . . . against them, very few teams can develop their play and this is to Getafe’s credit. They are a complicated opponent, who don’t let you play, they slow you down and they don’t let games flow.”

There’s plenty in there for Bordalas to parse. Some is, in fact, positive, but Bordalas used it to set the record straight as he felt Getafe’s name was being dragged through the mud.

Getafe spent 12 years in the top flight until they were relegated to the Segunda in 2016. Bordalas, a journeyman on the sideline (coaching more than 10 teams at every level of Spanish professional football), brought them straight back up. Their behaviour upon returning to La Liga has followed a pattern. Tentative at first, then bold, now proud. They finished 5th last season, their highest ever finish, playing an attritional and aggressive style.

But given that Bordalas took so long to get here, he wants to be respected now that he is finally amongst the elite. The 55-year-old led Alaves to promotion in 2016, winning the second division with them, and was sacked that same summer. He achieved promotion again 12 months later with a different team and has brought Getafe, previously the butt of many jokes, to unimaginable heights since then. You could excuse him for feeling a little looked down on.

After a slow start this season, he has rectified their form. They won just one of their first seven games but five of eight since. They sit just one point behind Atlético Madrid in the table and seven points off the top. A charge at the title is unlikely but with Bordalas in charge, regardless of who they play, they are capable enough in attack to cause concern and are always solid defensively.

It’s easy to pick on Getafe. As Arragaste said, albeit in a clumsy way, they are hard to play against. There’s a difference between being defensive and being aggressive, though. Getafe are most certainly in the second category and while, depending on subjective evaluations, some might say they also fit neatly into the first, that isn’t really the case. They’re not defensive, but they happen to be really good at defending.

So, as Bordalas said: let’s talk about stats, shall we? 

The case in favour of Getafe 

Getafe never lets opponents settle on the ball, and Bordalas tries to do whatever he can to provoke turnovers when the ball is won back. In this way, he might be closer to Klopp than catenaccio. Watch his Getafe side play and you’ll see them hunting in packs for the ball with Marc Cucurella, on the left, chasing the ball down and Jason on the right doing the same. It looks quite mindless at times but it's all part of the plan. It’s designed to make you feel uneasy and while it tends to provoke fouls, they're not his goal but a mere consequence. Getafe give away just seven shots per game. That’s the best in the league.



But they also press aggressively. The league average for distance from a team’s own goal to where defensive actions take place is 45.66 metres, but Getafe’s figure is 49.99—the highest in the league. Suggesting they sit back and let teams play is blatantly wrong. The team allows only seven passes per defensive action, a measure that typically helps capture how aggressive a team's press is. Again, this number is the best in the league.


The case against Getafe

The way they attack is not seen as sophisticated. They don’t have any stylish wide men dribbling past opponents for fun and they don’t spend time building play by circulating the ball. In fact, their 11.87 dribbles per match is the third-lowest in the league. 

Bordalas has his team hoof the ball forward at times, at which point his midfielders push up. The team is perfectly comfortable knowing that Cururella and Jason on the wings along with the rest will put pressure on opponents in the event Getafe don’t win the second ball. They usually do, or come close, but that’s where the idea of route one football might come from. They rely on their keeper to hoof the ball long, with an average pass length of 60.05 yards per match leading La Liga.


However, those passes are relatively completed. Only 36% of Getafe's long balls from the keeper position are completed, the fourth-lowest completion percentage of such passes in the league.

Unsurprisingly then, the graph below is grim. They simply don't create many expected goals.



They also rely heavily on set pieces and don’t create much on their own. Against Levante last weekend, for example, they scored four goals, all of which came from set pieces. Corner, penalty, corner, free-kick. 



The figure shows where they applied pressure and where they tried to win the game. They sucked Levante into the middle and trapped them there when they got the chance. If Jason or Cucurella couldn’t provoke a rushed clearance, the ball would be sent back or into the middle of the field in another attempt to suffocate the visitors.


The key to their style

A typical Getafe possession looks something like this. The ball is kicked forward, the defenders are put under pressure and Getafe are there to mop up. In the image below from the first half against Levante, the ball is kicked forward, Jason presses the full-back, all of Levante’s players are marked one-on-one, and they are forced into a hurried long clearance. A very similar pressure from Jason resulted in Getafe’s second goal when he actually got a nick on the clearance, which Damian won high up the field. Seconds later it was a penalty, 2–0, and the game was beyond Levante, who would go on to lose 4–0.


“If you haven’t seen a great match, it’s because the opposition came to draw 0–0. They have no shame in blaming us for something that they’ve done,” was how Bordalas finished his rant after the Osasuna game. If more teams were as aggressive in pursuit of the ball, maybe fans would be captivated by intense, nail-biting matches.

Getafe can be overly-aggressive at times, but that’s because Bordalas has optimised them to play at full speed and win the ball back. Should a manager complain about their playing style, it’s probably because they haven’t figured out how to beat it yet.

Who are Germany's other best goalkeepers?

German goalkeeping is in a weird spot at the moment. One of the best — if not the very best — goalies in the entire world, Marc-André ter Stegen, still hasn't got the decisive nod from national team manager Joachim Löw, who's sticking with the former best keeper in the world, Manuel Neuer. This high-stakes drama distracts us from the fact that when it comes to sheltering good-to-elite-level goalkeepers, the Bundesliga might be the best league in Europe. So let’s check in on this year’s crop of ‘number 1s.

If we map out all the GK’s who’ve played at least 900 minutes (roughly 80 percent of the available playing time), with the number of goals conceded on the X-axis, and the useful shot-stopper metric Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) on the other, we get a pretty illustrating plot of the current field of Bundesliga 'keepers.

Let’s have a look at a few of the nice nuggets of information in the image above.

The Bundesliga’s finest (between the sticks)

I've told you this before, I'm telling you now and will tell you in the near and far future: Yann Sommer is an elite goalkeeper. 

With Neuer no longer the world-beater of yesteryears, the Swiss international has quietly picked up the mantle of the Bundesliga’s best Torwart. Sommer, captain of league leaders Borussia Mönchengladbach, will turn 31 in less than two weeks (congrats, Yann — quite the season the Foals are having, huh?). If there’s still a chance for him to defend the goal at one of the world’s most famous clubs, a potential move must happen sooner than later. The chances of a summer move like that are quite slim. Sommer’s way too good to serve as a back-up at, say, a Liverpool or Manchester City.

The 10–15 clubs bigger than Gladbach, status-wise and money-wise, are pretty much set when it comes to their No. 1s. Squint long and hard and there's a case to be made that Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund (more on that later) could hit the goalie market next summer. But it remains to be seen if the stellar, all-round Sommer tops much, much younger options like André Onana (Ajax, 23) and Alessio Cragno (Cagliari, 25) at age 31. All this to say that there’s a pretty good shot that Sommer becomes a true club legend at Mönchengladbach, especially given that he just extended his contract through 2023. The Swiss goalie is currently in his sixth season at Die Fohlen. Turns out that Ter Stegen’s replacement at Gladbach wasn’t all that bad, either.

Neuer could get out-Neuer’d

Remember when Bayern München laid down the big bucks for a young but very impressive Schalke goalie, athletic for his size, lightning-quick when coming out of his own goal, handling the ball equally solid with both feet with a monster throwing arm to set up counter-attacks. ‘Member? Well, history could repeat itself in an eerily similar way.

The 22 million euros — a lofty sum, at the time — Bayern paid to acquire Neuer have been worth an umpteen-fold. Don’t let the injury-riddled, confusing seasons Neuer’s had since 2017 cloud your memory of the former homegrown-kid of Gelsenkirchen. During Germany’s World Cup run and his dominant years at Bayern in the Pep Guardiola era, Neuer basically reinvented fans' view of a ‘complete’ goal-keeper. His rangy, fearless sweeper-keeping for club and country changed the dynamics on the field. But now a recurring foot injury and an additional calf injury seem to have changed Neuer’s skillset in a permanent way.

He’s still fine.

But not even close to the best he was once considered between the sticks. Weirdly, the young goalkeeper whose tools resemble those of Neuer most currently guards the goal at, yes, Schalke 04. Alexander Nübel took over starting duties in January and hasn’t looked back. The 23-year-old goalie has been linked heavily with a future move to Munich. With reason, as you can see below.

Goalkeeping matters, pt. 411.743

Borussia Dortmund want to challenge the perennial dominance of Bayern. But Dortmund have a keeper not a lot people trust. RB Leipzig want to challenge the perennial dominance of Bayern. And Leipzig have a super-solid goalie at the back. One guess which team’s defense can hold up enough to truly challenge in the German title race…

Club hero having a rough year

When FC Köln were relegated at the end of the 2017–18 season, Timo Horn had his pick of which club at which he’d continue his solid career. There weren’t that many reliable goalies who (A) were on the right side of their twenties — Horn was 24 at the time — and (B) had amassed more than a hundred starts in a top European league as a sample size of their ability. But Horn remained loyal to Die Geissböcke in the second tier of German football last season.

The Billy Goats' current starting line-up — who have not covered themselves in glory in the first third of this Bundesliga campaign — suggests that, at the least, they're set between the sticks. But Horn has struggled this season, especially in crossing situations. Köln absolutely need a revival of the old Timo in goal to have a shot at staying up.

A cult club needs a cult hero

Rafal Gikiewicz is one of the standouts during Union Berlin’s surprising, heartwarming start to their first-ever campaign in the highest tier of German professional football. Gikiewicz is a truly well-rounded goalie: he possesses excellent reflexes and reach on his own line, and is also mobile and confident enough to rove around the penalty box when danger is imminent.

Sounds like he'd be a good addition to most clubs, right?

Hold on, because this isn't even the best part about Gikiewicz’ breakout year: He's 32 years old, and this is his first year as a starting goalie in a big European league. The Polish goalkeeper's current contract is set to expire next summer, so this late-bloomer can ready himself for a late-career payday.

Does anybody care enough to make Liverpool Women better?

There comes a time for any team where the number of points you’ve managed to accumulate in a season has gone beyond frustrating to just embarrassing, where opposition fans are looking at you in sympathy and speaking in hushed tones reserved for funerals, where conversations are entirely focused on what’s going wrong because there’s nothing else to focus on. But as the great football commentator and hobbyist poet, Robert Frost, declared, “Sometimes the coverage of teams in crisis—much like roads in a wood—diverge and we should really take a look at why”. How do you quantify a crisis, though? A team underperforming on their expected goals in every game of the season probably is cause for some consternation. A team that consistently loses possession and concedes goals without scoring any of their own should raise alarm bells. A mid-table team slipping to the bottom of the league would likely warrant concern, but maybe not as much as a team that routinely finishes in the top four doing the same.  When a team that’s won the league twice in the last decade is firmly in last, with a single goal and a single point to their name, we’ve probably moved past concern and are sitting firmly in crisis territory. So why isn’t anyone wringing their hands over Liverpool Women? There’s really no arguing that Liverpool Women are in dire straits. In their last eight matches, they’ve managed to score one goal (a penalty) in the only game in which they picked up a point. The stark differences in trendlines for expected goals and expected goals conceded this season do nothing to assuage the panic or convince us that this is “just a slow start to the season”, especially because there’s no sign that the club believes there’s any cause to panic (we’ll come back to this later).  It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly has gone wrong for Liverpool Women over the last two seasons because there’s just so much terribleness to choose from. Take the most basic aspect of scoring a goal: it’s not like Liverpool aren’t taking shots. It’s that the shots they’re able to take are either off-target or relatively easy to save.  The few shots with a higher xG than 10% saw the opposition goalkeeper close to optimal position, as well as several opposition players in place to prevent scoring on a rebound. More than that, though, Liverpool strikers have rarely found the support they need in the box. Even the one exception this season fell short: Kirsty Linnett’s shot on goal against Birmingham forced an excellent save from Hannah Hampton and Rhiannon Roberts was quick to take a shot again from the rebound. Both shots caught Hampton just out of optimal position, but neither were able to actually score.  So, while it’s true that Liverpool are underperforming against expectations, it’s also true that the shots they’re generating are simply not good enough. Even the club’s top goalscorer hasn’t been able to find the back of the net. And despite Liverpool being excellent at putting pressure on opponents and better than average at pressuring ball-holding opponents to win the ball, they’ve yet to see a single clean sheet in the WSL this season.   At this point in the season (again: eight games in, one goal scored and one point gained), surely it’s time for a conversation on what exactly needs to be done to make the ball go into the net. Because here’s the thing: if something doesn’t happen pretty soon, Liverpool Women are going to be relegated to the Championship. And for a club that’s gone on (and on and on and on) about how this is one club and two teams, it won’t look great when the men’s side have been given absolutely everything they need to win the league and maybe retain the Champions League title, too.  Those of us that do regularly wring our hands over Liverpool Women and just how terrible everything is have a laundry list of very simple requests (we also have a support group). We’ll take anything from investing just a tiny bit more money into the club (we’re not asking to be in the running to sign Sam Kerr but maybe a coach with some ideas about creating better chances would come in handy at this point?) to allowing the women access to the same training facilities at the men. The fact that Liverpool Women’s fans have to beg for basic resources that the club already has  is particularly egregious when you look at every other big club and the amount they’ve invested into their women’s teams. Want to see how effective investing resources into a women’s side can be? Take a look at Manchester United Women, a newly promoted team coached by a former Red and featuring several former Liverpool players who are absolutely thriving at a club that is supporting them. And at the end of the day, that’s the real crisis here. Somehow the level of panic and agitation we see when teams like Arsenal Men or Everton Men start losing games, when they consistently underperform, when their star players start talking about leaving the team, just isn’t present in conversations about Liverpool Women. We’re not seeing any mainstream critical analysis of where the team is falling short. At some point the conversation needs to move beyond demands to support the team despite their struggles and rather towards the well worn sporting topic of what should be done to fix those struggles. Liverpool Women are a professional football team that are in a bad situation, but not an irreversible one. Treating them as anything but is doing them a disservice. A lack of discussion could well lead to relegation, and even more players and staff leaving for teams willing to have difficult conversations and address the problems those bring to light.

Are Brighton improving under Graham Potter?

Brighton and Hove Albion underwent one of the biggest shifts in terms of style in the Premier League this summer. But is it working?

When the Seagulls won promotion to the Premier League in 2017, the subsequent aim was obvious: just stay up. Manager Chris Hughton, having done such a good job getting them there, was well equipped to the task. The expectation was that the former Republic of Ireland international would execute a conventional low block style, and that’s exactly what he did.

Centre backs Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy found themselves well protected and able to concentrate on defending in their own box. In possession, things were again fairly straightforward, with Glenn Murray making himself useful in the box along with working hard without the ball and most of the creativity coming from Pascal Gross as the one player able to offer something different in the rigid system. It worked.

History will rightly remember Hughton as having done an excellent job. Brighton hit the mythical 40-point mark in 2017–18 with a clear sense of “job done”. From there came a little bit of friction. It appears Hughton was satisfied with the way things were going and felt the correct course of action was to continue with the same core of players and the same style of football.

Others at the club, meanwhile, felt it time to evolve to a more progressive approach, and players were recruited to fit a slightly different philosophy. What happened was likely inevitable. Hughton stuck to his football with his players, while huge sums of money were spent on footballers who didn’t fit what he wanted to do. As such, many of the signings just didn’t work out, and Brighton ended up around where they were the previous year. The club hierarchy disagreed with Hughton’s safety-first approach, and sought to turn the club into something more in their image, with better football and loftier ambitions. Graham Potter seemed a fine choice for this.

The miracles he worked at Ostersunds involved the team playing some really entertaining football, and he strove to implement similar ideas at Swansea in his lone season at the Liberty Stadium. Thus it made sense that he would inevitably move Brighton away from the more traditional style expected from a bottom half Premier League team. The question was whether there would be serious growing pains, or if he'd succeed at all. A cursory glance at the headline numbers suggests that Brighton are neither better nor worse than last season, just different. The expected goals trendlines tell the story pretty clearly: Brighton have boosted their attack while taking a hit defensively.


The problem is that neither look all that good. Brighton were poor at the end of last season and continue to put forth low numbers. On the attacking side, where Potter is having a significant impact, the Seagulls’ 15.63 xG for is the third-worst in the Premier League.


The 22.24 xG conceded is also that of a below-average side. If there’s a more apt descriptor of this Brighton side than “below average”, I’m not sure I know it.


Brighton are certainly a more aggressive side in the press than under Hughton, which could be a source of long-term optimism. Last season, the Seagulls allowed opponents to make just over 13 passes before attempting to win the ball back, while this year that number is less than 9. It could indicate why the side are less effective defensively.

Pressing systems take a long time for players to learn, even the most talented players studying under the world’s best managers. It took Jürgen Klopp two full years at Liverpool before the side stopped being famous for comical errors at the back, while Manchester City had their own issues in Pep Guardiola’s first season. When making such a drastic style shift, both practice on the training pitch and the right additions in the transfer market are essential.


Currently, Brighton have the hallmarks of a bad pressing team in the profile of shots they concede. Potter’s side are a middling shot-suppressing force, facing 13.5 per game. But once teams break the press, they’re having a good time getting real chances, with Brighton dealing with an xG per shot conceded of 0.12. This is a 50% increase from last season in terms of the likelihood of the average shot they face being scored. Brighton are going to have to learn to coordinate their press better if they want to avoid bleeding good chances.

In possession, it feels like things remain a work in progress. Pascal Gross pulls the strings both in open play and from set pieces, and continues to be this side’s x-factor. He leads the side in deep progressions and xG assisted per 90 minutes, while putting up the second most pressures. Concerns remain about Gross’ lack of mobility for a Potter team, but his ability on the ball, effort without it, and in-game intelligence cannot be doubted. The other player putting up strong numbers in attack is Neal Maupay, the mobile young striker signed from Brentford. He’s around a goal and a half behind his xG, which diminishes what looks like a very promising return in a less than impressive attacking side.

This is still a very rough draft of a Potter side, but there are signs of life. Brighton are now a side that average 55% of possession, with Mat Ryan playing the ball shorter than any other goalkeeper in the division. Yet the Seagulls are not working the ball into dangerous areas at a high frequency, offering only a league-average number of completed passes within 20 metres of the opposition goal, and a below-average number of passes inside the box.

Still, Potter has avoided the initial worry of completely breaking what was a serviceable unit under Hughton as he moves to something very different. This is something the Brighton higher-ups have very much wanted to do for some time, his recent contract extension indicates they see Potter as the long term man for it. Staying in the top flight during a clear transition year would be both the minimum requirement and more than enough to stick on this path, and from there onward there’s no reason to think Brighton couldn’t build something interesting in the coming years.

Stats of Interest

Brighton’s Mat Ryan is the second-best shot-stopper in the league this season according to StatsBomb’s model. The best? None other than Kasper Schmeichel. The Leicester ‘keeper didn’t show up remotely as well in the previous two seasons, so it seems improbable that this good form will last forever. But for now, he deserves a great deal of credit for his role in the excellent start the Foxes have made to this season.

Arsenal finally pulled the trigger on sacking Unai Emery, with Freddie Ljungberg taking charge for the time being. Two of the biggest concerns in the Emery era were their horrific shot volume numbers and away form. On those fronts, there were at least positive signs against Norwich this weekend. Arsenal outshot an opponent away from home for only the second time this season, managing all of one more chance than the Canaries. Yay?

No player with at least 600 minutes played has a higher xG per 90 than Tammy Abraham. Next up is Sergio Agüero. Any guesses as for third? Yep, that’s right. Chris Wood isn’t always the most elegant player to watch. He’s probably not going to maintain this form forever. But the guy is getting some really good shots off right now.

Parma's Dejan Kulusevski is Serie A's hottest young prospect

Inter and Juventus are not only contending for the title of Serie A but also for the ownership of one of the brightest prospects in Italy. La Gazzetta dello Sport has written about an ongoing bidding war between the two giants of Italian football as they fight over who will win the services of Dejan Kulusevski.

Born in Stockholm in 2000, Kulusevski, of Macedonian descent, has played just 17 games in Serie A but already looks set to command a price tag between 30 and 40 million euros. After making his debut with Atalanta last season, he was sent on loan to Parma to earn more playing time.

Before the loan, he spent a year demolishing the Primavera Championship, Italy's under-19 competition, contributing with 1.28 goals or assists every 90 minutes between the regular season and the playoffs. He scored a goal and served an assist to Nicolò Cambiaghi in the 4–3 win against Torino in the playoff semifinals and then repeated himself with the decisive pass for Ebrima Colley's goal, which earned Atalanta U-19 the title in the final against Inter.

This season, Parma's coach Roberto D'Aversa started Kulusevski on the right wing in the first match of the season against Juventus, where he put on a good enough performance to secure himself a place in the starting XI. He's gone on to start every match this season, scoring three goals and adding five assists (the third-most in the league; a title he shares with four others) so far.

The left-footed Kulusevski has played almost every game this season out on the right, but he can also play on the left or in a more central position, as he has done since starting center forward Roberto Inglese injured himself in October, further shifting his position with injuries to Gervinho and Yann Karamoh.

Parma is perhaps the most direct team in the league, with the highest percentage of counterattacking shots and the highest pace towards goal in Serie A at 3.04 meters per second, and Kulusevski's speed obviously helps in transition and whenever there is space to attack. He's quite fast considering how tall and heavy he is (listed at 186 cm and 76kg and looks well-developed for a 19-year-old).  He excels at advancing the play in open field, so much so that his carries are on average the fourth-longest in the league (7.41 meters). It is no coincidence, however, that the king in this category remains his teammate Gervinho (8.89 meters on average).

On the other hand, his first touch is not exceptional and even his dribbling style is built on his physicality and his bursts rather than pure technical ability. Playing indoor futsal taught him to use both the outside and the sole of his foot, traits of his game that are evident when he carries the ball.

When he receives a pass on the flank, he tends to run vertically with the ball using the outside of his foot, but he is much more dangerous when he moves towards the center to receive the ball. Despite playing as a winger he attempts just 1.66 crosses per 90, completing them at a 39% clip and just 18% of his box entries are crosses. He also completes 1.87 passes inside the box per 90 (seventh-highest in the league).

Kulusevski does well to make himself available for his teammates off the ball and when he receives it towards the middle he looks to play the throughball or risky passes rather than shooting. He plays 2.44 key passes (2.37 in open play) and averages 0.26 expected goals assisted every 90 minutes, an exceptional amount for an under-21 player.

What is really interesting about his style is that he can pass the ball it without necessarily slowing his run much. This means that he can accelerate his decision-making and catch defenders off guard with his passes.

The Swede is undoubtedly a pass-first winger, but even if he doesn’t shoot much, his 0.14 xG/shot is quite high. This is because 82% of his xG are generated either from a throughball or a dribble.

As Parma’s right winger, he plays in a hybrid role, since the Gialloblu usually defend with a 4-4-2 (with Gervinho staying upfront) and attack with a 4-3-3. On the defensive end, he averages 24.12 pressures and 3.02 pressure regains, while also adding 1.94 tackles and interceptions.

D’Aversa's system obviously plays to Kulusevski's strengths, requiring him to think fast and to take on a lot of creative responsibility for a 19-year-old. He's been put to the test at a high level since his first Serie A game as a starter. The sample is still small to say how he could perform in a different system of play, with perhaps fewer spaces to attack in transition.

At first glance, he would seem to be a better fit for Inter, but it's possible he could settle into an attacking midfield roll in the 4-3-1-2 system Maurizio Sarri has begun using, given that Juventus lack a real offensive midfielder. He could even adapt to play as a wingback in Gasperini's 3-5-2, if Atalanta manage to retain him, although he would most likely play as a trequartista or false striker to make the most of his creativity.

Kulusevski has a mix of athleticism, size, speed, size and creativity that is hard to find, especially in such a young player. Running his current season through the StatsBomb compare-o-meter, the only three players with at least a 90% similarity are Leroy Sané and Julian Brandt in 2017–18 and Dijon’s Stephy Mavididi in 2019–20. His potential remains largely untapped, yet Kulusevski's career could reverse direction as quickly as he moves on the pitch: he'll have to carefully ponder his next steps so as not to jeopardize his development.

Christian Pulisic is on his way to becoming a superstar

Christian Pulisic is starting to fulfil his promise. After a slow start, the USMNT winger is becoming one of the most dangerous forwards in the Premier League. Aside from moody coaches and a Russian oligarch, Stamford Bridge is known as a place where young players flop, only to move abroad and hit the top bracket. Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah were benched at Chelsea and never managed to fight their way into the team. Earlier this season a similar fate seemed to befall Christian Pulisic, the most expensive US player in history, whose fall from favour culminated in once being left out of a Champions League match squad. Bought in January for £58 million from Borussia Dortmund, where he stayed on loan until summer, Pulisic started three of the first four league games under Frank Lampard, but was then frozen out, starting just one of the next nine games, a League Cup tie at home to fourth-tier Grimsby Town. Despite playing the entire match, he failed to score even once in Chelsea's 7-1 victory. Mason Mount jumped ahead of him in the queue, as did Callum Hudson-Odoi. When Chelsea travelled to Lille in early October, Pulisic was not in the squad. “It hurt not to be there,” he said. It would've made sense if Lampard was particularly fond of Mount, whom he had on loan at Derby last season, or of Hudson-Odoi, an academy product who in September signed a five-year deal worth a reported £120,000 a week to fend off interest from Bayern Munich. Yet Lampard said Pulisic needed to train better and take his chances. When Pulisic got a start at Burnley, it was in part because of a couple of good displays coming off the bench, but also because Hudson-Odoi had started two games in five days and needed a rest. That game was a big chance for Pulisic to earn a place in the team. Yet what indicated that he had the ability to grasp it? Certainly not the goalscoring stats. After joining Dortmund as a 16-year-old in February 2015, Pulisic never scored more than four goals in a Bundesliga season before leaving for England. By the time he was 19 and playing for the Dortmund first team, he had become an elusive dribbler, but that did not translate into big chances. The four goals Pulisic scored in 2017–18 were more or less as expected. The season after, however, Pulisic took big a leap. He refused to sign a new contract and was linked to the Premier League, before the emergence of Jadon Sancho limited his playing time. Yet in the time Pulisic did get on the pitch his xG per 90 minutes soared to an elite level for a winger, 0.38 per 90. That formed a promising foundation for Pulisic even as he sat on the bench watching Mount and Hudson-Odoi shine. He hadn't shown it yet at Chelsea, but his time at Dortmund clearly suggested Pulisic had the instincts of a prolific goal scorer. And when Pulisic then struck a hat-trick at Burnley, the underlying numbers suggested that he had the ability to keep scoring over a longer spell. And that he has. By now Pulisic has started eight games in a row and scored six goals over the same period. The underlying numbers have improved since his final campaign at Dortmund. His shots per 90, xG per 90, and xG per shot are all up year over year. Part of what makes Pulisic so dangerous is his ability to get into good positions in central areas. His main rival on the left wing, Hudson-Odoi, likes to get the ball out wide before taking on defenders. The graphic below shows the passes Hudson-Odoi has received in the league this season. Pulisic moves in between the lines and into the box far more often. The graphic below shows the passes he has received in his last four league games. Once Pulisic enters the box, his quick feet and sense of anticipation enable him to unleash a series of high-quality shots. Few wingers post shot maps like this one. Where do these numbers put Pulisic among the players in the league? Among those who play regularly, he has the sixth-highest open-play xG per 90. The only winger ahead of him is Raheem Sterling. Pulisic is ahead of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, Jamie Vardy, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Son Heung-Min. Pulisic is also sixth in expected assists from open play, with 0.24 per 90. That gives him an expected goal involvement of 0.71 per 90, which is not bad at all for a winger who turned 21 a few months ago. Compare Pulisic with the most productive winger in the league over the last few years and the numbers are actually similar. Pulisic enjoys a higher status at Chelsea now. He was one of few players who escaped rotation at home to West Ham after the taxing midweek clash at Valencia, and when Chelsea were chasing an equaliser on Saturday, Lampard replaced Olivier Giroud not with Michy Batshuayi, but with Hudson-Odoi, and moved Pulisic up front. He has now said that Pulisic might play as a striker if Tammy Abraham is out for long. If Lampard wants his most dangerous players as close to goal as possible, such a move would make sense. In any case Pulisic will surely not follow De Bruyne and Salah now. His form would need to decline significantly if he is to lose his place in the team, and he shows no signs of that. Whether he’ll ever be as good as those two remains to be seen, but what is certain is that he has continued his development at Dortmund in the Premier League. Having long been considered a player for the future, Pulisic is turning into a star for the present.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association