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.
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.
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.
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).