Wolfsburg and Eintracht both primed for a strong Bundesliga finish

The first half of the Bundesliga season was characterized by a crowd atop the league table. Now, a couple weeks into the second go-round of the league we — inevitably — are seeing a few teams come back down to earth, with Schalke 04 and SC Freiburg as prime examples of ‘over-performers’ who simply cannot maintain their hot finishing streak any longer. But here at StatsBomb, we choose to value fun stuff above a grim come-down story. So, in that light, we examine the two Bundesliga teams that seem primed to turn things around in 2020.

Vfl Wolfsburg

Allow me to go full-on football hipster on you, and tip a squad that has picked up a paltry four points in the last seven weeks. If we look at Wolfsburg’s shot chart, it clearly shows they could put forth viable complaints in the luck department. They’re running six goals behind their expected goals total. Since former LASK Linz manager Oliver Glasner took over this summer, Die Wölfe boast one of the league’s best defences.   Glasner built a sturdy defensive side by implementing a rigid but beautiful pressing style, the same style that allowed his lowly LASK side to put up really impressive performances in the Austrian Bundesliga in recent seasons. But Glasner’s squad also has the personnel to drop back deeper at times, with physically strong, tall players like John-Anthony Brooks (6’4″), Josuha Guillavogui (6’3″) and Marcel Tisserand (6’3″) playing in the axis. Glasner has three decent wing-backs at his disposal on the flanks: summer-signee Kevin Mbabu, anonymous-but-good Brazilian William and, most importantly, French leftie Jérôme Roussilon, who, given his extremely specific dribbling skillset. seems set for a big club move next summer. Judging by their January transfers — they replaced a mediocre centre back (Jeffrey Bruma, loaned to Mainz) with a much more promising one (Salzburg’s Marin Pongracic) — Wolfsburg won’t crash on defensively in the second half of the season. The question is whether their attacking numbers will turn around. Certain offensive woes are down to squad management, but Wout Weghorst is a truly excellent target man, whose intense running suits Glasner’s pressing style perfectly. But Wolfsburg has had real trouble providing Weghorst with much-needed creative talent. Glasner rotates five players through the two positions supporting the Dutch forward: João Victor (ex-LASK), the talented but inconsistent Josip Brekalo, Swiss players Admir Mehmedi and Renato Steffen, and utility man Felix Klaus, This fivesome currently boast a disappointing cumulative goal total of six strikes in nineteen Bundesliga matches played. Not good. Finding non-Weghorst goals will be key for a successful second half of the season for Wolfsburg. Hopefully Victor in particular, who is playing well behind his xG numbers, can come good

Eintracht Frankfurt

Football can be so weird, y’all. Remember the 5–1 shellacking Eintracht Frankfurt dealt to Bayern München? Well, that happened on November 2nd. Frankfurt grabbed only one point in the remaining seven league games of 2019. The side’s only hope during this horrid run of games was that their level of play — although not good, of course — never dropped to super worrisome depths.  And lo and behold! Frankfurt have stormed out of the gate in 2020. They re-opened their league campaign by beating Hoffenheim 2–1 on their turf, and followed that up with a 2–0 victory against league leaders RB Leipzig.  On paper, Eintracht manager Adi Hütter has opted for a much more defensive style than the one at which his team excelled last season. Since the winter break, Hütter has traded in the 3-4-1-2 system for a 4-4-1-1 setup, with Timothy Chandler and Filip Kostić — both wing-backs in the old system — as wingers, and the intense running of Mijat Gaćinović as the only support of central striker Bas Dost.  As is often the case, a team’s reality can differ wildly than what’s on paper. Powerhouses Bayern and Leipzig, alongside fifth-placed Leverkusen, are the only teams to put up more shots on a per-game basis than Hütter’s heavy-pressing squad (a solid 15.89 per game average). Super impressive, if you take into account that Frankfurt sold their shiniest players — Sébastien Haller (West Ham), Luka Jović (Real Madrid) and Ante Rebić (AC Milan) — this summer, a three-headed offensive monster who accounted for a whopping 41 league goals in 2018–19.  The only star player on offense who stayed with Die Adler last summer, Serbian winger Kostić, has been sensational this season. After 19 match weeks, Frankfurt’s leftie is second in the league in key passes (46) and in successful dribbles (53), whilst only Robert Lewandowski and Timo Werner have put up more shots than Kostić (55) so far. With Hütter seemingly settled on his favourite starting eleven for the coming months, Eintracht’s main concern is improving their set-piece defence. Before the winter break, only Mainz conceded more goals than Frankfurt from corners and free-kicks (8 in 17 games). With Frankfurt playing a free-roving style in open play, a somewhat acceptable goal balance from dead-ball moments is pretty crucial to avoid arcade-like scoring lines.  However, much more quietly than last season, Hütter has done well with Frankfurt this year, and their nine-point gap behind sixth-placed Schalke does not seem impossible to close in the remaining fifteen weeks.

Jarrod Bowen’s Unique Skill

Jarrod Bowen has been hot for a while now. The Hull City man has scored 52 goals in the last three Championship seasons, of which only four have been penalties. His rate has accelerated too, with the 0.55 non-penalty goals per 90 he’s achieved in 2019-20 ahead of a rate closer to 0.4 for the previous two seasons.

With goals a desirable currency in football for some years now, it’s mildly surprising that the 23 year old Herefordshire-born attacker hasn’t been lured away from Hull before. That’s changed this deadline day with a reported switch to West Ham on the cards after interest from Newcastle and Crystal Palace, all teams for which his propensity for goals will surely assist. Bowen is a left footed attacker who generally plays from the right side but is fairly versatile as to positions he can inhabit across the attacking band. That main profile in itself already marks him as relatively scarce, as I discussed some years back.

Here’s his shot map for the last two seasons:

 

 

What can we learn from this?

-His frequent right sided starting position is reflected by a skew to that side for shot locations.

-His shot selection shows a relatively high volume of attempts from long range and difficult wide positions.

-He has shown an ability to score from range with five goals including one free-kick.

-He’s scored well from through-balls (represented by triangles), seven from seventeen attempts.

-Lots of goals from high value close, central locations, including deep into the six yard box.

-Few headers, only twelve in total and one goal, from very close range.

Okay so this is all pretty good and without even looking at any other aspects of his play, is an obvious hook for suitors. But it’s not the whole story in relation to his shooting. Bowen is actually a unicorn. One of the benefits of data is the ability to test ideas. How many lefties score lots of goals with their right foot? Riyad Mahrez? Romelu Lukaku? Sure, both score a few but usually from more central locations. How many lefties score often with their right foot from wide on the right? This is what makes Bowen, in this aspect of his game, unique. Look at the split here:

 

 

Finishing from wide is hard. It stands to reason: the goalkeeper fills more of the goal and the target gets small quickly. Nonetheless, players often overrate their ability to score from sharp angles, and with their stronger foot too. In contrast, Bowen both shoots and scores with his off foot from wide positions. If you watch how he takes his shots, he often shoots quickly and hard, catching keepers off guard. That he can do this with both feet and in tough zones with his off foot? That’s not a common skill. It also gives him an advantage against the defender, as there isn’t a sensible direction to shepherd him if he’s in possession in the box.

We’ve only explored one aspect of Bowen’s game here, albeit a crucial one, but it already makes him an interesting player to evaluate further. With a broad dataset of multiple leagues and industry-leading detail such as that available from StatsBomb, it is possible to understand how a player’s talents fit within the world of football, and when you find players that impress with the scarcity of their ability, it pays to sit up and take notice.

Bowen was a player we reported on as part of our consultancy services and within that we explored the rest of his game in detail too. Further information about the StatsBomb’s consultancy services is available from sales@statsbomb.com

One question remains though. Do Bowen’s suitors realise that he is a prolific goalscorer or a both a prolific and unique goalscorer?

Weekly La Liga Roundup: Atlético’s struggles, Valencia’s unlikely form, and more

From a set of poor performances from Atlético Madrid while Valencia move up the table, from Chimy Ávila’s injury to Getafe’s press, take a moment to make sure you didn’t miss anything from this week in Spain.

Are Atlético Madrid In Trouble?

It was a bad week for Atlético Madrid. Defeat away at Eibar on matchday 20 was followed by elimination from the Copa del Rey at the hands of Cultural Leonesa of Segunda B and then an insipid 0–0 draw at home to Leganés that saw them slip out of the top four. If that weren’t enough, Real Madrid await this weekend. The narrative seems to be that Diego Simeone’s methods are wearing thin. But here’s the thing: Atlético’s underlying numbers look pretty damn good. They combine La Liga’s best defensive numbers with its fourth-best attack for the third-best expected goal difference in the division. La-Liga_2019_2020_team_season_np_xgd_pg-2.png Their underlying numbers have not only improved as the campaign has gone on, but are actually stronger than those that led them to second place last season. Atlético Madrid La Liga Trendlines The problem is their significant underperformance in attack. Atlético generate an above-average number of good quality shots, but for one reason or another fail to finish at an acceptable rate. They are over seven goals worse off than their xG and have converted just one of their three penalties. Atlético Madrid La Liga 2019_2020 Ángel Correa, Álvaro Morata, Diego Costa, João Félix: all have underperformed their xG this season. It’s as if some malign force has swept in and made off with all their shooting boots. It would be reasonable to assume this kind of finishing run won’t hold through the remainder of the campaign. Even just matching their underlying numbers would help Atlético turn some of their draws into victories and in turn gain them the points they need to secure their eighth consecutive season of Champions League football. If it does hold, they’ll be reliant on the failure of others around them to take advantage.

Are Valencia Any Good?

In short: probably not. At least that’s what the underlying numbers suggest. Valencia moved to within two points of the top four with a 2-0 win over an uninspired Barcelona side at the Mestalla on Saturday, raising hopes of a push for a European finish. But here is that xG difference graphic again. Scan for Valencia. You won’t find them amongst the top six. Nor the top 10. Not even the top 15. Nope, Valencia currently have the fifth-worst xG difference in La Liga. La-Liga_2019_2020_team_season_np_xgd_pg-2.png Their numbers stabilised a bit after their initial drop off following the sacking of Marcelino and appointment of Albert Celades, but are still not those of a side that can be expected to maintain a top-four challenge. Over the last 10 matches, they’ve still only posted the 13th best xG difference in La Liga. La Liga__team_season_np_xgd_pg With Getafe, Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad to come in three of their next four matches, their position is unlikely to look quite so healthy in a month’s time.

Osasuna Lose Their Talisman

He couldn’t have got injured any other way. Early into the second half of Osasuna’s home win over Levante, scurrying after a defender, Chimy Ávila hopped up to block a clearance. As he landed, his left knee rotated inwards, leaving him writhing on the turf. Tests later revealed he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament — a season-ending injury. Osasuna will now have to do without one of the league’s hardest-working forwards and the player around whom much of their shot production is built. When coach Jagoba Arrasate described Ávila as a franchise player in his post-match press conference, he wasn’t lying. The 25-year-old comfortably leads his team in goals, xG and shots. Add good creative numbers and defensive graft to his impressive shooting output and you have a forward who had rightfully been attracting interest from bigger clubs. Ezequiel Ávila-La Liga-2019_2020 How will Osasuna replace him? At least they have a very solid combined shot volume from their two wide players, Roberto Torres and Rubén García. Osasuna_2019_2020_Shots But they don’t have another forward with the bullish determination to create shots that makes Ávila such an asset. That certainly isn’t the natural game of Adrián López or Brandon. Marc Cardona has posted solid volume here and there but nothing concrete. On Tuesday, Osasuna announced the initial loan signing (and, in great detail, the subsequent purchase clauses) of Enric Gallego. He’s barely had a look in at Getafe this season, but his output at Huesca last season, where he shared a dressing room with Ávila, doesn’t really suggest he’s an ideal replacement. Enric Gallego-La Liga-2018_2019 Thankfully for Osasuna their good first half of the season has given them plenty of margin for error.

Getafe’s Crazy Press

Getafe made a slow start to the season, but they are now in the centre of the battle for European places. Their 1–0 win over Real Betis on Sunday owed much to the vagaries of what is and isn’t reviewed by VAR, but it was nevertheless their seventh victory in their last eleven, and a result that saw them leapfrog Atlético Madrid into fourth. Pepe Bordalás’ team have a functional attack capable of efficiently creating sufficient chances to win them matches and points. They are, though, significantly overperforming their xG. What is truly remarkable about Getafe is the manner in which they defend. The side were already one of La Liga’s most aggressive high-pressing teams last season. The graphic shows how each team’s proportion of defensive actions (including our pressure data) to completed opposition passes compares with the league average in each of six vertical zones. The red tones indicate that the team in question completed an above-average proportion of defensive actions in that zone. dapp la liga 1819 Getafe have ramped that up even further. The opposition half is an alizarin ocean. la liga dapp 1920 Getafe defend higher and more aggressively than any other side in La Liga, and concede over two shots less per match than they did last season. Bordalás has crafted a supreme shot-suppression machine. Getafe-La Liga-2019_2020 Our new distribution graphics make it clear just how extreme their approach is. Across the big-five European leagues over the last few seasons, they are in the 99th percentile for Defensive Distance, PPDA and Shots Conceded. And that isn’t overly conditioned by just how shot-shy La Liga has been this season (around 1.5 less shots per match than last season). Getafe have given up even fewer shots in European action. Getafe-UEFA Europa League-2019_2020   Header image courtesy of the press association

Why has Chelsea’s season stalled?

It started so well. All signs pointed to Frank Lampard’s Chelsea reboot being a big success. It wasn’t perfect, but Chelsea won eight of their first twelve Premier League games in a manner that suggested they were the real deal. Beyond the results, the metrics looked even better. Lampard’s side had a better than expected goal difference than Liverpool after twelve matches. After selling the club’s signature player in Eden Hazard, buying no one due to a transfer ban, and putting an inexperienced beloved former player in charge, this was quite the surprise. The core of it seemed to stem from the excellent form of academy graduates, most prominently Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, who were finally given opportunities in the first team. Lampard’s football is far less restrictive than Maurizio Sarri’s very precise possession-based system, thus allowing a player like Mateo Kovačić to perform in a manner closer to his natural game than be stuck in the uncomfortable role he occupied previously. Even Jorginho, the avatar of Sarriball, looked like he enjoyed the greater freedom afforded under the new man in charge. And then the results just stopped coming. Four wins versus six losses in the last twelve games. The fact that Manchester United and Tottenham have been underperforming is all that’s keeping Chelsea in a good position to finish in the top four. But how did this happen? Why did it suddenly go wrong? Purely in terms of expected goals, not much has changed. Chelsea had an xG difference per game of +0.83 in the first twelve fixtures and +0.72 in the second 12. On the defensive end, things look absolutely fine. Chelsea conceded 0.92 xG per game and now they concede 0.86. As seen on the radar below, they’re bringing their defensive work higher up the pitch than before, allowing the opposition fewer passes before attempting to win the ball, and further restricting opponents’ ability to keep possession. Chelsea look like they’re becoming a more complete pressing unit. The Blues have been consistent in conceding moderately more goals than expected this season. It’s possible that much of this is the fault of Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has never looked impressive in the shot-stopping numbers. But even so, he doesn’t account for the entire problem. Chelsea have conceded 21.54 xG on the conventional model, 24.17 xG on the post-shot model, and 28 non-penalty goals in reality. If Kepa is at fault, he cannot solely be to blame for opposing attackers hitting their shots particularly well; at least, according to the data.. Another possibility, albeit difficult to find evidence for in the data, is that Chelsea’s particularly open style leads to conceding shots that are better than the model thinks. But these are fairly out-there hypotheticals. The most likely scenario is that this is just a case of shit happens, and we shouldn’t expect the side to continue to let in goals like this if nothing else changes. It’s the attacking side, though, where the data looks a little more tangible. Eleven non-penalty goals from the last twelve games against twenty-six from the first twelve massively exaggerates the issue, but there has been a real decline. What’s obvious visually is that the one big positive recently are the set pieces. They’re running a touch cold here, scoring 4 goals from 5.57 xG, but set pieces can be utilised effectively in any club’s attack and it’s good to see Chelsea making progress . . . although, it could just be a couple of really good shots skewing the numbers in the sample. Either way, it’s covering for an even bigger problem in open play. Here, Chelsea have gone from generating 1.76 xG per game to just 1.13. Their finishing has been horrendous recently, but even so, this just isn’t what their fans want to see. We can see this with Abraham. He hasn’t been bad, exactly, but his numbers have definitely taken a hit. He ran a little over xG in the fall and a little under it since, which once again exaggerates things, but it’s clear that he hasn’t been getting good chances quite as often.   Overall, though, Chelsea appear the same as they were earlier in the year. The shift in results is down to chances not going in more than any other aspect of their performance. So what do we know about Chelsea overall at this stage? Well, the youth revolution has been a clear success. Fikayo Tomori has played more than half the available league minutes and looked absolutely capable as a Champions League side’s centre back at age 22. Though he was obviously bought for an obscene amount of money, Christian Pulisic should be included in this bracket, and he leads the Premier League in xG and xG assisted per 90 for players 21 or younger. It’s hard to ask a 21-year-old arriving in a new country to do much more than he has so far. But what if I told you the second-best young player in this metric is also at Chelsea? And what if I told you he’s more than two years younger than Pulisic? You’d be pretty interested in that player, right? Seeing as Chelsea are supposedly interested in spending a lot of money on Jadon Sancho, and given the Borussia Dortmund man is a terrific talent who could bring a lot to any side, they already have an exciting long-term front three with Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi either side of Abraham. Mason Mount, another attacking player, has received a lot of hype this season, and it’s not unwarranted. English football is good at producing young players who press well and get shots, which is a mould Mount fits right into. But he does need to develop his game beyond that. All Chelsea outfield players to have featured for at least 600 minutes (bar Abraham) average more passes per 90, and even players like César Azpilicueta and N’Golo Kanté complete more passes in the final third than Mount. The comparisons to his manager are clear and not unfair, but while he’s got the basics down, he should remember that Lampard also developed an excellent passing game over time. What Chelsea have is a somewhat messy, swashbuckling style of football played by a young group of players direced by a young manager. There’s no doubt that this group of players will continue to mature, and with the set of individuals around there’s a very good chance of at least one going supernova. And the talent from the academy doesn’t seem to be drying up any time soon. Figuring out a pathway for these players to the senior side was crucial, and Chelsea should reap the rewards for many years to come. Lampard’s ability as a manager does remain something of an open question, though. What he’s done right at Chelsea so far is to listen to the players’ thoughts on their own strengths and give them enough slack to do what they’re comfortable with. He’s also looked to install a high pressing game. In the long term, Chelsea will surely need to develop a clear plan in possession more structured than they have right now. There’s really no way to know if Lampard is capable of doing that. But for now, the club are on the right track, and no fans should worry too much about recent results.  

Stats of Interest

Ask any traditionalist what a newly promoted team needs to get right in order to stay in the Premier League, and chances are that “defending set pieces” will be a key point. Which should be a real cause of concern for Aston Villa. The Midlands side are the worst team in the Premier League when it comes to xG conceded from set plays. Realistically Villa are currently a toss up for relegation, but things would look a lot more secure if they could fix this. If you want an example of a promoted side who defend from set pieces properly, look no further than Sheffield United. In a very quiet January transfer window, some talk has emerged of Olivier Giroud making the move to Tottenham. Of course, players can fall off a cliff in their 30s at any point, but if Spurs can get the same production out of him as he’s delivered over the last 18 months, he would be a decent short term solution. Just as long as they don’t tie him to a ludicrous contract.

The Premier League has a golden generation of young talent

The Premier League is currently enjoying a golden era of young attacking talent. Up and down the table, on teams large and small, young players are staking their claims as some of the brightest stars in England. A unique confluence of circumstances has led to teams of all stripes giving the kids a chance, and those kids are performing. This season there are a whopping nine players aged 22 or younger who have played 600 minutes (a filter used for all stats in the piece) and average over 0.40 combined expected goals and expected assists. Relax the criteria to 0.30 combined xG and xG assisted and that number springs to 17. Last season, there were only 4 players over 0.40 combined and 12 with over 0.30. Two seasons ago those numbers stood at 7 and 11. So, what exactly is going on in the Premier League this season? One major factor in the young success bump is that Chelsea and Manchester United, for different reasons, handed the keys over to young stars in the attack. Chelsea sold Eden Hazard and bought Christian Pulisic, but also accepted a transfer ban, instead opting to rely on Pulisic, Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount. All four of those players have cleared the 0.30 threshold, and all but Mount are over 0.40. Chelsea took a good squad, rolled the dice on playing the kids and were richly rewarded. Abraham in particular has turned into one of the best pure strikers in the league. He’s fourth in the Premier League in xG per 90 with 0.54, thanks to a classic striker mix of taking a lot of shots (his 3.30 is fifth in the league) and keeping those shots high quality. Of the 20 highest volume shooters in the league, only Danny Ings of Southampton and Gabriel Jesus at Manchester City have a better xG per shot than Abraham’s 0.16. He’s just really really good. Manchester United and Arsenal are similarly undergoing their own forms of youth movements, although for reasons somewhat less clear than Chelsea’s transfer ban. United spent large on defenders last summer, bringing in Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka while letting go of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez (though, granted, the two are at very different points in their careers and have had very different fates at Inter Milan). Of their young players, only Marcus Rashford makes the 0.30 cutoff, with a 0.49 combined xG and xG assisted a respectable fourth among the kids, behind only Gabriel Jesus, Abraham, a surprise player who we’ll get to in a second, and Pulisic. Daniel James just about sneaks on at the very end of this list at 0.31 combined stats. It’s also worth noting that Mason Greenwood just misses the minutes cutoff, or else he would join James at 0.31, so if he continues to produce in the minutes he’s given expect him on the list if it’s revisited at the end of the season. For Arsenal, it’s Gabriel Martinelli who appears on the list although he barely makes the minutes cut. Still, at only 18 years old, his 0.35 combined numbers are a bright sign, placing him eighth on the list. It’s also understandable that Arsenal, despite playing their kids, have just one player on this list and it’s an attacker with limited minutes. They do still have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Mesut Özil on the books after all. Most of their kids are, to one degree or another, midfielders. Rounding out the top portion of the table, there’s Jesus at Manchester City who sits atop the list. He’s putting up monster stats, as he always does, 0.86 combined xG and xG assisted while also missing tons of shots. The distribution of his numbers is fairly comical with him missing more than expected, averaging (a still obscenely high) 0.63 goals per 90 and an even obscenely higher 0.73 xG per 90 but making up for it by scoring 0.28 assists per 90 despite assisting only 0.09 xG per 90. Meanwhile, in the kind of age distribution you might expect from an upstart, Leicester City have Harvey Barnes sitting seventh on the list with a robust 0.48, Wolves have Pedro Neto in limited minutes on 0.40 in ninth and then in 11th there’s Liverpool’s assist machine, Trent Alexander-Arnold, with 0.37. But, part of what makes this season so special is that the super talented kids are not restricted to the top of the table (not even when I generously include midtable big six club Arsenal as an honorary member of the top of the table list). Everton, in fact, have three separate attackers on the list, second to only Chelsea. The standout is our mystery player from earlier in the piece, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has quietly turned himself into one of the better pure strikers in the Premier League. Not only is he fourth among young players in combined xG and xG assisted with 0.53, but his xG per 90 of 0.48 places him seventh overall. That puts him ahead of players like Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, and Harry Kane, just to name a few players not selected at random at all. Calvert-Lewin is joined on the list by fellow Evertonian attackers Moise Kean, who in limited minutes has far underperformed his combined 0.40 xG and xG assisted combined and last year’s star transfer, Richarlison, whose 0.37 combined numbers put him 12th on the list. Everton have a full quarter of the top young attackers in the Premier League. They’re no Chelsea, but it’s not too shabby a start for a team trying to orchestrate a medium-term plan to graduate into the top tier of the table. Three other players clear the arbitrary threshold of 0.30 combined. Southampton’s Moussa Djenepo just makes the list with 0.31, though he’s been in and out of the side over Southampton’s two-month-long sprint from relegation battler to the top half of the table. Then there’s Ismail Sarr, who didn’t make his second start until November 30th but has been an ever-present force in Watford’s lineup since then, at least until he went off injured two matches ago. Finally, there’s the crown jewel of the relegation battle, Todd Cantwell. Norwich’s young winger is playing heavy minutes on a bad team and is still putting up the tenth best attacking numbers among young players in the Premier League, with 0.39 combined xG and xG assisted. If Norwich, who are currently six points adrift at the bottom of the table, don’t stage a miracle comeback, it’s likely that Cantwell will be plying his trade elsewhere next season. Whoever gets him will pick up an exciting young prospect who should be a Premier League mainstay for years to come. And Norwich, at least, should have the financial blow of relegation at least somewhat alleviated. The Premier League is awash with good young talent right now. Good teams are letting their kids play, teams in the middle are using younger players to build toward the future and teams near the bottom have their own young gems to pin their hopes on. And, as development is an uncertain science, some of these players will likely flame out before turning into the stars of the future, but some will surely come good. More than any year in recent memory, this Premier League season is the launching pad for the stars of the future. Just remember to say you saw them when.

The top 10 Serie A players of the first 20 games; Part 2

On Friday we looked at the first half of the top ten attacking players in Serie A. Today we reveal the second half of the list, with the caveat being they are in no particular order.

Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín, Juventus

I thought long and hard about whether to include Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín among the top 10 players in Serie A. I was convinced that one of them deserved a place, but I couldn’t make up my mind which because each brings a different contribution to the game, and objectively both have raised the level of their performance compared to last season. So I’m cheating. The two Argentineans would be first-team players for any other club, and although they’ve been playing together with Cristiano Ronaldo in a three-man attack lately, previously Maurizio Sarri alternated them alongside the Portuguese. What distinguishes them is the way they influence games. Dybala needs to touch and shoot the ball a lot and challenge his opponent with his elite dribbling skills to create numerical superiority, while Higuaín can influence matches with his movements and his extraordinary ability to be in the right place at the right time, which in recent seasons has turned him into a great assist man as well a scorer. Dybala is approaching the peak of his career, while Higuaín has already surpassed it, but both had to sacrifice game time and touches to play alongside Ronaldo. However, this allowed him to bring out other qualities of their game, equally important for the team. That’s how Dybala became one of the most effective strikers in pressing, and Higuaín one of the best creators in the league.

Lautaro Martínez, Inter

If there was an award for the most improved player in the league, Lautaro Martínez would likely take that trophy. The Argentinean forward made fans forget Mauro Icardi and the unfortunate vicissitudes of last season. Together with Lukaku, he forms one of the most powerful striker partnerships in Europe. His shooting volume, as well as his involvement in the penalty area, are impressive for such a young forward. This is his first full season as a starter in a top 5 league, but he already has 10 goals (8 non-penalty goals + 2 penalties) and scores over the 90th percentile in shots, xG and touches inside the box per 90 minutes. What’s also significant is how much he contributes to Inter’s press, considering how little Lukaku offers in this respect. At the age of 22, Lautaro is one of the biggest prospects in world football and is likely to be highly coveted in the market next summer. Currently, he has a release clause of over €100 million, but Inter want to either drop or increase that clause in order to either retain the player or get the most they can squeeze out of another club for this young talent. Alejandro Gómez You’d think that Josip Iličić, with his 13 goals (including a hat-trick in the 7–0 victory over Torino this round, would symbolize Atalanta’s success. However, he’s been with the club only since 2017, and has never before had such a successful season, so that honor belongs to Alejandro Gómez. El Papu is more than the captain of Atalanta, he the cornerstone, the talisman, of La Dea, having signed with the Goddesses in 2014, two years before Gian Piero Gasperini took his place at the helm. Catania, who had their best-ever season in Serie A with Gómez as playmaker let him go to chase both more money and Champions League football with Metalist Kharkiv, a decision the player soon regretted. But it ended well for Atalanta fans, as under Gasperini’s wing he helped the team qualify for Europa League in the manager’s first season in charge, and clinch their first Champions League berth last season. Gomez is a decisive player in a team fighting for a top-four finish; he’s already leaving his mark this season with 6 goals and 7 assists (2nd in the league). Only Iličić creates more chances in Serie A, when considering both open play and set pieces, while Papu is 4th overall in xG assisted per 90. This season Gasperini is playing him deeper, so much so that he sometimes he switches positions with one of the central midfielders to encourage ball progression and relieve pressure on his teammates. In fact, he’s fourth in Serie A in deep progressions per 90 (10.17). Papu belongs on this list as the technical and charismatic leader of the newest top 5 Italian team.

Edin Džeko, Roma

I felt compelled to include a Roma player as they’re currently in the top four, but choosing between Edin Džeko and Lorenzo Pellegrini was quite difficult. In the end, I chose the Bosnian striker because Džeko is still the most solid certainty on Paulo Fonseca’s team. Not only is he Roma’s top scorer with 8 non-penalty goals, but he is also the main point of reference for the team when there is a lack of short passing lanes; that’s when his teammates lean on him to collect a long ball. And you can surely trust a striker in the 90th percentile in aerial duels. Džeko combines the rare ability to execute touches in zones away from the opponent’s penalty area, and at the same time to record an elite number of touches in the box, depending on the game plan. He is also relatively wise in his shooting choices and often functions as bait to attract defenders to free his teammates. It’s unlikely he’ll put up the same goalscoring numbers that earned him the title of capocannoniere in 2016–17, but with the way he’s playing, he’s got no need to earn another top-scorer title. It’s a team effort, and Džeko has always recognized that.

Domenico Berardi, Sassuolo

Sassuolo is, at the time of writing, eight points clear of the relegation zone; last season, they finished just five points clear. Yet, given certain neroverdi are having excellent seasons, it seems the side as a whole is not living up to expectations. The player finally having a breakout season—one many expected him to have a couple years ago, is Domenico Berardi, who at 25 has finally grown enough to no longer be considered a prospect in Italian football, but instead a player who has reached a higher level in his game (which, even if it means little to Sassuolo’s prospects, should make Azzurri fans happy at least).   Choosing him as one of the top players in Italy may seem absurd, but the numbers back up this choice. He averages 0.66 non-penalty goals per 90, his best in seven Serie A seasons and the third-best individual output in the league. He also adds 0.14 assists per 90, for the third-league best scoring contribution. His shot selection may be dubious, but his finishing is been superb, so much so that only Immobile and his teammate Francesco Caputo have a higher-level over/under performance. Berardi scored 9 non-penalty goals from just 4.51 xG. In other words, he’s scored way more goals than his .31 xG predicted, Normally that would make us skeptical of his performances persisting going forward but even if he scores only at his xG total for the rest of the season he’s still likely be considered one of Italy’s top performers. 0.31 xG for 90 is a good average for a wide player, and no other winger who qualified for this list is doing better. Moreover, even if he is not a great dribbler, Berardi still manages to attract a decent number of fouls, as well as offering an important defensive contribution. Berardi’s behavior has let Italian fans down several times in the past and his recent ban may keep him from another Italian call-up. Yet it is difficult to ignore a season like this, particularly as Italy are heading into Euro 2020 this summer, and want to put the embarrassment of not even qualifying for the 2018 World Cup behind them. Another brilliantly played half season may help him don the Azzurri jersey to help his country in the European Championships.

StatsBomb Safari: Eying up England’s Young Lions

As English academies continue to pump out rafts of new professional footballers year after year, one of the most effective quality control measures for testing the shiny new players coming off the production line is to send them out onto a pitch in League Two, League One, or the Championship to see if they can handle themselves in senior football. Indeed, 20 of the 23 players that made up England’s World Cup squad in 2018 had experienced first-team football at some level in the English Football League at some point in the early stages of their career, whilst 5 members of England’s most recent squad for the November internationals played in the Championship last season. This season is no different; plenty of talent is beginning to flourish across the Championship and League One, but there’s also plenty of international age-group teammates that’ll soon join them on loan for the second half of the campaign. Here’s where you should keep your eyes fixed to spot the England internationals of the future.

Goalkeepers

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Dean Henderson (Sheffield United, on loan from Manchester United) & Aaron Ramsdale (AFC Bournemouth) Player In Focus: Nathan Trott (’98), (AFC Wimbledon, on loan from West Ham) Pickings on the goalkeeper front are slimmer this year, and Henderson and Ramsdale are tough acts to follow, but of the contenders, Nathan Trott is having a true breakout season. Flourishing in the same AFC Wimbledon landing spot where Ramsdale made his name last season, the West Ham loanee has held the number #1 jersey since opening day and, not that it’s an indicator of talent, has made more saves than any other keeper in League One, his shot-stopping skills getting a regular workout behind the Wimbledon defence. These workouts appear to be paying off. Based on the post-shot information StatsBomb collect to better evaluate goalkeepers, such as shot placement, Trott should’ve saved 72% of the shots he’s faced. His 77% save percentage is not only the highest in League One, it’s also above expected based on the quality of shots he’s faced. Like Ramsdale last season, Trott’s reaping the benefits of being a big fish at a club fighting to avoid relegation, whilst Wimbledon benefit from the extra quality he’s brought between the sticks. Having featured in the England U21 squad in the September internationals, he could see a March call up again, likely linking him up with Wimbledon predecessor Ramsdale. Other notables:

  • Joe Bursik (’00), (Accrington Stanley, on loan from Stoke City)
  • Billy Crellin (’00), (Fleetwood Town)

Right Backs

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Reece James (Chelsea), Max Aarons, (Norwich City) Player In Focus: Nathan Ferguson (’00), (West Bromwich Albion) Not that we really need to perform a depth check on English right backs right now given the sheer abundance of them, but plenty are pushing through, hoping to provide competition for that spot in the future. Nathan Ferguson being selected for his full West Brom debut on the opening day of the season raised eyebrows, but the academy product hasn’t looked back, accumulating 1773 minutes in the league since. There’s some uncertainty over which position he’ll fulfil long-term which makes Ferguson’s future curious, having come through the West Brom academy system as a centre back, before debuting and impressing at right back before also filling in (and equally impressing) at left back for several games. Surprisingly for a player nurtured as a centre back, Ferguson possesses real ability on the dribble, beating his marker with a quick drop of the shoulder and burst of acceleration on numerous occasions this campaign. Accruing 8 caps between the England U18 and U20 level, expect to see him competing with Max Aarons and Reece James in the England U21 squad next season, as well as a possible move to the Premier League. West Brom themselves may keep their man, but major clubs are on high alert as Ferguson’s contract due to expire this summer. Other notables:

  • Jayden Bogle (’00), Derby County)
  • Steven Sessegnon (’00), (Fulham)
  • Djed Spence (’00), (Middlesbrough)
  • Tom Edwards (’99), (Stoke City)
  • Luke Matheson (’02), (Rochdale)

Centre Backs

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Fikayo Tomori (Chelsea), Axel Tuanzebe (Manchester United), Lloyd Kelly (AFC Bournemouth), Ben Godfrey (Norwich City), Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa) Player In Focus: Ben Wilmot (’99), (Swansea City, on loan from Watford) After his breakthrough at League Two Stevenage in 2017–18, Wilmot has yet to get a real opportunity in the Watford first team. His chances of competing there next season are increasing due to a series of steady performances for Swansea. It took until October for him to break into the Swans backline, but Wilmot has been a mainstay ever since, playing in a fertile environment for young players under EnglandU17 World Cup-winning coach Steve Cooper. Capable of playing in the holding midfield role as well, his contribution isn’t limited to defending his own penalty box. He’s displayed a threat at set plays, contributing two goals to Swansea’s play-off chasing cause. To further capture the interest of those with an eye on England’s future, Wilmot now faces competition for his place in the heart of the Swansea defence from fellow U21 capped Marc Guehi, who’s joined on loan from Chelsea. Other notables:

  • Marc Guehi (’00), (Swansea City, on loan from Chelsea)
  • Nathan Wood (’02), (Middlesbrough)
  • Ro-Shaun Williams (’98), (Shrewsbury Town)
  • Luke Woolfenden (’98), Ipswich Town)
  • Cameron John (’99), (Doncaster Rovers, on loan from Wolverhampton)
  • Aji Alese (’01), (Accrington Stanley, on loan from West Ham)

Left Backs

2018-19 EFL Alumni: James Justin (Leicester City) Player In Focus: Sam McCallum (’00), (Coventry City) In stark comparison to their right-sided counterparts, good English left backs continue to be in short supply, a scarcity highlighted by the last five starters at left back or left wing back for the U21’s: James Justin, Jonathan Panzo, Dwight McNeil, Steve Sessegnon and Lloyd Kelly — none of whom are likely to play left back in the long term. Which makes the emergence of Sam McCallum a timely one for the England scouts, and he should expect an international call up for the U21s should he maintain the form he’s showed in the opening half of the campaign. Currently impressing in a Coventry side pushing for automatic promotion from League One, McCallum began the season second in the pecking order but has since forced his way in and held down his place in the starting XI. Signed in the summer of 2018 from non-league Herne Bay to play a part in the Coventry U23 squad, his development has accelerated rapidly. It looks likely McCallum will be the first graduate of serious note to emerge from Jamie Vardy’s V9 academy. There’s plenty yet to develop in his game, but he’s shown enough potential to catch the attention of recruitment departments higher up the football food chain. Other notables

  • Jay Dasilva (’98), (Bristol City)
  • Omar Richards (’98), (Reading)
  • Lee Buchanan (’01), (Derby County)

Central Midfielders

2018-19 EFL Alumni: Mason Mount (Chelsea) Player In Focus: Flynn Downes (’99), (Ipswich Town) Downes is a player whose star has incessantly rose since his first team debut in 2017–18, making fleeting appearances for Ipswich before a loan spell in League Two during the second half of that season. He featured more regularly when Ipswich were relegated from the Championship in 2018–19 and the drop in quality seems hugely beneficial to the development of Downes, who has established himself not only as a key pillar in the Ipswich midfield, but as one of the brightest prospects overall in the third tier this season. With 11 caps between the U19 and U20 level, Downes should be in line for an U21 call up, especially with a summer move away from Ipswich looking increasingly inevitable. Always roving around the midfield, always hot on the heels of the opposition possession, never leaving it long to outstretch a leg, nicking the ball away and restarting the Ipswich attack. Other notables:

  • Trevoh Chalobah (’99) (Huddersfield Town, on loan from Chelsea)
  • Jude Bellingham (’03), (Birmingham City)
  • Conor Gallagher (’00), (Swansea City, on loan from Chelsea)
  • Jamie Shackleton (’99), (Leeds United)
  • Andre Dozzell (’99), (Ipswich Town)

Attacking Midfielders and Wide Players

2018–19 EFL Alumni: Harvey Barnes (Leicester City), Todd Cantwell (Norwich City) Player In Focus: Grady Diangana (’98), West Brom on loan from West Ham) Avid StatsBomb readers might remember Diangana getting the once-over on this site already this season (you can read the early assessment here). We’re re-upping the West Ham loanee for two reasons: 1) the player has struggled with injury in the last month or so, not-so-coincidentally coinciding with a drop in West Brom’s form and 2) Diangana is one of only six players (four of them English) in the 2019–20 Championship and League One to exceed the magical 0.20 expected goals per 90 minutes and 0.20 expected goals assisted from open play per 90 threshold. Depending on how long he’s out for, Diangana may miss out on a March call up to add to his solitary U21 cap. West Brom fans won’t care about that. The sooner he sets boot to pitch again to help with their promotion push the better, with it very likely he’ll be pushing for starts in West Ham’s attack next season. Other notables:

  • Ebere Eze (’98), (Queens Park Rangers)
  • Marcus Tavernier (’99), (Middlesbrough)
  • Luke Thomas (’99), (Barnsley)
  • Emile Smith-Rowe (’00), (Huddersfield Town, on loan from Arsenal)
  • Jack Clarke (’00), (Queens Park Rangers, on loan from Tottenham)
  • Elliot Embleton (’99), (Sunderland)

Forwards EFL 2018-19 Alumni: Tammy Abraham (Chelsea) Player In Focus: Eddie Nketiah (’99), (Arsenal) Allow me to explain Nketiah’s inclusion as the final entry on this list. The shortlist of forwards contained either expired loans (in Nketiah’s case), newly agreed loans (thus no or few minutes played), or few minutes played full stop. Indeed, none of the contenders played over 1200 minutes in the first half of the campaign. It’s the question of he might still go back on loan to the Championship, or more likely make fleeting appearances for Mikel Arteta’s new Arsenal for the remainder of the campaign, that made Nketiah the most interesting case to focus on. The first thing to note with Nketiah and how highly his talent is regarded is that this was his first loan and he went straight in at one of the pre-season favourites in the Championship. That he didn’t get more playing time is more down to Marcelo Bielsa’s strict aversion to squad rotation than it is Nketiah not living up to expectations, though it’s fair to say his skillset suited Leeds less than that of the more-rounded Patrick Bamford, who dominated the striker minutes whilst Nketiah was there. That didn’t stop the Arsenal youngster from affecting the gamein the appearances he did make: His 3 goals off the bench all came post-80 minutes and all gained points for Leeds, notching two winners and an equaliser. He should get the chance to add to his 8 goals in 8 U21 international appearances soon and mark my words, it won’t be long before you see Nketiah’s name on the vidiprinter soon. Other notables:

  • Rhian Brewster (’00), (Swansea City, on loan from Liverpool)
  • Tyrese Campbell (’99), (Stoke City)
  • Danny Loader (’00), (Reading)
  • Joe Gelhardt (’02), (Wigan Athletic)
  • Tyreece John-Jules (’01), (Lincoln City, on loan from Arsenal)

Bundesliga transfer roundup

And we are back! Let’s get all things Bundesliga going again here at Statsbomb with a winter transfer roundup. How will the new signings of Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund impact the title race? What’s up with Herbstmeister RB Leipzig’s transfer decisions? And which other winter signings should peak our attention in the remainder of this Bundesliga season? Let’s take a look.

Bayern open up midfield with defensive emergency signing

So, let’s start off with a pretty weird one. Weird, from a Real Madrid perspective, that is. Because the Spanish powerhouse is willing to loan Álvaro Odriozola to defensively decimated Bayern München – a Champions League rival – for the remainder of the season, whilst not having a proper back-up in-house for starting right-back Dani Carvajal. Although Odriozola could not produce the same form and production in Madrid as he did in his fine 2017/18 season for Real Sociedad, Bayern seem to be getting a fine addition for the right-back position. With Niklas Süle out for the season, Lucas Hernández out injured for the first six months of his Bayern tenure, Jérôme Boateng falling off a cliff form-wise, Benjamin Pavard’s ups and downs and Javi Martínez picking up his once-a-season-knock, the defence has been patchwork almost every week. But the addition of loanee Odriozola will not only help out the backline. With another right-footed defender to choose from, Hansi Flick can now use Joshua Kimmich as a full-time midfielder. In the shadow of Robert Lewandowski monster production, Kimmich has been excellent as the sole defensive midfielder in Flick’s high-pressing 4-1-4-1. 

Dortmund seem to have hit the jackpot

We’ll keep this one short, because I have a strong suspicion (wink-wink) that you’ll be able to find plenty of Erling Haaland-related content on this here website in the coming months – y’know, with the Norwegian teenager being a prodigious striking talent and all that. But, yeah. Borussia Dortmund have added some serious fire-power with this winter signing.

RB Leipzig trust the process

Three weird things occurred with Leipzig and winter signings this month. First, Haaland did not travel the well known route between Red Bull Salzburg and the East German ‘mother club’, even opting for a move to a rival of Leipzig. The same can be said for Salzburg central defender Marin Pongragic’ (see below) move to VfL Wolfsburg – although Leipzig already have an amazing amount of talented centre back. But maybe the most surprising bit of transfer news concerning the current Bundesliga leaders was the winter move of Diego Demme. Of all outfield players in the squad, only Timo Werner, Lukas Klostermann and Marcel Sabitzer played more minutes for Leipzig before the winter break than the diminutive midfield motor Demme. But Julian Nagelsmann has stated time and time again that he is primarily a players-first-manager, and that he will not stand in the way if one of his players can make a dream move. With Demme’s Napoli move (Demme is half-Italian), those words hold true.  That Leipzig hasn’t searched for a direct replacement of the defensive midfielder, tells a lot about the club’s expectations surrounding Tyler Adams. The 20 year-old American played in Demme’s spot in midfield in the first league game of 2020, and seems to be a starting lineup candidate for the remainder of this season. 

Leverkusen turn to Argentinian allrounder for some stability

The good news for Bayer Leverkusen: Die Werkself are only five points out of second placed Bayern München in mid-January. The bad news: Peter Bosz’ squad has been extremely inconsistent thus far, trading excellent performances with very shaky outings on a week-to-week basis. To combat this inconsistency, Leverkusen have made a splash signing this month. For a fee surrounding 17 million Euros, they’ve brought in River Plate wonder boy Exequiel Palacios. The 21-year old midfield dynamo can do a bit of everything on the pitch, and, very important for Bosz’ press-heavy playing style, can handle an extreme workload. Leverkusen have paid a lofty fee for the young Argentinian, but this signing has the potential to be a super move.

‘Boring’ Wolfsburg do some monster business

The same can be said for Wolfsburg’s signing of Salzburg centre-back Pongracic. With the 10 million Euro signing of the Croatian defenceman, Die Wölfe are adding to their strength. Under new manager Oliver Glasner, Wolfsburg haven’t wowed anyone this season – they lack the individual player talent to do so, to be fair – but they have sneakily been one of the best defensive teams in the Bundesliga thus far.  Pongracic, only made five league appearances this season but the 22 year-old was downright excellent for Salzburg, when he did play and Wolfsburg have added another serious defensive talent to their squad.  

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

Kevin Vogt was one of TSG Hoffenheim’s most important players, when Nagelsmann was still at the helm. The gigantic (6 foot 4, 190 pounds) former midfielder served as a crucial ‘backline playmaker’ as the most central man in Nagelsmann back three in the defensive heart. But with the arrival of new manager Alfred Schreuder, and the switch to a somewhat more expansive style of build-up play, Vogt’s star faded at Hoffenheim this season.  Enter Werder Bremen, who had a horrible first half of the season, and seem to have find an ideal band-aid in loanee Vogt. With Werder conceding a league-leading (trailing, if you will) 41 goals before the winter break, manager Florian Kohfeldt seems to have settled on a 5-3-2 setup as the new playing system, to shore up the defensive performances. Vogt adds strength, experience and plus-level passing ability as the central man in Werder’s revamped backline.  

Schalke continue with ‘high risk, high reward’ approach

January 2020 can serve as a neat microcosm of Schalke’s transfer policy of recent years. Former Tottenham badboy Nabil Bentaleb (Newcastle United), 2. Bundesliga standout Steven Skrzybski (Fortuna Düsseldorf) and underrated Eredivisie attacker Mark Uth (FC Köln) were all deemed no longer necessary, and were loaned out.  Out go three safe, but failed gambles. In come two new ones. To bolster the defence, Schalke 04 turn to ‘the next Raphaël Varane’, Jean-Clair Todibo, who did not, in fact, turn out to be ‘the next Raphaël Varane’ in his first months at Barcelona. (Related: maybe stop naming talented teenagers the next so-and-so.) But if Todibo can regain the form from his first months in the first squad of Toulouse, Die Königsblauen have added a fine defensive talent to their ranks. In attack, Schalke took the opposite approach, as with Michael Gregoritsch (25), manager David Wagner has gotten an extra, Bundesliga-proven option for his frontline. The Austrian fizzled out at FC Augsburg, but scored on his Schalke debut on Friday.

The top 10 Serie A players of the first 20 games; Part 1

What I really like about NBA analytics is that you can use statistics to try to rank, in a more or less unbiased manner, the 5 to 10 best players in the league. Most reasonable people would likely agree with those rankings. It’s a personal concern of mine that we can’t do the same with football, where defensive and offensive roles are split because of the different nature of the game roles as well as the varying reliability of offensive and defensive statistics.  Nevertheless, I often find myself wondering who the best players in Serie A are. Selecting the best offensive players is an easier bet, as individual attacking numbers can provide the analytics to support the top 10. Obviously, like any ranking of this kind, this is a subjective selection, but I hope you can agree with me in principle. I’ve been wanting to do this for some time, and since we’re heading into the decisive part of the season the time seemed right. Before presenting my choices, I’d like to share the simple criteria and assumptions I considered:

  • This list is based solely off of what’s happened this season
  • Players are in no particular order. You’ll find the choices that seemed most obvious at the beginning, but being ranked fourth or ninth won’t make much difference.
  • The best players play in the best teams; as such, the list features many players from the league’s top 5 teams.
  • I considered players who played at least 60% of total minutes, or at least 1080 minutes. This criterion excludes credible candidates like Arkadiusz Milik or Luis Muriel.
  • The best offensive players perform above average and so tend to overperform their expected goals and/or expected goals assisted. However, as we’re only at mid-season, the samples are relatively small, and variance can play a relevant role in individual performance. Therefore, to take into account both these considerations, I measured over/under performance as the difference between players’ actual scoring contribution and expected scoring contribution and excluded every player with a value smaller than -0.10. This didn’t really rule out any of the players I had in mind, but it was still a relevant aspect.

With these factors in mind, I’ll present five players today and five on Monday. Enjoy!

Josip Iličić, Atalanta

I wrote about Iličić in my last column, and I can confirm it now: Josip Iličić is perhaps the best player in Serie A and so he must be the first player to be featured in this list. The Slovenian leads one of the most productive offensive units in league history and, together with current top goal scorer Ciro Immobile, is the only player in the league with a scoring contribution above 1.00. He tops, or is at least in the top five, of nearly all Serie A individual offensive leaderboards.  I’m still amazed that he’s over the 95th percentile in xG (97th), shots (99th), touches in the box (99th), open play xG assisted (97th), fouls won (96th) and in the 90th percentile in dribbles in the attacking midfielder template.  Although Atalanta have only collected one point in the last two games, he scored another fantastic backheel goal, even if it didn’t help his team get the better of SPAL. Messi is the undisputed god of football, but Iličić is the lazy and unconscious demigod of Serie A.

Ciro Immobile, Lazio

I still have Higuaín’s hat-trick against Frosinone stuck in my head, particularly that incredible overhead goal that was the then-Napoli striker’s 36th goal in 35 games, breaking a 66-year-old record. It was May 2016 and I honestly didn’t expect to see another Serie A striker capable of breaking that record. Or at least I didn’t expect to see one so soon. Ciro Immobile is making me reconsider. After featuring in 19 of Lazio’s 20 games, the striker has scored 23 goals. Making a fairly simple calculation to forecast his scoring average in the remaining matches, Immobile could close his -season with as many as 44 goals. He is, therefore, another no-brainer for this list. Obviously, the fact that he scored 9 out of 10 penalties attempted inflates his scoring average and raises concrete doubts as to his real chances of breaking the record, yet Iličić (0.81) is the only player to have a higher non-penalty goals average (0.76) than Immobile. So far Immobile has been a relentless finisher, so much so that he has a non-penalty goals/xG ratio of 1.71, an extraordinary number that will be difficult to keep throughout the season. Yet one neglected aspect of his game this season has been his creative contribution. Immobile served 5 assists to his teammates; among Serie A strikers only Higuaín (0.26) averages more open play xG assisted per 90 (0.21). Immobile is having a career season and could easily beat his record of goals in one season (28). Italy fans will want to see him maintain those numbers going into 2020, as Italy will play all its Euro group stage games in his home stadium, the Olimpico.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus

When in early December I provocatively asked on Twitter whether Cristiano Ronaldo was one of the top 10 players in Serie A, I had more than a few doubts about his status. He had just scored his sixth goal of the season, a penalty against Sassuolo, but he didn’t seem to be as sharp as he was in his younger days, or even his younger older days. CR7 had scored less than his expected goals would have made you think until then and above all, he appeared to be limited by some physical issuess, which is exactly the problem you’d expect with a player who will turn 35 in less than two weeks. Any doubts were swept away by his performance in the next 6 league games, in which he scored 10 goals in total and confirmed once again that he is part of that small group of athletes able to remain at the very top even when their ID card seems to recommend thinking about retirement. Actually right now he seems to be in the better shape he has ever been since he arrived at Juventus in the summer of 2018. With the Champions League just around the corner, he hit his peak of fitness at just the right time. Maurizio Sarri had said he wanted to help Cristiano break new records and so he completely freed him from any defensive responsibility. Ronaldo is 5th in the league in non-penalty goals (0.62 per 90) yet he is practically non-existent when Juventus doesn’t have the ball, to the point of being in the 1st percentile in pressure regains and eventually in the 0th percentile in pressures. In actual fact, the Juventus no. 7 is a luxury that few teams in the world can afford in modern football, but this is the tax to pay to enable him to still be one of the deadliest strikers in Europe today.

Romelu Lukaku, Inter

Antonio Conte wanted Lukaku at all costs, and the Belgian couldn’t wait to make himself available. It took over €65 million, the highest amount ever paid by Inter, to snatch him from Manchester United, but the forward immediately established himself as one of the best strikers in Serie A, silencing those who had criticized his purchase and probably causing more than a few regrets to Ole Gunnar Solskjær, whose attack is shorthanded and underwhelming in his absence. After playing every match so far —19 out of 20 from the first minute — Lukaku has scored as much as Ronaldo if we exclude penalties (11 non-penalty goals). He also shares with Ronaldo the number of touches in the penalty area and the very poor contribution to team pressing. Nevertheless, he has been integral to Inter’s success so far, and it will likely be he that deserves the credit should his team keep Juventus away from the scudetto. Luis Alberto, Lazio Lazio and Inter are the only teams capable of threatening Juventus’ dominance, and Lazio are still the only team in Europe to have beaten the Bianconeri this season, and to have done so twice, in the league and in the Italian Super Cup. If Immobile dominates the top-scorer rankings, Luis Alberto is the best in Serie A at providing assists (9) and has accumulated the most xG assisted (5.49). Together they are the two most important players on Simone Inzaghi’s team. Since he arrived at Lazio from Liverpool, the growth of the Spaniard has been exponential. Inzaghi tailored the no. 8 role for him, from which he manages much of the ball progression and the chance creations for his team. There are few players in Europe who have his Zidanesque touch and who can pass like him, finding openings even where there are none. His through-balls are a sight to behold, and I’d go so far as to say that if tomorrow the alien race in Space Jam returned to Earth to challenge the Looney Tunes to footgolf instead of basketball, Bugs Bunny would probably knock on Luis Alberto’s door. We’ll be back on Monday with the final five players on the list.

StatsBomb Release… Not Radars

At StatsBomb, radars are our iconic way of visualising player and team stats. There has been a ton of development and research put into them since 2014, and if you are interested, you can read about various updates here and here. These days they are seemingly ubiquitous in the football landscape. However, we know that radars are not the only way to visualise data. Radars are actually quite good at serving their purpose, but StatsBomb IQ is mature enough to deliver other options. Today’s StatsBomb IQ updates did the following: 1. Update radar position specific stat boundaries with new data from the past year. 2. Add percentile radars as a visualisation option. 3. Update the information provided on radars into a new panel. 4. Add distributions as a visualisation with many different options for use cases. (Which I will explain in detail below.) 5. Comparisons happen in the radar screen now rather than saving to compare -> going somewhere else. We feel this offers a cleaner UI than what we had before. 6. Using distributions you can now explore team and player stats as percentiles in the league pages. We wanted to release these updates to allow customers to become comfortable with the changes and new features before moving to the next step of the Customisation project. That step will allow customers to build their own templates for radars and distributions from scratch, which is probably the most requested new functionality we have had. First things first though… Template Boundaries Have Been Updated We update these about once a year as more data comes into the system. They remain based on positional populations for each stat in the big 5 leagues across multiple seasons. However… New Positional Population Distributions One element we are working on is creating new population distributions to compare against. In our email to customers, we explained that they should read the detailed WARNING included on the website before making changes to the distribution settings. And then, as if by magic, we proved exactly WHY you would want to be careful messing with the default settings ourselves by accidentally including all the historic La Liga data we collected for the Messi Data Biography in with the default population calculations. The problem? Those league seasons only include games from Barcelona, where they are typically trouncing 19 other opponents, and nothing else. Barcelona and the 19 cream puffs then made their way into the team data set, where for some reason defensive stats went kind of crazy as 13 * 20 additional funhouse mirror La Liga seasons were included in the population. It was now weirdly normal for teams to concede 3 xG a match on the defensive side of the ball. So uh… we’re fixing that bug ASAP. And thanks Messi! Percentile Radars In addition to normal stat radars, you can now choose to show stats as percentiles for the position. This gets rid of the 5%/95% cutoffs from the normal templates and replaces calculated stats with percentiles for the entire population of output at that position. Depending on your use case, these may be strictly better ways to display player skill sets than the traditional value radars. Information Display Updates We have changed how we display information quite a bit with this update. The new table contains the basic statistical output per 90 as well as the percentile for that stat. New Display Option: Distributions I have wanted to add non-radar, sciency ways to display player and team data for a long time. We  researched (actually, I say we, but Nat James did most of the work on this) and tested a variety of potential options and these were the ones we felt matched what we wanted to accomplish in terms of information display and statistical precision. They also have a number of selectable display options under “Distribution” on the left hand menu. We’ll work through each option and the use case below. Plot Type: Area/Violin Area is selected by default. Violin mirrors the area plot. Distribution Displayed: Positionally Filtered/Any Position/Both In the distro plots, we allow you to choose your options. Positionally filtered cuts the distribution of that stat to only players who have played significant minutes at that position. Any Position shows the distribution of that stat for all players.  Both… this is where things get a bit more complicated. If you have Area chosen for Plot Type, then choosing Both here displays the full population distribution as a dotted line.    However, if you have Violins for plot type, the top distribution will show the position filtered distro and the bottom one will show the full population.   Distribution Colouring: Radar Colours/Percentile Gradient/Metric Distinction These are just preferences for how to colour the distros. Percentile Gradient offers some colour clarity to what percentile a player comes in at, but those values are also contained at the end of the vis. Template Limits: Not Displayed/Dotted/Notches In case you want to keep some grounding to the old radar style, you can choose to add either Dotted marks at the 5%/95% boundary of the population or you can add notches for each part of that distribution. Comparison UI Comparisons now happen on the front page. There is a drop down that loads your favourites for comparisons, or you can type to search for new ones. On any radar, clicking the star in the top left will add a new favourite. These can then be managed under the favourites menu that loads when you click the person icon in the top right of the IQ screen. Both radars and distributions now offer overlays for comparing players and teams. It’s a big update to our platform and one where explaining the design choices and showing the new vis doesn’t really encompass how much new stuff there is for customers to explore. And, as noted earlier, this is the first phase in a multi-phase release that will allow customers massive customisation options in how they choose to visualise and analyses information in StatsBomb IQ. Thanks for listening! –Ted Knutson CEO, StatsBomb

Weekly La Liga roundup: Setién at Barcelona, En-Nesyri at Sevilla and more

The most interesting bits and pieces from La Liga Matchday 20.

Setién’s Winning Start At Barcelona

As statements of intent go, it was a pretty clear one. Surprisingly, the scoreline was not the main talking point from Barcelona’s 1–0 win over Granada in Quique Setíen’s debut on the Camp Nou bench. As you probably know by now, Barcelona passed and passed and passed, attempting over 1,000 and completing over 900 for the first time since . . .  well, since their draw with Valencia last October, but let’s not derail the narrative too quickly. Snark aside, what was most noteworthy was Setién’s attempt to tackle the problem of the overlapping skillsets of Antoine Griezmann and Lionel Messi. Aided in that sense by the absence through injury of Luis Suárez, he brought Griezmann infield from the slightly awkward left-sided forward position he’s occupied for much of the campaign, and placed him alongside Messi in a pairing of roving forwards up front. With Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba providing width on the right and left respectively in a formation probably most accurately described as a 3-3-4, both Griezmann and Messi had the freedom to drop off the front to receive, combine and advance. Messi drifted with his usual impunity, as this map of his pass receipts shows. Messi Pass Receipts vs. Granada And while Griezmann was at times tasked with stretching play in behind, he was also able to get involved in deeper central areas more frequently than has often been the case this season. This was not the denatured Griezmann of performances past. Griezmann Receipts vs. Granada It was only one match, and it didn’t really make an appreciable difference in terms of output. Maybe it was just an aesthetic thing. But given Barcelona are the club who have made aesthetics their thing, and that Setién’s appointment was at least partly driven by that, it feels like a step in the right direction.

En-Nesyri Gives A Glimpse Of His Skillset

Last week, Sevilla paid the €20 million release clause for Leganés forward Youssef En-Nesyri. He went straight into the squad for their weekend defeat to Real Madrid, coming off the bench for the final half-hour or so and generating Sevilla’s sole opportunity to equalise when he received an errant Madrid pass and drove past a defender into the area, only to fire well wide. That little passage provided a glimpse of the directness that is a key component of En-Nesyri’s game. Throughout the last season and a half at Leganés, he has proved himself adept at picking the ball up inside the final third and driving it on into the penalty area. En Nesyri Dribbles Carries Into Area The 22-year-old is a slightly awkward runner, more angular than he appears at first glance, but he’s also one of the fastest players in La Liga. To that he adds a decent aerial game (he does stand at six feet and two inches tall after all), and a willingness to press from the front that has made him a top-six forward in each of last three seasons in terms of pressing actions. He has a varied enough toolbox to perform as a more mobile alternative to central striker Luuk de Jong or as direct option on the right or left of Sevilla’s attack. En-Nesyri’s numbers reveal a clear uptick between his 2017–18 campaign at Málaga and his 2018–19 at Leganés. Youssef En-Nesyri-Málaga vs Youssef En-Nesyri-Leganés That progression has somewhat stalled this season, but it feels as if there is still more to come. He looks a typical Monchi signing: a young player with a diverse skillset that hasn’t quite yet coalesced into an aggregate greater than the sum of its parts. The expectation is that his output will improve in the company of better players, but it remains to be seen whether reality will conform to this hypothesis.

Betis On The Rise

Shortly before their home match against Celta Vigo at the end of October, the players and coaching staff of Real Betis met to air their differences and find a way forward. Down in the bottom three, with just two wins and nine points to their credit, and with underlying numbers that weren’t much better, the future of coach Rubi was on the line. The consensus was that changes had been made too abruptly to their previous approach under Quique Setién. The new Barcelona coach has a very particular style of play, and some of the players were struggling to adapt to a new system after a couple of seasons under his command. Compromise was found. From then on, results and performances have greatly improved. In fact, over the subsequent 10 matches, Betis’ underlying numbers have been the fifth-best in La Liga. Only three teams have taken more points. On Sunday, they produced arguably their best performance of the season in an impressive 3–0 win at home to Real Sociedad. With those above faltering, they are slowly working their way back in European contention. La Liga__team_season_np_xgd_pg So what has changed? In possession, the side has shifted back to the system of three central defenders and two high-positioned wing-backs that formed the basis of initial ball progression under Setién. Of the pass networks from Betis’ first 10 matches of the season, the large majority feature a clear division between the two central defenders and the midfield zone.

  Yet in their pass networks for the subsequent 10 matches, it’s easy to see a clearly defined structure of three deeper-lying central players, formed of either a back three or two central defenders and a very conservative defensive midfielder.   On the other side of the ball, they have become demonstrably more aggressive in their pressing, pushing the defensive line up and more regularly contesting the ball. The results are clear to see. Sometimes a little compromise goes a long way.

Abelardo’s Latest Survival Mission

Abelardo has a knack for survival missions. In December 2017, he took over an Alavés side then last in the table and led them to safety. Last month, he inherited at Espanyol side likewise positioned at the bottom of the pile. After a draw against Barcelona on his debut, Espanyol recorded their first victory since October in a 2–1 win away to Villarreal on Sunday. The goals arose from two pillars of Espanyol’s survival hopes: the first from a set-piece; the second from new signing Raúl de Tomás. Abelardo’s Alavés side scored 15 times from set pieces last season, the third-best total in the league, and also generated more expected goals (xG) from these situations than any other team. La Liga_2018_2019_team_season_sp_xg_pg The early evidence at Espanyol suggests they will again be an important resource. David López has twice been the beneficiary to date. He headed home the opener against Barcelona and then arrived to convert Naldo’s near-post flick-on for the first against Villarreal. Espanyol won’t maintain that kind of hit rate—no team is scoring once every two matches from set pieces this season—but a few more set-piece goals will go a long way for the league’s most goal-shy team. At Rayo Vallecano last season, De Tomás showed himself to be a striker capable of generating shots and goals in a relegation-threatened team. Quick, determined and an able dribbler, amongst all players who saw at least 1,200 minutes of action, he ranked fifth in the league on a per-90 basis in shots (3.29), eighth in goals (0.42) and 11th in xG (0.36). His Espanyol debut showed exactly what he provides. Not only did he score the second goal, heading home an excellent right-wing delivery from Jonathan Calleri, but he alone generated over half his team’s expected goals off of his seven shots. Espanyol is strongly backing Abelardo. After laying down €20 million on De Tomás, they spent a further €9 million to bring in Getafe central defender Leandro Cabrera. Other deals seem to be in the works. But whatever additional elements he adds, having both an individual shot-generator and a systemised means of creating shots and goals already puts his side in a much better position to avoid the drop.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association