La Liga roundup: Espanyol, Eibar are in trouble

This is likely to be the last roundup of the action in La Liga for the foreseeable future given that the league will be suspended for at least the next two matchdays — and probably longer — due to the coronavirus pandemic. Let's make it a good one.

Espanyol are in trouble

Results have improved at Espanyol since Abelardo became their third head coach of the season at the end of December. They are taking double the number of points per match they did before his arrival. The problem is that the rest of the bottom four have also started to pick up points at a decent clip. Leganés and Mallorca have matched Espanyol’s accumulation; Celta Vigo have taken two more. Espanyol were three points adrift at the bottom when Abelardo took over and five points shy of safety; they are still three points adrift at the bottom, but now six points off safety. Instead of 20 matches to resolve the situation, they now have just 11. In addition, their underlying numbers don't paint a promising picture. In their nine matches under Abelardo, Espanyol have the fourth-worst expected goal difference in the division. Celta Vigo, Leganés and Mallorca all look better by that measure. La Liga__team_season_np_xgd_pg (3) Not only that, but compared to the aggregate under his predecessors David Gallego and Pablo Machín, Espanyol’s numbers have actually worsened since Abelardo took charge. Their attacking output has barely changed. The shot profile is a bit different — they now take fewer shots of higher average quality — but the end result is the same. Theirs remains one of the worst attacks in the league. Espanyol-La Liga- The defence also doesn’t look good. Espanyol concede just over two more shots per match than previously. With barely a shift in the average quality, their xG conceded has risen. The evidence suggests their deeper positioning and more passive approach to defending under Abelardo isn’t really working for them. Espanyol-La Liga- (1) Espanyol are running 2.5 goals ahead of their xG difference since Abelardo came in. Given that their current rate of points accumulation hasn't improved their position, any drift back toward the underlying numbers would likely finish them off. Their 26-season stay in the top flight could well be coming to an end.

Eibar might be too

The knock-on effect of the bottom four increasing their points rate is that Eibar have been dragged back down into the relegation contest. After a 2–1 home defeat to Real Sociedad on Tuesday, they are now just two points clear of the bottom three. Over the full course of the campaign, Eibar’s underlying numbers are the second-worst in the league. That is quite a dropoff given they had the sixth-best xG difference last season. La Liga_2019_2020_team_season_np_xgd_pg (4) Things have improved a bit since I wrote about their concerning start to the season. Eibar carried an awful -0.71 xG difference per match through their first 10 matches of the campaign. Their attack had cratered, and their defensive numbers were barely better. Eibar La Liga Trendlines (2) They've stabilised a bit since. Across their subsequent 17 matches, their attacking numbers have shot up from a paltry 0.66 xG per match to an almost league average 1.01 xG. Coupled with a marginal defensive improvement, they are now the sixth-worst team in the league by the underlying numbers. But it hasn’t been enough to see off the threat of relegation nor to placate irascible head coach José Luis Mendilibar. Tuesday’s fixture was the first Primera División encounter played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus outbreak. If that set up had continued, it likely wouldn’t have been long before the pitch-side microphones were shut off during Eibar matches given the volume of frustrated “bloody hells” that emanate from their bench. Things are tightly positioned toward the bottom of the table and the gains Eibar have made as the season has gone on mean little when they remain one of the five or six worst teams in the division. Relegation is still a real and present threat. Even if they do survive, a lot needs to change if they are to avoid an equally uncomfortable campaign next season. On a minutes-weighted basis, Eibar had the oldest squad in La Liga last season, and they still do — it’s just that most of them are now another year older. Three of their four most-used outfield players will be 33 or more by the end of the season. Only two players under the age of 27 receive significant minutes. Eibar_2019_2020_Minutes On Pitch by Age (1) The squad needs a significant refresh this summer regardless of whether or not Mendilibar stays on. He's been in charge since 2015, but has consistently signed just one-year extensions. Maybe this will be the year he decides to call it quits.

Shot counts, shot shares and bad shots

The shot count in Getafe’s 0–0 draw at home to Celta Vigo on Saturday really stood out. Despite taking 19 shots to Celta’s four, a near 83% share, Getafe were unable to find a way through. Their expected goals tally of just 1.10 provided an early clue as to why. Three things seemed fairly unique: a failure to win with such a high shot share, an inability to score from so many shots, and such a small xG from that volume of efforts. The fixture was actually the 13th in La Liga this season in which one of the teams took 80% or more of the shots. The highest share was recorded by Osasuna in their 3–1 win at home to Valencia in October in which they took almost 90% (28–3). Only two teams have taken a larger proportion than Getafe did against Celta whilst failing to win: Sevilla’s 89.5% share in their 1–1 draw with Celta in August, and Leganés’ 84.6% share in a 0–0 with Real Betis last month. Just six teams have attempted more efforts on goal without scoring. The highest tally came in Villarreal’s 0–0 draw at home to Atlético Madrid in December. Villarreal took 23 shots to Atlético’s 18 that day. How an earth did this end scoreless? Villarreal - Atlético Madrid - 2019-12-06   Real Madrid have twice taken 20 or more shots without reward, at home to Betis and Athletic Club. On both occasions, they racked up north of 2.4 xG — the two highest xG sums without scoring this season, and by some margin at that. Getafe’s tally was much lower. Their shot locations were far from great, and Celta had a good number of bodies goalside when they did shoot from decent positions. Only Nemanja Maksimović’s early second-half effort wide from a Jorge Molina cutback was even a one-in-five chance. Getafe Celta Vigo Sat Mar 07 2020 22_00_00 GMT+0100 (Central European Standard Time) But their average xG per shot of 0.058 doesn’t actually rank that low amongst all occasions when a team took more than a league-average (11.19) number of shots this season. Fourteenth in fact. The worst? Mallorca barely mustered half a goal of xG from 16 shots in a home loss to Real Valladolid last month. Now these really aren’t good shots. Mallorca Real Valladolid Sat Feb 01 2020 19_30_00 GMT+0100 (Central European Standard Time)

StatsBomb Champions League Primer: Paris Saint-Germain vs Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool vs Atlético Madrid

Two clubs, both alike in deficits,  In stricken Europe, where we lay our scene. The main question going into Wednesday’s Champions League matches is whether two of Europe’s best teams can overturn single-goal deficits over 90 minutes at home, to which the obvious answer is sure, they could. A historic comeback doesn’t stand between the two hosts and the quarterfinals; it’s not even clear these sides are underdogs. Still, there’s work to be done.

Paris Saint-Germain vs Borussia Dortmund

Of the home sides, Paris Saint-Germain has the advantage of an away goal. Pursuing the goal they need therefore comes with fewer risks. This is for the best insofar as PSG aren’t notorious for picking their spots. Being able to secure an aggregate tie with a 2-1 win means things needn’t get frantic.  One can easily overstate the extent of PSG’s European struggles. Their extremely banterous losses often get conflated with normal, disappointing results, like the first leg against Dortmund. It is true that Thomas Tuchel’s tactics require PSG to dominate the ball, which is more easily achieved in Ligue 1 than against a Dortmund side that values slow, defensive possession. Still, PSG generated 1.52 expected goals to Dortmund’s 1.26 without a convincing solution to this longstanding problem. It was a match where each side scored their one, big chance from a central position and Dortmund converted a low-probability shot from outside the box. It happens. The first leg was a reminder of PSG’s known weaknesses but not an argument that they were terminal flaws.  All of that may be a roundabout way of saying that Neymar is very, very good. He accounted for six of PSG’s ten shots and 1.1 expected goals. This hasn’t always happened for him at PSG, but a player who can carry a team like that can solve a lot of tactical problems. Falling back on the individual talent of Neymar — or Kylian Mbappé, who had a quiet first leg, except for his one moment of genius — when Tuchel’s Rube Goldbergian possession machine isn’t working may be necessary with Marco Verratti suspended.  Dortmund, as you may have heard, also have some excellent forwards. I’m not here to tell you that Erling Håland will double his expected goals forever, but I’m also not going to provide assurances this won’t continue in Paris. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of his being very good even if we ignore finishing luck. Jadon Sancho: also good. While Dortmund haven’t shown much ability to keep PSG out of their penalty area, they can mitigate this issue with possession wingbacks and break through Håland and Sancho in search of an away goal. (Marco Reus is out injured.) Dortmund’s path to the next round, then, looks a lot like the first leg; playing PSG close and then getting some finishing luck may not be the likeliest outcome, but it’s a valid approach in a cup competition. PSG are probably the better side in this tie, but Dortmund have the tools to frustrate them. 

Liverpool vs Atlético Madrid

Liverpool, unlike PSG, are clearly better than an Atleti side that is good but not Diego Simeone’s finest. They’re the defending champions and for all but the Bayern-curious, probably still the best side in Europe. Peak Liverpool should advance. But shit happens, which isn’t all that different from saying Atleti happens. There’s also the question of whether Peak Liverpool will show up on Wednesday. Peak Liverpool did not show up in Madrid. Despite trailing from the fourth minute, Jurgen Klopp’s side didn’t get a shot until the 29th minute and were held shotless after the 83rd minute. Of the seven shots generated in the middle half-ish of the match, just three were in the box and none were particularly threatening. All season long, Liverpool have been able to shift into a higher gear and produce a flurry of good shots when necessary. That did not happen in the first leg.  Atleti deserves a lot of credit for Liverpool’s uncharacteristic first-leg performance. No side’s average defensive action was closer to their own goal than Atleti’s during the Round of 16 first legs. Theirs was a rearguard action, but an organized one. Every time they moved back or rotated, they had a clear structure. This hallmark of a Simeone side is quite rare. Most sides defending this deep end up conceding good shots because they’re not very good and run out of ideas as they retreat, leaving opponents with the ball near their goal. Atleti, on the other hand, held Liverpool to the second-longest average shot length of the first legs. Only they shot from further away; it was that kind of match, which is to say it was their kind of match.  At the same time, Atleti’s defensive parsimony alone cannot account for Liverpool’s attacking struggles in the first leg. Talented teams with 71 per cent possession don’t usually confine their limited shooting to the middle 50 minutes of a match. Shot quality is important but so too is shooting. Something went very wrong in the first leg, but Liverpool’s performances over the subsequent weeks, while not their best, didn’t suggest this was anything but a one-off.  How much can be solved by Liverpool just playing, well, better? It’s entirely possible they could eke out a 1-0 win on the strength of finishing luck and just a bit more attacking competence. This is for the best as Liverpool have to manage the risk of conceding an away goal. At the same time, some tactical tweaks might help. Atleti’s pressing in the first leg was focused on the areas frequented by Liverpool’s fullbacks, who double as de facto creative midfielders. While this problem could be solved by counting on the excellence of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to win out, as it usually does, a touch more creativity and directness from midfield might come in handy and give Simeone’s side something else to think about.  Atleti’s approach for the second leg seems clear: defend and try to snaffle a goal. It worked in the first leg and has worked for Simeone sides in the past. Good teams get eliminated in cup ties. It happens. Another way of formulating the central question in Wednesday’s ties, then, is whether football can happen to a good team twice in a row. The only answer is yes. With respect to spreadsheets, that’s why we watch the games.

How Much Do Manchester City Need to Overhaul?

Well, that hasn’t gone to plan. Unless coronavirus spares their blushes by putting an end to the season, Manchester City are looking at finishing with 20 points fewer than 2018–19. After a ludicrous 198 point haul over two seasons, City are back to Pep Guardiola’s first season in pure results terms. Mike Goodman wrote about City’s struggles for StatsBomb recently and it seems like, while they have issues to work out, they’re still pretty good. But this is Guardiola we’re talking about here. “Pretty good” is not the acceptable standard. He strives for perfection. The noise for a while is that summer 2020 will lead to a bigger overhaul of City’s squad than usual. But where do they need to change things? Who is worth sticking with or twisting? Let’s take a look.


Ederson is having a season that could be described as “okay”. City’s number one has faced 226 non-penalty shots on target in the Premier League since he arrived in the North West. He has conceded 65 non-penalty goals, while StatsBomb’s post-shot expected goals model estimates that the average ‘keeper would have let in 66.16. He is a fairly average shot-stopper with exceptional passing range. Guardiola almost certainly isn’t going to compromise on the latter to find someone better at making saves, so Ederson’s place looks safe, but it remains noteworthy. Behind him, Claudio Bravo’s contract expires this summer, and as someone originally signed to be a starter, he’s probably on high wages for a number two. The talk of Zack Steffen returning to the club is likely fueled by cost-saving measures. After that, Scott Carson still exists to fill a homegrown spot, but unless he is a member of your immediate family, you don’t need to care about that.


Everyone knows Aymeric Laporte is great. Everyone also knows John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi are prone to errors. But then again, the latter pair played a lot of football together before Laporte’s arrival, when City already had an excellent defence. They had the benefit of a midfield much more effective at preventing counters back then, but recent form feels like a fairer indication of their abilities. We’ll get to that later. It seems very likely that Laporte will retain his status as City’s first-choice centre back when he eventually gets fit. Adding a new signing to partner him might be the biggest no-brainer prediction anyone will make about the transfer market. John Stones’ age and homegrown status probably keep him around for a little while longer, so Otamendi looks the most likely casualty if another club can pay his wages. Fernandinho can see out the last year of his contract as fourth choice. In theory, City have two different and exciting options at left back. Benjamin Mendy perfectly fits the mould of a conventional attacking fullback, combining an excellent ability to move past people with really good technical delivery from wide areas. Oleksandr Zinchenko, meanwhile, fits as a more distinctly Guardiola fullback, comfortable enough in possession to fill in as a midfield player. The graphic below shows how differently they progress the ball. Zinchenko moves the ball into the final third a lot, more akin to a central midfielder at another club. Mendy does less of this, but once it’s in the final third, he’s key in then getting the ball into the box, more akin to how most teams use attacking left backs. It’s a little difficult to show in the data, but as anyone can see, their problems are in the defence. In past years, City’s ability to prevent teams moving the ball through midfield helped Mendy and Zinchenko from being badly exposed. That’s not happening now, and they look less than invincible. The best option would be to fix the midfield, but let’s assume that’s rather difficult to do. City then need an excellent two-way left back who is likely to cost a lot of money, with one of Zinchenko or Mendy making way. Right back was supposed to be an area City fixed last summer. João Cancelo hasn’t flown in his first season, but this seems forgivable. The Portugal international spent last season at Max Allegri’s much deeper defending Juventus team, while the year before he was at Luciano Spalletti’s uninspiring Inter side. This isn’t just a different league but a different style of football for him, and he should be granted patience. Kyle Walker is about to turn 30 and it already feels like he’s a step off his best, but he’s homegrown, so congratulations, Kyle.

Defensive Midfielders

Now here’s the meat of the issue. With Fernandinho ageing and no longer able to offer the energy he once did as a defensive midfielder, Rodri came in as his permanent replacement. But Rodri and Fernandinho are, well, different. Rodri is the kind of calm passer Guardiola himself played as, and later utilised Sergio Busquets as at Barcelona. But Fernandinho is a box-to-box midfielder moved into a deeper role, who used his mobility to break up opposition attacks and offered a slightly more direct passing option. Guardiola isn’t stupid, and he’s adjusted his midfield accordingly. City often play a 4-4-2ish formation that becomes a 4-2-4 in possession at times, with İlkay Gündoğan sitting alongside Rodri. The passmap from the defeat to Tottenham clearly shows the shape (we’ll talk about that attacking four in the next section). The problem is that Gündoğan and Rodri don’t really compliment each other. Both tend to be fairly passive in possession and lack the mobility to be aggressive without it. Gündoğan’s many injury problems certainly seem to have taken their toll, and at age 29, he’s only likely to physically decline further. It seems as though Guardiola is fine with this partnership, which is mystifying. If for some reason he were to ask my opinion, I’d suggest investing in a physically dominant box-to-box midfielder, not unlike Arturo Vidal when he signed for the Catalan’s Bayern side.


A lot of players have been condensed into this section due to how fluid Guardiola’s selections can be —plus, there’s just a lot of talent to choose from. Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus: they’re all great, and they’re all likely to be great again next season. Someone who isn’t going to be great for Man City next season is David Silva. It seems like the club really are just going to follow through and let Phil Foden take his (admittedly fewer) minutes next season, which is admirable. There will be a short-term cost to this, but City have so many good attacking options that they can cope if he struggles next year. Leroy Sané has been injured throughout the season, though it seemed like he had one foot out the door anyway. But he did offer something totally absent now. Sané is almost unique at the top level of modern football as a left-footed winger who exclusively plays from the left, which lets him stretch the play differently than City’s other attacking options. With Sané playing wide on the left, Zinchenko can more easily come into midfield without the team losing structure. He’s not just tactically interesting, though. He’s quite good at kicking the ball with that left foot of his, too. When looking at his left-footed shots from the left side of the pitch over two seasons, he makes a mockery of xG. No one else does that. City were linked with Mikel Oyarzabal last summer as a replacement. This makes sense, since the Real Sociedad man is also a rare left-footer who plays on the left, but with nothing like the same verve. The Sané question is a fairly minor one, though. City’s substantive issue is the ease with which teams are breaking their press. Their xG per shot conceded is the second-worst in the league, strange for a side that’s elite at basically everything else. The assumption is that the midfield is more porous without Fernandinho, opening up the defenders to increased vulnerability. Fernandinhos don’t grow on trees, and a collective rethink of the defence and midfield will be needed to get to 2017–19 levels. It sounds like a tall order, but Pep Guardiola has done more from worse positions in the past.

StatsBomb Champions League Primer: RB Leipzig vs Tottenham Hotspur and Valencia vs Atalanta

The world might be upended by coronavirus but the Champions League is set to march on. So do we with our previews.

RB Leipzig v Tottenham Hotspur

The good news for Spurs is that they’re only down a goal. The bad news is that Leipzig were very good value for the away goal they scored. Spurs' problems have been well documented over the past month, with the side basically giving back all of the performance gains that new manager José Mourinho initially brought with him The team's injury crisis is apparent with January signing Steven Bergwijn joining Harry Kane and Son Heung-min on the sideline. Domestically, especially against teams with less talent, there’s room for debate about whether or not Mourinho could make certain tactical choices to get the most out of his remaining squad. Against Leipzig, however, the team is in a bind. With so few healthy attackers, and no true forward to speak of, Spurs simply cannot execute Mourinho’s desired approach of bending but not breaking and then counterattacking at lightning speed. They have no one to counterattack through. Conversely, if they try to hold the ball against Leipzig, they'd have both trouble moving it up the field and a lack of presence in the box to act as a focal point. Meanwhile, they’d expose themselves to a lightning-fast and efficient counterattack from the German side. Meanwhile, for Leipzig, while it’s the team’s attack that often garners attention, their defense is what will likely be on display as they attempt to see out the tie. And the team defends very very well. They’re a classic shot-suppression side, conceding the second-fewest shots in Germany. Leipzig want to defend far from their own goal, and to force teams to beat an aggressive press to create chances. That’s why this task is so daunting for Mourinho. He’s a manager that normally is happy to play against an aggressive pressing team. He wants to invite pressure and then beat it through the combination of a target forward and a speedy attacking winger executing fast and efficient counterattacks. Unfortunately for Spurs, their target forward and fast creative winger won’t be playing. For Tottenham to have a chance at staging a comeback they'll have to solve the exact problem that’s been hounding this side for weeks. They’re going to need to break a press without press breakers.

Valencia v Atalanta

Sometimes there are more important things than sports. And for the northern Italian side this is one of those times. Amidst the coronavirus crisis, the squad has played only one match since beating Valencia 4–1 at home on February 19th, breaking apart Lecce 2–7 on the first of the month. The good sporting news for Atalanta is that they have clearly been the better side, and they travel to Valencia with quite a cushion after their 4–1 victory in the reverse fixture. Valencia do have something to hang their hopes on though, and it’s that the first leg wasn’t nearly as lopsided as it seemed. While Atalanta scored early and put the game to bed shortly after halftime, Valencia really did find a lot of attacking joy over the final half hour. The usual pattern of a match like this would be Valencia, trailing at home, would have a ton of the ball and Atalanta would try to defend against a desperate onslaught and put the game away on the counter. A number of famous comebacks over the last few seasons have followed this pattern and resulted in the trailing team getting a needed result. But neither Valencia nor Atalanta fit that mould. Atalanta are addicted to having the ball. And Valencia are one of the deepest defending teams in the world. If Valencia do stage a major comeback it would be because Atalanta simply don’t have the capacity to play cautiously and Valencia manage to take advantage three times. The team does have the fourth-highest expected goals per shot value in La Liga, so a comeback is not out of the realm of possibility. The most likely outcome is that Atalanta just keep on scoring and win this battle easily. The side puts up the kinds of attacking totals that any team in the world would be proud of. It’s hard to imagine they won’t put one or two past Valencia unless they end up confronted with a terrible finishing streak. Stranger things have happened, but there’s no reason to expect it. One of the challenges of analyzing this Champions League season is the fact that some teams are simply much better than their reputations. Atalanta tops that list. They’re just so beyond Valencia that it's hard to imagine them blowing this lead without a whole bunch of luck going against them.

Frenkie de Jong, Barcelona's star midfielder (still) in waiting

We have reached the point in Barcelona's current crisis where everything and everyone involved in the club is being questioned. Blame is in unlimited supply and nobody is safe. The squad has lost faith in Setién according to one report. Eder Sarabia, Setién's assistant manager, is a loose cannon and needs to tone it down says another. Ter Stegen might want to leave according to a different report and Jordi Alba was forced to cover his ears against Real Sociedad to drown out the whistling fans. There are also discontented murmurs about Frenkie de Jong and his role in the team.

On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being Barcelona’s president being accused of hiring social media accounts used to disparage players, de Jong being played out of position is a two. But it’s important because de Jong was seen as a (almost) zero-risk signing.

De Jong was seen as a safe bet; the golden boy. He had charmed Barcelona fans with his beaming smile, golden hair, his assuredness both on and off the field and with a limitless future ahead of him. The 22-year-old doesn't say anything wrong because he hardly speaks. The only time he lifts his head is to seek a pass.

He was built in the home of Johan Cruyff and while it's not Barcelona DNA, it's a similar enough strand – a distant relative who you still look eerily similar to. Take the ball, pass the ball. It's what de Jong does best as we saw during Ajax's impossible run to the Champions League semi-final last year. We see it every time he pulls on the Oranje of Netherlands too when he seems to grow an inch in stature. That’s not how it is at Barcelona though as he seems to shrink into his role at the Camp Nou.

The risk was none and the expectations were high. That's possibly why the discontent has crept in because while he has performed well, he is still being played out of position. Barcelona have been searching for an Andres Iniesta replacement since he left for Japan. Andre Gomes was seen as a potential heir to the crease Iniesta had worn in the left of a midfield three at the Camp Nou but that turned out horribly for everyone before he left for Everton. Philippe Coutinho was drafted in as a more expensive and attacking solution but that went the same way.

Antoine Griezmann was touted as a player who might be able to play in the role too but has he played further forward and is entirely different to Iniesta anyway. Frenkie de Jong is being shoe-horned into the same role and has suffered in his first season because of that.

A look at Iniesta and de Jong comparisons show that the magician from Albacete was a far more accomplished attacker. Iniesta didn’t run but glide. He didn’t pass to team-mates, he caressed the ball into their path. He didn’t dribble, he skipped by defenders. Comparing de Jong's first season at Barcelona to Iniesta's last we can see that the young Dutchman is doing a reasonable, if clearly lesser imitation. 

De Jong’s last year at Ajax was more similar to Sergio Busquets, which is where the problem arises. Here's his last season at Ajax and the current season for Barcelona's stalwart midfielder.

"The positive thing is that he plays a lot of games, but he's playing in a different position to what he's used to. He plays differently with me in the national team,” said Ronald Koeman as a man in a good position to know. Koeman is the coach of the Netherlands, gave de Jong his debut for his country and played for both Ajax and Barcelona during a glittering career. In every game under Koeman, he has played de Jong as the deepest midfielder in a double pivot. He is mostly positioned beside the more destructive Martin de Roon as a nice complement.

What is De Jong’s best position?

When De Jong was signed for Barcelona, Cruyff ultras rejoiced. He was set to be the pièce de résistance in Barcelona’s midfield for years to come. He was going to bring back the silky smooth passing of a bygone era and Barça could slowly ease Sergio Busquets out of the team knowing they had someone to replace him.

But that vision has not become reality.

He has played in left central midfielder and right central midfield more than he has played as a central defensive midfielder, his best position, and was even deployed as a left midfielder in a 4-4-2 against Real Madrid recently, looking suitably uncomfortable.  Under Setién, De Jong is playing in left midfield in a 4-3-3. He is further ahead of Busquets with a carrousel of players coming and going in the right midfield position.

The belief seems to be that De Jong, who is so good as a progressive passer, will be more dangerous in a more attacking role – a counter-intuitive belief. He has been turned into a runner, a dribbler, a connector of midfield and attack when his best position is sitting deep, breaking up playing, starting attacks and receiving the ball from his goalkeeper and defenders. The term ‘salida de balón’ – bringing the ball out from the back, essentially – has saturated Setién’s tactics talk since he took over.

The concept is so important to him that there are times when it seems it is all he talks about. But he doesn’t have the best young player in the world at receiving the ball where he needs to be. And by having De Jong in a more attacking position and shunted to the left of midfield, he is also missing out on his best qualities as a defender.

De Jong’s Defensive input

"Of course he was the man of the match, it was well deserved," Koeman said after his performance against England in the Nations League final. "Most of the people are always looking at what he does with the ball, how calm he is, but look how well he defend and how many balls he is winning in midfield -- it's fantastic to see Frenkie play like this.”

Koeman, never shy with his opinion as is the Dutch modus operandi, was making an important point and something that has been lost since on his way to Barcelona. It’s something Barcelona are missing as Gerard Piqué and Clement Lenglet are often left fighting fires when teams attack them on the counter.

Two very interesting statistics when it comes to this is De Jong’s output for Barcelona compared to last year with Ajax. He had 63 tackles and 52 interceptions last season. He has obviously played six games less so far this season but unless he goes on a rampage in the next few games in LaLiga, he won’t catch up. He has just 19 interceptions this season with Barcelona and 30 tackles in 24 games. Adjusting for possession, and looking at the numbers on a per 90 basis, de Jong has gone from 3.34 possession adjust tackles per 90 and 2.90 possession adjusted interceptions to 2.07 and 1.09 at Barcelona respectively. That's a massive drop.

De Jong has come into a team that does a lot less pressing than what he was used to. His positioning when teams were forced to play rushed passes was impeccable as we can see with the numbers mentioned beforehand. Despite starting as the deepest midfielder, de Jong frequently stepped up the pitch at Ajax to break up play.

Now though, as we saw against Real Sociedad, he is being forced not to win the ball in transition but to try and win it against a team given time to build. De Jong is often left watching the ball pass him by as he chases opponents, while his ranginess goes to waste and he's left to patrol only the narrow areas in the channels where he's assigned.

In summary, De Jong is playing well in a position he is not comfortable in. He is further forward than he is used to and doesn’t have the chance to affect the game defensively. He is still doing all the good things he did at Ajax, and has the second-most deep progressions in the team after Messi. It’s the same thing he does so well with the Netherlands but like Koeman says, he is not as involved in the defensive side of things.

Aside from the fact that his interceptions and tackles are way down, it’s his overall involvement and how he feels in the team that is affected. We saw at the Bernabeu two weekends ago when he was running around chasing Fede Valverde and Dani Carvajal, which he did diligently, that he looked lost. The Dutchman found himself on the edge of the box ahead of the ball too many times when he is best arriving late and causing damage in his own time.

Busquets is not droppable yet because his performances haven’t merited it but it’s only a matter of time before the clamour to have De Jong deployed in his best position becomes too loud. As Barcelona trudge through this season, De Jong is a small concern but they might alleviate a lot of the symptoms of their current crisis on the field by giving him a more central role than the peripheral one he is currently occupying.

Bayern Munich emerge as a true Champions League contender

Let’s talk about the elephant in the Bundesliga title chase room. Bayern München have been good lately. Very, very good. With every first-leg fixture of the Champions League in the books, Der Rekordmeister look like one of the favorites to win the whole darn tournament. How has Bayern — who, mind you, fired their manager in November — transformed into not only the clear Bundesliga title favorite but a Champions League contender as well? Diving into the Statsbomb data shows five significant developments.

Flick has brought back the all-out press

First things first. Let’s remind ourselves that Bayern weren’t bad under the guidance of former manager Niko Kovač. Just… not as good as they've been since Hansi Flick took over.

Comparing the defensive radar of Bayern-with-Kovač in 2019–20 to that of Bayern-with-Flick, there's a clear difference: Bayern have become a much more proactive squad on the defensive side of the ball.

In fact, Flick’s well-oiled press is now downright spectacular. This is the defensive activity map of an active team. The front five in Flick’s 4-1-4-1 formation when out of possession hounds the opposing build-up from the back.

Neuer now seems… fine?

You know what helps, when you opt for an out-and-out hard-pressing defending style? Having an athletic, dependable sweeper-keeper. What helps even more? When said sweeper-keeper regains his world-class form after a horrid, injury-riddled spell that lasted well over a year.

Bayern’s ‘new’ backline under Flick is quite good at forcing the opposition into sub-optimal shots, and Neuer has kept his end of the deal since early November.

Build-up experts spend more time on the ball since their position shifts

The best news for Bayern ever since Flick arrived? That midfield magician Thiago Alcántara has not picked up yet another injury. The Spanish passing specialist has played excellently in recent weeks. Thiago’s splendid form has something to do with his new partner on the defensive side of midfield. Flick’s decision to turn Joshua Kimmich from a full-back — one in a class by himself (with perhaps some room for Trent Alexander-Arnold) — into a full-time sechser (defensive midfielder) was a stupendous choice. Kimmich’s positional awareness, versatility on the ball and tireless work rate gel really well with Thiago’s specific world-class abilities as a silky-smooth ball carrier and passing metronome. 

Bayern’s makeshift backline has also played well of late. David Alaba is now forced to play in a central role, with Niklas Süle out for the season and record summer signing Lucas Hernández slowly recovering from injury. The Austrian is not a Süle-like physical presence, but uses his agility and A-plus closing speed to compensate for his lack of size and brute strength. More importantly, Alaba is class in the build-up. The Austrian all-arounder’s passing ability and ball control give Bayern’s build-up play a truly trustworthy and creative outlet.

Alaba's new role frees up space for sensational full-back prospect

And when things start going your way, they sometimes really go your way. Like, semi-accidentally finding out that an attacking-talent-turned-emergency-defender turns out to be a downright sensational full-back.

Phonzie not only has an amazing backstory (excellently profiled by Joshua Kloke and Raphael Honigstein for the Athletic in December), but also wows with his overall skillset. The Canadian teenager has the dribbling skills that you’d expect from a Bayern winger, the iron lungs of a modern-day wing-back and truly impressive tactical and positional awareness for someone his age.

Lewandowski’s excellent right-hand man

Bayern’s only valid complaint right now is the absence of striker Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker, the world’s best pure nine for quite some time now, is having the best season of his career, but will be sidelined for a few weeks. I wrote about Lewandowski’s (temporary) succession in last week’s Bundesliga Digest, which you can read here.

But even without Lewandowski, and in addition to the excellent form Thomas Müller has displayed ever since Flick took over, Bayern still have another world-class attacker. Because if we zoom out a little bit, we’d see 2019–20 as the season where Serge Gnabry took the jump from ‘very good player’ to ‘legit star’.

Gnabry breaking out means Bayern won't be lacking for goals as they wait for their superstar centre forward to return. And when he does, they're poised not only to pull away at the top of the Bundesliga, but to challenge deep in the Champions League as well.

La Liga roundup: Clásico edition

Apparently there was a big game in Spain last weekend. Time for a Clásico-themed round up.

Advantage Real Madrid

Real Madrid's 2–0 win on Sunday wasn’t a classic. In our data set — stretching back to 2005–06 then on to 2017–18, but only for matches involving Lionel Messi — it featured the fourth-lowest shot count and seventh-lowest expected goals (xG) total of all Clásicos. It is abundantly clear that both sides are some way short of their best. But there have been worse meetings over the years.

In fact, there was one just before Christmas, a 0–0 draw that featured just four shots on target and only 1.92 xG. That is not only the sole goalless Clásico in our data set, but it is the only one with an xG total of less than two.

Madrid’s win moved them a point ahead of Barcelona at the top of the table. Regardless of their current standing at a European level, the two teams remain the class of the field in Spain. Barcelona are nine points clear of Sevilla in third, and the underlying numbers of both sides are clearly the best in the division.


La Liga_2019_2020_team_season_np_xgd_pg (3)

They are the only two sides in the title race, and it is Madrid who have the slightly easier run-in. However, Barcelona can take a bit of heart from their general level of performance since Quique Setién replaced Ernesto Valverde as head coach in January.

Setien_Time_La Liga__team_season_np_xgd_pg (2)

If those numbers are maintained, Barcelona will have a decent chance of claiming the title, but Madrid have the slight edge.

The perseverance of Vinícius Júnior

It was difficult to begrudge Vinícius Júnior the opening goal on Sunday. He earned it. Charged with adding direct pace to an otherwise fairly pedestrian lineup, he persisted, and persisted and persisted, and eventually got his reward.

In the first half, a pair of failed cutbacks and one tame effort on goal drew some groans. Over the course of the 90 minutes, he only completed two of the 10 dribbles he attempted. But he advanced Madrid into the penalty area twice as often as any of his teammates, provided one decent look for Toni Kroos in the first half and then scored the goal that set them on their way to victory, receiving a Kroos pass into the area and firing in a deflected shot at the near post.

It was an almost perfect microcosm of his season. Vinícius attempts more dribbles per 90 (7.56) than any other player in La Liga yet maintains the second-worst completion rate (46%) of players who complete two or more. Yet only Lionel Messi completes more dribbles inside the final third, and no one comes close to Vinícius in terms of carries into the penalty area.


The 19-year-old just picks up the ball and runs with it. He is one of the quickest ball carriers in the league, and ranks in the top 10 among players who have attempted a reasonable number of attacking actions in terms of his proportion of carries to passes in the attacking half. Only Messi and Luis Suárez generate more shots directly off dribbles.

There is output there, too, not far shy of 0.50 xG and xG assisted per 90.

Vinícius Júnior-La Liga-2019_2020 (1)

It is intriguing to see how differently Vinícius and the currently injured Eden Hazard interpret (or are instructed to perform) that left wing role.

Despite being right-footed, Vinícius plays more like a lefty. The majority (59%) of his carries that begin on the flank stay there.


IQTactics_Events_Vinícius Júnior_Real Madrid__2019_2020 (1)


And he is more likely to attack the box...



...than he is to cut infield in deeper areas and seek to connect with teammates — something he does only 6% of the time.


IQTactics_Events_Vinícius Júnior_Real Madrid__2019_2020

Hazard, in contrast, stays out wide less (45%) and attacks the box almost half as much. What he does do is move inside nearly three times as often as his younger colleague. From there he can spread play wide or advance the ball centrally.


IQTactics_Events_Eden Hazard_Real Madrid__2019_2020

That fits with Hazard’s profile. He is an attacking midfielder who starts from wide positions. Vinícius has so far displayed more of the attributes of a winger or wide forward. Zinedine Zidane has leaned on the most obvious of those qualities to get useful production from a teenager during a campaign that Hazard has primarily watched from the treatment table.

Will Vinícius develop more playmaking skills over time? From what we’ve seen so far, he seems to lack that ability to form a panorama of play at pace that makes the best in his position such a threat cutting infield. But that’s probably unfair. He is doing what he needs to do within the context of his team and their season. Anything else will have to wait.

What’s up with Frenkie de Jong?

Barcelona’s signing of Frenkie de Jong was almost universally considered shrewd. A young, talented and physically able midfielder from the Ajax school, he seemed to be a perfect fit. Things started off promisingly enough, but after an anonymous display in the Clásico, where he was deployed slightly awkwardly as one of two advanced and narrowly positioned midfielders, the consensus appears to be that he is underperforming expectations.

Perhaps those expectations were just set too high.

Is his output with Ajax in the Eredivisie, a more dominant team in a much less competitive league, really a fair comparison point?


Frenkie de Jong-La Liga-2019_2020 (1)

How about his production in the Champions League, where Ajax were, on paper at least, often evenly or out-matched?

Frenkie de Jong-La Liga-2019_2020 (2)

A more realistic benchmark would probably be somewhere in between. Averaging his production in both competitions shows he performs at a similar level at Barcelona. The majority of relevant outputs fall within a 10% range; however, a few differences stand out. De Jong is clearly doing much less direct defensive work. His pressure stats are pretty much the same, but on a possession-adjusted basis he makes almost 40% fewer tackles and interceptions. That can perhaps be attributed to differing styles of play. Last year’s Ajax were a particularly aggressive team out of possession, and de Jong was one of the key destructive forces.Ajax_2018_2019_

At Barcelona, he falls well down that list.

Barcelona_2019_2020_ (1)

At the other end, de Jong shoots much less than he did at Ajax. Across the two competitions, he got off about two shots for every three matches last season; at Barcelona, it's fewer than one every five. Given the locations of the shots, this isn’t too much of a problem. His xG per 90 is within the same realm. All he has done is cut out some of the more speculative locations from his Ajax output...

Frenkie de Jong Eredivisie 2018_2019 (1)

...and narrowed things down to prime shots from the centre of the penalty area.

Frenkie de Jong La Liga 2019_2020 (1) More importantly, de Jong’s passing has become less vertical, particularly so inside the final third. At Ajax, depending on the competition, 20–22% of his passes in all areas were aimed forward, as were 28–29% of those inside the final third. At Barcelona, those percentages have dropped to 14% and 17%, respectively.

It is always difficult to parse out individual performance from the collective context. Particularly in the Champions League, where Ajax moved forward very swiftly when opportunities presented themselves, while Barcelona more often use possession as a means of control. Is he not moving the ball forward because options aren’t presenting themselves? Are the system and consequently his choices less well-defined?

De Jong has often given the impression of playing within himself this season. But given the step up in league quality, some of the dysfunction around him and the mid-campaign coaching change, he's mostly doing fine. If it’s the same story this time next season, there will be more reason for concern.

Mikel Arteta hasn’t fixed Arsenal, but there are reasons for long-term optimism

Arsenal had a fairly stark choice in 2018 between Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta. Apparently, they think they got it wrong. Emery was a justifiable, if uninteresting, choice to replace Arsène Wenger in theory. In practice, it just didn’t work at all. Former chief executive Ivan Gazidis claimed on his appointment that Emery was hired due to his “progressive, entertaining football, a personality that fits with Arsenal's values and also a record of developing players, in particular young players”. I cannot think of a strong argument that he proved suitable at any of those three tasks. Emery’s Arsenal were primarily a reactive side, shifting tactical approach from week to week and relying primarily, but not exclusively, on experienced players. This might have been acceptable if they were any good at it. But the underlying numbers paint an even worse picture than the results. During Emery’s time in charge, Arsenal had an expected goal difference per game of +0.05, meaning they barely created better chances than their opponents overall. This was down from Wenger’s final season at both ends, but the attack especially took a hit. Arteta wasn’t necessarily hired to fix things quickly, or to push for a Champions League spot. It would have been nice, but that's not where Arsenal are right now. His job is one for the long haul, implementing a much more proactive style of football and developing young players alongside the desperately needed new signings in the next several windows.  With those limitations acknowledged, it’s not a shock that Arteta’s Arsenal don’t look much better in quantitative terms. In pure results, the side have 14 points from the last nine fixtures. Under the hood, we’re looking at an xG difference per game of -0.02. This feels a lot worse than the Emery era because it’s a negative number, but we’re talking about a very small difference. In all of nine games, Arsenal have been about as effective as they were for the previous 18 months. The xG trendlines look a mess because Arsenal haven’t shown much discernable progress, decline, or anything, really, since Wenger left. So what is Arteta doing? He’s certainly changing the team in certain ways that can be quantified. The xG conceded per game is identical under the two managers, but Arteta’s side concede slightly fewer shots. Not a huge difference, but we’re talking about the same players here. This is what we’d expect to see from a manager who wants to press and dominate the game: better control of the shot count, but a risk of being cut open when opponents break the press. As for the actual pressing, we’re not seeing a lot of evidence for it in the numbers. Arsenal’s defensive distance—how high up the pitch they make a defensive action on average—is actually lower under Arteta. The Gunners now allow slightly more passes before making an attempt to win the ball back. The intent is there, but Arsenal do not yet have anything resembling a coordinated press. The question, then, is much more about what Arteta can do than what he is doing. He maintains the broad 4-2-3-1 shape Arsenal have played for the last 20 years, though he’s been flexible enough with personnel that the emphasis can change. I’m sure everyone reading this already has strong opinions on both parts of the David Luiz–Shkodran Mustafi centre back pairing he currently favours, so we’ll just move past the subject. Héctor Bellerín has returned from a long injury, so we’ll give him some time to get back to full speed before making a judgement. At left back, there’s no doubt that Bukayo Saka looks quite exciting, but with the way his numbers have dropped off in recent weeks, it seems like the 18-year-old could do with a break to catch his breath. Granit Xhaka is another player everyone surely has an opinion on by now. So far under Arteta he’s been the most extreme form of himself, offering a genuine ball progression outlet, but he’s been—to put it politely—less than active out of possession. His numbers have been generally declining over the past few seasons, so it is something of a concern. He always has a moment of stupidity in him, but you already knew that. Finding a partner for him is a different matter. Dani Ceballos came into the side recently, but he’s leaving in the summer. Mattéo Guendouzi has his qualities, but both players’ concentration lapses are accentuated when he plays with Xhaka. I’m a fan of Lucas Torreira, but he seems to have fallen out of favour somewhat, and his ankle injury will only slow down any attempts to regain his place. Central midfield might be the biggest area of need in the transfer market this summer. It’s the attack where Arsenal are the most muddled, largely due to the array of options that don’t fit together very well. Mesut Özil’s return to the side is the biggest story but, well, he’s not what he used to be. His raison d'être, creating excellent chances, fell off a cliff at some point. It’s still understandable that Arteta would turn to Özil considering his other options are a bit samey. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé, Alexandre Lacazette, Gabriel Martinelli and Eddie Nketiah would all rather run in behind and take chances themselves than create for others. If “juego de posicion” is the aim, then players comfortable in possession who have a clear understanding of finding others in space are a prerequisite. If the rest in the forward line are trying to run into space, then Özil’s desire to have the ball at his feet is a must, even if it's not clear he’s actually good in 2020. This is just another area where Arsenal have to strengthen in the summer. Beyond that, it’s true that Pépé has failed to live up to his form at Lille. It is, though, well within range of the level we’d expect from someone moving to a harder league in a different country to play for a dysfunctional side. Arsenal probably just overpaid for him. Aubameyang continues to play on the left, and as much as it feels wrong, it’s fine as long as he gets into poaching positions. His goalscoring suggests nothing is wrong, but the process is definitely not at its best. His open play xG per shot (0.155) is down from last season (0.201) and way down from his six months under Wenger (0.280). It’s only an unsustainable finishing run that’s keeping him in the Golden Boot race. The Arteta project is starting to resemble Jürgen Klopp’s first season at Liverpool. The Europa League final spared some blushes, but the Reds finished eighth in the Premier League that year. The idea of what he wanted was obvious, but between his midseason appointment giving him little coaching time, and the unsuited players he had at his disposal, it was obvious it would be a long time before we saw a side capable of executing his style of play. Then you look at the team he selected for the Europa League final and the issue is staring you in the face: Mignolet; Clyne, Lovren, Touré, Moreno; Can, Milner; Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho; Sturridge. Six of those players have since left Liverpool. One has been injured the entire season, while another is out on the fringes of the first-team squad. Two are occasional backup options. Only Roberto Firmino is a regular starter. As much as he puts a nice face on it, Klopp knew the squad he inherited needed a root and branch reform. Arteta must do the same. What he does have is a seemingly strong core of young players. Even if some of these aren’t yet up to scratch, he should favour their development over persisting with established players who offer more in the short term. If Arsenal are to be back toward the top of the Premier League in three years, it will be with a mix of these young players and new signings. It won’t be with Özil and Lacazette.

Stats of Interest

So you may have heard that Liverpool lost to Watford this weekend. I don’t understand how this happened, but it was not a close game of football I recently compared Crystal Palace to Joe Biden and, right on cue, they go and win two games in a row. I’m still not sure they’re good, exactly, but the attack has bounced back after cratering. It’s the Manchester derby this weekend. Mike Goodman has written about City’s issues recently, but for United, it seems like Bruno Fernandes really has made a difference. He leads the side in deep progressions per 90 (non-Paul Pogba category), and if you can live with his flaws, there's an interesting player in there.

Why aren't Manchester City better?

Manchester City are in second place in the Premier League. They just won the League Cup. After going to Madrid and beating Real 1-2 they’re likely on their way to the Champions League quarterfinals. But they’re only on pace for slightly over 80 points. That’s a major dip from 98 last season and 100 the year before that. Why aren’t Manchester City better? The basic underlying numbers suggest that there might be some slight deterioration over the last couple of seasons, but nothing major. City’s defense seems slightly worse than it has been, but again this seems like largely the same performance level just with massively different results. Given that you’d expect that perhaps the side either massively overperformed their expected goals last season or were massively underperforming it this year. But, that’s not particularly true either. In fact while City have had stretches where they’ve been over xG, sometimes by quite a lot, they haven’t had very many long periods where they’ve been classic underperformers. What we can see on the chart from this season and last is that while City did run pretty hot early in the 2018-19 season, what we’ve seen is the side’s goal difference converge with it’s xG difference (which is gratifying to stats nerds since that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen), while that xG average has fluctuated around a relatively consistent level. But, just because those topline numbers are only minorly different, doesn’t mean there isn’t more to investigate under the hood. Prying apart those xG numbers show a team which has some major differences in both performance and execution year over year. During City’s great 2018-19 season they ran way over expectation when the match was tied, putting up 39 goals from 27.15 xG. It’s nice work if you can get it. Last season, City was the best team while also getting fortuitous bounces that regularly put Pep Guardiola’s side ahead. This season is a different story. City are actually slightly below their xG when drawing, 24 goals from 25.80 expected. The natural result of these differing fortunes is that even when they do ultimately pull ahead it’s taking longer for them to do so. That means just by dint of being tied longer, they’re giving up more goal scoring opportunities and risking falling behind more than they did last season. Already this season they’ve conceded nine goals from just under eight xG. All of last season they only conceded five from just over 7 xG This is one of the ways that variance and actual performance levels are inextricably intertwined. It is absolutely fair to say that City have been a worse defensive team when they’ve been drawing this season than last. But the only reason for that is that they’ve had a harder time scoring goals, due to what appears to be a natural swing in variance. Luck, or lack thereof, in one part of the pitch leads to actual deterioration in another. There are of course other factors at play. There have been real personnel changes, with Fernandinho aging out of central midfield and injuries across the defensive line. Perhaps relatedly, the teams defensive solidity has suffered. Specifically, teams complete more passes and create somewhat more high quality shots when they break through City’s outstanding aggressive press. The luck factor certainly doesn’t absolve the defense. They’ve become somewhat more porous and no longer seem to have the magical ability to press aggressively while magically never getting exposed on the counterattack. But, given the rest of the data it’s possible that without the bad luck City would be doing enough in attack to entirely offset the defensive problems. The City example is one that illustrates how much art there is in the science of parsing a team’s statistics. The line between luck and skill is often a lot blurrier than a casual observation might led you to believe. Good luck in one area can impact skill in another and vice versa. In the long run the vast majority of these factors average themselves out and become indistinguishable from noise. But, over the short term, when trying to figure out discrete questions like why isn’t City better, the line between luck and skill, becomes much much harder to parse.

Can Graham Potter's Seagulls keep flying above the relegation battle?

The basic problem with Brighton and Hove Albion is that they’re not very good. This, to be fair to Brighton and offer a glimmer of hope to their fans, is true of many Premier League sides. Some go down; some don’t. Having survived while being stultifyingly not good under Chris Hughton, Brighton may yet survive while being more engagingly not good under Graham Potter. Despite being the only side in England’s top four divisions without a win in 2020, Brighton still aren’t in the bottom three. This doesn’t reflect well on the Seagulls or their rivals. 

The basic problems with Brighton that Grace identified in December remain: Potter has Brighton passing more than under Hughton, but few of the passes are in dangerous areas; the new manager also has the Seagulls pressing more, but teams regularly break through and get good shots; striker Neal Maupay is having a below-average finishing season. These were worrying signs three months ago. That they remain largely unsolved after three further months of futility is concerning. 

Brighton may be okay enough for the Premier League anyway. If sustained, their current expected goal difference of -0.21 per 90 minutes would be their best mark since getting promoted in 2017. It’s also the 13th-best in the league. Upgrading the attack from “notional, at best” to “unambiguously below average” has more than offset the loss of Hughton’s defensive solidity. Brighton’s margin for error going forward is limited by sides like Crystal Palace and Newcastle, having banked points while playing terribly. Still, it wouldn’t be a shock for the Seagulls to serve as a reminder that it’s normal for teams that are below average across the board to stay in the Premier League. 

While Graham Potter has made an aesthetic improvement at Brighton by periodically having his players do things, it is hard to convey the uniformity of their not-very-goodness. Finding facets of the game where Brighton are meaningfully above average is a genuine challenge. Here’s the best I could do: 

  • Goalkeeper Matthew Ryan is taking the second-shortest passes of any goalkeeper in the Premier League. This represents a big shift from last year when he was lumping the ball more than six yards longer than the league average. 
  • Speaking of possession, Brighton trails only the top five clubs with a 55% rate. Here again, we see clear signs that Potter has changed Brighton. At best, though, this is defensive possession. When it comes to doing much of anything with the ball, however, Potter’s side remains an extreme work in progress. 
  • Seeing as doing things with the ball in open play, save for the occasional moment of Pascal Gross inspiration, really isn’t Brighton’s thing this season, it’s a good thing the Seagulls are fifth in the league when it comes to expected goals per set piece. They’re particularly good at turning indirect free kicks into expected goals, and are among the top performers when it comes to direct free kicks and corners. Of course, not doing anything with the ball in open play means that Brighton are also quite bad at actually getting corners or free kicks.

If that looks like grasping at straws, just wait until you see where else Brighton stands out: 

  • Brighton concedes among the fewest shots from outside the box. This can be a good sign; Liverpool and Leicester concede similarly few shots from outside the box as part of an overall focus on shot suppression. In Brighton’s case, however, it’s mainly a sign that attackers are getting into the penalty box. Opponents are taking the league average volume of shots against the Seagulls, but those shots are coming from closer than the league average. 
  • The Seagulls have benefitted from opponents scoring four own goals this season. Only one other team has benefitted from three. One could definitely argue this has something to do with pressure, but tactical revolutions are not built on having the most opposition own goals in the league.

None of this is an indictment of Potter, per se. Brighton are playing better than in previous seasons and stylistic changes can take time to implement. Squint hard enough and you can see the rough draft of an improved Potter side in this year’s team. There’s also the not insignificant matter of working with a small squad that is getting old. This side cannot be expected to be among the best in the Premier League. Rather, the most salient critique of Potter is that his side’s fundamental issues remain unaddressed after being clear for months. If they stay up, that can be chalked up to a transition year. If they go down, it could be read as negligence.  

Still, after months without a win and with a relegation battle on the horizon, it sure would be helpful if Brighton were good at a few things. You can stay in the Premier League while being aggressively, consistently not very good at most of football. Teams do it every year, and that remains the likeliest outcome of this season for Brighton. As their margins narrow, however, the lack of an advantage or skill to fall back on could fray some nerves.