Manchester City: Season Preview 2020-21

Will this be the last season we see Pep Guardiola in English football? If it is, the rest of the title-aspirants will not mourn his departure. Arguably it’s become harder than ever to win titles during his tenure. Of course, City only have two titles from his four seasons as Antonio Conte’s Chelsea took the top prize in 2016-17 and Liverpool won it last time round. Within this era, five of the six highest points totals in the Premier League era exist: two each for City (100 in 2017-18 and 98 in 2018-19) and Liverpool (97 in 2018-19 and 99 in 2019-20) and Chelsea’s 93 in 2016-17. Is this the new normal? Or will we see a decline if Guardiola departs? What is certain is that the combination of it possibly being his last season in Manchester plus a comparatively mediocre 81 points last season should be adequate motivation for Guardiola to set about reclaiming the title. To the consternation of some, once more, the metrics were extremely good but the outcomes were decidedly split. Two Manchester Cities operated in 2019-20. One version laid waste to defences and racked up simple, dominant wins without needing to get out of second gear. Watford gave up twelve goals in two defeats, Villa, Brighton and Burnley all gave up nine. Elsewhere, they couldn’t best Manchester United or Wolves across two games, and contrived to lose to Norwich. The sheer weirdness of annihilating Tottenham twice yet getting just one point can be filed under “football has elements of randomness” too. For the record in those two games, they recorded 48 shots to Tottenham’s 6, and a huge 6.3 to 0.5 in expected goals. Even in defeat, frequently, the elements of good process were right there. Some of the most eyecatching defeats involved red cards. The 3-2 defeat to Wolves at Christmas showed all their quality–they went 2-0 up despite losing Ederson in the 11th minute before giving up the lead late on. Not good was Chelsea’s convincing 2-1 June victory was helped by Fernandinho’s 73rd minute dismissal from where the Blues turned the screw and City didn’t muster a shot. March’s 2-0 defeat to United was pretty tepid too. As ever they dominated the ball but unusually created very little (just seven shots). The bottom line is that City’s record against teams in the eventual top seven (usual big six plus Leicester) was insufficient to see them challenge long and late into any season, let along one in which Liverpool barely dropped points. With a record of 4-1-7 with five out of six away defeats here, City just weren’t able to consistently dominate and beat the better teams in this league. This is where they were so strong in the previous two seasons (9-1-2 in 2017-18 and 9-2-1 in 2018-19) and where they faltered in Guardiola’s first season (2-5-5). In the big picture, City’s metrics were great; but then again they always are. But when we drill down to game by game (as the chart above shows) we can see that City’s problem was as much aligned to the variation in their performance levels in games as anything else. Look at 2017-18: nearly no games with over one expected goals allowed and only one game in which their total was exceeded. 2018-19 was pretty good too but with a smattering of games in which the defence looked more vulnerable. 2019-20 has a weird mix of high xG for/low xG against games and a bunch of matches in which the team is either outperformed, gives up a lot in defence or it’s pretty close.  Bottom line, there was less consistency and that’s partly how they contrived to lose nine games having only lost twelve combined in the previous three seasons. The dichotomy between both shot quantity and shot quality at both ends of the pitch was fairly remarkable too. As ever City took a lot of shots. Their 19.5 per game was higher than any of their previous seasons and evoked Carlo Ancelotti’s 2009-10 Chelsea team, which was the last Premier League team to get anywhere near this kind of volume. They were good shots too, with the xG per shot value of close to 0.12 only a rizla-width behind that of Arsenal’s own 0.12. Loads of shots of very good quality equals loads of goals, 102 in fact, which tied their 2013-14 total and was only four goals behind that of 2017-18. As ever, all their attackers had decent contributory seasons, and eight different players played more than 900 minutes and contributed between 0.49 and 0.98 goals (or assists) per 90 minutes. It’s daft really. The varying outcomes and lack of Champions League success will mean that it may take time to really reflect adequately on what Guardiola created in this team, but the attacking unit remains utterly stellar. But the defence. The defence. Seven shots against was up from six in the previous two seasons. Such volume remains are ludicrously good and again speaks of good process. However, the value of these shots was league high at 0.12, significantly up from all of Guardiola’s three previous seasons and essentially the same value as the shots they were taking. So Manchester City, one of the best attacking teams in world football, gave up the same shot quality as they take themselves. That’s a problem. Throughball vulnerability was a part of this. Across 2017-18 and 2018-19 City gave up 21 shots from throughballs and three goals. In 2019-20 alone they allowed the same volume of shots against (21) but this time gave up seven goals. This kind of vulnerability is a frequent weak spot for pressing teams, and it is to City’s credit that they managed to resolve a weakness here after Guardiola’s first season.. 2019-20 was not successful here though, and Kyle Walker and Ederson apart, the whole backline has felt erratically assembled for a while. The obvious switch at the back was that (then) 34 year old defensive midfielder Fernandinho was now a starting centre back, and with Aymeric Laporte out, the rotation grew more frequent. A stalwart back in 2017-18, Nicolas Otamendi has become a player who is in and out of the team while John Stones appeared to fall right down the pecking order with Eric Garcia ending the season with a bunch of starts. Stones’ demise is curious but possibly not undeserved. An experimental metric I calculated to establish how frequently defenders were actively clearing their defensive zones versus the amount of successful plays their opponents were making saw him rank dead last of all centre backs in the league, and by some margin. As the new man in midfield, Rodri was eyed as a potential culprit towards this new found defensive instability, with ideas that he had yet to perfect the dark arts of Fernandinho, but this was pretty speculative. On top of this City once more conceded some very stupid goals, twice seeing Ederson bypassed from 40 yards or so, from Che Adams and Scott McTominay respectively. Mo Salah did the same a couple of years back and they’re such horrible goals to give up, one would think that there were tweaks that could be added to the philosophy just to avert this. Personnel For a club that has spent widely, and acquired Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne in one summer window back in 2015 there’s a nagging feeling that in recent seasons City haven’t quite nailed their transfers. Admittedly, when a team generally performs as well as this one has across Guardiola’s reign, it’s tricky to purchase players that intrinsically improve the starting eleven. Case in point being Riyad Mahrez who was the one main signing in the summer of 2018. He has been a top tier contributor to goals when on the pitch in both his seasons at the club but is no guaranteed starter. He would likely start every week for any other club in the league (Liverpool could squeeze him and Mo Salah in somehow) and in 2019-20 was extremely effective and slightly unsung as De Bruyne in particular rightly took the plaudits: So far this summer in the transfer market, there has been a move to shore up defence with a novel idea: “buy a relegated centre back”. Arriving for around £40m, Nathan Aké has long appeared the type of player that could move to a higher level than Bournemouth, not least because he is so comfortable on the ball. As a left footed centre back on the cusp of his peak years, he was a relatively scarce commodity and does actually scope out as a fairly capable defending defender on top of passing reliability. It’s hard to see him as a direct upgrade who will slot instantly into City’s first eleven, but no doubt he will get minutes, and ease the pressure Laporte had to shoulder as the one natural left sided centre back. There is talk of Kalidou Koulibaly arriving, but at this stage gossip around him is as reliable to the transfer window as Santa Claus is to Christmas, so it’s hard to be confident here. If the past was represented by the sad sight of Leroy Sané returning to his homeland, the future is now here in the form of 20 year old Ferran Torres, who arrived from Valencia. His former team struggled extensively in 2019-20, and it had an impact on the numerical impact of much of their squad. As such we have a tricky chicken vs egg problem when evaluating him just from numbers; as we well know, the video is required too: The vast majority of Torres’ career has been spent playing off the right side, and how he fits into this team is hard to answer. Raheem Sterling plays off the left, so not there, while the lefties Mahrez and Bernardo Silva tend to operate off the right and Phil Foden is the breakthrough talent already in the squad and covering both these positions. Foden’s development really should not be stymied and in particular he shows up extremely well for finding space in the final third. There is likely a positive skew that was assisted by playing often in the post restart fixtures, which were played at a noticeably kinder pace than what came before, but Foden’s final third ball receipts were considered “under pressure” on only 6% of his receipts, the lowest in the league by a good margin: What that chart highlights too is the real hole that has opened up in this squad this summer: the departure of club legend David Silva. Again his presence in midfield last season at 34 years old poses questions about how readily opponents could get through City, but undoubtedly, his on the ball influence was far from dimmed. A rock solid contributor to Guardiola’s possession game, and an utterly reliable secondary creator for the team behind De Bruyne, he was still good for 22 league starts last season. Who replaces him? The squad is deep enough to take the hit, but it’s not as if a clear answer is wildly evident. Early season we may see some more Guardiola flexibility in selection, this time in midfield rather than just defence. Projection 78, 100, 98, 81 divided by 4 equals 89.25. That’s Guardiola’s four Manchester City seasons. Sporting Index opened up at 88.5-90 which the eagle eyed amongst you will notice has a midpoint of 89.25. The metrics are still there for this team. They won 26 games last season, and for various reasons ended up towards the bottom end of any realistic point expectation. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are primed to overhaul Liverpool who have managed to be consistent as well as dominant in the last two seasons, much as City did before and alongside them in 2017-18 and 2018-19, but they do have the tools. City need to reclaim consistency and perhaps with a crazy schedule for all, Guardiola may be wise to flip the off switch more often when his team are coasting and games are won. Enough of the metrics that undermined City in 2019-20 land in the high variance category, and the functional control this team can still exert over the vast majority of their opponents will surely see them go very deep into the season and contend. Would I bet on them to win it? I don’t think so. That’s not to say they can’t, they are betting favourites with good reason but City have been the metric darlings of nearly every season in the last decade, yet they’ve won just four titles. You need to be both very good and have things also go your way to win this league. If Guardiola is to leave though, he’ll no doubt want to go out on a high.  


  If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Brighton and Hove Albion: Season Preview 2020-21

In two years since his return from Sweden, Graham Potter’s career has progressed extremely well. A stylistically eye-catching year at Swansea was enough to attract Brighton’s attention and the transition from Allsvenskan to Premier League was complete. A (young-ish) English manager had trodden an unfamiliar road before being (kinda) fast tracked to the top? What will the papers say? Potter’s predecessor, Chris Hughton had brought Brighton to the Premier League and kept them up for two seasons. The remit to stay in the division had been fulfilled, at least, for all that the 2018-19 season cut it far too fine, with a run of no wins in the last nine games ceding control to those around them. You only need three worse teams, and there were three worse teams– Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield–but effectively chance was the dominant factor that kept them in the league. Owner Tony Bloom, a man with a solid history in probability, will have noted bottom five metrics including a bottom two ranked attack. With some justification, one can imagine those involved in the decision making process envisaged future seasons of a similar ilk. The defensive onus brought by Hughton meant that scrapping in the bottom half was likely to persist, despite quite extensive recruitment. So could the appointment of Potter change that dynamic? It represented a clear gamble regardless. One thing was certain: Potter would get this team playing a different style of football to Hughton. Far more orientated towards possession and far less reactive. One thing was uncertain: would this change of style keep Brighton away from the trapdoor into the Championship? The topline conclusion is yes. A haul of 41 points was five points clear of 2018-19’s total and one ahead of Hughton’s first season, while a fifteenth place finish matched 2017-18. There were runs where the team struggled to win as six draws and zero wins in nine games pre-lockdown in 2020 testified but they never quite got hauled into the relegation mix. Nine wins overall was… the same as Hughton managed in both his seasons. So has Potter been a success? The metrics have improved, but we do have to recognise that with five games to play, they were nine points clear of relegation, so all but safe, and soon after walked into Manchester City on a good day and shipped over five expected goals, a total only exceeded all season when City thumped Watford 8-0. The backend of the season saw metrics decline, but largely in fundamentally meaningless fixtures: The broader picture is better. In raw terms Brighton’s per game xG differential worsened from -0.43 in 2017-18 to -0.50 in 2018-19 and at the point of safety in 2019-20 was improved at -0.24. There’s enough in that to suggest that Potter’s vstyle has had some effect, and we can see how the line between expected values for and against closed as the season progressed. It’s still far from stellar but it’s enough to feel Potter’s second season is deserved. He has made a small trade off in defence to give the team something to work with in attack, and when we consider that Hughton’s attack was close to league worst, we can understand the purpose here. Hughton’s  focus on defending was certainly reactive; witness the position of his sides in this table of blocked shots from teams in recent seasons: …and see how Brighton’s passes per defensive action has evolved away from a complete bunker under Hughton towards something more balanced under Potter:   For personnel, the transition from the first season in the league to the second was stark. Lots of relatively low priced players arrived from a wide variety of leagues in year one–and few made the team with any regularity. It was easy to wonder if Hughton, detached from recruitment, was interested in playing the players he rated rather than new signings, but Potter has followed a similar thread, and few of that first tranche, Dan Burn, Yves Bissoma and Martin Montoya apart featured heavily in 2019-20. Potter’s first summer saw more targeted signings and less variety with all but Leandro Trossard arriving from within the English game. Adam Webster, Neal Maupay and Trossard all featured heavily and validated their purchases while Aaron Mooy eventually converted from a loan and Tariq Lamptey was a neat January pickup who quickly featured. Brighton have moved quickly again this summer adding distinct quality–with a sideline of injury concern and post-peak aging–in Adam Lallana. With Mooy heading for Shanghai, it appears reasonable to assume that Lallana will effectively take his place in the squad and overall this summer feels more like squad evolution than revolution.  Joël Veltman arrived from Ajax for a tiny fee and the bones of Wigan were examined to take young midfielder Jensen Weir. Veltman’s arrival, specifically, gave Brighton a wildly overstocked centre back department. Adam Webster and Lewis Dunk were the main starters last season with Shane Duffy as an alternative. Ben White spent the season starring on loan at Leeds, while Matt Clarke similarly had a great time on loan at Derby. Dan Burn converted into a left back to get game time, but negotiating this corps ahead of the new season is not easy, with all mentioned likely worthy of playing regular football at a level near to that which Brighton require. White finally signed a new contract recently while Clarke returned to Derby on loan and Duffy headed across the border to Celtic, but there’s still a surplus here. Either another move is imminent or someone’s going to miss out on substantial minutes. Overall though it feels like there’s a degree of continuity being sought. Investments in players of the right age to progress in the long term have been made over time. A good example is Neal Maupay who followed up his 25-goal Brentford season with 10 in the Premier League. He scopes out at around a one in three striker here, which is closer to average than you may think, and adds further value from the volume of defensive work he does leading from the front. He’s an interesting reference point for other strikers making the step up in leagues:   Projection Improved metrics under Potter have led to a projection of safety in the Sporting Index opening lines. They landed at around 42-43 points here which would represent a perfectly adequate return. However, one has to wonder what the long term plan is? It’s still early days for Brighton in the Premier League, but projecting to low 40s still puts a team in the realm of risk for relegation. As such, it feels like from a performance evaluation perspective Potter may need to eke out further progress, if not this season then soon. His first season was entirely fine, and avoiding any relegation battle should be the target again, but Brighton aren’t quite good enough yet to ease off the gas and naturally land mid-table security. In recent seasons, Bournemouth laid a useful blueprint for a smaller club playing a style that backed their on ball ability, but also their inability to adapt that over time eventually saw them vulnerable in a down year, and they paid the price. Brighton and Potter would do well to heed the lessons dealt out there.  


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Wolverhampton Wanderers: Season Preview 2020-21

Wolves, or to give them their full name “Little Portugal”, have very quickly become a Premier League club that can match up against any team in the league. Across two seasons, they have proven to be consistent, resilient and well worth their consecutive seventh placed finishes. Of course, like many teams outside the television big six, Wolves harbour ambitions of more than that, and may be slightly frustrated that they couldn’t exploit the down years for both Tottenham and Arsenal and do what Leicester did in 2019-20 and finish higher up. At least in part this inability to broach the gap upwards can be attributed to a slightly slow start. Wolves had a 2-7-2 record after a 1-1 draw at Arsenal on 2nd November, and while there were good results in there, including a 2-0 win against Manchester City and draws against Manchester United and Leicester City, it’s likely that this period was that which impacted the final table most. Was there a problem? Not really? Metrics weren’t at their strongest during this period as we can see from Wolves’ two season expected goal trends, but there was good reason: Belfast, Yerevan, Turin, Istanbul and Bratislava formed a Europa League tour for the club during a period in which they played as many non-league fixtures as league (eleven each). With a relatively small squad and a fairly consistent first team, it’s actually to the team’s credit that they got through that opening period of the Premier League without further decline. The big story in the chart above is the defence. In the back half of 2019-20 Wolves gave up under one non-penalty expected goal in a game fourteen times. In eight of those games they allowed under 0.5. Wolves post-lockdown defence was structurally the best in the league. Wolves have achieved this defensive stability by being one of the most clear-eyed tactical teams in the division, and a world away from the hard pressing espoused by other managers. That Nuno Espirito Santo is both Portuguese and a former goalkeeper for Jose Mourinho is highly indicative of Wolves style of play: Nuno’s set-ups are well established at this stage. Sixteen teams used three centre backs at some point last season [t’s funny how these fashions pervade] yet only two of them set up with three centre backs in every game, Wolves and Sheffield United.  The core of this team is well established too but will undergo some kind of remedial work going forward thanks to the absence of two key parts: the full backs. Stalwart Matt Doherty has joined Tottenham while Jonny has sustained a long term ACL injury and is likely to be unsighted for many months. In 2018-19, Wolves fielded 14 players for over 900 minutes in the league and in 2019-20 it was 13. They have operated with a very small consistent squad for two full seasons and are now obliged to adapt especially on the flanks. On the left Ruben Vinagre may have felt he was stepping out of the reserve slot he’s held for two seasons but the signing of 31 year old Lyon rotational full back Marçal suggests his role may well persist for now. In the interests of sample size, this visualisation covers three seasons; he’s experienced and was playing in the Champions League three weeks ago, but he will need to show robustness and reliability as being a Wolves full back is not a position for the underinvolved. Never knowingly under-involved is Adama Traoré and the early word is that he may end up covering Doherty’s role, at least to start the season. He’s well capable of playing this position and anywhere else on the right flank and persists in being a unique and curious player. Last season saw a further rise to prominence outside niche stats fans fawning over his dribble volumes. Firstly, his four league goals were spread across three league games, Manchester City home and away and Tottenham. No better way to attract attention than scoring key goals in big games. However, more encouragingly, we saw further end production in his creative numbers. Nine assists was big-boy output and not wildly ahead of expectation. All in all for players with a decent volume of minutes (say 1500+) he was top ten in the league for open play key passes (1.6 per 90) and resulting xG Assisted (0.21 per 90). The reliability of how he made those goals was hugely positive. When you have a thing and you can keep doing your thing and nobody can stop you doing your thing, then you’ve really got something! But if it doesn’t result in goals, your thing might not be that useful. Traoré’s thing used to be facing up a defender and then killing them for strength and pace to make space for a further pass. However, the further pass wasn’t necessarily a thing too. Now he’s showing in the Premier League that goal creation is his thing. Beat a man on the flank and find an attacker in the box. For the defender it’s nightmarish: they know what is coming but not if they can stop it. He’s probably stronger than you and even if he isn’t he sure looks like he is. Check out his very specific chance creation here, and how all his assists have a common thread: Part of the Wolves oeuvre is ball carrying at pace. It’s not just Traoré either. Some experimental numbers I generated for speed with directness of ball carrying saw Diogo Jota rank fastest in the league, with Raúl Jiménez ranking fairly high too. Ironically, Traoré ranked a way back for this specific measure, which was likely a function of his tendency to stand up to the defender and essentially stalling before moving, but he ranked top in the league for average distance per carry into or inside the final third, with Jota third. Wolves as a whole attempt more actual dribbles (~take-ons) than any other team in the league, and carry the ball for longer distances everywhere high up the pitch right up into the box. This is a team that relies strongly on attackers that can transition through zones with the ball at their feet, as we can see when we look at longer carries for those three players: Elsewhere it’s intriguing to know whether the club has secured the future of the Portuguese national team in Vitinha and Fábio Silva or attached around £60m to pure potential that will not pay off for some seasons. Each significantly lacks experience of good quality men’s level football and thus eludes anything but the most scant review in data. Vitinha at 20 years old has played over 1000 minutes in the Portuguese second tier and grabbed fleeting substitute minutes in the second half of Porto’s season, while Silva at just 18 years old had a similar profile in Porto’s first team with time on the pitch minimal and mainly via the bench. The impact each can make is difficult to know, and it seems hard to envisage that either will quickly shift the established first teamers out, but they do bring much needed depth to the squad in general and it will be hoped that they can settle and contribute quickly. Projection In a compressed season with very little room for recovery, Wolves will probably reflect that a lack of European football is a real boost to their Premier League chances. Pre-season points projections concur with their seventh placed finishes and expect another season in the nominal “best of the rest” slot. Nuno’s style has kept Wolves hard to beat, but there were almost as many draws as wins last season and a shade more attacking power might be the recipe for really pointing upwards and shaking up the top six mix. With a smaller squad and specific and key contributors, injury luck will always have an impact. With that, Wolves are as reliable as they come, and the range of outcomes for this team is likely a lot smaller than that of certain others eyeing similar positions in the table such as Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal or Everton. It’s a good time to be a Wolves fan, and should continue to be so.  


If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Burnley: Season Preview 2020-21

Few managers last as long as Sean Dyche.

Closing in on eight years in the Burnley hotseat, the relegation of Eddie Howe and Bournemouth means that he is the longest serving manager in the division. This will be Burnley’s fifth consecutive season in the Premier League and their run to a tenth placed finish in 2019-20 was almost entirely unheralded. The seventh placed finish of 2017-18 clearly took the narrative gust out of this similarly impressive season. This time round they scored exactly the same amount of points (54) but actually won more games (15 to 14). They also did a good job of bouncing back from the lesser season in the middle by chipping a whopping 18 goals from their against total (50 down from 68).

After a run of 4 defeats around New Year, they lost just twice in sixteen games; firstly a 5-0 thumping from Man City, which is the kind of thing that can happen to anyone, and lastly a final day defeat to Brighton. Seven other games against top half teams yielded two wins, and five draws. In the main they were tough to beat in the extended back half of the season. Did the metrics like them too?

 

Well, yes and no?

For long swathes of the season, Burnley’s xG conceded exceeded that which they gained. This isn’t unusual though–it’s been the same in all their last four seasons–but in the aggregate, this was the best of the four seasons since promotion and it scoped out only a shade under par (-0.08xG per game). We can see how they cut out the bad games in comparison to 2018-19 if we look at their expected goals value by game here:

Average metrics, average league position, but a far from average method of getting the job done. Burnley remain unique and flagbearers for their specific and effective style of play. There are a few simple principles that persist season to season:

1. Don’t get sent off

Burnley have received three red cards in four seasons. That equates to around once every 50 games. It is a lower rate than any other team that has been in the league during that period. They receive a medium to high volume of yellow cards, but scarcely leave the pitch with less than eleven men.

2. Don’t worry about giving up shots

Conceptually, giving up shots is a bad idea. If your opponent doesn’t shoot, they can’t often score. Burnley don’t care so much about that, because although they always give up a ton of shots, the average value of these shots is frequently among the league’s lowest and therefore best:

 

The two good seasons Burnley have had recently–2017-18 and 2019-20–have seen them give up around 14 to 15 shots per game. Their lesser seasons–2016-17 and 2018-19 have seen this at a higher level closer to 17 or 18. However, when measured, thanks in some part to the defensive positioning we have in our model, we can see that the quality of those shots is still in the main low. During 2019-20 they had more defenders behind the ball than any other team and more defenders within a cone that defines the route to goal. Filter down to just inside the box and this still holds. What other impact could stationing more players between the shooter and the goal have?

3. An army of defenders can block shots

Guess what? Burnley consistently block a higher proportion of opponent shots than the rest of the league:

The argument between tactical choice and necessity can rage on elsewhere, but this is what Burnley do in their own box.

What do they do at the other end?

4. Bombard the box

Burnley take a lot of shots from close in. A bunch of these are headers (they rank highly there too as a percentage of all shots) and a bunch of these are set pieces, inswinging corners and the like. But at least in some regard, they get it. Burnley get that scoring is easier the closer you are to goal. This chart is filtered to 10 yards, but you can move that line around and the message is still the same:

5. Thou shalt not dribble

…unless you’re Dwight McNeil. Overall Burnley rank 20th/20 for each of the last four seasons for dribbles attempted and completed. There is some logic here when factored alongside the other stylistic tics. For example, if you’re trying to beat an opponent, you may fail to do so and give the ball away in a bad position and your defence maybe caught short. Best if this doesn’t happen at all?

NcNeil’s two successful dribbles per 90 ranks 41st in the Premier League for players with over 900 minutes. So it is not as if he is wantonly skipping past opposing right backs at will but he is the one player empowered to do so. Jeff Hendrick was the only other player recording more than one per 90 last season, and he now plays for another team.

McNeil is an outlier for other reasons too. There are very few out and out left footed left wingers in the league these days. Indeed, Leroy Sané’s departure to Bayern Munich shears the most prominent example of such a player away and even he may end up playing on the right. Left footed wingers tend to get inverted these days. McNeil is also, by a large margin, the only young player in Burnley’s squad to have seen any significant game time in any of the last four seasons and he’s only been getting significant minutes the last two.

6. If you can’t grow a full beard, you’re too young, unless you’re Dwight McNeil

Full beard or not, at 20 years old, McNeil is a full four years younger than the next youngest first teamer in the squad, January signing from Bristol City, Josh Brownhill.

Right now, this team isn’t too old. But it’s not far from a situation where too many of the squad are over 30. One can hope that the Brownhill signing is a clear recognition of this issue, but with the club quiet so far in this summer transfer window, there is precious little evidence to see what extra remedial work they’re going to do.

7. You better be able to play 90 minutes

Sean Dyche isn’t going to be voting for five substitutes any time soon. Pre-lockdown, Burnley averaged the fewest substitutions in the league at a solid two per game. Given free reign to run amok and make five substitutions amid a heavy schedule and summer temperatures, Dyche did nothing of the sort and made fewer substitutions. There are interesting angles that have been thrown up since the idea of five substitutes became reality. Do too many substitutions interrupt team cohesion? Can the mysterious momentum be halted by too many personnel changes? Regardless of the truth here, Burnley do it their way and are unlikely to change.

8. We will press you but only where we want to

Burnley’s 2019-20 pass-to-press chart was probably the most intriguing of any team in the division. When held up against their previous seasons, we can see that it’s actually a subtle but fairly long term trend:

Ahead of the half way line, Burnley will press opponents on the ball. In the rest of the pitch far less so. Our aggression metric, which measures how many opponent ball receipts are pressed within two seconds ranks Burnley in 19th position. And we can see both very high up the pitch and in defensive areas, Burnley will sit off. However, they record a higher percentage of their pressure events in the opposition half than any other teams bar Liverpool and Manchester City, and they are not idle with it, as the 77% of counter pressures (within five seconds of an opposition turnover) they record also ranks highly, fourth. This is a team that deploys specific and differing strategies towards the opposition depending where they are on the pitch.

Projection

While I appreciate that not every team can have a positive profile and point upwards this season, it appears to me that Sporting Index’s opening points projection for Burnley is on the low side at around 40. Outside of a legitimately horrific run of metrics in the first half of 2018-19, for the last three seasons, Burnley have shown themselves to be a fairly comfortable mid-table Premier League side. There are warnings to be heeded around the squad aging, and perhaps the squad size, but with Dyche apparently set to stay on–after some off season rumours that his time at the club was coming to an end–the club appears as set as it ever is to confound the naysayers and persist within the league. Whenever the day comes that Dyche does leave, the job of following him will no doubt be extremely difficult and that moment could well be a crux point for the team’s retained Premier League status, but we’re not there yet, and as such, Burnley in 2020-21 should be entirely fine.


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Leeds United: Season Preview 2020-21

Leeds are back in the top flight after more than a decade and a half away and the consensus seems to be that they are here to stay. Both the mainstream bookmakers and the spread betting markets have them in line for a mid-table finish, and they’ve certainly spent like a team determined to reestablish themselves as a genuine Premier League outfit. James has already written an excellent piece on the club’s promotion campaign, so we won’t go into too much detail about that here, but here are the salient points. Leeds had the best metrics in the Championship for two seasons in a row. After failing to convert that into promotion in 2018-19 due to a bad run of results down the final stretch, they did so in 2019-20, going up as champions. The club’s defensive record was particularly strong. They conceded just 35 times in 46 matches and also had the league’s best metrics. They gave up fewer shots (8.78 per match) than any other side, and the average quality of those shots was also one of the lowest in the division. That was partly down to the efficiency of Marcelo Bielsa’s patented all-pitch press. Leeds were relentless in harrying opponents over the length and breadth of the field. In attack, they comfortably outshot everyone, and did so while still maintaining one of the highest average shot quality marks in the league. All that off-ball movement, the pretty patterns and interchanges, helped to create a high volume of shots from good locations. Whichever way you look at it, Leeds were a dominant team, taking 65% of the shots, accumulating 68% of the xG and scoring 69% of the goals in their matches. A clearly defined play style, strong overall metrics and a solid defensive base are all generally predictive of a good first campaign in the top flight. To illustrate this point, over the last 10 years, only two teams have been promoted with a better average goal difference per match than Leeds’ figure of 0.91: Newcastle in 2016-17 and Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2017-18. Like Leeds, both conceded under a goal per match during their promotion campaigns. Both went on to only concede around 17% more goals in the Premier League, compared to an average for promoted teams of around 40%, and both finished in the top 10. Leeds have a good base to work from, and they’ve also been able to retain almost all of the important squad members from their promotion campaign. Hélder Costa and young goalkeeper Illan Meslier, who got a run of games as first choice after lockdown due to Kiko Casilla’s suspension for racist language, have both had their loans turned into permanent deals. Jack Harrison will stay on board for another season on loan from Manchester City. The one key departure is that of Brighton loanee Ben White. He started all 46 matches last season, and became a key figure in the centre of defence, impressing on both sides of the ball. Reports suggest that Leeds were keen to sign him permanently, but Brighton instead decided to bring him back into the fold there. It was, therefore, unsurprising that one of the club’s first off-season signings was Robin Koch, a 24-year-old central defender from Freiburg in the Bundesliga, capped three times by Germany. White was the more proactive defender in his regular partnership with Liam Cooper, stepping forward more often to contest possession and intercept, both on a outright basis and proportionally to all defensive actions when they started together in the centre of defence. Cooper cleaned up behind and was a dominant aerial force. Koch seems to profile more like Cooper than White, with a lesser proportion of proactive defensive actions than the man he replaces. But it is important to add some context here. Freiburg were one of the most passive and deep-defending teams in the Bundesliga last season, and Koch often played as the central of three central defenders. In such a system, it is entirely normal for the player in that role to be the least proactive of the three. As such, it is hard to get a handle on just how apt a White replacement he is from the data. Their passing profiles are more similar, and Koch does seem to have solid range there. Qualitative scouting has presumably left the recruitment team confident that he can slot into White’s role. Cooper was again the less proactive element in his partnership with Pontus Jansson in 2018-19, so there is little evidence he’d be capable of defending in a different manner. As well as Koch, Leeds have also signed a trio of younger players in Charlie Allen (16), Cody Drameh (18) and Joe Gelhardt (18), the latter of whom posted good shot volume in a very limited sample size of just over 500 minutes at Wigan in the Championship last season. But the big money has been spent on the club-record, £27 million signing of Rodrigo from Valencia. Readers with good memories may recall Rodrigo from his one-season loan at Bolton Wanderers back in 2010-11, but the player who arrives at Elland Road has developed considerably since then and is now a full Spain international. He, like the entire Valencia team, didn’t have a great time of it last season, but in 2018-19, he provided a goal or assist for every 180 minutes he was on the pitch in terms of both real and expected output. Valencia were a counter-attacking team and Rodrigo was often a key part of their forward transitions, dropping off the front to receive, turn and combine with onward runners. Quick and intelligent in his movements, he has a skillset that should mesh well with Bielsa’s system, even if, as with Koch, he comes in from a team considerably less aggressive out of possession than this current Leeds side. The age profile isn’t great, but he should prove to be a direct improvement on Patrick Bamford at the centre of the attack. Leeds have also shown strong interest in Rodrigo de Paul, a creative midfielder who has been pretty consistently good at Udinese over the last couple of seasons. He doesn’t provide a great deal of defensive output, but the old Bielsa motto of it being easier to teach a talented player to run than make an energetic player talented may just ring true here. He would certainly represent an upgrade in one of the two more advanced midfield roles in the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 that has served Leeds so well over the last couple of seasons. Maintaining a stable squad while upgrading in key positions seems a sensible way of confronting the club’s first Premier League season in 16 years, even though there is still a degree of uncertainty in terms of the performance levels that can be expected from some of the existing squad members. Many of these players were, after all, involved in a mid-table Championship finish in the season before Bielsa’s arrival. Any individual deficiencies will be that much clearer in the top flight. With that said, the front-foot style of play of the collective should be sufficient to get Leeds enough points from some of the league’s blander teams to provide a solid platform for a mid-table finish. Theirs is an exciting approach and it will be intriguing to see how they fare in their attempts to go toe-to-toe with teams towards the top of the table. An opening day trip to Anfield and champions Liverpool will give us an early taste of what to expect.  


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Southampton: Season Preview 2020-21

During the opening few weeks of 2019-20, Ralph Hasenhüttl mixed up his formations a little. The well-remembered Leicester game was the sixth time in ten matches that Southampton started with a variation involving three centre backs. That game wasn’t the final straw–two more games took place before an international break, but when Southampton came back to face Arsenal on the 23rd November, they played a version of 4-4-2. And from that point on they stuck to it. The reason for this change was clear enough: Southampton were 19th and on a run of no wins in seven. If ever there’s a good time to refocus thoughts, then languishing in the relegation places with your job under threat is it and Hasenhüttl quickly went back to basics. From that point on, Southampton pressed more frequently (led the league in volume of pressure events), timed their pressure events more aptly (led the league for counterpressure events), were more aggressive in closing down opponent pass receipts than any other team (29%) and had the lowest pass per defensive action value.  Results improved and quickly: a 2-2-8 start gave way to a 8-2-7 run pre-Covid break and 5-3-1 afterwards. Metrics generally followed suit too with a -0.4xG difference per 90 in that weak period switching round to +0.18 for the rest of the season (albeit the post-Covid metrics lagged behind good results). However you slice it though, once Hasenhüttl went to his pressing 4-4-2, Southampton were pretty good, around the sixth or seventh best team in the league. There were bad games across the season, and that rather impacted the metrics as a whole. Seven times Southampton gave up large xG totals (around 2.5 and up) in individual games. Some of them were understandable; both Manchester City games, Liverpool away and the 9-0, but it also occurred in back to back games just before the Covid break away to West Ham and home to Newcastle (thanks to Moussa Djenepo’s first half red card) and then at home to Arsenal after the restart:   There’s little doubt that this kind of vulnerability can be a by-product of games in which pressing teams are outmaneuvered. The Liverpool away game is a great example, as the team competed really well in the first half but Liverpool exerted themselves as the game wore on and won 4-0. The passing network from that game shows the generally equal balance of the game in regard to possession locations, which is unusual for a team against Liverpool. Another real rarity was Trent Alexander-Arnold getting pushed right back into the er… right back slot: Southampton’s season was gilded by a phenomenal season from Danny Ings. He scored 22 goals in the league (21+1 penalty) from an expected rate of close to 16, but more remarkable was his sheer consistency. Across the past four seasons, only Mohamed Salah in 2017-18 has scored a non-penalty goal in over half a team’s games in a season (23 separate games), Ings is second on that list having notched in 19. If you sat down to watch a Southampton game in 2019-20 it was a literal coin flip whether or not you’d see an Ings goal. He only scored one header and was not adept at getting on the end of crosses from open play, but otherwise scored a likeable variation of goals: tap-ins, off throughballs, after beating a defender to make space or a shot, from longer range and with both feet. He also led the press: his 25 pressure events per game was highest in the team. Loads of goals, loads of work rate. What’s not to like? He didn’t create much with his passing, but nor did anyone else, that’s just not how this team creates. The team pushed high, won the ball back and grabbed shots–they ranked fifth behind the top four sides for shots directly generated from a high press at over three per game. We can see how Southampton have evolved over four seasons here, or at least how Hasenhüttl’s tenure has built the press from the front. They’re more active high up the pitch than at any time since (to my surprise) Claude Puel in 2016-17, and the pattern in how they play now is very clear: There’s a lesson here around lineage and manager recruitment too. It can take time for a manager to get their methods across, even more so if they need to unpick diametrically opposed work done in a different direction by former managers. Having kept faith with Hasenhüttl through a tough period, a concerted and clear style has emerged, with some success. Personnel Southampton have made a couple of early moves in the market to shore up their defence. Kyle Walker-Peters followed up his loan from Tottenham with a permanent move. That a large volume of Tottenham fans were sad to see him depart, feeling he could have been used more over the years is indicative of his general ability. He could easily have been used more in their rotation and should be entirely fine at Southampton, especially with half a season under his belt already. Mohammed Salisu effectively takes Maya Yoshida’s place in the squad and as a young left footed centre back, is a relatively scarce talent within the league, and within this squad. The 6ft3” former Real Valladolid man has just one season of top-flight experience. During that season he was Valladolid’s main back line defender recording significantly higher percentage of defensive clearances than his centre back partners, scarcely being dribbled past but was not error-free, as you might expect from a young centre back. There may be more additions to come. In particular, central midfield looks a little light with Pierre-Emile Højbjerg moving to Tottenham and Harrison Reed and Mario Lemina each landing at Fulham for the forthcoming season at least, instead of returning. There’s also some hope to see better in season two from Che Adams and Moussa Djenepo. Both found it hard to gain consistent minutes in 2019-20, but some starts late on saw Adams finally score his first Premier League goal with a kooky 40-yarder against Manchester City and he followed it up with three more before season’s end. Meanwhile, Djenepo had a stop-start season with injuries, the loss of his mother and suspension all contributing to reduced time spent on the pitch. when he did play, he showed he wasn’t far off the player he showed at Standard Liege: Projection Southampton finished eleventh last season, which represented getting the car back on the tarmac after a couple of seasons of off-roading down the table. All in, raw expected goals rated them eighth best and liked them more than Tottenham and Arsenal. Sporting Index opening lines had them at around 50 points which maroons them in mid-table but would also be completely safe. You don’t look at this squad and see the appealing talent levels that led Liverpool to routinely buy Southampton players for so many years, and ironically the one player who made the opposite journey, Ings, is one that will likely have a huge bearing on how Southampton progress this season. If he can stay fit and continue to score at a good clip, it takes the pressure off the midfield, which has been somewhat goalshy for a number of seasons. It is also good for the league that we have a non-elite pressing team competing at a solid level, and Hasenhüttl may not have hit his ceiling here yet. Anything in the top half will represent another good season, and should certainly be the aim.


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The StatsBomb Premier League Season Previews 2020-21

We hope you’ve enjoyed the StatsBomb Premier League season previews! Here’s a handy place to keep them all. Just click the links to read about each team. Thanks to Nick Dorrington, Oli Walker and Ted Knutson for writing and thanks from me to you for reading. If you enjoyed these articles do share widely! Arsenal Aston Villa Brighton and Hove Albion Burnley Chelsea Crystal Palace Everton Fulham Leeds United Leicester City Liverpool Manchester City Manchester United Newcastle United Sheffield United Southampton Tottenham Hotspur West Bromwich Albion West Ham United Wolverhampton Wanderers  


  If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Fulham: Season Preview 2020-21

Let’s start with a question. Did Fulham deserve to go up? A provocative query and, sure, it suggests I’m going to lead the argument down a certain path but, before you blow your thatched rooftops Cottagers fans, the answer is actually both yes and no. Let me explain. Scott Parker was handed the managerial reins on a permanent basis last summer, after his caretaker stint at the end of their Premier League relegation season. An immediate return to the top flight was a realistic expectation as the majority of the side that achieved promotion in style under Slaviša Jokanović in 2017/18 was retained. Parker, himself having played under Jokanović, set about implementing a similar high-possession framework to the side that went up two seasons prior and he succeeded; at 61%, Fulham were second only to Leeds in average ball possession. Something wasn’t quite the same though. Under Slaviša, it was swashbuckling. Under Parker, it was pedestrian. Previously, it was possession as a means to attack, now it seemed to be possession as a means to defend. Relative to their promotion rivals, the Cottagers struggled to turn their ball and territory control into meaningful goalscoring opportunities and it left them always seemingly hanging onto the coattails of the top two rather than leading the charge with them. The big issue was that the side very rarely took advantage of the space available in transition when winning the ball back. Quickly (ironically), the ball would get circulated between midfield and defence until the opposition had managed to reset themselves into their defensive shape, the result being that Fulham had the slowest Pace To Goal – the average speed (in metres per second) of buildup play that results in a shot –  in the Championship by some way. Their aversion to breaking quickly was evident in the lack of counter attacking opportunities generated, something that Jokanović’s side were not afraid to do if the space was available. Logic dictates that you’re only going to make things more difficult for yourself if you commit to attacking against a set defence all the time and it was evident in the metrics; Fulham’s 1.18xG created per game was some way behind promotion rivals Brentford (1.33xG), West Brom (1.38xG), and Leeds (1.58xG) and others too, ranking 7th in the Championship across the regular season. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck and Fulham built a reputation for grinding out victories on the foundation of a sturdy defence, Parker’s pragmatism at least paying off at the other end of the pitch. 17 clean sheets was a total beaten only by champions Leeds, and Fulham also had a remarkable record of staying in front once they were ahead, conceding just five equalising goals in the entire season and going W21 D3 L0 in the 24 games they took the lead in. Despite that sterling record, the fans certainly weren’t particularly impressed with the regularity they were seeing their side take a lead and then sit on it rather than pushing on. Of Fulham’s 23 victories, 15 of them were by a single goal. However, there’s a real and unexpected quirk about their game state metrics. When in front, at score lines you’d expect the opposition to be having the better of the game and putting Fulham under pressure in search of an equaliser, Fulham actually created more, notching up 16.91xG to their opponents 14.24xG. They were also creating more than the opposition when scores were level, as you’d expect of a good side. Less relevant but just as weird, Fulham actually seemed to struggle most when they went behind, creating 13.79 xG to the opposition’s 14.78xG – potentially an ominous sign ahead of a season when they’ll expect to be behind more often than ahead. In summary, Fulham finished 4th in the table, had the 4th best goal difference and the 5th best expected goal difference. That’s pretty conclusive evidence to say that Fulham were, at best, the 4th best side in the division, no? Ergo, is it deserved that they were one of the three sides to go up? Well here comes the other side of the argument because of course I’m not going to ignore what happened in the play-offs. Where Parker’s pragmatism had given cause for complaint in the regular season, all of a sudden it was an asset to the task in front of them. Fulham played the first leg of their semi-final against Cardiff perfectly, conceding just six shots, and it’s hard to ask for a better result than to take a 2-0 lead away from home in the first leg. They finished the job at Craven Cottage, successfully defending a one goal aggregate lead for the entirety of the second half. It was a similar story in the final. Fulham focused less on retaining the ball and more on preventing Brentford, and particularly Saïd Benrahma, from playing, staying in a more compact shape than usual but more importantly selecting the more energetic Bobby Reid ahead of Championship top goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrović in order to give them more mobility in leading the press and more pace on the counter. The result was an even game with the deadlock only broken by a moment of individual quality which I’m almost certain you’ll have seen if you’re reading this, but if not: Fulham successfully negotiated the three games that their promotion depended on without riding their luck at any point during. Therefore, it’s undeniable that they did deserve their promotion, right? Let’s start to look forward now. It’s worth considering that Parker’s pragmatism, though not advisable when a big favourite with a talent advantage in a smaller league, does at least leave them better prepared to adjust to the Premier League than they were last time out. Although those attacking transitions will most certainly need to speed up. On that note, the signing of Mario Lemina from Southampton could help if he can replicate the form shown on the south coast that saw him mooted as a potential replacement for Mousa Dembélé at Tottenham. Lemina was flagged by StatsBomb’s own Euan Dewar when he analysed dribblers and their post-dribble actions a couple of seasons back and if he can help Fulham move through the centre of the park and transition from defence to attack more quickly or efficiently, that could be important. Similarly, the return of André Zambo Anguissa to the squad is notable. Anguissa was one of the more heralded signings of the 18/19 summer window and it looks increasingly more likely that he’ll stay a Fulham player in 2020/21, returning after playing a key role in helping Villarreal finish 5th in La Liga. Now two years older than when he first signed and closer to his peak at 24, there’s potential he could step up in the way that was hoped when he first signed. Anguissa was part of the infamous £100million spend that summer, but comparisons between that window and this are scarce. There were some domestic signings back then but the vast majority were brought in from overseas and with no experience of English football. This time, Fulham’s business has so far focused entirely on the domestic market and with smaller sums being exchanged: the only (soon to be confirmed) signing from overseas has been that of wing back Ola Aina who’s spent the last two seasons with Torino in Serie A but moved there from Chelsea. Of the business that remains to be done, there are concerns over Fulham’s reliance on 26-goal Mitrović, who was given very little help in the goalscoring department last season. He’ll be the main man again and has proven he can be counted on for some contribution at Premier League level, but more needs to come from the support acts out wide. Ivan Cavaleiro and Anthony Knockaert notched just nine goals between them last season and given the unlikelihood that Mitrović reaches another double-dozen, they’ll need to step up. In a weird flip, Fulham could be coming into this season as a perceivably and demonstrably worse side than the one that was promoted last time out but at the same time one that’s better prepared and suited for the challenge that’s ahead of them thanks to a risk-averse manager and more settled squad. Expectations amongst the fanbase are also lower due to the manner of promotion and tighter transfer spending. Critiqued for much of last season but with a bit more credit in the bank after promotion, it’ll be interesting to see how much patience Parker gets should things not go to plan straight away. Joint relegation favourites with West Brom seems a fair assessment.  


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Arsenal: Season Preview 2020-21

A manager change. A global pandemic. A 10th place finish in expected goal difference. Another FA Cup trophy at the end of it. And then the release of seemingly the entire scouting department plus the firing of Head of Football Raul Sanllehi to boot. What to even make of the 19-20 season from Arsenal?

Recruitment last summer was “fine,” if overpriced. Wide forward had long been a need, and Nicolas Pepe filled it adequately, even though Arsenal probably overpaid for him by £25M. Kieran Tierney took ages to get healthy and settled, but once he started playing, he quickly became a fan favourite. 18-year-old William Saliba was purchased and then immediately sent back to Saint-Etienne to continue his education. And David Luiz was brought over from Chelsea as a rich man’s Shkrodan Mustafi, in the hope that Unai Emery would never be forced to play both of them together on match day.

Combine those with the younger signings from a year before in Torreira, Bernd Leno, and Matteo Guendouzi, and it felt like Arsenal fans might have a reason to be optimistic.

Except… well.

My worry with the hire of Unai Emery was that Arsenal would sacrifice the funky attacking patterns that were a hallmark of Arsene Wenger’s era in exchange for stabilising the defence. The reality was that Emery never stabilised the defence while the attack did indeed become a hell of a lot less fun.

Along with frustrations over recruitment toward the end of the Wenger era, including a complete lack of inbound young attacking talent, one of the points I had hoped Arsenal would address with a new manager was to become more aggressive in the high press. The low block and occasional pressing style under Steve Bould (from the late Wenger years) was just effective enough for fourth, but no more than that. My hope was that Arsenal would dial up the pressure and move up the table as well.

Unfortunately under Emery, Arsenal not only forgot how to dominate the ball, they also forgot how to dominate… anything.

 

The lack of an elite defence (see Manchester United) combined with relative dross on the attacking end, meant Unai Emery was shown the door after a string of poor results in November. Speaking to one club insider this past summer, they stated that the writing was already on the wall for Emery after season 1, which made it even more strange that Sanllehi wanted to extend his contract. They also felt the summertime splash in the transfer market made little sense with a lame duck manager, which isn’t wholly unfair.

Reading between the lines, the state of Arsenal’s upper management in recent years can be described as “bumpy” at a minimum, and ranges to “complete flaming chaos with a side of potential corruption” for those who were both present and particularly descriptive of the situation.

Enter Mikel Arteta

Allegedly, Arteta was nearly hired to succeed Arsene Wenger before a change of heart saw Emery take the reins in summer 2018. A season and a half later, Arteta entered the club with his first chance at being a head coach. Before moving forward, however, it makes a little bit of sense to step back.

In spring of 2017, Arsenal did a very quiet set of interviews with top head coach candidates in preparation for Wenger leaving the club. On the potentials list were a variety of names, including Thomas Tuchel and Roger Schmidt. (I heard Marcelino was mooted as well, but I don’t know anything beyond rumour there.) Tuchel would later replace Emery at PSG and take them to the CL Final this summer, while Schmidt finished out his time in China before taking a break from football, and was recently hired to coach similarly-abbreviated but not-remotely-the-same-stature club PSV. I note this because at one time it seemed fairly clear Arsenal were looking for tactical styles that included a regular high press.

In addition to playing under Arsene Wenger, Mikel Arteta spent three seasons coaching and learning from Pep Guardiola, not only one of the greatest coaches in modern football, but also an advocate of the… you guessed it… high press playing style.

The problem for coaches taking over mid-season is that it’s really hard to find the training time to teach defensive structure changes. This is especially true when the team they take over are also involved in Europa League play and make deep runs in domestic cups – there just isn’t enough time on the training pitch to completely revamp the principles. So it wasn’t entirely surprising that Arteta’s Arsenal team played similarly to Emeryball, with perhaps a bit better tactical understanding.

This is especially true when you consider that most of the post-pandemic run-in were games where the results didn’t matter, at least for Arsenal. Combine a potential lack of motivation in the league run-in (and a focus on the FA Cup) with four red cards in the 21 matches after Arteta took over, and you get a sense that the headline averages don’t tell the whole story.

What was slightly surprising, was that the team started to put up honest-to-god results against Big 6 teams for the first time in… well, seemingly forever. Arsenal beat Liverpool in the league, then Man City and Chelsea in the FA Cup before defeating Liverpool on penalties in the Community Shield. This was new. This was different. Even if the process wasn’t exactly sterling – Arsenal were still losing the expected goals battles – the results were… good?

But are they sustainable? Ahhhh, there is the rub.

How do Arsenal get better in 2020-21?

A) Recruitment Arsenal’s squad have been an army of misfit toys for a while now. They have talent, but the elite players seem to play the same positions (Aubameyang and Lacazette), and there are almost no peak age players (24-27) in the squad. From a squad building perspective, it has been messy for years.

Possibly the biggest need in the squad this summer was retooling the centreback rotation. If Guardiola’s style is anything to go by, Arteta will require ball-playing CBs with pace. William Saliba is extremely young, but the potential answer to part of that equation. The addition of Gabriel Magalhaes from Lille looks to be another potential answer. However, given the ages, my guess is that these two will rarely play together as a pairing this year.

Which leaves you with the rest of the centrebacks. Mustafi looked mostly competent post-pandemic right up until he reverted to his tradition Arsenal form of calamitous mistakes in the last few matches. If calamity is the baseline, the brief purple patch has to be considered an outlier. Relying on him is not a thing most coaches would do by choice. Sokratis has been deemed surplus to requirements, and given his age when he arrived from Dortmund was always a stopgap measure. Pablo Mari looks to be a man mountain, but injury in the opening minutes of the season’s return meant we have basically nothing further to evaluate him on aside from being large and left-footed. It’s a start, at least?

Rob Holding is likely to be a loanee this season, lacking both the pace and the passing to be a top tier CB, though he’s a serviceable Premier League one and was bought for a pittance from Bolton.

Calum Chambers is… still under contract.

That leaves us with the variance of David Luiz. Luiz’s tenure at Arsenal has been plagued largely by mistakes and red cards, which is why it came as a surprise that he signed a contract extension early in the summer and looks set for another season at the club. Fans were left muttering, “Kia taketh, but when doth he give?” Willian on a free was presumably not the hoped for answer.

While Gabriel and Saliba are probably the future, the present looks somewhat uncertain.

Equally uncertain is the midfield composition. Convincing Dani Ceballos to return was vital – he was Arsenal’s most important midfielder after the pandemic return, and offers versatility as well as top quality production. Xhaka has the passing but lacks the legs to be one of the elite players at his position, and then you hit… well, we don’t know yet.

Torreira is likely to be sold, Guendouzi as well, and Arsenal wish Ozil would wriggle himself into a move anywhere but here. Which leaves the cupboard fairly threadbare when it comes to central midfielders. Outgoings could fund a high level incoming like Aouar (which would be fairly impressive recruitment coup), but even adding a player of that calibre means quite a few minutes for Joe Willock to gain experience. Maitland-Niles looks like RB1 if Bellerin leaves to pursue trophies and fashion in Paris, which leaves Bukayo Saka as a pacey flex-8 and almost no one else.

If Arsenal do sign Aouar, they’ll hope for a return of his 20-year-old season under Bruno Genesio.

 

My thoughts on Thomas Partey I will revisit in a postscript.

The Kids

Signing Saka to a long-term extension was extremely important for both the Gunners and their fanbase. The academy production line has gone from almost nothing five years previous to churning out attacking talent that is only a small step below the best academies in the world. Saka broke through and regularly looked like one of the better players on the pitch playing in the Premier League at age 18. Losing that type of talent would have been heartbreaking, even if Arsenal don’t quite know his best position yet.

Nketiah (21) isn’t quite ready to lead the line, but he’s probably only a season or two off and also needs lots of minutes to finish his development. Reiss Nelson (only 20) is more of a question mark, and this is especially true with the signing of Willian. My guess is Arteta felt he wasn’t going to be good enough to be the second option wide right, which means Nelson probably goes into the Sales/Loans pile to generate enough funds to fill out the squad, but I could be wrong.

Before his injury, Gabriel Martinelli looked like a wonderkid, and it is hoped he’ll continue to develop into an elite attacker even if he probably won’t be back in action until the winter.

Arsenal’s attacking youth are a bit too young and a bit raw, but are already good enough to merit either decent minutes in the league and cup competitions, or to generate enough sales revenue to fund additional transfers.

B) Defensive Style

No playmaker in the world can be as good as good counter-pressing.” – Jurgen Klopp

One of the ways Arsenal can get better as a team is by playing a better defensive style. High pressure is related to both fewer expected goals against and to generating additional expected goals in attack. Arsenal as a whole lack some creativity in attack, and I’m not sure they are going to be able to fix that in the transfer market this window.

However, in the absence of elite creative players, gegenpressing and learning to transition more and better can still help generate additional, almost free goals. The test here will be whether Arsenal have the personnel to do it, and whether Arteta can get them playing it well in time for the new season.

Even if they aren’t elite at it to start (and neither Klopp’s LFC nor Pochettino’s Spurs were), committing to this style and improving at it over the course of the season is a useful goal unto itself. And potentially necessary to help generate more goals from a team that doesn’t look like it will add creative firepower until potentially January at the earliest.

C) Set Pieces These went from a mild success under Emery to a moderate disaster under Arteta both in attack and defence. Andreas Georgson has been brought in to help improve this phase of the game and I wish him all the best. Even if he makes it so I stop wincing every time Arsenal face a defensive corner, I will consider this a success.

D) Behaviour With a Lead

This one is subtle, but it was a massive problem throughout the course of last season. Arsenal had the fourth worst expected goals difference in the league when they had a lead.

All of the top 6 teams had a positive expected goal difference with the lead. The best teams look to extend leads, not protect them. Protecting leads is a recipe for 14 draws in 38 league matches and another likely midtable finish.

To put this another way – when playing with a one-goal lead, Arsenal became relegation candidates. They had 36% of the expected goals, 32% of the total shots, but still managed 47% of the goals. Luck? Talent? Bit of both probably, with a strong worry that it won’t be repeatable should they try it again.

This is typically a tactical choice, and one that needs to change if Arsenal are going to challenge for anything useful this season.

Conclusion

An optimist would look at the FA Cup trophy and numerous victories against the Top 6 as a positive sign. They will also take hope in the idea that Arteta should put in a similar defensive system to what Pep runs at City, even if they are cautious that Arsenal may not have the players to execute that style particularly well for at least another year.

A pessimist will look at the average numbers on both sides of the ball under Emery and Arteta, and conclude that Arsenal have not been Actually Good since 2016-17 and there are no obvious signs of getting better. They will also look at the mess at the top of the club and mixed bag of recruitment as further proof that Arsenal are not ready to pull out of their slide into mediocrity just yet.

Myself, I lean toward optimism. I think the results suggest a better process is on the way, and that’s backed up by my eye test when I watch this team execute tactically now versus what it was like under Unai Emery.

A top 4 challenge is probably a little less than a coinflip, especially with the firepower Chelsea have brought in this summer, but if better tactical choices are made, a return to the top 6 is fairly likely.

–Ted Knutson

@mixedknuts

Post Script

I moved this down here because it requires some time and some nuance to explain and I didn’t want to clutter up the preview with additional nonsense.

If you prefer the podcast version of this argument, you can find it here: https://soundcloud.com/statsbomb-pod/statsbomb-podcast-july-1-q-a

I said this back in June and I stand by it. I also followed up that tweet with additional reasoning.

First, “free” isn’t free. In many cases free simply means taking 30-50% of the transfer fee a team would normally pay and adding it to the player’s wage packet. So instead of Partey making £200K a week, he now makes 300 or 350K a week. Given his age – he would be starting his contract at 27 – this means Arsenal would be taking a HUGE risk if Partey didn’t work out.

When it comes to squadbuilding, taking big risks on older players with giant wages and potentially low resale value is a terrible idea. Occasionally it works out – Aubameyang at Arsenal is one rare example and someone I would have been happy to buy at £50M but much less happy with at £70M – but mostly it doesn’t and it means you are stuck with a player that has declining output and who may become effectively unmoveable.

(There are a million zillion examples of this, but the one that always strikes me is how often Manchester City did this until a couple of years ago. Fernandinho worked out alright, but a ton of those others guys did not (Navas, Negredo, Bony, Nolito), and the failure to keep younger fullbacks around basically cost City a title in Pep’s first season at the club.)

Beyond the age, and the wages, and the squadbuilding principles, I just don’t see good data-based reasons to be excited about Partey.

If you’re splashing the cash, you really want scouting and data to both be excited about a player. That’s not output I want to spunk £50M and big wages on. Or big wages and a 5-year contract.

He was amazing against Barcelona! Great, then why wasn’t he amazing against all the other teams in La Liga last season?

Atletico are weird tactically, and his stats are not reflective of how he will play elsewhere. Again, fine… but we can ONLY judge his output from Atletico because that’s the only place he’s played since 2015. This increases the risk that the transfer goes wrong.

He’s an elite defensive midifelder! His output looks nothing like an elite defensive midfielder.

He’s NOT a defensive midfielder, he’s a box-to-box midfielder who is great on the ball. Okay, but he also doesn’t score goals or create goals for his teammates, so what are you actually paying for?

Transfer shopping is all about correctly evaluating and mitigating risk. If you are going to spend big, there needs to be very little risk something doesn’t work out, and hopefully some upside involved as well. Liverpool don’t make mistakes on transfers. That’s why they are where they are now, despite finishing 8th as recently as 15-16. If you buy young guys and they don’t work out, at least you can sell them on at a small loss and roll the dice again (Lucas Torreira). But if you buy/sign an older player on big wages and they don’t work out, you are dead. You either have to eat a ton of their wages to move them on, or they stick around until the end of their contract with declining production.

My perspective on Arsenal and transfers has been the same for years now. I think they should not be building to try and finish 4th and make the Champions League.

I think they should be building a squad to try and finish first, even if that’s one or two years down the line. And the way you do that is not via signing 27 and 28yos… you do it via taking some risk on 21-24 year olds, hoping your analysis is good, and letting them mature into elite players while improving the style of play.

Everton: Season Preview 2020-21

The last Everton manager before Carlo Ancelotti with a European trophy on his resume was Howard Kendall. He won the 1984-85 Cup Winner’s Cup for Everton, a clear highlight among a great run for the side in the mid-1980s. Ancelotti’s pedigree is clearly what attracted Everton’s power brokers when making the appointment, much as Jose Mourinho’s glittering history was deemed a match for Tottenham. Everton have spent quite freely in recent seasons with a view to pointing upwards, but the man in the hotseat, until now, had not fit the description of “serial winner”. Ancelotti changes that dynamic and ahead of his first full season, there is obvious pressure to get the best from his squad. Leicester were the team that managed to profit in 2019-20 from a couple of big teams hitting down years. Everton’s aspiration has to be to do similar in 2020-21. But can they do it? The base they are launching from is not high. A twelfth placed finish was the lowest Everton had recorded since 2003-04 and the whole season was hand-braked by a run of poor form under Marco Silva. He left the club after securing 14 points in 15 games and with the team in 18th place. Ancelotti’s subsequent tenure saw the club pick up points at a rate of close to 1.5 per game–57 points over a full season. This pegs the level that he’s achieved slightly ahead of the average of the last six seasons, a useful line in the sand since Roberto Martinez logged a huge 72 points in 2013-14. Within that season too: the last time Everton beat a big six club in a league fixture away from Goodison Park, a 1-0 win over David Moyes’ Manchester United. These are the type of challenges that the team must overcome if it is to move upwards. From a metric perspective Everton’s season was well… variable: The first stretch for Marco Silva involved a big skew where results failed to overcome declining expected numbers, which ultimately did for him. The period that Ancelotti oversaw from late December to the Covid break was genuinely good: a 5-3-3 record was scant reward for third best in the league expected metrics (+0.7xG per game vs a flat, zero actual goal difference). Then in the New World, metrics declined, in particular in attack. The positive read of all this is that the good Ancelotti period was extremely promising. The negative read is more a question of why couldn’t they get anywhere near those heights in June and July? It’s fundamentally erroneous to draw lines based on player participation, so I will not point out that Fabian Delph started a lot of games in the good period and Andre Gomes played more in the bad.  The whole before/after Covid break dichotomy is an added layer that makes projecting teams in 2020-21 an ever more hazardous procedure and it would not be surprising if a variety of teams played out the season with half an eye on the autumn and this restart. Personnel Everton have been far from shy in the transfer market in recent seasons, and their recruitment has had a mixed outcome. Marcel Brands was tasked with emerging from the weight that Steve Walsh’s tenure left on the club’s roster, and has made some pointed and valuable moves. Richarlison remains a certain hit, Lucas Digne has grown into one of the better two-way full backs in the league and while Delph isn’t one for the future, he was a relatively cheap and experienced player to slot into the midfield. Elsewhere, Andre Gomes remains elegant on the ball, but probably needs to be less elegant off the ball. Moise Kean is still very young and without the yips (two goals from over four xG) might have raised more eyebrows in first season from which he emerged from the bench most frequently, while Alex Iwobi needs to get back his creative boots if he’s going to continue to mini-Özil his way through life and scarcely shoot. On paper, at least, Jean-Philippe Gbamin was the answer to some of Everton’s issues around their midfield, but the poor guy is already out til 2021 and has undergone his third operation in a luckless run at the club. With a surfeit of centre forwards and winger types on the books, and mixed impact and bad luck in midfield, it’s straightforward to identify where to strengthen, and Everton have followed that obvious route. Allan was the first through the door, a veteran of Ancelotti’s Napoli tenure and a player who  who has long provided great energy from midfield: We can see here that 2019-20 under Gennaro Gattuso saw his on the ball metrics drop back, while he maintained extremely high pressure metrics. To be fair, his season was stop-start with niggling injuries and time on the bench impacting his overall game time. There is an understandable degree of caution in that he’s soon to turn 30 years old, and the hope here has to be that he can continue to contribute at levels seen prior to last season. However for his stylistic profile, the balance between “he is a great player” and “he is at the wrong end of the age curve” is impossible to deny. Age queries are also something that can be aimed at James Rodriguez, who looks likely to join up this week too. As a former Galactico of sorts, his pedigree is undeniable, and as a creative, flair player, concerns about his residual quality and reliability as he ages are perhaps less than that of Allan. It’s really not that long since he was at Bayern putting together a profile like this:     Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison will undoubtedly be thrilled to see a world class creator teeing up set pieces and throughballs for them. The upgrade here versus Gylfi Sigurðsson is nothing short of huge. The warning when Sigurðsson signed for Everton was that so much of his shot creation was inhabited within set pieces. He got 12 assists for Swansea in 2016-17 and only four were from open play. His actual key pass rate was a shade over 0.5 per game which is miniscule for any nominally creative player. His seasons at Everton have seen this rate broach one per 90 only once (1.03 in 2018-19) and he was back at below 0.5 in 2019-20. James gives you at least as much as Sigurðsson from set-pieces while adding elite open play shot creation numbers on top, reliably over two per game. This difference is shown amply by James’ open play key pass chart at Bayern vs that of Sigurðsson last season for Everton. Even allowing for difference of quality in team-mate, the variation is stark and by any stretch, James as an upgrade is hugely enticing. He’s also two years younger:   James also has experience under Ancelotti for a brief period during their time at Bayern Munich, so there could well be some benefit from these high quality players being able to join up, and quickly drop in to the team. Do Allan’s legs allow James to create with some impunity? Perhaps so, but undeniably, their recruitment improves Everton in an area they were likely weakest and certainly makes the short term likelihood of Everton raising their floor very real. Given erratic game time for each in recent times, it will be interesting to see how frequently they feature and how frequently Everton get a full shift from them. As much as queries around contracting players into their 30s will persist, getting Everton’s first 11 onto the pitch reliably will have a large impact on outcomes. It’s also looking as though Abdoulaye Doucouré will be joining from Watford. As an aside a quick glace at the squad makes me feel a little more full back depth could go a long way. Projection What is success for this team this season? Everton have invested in players at a cost that demands a challenge to the top six. At times it has felt as though each new manager and season has been treated as a blank canvas, and the residual squad members from previous regimes have been hard to move on. Everton need to find a way to move on from that cycle, and on balance, enough of their more recent recruitment in the Marcel Brands era has created a team that at its core has the makings of a prosperous side. Very little more needs to go right to regain a slot in the eternal seventh to tenth zone that Everton frequently occupy, but a big impact from their new recruits could steer them upwards. Sporting Index opened up with a ninth placed 52-53 point estimation and that may be a low base, considering what we know about 2019-20 and the Ancelotti era. As discussed, his actual point accrual rate was about five points ahead of that and a further handful of points probably gets you to the top six mix. Maximising outcome is Ancelotti’s challenge. He needs to get close to the top six for 2020-21 to be deemed successful. The form of the team was concerning during the restart, but it can be hoped that the planning was orientated towards this season instead. Teams that understand the brutal schedule and plan to adapt will be set-up to fare best in 2020-21 and there is an opportunity here for those that do. Everton do have a large squad too. If Ancelotti can’t manage to point this team upwards, further change in management and personnel may be in the offing, and the cycle could recur.


  If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Leicester City: Season Preview 2020-21

It’s extremely uncharitable to take a look back at 2019-20 and declare it anything other than a success for Leicester. Yes, Champions League qualification looked likely for most of the season, and to miss out was ultimately a disappointment, but the trajectory and outcome were more than fine.

In Brendan Rodgers’ first full season in charge, Leicester built on a strong run at the back end of 2018-19 to finish fifth. Since their unexpected title win in 2015-16, the team has turned over managers at a rapid rate but also contrived to stabilise and grow. Finishes of twelfth, ninth and ninth have now been exceeded and in raw terms the team improved ten points season to season. This meant it was still their second most successful Premier League season and while not quite the 40 point year to year boost that made them champions, the original baseline they moved upwards from was higher and the likelihood of maintaining a good level surely is too.

In a season of two halves, Leicester ballooned over what were solid metrics pre-Christmas then found their run deflated despite continuing solid metrics from there on in. They scored 39 points in the first 19 games with a plus-22 non-penalty goal difference and plus-8 expected goal difference, then 23 points from the last 19 with plus-7 for non-penalty goals and plus-10 for xG. Wait a minute? Very similar expected numbers in both halves of the season? Yes, and that’s why sometimes, outcomes can be deceptive.

 

 

Overall, it’s impossible to take a negative stance on their metrics. Expected goal difference? Fourth. In attack? Fourth. Defence? Fifth. Leicester got the cusp of the top four not by some fluke but by playing football of a quality that merited their position.

What made Leicester good last season? To start, Brendan Rodgers got them working pretty hard off the ball:

 

 

That chart includes StatsBomb pressure events alongside other “traditional” defensive metrics (tackles and the like). It shows that in proportion to their opponent’s pass volumes, Leicester were either slightly or quite frequently above average in how they engaged in every zone of the pitch–a notable change from previous seasons. The old school pass per defensive action metric (not pressure, just high up the pitch) had Leicester logged as lowest (best) across 2019-20 and consistent over each half of the season. The proportion of opponent receipts that were pressed within two seconds,  had Leicester at 28% in the first half of the season (2nd) and 27% in the back half (1st). Outside of Manchester City, Liverpool and to a degree, Chelsea, the teams that enact a press that shows up well in data are Leicester and Southampton. This team puts in a shift.

Part of what enabled this is that the role and purpose of players in Rodgers’ line-ups were fairly consistent and clear. There is a sense of Liverpool in how Leicester partition their contributors into attackers than use possessions and defenders that don’t, not least insofar as the two full-backs, Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell fitted firmly into the attacking band. Alongside James Maddison, this trio finished the most Leicester possessions during 2019-20, and it’s easy to presume that missing these three in the run in was costly. Once Maddison was unable to feature, Rodgers seemed more inclined to work with three centre backs, pushing the full-backs ever higher, perhaps knowing he didn’t have another Maddison-type, as an attempt to further embellish the full back attacking contribution. Of course by now, Pereira’s loss to an ACL in March cut deep, for all that Justin did a solid job in covering, and Chilwell was later missed too with 19 year old Luke Thomas covering. Pre-lockdown, the team had been injury free and consistent with a version of 4-1-4-1 most commonly used. Barnes, Tielemans and Perez contributed a fairly democratic attack looking to power Vardy’s Indian summer, while Wilfried Ndidi sat in front of the centre backs and covered everything going the other way.

Personnel

It’s to Leicester’s credit that ever since their title win, they’ve sold a big ticket star every summer to a big six club, yet managed to build and maintain a fairly solid squad and compete well against exactly those teams. N’Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater and now Chilwell all went to Chelsea, Riyad Mahrez to Manchester City and Harry Maguire to Manchester United. This reliable income has been a useful counterbalance to necessary spending and has meant that they have made a bunch of mid-priced bets along the way. More recently they have quite often come out the right side of the deals. Youri Tielemans was the most expensive (at around £40m) but elsewhere Ndidi, Maddison, Caglar Söyüncü and Pereira have forged good careers at Leicester and were core parts of last season’s team. Even players that have not become core starters such as Kelechi Iheanacho, Dennis Praet or James Justin are now able to round out the squad and offer useful depth, while it’s always fun to find a Harvey Barnes or Hamza Choudhury lurking in your development squads.

None of these players are anywhere near being the wrong age and most of them are still on the cusp of their best years. The squad has a lot of pre-peak talent that has grown together. The veterans here are two title winners in keeper Kasper Schmeichel and Vardy and a still effective Jonny Evans. who has now spent five seasons post-Manchester United proving their decision to move him on to be not optimal. With this kind of age profile, there is no obvious reason why this team shouldn’t be as good if not better this coming season:

 

 

With Chilwell departing, a replacement was quickly sought. Signing a player from Atalanta does have a ring of “hipster’s choice” to it but Timothy Castagne represents another right age (24) mid-range fee (£21.5m) with a decent amount of experience in a good side. He has covered either flank as a full back; he’s spent time fairly equally on both sides across the last two seasons but with Pereira (if fit) and James Justin already ensconced on the right side it seems most likely that he’ll be stationed on the left. Remaining left full back Christian Fuchs is surely winding down at 34 so it’s not impossible they will strengthen again here, but Castagne’s profile is that of a player who is slightly more secure on the ball than Chilwell, while not contributing to the attack in the same way.

 

 

Castagne also doesn’t offer the ball carrying high up the pitch or as a general outlet that Chilwell did, so there may be tweaks afoot in the style Leicester play:

 

 

Elsewhere, Vardy remains somewhat immune to his age, and Rodgers has managed to extract his best goalscoring form in some seasons, by targeting shrewder movement and utilising his speed to get on the end of throughballs:

 

 

Vardy can be a streaky finisher, but in the aggregate he remains reliably over expectation. One day he will need replacing and there’s an argument that for team effectiveness in buildup he’s a net minus. Solving that is probably a decision for further down the line though, as his inevitable goal contribution will always be hard to replicate from elsewhere.

Projection

With the full backs contributing so heavily to Leicester’s success in 2019-20, then Chilwell leaving and Pereira suffering a serious injury, it may be hard to mimic the specific set-ups we saw from August to March. Finding the balance here may well be crucial to whether Leicester can get early results, with further issues around the time until Maddison returns to full fitness and Evans missing the start of the season through suspension. A trip to Manchester City aside (they offered next to nothing in both fixtures last season), Leicester’s early schedule is not unkind and they will hope that their injured stars can work their way back into contention once the schedule bites a little more. European football does focus consideration towards squad depth, and a couple more incoming players would help.

Results trending in the wrong direction (6-5-8 second half of the season, 2-3-4 post Covid break) have led to a divergent view of how good this team is and how well it can perform in 2020-21. The opening Sporting Index lines had them at around 56 points, behind all of the big six and Wolves, but the facts remain that in tied positions this team took close to 60% of all shots, for 60% of xG and scored over 60% of the goals. To ignore that entirely would negate the reality of Leicester’s achievement.

As a metrics loyalist, I feel obliged to come out on the positive side of predicting Leicester.  But for nagging doubts about key injuries i’d be confident that they could compete more than adequately against teams widely rated higher than them who have shown far less appeal in the numbers such as Arsenal and Tottenham. Their age profile is perfect for that of a team that can continue to progress, and this group of players is reminiscent of that which Mauricio Pochettino helmed for Tottenham at the start of their good run in the mid 2010s; a team which ironically found Leicester in their way perhaps a year or two before they hit their own peak. High praise? Sure, but there is talent throughout this team and there isn’t that much that needs to be done to compete for a top four slot again.


If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com

We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course

Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Liverpool: Season Preview 2020-21

Champions League, World Club Cup and Premier League. Game completed. What comes next? The 2019-20 season wasn’t just odd due to the three month winter break in the middle of it. It was odd in the way that Liverpool cocked a snook at any idea that their 97 point 2018-19 total was going to be hard to replicate and promptly went charging off looking for 100. As such, the title finally returned asterisk free to Merseyside after a 30 year wait. The ever likeable Jürgen Klopp cemented his place in Anfield folklore. Usually when teams log 90+ point seasons, they follow them up by coming back down to earth a little. The two exceptions (Chelsea 2004-05 and 2005-06, 95 and 91 and Manchester City 2017-18 and 2018-19, 100 and 98) did come back down in the next season but still stayed at over 80 points which is historically great and has won many a title. There’s no denying Liverpool have been exceptional for (at least) two seasons. In 2018-19, they lost one league game and were unbeaten until January. In 2019-20 they were unbeaten until February 29th, and that’s not even a proper day most years, so who’s to say it counts? They’re consistent, they have superb talent in all positions, they have found many different ways to win and they tend to do so.

One of the tricky aspects to evaluate with regard to Liverpool 2019-20 is that quite a lot of the season ended up being a parade. They were six points clear at the end of October, ten clear by mid-December and the Club World Cup jaunt, nineteen clear by the end of January and twenty-five clear on lockdown. The revolutionary strategy of winning every* game was bearing fruit. From an analysis perspective, at what point do we shrug and ignore actual on pitch activity, because it kinda didn’t matter? Liverpool’s four season expected goal trendlines clearly show that the back half of 2019-20 saw some of their worst metrics in years, but again: did it really matter?

A valid point here is that Liverpool were better in 2018-19 than they were in 2019-20, but then again, they had to be. A lot has been made about the fact that Liverpool’s expected metrics lagged behind those of Manchester City last season, which to my mind misses the point somewhat. That chart above shows that Liverpool have had excellent metrics for most of the last four seasons; excellent metrics put you in the mix to win titles, and Liverpool were a hair’s breadth away from winning the last two. There’s also the difference between necessity and game management to which a combination of quality and circumstance enabled Liverpool to navigate their way through the first half of 2019-20.

During late 2019, Liverpool were really good at getting to 2-0, and once they were at 2-0, they were really good at managing their way to the end of games. In the first half of 2019-20, they put together a 1-0, 2-0 combination within sixteen minutes eight times, seven of which were within the first half. Sure, good teams do this and all the recent points-hoarders have a fine record in building quick decisive leads, but to concentrate this into the first half of the season was notable and a worthwhile driver towards their exemplary results.

Also worthwhile was their amazing 16 game run of scoring first, which started in November and only finished in the still curious Watford defeat. Scoring first is again a hallmark of a good team, but to go 16 games without a weird ricochet or moment switching off is quite remarkable. These are the little quirks that help power dominant seasons, and while you can’t rely on them to specifically recur, they sure as heck help out. Let’s look at Liverpool’s expected goals particularly the defensive end another way, game by game:

One of the main plotlines that underlies this chart is that between September 2017 and The Watford Game in February 2020, nearly two and a half years and 98 games, Liverpool did not give up more than two non-penalty expected goals in a league game. So that’s the process right there; don’t give up much in defence. It kicked on into reality too, as they went nearly as long without being two goals behind in a league game. This team has been so consistent for so long that the Watford game–in which they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 (2.2 vs 0.4 xG)–stands out alone in as an outlier across over 100 games. Ironically, post-Watford and post Covid break Liverpool did show vulnerability at the back and as a result “time spent behind” and “deviation from expectation while ahead” measures fell back towards more “normal” levels having been wildly out of kilter in a positive direction beforehand. Things like giving up more than two non-penalty expected goals occurred in three more games, although they won two of them (5-3 v Chelsea, 3-1 v Brighton) and only lost to Manchester City. There’s not much more to be said here apart from don’t make a habit of it. Personnel A quick word for Virgil Van Dijk here as he tops by a huge margin a metric I toyed with to ascertain how effective centre backs were at clearing or passing the ball out from dangerous central in-box zones: There’s an interesting question around Liverpool’s centre back partnerships that springs up from this. Van Dijk is evidently a dominant force within the league, but Joe Gomez is far more passive. Across two seasons his rate for this metric is around 20% (compared to Van Dijk’s 35% 2018-19 and 39% in 2019-20). The now departed Dejan Lovren rated a shade higher at around 22-23% while Joel Matip was higher still at 25% and 29%. The point is that since Van Dijk arrived, he’s been ever present and the three others have partnered him. When Gomez is on the pitch, you just get less defensive activity in key areas, much of which is aerial based. It’s not that Van Dijk or someone else is covering, it’s just a clear dropoff versus when Lovren or Matip have played. Now: does this matter? That’s hard to say, but the only evidence we have recently of Liverpool’s defence declining is in the recent period with Gomez alongside Van Dijk, the back half of 2019-20. The split between Gomez, Lovren and Matip to partner Van Dijk has been fairly even across the long dominant defensive period. Yes, Gomez remains the future of Liverpool’s defence, but also, Matip must have a good shout at getting his place back. It will be something to monitor going forward. Elsewhere there are few surprises. The three man forward line remains as good and democratic as any in world football and there are no secrets around the full-back contributions now either. The right sided of the three midfielders tends to be the extra moving part to the attack, be it Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Jordan Henderson. There was a lot of chatter about Firmino’s finishing last season, but in undershooting his expected goals, he wasn’t obviously revealing a flaw; he’d been +3 vs expectation across the last three seasons before a blip of -4.5 in 2019-20. Closer examination shows he has finished well with his head long term and is weakest with his left foot, but he contributes so much else with regard to creation and pressing, it’s erroneous to be over-critical. And Liverpool do still press, nothing’s changed there: Once more off-season transfers don’t seem to be the primary focus with the core first team all still within peak ages ranges and performing so well, but the team has moved finally to lock up a back-up left-back in Kostas Tsimikas. We reviewed him for our Pro Scouting project and liked him, for all that we didn’t foresee a jump up to one of the best teams in the world. Our executive summary was as follows: Kostas Tsimikas is an all-round full back with a very impressive defensive output. A very aggressive presser, he somewhat foul prone. In attack he combines above average passing with decent crossing to offer a solid but unspectacular package. He can make the jump to a bigger league this summer. He also has throw-in ability, can execute combination play in build-up and is an effective ball carrier. We felt he could fit into a squad for a Europa League level team, but if we consider his age, and the stylistic package as a relatively well priced gamble to back up one of the world’s best left backs, it’s hard not to like. The other will he/won’t he saga is the tempting switch to bring Thiago Alcântara in for Georginio Wijnaldum. The role of Wijnaldum has long been tricky to pin down, as it scarcely reveals itself via obvious numerical means, but his positioning, ball retention and discipline have clearly contributed plenty to the success of this team. He’s also reliably fit, which is something that can’t be said of Thiago. With a year on his contract and on the cusp of 30, Wijnaldum’s time may have passed, and Barcelona are rumoured to be interested. Thiago is one of the world’s best midfielders and appears to be looking for a pay day new challenge, and sure, he’s about the same age, but we’re not going to get Lionel Messi in the Premier League this summer, can we have him instead? However this little dance plays out, it would be preferable if one of these players was on Merseyside next season: Projection Once he’d raised then to the standard of title winners, Klopp got three more decent seasons out of Borussia Dortmund, before the team suffered in 2014-15. Even with key members of this team aging together, it still seems likely that the absolute core of this team has another couple of years before remedial work is required. As we’ve seen with Barcelona, the problem is when much of your core talent is 32 to 33 not 28 to 30. As it’s now 6 months since Liverpool have played a legitimate competitive and meaningful fixture, it has to be said: they will need to regroup, focus and start this season at the top of their game. This is Klopp’s real challenge this season. As they have achieved their immediate goals, he needs to maintain the focus that got them there to compete at the same level again. It would not be surprising if this team dropped back ten points, and were still excellent in the main. That felt like the most likely outcome last season too and they rose to the challenge with some aplomb. Sporting Index’s early lines peg them around here too, close enough to Manchester City (for whom excellent overall metrics will inevitably drive betting lines). But this Liverpool side the same team that got to two Champions League finals. The same team that landed back to back high-90 point totals. Predicting them outside the mix is not realistic. Every year that Klopp has been in charge it has appeared that they have learned a new technique to ensure that they can go longer and deeper into seasons (remember the bad Januarys?). Last season it felt like they had learned to manage their way out of games from advantageous positions, conserving energy for the inevitable hard grind of a tight schedule. This year the schedule will be tighter than ever, and this is a team that understands that consistency will take them furthest. If you turn up every gameweek and put up two expected goals to your opponent’s one, you will win a lot of matches. Liverpool have been more consistent than their rivals for most of two seasons. They just have to be so again.  


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