Last week, we highlighted the ‘Similar Player Search’ function within StatsBomb IQ and provided some examples of its utility. We also ran a special request line on our Twitter account. This week, we are going to look at a concrete example of a doppelgänger in practice: Adam Armstrong of Blackburn Rovers. Armstrong has begun the Championship season in fine fettle. Fourteen matches in, he not only leads the league with 13 goals (including three penalties) but his underlying numbers are also off the charts, quite literally in fact: A sum of 0.71 xG per 90 puts Armstrong in the 98th percentile for that metric and some distance ahead of anyone else in the Championship. Consistent minutes through the centre have also seen him begin to post up 99th percentile shot numbers. He doesn’t create much for teammates, doesn’t win many aerial duels and a high proportion of his touches are shots. In short, he profiles like a pure goalscorer. Add in a solid contribution to Blackburn’s pressing game — they are one of the most active teams in the Championship — and you have the sort of output that produces comparisons to some of the finest strikers in Europe when you run his numbers through our ‘Similar Player Search’ function. It remains to be seen whether Armstrong can maintain his early-season numbers over the full course of the campaign, but that is exalted company. There is, though, another statistical match just outside that top five that is particularly compelling, one that we’ll come back to once we’ve told the story of Armstrong’s winding path to a potentially breakthrough year — a story that illustrates that player development is rarely linear. On the opening day of the 2015-16 League One season, an 18-year-old Armstrong scored both goals for Coventry City in a 2-0 win over eventual league winners Wigan. One week later he would score two more in a win away to Millwall — another strong side who finished runners up in the playoffs. It was quite the statement. Nobody expected much from a kid on loan from Newcastle but the talent he possessed — the pace, the movement, the finishing — was immediately apparent. The goals at Millwall showcased his sheer audacity: a 36-yard lob over the keeper was followed by a delightful chipped finish after leaving a centre back in the dust.
Welcome back to the Süper Lig, the Wild East where Loïc Rémy is topping the scoring charts. And don’t even ask why there are 21 teams in the league and no relegation last season! Nine matches in, the holders are struggling, we have a surprise leader, and the traditional powers have had varied starts. Let’s take a look at what’s going on with help from the underlying numbers. Alanyaspor: the new surprise package When I last wrote about the Süper Lig here last season, Sivasspor were top of the league, but it always seemed unlikely they’d win the title, mainly because they were heavily overperforming their underlying numbers. And so it was, because they ended up finishing fourth. This time around, surprise leaders Alanyaspor’s place at the top of the table looks completely warranted. Their underlying numbers do suggest overperformance in relation to their goal difference (they scored 3.5 more and conceded 4.5 less, probably skewed by the 6-0 against Hatay), but they really have been the best team in the league so far. What makes them special? They are actually very good at pressing, which is rarer than you would think in the Süper Lig. It helped them to a statement win away at Galatasaray, forcing Oghenekaro Etebo into an early red card. But the really special thing is a different story — perhaps the best actual footballing story in Turkey for a good while. Alongside their debutant new manager Çağdaş Atan, who has spent the last five years as the assistant manager of Beşiktaş coach Sergen Yalçın, Alanyaspor hired Sassuolo’s 31-year-old goalkeeping coach Francesco Farioli as assistant manager. The Italian, who arrived from one of the most tactically astute teams in Europe, has absolutely transformed Alanyaspor’s Portuguese goalkeeper Marafona and the team’s buildup play along with it. Let’s take a look at Marafona’s open play passes this season. Marafona’s open play passing statistics, at 25 passes per 90 with 90.5% accuracy (versus 16 per 90 with 74% accuracy last season), are comparable to those of some of the top ball-playing goalkeepers in the world. Ederson posts 21 passes per 90 with 87%; Alisson, 23 passes per 90 with 84%. The Süper Lig’s most renowned ball-playing goalkeeper, and Turkey’s number one, Mert Günok makes 17 passes with 76% accuracy. Fenerbahçe: the set-piece kings Fenerbahçe look on par with Alanyaspor in terms of their xG difference and seem to warrant their place alongside them at the top, albeit with one more game played. That is, though, in part due to an extraordinary performance on set-pieces, and they have serious problems in open play which results haven’t yet fully reflected. To be fair, Fenerbahçe’s new coach Erol Bulut was dealt a luxurious but tough hand. Freshly arrived from Alanyaspor late summer to his first job at a big club, the 45-year-old was handed 16 new players to integrate in a season in which Fenerbahçe president Ali Koç is going all-in for the title. There is absolutely zero tolerance for any other outcome. Bulut is playing it safe and doing what he does best. His career to date has taken in successful spells at Yeni Malatyaspor and Alanyaspor, with both sides set up on strong defensive fundamentals and largely hitting opponents in transition rather than dominating games with intricate possession play. So far, Fenerbahçe boast the best defensive numbers in the league, at only 0.63 xG conceded per game. That is down from 1.14 last season, which clearly shows the huge progress he has made on the defensive side of things. They are showing good signs on the pressing front. However, although there has been gradual improvement, Fenerbahçe will have to produce more open play xG if they are to sustainably break down defences in this 40-game season. So far they are looking short of ideas other than crosses. How are Fenerbahçe at the top of the table with that attacking radar? Well, because at their current pace of 0.60 set-piece xG per game, they are on a 24-goal pace for the season. They have already scored five. Out of the 17 goals they notched in total, a further four have come from penalties (which is probably not sustainable), and only eight have been from open play (three of them via crosses). None of that is to undermine how important set-pieces are. It is an aspect of the game that is getting more and more attention, and Erol Bulut seems to be the top coach for it in Turkey. His Alanyaspor also had the best set-piece xG in the league last year with 0.44 per 90, level with Beşiktas, and he brought Beşiktaş’s set-piece taker Caner Erkin with him to Fenerbahçe. They are so far proving to be a power couple, but Fenerbahçe eventually have to improve their possession play and add other weapons to their arsenal if they want to win the league. Galatasaray: buildup issues appear resolved; they look like a contender In terms of underlying numbers, Galatasaray were by far the best team in the league in the second half of 2019-20, with 0.72 xG difference per game, far ahead of Beşiktaş in second with 0.39. Fatih Terim’s tactical changes played a key role in that. However, post-COVID-break injuries and results going against them meant that their season pretty much came apart by the end of June. Changes in the squad called for altered tactics going into 2020-21. Galatasaray came into the season with very low expectations after key loanee players Jean Michaël Seri, Mario Lemina and Henry Onyekuru departed, playmaking full-back Mariano left, and star goalkeeper Fernando Muslera went down injured. In fact, they were touted as a crisis club before a ball was even kicked. The only notable first team additions they were able to make were dynamic right-back Omar Elabdellaoui on a free from Olympiakos and midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo on loan from Stoke. Centre-back Christian Luyindama’s return from a long-term injury felt like a new signing, too. However, at least on the pitch, things are looking up for Galatasaray. Their xG difference of 0.75 per game is on par with their successful second half of last season, and not far behind Fenerbahçe and Alanyaspor. They began the season with two impressive wins against Gaziantep and holders Başakşehir, then went into a slump after Fenerbahçe coach Erol Bulut laid down a template for other coaches on how to press and stifle their buildup play in the 0-0 draw between the sides. Galatasaray went on to lose two in a row against two of the best pressing sides in the league in Kasımpaşa and Alanyaspor, before recording two unimpressive victories against Erzurumspor and Ankaragücü. Terim then made a slight tactical tweak for the Sivasspor and Kayserispor games that not many people in Turkey picked up, despite Arda Turan explaining it in his post-game interview after the away win at Sivas. He said that he was now being asked to roam between the lines rather than position himself wide, which contributed to him grabbing the winner and to the team functioning better in possession. From the more rigid 4-1-4-1 with which they started the season, with a 2-1 buildup, wingers positioned wide and number eights pushing high, Galatasaray’s 4-1-4-1 now looks very fluid in possession with plenty of options between the lines and in the halfspaces, another midfielder dropping to help buildup, and fullbacks pushing into much higher areas. Galatasaray played a hugely impressive 60 minutes against Sivasspor before dropping off late but edging it. They then produced a staggering 3.8 xG against Kayserispor despite the absence of five regular starters and were extremely unlucky to draw the game. Considering Galatasaray have got through three fixtures against their potential title rivals and that their the open play performance is trending up, there’s reason for optimism for Terim’s side. First half passing network is used Beşiktaş: a long season ahead for Sergen Yalçın Beşiktaş has the worst outlook among the big three of Istanbul. Like Galatasaray, they couldn’t stretch beyond loan signings and free transfers in the off-season, and it looks like their steady decline since the glorious 2017-18 season in which they reached in the last 16 of the Champions League will continue. Not much is going on tactically either, and it seems like some nous there was lost after former assistant manager Çağdaş Atan left for Alanyaspor, considering what a special job he’s doing there. One bright spot looks to be their Canadian forward Cyle Larin, who is consistently getting great chances and has five goals to his name so far, four of them while playing off the left. If he can improve his off-ball contribution, it looks like Beşiktaş have found themselves a functional wide forward with significant box presence. That’s potentially a good balance with new signing Rachid Ghezzal on the right, who is looking like the main creative outlet of the team. Başakşehir: title defense proving tricky, but underperforming their numbers Finally, Başakşehir. The holders took just a single point from their first four games, then notched up four straight wins before losing away to Beşiktaş this past weekend. What’s interesting is that their xG difference of 0.57 per game is better than last season’s title-winning 0.46. They combine a mid-table xG conceded sum of 1.10 with an attacking output of 1.68 xG per game that is better than last season and second only to Alanyaspor this time around. They have scored two less and conceded two more than their underlying numbers so far. It is hard to talk about Başakşehir without talking about Edin Višća. The epitome of consistency, he’s missed just two games in the league since the beginning of 2013-14. He contributed to last season’s title with 13 goals and 13 assists, overperforming both his xG and xG assisted metrics by about 2.5 each. He has started the new season with three goals and two assists, which is good, but his underlying performance suggests he is tailing off a bit, which would definitely be a worry for Başakşehir. It’s too early to draw conclusions, but so far Alanyaspor have been the best team in the league, followed closely by the Istanbul giants Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, who are both out of Europe and fully focused on winning the league. Başakşehir have the oldest squad, a Champions League campaign to contend with, and have already bled some points, but they are also strong enough to put together a title challenge considering there are still 31 games left to play. A four-horse race looks to be shaping up.
At StatsBomb, we are committed to providing our customers with the tools they need to succeed. Our analysis platform StatsBomb IQ is designed by and for football professionals, and includes a number of essential features for those working within the recruitment space. It will also soon count upon an upgraded scouting section that will take into account the feedback we’ve received from end users.
Among the tools currently in IQ is one that can act as a useful starting point for any scouting process: Similar Player Search.
The concept is simple: a player is selected as the subject of the search and the algorithm then produces a list of players with similar statistical profiles, ranked on a scale of 0-100, with 100 being an exact match. The subject could be a well-known player, a potential transfer target or even one of a team’s own players for whom they require a backup or future replacement.
There are various filters that can then be applied to more closely tailor the results to the requirements of the end user. These include:
- Minutes Played
- Competition: open selection or by region or tier grouping
It is also possible to adjust the importance assigned to each metric. For instance, if a team is looking for a player capable of replicating the passing and creative output of a league-leading attacking midfielder but are not as concerned about matching the defensive output of that player due to team play style or other factors, the former elements can be weighed more heavily in the similarity analysis.
The results can act as an ideal jumping-off point for a more involved scouting process, providing a list of names to investigate in further detail. StatsBomb Data covers 70 competitions and close to 50,000 players worldwide, so there is plenty of opportunity to come across some lesser known names. That is particularly valuable for teams operating on a tighter budget.
It is important to note that the simple fact of approximating the statistical output of another player doesn’t necessarily suggest similarities in ability, potential, physique or even always play style. Saying that a certain player matches the statistical output of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, just means that they produce a lot of shots, win a lot of aerial duels and are good at retaining possession. It says nothing of their other technical or physical attributes.
It is most convenient to think of the subject of the search as an avatar for a certain set of statistical outputs; a shortcut to a given profile of player.
For example, give me a player whose output looks like that of Sadio Mane:
Or maybe Alejandro Gómez:
Or even Toni Kroos:
The possibilities are endless. Keep an eye on our social channels for more examples under the hashtags #doppelganger and #similarplayers.
We are currently offering an extended 14 day free trial of our analysis platform StatsBomb IQ to potential clients. For more information, please contact: Sales@StatsBomb.com.
The StatsBomb Hub is dedicated to improving understanding of football data and analytics. We have lots of educational articles on our website, but we also offer in-depth courses crafted by industry leaders with extensive experience within the game.
We initially delivered our courses in person, but we now offer the same expertly designed courses online, enabling students to learn at home and at their own pace.
The courses are packed full of practical examples and use our award-winning analytics platform, StatsBomb IQ, to visualise the concepts contained therein.
Most of us are working and learning from home now, so if you have extra time on your hands, why not give one of our courses a try?
Introduction to Analytics for Football Professionals
Our first course is Introduction to Analytics for Football Professionals, led by our Director of Football James Yorke and CEO Ted Knutson. It provides a solid foundation in football analytics at an introductory level.
A version of this course is also available in Castellano/Spanish, led by Pablo P.Rodríguez, Head of Tactical Innovation at StatsBomb: https://cursos.statsbomb.com/courses/introduccion.
What are people saying about it?
“I probably can’t overstate how much I learned from this course. Not only from the amount of detailed material covered but, perhaps more importantly, how it got me thinking more about the possible usage and ways of using analytical football data.”
“A good place to start if you’re new to football analytics, but also useful if you’re already familiar with some of the concepts. Definitely worth the money.”
“This course increased my appetite to learn more about data analytics in football and is a great way to get started!”
What does it cover?
- Expected Goals (xG)
- Types of Attack
- Set Pieces
- Defensive Choices
- Team/Opposition Analysis
Who is it for?
The introduction course is designed to be accessible to everyone and teaches you the basics of data analytics in football. You don’t need to work in professional football or have advanced statistical knowledge. A basic understanding of football and statistics is useful.
Modern Scouting and Data-Driven Recruitment
Our latest course is Modern Scouting and Data-Driven Recruitment, led by our Director of Football James Yorke. It discusses how integrating data and traditional scouting can help a team make better recruitment decisions.
What are people saying about it?
“Every football team that is starting to use data or is not sure if they use it correctly should take the time to gather all the scouts, analysts and coaches, sit together, watch the course, discuss it and plan their approach to using data. Lots of great knowledge share, interesting stories. James is a really good teacher and it’s easy to follow his thoughts.”
“Money well spent! I’m really glad, I took on this course and had the opportunity to improve my personal insights on how data can help with scouting and player recruitment.”
What does it cover?
- Team Analysis
- Squad Building
- Player Analysis – Strikers
- Players Analysis – Centre Backs
- Scouting Integration and Bias
- Scouting Workflow
- Advanced Data Integration
- Player Evaluation
- A bonus lesson from CEO Ted Knutson
Who is it for?
The course is aimed at anybody who is interested in modern recruitment techniques. It covers all aspects of the process with a focus on data and scouting.
Both of these online courses can be found on The Hub. Look out for more in 2022.
If you work for a professional club, company or university, please contact us about the opportunity to purchase bulk course access or payment via invoice.