StatsBomb Data Case Studies: Pass Height And Pass Footedness

Having as much information as possible about how a pass is made has obvious utilities for both opposition and recruitment analysis. Going beyond the start and end location, knowing which foot and what height the pass is played at adds important context and creates a clearer picture of the game being played. To give you an idea of what’s possible with this information, we’re going to look at passing trends on both a team and player level in the ‘Big 5’ leagues.


On March 17th 2021, we will bring you the latest innovations to come out of StatsBomb at our free online event StatsBomb Evolve, including upgrades to our current dataset and the launch of our revolutionary new data product StatsBomb 360. In the build up, we’re looking at some of the unique data points that already make StatsBomb Data the clear best in the industry, and the obvious choice for smart clubs and analysts.


As well as collecting which foot a pass is played with, StatsBomb Data also has qualifiers for the height of pass. These are categorised as ‘High’ – above shoulder height, ‘Ground’ – passes in which the ball doesn’t leave the grass, and ‘Low’ – a pass that leaves the grass but below shoulder height. An easy place to start would be to compare which teams in the ‘Big 5’ could be considered “long ball” teams and which prefer to keep it on the deck. We can make stylistic comparisons at a team level but also a league level to see if there’s any discrepancies between each competition. Starting with the teams that prefer to keep it on the grass. No major surprises at the top here: Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City make up the top three for Ground pass volume on a per game basis. La Liga has the biggest spread of approaches in possession. You’d win no prizes for guessing Barcelona and Real Madrid would lead the way in this metric, but perhaps more surprising is that seven of the bottom 10 teams for Ground Passes per game in the ‘Big 5’ Leagues come from the Iberian Peninsula. The other three are, more predictably, from the Premier League, with Burnley, West Brom and Newcastle all appeasing the loud demands from the terraces to “stop messin’ abaaat wiv it”. Following that theme, we can also examine which teams like to launch it into the air and play over rather than through the opposition, by looking at the volume of High passes each team makes. Barcelona and PSG are seemingly completely averse to seeing the ball leave the grass, looking to find the feet of their teammates as often as possible, though Barcelona are able to complete their High passes at an impressive 52% clip, the highest rate in the Big 5, when they do dare to lift the ball above ankle height. Despite being a very strong team in their division, it’s perhaps not a surprise to see Liverpool rank 2nd in the Premier League for High pass volume given what we know about their propensity for switching play. Known laser-ball executor Trent Alexander-Arnold makes up 21% of all Liverpool’s High Pass attempts per game. If you’re susceptible to getting a stiff neck, you should probably avoid going to an Eibar game anytime soon, who continue their devotion to the “Launch and Squish” (©Daryl Morey) approach implemented by long-term managerial incumbent José Luis Mendilibar. Eibar play the ball long and then press up the pitch to compress the space, keeping the game away from their defensive territory as much as possible. Besides playing the most High passes of any team in the Big 5, Eibar also make a higher percentage of their pressures in the opposition half than any other team in La Liga. Launch. Then squish. Beyond the raw volumes, we can also look at the portion of a team’s passes that are played “Long” (High passes over a distance greater than 30m) or short (Ground passes over a distance lesser than 30m). Here we can see that perhaps it’s Osasuna instead of Eibar that deserve the title of being the most “long ball” team in Europe’s top tiers, with a full 1-in-7 of their passes being played high and long. Looking at footedness now, and bearing in mind the majority of football players are right-footed, it’s always interesting to know the left/right balance a team strikes when building their squad. It’s natural for a team to have at least one left-footed player – usually the left back – but elsewhere there’s normally a tactical adjustment to be made – usually an inverted winger – to compensate for the lack of balance in footedness within the side. These are the most right-footed teams in the Big 5, as measured by the percentage of their passes played by right feet: …and these are the most left-footed: So, Wolfsburg are the only team in the top European leagues that make more passes with their left feet than right. To better visualise this, we can compare the average pass locations of their players, as well as the footedness of those players, with those of the most right-footed team in the Big 5, AS Roma. It’s stark that even Roma left wingback Leonardo Spinazzola is predominantly right-footed, whereas Wolfsburg have a perfect balance between left and right footers, allowing wide players Renato Steffen and Josip Brekalo to swap wings with regularity, or rotate for Bote Baku on the right wing if the team needs a little more width. On a player level, being competent with both feet has obvious utilities in possession: predominantly it opens up way more angles for a pass, therefore making more passes available, which also enhances a player’s ability to play under pressure, knowing they can go either way around the opposition pressure. Here are the pass volumes by each foot of all players in the Big 5 with at least 900 minutes played and a minimum of 10 open play passes per 90. Notorious ambipede (is that a word? It is now) Ousmane Dembélé stands out, completing a high volume of passes with either foot. But he’s only the 5th-most two-footed player if we’re looking for an even split between left and right-footed passes. That title falls to Alavés midfielder Tomás Pina who, with 188 completed left-footed passes and 187 completed right-footed passes, just edges out Pedro Bigas (171-174) of Eibar for the title. It’s also worth noting that Torino, by accident or design, have three of the 15 most ambipedal players in the Big 5. And there you have it, a surface-level scratch at what can be possible with data that provides height and footedness of all passes played in each match. Come along to StatsBomb Evolve on March 17th if you want to find out how we’re adding even more context to passes, and a whole lot more.


Join us at StatsBomb Evolve on March 17th 2021 to discover how we’re going to change the football industry, including the launch of our new data product, StatsBomb 360. To find out more, click here.

StatsBomb Data Case Studies: Pressures

As football fans, we all know how exciting it can be to see a team close in on their opposition, hunting the ball as a ferocious collective, and seeing the composure visibly drain from the team in possession. We know what this looks like on the pitch, but what does it look like in the data? Time to investigate what contrasting out-of-possession approaches look like using StatsBomb’s pressure data.

 



On March 17th 2021, we will bring you the latest innovations to come out of StatsBomb at our free online event StatsBomb Evolve, including upgrades to our current dataset and the launch
of our revolutionary new data product StatsBomb 360. In the build up, we’re looking at some of the unique data points that already make StatsBomb Data the clear best in the industry, and the obvious choice for smart clubs and analysts.


 

Given the topic, it would be different-for-different-sake to ignore Leeds. Combining chaos and coordination, Marcelo Bielsa’s approach to defending without the ball has drawn admirers for many years for its aesthetic, intensity, and its utility.

In a season where teams across the world are looking to conserve energy just to survive the condensed fixture schedule, Leeds have barely taken their foot off the gas, continuing to press and engage the opposition all over the pitch. Wherever the ball is, Leeds are going after it.

We knew that adding pressure data to our data specification back in 2018 would introduce significant context that was previously missing when evaluating a team’s approach out of possession, allowing for a deeper level of analysis and a more complete picture of the game. For example, here’s Leeds’ defensive activity map this season, relative to the rest of the Premier League, without pressures included:

 

As you can see, it would suggest that Leeds are fairly active off the ball, but not significantly more than other teams in the league, particularly in the opposition half where they appear to be a shade above average.

Including pressures tells a different story.

 

 

Now we can see an accurate reflection of just how active Bielsa’s side are out of possession.

The intensity of their approach to getting the ball back is a major outlier in the Premier League. There are plenty of other pressing sides but none quite like this, both in terms of the volume of pressures they’re applying but also the sheer number of turnovers they’ve forced the opposition into as a consequence.

 

It’s quite literal to say that you barely get two seconds on the ball when playing Leeds. Nearly 1-in-3 of their opponents’ pass receipts are pressured, fouled, or tackled within two seconds of receiving the pass, as measured by their Aggression %.

 


You can imagine what it must be like as an opposition player when you barely get a moment to pick out a pass before a white shirt arrives, charging in to try and turn the ball over. And turn the ball over they do – Leeds’ opponents have the worst pass completion % in the Premier League.


The beauty of a well-executed press isn’t just in forcing the opposition away from your goal, though, it has attacking advantages as well. Leeds have the most High Press Shots in the league: shots generated within 5 seconds of a turnover of possession.


There are some drawbacks. Such a cavalier approach has led to Leeds being a slight outlier at the other end of the pitch. Inevitably the opposition have to come up with a method of beating or playing through such heavy pressure somehow, and it seems they’ve found most success on the break.

Committing so many bodies forward as both an attacking and defensive measure naturally leaves spaces to attack, and Leeds’ man-to-man approach out of possession leaves vulnerabilities should their player not win their 1v1. A combination of beating them on the dribble and then attacking the space seems to have been the most effective way of combating Bielsa’s press so far.

 

But, with the side comfortably midtable in their first season back in the top flight, it’s inarguable that Bielsaball is leading to net-positive results.

Taking a different approach to their work off the ball is Burnley and Sean Dyche.

The Clarets have earned a reputation for being one of the best-drilled sides in the Premier League and their game plan out of possession is without doubt the predominant reason they’ve been able to establish themselves in midtable. Burnley had the ninth-best defensive record last season by goals conceded, and the seventh-best by xG conceded.

Given their notoriety for favouring a low block 4-4-2, you might be wondering why they’re featuring in an article about pressing. The reason? It’s where they decide to apply pressure, and the effectiveness of the block as a whole, that’s most interesting.

 


Essentially, Burnley run a specific press based on where the ball is.

From opposition goal kicks, Burnley squeeze right up and put their two forwards on the opposition defensive line, hoping to force the long ball where they know James Tarkowski and Ben Mee can win the aerial ball.

 

The plan is to have squeezed the play so much that a Burnley player will get on the second ball from the aerial duel, or squeeze the opposition should they get on the possession. Burnley averaged 75 pressures in the opposition half per game in 2019/20, sixth-most in the Premier League, and as a percentage of their total pressures it ranked third.

 

It’s only once the opposition have advanced into their half that Burnley form their infamous block, keeping spaces tight between the lines and forcing the opposition to try and play around them, rather than through them.

The success of their block is highlighted by how difficult their opponents found it to get into their defensive territory. Despite their opponents having most of the ball – Burnley ranked 19th for possession % – their opponents were only able to progress into the final third with 39.6% of their possessions that started outside it, the 8th-best rate in the league. Thou shall have the ball, but thou shalt not enter their defensive territory.

 

 

Should the opponent succeed in reaching the final third, the Clarets excelled at preventing them from creating quality opportunities, often applying pressure to the shooter or reducing the area of goal the shot-taker was able to aim for to hamper the chances of scoring.

 

Two different approaches to out-of-possession, chaos and intensity versus immovable block, but Burnley and Leeds continue to succeed in their contrasting methods of press.

 



Join us at StatsBomb Evolve on March 17th 2021 to discover how we’re going to change the football industry, including the launch of our new data product, StatsBomb 360. To find out more, click here.

Bundesliga 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

Our final look at the major European leagues sees the German Bundesliga come under the spotlight. Talk of a Bavarian behemoth, a alliterative forward winning with Wolves, hard-pressing Hütter, and sorry Schalke 04. On the back of a Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, and UEFA Champions League treble, Bayern Munich continue to meet their lofty standards. On course for yet another 80+ points haul, the juggernaut continues to plough a furrow through the Bundesliga, but there are some curious trends in their performance levels this season. Bayern aren’t swatting teams aside with the ease and comfort that we’ve come to expect of them – their xG difference of 0.64 per game is their lowest since 2016/17. Their 15-game expected goals trendline since the start of the 2018/19 season illustrates the fact that they haven’t quite been at their imperious best so far this campaign. The 26 goals they’ve conceded already is only six shy of the 32 they gave up in the entirety of 2019/20. There was even a six-game spell between FC Köln on October 31st and Union Berlin on December 12th inclusive that Bayern didn’t “beat” their opponents on expected goals – in each of those six matches the opposition created the more dangerous opportunities. But FCB didn’t lose a single one, claiming three wins and three draws from their “wobble”. Since then, they’ve flexed their muscle and performances have improved in line with a commanding haul of 21 points from the next eight, a run that has seen them pull clear at the top. RB Leipzig are looking to go one better than last years third-place finish and their metrics look sufficiently strong to support them, but it’s below them where chaos starts to ensue: just three points separate Wolfsburg in third and Borussia Mönchengladbach in seventh. Wolfsburg, who had to win the Bundesliga relegation/promotion play-off match two seasons in a row between 2016-2018 just to stay in the league, are currently on course for their highest finish for six seasons and Champions League qualification. Big Wout Weghorst – to give him his full name – is having his best goalscoring season in the green of Die Wölfe. He’s behind only Robert Lewandowski for non-penalty goals with 11. At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Koen Casteels is on course to concede fewer goals than expectation for the fourth season running, with the best Shot Stopping % in the Bundesliga this season (Save % – xSave%). Another team gunning for a rare Champions League qualification is Eintracht Frankfurt, who haven’t qualified for the premier European competition since they lost the 1960 final to Real Madrid (when it was known as the European Cup). Right now, they’re in position to break that duck. You know what you’re going to get with an Adi Hütter side. The ex-RB Salzburg and Young Boys coach has again instilled an aggressive press into his team, one that’s proven effective as Frankfurt currently sit fourth in the table, having lost just two of their 19 games. No other side in the league engages the opposition as regularly as Frankfurt: their Aggression % – the portion of opponent’s ball receipts that are tackled, fouled, or pressured within two seconds – is the highest in the Bundesliga at 24%. Andre Silva, like Weghorst, is having his best Bundesliga season yet, but it’s supplier-in-chief Daichi Kamada who’s providing the chances for the Portuguese forward. Kamada, who top-scored himself for Frankfurt in 2019/20, is behind only Thomas Müller and Marco Reus for xG assisted from open play. Meanwhile, the irony will not be lost on long-term followers of football analytics discourse for the way that Lucien Favre lost his job at Borussia Dortmund, on the back of some pretty large underperformance on their expected goals. Favre’s teams were notorious for outscoring the performance metric, but this season it came unstuck and Dortmund currently languish in sixth place despite having the strongest expected goal difference this campaign. At 37.5 xG, which happens to be the same as Bayern’s, their chance creation in attack has been the best in the Bundesliga, but where Bayern have scored 51 non-penalty goals from their 37.5 xG, Dortmund have finished bang on expectation, scoring 37 times. They haven’t been able to match this in defence, conceding 25 non-penalty goals from 19.6 xG. Despite a strong start, going 5-0-1 in their first six games, the five games that followed cost Favre his position as Dortmund won just once. His last match was a heavy home defeat to VfB Stuttgart – there was no ambiguity over who deserved the result on that day. Speaking of VfB Stuttgart, they’re making an impressive mark on the league following promotion back to the Bundesliga in 2019/20. Previously assistant to Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim, Pellegrino Matarazzo was appointed to his first senior management role in December 2019 and led Stuttgart to 2nd place in the Bundesliga 2. Right now, Stuttgart have the fourth-best xG Difference but are behind expectation in both defence and attack, to have a goal difference of +6 from an expected goal difference of +9.5. At the bottom, Schalke 04’s sorry season has persisted despite two managerial changes already. David Wagner was politely asked to leave just two games into the 2020/21 campaign after back to back defeats continued an 18-match winless run, and the appointment of Germany under-18’s coach Manuel Baum did not have the desired effect. He was relieved of his duties after just 10 games. Now it’s Christian Gross who looks to dig something out of the Miners in his 33rd year of management. Nine points adrift and bottom of nearly every performance metric you can think of, it’ll be some turnaround if Gross can steer them to safety.


Join us at StatsBomb Evolve on March 17th 2021 to discover how we’re going to change the football industry, including the launch of our new data product, StatsBomb 360. To find out more, click here.

Premier League 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

The latest destination on our traverse around the Big 5 European Leagues sees us land in England. The Premier League pendulum could be swinging back across the North-West, it’s halcyon days if you wear claret-and-blue, whilst a couple of yo-yos appear to be unwinding at the bottom. It’s been four seasons since the top of the Premier League table has been this close after 22 games. There was a 25-point gap between 1st and 4th at this stage in 2019/20, it’s just seven points in this campaign. Both Liverpool and Manchester City have taken it in turns to race ahead of the pack in recent seasons – some title races have been processions as early as January – but, for now, things remain congested. With heavy recency bias, the current prevailing narrative is that Liverpool may well have ceded their title defence already. We all know how unrelentingly good they were last season (they were 21-1-0 at this stage) and maintaining those otherworldly standards was always going to be tricky – and that’s even before you factor in the injury to Virgil van Dijk (and Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip…) as well as the issues in negotiating a pandemic-condensed fixture list. It’ll raise eyebrows, but there’s virtually nothing between Liverpool’s metrics last season and this. Their attack is identical, creating 1.8 xG per 90 and, ok, shots have risen from 15.4 to 15.6, whilst their defensive metrics have also seen a slight improvement, knocking 9 shots per game down to 7.7, and xG conceded from 1.0 xG to 0.9 xG.   The metrics may be the same, but obviously the results are not. Why the big difference in outcomes? More detailed analysis on their title win can be found in their season preview by James Yorke, but it boils down to this. Liverpool were extremely good at taking the lead in games last season, scoring first in 16 consecutive wins between November and February, for example. Not only that, they were also very good at doubling their lead once they were ahead. And what happens when you’re 2-0 ahead? You stop attacking as much and your opponents start attacking you more. Your chance creation decreases, your opponents chance creation increases. This would’ve kept a ceiling on their metrics last season, and therefore those metrics may not actually be a true reflection of how good a team they really were. This season, they’ve spent far less time ahead and haven’t opened the scoring as regularly, meaning they’ve had to keep their foot on the accelerator more often and their opponents have sat back to try and soak up the pressure – conditions under which you’d expect the metrics to skew more in Liverpool’s favour. So, whilst season-to-season the numbers may look the same, they’re the product of very different game scenarios. Another factor is that Liverpool are scoring slightly behind expectation in both attack and defence in 2020/21. Turns out this team is from Planet Earth after all, despite their near-perfect showing last time out suggesting otherwise. For all that’s gone wrong at Liverpool, relatively speaking, let’s talk about what’s gone right at Manchester City. The pendulum swung away from City last season as they finished a distant second, but right now it’s looking like it might be their time again. City are top, with the best goal difference, a game in hand, and have just won nine games on the spin. Which means that their start to the season is already an imperceptible spec in the rear-view mirror. Just 12 points from their opening eight fixtures suggested City might fall short again, but that reaction now looks like it may’ve been premature, both with hindsight and when you consider they had to face Liverpool, Leicester, Spurs and Arsenal in a tricky set of opening fixtures.   A run of 11-2-0 from their next stretch has seen them muscle their way to the front.   What may’ve been underplayed is that this is a different Manchester City team to the relentlessly attacking one we’ve been accustomed to in recent years. Their insatiable desire for goals has been replaced by an insatiable hunger for clean sheets. They’re creating less in attack compared to previous seasons, but this is also the tightest they’ve been defensively in a long time. The trendline below shows the single-game xG values for each fixture and illustrates how consistent they’ve been at the back. They’ve conceded more than 1.0 xG on just one occasion.   They’re successfully limiting the number of shots their opponents are able to generate, but it’s mostly a very noticeable decline in the quality of chances that City are giving up that has driven this improvement – this is the lowest xG per shot conceded that City have recorded in four and a half seasons of StatsBomb data.   The title appears to be City’s to lose at this stage, but the red half of Manchester are very much in this race as well. Manchester United are 2nd in the league and are also top scorers with 46 goals. The entire United squad appear to have to magic finishing touch right now with the exception of Anthony Martial and, perhaps surprisingly, Mason Greenwood. Greenwood blazed his way to 10 goals from 3.6 xG last season, but it’s just 1 goal from 2.5 xG this. Fortunately, his teammates have taken on the mantle to leave United as a whole ahead of expectation. Bruno Fernandes has continued his excellent form since signing in January last year, serving up chances for the United attack with the regularity that Marcus Rashford serves half-term dinners. Fernandes has been the creative cog and link player between the midfield and attack that had been missing from the United side for years, and his performances have put him firmly in the conversation for the end-of-season player of the year award.   Leicester are third and at the speed they’re picking up points are rightly considered contenders, though they’re coming off less impressive metrics than their competition. Their expected goal difference is just above zero without penalties, but that comes with the caveat that they haven’t had to be as productive in open play due to their rate of winning spot-kicks, which at a 1-in-every-2-games rate is currently the highest in the Premier League and also the highest since the 2016/17 iteration of Leicester City. What Leicester do have in their favour, and the secondary explanation for their strong points tally despite the average metrics, is their record when taking the lead. The Foxes have gone in front 15 times in matches this season and conceded equalising goals on just two occasions. They’re at their best when ahead in games as seen in the positive-game-state shot maps below. They still create more than the opposition despite having a lead to hold onto. It’s also notable that six of their ten penalties have been won when they’re ahead, allowing them to settle nerves and secure victories. A collection of over and underachievers exist in the smörgåsbord between 5th-10th. Even now, ignoring pre-season expectations, if I asked you to put Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Spurs, and West Ham in order of where you think they lie in the xG difference table, I bet it wouldn’t be this: There’s also a deserved word to be said on Leeds too. People can’t seem to stop talking about Marcelo Bielsa’s side this season and it’s not hard to understand why: they’ve come up from the Championship, changed nothing, and the result is the fourth-best attack and the second-worst defence by xG. Leeds games are box office; their press like a 90-minute swarm of angry Yorkshire bees, with a regular flow of chances at both ends of the pitch. Leeds’ PPDA of 5.9 is a Premier League low in the last four seasons. Lastly, the bottom of the table where three teams find themselves cut adrift of the pack. Just three points separate Fulham, West Brom, and Sheffield United between 18th-20th, though that gap was larger before Sheffield United picked up three wins in their last five. There was talk of the Blades’ possibly becoming the Premier League’s worst ever side before that renaissance, but it’s newly-promoted West Brom who would be the strongest candidates for that dishonour on current showing, had they not already surpassed 2007/08 Derby County’s points tally. The Baggies currently have the worst xG difference per game and the worst xG conceded of the past four and a half seasons of StatsBomb data. And as the ancient football proverb goes: what yo’s up, must eventually yo down.


Join us at StatsBomb Evolve on March 17th 2021 to discover how we’re going to change the football industry, including the launch of our new data product, StatsBomb 360. To find out more, click here.

La Liga 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

We continue our tour through the major European leagues with a look at the season to date in La Liga, the most goal and shot shy of the big five leagues but one that nevertheless features some intriguing storylines, including a runaway leader, tactical adjustments and some standout individuals.

Atlético Madrid, Runaway Leaders

In the last 16 seasons, Atlético Madrid are the only side other than Barcelona and Real Madrid to have won La Liga, and they may just be on course to do so again. Diego Simeone’s side are 10 points clear at the top, and also have a game in hand over those two sides. Fifty points from 19 matches has them on course to equal the league’s highest-ever points total of 100 if they are able to maintain that rhythm. The likelihood is that they won’t. No side have overperformed their metrics to a greater extent than Atlético so far this season. They are running ahead of expectation at both ends of the pitch, but particularly so in attack, where they are around 13 goals ahead of their xG. It is almost the exact opposite to what happened to them last season, when all their forwards were underperforming their xG at this stage of the campaign. This time around, everyone is overperforming: Luis Suárez, Marcos Llorente, João Félix, Ángel Correa, even Yannick Carrasco. That is likely to even out a bit from hereon out, but Atlético can still count upon a goalkeeper who has consistently shown his value by overperforming his metrics. On both an outright and shot-volume-adjusted basis, Jan Oblak has been the league’s best shot stopper this season. Even if Atlético’s points accumulation rate does slow somewhat during the second half of the campaign, they probably have enough of a cushion to absorb that and still end up lifting the trophy. Barcelona seem to be finding their feet after a shaky start, at least in terms of results, under Ronald Koeman, and do have the best underlying numbers in the league… …but they would have to maintain an extremely strong pace to chase Atlético down from here. Real Madrid likewise have better metrics than the current leaders, but have struggled for consistency. The league looks to be Atlético’s to lose.

Pressing Matters

One of the most obvious changes upon Koeman’s arrival to the Barcelona bench was that they immediately began to contest possession less frequently, particularly high up the pitch. Whether by PPDA (Passes per Defensive Action) or Aggression (the percentage of opposition ball receipts that are contested within two seconds), they were one of most passive teams in the league through the first few months of the season. In fact, by the former measure, Barcelona were more passive than they’d been at any previous stage in our dataset, which extends back to 2004, in those first 10 or 11 matches under Koeman. But since then, there does seem to have been a shift towards a slightly more proactive setup, more in line with what we saw at times under Ernesto Valverde. Some of that could simply be due to the natural ebb and flow of the season. Barcelona had midweek Champions League engagements through much of the opening three months of the campaign, perhaps necessitating a less energy intensive approach. We’ll have to wait for a larger sample to see if this apparent shift holds through the remainder of the campaign. At the opposite end of the scale sit a Celta Vigo side who have become notably more proactive without the ball this season, and particularly so since Eduardo Coudet replaced Óscar García as head coach in November. They have pushed their defensive line up and are logging a higher Aggression percentage than any other side in the league.

Relentlessly Positive Ontiveros

Huesca have been in the bottom three since the seventh matchday, but things are so tight down there, with just four points spanning the bottom six, that they still have a decent chance of scrambling clear of the relegation zone. If they are to do so than Javi Ontiveros is likely to have a big role to play. Whether from the start or the bench, he is an intensely positive player who seems not to understand the idea of a backwards step. Whether on the pass or the carry, he is a relentless ball progressor… …and while his shooting locations bring to mind Spurs-era Andros Townsend… …he is such an entertaining watch that you can almost forgive him. Not only does he produce far more shots per 90 after carries of 10 metres or more (1.47) than any other player in the league, but he also leads it in nutmegs per 90 (ahead of Alberto Perea and Bryan Gil) and ranks in the top three for successful dribbles. Ontiveros is the guy to inject a bit of fun into your viewing of La Liga.

Additional tidbits
  • Nabil Fekir of Real Betis has taken more shots than any other player in the big five leagues this season without scoring: 53. He’s also only converted one of his three penalties.
  • One of the many advantages of the StatsBomb dataset is that we record the foot with which each pass is played. That allows us to see that for the second season in a row, Tomás Pina of Alavés is the most two-footed player in La Liga. Last season, he played an exact 50-50 split of passes with each foot. This time he’s slightly favoured the left in a 51-49 split. Pedro Bigas has consistently been one of the league’s most two-footed players through his time with Las Palmas and now Eibar, and he is again there at Pina’s side.

Join us at StatsBomb Evolve on March 17th 2021 to discover how we are revolutionising the football data industry (once again), including the launch of our new data product, StatsBomb 360.

Ligue 1 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

We go to France next in our mid-season reviews of the major European leagues, where the title race is far from the foregone conclusion it has been in recent seasons, and with some surprise packages providing entertaining support acts along the way.

Just once in the last eight seasons – Monaco in 2016/17 – has the Ligue 1 title not been won by PSG. The Parisian’s grip on French football has not just come in the form of league titles, it’s also been the processional inevitability and comprehensive margin of victory that observers have become all too used to in recent seasons.

Not this season. Mesdames et messieurs, we have ourselves a title race.

We’ll start with the holders. PSG began their title defence with defeats in the opening two rounds of the season, the first time they’d done so since 1984/85. A curtain-raising defeat to newly promoted Lens was still a shock despite several enforced absences due to positive Covid-19 tests or isolation, including the pair of Mbappé and Neymar. The following 1-0 loss to Marseille in Le Classique was the equivalent of using sandpaper to rub salt into the wound.

The subsequent eight-game winning streak, scoring 26 and conceding 1, that followed suggested on a surface-level that Les Rouge et Bleu were back on course and their period of plain sailing was to continue, but that wasn’t to be the case. Hints at a downturn in performance turned into nudges, and then nudges turned into sharp elbows to the ribs as the team’s attacking output drifted away. A run of three wins in seven games saw the end of Thomas Tuchel’s managerial reign.

 

 

Whilst their attack only cooled in more recent games, there had always been warning signs on the defensive end that all was not well, despite conceding the fewest goals in the league at the midway point. It’s thanks to a combination of poor finishing from their opponents as well as consistently good goalkeeping from Keylor Navas that PSG have so far retained the best goals against record in the league because by xG, they are far from the most watertight defensively, conceding chances worth 23.4 xG, only the seventh-best record in the division. This is where the most obvious improvements can be made for the incoming Mauricio Pochettino.

 

 

It’s the team at the top of the xG conceded ranking that also tops the league table as things stand. Lille have the lowest expected goals conceded and have indeed conceded only one more goal than PSG – a defensive record that has helped them to lose just two games in 22 this league season.

It’s a clichéd blend of youth and experience in the centre of defence providing the sturdy foundation for Lille’s title charge to sit on. The now 37-year-old José Fonte partners the highly-rated Sven Botman, freshly graduated from the Ajax academy, and both are screened by the busy Benjamin Andre in central midfield, who leads the league in tackles + interceptions.

 

 

It’s a highly effective partnership that Fonte and Botman share, with each excelling in different areas on the game – Botman providing the progressive outlet in buildup, playing the second-most passes from open play in Ligue Un, whilst Fonte sticks to putting his body on the line in front of goal, ranking joint-first in the league for blocks made per shot conceded. This willingness to keep the goalkeeper’s gloves clean at any cost has helped Lille to concede the joint-fewest Clear Shots in all of Ligue 1 – shots with just the goalkeeper between ball and goal – rarely allowing their opponents a straightforward view of the goal.

Organised in the defensive phase, they’re equally well-drilled in the defensive transition, running an effective counterpress high up the pitch to prevent the opposition from hurting them with space in behind, resulting in a league-low return for shots conceded on the counter attack.

2nd placed Lyon currently have the best underlying numbers in the league and lead the pack by expected goal difference. It’s mostly due to massively upgrading their attack that they’ve been able to push themselves into title contention: compared to last season, they’ve added 3.5 Shots per game to their output, and are also taking those shots from better locations, resulting in a 0.8 xG per game upgrade on their final third output.

 

 

Manager Rudi Garcia, a Ligue 1 title winner with Lille in 2010/11, took Lyon to the Champions League semi-finals in 2020 despite a 7th-placed finish in the league, and has managed to translate that European success into domestic form in this campaign.

Despite playing as the centre-forward, Memphis Depay has been the team’s leading creative outlet, laying on the chances for wide players Karl Toko Ekambi and Tino Kadewere rather than providing the main goal threat himself. Depay ranks second only to Ángel Di María for xG assisted per 90 in Ligue 1. Toko Ekambi and Kadewere are the willing recipients off the left and right flank respectively, with both having the second and third highest xG per 90 respectively in the league.

It isn’t just their cohesive and potent attack that’s giving Lyon a very credible chance at winning their first title since 2008 though, it’s the balance they’ve found between that and a very competent defence. Les Gones have the best xG per shot conceded and it’s largely down to allowing just six(!) shots within their six-yard box all season.

 

 

AS Monaco are well in the race as well, just six points behind leaders Lille, and their on-pitch process appears to back that up, having the third-best xG Difference in the league. Goalkeeping issues have held them back so far – Benjamin Lecomte had the worst Shot Stopping % (Save% – xSave %) in the division before breaking his hand, and replacement Vito Mannone fared almost equally poorly. The result is that Monaco have conceded 27 non-penalty goals from 18.8 xG, though it’s also only fair to point out that this has been counter-balanced by some overperformance on the attacking end. Their attack has been powered by a sizeable output from set plays with 14 goals a full six goals clear of the next best team in this phase. Centre backs Guillermo Maripán and Axel Diassi have netted seven goals between them up to now, with Maripán, at 0.44, currently enjoying a better goals per 90 rate than Neymar.

Elsewhere, there are two surprise packages sat in the top half – Metz and Lens. Metz finished 15th last season following promotion but are already sat on the same points tally they finished last season’s curtailed renewal with, on 34 points from 22 games this campaign. There’s been some overperformance at both ends of the pitch for Les Grenats, but there are also some clear signs they have improved on their 2019/20 showing. Their xG per shot against of 0.08 is only marginally bettered by Lyon and Lille, and they’re keeping this down by preventing their opponents from shooting from close range as often as possible – the average Shot Distance by their opponents of 18 metres is the second-furthest in the league.

 

 

Lens are interesting for two reasons: that they’re newly promoted and that their underlying numbers are actually legit – they have the sixth-best expected goal difference. Franck Haise’s side are running a highly effective defence and are one of the most disruptive sides in the league in their own defensive third, preventing their opponents from moving the ball close to their goal. Lens have conceded the second-fewest passes inside their own penalty area and second-fewest passes within 20m of their goal.

Their organised block stops the opposition from having any meaningful possession in areas that threaten their goal. Towards the bottom, Dijon find themselves 19th in the table despite having conceded the joint-ninth fewest goals with 31. How? Because they’ve scored just 15 times. Things could be even worse too, given the quite mysterious misfiring of their opponents in front of goal, whilst there’s nothing in fellow strugglers Nîmes underlying numbers to suggest they might pull off an equally dramatic escape.

 

There are genuine threats to PSG’s title defence this campaign and from multiple directions. Pochettino will need to have an immediate impact on his Parisians if they’re to retain yet another Ligue 1 victory.

 


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Serie A 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

We begin our round-up of the mid-season state of play in the major European leagues with a look at Italy’s Serie A, where a close title race, a plethora of goals and an unfortunate finishing run feature among the standout stories at this stage of the campaign.

The Tightest Title Race

Serie A could well be on course for one of the closest finishes of the modern era. Five or six teams have put together broadly similar results and underlying numbers to date, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if three or four of them finished the campaign within a couple of wins or less of one another. The two Milan sides have set the pace so far, but both Roma and nine-time defending champions Juventus are within reach, while Napoli, Atalanta and a Lazio side with less competitive metrics are only slightly further back. Inter look particularly strongly placed, with the second best metrics and a workable margin over both Juventus (with the best) and Roma (with the third best). Romelu Lukaku has been near unstoppable up front. Milan have carried their excellent form down the final stretch of last season into this, but there are a couple of things that may count against them during the second half of the campaign. Firstly, while they are performing pretty much exactly in line with their metrics, they are not as strong of those of their primary competitors. Secondly, Stefano Pioli’s side have benefited from far more than their fair share of penalties. They’ve won nearly three times and scored exactly twice as many as any other team. That is unlikely to hold. They’ve already been awarded six more penalties and scored two more than in the entirety of last season in a league that has actually seen slightly less penalties given this time around. The points are already on the board and this is still on course to be Milan’s best season since they finished third in 2012-13. Good recruitment work has created a squad capable of continuing this upward trend into the seasons to come. But they are arguably the most likely candidates to suffer a drop off in results from hereon out.

Lots of Goals

Serie A came flying out of the traps with an average of 3.75 goals, 3.44 non-penalty goals and 2.96 expected goals (xG) per match over the five first matchdays of the season. It was comfortably the highest-scoring of the big five leagues at that stage. That has inevitably settled down a little as the campaign has progressed and the sample size has increased. Both the underlying xG figures and the degree to which non-penalty goals are outrunning them have decreased… …but Serie A remains almost neck and neck with the Bundesliga as the highest scoring league by all three measures. That despite the fact that it is seeing an average of almost four less shots per match compared to last season, down from 28.15 then to 24.45 this time around. The mild increase in xG per match season-on-season has been driven by a clear increase in average shot quality, from 0.090 xG/shot last season up to 0.106 in 2020-21. That is reflected in the decrease in the average shot distance — down from 17.28 metres to 16.29. Every single one of the 17 teams who remained from last season are taking their shots closer to goal on average.

Udinese’s xG woes

No side have underperformed their metrics to a greater extent than Udinese. Luca Gotti’s side appear well-constructed, and in Rodrigo de Paul they have a player capable of running pretty much all aspects of their attack. They are a top-eight side by xG difference but due to an underperformance of comfortably more than half a goal per match, they instead find themselves down in 13th, some 10 points off that mark. That underperformance is evenly distributed between both ends of the pitch. They are just under six goals behind in attack. And have conceded just over six goals more than expectation in defence. A fair amount of that attacking underperformance would appear to fall on the shoulders of one man: Kevin Lasagna. He’s been layering on the xG, only for it all to fall apart in the oven. He’s getting on the end of plenty of throughballs — more, per 90, in fact, than anyone else in Serie A — and into other advantageous positions, but the finishing touch has too often eluded him. He has just two goals from 7.34 xG. Lasagna is not a perennial underperformer. He scored pretty much exactly in line with his xG last season, and was even a couple of goals ahead in 2018-19. He is probably just going through a very unfortunate run of finishing on a side who appear to be suffering a similar fate. Udinese are more than good enough to avoid relegation troubles, and if they start performing more in line with their metrics, they might even be able to salvage a top-half finish.

Additional tidbits
  • Genoa are the only side across the big five leagues to have used their entire complement of five substitutes in each and every match. That is even more remarkable given they’ve had two different coaches: Rolando Maran; then, from late December, Davide Ballardini.
  • Piotr Zielinski is the nutmeg king of Serie A. The Napoli midfielder has not only completed more nutmegs in total than anyone else (8), but is also the only player among those to have played more than 900 minutes to have performed a nutmeg more than once every two matches. Achraf Hakimi of Inter Milan is next up.

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