Watford: Season Preview 2021/22

Relegation in 2019/20 ended Watford’s five-year stay in the Premier League, but they yo-yoed at the first attempt to regain their place in the top tier, finishing Championship runners-up in 2020/21. They came into the new season with plenty of optimism. Vladimir Ivić was a somewhat left-field appointment to lead Operation Bounce Back, but he did have trophies from stints in Greece and Israel on his CV. He also had what some pundits believed to be the strongest squad in the Championship, having retained the likes of Will Hughes and Ismaïla Sarr to terrorise second-tier defences. Watford’s start to their promotion push was ~fine. Nothing more, nothing less. They won games – nine of their first 20 – and positioned themselves in the promotion pack heading into Christmas. But both board and fanbase were becoming increasingly twitchy with performances, and the sense that Ivić wasn’t getting the most out of the players available to him continued to grow with every grinding – and, frankly, boring – game. Just 1.9 goals per game were scored in Watford matches under Ivić. Approaching the halfway point in the season, the underlying numbers pegged them as the 7th best team in the league, and that was enough for the Watford senior management — not known for their patience with managers — to cut ties with the Serbian. Ivić was sacked after 20 games with the team 5th in the table. Their chosen replacement for Ivić was even further out of left-field. So far left that it could’ve been right. And so it came to be, eventually. Xisco Muñoz joined from Georgian powerhouses Dinamo Tbilisi — yes, Dinamo Tbilisi — after taking just 11 games as a manager — yes, just 11 games — to kickstart their stuttering promotion campaign. To the layman, it seemed a risky appointment with so much at stake, and initial performances didn’t encourage. Results remained ~fine, taking 14 points from their first eight under Muñoz, but short of the standard required to close the gap on the automatic promotion places. The eighth game of Muñoz’s tenure, a 0-0 draw away at Coventry City, was the catalyst for the run that eventually took them back up. A turgid performance lacking any invention prompted senior players, feeling their chances of an immediate return to the Premier League slipping away, to insist that the team took a more front-foot approach going forwards. The results were instant. Muñoz switched the team from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 shape, and Bristol City were put to the sword. They never looked back. Watford became a relentless winning machine, taking maximum points in 14 of their remaining 18 fixtures to seal promotion. Their defensive record was critical to the promotion, something that should stand them in good stead this season. Ivić laid the foundations, but Muñoz improved the team as a whole, taking the handbrake off and allowing the players to express themselves while retaining their defensive solidity, even improving in this aspect. From the time Muñoz was appointed, Watford conceded just 15 goals and ~20 expected goals, both league-best rates over the 26-game period in which the Spaniard was in charge. The main driver of their exemplary defensive record was their ability to shut down the quality of chances created against them. Watford conceded 10.6 shots per game under Muñoz – 9th-best in the league in his tenure – but their xG per shot conceded was just 0.07, far and away the stingiest in the league. It became very difficult to create good chances against this team. A lot of this can be attributed to their defensive organisation and determination to reduce the sight of goal available to the opposition forward. When the opposition created footed shots in the box, Watford had an average of 3.8 defenders positioned deeper than the shot location, suggesting they effectively slowed the opponent attacks down enough to set themselves in a good defensive position. Consequently, this meant that Watford could get a defender between the shooter and goal more often than not, averaging 1.1 defenders between the ball and goalkeeper – something that would greatly reduce the quality of the opening. Footed shots in the box are the holy grail of chance creation, but not if a defender is blocking your way. The broken finger suffered by goalkeeper Ben Foster, one of few players in credit after the opening half of the season, in January could’ve been a blow to their promotion push, but replacement Daniel Bachmann rose to the challenge to make it a seamless transition. The data over Bachmann’s time in goal reflects his solid performance as Foster’s replacement and the solid performance of the defense as a whole. As a benchmark, Foster faced 2.5 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.70 per game, whereas Bachmann faced 1.9 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.43 per game. That is to say, the quality of shots on target that Watford’s opponents were generating were worth just ~4 goals every ten games once Bachmann took his place in net. Both keepers saved goals above expected based on the post-shot xG faced, but it’s clear that Bachmann’s time in goal was a freak outlier thanks to the protection afforded to him by the defence. Personnel & Transfers Retaining Ismaïla Sarr will be objective #1 for the Watford hierarchy this summer; to their relief there doesn’t seem to be any major interest in his services. Sarr’s contribution in the final third and penalty box was crucial to the Hornets’ promotion as he demonstrated that he was far too good for the Championship, predictably so, having been a more-than-capable Premier League performer in 2019/20. Sarr’s 17 goals + assists were five more than the next best in the Watford squad, and his ball carrying was a constant thorn in the opposition side. His quality in carrying the ball was evident in our possession value model — On-Ball Value (OBV) — numbers from last season. OBV estimates the extent to which an action improves a team’s expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Sarr’s OBV/90 was the sixth-highest of all Championship players with >1200 minutes played last season, and his OBV/90 from carries was fourth highest. There are some concerns over the future of midfielders Will Hughes (2,118 minutes) and Nathaniel Chalobah (2,816 minutes), with both entering the last years of their contracts and reportedly exploring options elsewhere before committing. But central midfield reinforcements are already in place: Imrân Louza joins after some steady Ligue 1 performances for Nantes over the last couple of seasons, while Jan Kucka comes in from Parma as an experienced Serie A campaigner. A third midfield signing will be most familiar to English audiences. Peter Etebo’s name may ring a bell after a short stint at Stoke City that never really got going due to several managerial changes in the season he arrived at the club. A loan spell at Galatasaray in 2020/21 showed glimpses of what Etebo can offer as a defensive midfield enforcer, but the Nigerian is also capable of filling in as a shuttling midfielder with the ability to contribute between both boxes. Wide-attacker Emmanuel Dennis could be another one that people have a faint recollection of, having scored twice in the Champions League against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in 2019 while with Club Brugge. Dennis has played at right wingback, right-wing, and striker over the last three seasons, so provides versatility, but he struggled in the Bundesliga while on loan at FC Köln in the second half of the campaign, making just nine appearances over 495 minutes as Köln narrowly avoided relegation. It remains to be seen whether Dennis will be an automatic starter or a squad option at Watford, but his data over previous seasons suggest a capable dribbler with a knack of getting in behind the defence and onto the end of throughballs, qualities that would be welcome if they can add some goals to Watford’s survival bid. Josh King and Danny Rose bring Premier League experience to the dressing room. Projection After stabilising in the Premier League, the quality of Watford’s playing squad gradually declined and was a large factor in their relegation. Being objective, the current roster does not appear much better than the one that went down in 2019/20, but if they can continue good defensive habits built under Vladimir Ivić and improved by Xisco Muñoz, perhaps the Hornets can grind matches enough to stay in contention, relying on the likes of Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro to provide the goals at the other end to give them a chance of staying up. Given they finished 2nd in the Championship, it’s noteworthy that the betting markets rate Watford as the side least likely to stay in the Premier League, benchmarking them for a ~34 point season and 20th place. It’s perhaps understandable given there are still question marks over Muñoz’s managerial ability despite promotion; he improved the side, yes, but it was a side that was underperforming given their talent level before he arrived. Muñoz simply raised them to their par. Has he got the quality to give them an edge in a season that their squad looks one of the weakest in the league? We’ll soon find out.


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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

Southampton: Season Preview 2021/22

If you’ll forgive the tired cliché, the only apt phrase to describe Southampton in 2020/21 is that of Jekyll and Hyde. One Southampton side made a 7-2-3 start to the season, lifting them into the Champions League places with a return of 23 points from 12 games. The other returned just 20 points in their remaining 26 games. Relegation form for two-thirds of the season puts a bit of scrutiny on Ralph Hasenhüttl’s reign at the club, but it’s necessary to dig a bit deeper to try and establish why they were so bad in the second half of the season, and whether there’s any reason to give Hasenhüttl and Southampton the benefit of the doubt coming into the 2021/22 campaign. The first place to look, as always, is in the expected goals (xG) numbers. And therein lies a lot of the story. Southampton’s performances in the first 12 games were ~fine, but there were clear signs that they’d made a start that was too hot for them to handle. They scored at double their expected goals in that period, plundering 22 non-penalty goals from 11.7 expected. The goals were coming from everywhere; Danny Ings and Che Adams had four each; James Ward-Prowse had already converted three direct free-kicks; Jannik Vestergaard had towered three headed goals from set plays. It was halcyon days on the south coast, but the warning signs were there that they might not last. That came to pass in an extreme way. From games 13-38, their hot finished deserted them; not only did they not convert their chances at a level close to their expected rate, but they actually undershot their 25.6 xG created by ~six goals. It was even worse at the back, where they conceded 45 goals from ~34 expected. Combined, Southampton finished ~17 goals behind expectation in the latter two-thirds of the season, an underperformance of 0.65 goals per game. You live by the sword; you die by the sword. The clinical edge that the Saints wielded in the opening fixtures was turned back on them. All of a sudden, it was the opposition who enjoyed the finishing streak. Unfortunately, a lot of the blame on the defensive end has to fall on Alex McCarthy’s shoulders. The goalkeeper enjoyed a solid shot-stopping season in 2019/20—second only to Hugo Lloris in our shot-stopping metric, based on the quality of shots faced—but completely regressed in 2020/21, putting in the worst season by that measure for goalkeepers with >1200 minutes played. He seemed to develop a real weakness for shots to his right-hand side in particular. We saw top-four results in the first third of the season, bottom-four results in the latter two-thirds. Southampton were neither as good as their early results suggested, nor as bad as the latter results implied. Taking the season as a whole, the likely reality is that Southampton’s true level is somewhere in the middle of the two. There were still hallmarks of Hasenhüttl’s high-octane style in Southampton’s play. They remained one of the most aggressive sides in the league out of possession—ranking 2nd in the league on the Aggression % metric, with 25% of opponent pass receipts being pressed, tackled, or fouled within 2 seconds, and they also made the 2nd-most defensive regains that occurred after a counterpressure. Southampton remained an awkward opponent to play against, engaging the press from the front, blowing attacks up in the middle third, and maintaining the intensity of that approach when the opposition reached their defensive territory. An interesting quirk in the context of their defensive scheme was that Saints started to defend deeper and deeper as results continued to nosedive. They seemed to withdraw inside themselves, perhaps due to waning confidence or a tactical shift to try and bunker down and ride out the rough period. After the first ten games of the season, the average height of Southampton’s defensive actions was 44.6 metres from their goal; by the end of the season it was 40.7 metres. Even though they were dropping deeper, the same aggressive pressing principles remained; Southampton just started allowing the opposition to come onto them a bit more before they engaged with them. Only 43% of their pressures –of which there were many– came in the attacking half of the pitch. That, coupled with their own deficiencies in possession, meant that goalmouth action was hard to come by at St. Mary’s: there were just 77 final third entries per game in matches involving Southampton, the fewest in the league. The trouble was, when the opposition did break through into Southampton territory, they tended to cause some damage. Southampton only conceded 11.1 shots per game – the 8th-best record in the division – but the shots they did concede tended to be from close range and of high quality: their shots conceded came from 15.6 metres out on average (19th in the league), and the xG per shot of those shots was 0.12 (17th in the league). The opposite was true at the attacking end; their average shot came 17.1 metres from goal (18th in the league) and the average xG value of those shots was 0.09 (15th in the league). One area they did excel in was from set-plays, armed with one of the very few dead-ball specialists in the game at the minute. James Ward-Prowse put numerous deliveries on a plate for his teammates, creating 39 shots on goal from set-pieces, a total surpassed only by Mason Mount, but registering six set-piece assists, tied 1st in the league with West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell. The data confirms Ward-Prowse’s world class dead-ball ability. He’s scored ten direct free-kicks from 4.4 xG and 72 shots over the last six seasons, a scoring rate that means it’s possible he genuinely might be an even better free-kick taker than Lionel Messi—Messi has 39 goals from 423 direct free-kicks across his entire La Liga shaking out at a 9% conversion rate, a clip that pales in comparison to Ward-Prowse’s 14%. Personnel & Transfers Let’s move onto the transfer window and the state of the current squad. Southampton Chief Executive Martin Semmens said this in May: “We have to invest this summer, and we will within our limits by buying young players who allow us to compete in the future. We will spend in the summer, and we already are well into the process of doing it.” The good news is that Southampton are delivering on the promise of signing younger players. The bad news is that they sold star striker Danny Ings. But is it bad news? Southampton received £30m from Aston Villa for a 29-year old in the last year of his contract and who had just had a quieter-than-usual season in 2020/21. It’s plenty of cash to potentially reinvest in a younger striking partner for Che Adams, whose scoring contribution of 14 matched Ings’ total for the season. The top target is rumoured to be another striker ready to graduate from the Championship in the same way Adams did back in 2019. Blackburn’s Adam Armstrong is the name, coincidentally a player we flagged back in November last year as a potential replacement for Ings at Southampton. Armstrong took by far the most shots per game in the Championship last season with 4.4 per 90, an astronomical rate and double the rate Ings managed at Saints. He fits the profile of a busy, high-usage forward who can get on the end of (and convert) the majority of chances a team creates while also being a tick in the “get younger” box. Armstrong’s capable of scoring from anywhere; letting fly from range, running in behind to receive throughballs, or poaching between the goalposts. His 0.12 xG per shot in 2020/21 was identical to the rate Ings put up. The other notable trade made at the time of writing is that of Ryan Bertrand’s departure to Leicester and his subsequent replacement by Romain Perraud from Stade Brestois. As per Semmens’ transfer window remit, Perraud comes in as a 23-year-old to replace the 32-year-old Bertrand with what appears to be a similar playing profile to his predecessor. Perraud provided seven assists from left-back last season, more than any other full-back in Ligue 1. Projection Southampton feel like a bit of an unknown ahead of this season. The squad’s about to undergo another transition: the departures of Ings and Bertrand are already confirmed, James Ward-Prowse and giant centre-back Jannik Vestergaard are also linked with potential moves away. That and the downward spiral in the latter half of last season has dampened faith in the Saints, and the betting markets have reduced their confidence in them accordingly, pegging them as a ~42 points team, one shy of the disappointing 43 point tally they ended 2020/21 with. The underlying numbers give cause for encouragement that they should at least match last year’s points total and keep the relegation scrap at arm’s length. In the bigger picture, a summer of squad turnover and regeneration towards younger players with less Premier League experience is designed to be a long-term blessing, but it could be a short-term curse if the incomings are unable to adapt straight away. But that said, Hasenhüttl’s style does lend itself towards youthful exuberance, and the new blood could be the refresh that the Southampton squad needs. It’s hard to see Southampton springing a surprise on the division, but they’ll be looking to take a step forward in their ambition to rise back up the Premier League table again.  


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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

Tottenham Hotspur: Season Preview 2021/22

It’s the end of an era over at Tottenham, but which era? When Mauricio Pochettino left the club in November 2019, a Champions League final was fresh in the memory yet team metrics had declined precipitously. A week before he left he commented thus:

“We are in the process to [re]build and we will see if we have the time to build what we want”

With a team largely powered by a core of players remaining from Pochettino’s era, a season and a half of Jose Mourinho followed. Talks of rebuilding continued to surround the team but despite vigorous work in the 2020 transfer window, the innate core of the team remained similar to before, and results and metrics continued to plateau. When Mourinho himself was jettisoned in April 2021, it came as no real surprise. In particular, Tottenham waned against the better teams in the league, and a 4-3-9 WDL record against teams in the top half under Mourinho in 2020-21 simply didn’t cut it. When your entire schtick as a manager is that you’re a winner, you really need to win games at a faster clip than that. Now Mourinho certainly chose a reactive style of play but we can see here that he failed to fundamentally improve the team’s metrics to even the level of Pochettino’s declined 2018-19 outfit: With Mourinho’s departure entirely justifiable, an extended recruitment process eventually landed on Nuno Espírito Santo, fresh away from Wolves after a tough season saw them part ways. What Espírito Santo will bring to the team is somewhat open to interpretation; his Wolves teams often played with apparent caution in a 3-5-2 and he had a small squad. Tottenham also saw time with three centre backs during Mourinho’s time, and played in a similarly reactive style, but are awash with talented attackers, to the extent that it seems feasible that Espírito Santo may deploy a more offensively charged system, much as he has in former jobs. Indeed, pre-season has seen more of a 4-3-3. But who will form the core of the team? That question is harder to answer and the arrival of Juventus’ former Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici has accelerated early summer transfer activity both in and out of the club; one thing is for sure now: it is rebuild time. The good news is that two of the team’s main attacking stars appear likely to be retained for 2021-22 albeit under slightly different circumstances. Son Heung-Min had another great season and recently signed a new four year contract. His shot map shows quite clearly what Mourinho tried to get from him: open shots off throughballs, and he exceeded his expected goals by a decent margin for the fifth straight season: There’s an interesting question around Son’s new contract–he’s 29 years old, somewhat of a speed merchant and signed up until he’s 33. The next four years may not be his best four years, but his elite finishing ability may keep him as a significant net plus contributor ahead of what may normally be expected from a player with his style. Balancing these decisions is never easy–see Liverpool’s trio of late-peak forwards as a case in point–but at the very top of the sport, I suspect a player as an asset to the team persists longer than general age curve work suggests. Similar comments could apply to Harry Kane, who has never been a speed guy, but has always been a plus finisher. However, there’s enough noise in the room to suggest that Kane is more inclined to finish his footballing days outside of North London than within, albeit his contract situation (3 more years), likely asking price (a lot) and Manchester City already dumping £100m on Jack Grealish all look like reasons that may preclude his departure, at least this summer. That said, those of us who recall the departure of Gareth Bale back in 2013 will not be wagering on any specific outcome. The big analytics story on Kane is that in 2020-21, he was very much back and there will always be the suspicion that the enforced pandemic break was the best thing that could happen to him. Prior to that a series of injuries and quick returns had apparently derailed his overall effectiveness and seen his underlying metrics drop off, albeit without the goals ever really disappearing.   Mourinho certainly set up teams to get the best out of Kane, and 2020-21 saw his highest shots per 90 (3.6), xG per 90 (0.48) rates since 2017-18 and the added boost of high volume creation, in particular towards forward partner Son. From a metric perspective, it’s fascinating to note that essentially what Kane is doing on the pitch is broadly the same as before–apart from the key aspects of well, shooting and creating shots. Back when he declined from nearly five shots per game in 2017-18 to around half that in early 2019-20, I attempted to investigate what he was doing differently and found scant evidence outside the shot decline, his average touch was slightly deeper, but little more. It seems that Kane is resilient enough to endeavour to play a similar game to that which he has found great success with, but how or if a manager uses him as a focal point within the team may well define outcomes. Mourinho recognised that and built a team to get the best from Kane, and he got that. Did other players suffer by way of comparison? Perhaps? Either way, this season will be informative once more. The under-the-radar story for this team is the second departure of Gareth Bale. In a fitful season, when he was on the pitch (around one third of available minutes) he was lights out good. He scored eleven goals at around double his xG, added a couple of assists and was the only player in the league with above one goal contribution per 90. For shot contribution, only Kevin De Bruyne (6.7) and Bruno Fernandes (5.5) exceeded his 5.2 per 90. He also ranked second in the division behind Grealish in our OBV/90 metric. Any way you slice the Bale pie, it came up tasty. Sure he wasn’t a key starter and in the aggregate trailed Kane and Son, but having this kind of weapon as a bench option will be missed. Personnel So far the rebuild has been as follows: 1. New goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, initially on loan from Atalanta. This makes some sense, as Joe Hart was the back-up to Hugo Lloris and with Lloris entering the last year of his contract, a degree of succession would be logical, possibly Gollini represents that. 2. Left footed left winger 20 year old Bryan Gil swapped for a chunk of cash plus club legend Erik Lamela with Sevilla. Lamela at 29 was good to go, and this kind of one for one “past out, future in” equation is nice and tidy from a squad management perspective. Dissecting a stats case for Gil is curious as playing for a stylistically distinct and struggling Eibar team in 2020-21 wasn’t the passport to ballooning metrics as we can see here: Okay, so what’s the story here? Much of what we see here grades out at around league average, and the combination of team style and his age enables us to be perhaps more positive than may seem at first glance. If you’re 20 years old and clocking league average metrics, the prospect of what you can do down the line is pretty positive. People who watch football, which couldn’t be me, also appeared happy with this deal. 3. Probably Cristian Romero No Tottenham fan is likely to complain about defensive reinforcements and the departure of Toby Alderweireld makes that a pertinent detail. Given how readily media talk around moves has turned into reality this summer, it very much appears that the Argentinian international centre back Cristian Romero is likely to arrive shortly from Atalanta via Juventus. Fresh from being crowned Serie A Defender of the Year and a Copa America triumph with his national team, it’s easy to see why Romero is coveted and could attract a large fee. A twin effect jumps out from our metrics: during both his time at Atalanta and Genoa he has recorded extremely high pressure volumes and extremely high foul volumes. The centre back archetype in the modern Premier League is somewhat opposite to this, for example Virgil van Dijk pressures and fouls infrequently, and it’s a logical detail. If you enact pressure, you may well get beaten and leave space behind and be forced to foul. Atalanta routinely play high up the pitch and need robust and active defenders, Genoa in 2019-20 less so, but Romero was notably active in both teams. How Romero slots into Espírito Santo’s presumably more cautious set-ups and how active he is will be a story to follow, as the handful of Argentinian Copa America games are less conclusive here. What else occurs personnel wise is hard to know. At Juventus Paratici frequently oversaw large scale squad turnover on a season to season basis, and having already sold Alderweireld to Al-Duhail in Qatar (as a natural replacement for Mehdi Benatia who he sold there in 2018 from Juventus), it’s clear he is well capable of finding clubs where others may not. However should Romero follow Gil in though the door, that would be around £75m invested in the squad, and it’s hard to see the club allocating significantly more resources for player purchases without some balancing of the books. We shall see. Projection In 2016-17 Tottenham finished second, the following year they finished third, then fourth, then sixth and in 2020-21 seventh. With Leicester apparently well in the mix for top four places these days, the big six appear to have either shrunk to four (Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd) or extended out to seven (add in Arsenal). Either way, Tottenham’s desire is to be firmly in the mix with the smaller group, and the Mourinho experiment did not slow a decline that was straightforward to forecast via metrics even as they finished fourth in 2018-19. As such, bookmaker predictions have them in that second tier alongside Leicester and Arsenal and an estimation of around 60 points doesn’t deviate far from either of the last two season totals (59, 62). None of this is easy to counter in either direction. The squad remains fairly deep and talented while appearing to lack some of the cohesion and clear ethos that we see from the league’s best sides. Last season’s top four will be a hard nut to crack for all teams this year and a deal of hope has to surround further recruits and whether Espírito Santo can take a more talented squad than he had at Wolves (two seventh placed finishes) and land them higher up the table. Fifth to seventh remains by far the most likely outcome and anything over 65 points would represent a step in the right direction. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor just one transfer window.


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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

What To Expect From Our StatsBomb Live Launch Event

StatsBomb is one week away from launching the next stage of our football analytics offering. Join us on Thursday 12th August for an exclusive glimpse into StatsBomb Live. 

StatsBomb Live is our new live data product that brings you StatsBomb data in real-time. This free online event will delve into the engineering and design behind the latest StatsBomb product. We will showcase how our team has once again displayed the same commitment to accuracy and quality as displayed in StatsBomb data and IQ.  Attendees will receive a first-hand insight into the key features of StatsBomb Live and how it will benefit teams, betting organisations and media companies across the football industry.  

What to expect:

  • Sneak peeks as to how StatsBomb Live clients will be able to access, analyse and visualise the live data in real-time
  • Exclusive insight into how StatsBomb Live was designed and created, keeping customer feedback central to decision-making processes
  • Meet the team who brought the StatsBomb Live product to life and hear about how they tackled the challenge of balancing speed with quality in a real-time environment

Charlotte Randall, StatsBomb’s Co-Founder and COO, will be hosting the event. You’ll hear from her and other key members of the Live team throughout the launch. We will also follow the event by responding to any questions you may have for the StatsBomb team or about our latest product.

Key event details:

  • Date: Thursday 12th August 2021
  • Time: 2:00 p.m (BST)
  • Duration: 1 hour 
  • Cost: Free
  • Event registration: Open

Online registration

If you want to see how
StatsBomb Live will change the live data market, make sure you register for our event! You can secure your spot here. As part of your online registration, you’ll also have access to a recording of the webcast after the event. 

Our event is open to everyone and is completely free to attend. Just fill in the online registration form, and then let your countdown to the launch event begin!

With one week to go, the Live team is looking forward to welcoming you, but if you can’t wait to book in your free StatsBomb Live demo, please contact: sales@statsbomb.com. We can’t wait to meet you and unveil the next stage of the StatsBomb evolution.

Arsenal: Season Preview 2021/22

As we enter Year Three of Mikel Arteta’s reign as Arsenal manager, it feels like this season could be make or break for his tenure. This time around there’s no recent FA Cup win to point to as a sign of progress; it has to be evident out on the pitch. Can Arteta achieve that? One of the biggest issues facing Arteta when he joined was that Arsenal’s metrics had been not great for quite some time. Despite the clear positive of the style of play the Spaniard was attempting to implement, there was an alarming drop in performance at the start of the 2020/21 season: Thankfully, in December — a full year after his appointment — he seemingly stumbled upon a formula that worked. From that point on, whilst results have continued to be hit and miss, their metrics have been much improved in both attack and defence. But they still need to maintain that into the new season, a campaign where they won’t be beholden to midweek trips to the continent. How will the increase in training and preparation time manifest itself? Let’s take a look at what Arteta should be looking at if he wants to take the Gunners back into Europe. How do Arsenal improve? In last season’s StatsBomb preview, Ted highlighted three key areas that Arsenal needed to improve:  player recruitment, defensive style, and set pieces. The bad news? Player recruitment was a mixed bag. The good news? The latter two did show signs of improvement. Arsenal’s overall expected goal (xG) difference improved from -0.09 per game in 2019/20 to +0.18 per game in 2020/21. The graphic below highlights the general trend of improving performances: They shaved off 0.22 expected goals per game in defence, tightening up but still at the cost of some attacking output. Their open play xG per 90 was just 0.98 last season, compared with 1.42 per 90 in Arsene Wenger’s last season back in 2017/18. There’s still a long way to go to get back to that level. Since replacing Unai Emery, Arteta’s approach has been one of slowing the pace down and manipulating possession of the ball as much as possible. That was evident in Arsenal’s passing trends last season: lots of deep passes in build-up play and very few cohesive or common patterns in the final third. While metrics highlighted some territorial domination (Arsenal entered the final third 49.2 times per game compared with their opponents’ 42.4 entries), they struggled to translate that style into goals or a general threat. This must change if Arsenal are to break into Europe again. Without the ball, Arsenal opted for a deeper, more conservative defensive line and press — something they may look to move away from in 2021/22. They were among the least frequent pressers in the Premier League last season (18th for total pressures, 19th for pressure regains) but it’s possible Arteta employed this style as a short-term measure until the players were able to adjust to his longer term ideals. Arteta took a pragmatic approach, being more proactive when the team were favourites and more reactive when they were playing perceptibly stronger opponents. As mentioned, Arsenal did show some much-needed improvement in set-pieces. They dropped their set-piece xG conceded from 0.34 per game to 0.21 per game, which translated to conceding six fewer goals from set-pieces than they had done in 2019/20, a not-insignificant sum. They struggled in attack though, with just six goals scored from a paltry 0.18 set-piece xG per game, ranking 17th in the league in that metric. Things might move even further in the right direction this season as the club have signed set-piece coach and analyst Nicolas Jover from Manchester City in what should be a smart pickup given the impact he had on City’s set-pieces. And now to review last season’s transfer business. The two most notable signings were Thomas Partey and Gabriel. Partey emerged as a net-positive, but his lack of availability was a real cause for concern, whereas Gabriel started the season on fire before his performances dropped off as the matches piled up (not unsurprising for a younger player). He ended the season fluctuating between the bench and the starting XI. The less said about Willian the better, but Martin Ødegaard’s January arrival did appear to be a smart pickup. He contributed just under 2000 minutes to a thin Arsenal squad, but overall his effect on the pitch was hit and miss. The Current Crop One of the biggest reasons for the uptick in Arsenal’s performances was due to Arteta seemingly simplifying player roles within his game model, regardless of whether it was in his favoured 4-3-3 or the alternative 4-2-3-1 (his change to back three systems at the end of the season was mostly enforced). The complex system of positional shifts in and out of possession was gone, and players such as Emile Smith-Rowe, who could occupy space ahead of the ball and offer intelligent movement, were given chances. Boy genius Bukayo Saka was the biggest revelation of Arsenal’s season: his ability to simply find and manipulate space to his advantage was a big reason he became so important for the Gunners in 2020/21 and why he’ll be equally as important this coming season. Combine that with a versatility to play across the attacking band, in central midfield, or at full back/wing back and it’s clear that Hale End has provided us with a good one. Besides Saka, we can look at StatsBomb’s new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV) to identify other players who could be regarded as important contributors to this Arsenal side. The results very much match the general fan perception of who the key men are, but one player who’s perhaps a surprise inclusion towards the top of the list is Hector Bellerin, a player once adored by the fanbase but nowadays viewed as a weak spot in the starting XI. Without getting too deep into the woods, it’s likely he ranks favourably in OBV due to his dovetailing with the likes of Saka and Nicolas Pépé on the right flank, and while his final ball can be very hit-or-miss, his role in attacking moves which free up the wingers to create chances is still important.

Player (Minimum 1,500 Minutes Played) On-Ball Value Per 90 
Alexandre Lacazette 0.31
Kieran Tierney 0.30
Nicolas Pépé 0.26
Granit Xhaka 0.22
Hector Bellerin 0.22

Transfers The biggest arrival so far is that of Ben White from Brighton. His transfer could be key to replacing David Luiz’s significant contribution in build up, something that is required in Arteta’s dogmatic approach to playing out from the back. White looks a very promising and accomplished player as a ball progressor, capable of punching the ball between the lines and providing a general comfort in possession. Nuno Tavares, a young left back from Benfica, as been brought in to provide competition to Kieran Tierney. Left back was a bit of a problem area for the Gunners last season — not due to Tierney’s ability (as shown above in his OBV contribution), but his inability to keep fit. Arteta tried many atypical solutions to this problem, playing Cedric Soares and even Granit Xhaka on the left flank in Tierney’s absence. In a small sample from his time in Liga NOS, Tavares looks to be an energetic and aggressive front-foot defender. The only other signing thus far has been depth option Albert Sambi Lokonga from Anderlecht — a young central midfielder who is versatile enough to fill a variety of positions/roles in the centre of the park. Using our “Similar Players” feature in StatsBomb IQ, Lokonga’s profile matches those of other well-known midfielders such as Joan Jordán of Sevilla, new Leicester City signing Boubakary Soumaré, and… former Arsenal player Matteo Guendouzi. In preseason, Lokonga has looked a shrewd addition: always looking to play forward, good in tight areas and capable of dropping in and filling holes as teammates move forward. While he likely won’t be a first-choice option, and expectations must be tempered, I think he could surprise a few. What’s The Expectation This Season? As was the case with Emery before him, Arteta has had to juggle a number of difficult issues in order to put Arsenal back on track to where the fans expect them to be: in Europe. With this in mind, even the most die-hard of Arsenal fans would be optimistic to think that a return to the Premier League top four is a realistic possibility this season: their competitors are starting from a stronger base and simply have the upper hand right now. That being said, with clear progression in the underlying numbers as last season went on, one would expect results to be better this time around and for Arsenal to close the gap on those above them. The decreased demands of their schedule give Arteta an opportunity to really lay some groundwork towards his optimal style of play and this could prove to be a benefit in the long term. Metrics have been good for a while, now it’s time for Arteta to translate that into results.


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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

Norwich City: Season Preview 2021/22

Welcome back, Norwich City. Back-to-back Championship titles sandwiched a Premier League relegation in 2019/20 – the Canaries will be looking to improve on their previous showing in the top tier this time around. You’ll recognise a few faces from their last outing in the top flight: Daniel Farke remains in charge and with a new four-year deal in his desk drawer to continue getting his tactical fingerprints all over this team; and much of the spine from the Premier League relegation season remains, with the likes of Tim Krul, Max Aarons, Todd Cantwell and Teemu Pukki all demonstrating a capability to play at this level the last time they were here. There’s no question that Norwich were deserving Championship champions after a hugely impressive season which saw them graduate with 97 points. They were the best team in the league both aesthetically and by the numbers; their expected goal difference of +30.2 was superior to anyone else in the division. This was largely powered by a free-flowing attack that created a continuous stream of chances from all areas of play. They took more shots than anybody else, created the most xG from open play, and were as comfortable forcing turnovers from the front as they were counterattacking at speed or playing through their opponents with dovetailing possession play. Luton Town manager Nathan Jones dubbed them the “Manchester City of the Championship”, an easy comparison to make that’s not without merit: Norwich also generally favoured a short-passing approach in possession with the freedom to rotate positionally and committing plenty of bodies to the attack. They possessed the slowest Pace to Goal in the league at 2.2 m/s, completed their passes at a higher rate than anyone else, and reached the final third more often than their rivals. A strength of Norwich’s attacking play last season was their ability to play through even the most stubborn defensive lines. Norwich led the league for completed throughballs with 105, at a rate of 2.3 per game. To put those numbers into context, Brentford and Bournemouth – the teams with the third and fourth-most completed throughballs — completed 108 defence-splitting passes combined. That ability to carve through defences meant that Norwich were often able to create a lot of space in the penalty area to get their shots away–they took by far the most open play footed shots in the box last season and, because the defence had often already been bypassed, on average there were very few defenders placed deeper than the Norwich attacker taking the shot. Out of possession they were organised, engaging the opposition higher up the pitch if the situation merited it but more often dropping in to defend from their own half. Norwich had the 17th-highest Defensive Distance in the Championship last season at 43.8 metres, the average distance from a team’s own goal from which it makes defensive actions. It’s a nod to Daniel Farke’s coaching ability that their high press, when they did engage in it, was highly effective, both in turning the ball over and in creating opportunities for them in attack. They made the 2nd-most shots following a high press, and forced the more counterpressure regains than anyone else in the league last season; counterpressure regains being regains that occurred within 5 seconds of a player counterpressing an opponent. That Norwich conceded the fewest counterattacking shots in the league was as much down to the midfield pair of Oliver Skipp and Kenny McLean performing caretaking duties in front of the defence as it was the effective counterpress. Norwich weren’t shy of committing bodies forward, often attacking with six players if not more with the full-backs bombing on, so when the opposition did attempt to break from their own third, they found Skipp and McLean – with their names like a 70s buddy cop duo – taking no nonsense and pulling over any opposition attempts to break and enter. Personnel & Transfers Daniel Farke changed little about his team’s approach the last time they came up, drawing praise from football purists but ultimately falling short, relegated in 20th place and with a -49 goal difference. Change is anticipated this time around, with Farke reportedly looking to play with the handbrake on more often and prioritise Norwich’s defensive shape over their attacking fluidity. Knowing what we do about the ex-Dortmund II coach and the club’s overarching philosophy, this far from equates to a complete overhaul of the playing style, just tweaks and adjustments here and there to make the team as a whole more defensively robust. It’s expected that we could see Norwich drop the #10 and line up in a 4-3-3 with a bigger focus on transitions, as opposed to the 4-2-3-1 witnessed in every Farke season to date. This is likely to mean that… ok, ok, ok. I’ve gone on long enough. Time to talk about the elephant in the room. Emiliano Buendía. Last season Buendía put in one of the most impressive individual seasons ever seen in England’s second tier, often playing football that looked more suited to the Champions League than the Championship. As well as consistently dazzling and delighting the Norwich support with displays of ball mastery, the Argentinian showed why he’s developed a reputation as a feisty customer, biting at the ankles of his opponents and generally being an absolute nuisance out of possession. He completed the ‘double double’ – recording 15 goals and 14 assists – but also moved the ball to the final third more than any other player in the league (adjusted to a per 90 minutes rate) and recorded the most possession-adjusted pressures per 90 as well. There’s little this player doesn’t do. No surprise then that Aston Villa were keen to offer Norwich a fee that was the highest the Canaries have ever received for a player. It goes without saying that Buendía will be very difficult to replace. Which brings us to the squad additions. So far there’s been three key moves, the first being what looks to be Buendía’s replacement: Milot Rashica. Rashica doesn’t represent a direct like-for-like exchange and his signing backs up the theory that Norwich will emphasise attacking transitions this season. Signed from relegated Bundesliga club Werder Bremen, Rashica’s attacking versatility could make him an important player for Norwich this season. He’s predominantly a wide attacker, but has also spent time leading the line and in deeper central positions across his 3.5 Bundesliga seasons. Last season he put up reasonable shot (2.4 per 90) and dribble (2.5 per 90) volumes on a relegated side, and a defensive work rate is also visible in the data, particularly in previous seasons. The second and third key moves are that of Billy Gilmour, signed on a season-long loan from Chelsea, and Pierre Lees Melou, who arrives from OGC Nice in Ligue 1. Gilmour’s burgeoning reputation makes his signing regarded as a bit of a coup. It’s highly likely Farke’s existing relationship with Thomas Tuchel – Farke was Dortmund II manager while Tuchel was there as first team manager — played a key role in securing his signature, but Gilmour should be well suited to Norwich’s play as well, his technical ability should help to speed up those transitions through the midfield. Though the club still retains an interest in taking Championship Team of The Year entrant Oliver Skipp on loan from Tottenham again, the signing of Melou does add defensive reinforcement to the midfield. Curiously, Melou only moved into the professional game at the age of 22, jumping from France’s 5th tier to join Dijon in Ligue 2 in 2015, the equivalent of graduating from the National League to the Championship in one step. He switched to Nice after one Ligue 1 season with Dijon and has been a regular in the French top tier ever since, making 151 appearances over five seasons. Besides the years of experience in a top European league, there’s lots to like about Melou’s profile. Given he’ll be at the centre of Premier League midfield battles, an ability to play under pressure is essential, and it appears as though he should be capable of doing that: Melou’s Pressured Pass Completion % of 85% was the same clip as his regular, unpressured pass completion %. Norwich will also be looking for a defensive contribution from their new midfielder, and this is where it seems the Frenchman will excel. Melou was one of the most active defenders in Ligue 1 last season; compared to all central midfielders in the league, he ranked 12th for possession-adjusted tackles and interceptions. All in all, if he can translate these performances to the Premier League, this looks like it could be a very clever bit of business at the reported £3.5m fee. Projection The bad news is the sale of Buendía, but the good news is that there’s a strong sense that Norwich come into this Premier League season better prepared to make a good fist of avoiding relegation than the last time they were here, even without Buendía. Farke and co. will be under no illusions that this will likely be another season of struggle, but it feels as though everyone at the club is richer for the experience of the 2019/20 season, and arrive ready to fight smarter in this campaign. The points spreads are backing them to beat their points tally from last time with the line set at 36.25, a total that makes them 2nd favourites to go down but one that also puts them within range of their relegation rivals and well capable of survival. It’s a challenge no doubt, but Farke’s men ride again.  


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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

Manchester United: Season Preview 2021/22

By post-Ferguson standards, Premier League runners-up and Europa League finalists amounted to a good season for Manchester United in 2020/21.

Ultimately there were no trophies, but ‘progress’ has been the watchword for a few years now, and there have been signs of it both on and off the pitch. United’s trendline since the start of the 2018/19 season makes for pretty good viewing – attacking and defensive numbers have both been moving in the right direction for the most part.

 

 

However, a fairly distant second to a brilliant Manchester City is perhaps less impressive given the problems faced by United’s top four bedmates – a Liverpool without their three top choices at centre back, and a Chelsea that only really hit their stride after Tuchel arrived and turned them into champions of Europe. We are starting next season with the top end of the league in a very different spot; that makes United’s prospects less enticing.

Even with the problems endured by Chelsea and Liverpool, United were some way off the other Champions League qualifiers in terms of expected goal (xG) difference per game. Our numbers have them at +0.33 xGD per game to City’s +1.12, Liverpool’s +0.76, and Chelsea’s +0.70. Enough for fourth-best in the league, but still some way off the other three and you also have to factor in that United spent a good portion of the season chasing down 1-0 deficits, which could have inflated their underlying numbers slightly. All other things being equal, the gap between United and their top-four rivals could increase even more with their rivals starting in better spots than they were for much of last season.

There is, however, the small issue of the transfer window. Much will depend on whether or not the new signings can solve some of the issues that have plagued United for some time now. The over-reliance on the left side in build-up seems to be one of the issues United are trying to solve in this window with the signing of Jadon Sancho and fairly loud noises about Kieran Trippier. Likewise, the issue of depth at centre-back, with Eric Bailly’s injury proneness and Axel Tuanzebe’s youth, has been addressed in the way that issues of depth should be – by strengthening the first team. The addition of Eric Ramsay as a first-team coach who’ll be in charge of set-plays will also serve as music to the ears of this article’s readership.

The Goalkeeper Dilemma(?)

One question United don’t appear to be trying to answer in the transfer window (despite Tom Heaton having a pretty stellar pre-season thus far) is: who is the first-choice keeper?

United spent most of last season with two keepers in direct competition for the first-choice berth. As always, competition for places should really fall into the ‘nice problem to have’ category. It’s not something we often see when it comes to goalkeepers. From the outside, it seems that the most important factors in the decision are not things that can be measured directly: how comfortable the defenders are with the keeper, player morale, maintaining David de Gea’s value for a future sale, the extent to which having to oust de Gea motivates Dean Henderson — all of these human and managerial factors that football managers have to contend with and we don’t have to worry about. There is not much in it from a playing point of view, so it’s all about the best way to manage the handover as far as I’m concerned.

 

 

Henderson was more aggressive in coming to get the ball, claiming the ball roughly 4% more than expected based on the crosses he faced. That is the only stark difference between Henderson and de Gea on these metrics — they both had excellent positioning (measured by their average distance from a typical keeper location), distributed the ball similarly in terms of pass length and in finding free men, and were more-or-less average in terms of shot-stopping relative to post-shot xG. The minor differences here are pretty paltry relative to season-to-season variability.

Having the opportunity to bed Henderson in while also giving de Gea firm competition over the course of a season is a big luxury. The succession plan looked like it might be reaching completion towards the end of last season, so it will be interesting to see who is breathing down whose neck come the season’s start.

Set-Pieces

United have clearly identified set-pieces as an area that can be improved. Eric Ramsay joins from Chelsea U23s as a young coach with a very good reputation and has reportedly been tasked with overhauling United’s set-pieces.

Their performance last season wasn’t terrible, but it was close to average, and set-pieces are an element of the game where focused work can pay real dividends in terms of goals and league standing.

What sort of impact could Ramsay have? A realistic objective is to get close to the top teams’ set-piece efficiency of last season.

Let’s say United improve their xG/Set Piece from 0.0062 to 0.0082, and xG/Set Piece Conceded from 0.0064 to 0.0044, putting them about halfway between Everton and Man City on the scatter plot below. That’s an improvement of 0.2% of a goal for each set-piece conceded and taken. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering that teams take about 35 set-pieces in every game and concede about the same, improvements at both ends of the pitch would add up over a season.

 

 

That means United could (optimistically, but not fancifully) improve their xG difference per game by about 0.14 through set-pieces alone, a number that would make up about 38% of the gap between them and Chelsea. That kind of impact is really hard to achieve through player signings unless you’re spending big bucks on an upgrade to a current starter. This back-of-the-envelope calculation points towards a shrewd bit of business, as long as Ramsay can get United to somewhere near league-best.

Jadon Sancho

In signing Sancho, United have obtained one of the most exciting young prospects in world football, and in a position where they’ve been lacking for many years. According to StatsBomb’s player similarity tool, the most similar players to Sancho in the top 5 leagues last season were Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic, Leroy Sané, Samuel Chukwueze, and United’s own Marcus Rashford, who spent a good deal of time on the right last season. These are all quick, technically gifted wide players with an eye for goal.

 

 

Where Sancho stands out from these players (barring Dembélé) is in his creative output. 0.22 xG assisted from open play last season puts Sancho 19th of wingers in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Having Erling Haaland to play those passes to is not a luxury Sancho will be afforded at United (unless…?) and, in their current incarnation, United are a bit less dominant in a typical league game than Dortmund. I’d expect his creative output to drop slightly, but he undoubtedly adds tremendous quality to an already exciting United attack.

There is always a question about whether a player will gel with a new team, but some of the personal issues players can face when moving to the Premier League are not really there for Sancho. He speaks the language, grew up with the league, knows lots of United players already, and knows Manchester. There won’t be much time to settle, coming straight off the back of the Euros, but I don’t see that being a problem despite the inevitable overreactions (including from me!) in the early stages of the season, good or bad. Right now, this looks a fantastic piece of business.

The left-hand side

Pre-Sancho, United’s attack skewed towards the left-hand side. Here are their most over-represented pass clusters last season compared to the rest of the league:

 

 

Notice how similar the top-four teams look in terms of their most over-represented clusters. They all favour one side, and they all favour short-ish passes in the opposition half. There is not much getting away from this as a dominant side in the Premier League, and United clearly favoured the left flank.

This tendency is also borne out in United’s possession value. StatsBomb’s new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), estimates the extent to which an action improves a team’s expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Looking at the figure below, it’s clear that United were strongest down the left (relative to the other teams in the league). That over-represented zone was bearing fruit.

 

 

The corresponding area on the right looks pretty barren by comparison, with United only producing at around league average from there. Sancho should help to turn some of those zones red, but that will, in turn, have an impact on usage – Bruno Fernandes will carry less of the creative burden, and the left side probably won’t be favoured quite so heavily. It’ll be interesting to see how this map has changed by the end of the new season.

The midfield

Another area of the pitch in which many fans and pundits believe United needs reinforcements is central midfield. The general rationale for this is that United’s attacking talent might be better suited to a system where both Paul Pogba and Fernandes play centrally in front of a single, more defensively minded midfielder. The typical concerns are that neither Scott McTominay nor Fred can cover for them on their own, Nemanja Matić is unable to play enough minutes, and Pogba’s defensive tendencies aren’t well-suited to playing in the midfield two in the current set-up.

Finding this miracle player to unlock the ‘Silva & de Bruyne’ style of play that I think people are envisaging is not an easy task, so I expect we’ll see something somewhat similar to last season in terms of the composition of the midfield. Matic can still offer a lot in short spells, but it’ll be Fred, McTominay and Pogba who mostly share the two midfield berths.

But what is the state of the ‘McFred double pivot’? Using Statsbomb 360 data, we can look at how often players break lines with their passing. We define a line-breaking pass as any pass that:

  • successfully progresses the ball at least 10% closer to goal…
  • …and either splits two opposition defenders or ends in the space behind them, provided that the defenders are less than 5m apart vertically.

We filter to passes that are completed and that break a line in the opposition half, then normalise per 90: the results make Matic’s lack of mobility and inability to accrue significant minutes all the more annoying. He ranked fourth in this metric among PL midfielders with >900 minutes last season, bettered only by Thiago, Mateo Kovačić, and Fernandinho. Fred was 13th of 73, McTominay 26th.

These numbers are fine but probably not quite at the level United need. That said, Paul Pogba’s presumably increased minutes this season should help substantially with progression from midfield (provided he sticks around, of course).

We can look at a simple model of pass availability to explore this a bit more. We start by drawing defensive cover shadows that look like this:

 

 

Attacking players who are not in a cover shadow are classed as ‘available’. If they are located 10% closer to the opposition goal than the ball, they are classed as a ‘progressive option’. Then we can look at the percentage of the time a player takes a progressive option when it’s available to get some idea of passing aggression.

 

 

This approach comes with many caveats, and a better way to do this would be with a 360-based possession value model combined with a 360-based expected pass model. However, we aren’t quite there yet, so for now, we’ll proxy expected passes with ‘availability’ and possession value with ‘progression’. Also, we’re only looking at the frame in which the pass was played, so it could be that players are turning down progressive passes before allowing the opposition to block lanes, which makes it look like the option was not there by the time the ball is released.

All that said, we can see that some of the criticism levelled at McTominay’s progressive passing is perhaps unwarranted – movement ahead of him gives him a decent number of options to play progressive passes, and the data suggests he attempts to do so at a reasonable frequency. He is in the company of the more aggressive progressive passers in the league from deeper in midfield when it comes to attempting progressive passes. However, his technical ability and accuracy let him down, and he’s not massively proficient at completing line-breaking passes or progressing the ball overall.

Parting thoughts

United have been making steady progress in their underlying numbers for a few years and have strengthened substantially in attack and defence in this window. The bookies envisage the return of an established top four, with United the least-favoured of those sides, an assessment that seems about right. The new signings and appointments should make up some of the fairly substantial gap between United and their top four rivals from last season, but probably not to the extent that we’ll see them in title contention come the end of the campaign.

Lastly, I can’t finish this article without mentioning the cultural impact that Marcus Rashford is having and at 23 years of age. Whatever happens this season, he is a beacon of light.


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here

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 & Hove Albion: Season Preview 2021/22

For numerous reasons, Brighton will be one of the most interesting teams to watch next season. They enter year three of Graham Potter’s reign, playing football that has garnered praise from highly-decorated managers, and have several analytical storylines that need concluding. Potter was brought in in 2019 to stabilise and then improve Brighton’s Premier League standing. They achieved the first objective with consecutive relegation-survivals of relative comfort. It’s the latter objective that the Albion hierarchy will now be looking to move towards and, despite back-to-back 41-point seasons, 2020/21 saw indications that Potter’s influence was beginning to turn Brighton into a team that can climb the table. The topline, and I’ll bet this won’t be news to many of you, is that there was a dramatic improvement in Brighton’s underlying numbers last season. They added five goals of xG to their attacking output — creating 44.8 non-penalty xG up from  39.7 in 2019/20 – but tightened up remarkably at the back, shaving 20 goals off their expected defensive output (32.5 xG Conceded in 2020/21 compared to 52.9 in 2019/20). The outcome was that Brighton had the fifth-best expected goal difference last season, making the most considerable improvement of all teams to compete in both campaigns. The question is, how does a team improve their process so dramatically and yet fail to improve their points tally? Both the attack and the defence have to take some responsibility here. They undershot their xG to the tune of ~11 goals in attack, whilst the defence conceded ~seven more than expected based on the chances they conceded. The result was a ~17 goal underperformance between their expected goals and actual goals, the largest discrepancy in the league. There were numerous culprits up front. Neal Maupay faced most of the scrutiny for turning 9.9xG into five goals, but there were multiple contributors to the problem across the team: Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Pascal Groß combined for 47 shots, 4.1xG, and zero goals, for example. Collectively, Brighton turned 44.8xG into 37.6 post-shot xG, with post-shot xG only accounting for shots on target and factoring in the shot placement. There was plenty of banjo-swinging, but bovine derrières went largely unscathed at the Amex. At the back, nearly all of their underperformance occurred in the first 12 games. Mat Ryan’s performances left a lot to be desired, and he was dropped for Premier League rookie Robert Sánchez, who proved to be an immediate upgrade on Ryan and finished the season with the best Shot Stopping % in the league: a measure of how many goals a goalkeeper saved/conceded based on the post-shot xG faced. Sánchez’s introduction coincided with Brighton’s best spell of form in the season in early January, form that was the strongest indicator yet as to the potential level of Potter’s team. A run of 2-8-8 in their first 18 games returned 14 points, but Brighton then took 10 points from four games against Leeds, Fulham, Spurs and Liverpool, all without conceding a goal. The match immediately before that four-game run was a 1-0 defeat to Manchester City. Pep Guardiola said this in the aftermath:

“We were in front of the best English manager right now. You have to be a top side to play that way. They have good players, good build-up. Every pass makes sense. Their movement between the lines up front makes sense. Every player is in his position to get the ball and be free.”

What is it about the style of play Potter has implemented that prompted Guardiola to refer to them as a “top side”? For starters, their approach in possession. Brighton generally play shorter passes in build-up, with fluid movement between players. Their Pace To Goal — the average speed of build-up (in m/s) of possessions that end in shots – was the slowest (read: most patient) in the league last season, and the types of passes they play within those moves are those you’d more closely associate with a team competing towards the top of the table than one battling it out at the bottom: Their most common pass types were those moving the ball around the defence in the early stages of build-up and those played from the “cutback zone” – the area of the pitch where high-quality chances are regularly created. Cluster #2 and #8 are the pass types we want to zoom in on to get a picture of how Brighton look to attack: short passes from central areas to create opportunities to cut the ball back from inside the box. A short-passing possession game that’s effective at getting into areas for cutbacks? It’s no wonder Pep was enamoured. Only six teams reached the final third more often than Brighton last season. Only three completed more passes inside the penalty box. Only Leeds completed more cutbacks. Brighton controlled the territory effectively, but their slow build-up did come at the cost of some shot clarity: their opponents had an average of 3.6 defenders behind the location of the ball when Brighton shot from inside the box. That number was the highest in the league, as was the 39% rate of those shots being blocked. While this may be problematic in attack, it’s a trait they use themselves in defence. On average, Brighton had the second-most defenders behind the location of the ball when their opponents took a footed shot from inside the box. That defensive organisation goes a long way to explaining why their defensive numbers were so good; they were able to limit the number of times their opponents could penetrate their area and reduce the quality of the chances their opponents took when they did pull the trigger. The shots Brighton conceded last season were taken from the third-furthest distance away from goal on average. Current Squad The big story is around the £50m departure of Ben White to Arsenal. A player that worked his way up through the Brighton youth system before spending time graduating through all three of the EFL divisions, White made his Premier League and England international breakthrough last season. The sale is undoubtedly a short-term blow to Brighton’s defensive ranks, but talk of a replacement is already underway. Defensive solidity will be the main attribute being searched for, helped by the fact that Brighton already possess one of the best in-possession defenders in the Premier League. Adam Webster made 7.7 carries and passes that moved the ball 25% closer to goal last season, more than any other centre back in the league. Since promotion to the top tier, the Seagulls have developed a niche in the transfer market: no region is out of their reach. They’ve signed domestic up-and-comers (Adam Webster and Neal Maupay), domestic experience (Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana), but have also been unafraid to sign from smaller European leagues (Leandro Trossard and Jakub Moder) or even continents further afield too (Alexis Mac Allister and Moisés Caicedo). As a result, their squad is full of players that have the potential to be good Premier League players, signed for relatively modest fees. A good example of the strategy is mobile midfield maestro Yves Bissouma — the other name being linked with a transfer to the league’s upper echelons. His potential replacement could already be in the building, with Enock Mwepu the only bit of business Brighton have concluded so far besides Kjell Scherpen. Scherpen will be a 6’8” goalkeeping understudy to Sánchez, but it’s Mwepu who should make the stronger impact on the first XI after signing from Salzburg. Transfers are glamorous, but Potter will be looking to players already within his current squad to step up and play a bigger role next season. Alexis Mac Allister, Jakub Moder and Steven Alzate all played 600-1200 minutes last season and could be set to make a more significant contribution this time around. Moder posted some impressive numbers while in Poland, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can adapt to the level of the Premier League, whilst Mac Allister showed signs of a player that could be a more regular starter in the 1000+ minutes he played last season. Projection It’ll be captivating to watch the development of this Brighton side under Graham Potter, but it’s far from a slight to say that we shouldn’t expect their metrics to be quite so strong this time around. Other teams should improve to overcome Brighton’s position of fifth in the expected goal difference table and the loss of key players could hamper them slightly — they’ll need to find a new talisman in defence after White’s departure, and the rumours of interest in Bissouma refuse to go away either. All that said, their approach of signing players that are one-to-two years away from Premier League excellence (see the 2018 signing of Bissouma, Yves) could pay dividends again with plenty waiting in the wings to take their chance, under a coach in Potter that has proven he can bring these players into the team and improve them further. The positive metrics, the style of play, the development of players with potential; all these factors mean we should be feeling positive about Brighton ahead of the 2021/22 season. Steady progress and adding several points to the 41-point tally we’ve seen in the last couple of seasons should be the minimum aim. Even more is not out of the question.  


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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

West Ham United: Season Preview 2021/22

To move West Ham from 16th place in 2019-20 to 6th in 2020-21 has to rank alongside any of David Moyes’ career achievements. His return to the club 18 months after leaving in the summer of 2018 was not greeted with great positivity, and it appeared to take the enforced pandemic shutdown to get the ship steering in the right direction. However, few teams can be seen to have benefited so greatly from playing in the current climate, and the way the club has evolved and improved in Moyes’ tenure is a ringing endorsement towards the elusive attribute every manager would like–time. That 26 point season-on-season improvement ranks third behind Leicester 2015-16 and Chelsea 2016-17 across the Premier League era: It was no fluke either and is reflected in the shot metrics that powered the team:

  • non-penalty xG rose from 1.14 to 1.34 per game
  • non-penalty xG conceded declined from 1.49 to 1.17 per game
  • …causing xG to go from -0.35 per game to +0.17; half a goal gains are not to be undervalued, this team improved substantially
  • they took more clear shots (1.5 up to 1.9 per game)
  • they conceded fewer clear shots (2.6 down to 1.9 per game)
  • the chopped a load off their set piece shot concessions (down from 3.4 to 2.6 per game, xG here halved from 0.31 to 0.17 per game)

…while stylistic play features were clear too:

  • 32% of box entries were via a cross (most in league)
  • led the league for metrics relating to pace and directness
  • second lowest passes per defensive action
  • least counterpressures and resultant regains
  • closest shot distance (both non-penalty and open play)

This all paints a picture of an organised, somewhat reactive and patient team. They also knew which games represented their best chance of success. Eventual top four? A 0-1-7 WDL record. Rest of the league?  A stellar19-7-4 record. We discussed the role of long carries and shots and goals from defensive regains in last year’s preview and these features generally persisted. West Ham kept their shape and waited for opportunities to break forward. Once they did they created chances at a decent volume for their key contributors, once more Michail Antonio benefited but also a resurgent Jesse Lingard: The boost that Lingard brought to the back half of West Ham’s campaign was both large and perhaps unexpected. Lingard, a player who has been noted to steer under his expected goals values in the past, scored eight non-penalty goals from an xG of around four to force his way all the way back into the England squad.It appears likely that he will be staying in Manchester this season and for West Ham losing not just the player but one in the form of his life is a significant blow. As yet, the Hammers have been slow to enter the transfer market, with the main change from the start of last season the removal of their highly priced bench men. Sebastian Haller left for Ajax in the winter and Felipe Anderson was practically given away in a cheap deal to take him to Lazio. Neither convinced for West Ham in the aggregate and quickly fell down the pecking order under Moyes, but their removal, alongside that of Lingard, does leave something of a lack of depth in attacking positions. In general Moyes operated a small squad in 2020-21, and he talked about how he instilled an effective group ethos during difficult times in a column for the Times ahead of the Euros:

“At West Ham, during the club season, I made a conscious effort to make training more fun…to not keep it so heavy. I thought about the world the players were having to live in, there was no opportunity for them to leave the bubble (so) we had to make sure they came into work and felt they were with their friends. Footballers were challenged by lockdowns and the lack of “normal” life and found they were happy to get out of the house, pleased to be in training, and craved it from the point of view of structure and routine. So there was actually more training — but we made sure that many days there were lighter training loads.  (In general) unity and spirit helped “smaller” clubs navigate the difficult conditions and do well in many of the domestic leagues.”

What has been ahead of and during this summer done is limited; Craig Dawson’s loan was converted to a permanent deal back in April and Alphonse Areola recently arrived on loan from PSG after a solid season in London at Fulham: With Fabiański now 36 years old, it makes sense to start thinking about succession and we will see who Moyes puts his faith in from week one. Areola is a more active and “modern” goalkeeper than Fabiański, but the Polish veteran has done little wrong in his West Ham tenure and may well see the position still as his own. Warning Signs? One of the hallmarks of Moyes’ second spell has been his consistency in selection. In 2020-21, eight players played in more than 70% of the team’s minutes and the core group he has relied upon is small. When Antonio missed time in the autumn of 2020, Haller stepped in, but there are a further string of players who look core–perhaps Declan Rice, Aaron Cresswell, Tomáš Souček and Vladimír Coufal. The team avoided injury problems last season and that consistency in selection looked to work to West Ham’s benefit. The main selection choices week to week look likely to be in the attacking midfield band. Jarrod Bowen, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals are all in the mix but could Saïd Benrahma’s second season see better returns and omit the need to replace Lingard in the market? He saw a lot of bench time in Premier League season one, and the variation of his profile compared to his time at Brentford was stark. Gone was the shot-happy drifting left-sided attacker, replaced by a more shot-shy, creative player fitting in across the attacking band. He was in competition with Pablo Fornals for a left-sided slot then Lingard became the key man in the centre and Benrahma never quite nailed down the starting space. It would be no surprise if Moyes values positional discipline and Benrahma doesn’t quite offer exactly what he wants from his wide attackers, but he’s certainly talented enough to come forward and contribute more, if empowered. Setting realistic expectations for West Ham’s season means without further investment, a replication of anything approaching last season’s 65 points would represent the absolute best outcome this group could expect, and doing so, even from similarly small net positive metrics is fairly unlikely. There’s also a hidden drift in the end of season form to note: Throughout Moyes’ tenure, West Ham’s xG and goal differences have tracked fairly reliably. This is no given, and we can see divergence at the end of 2020-21, in which goal difference persisted significantly ahead of xG. Now, that was great to keep the results coming as the summer beckoned, but is less encouraging ahead of the new season; West Ham were at their worst in 2020-21 at season’s end. Where will West Ham end up? Bookmakers are currently projecting a firm mid-table finish and around 50 points and while that may seem slightly ungenerous, it’s not hard to toss around their metrics, quietness in the transfer market and risk profile towards squad depth versus key injuries and feel that is in range. The coming month and transfers could move the needle here though and I’d probably have them good for a couple more wins than that, particularly if they acquire a useful back-up or alternative to Antonio. 2020-21 was a season in which the unique circumstances of low pressing pandemic-ball and a stable first team helped Moyes extract the best from a group of players that played with a clear identity. With crowds back in stadiums, it’s hard to imagine that the slightly neutral aspect of 2020-21 will persist and some of the benefits accrued from a more passive strategic style may well decline. That does not mean that West Ham’s future prognosis is particularly worrying, just that a small detour down into mid-table is the most likely outcome. This would still represent a huge overall improvement on what Moyes inherited and justify his retention, with a view to continuing to build and sustain within the league comfortably. To move upwards or match 2020-21 will probably take both more time and significant investment, and having been bitten by high-priced flops such as Haller and Anderson, West Ham’s ownership may be content to swim in shallower transfer waters for now too. Last season I felt that transfer backing could be the difference between lower mid-table security and something slightly more than that, and the equation is probably similar. Again West Ham have a choice to make, but this time they are making it from a higher vantage point, that of safety.


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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

Wolverhampton Wanderers: Season Preview 2021/22

Wolverhampton Wanderers hit the ground running following their promotion to the Premier League in 2018, achieving consecutive seventh-place finishes in their first two seasons back in the top flight. But things didn’t go quite as smoothly for them last time around, and they come into the 2021-22 season seeking to reestablish themselves as a top-half side. After two seasons of positive goal differences and near-60-point hauls, Wolves finished down in 13th last season, with 45 points and a -16 goal difference. There was a pretty stark drop off in the underlying numbers, too, from expected goal (xG) differences of 10.84 and 11.51 in 2018-19 and 2019-20 respectively to a -2.86 difference in 2020-21. In 2019-20, their performances were extremely controlled; last season, things started to fray at the edges. Their worst four results and three of their worst four individual match xG differences across the last three seasons came in 2020-21. The downturn in their season-long xG difference was evenly distributed between attack and defence. They were roughly seven expected goals worse off at both ends. In attack, their set piece production remained stable, but Wolves really struggled to create good chances in open play. They took a comparable number of shots season on season, but their open play xG production nevertheless plummeted from 0.9 xG per match in 2019-20 down to 0.68 xG per match in 2020-21. Only Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace created less. The culprit: the quality of their chances. Wolves had the worst average shot quality from open play in the league at 0.08 xG per shot. Over the course of the season, they actually created a league-sixth-high number of shots within 20 seconds of regaining possession — the sort of transitional phases of play in which you’d expect them to be able to create better quality chances — but even in those situations they generated the lowest quality opportunities in the league, right in line with their overall xG per shot. It would be tempting to blame the sickening skull injury suffered by striker Raúl Jiménez away at Arsenal in late November and his subsequent absence for Wolves’ attacking issues. He was certainly a talismanic reference point at the centre of their attack that various experimentations with formations and personnel, including underwhelming January loan arrival Willian José, failed to adequately replace. Wolves were marginally better in terms of open play attacking output during the first nine matches of the season with him in the side, but not significantly enough so given the relatively small sample size to indicate his lack of availability from December onwards was the primary reason for their struggles. In defence, Wolves gave up pretty much the same average quality of open play shot as in 2019-20 but just did so more often, conceding 27 more shots, 3.01 more xG and two more goals over the course of the campaign. Opponents found it easier to complete passes in the final metres of the pitch and created a higher volume of chances. Wolves also also went from being one of the best teams in the league at defending set pieces in 2019-20 to a middle of the road outfit by the underlying numbers and one of the league’s worst in reality. Only five teams conceded more goals from set pieces than their total of 12. The downturn in pretty much all phases of play left coach Nuno Espirito Santo scrambling for solutions. The back three that had been the permanent setup in each of the club’s first two top-flight campaigns occasionally gave way to a back four. Those long diagonal balls out to the wing-backs that had been such an identifiable feature of Wolves’ play began to fade from view. By the end of the season, it was little surprise that Nuno’s four-year spell at the helm came to a close with a mutual parting of ways. What went wrong? Could it be that the players were tired with Nuno’s approach, tired with Nuno himself or maybe just… tired? A relatively small squad saw nine players take part in more than 75% of the available minutes — a league high alongside Burnley. Wolves were clearly not as good as they had been in 2019-20 but even still their goal difference and points haul weren’t fully representative of the quality of their displays. An underperformance of the underlying numbers at both ends of the pitch allied to a -3 difference on penalty goals (lurching from a +3 difference in 2019-20) saw a -2.86 xG difference turn into a -16 goal difference. It isn’t the worst situation for Nuno’s replacement Bruno Lage to walk into. His only previous experience as a head coach — he was assistant to Carlos Carvalhal at both Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City — came at Benfica in his native Portugal, where in early January 2019, he stepped up from his role as B team coach to replace the sacked Rui Vitória. What followed was a remarkable second half of the campaign that saw the club romp to the title with 18 wins, one draw and zero defeats. Lage’s side scored an average of 3.79 goals per match along the way, and had comfortably the best goal and xG differences of any team. Benfica had played a 4-3-3 before Lage’s arrival but largely lined up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation thereafter — depending on the positioning of João Félix relative to the primary striker Haris Seferović — something that continued into the 2019-20 season. Benfica again had the best xG difference in the league, but it was Porto who took the title by five points. Lage resigned five matches from the end of the campaign after a run of two wins, four draws and four defeats that had given Porto the upper hand. While there have been a couple of deviations, the evidence of pre-season suggests that Lage will use the same formation at Molineux. While it would be unrealistic to expect him to play quite such dominant attacking football with a side who are not one of the primary powers of the Premier League, Wolves are nevertheless likely to employ a more front-foot approach than they did under Nuno, when they were one of the deepest defensive teams in the league. Lage’s arrival aside, it has so far been a relatively quiet summer but one that has yielded what appear to be solid signings. Goalkeeper Rui Patrício departed to Roma to be replaced by another Portuguese custodian in José Sá, an over-performer of his post-shot xG numbers for Olympiakos in each of the last two Greek Super League seasons. Rayan Aït Nouri has made his loan move from Angers permanent, while Wolves have also brought in Yerson Mosquera from Atlético Nacional in Colombia, a tall and aggressive young centre back who also doesn’t look too shabby with the ball at his feet. But perhaps the most intriguing signing is that of wide forward Francisco Trincão, on loan from Barcelona. He burst onto the scene with Braga in Portugal during the second half of the 2019-20 season and was immediately snapped up by Barça in a €35 million deal. He received a smidgin over 1,200 minutes of action across all domestic and European competition last season but has been loaned out in search of a greater workload. The 21-year-old would seem to perfectly fit the profile of wide forward that Wolves currently have on their books. Last season, Wolves were more reliant on carries to advance the ball forward inside the attacking half than any other Premier League side — 35% of their distance advanced was achieved via carries — and both Adama Traoré and Pedro Neto ranked in the league’s top 10 in terms of longer carries (>=10 metres) that led to shots, assists and key passes, as well as to direct entries or passes into the penalty area. At Braga, Trincão ranked fourth in the Portuguese league in terms of longer carries that led to direct entries or passes into the penalty area and also produced 0.73 shots per 90 from longer carries — a higher figure that either Traoré or Neto managed last season. If he can get somewhere close to the overall figure of ~2.5 shots per 90 he posted at both Braga and Barcelona, he could prove an astute addition. It will be interesting to see how Lage chooses to align his various wide forwards given his seeming preference for a 4-4-2 formation. Traoré has more of the attributes of a winger so will likely occupy one of the wide midfield slots, but Neto, Trincão and Daniel Podence could all potentially be used as either wide midfielders or central forwards alongside one from Jiménez — in action once again after his long layoff — Fabio Silva or maybe even Patrick Cutrone, back from a pair of unsuccessful loans and scorer of the solitary goal in Wolves’ friendly win over Real Betis. Patricio aside, there have been no major outgoings to date, although Rúben Neves continues to be linked with a departure. We’ll have to wait and see how things shake out in the last month of the market, where Wolves will probably still add to their own defensive and midfield options. Much of how Wolves’ season will go would seem to hinge on how well the squad can adapt to a more attacking approach. While there can be a reasonable fear that last season represented the start of a downward curve that might see them in genuine relegation trouble if things don’t immediately click, it seems more likely that Wolves will enjoy a solid (and perhaps even entertaining) campaign that nudges them back towards the top half of the table.


Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here 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