Tottenham Hotspur: 2018-19 Season Preview

Third, second and third. Those are Tottenham’s last three league finishes yet they find themselves overlooked by the betting markets, who place them squarely as fifth favourites for this year’s Premier League. The same was true prior to last season. Despite a mighty haul of 86 points in 2016-17, Tottenham were generally seen as outsiders for a top four slot with the even bigger money clubs given preference. The 77 points they accrued last season was perhaps closer to their core talent level than the year before, but it still landed them comfortably in third, ahead of Liverpool and seven points clear of Chelsea in fifth. Why are they underrated? To understand partially why we can travel back to Spurs’ first league game after the 2015 transfer window shut, a 1-0 win at Sunderland. For season two of his tenure, Mauricio Pochettino had settled on the core of his team. That game was mildly unusual as Christian Eriksen played no part, something that has only happened for five other league games in four seasons. Mousa Dembélé didn’t feature either, but that didn’t stop it being an extremely familiar Tottenham line-up. Eight of the starting eleven that day are still part of the core first team squad today as well as another five of the substitutes. This is a team that has been together for some years. However, they were a young team then, and have now grown together towards what looks like their peak years:

Tottenham's age profile remains skewed towards peak year players.
The squad build is generally fine but that hasn’t stopped the skepticism about a lack of shiny new toys in the Tottenham first team. Even the fanbase is nervy about this, with the transfer moves so typical of the club’s operating style looking like being crammed into the back end of an even shorter transfer window. Rivals spend fortunes and strengthen, while Tottenham hit the zero on the old net spend, continue to put out the same old team, yet year in, year out, land in the top four. Metrics By most advanced metrics, the top six in the Premier League last season was clearly split in two; Man City, Liverpool and Tottenham profiled like the best three teams in the league, while Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal lagged behind. The consistency City, Liverpool and Tottenham's expected goal metrics were reflected in that they occupied the first three positions in both halves of the season; City were well clear in the first half, Tottenham second and Liverpool third, while the gap dropped significantly in the second half of the season and Tottenham and Liverpool exchanged places. If we want to spy a quick stylistic difference here, Tottenham do not complete many passes in the opposition box: Their strategy is clearly more related to shooting when in advanced positions than looking to carve out a better chance and that chimes with what can occasionally appear like a battering ram approach, especially against teams defending deep. If there's any slight concern regarding last season, it's the way it petered out. Alongside Kane's return, the team did not perform particularly well in the last few weeks of the season:
Tottenham's xG was strong almost throughout 2018-19 until tailing off late on
Really though, here’s nothing particularly complicated here. Via most metrics, Tottenham were one of the top three teams in the country, and used that to power a third placed finish. Key personnel Their personnel may be consistent but that hasn’t stopped an evolution in parts in the way they performed. Harry Kane underwent the transition from extremely good to fundamentally top class by eating a bunch of the team’s attacks and raising his shot rate up to Ronaldo/Messi levels at around five per game. The goals followed similarly at Ronaldo/Messi levels, and he remains the jewel in Spurs’ crown. The creeping concern around him is a narrative cooked up in the depths of the fanalytics bunker after he rushed back in April after only three weeks out from what looked like a six week injury. His shot rate dropped right off through to the season’s end, and remained low during England’s World Cup campaign; although that was more understandable given their limited style. It looks like he’s not going to take any extra time off ahead of the new season and is keen to return as soon as it starts. That’s probably not enough rest--though it never killed Alexis Sanchez--and if there’s one thing for which you can criticise Kane, despite it being wholly entwined in his entire work ethic and single-mindedness, it’s that he never appears to know when to take a break, or slow down and always wants to play. With the ludicrous “Kane doesn’t score in August” narrative also about to return, his goals will be a story once more, while the smart analysis will be to keep a closer eye on his shot rate.
Alli missed his xG by a couple of goals last season, the rest of the high scorers landed over.
If you believe the lazy narrative, Dele Alli is coming off a bad season because he didn’t manage to back up his 18 goal 2016-17 season. He scored nine goals--a clip or two behind expectation--and ten assists would be good enough for most players in their 22nd year, hell, it would be good enough for most players regardless. Alli played a slightly more withdrawn role than the season before, in which he spent a deal of time pushed right up alongside Kane, so logically his creative numbers went up while his scoring numbers went down. There really is no story of woe here, and Alli remains a key contributor, still well ahead of his likely peak. In fact, the more you dig into the numbers, the more you realise that the transition of Alli’s influence was towards creativity: Outside of the metrics shown here Eriksen and Alli are obviously very different players (Eriksen makes a ton more passes, and though they shoot similar volumes they’re from very different parts of the pitch) but 2017-18 saw Tottenham’s upfield creativity as far more of a twin effort. That #1 and #2 rank for pressing events from your team’s chief creators is quite something too: It's often thought that Erik Lamela is Pochettino's football vision realised in human form, but Alli and Eriksen perhaps represent it even more emphatically. Formation/First team choices Tottenham were one of many teams to experiment with three at the back last season, and questions around whether it was a favoured formation lasted well beyond a December switch back to Pochettino’s more familiar 4-2-3-1, with Toby Alderweireld out with a long term injury. By the time he returned to the first team squad, Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen appeared to be the clear preferred pairing. Cloudiness over Alderweireld’s future alongside Sanchez’s impressive form in his debut season at the club meant the Belgian’s inclusion in the first team was no longer a formality. For now Alderweireld remains, and that leaves a strong choice at centre back. It's long enough now since the three centre back experiment was commonplace to presume that while it remains part of Spurs' armoury, it will not be the default. The full back situation may be in a slightly better slot just by chance. Danny Rose appears to be fit after missing clumps of time last time round, and even though Ben Davies will always get hammered for the one bad game he has per season, he’s ahead in the pecking order now and reliable. On the other side, Serge Aurier still needs to cut out the exuberance at times while somehow if the World Cup did nothing else it caused Kieran Trippier to now be seen as an elite full back… kinda? Wild stuff. Central midfield is problematic with a blend of Eric Dier’s steady stoicism, and the variously injured trio of Victor Wanyama, Harry Winks and Dembélé. If they’re all fit there’s probably not too much of an issue here, albeit a lack of passing nous, but they haven’t been and a big signing in this slot would be ideal. As it is, there’s more chat about wide forwards, when the attacking midfield band is fairly deep. Eriksen, Alli, Erik Lamela, Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura are five players for three places with plenty of bench time already for those that miss out. Moussa Sissoko remains an option. And Kane plays up front. Always. In fact so strong is the attacking midfield band, that it’s easy to argue that playing four from those five players is the answer to a non-Kane line-up, as was seen when he missed time late last season. Transfers Last summer was quiet then came to life as the end of the window closed in. The result was as follows:

  • Davinson Sanchez, £40m: Looked expensive and risky for a very young centre back, turned out great.
  • Fernando Llorente, £12m: Looked expensive and risky for an ancient target man who didn’t fit the system, and turned out, notsogreat.
  • Juan Foyth, £10m: a young centre back, who remains young and scarcely seen.
  • Serge Aurier: £22m: Kyle Walker needed replacing and Aurier had the pedigree and horrible errors aside, was okay.

It didn’t feel like the most targeted bunch of signings and the varying success of them was probably reflective of that. A team is rarely going to nail all its transfers, but beyond the success of Sanchez, the outcomes felt fairly predictable. Lucas Moura’s January arrival is currently looking like Tottenham’s best signing of 2018 (he stands alone), for he only saw sporadic minutes last season, and we’re long used to Pochettino taking time to trust or reliably deploy new players, particularly in the hard to shift attacking slots. And now? The noises are that purchases will be made--almost certainly as soon as this article is printed--but so far nothing. While the first team is stable, there is never any harm in signing players with a view to them becoming starters rather than just to fill out the squad and that's something that Tottenham haven't always managed to do. It is hard to know exactly how this will all pan out. The homegrown quota is looking lean and Jack Grealish had been thought close to arrival, but a change in ownership at Aston Villa may have shifted circumstances there. It also feels unlikely that a high cost purchase such as Wilfried Zaha or Anthony Martial will fit within the general budget. For once, Tottenham have not banked a big cheque this summer, having long looked likely to perhaps move Alderweireld or Danny Rose, and none of the rest of their first teamers look to be agitating for a move. The distortion of the transfer window shutting in England well ahead of the continent looks to have altered the power dynamic, and a “sell before they buy” philosophy has been impossible to lock down. Eight years may have passed, but the eternal hope remains that a last minute Rafael Van Der Vaart type deal could fall in the club’s lap; regardless it looks certain that they will be in conversation for players until the last moment. Really though, central midfield has been crying out for an off the shelf star for some while now and the club would gain a lot of fan favour if it just went all in there. Projection Tottenham’s metrics have been rock solid for three years, and they have basically the same team as last season predominantly arriving in peak years. Their goalkeeper just won the World Cup and they are about to land in a new stadium. They have one of their most popular managers and are once more in the Champions League. The narrative about silverware will never disappear until it’s vanquished, but the knock on effect of Walker’s move to Man City and a title does not appear to have triggered unrest. The gap between the top six and the rest of the league remains huge and Tottenham are arguably structurally better off than a rebuilding Chelsea or Arsenal and the vibes out of the red side of Manchester are becoming ever weirder. It’s feasible that any or all of those three teams could hit the positive end of their variance or upspin from their already high talent level and contend with Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City, who look more stable with a view towards a top six bid. Each will have to though. City are a complete lock for probably a top two slot at least, Liverpool fundamentally look like they will be better and have to be in the mix for the highest places, and Spurs just keep doing Spurs, which is usually enough. Third, second, third doesn’t feel like it’s going to be added to with a first. Despite this, another second or third coupled with the stability that is brought from consistency would still mean Tottenham have landed in their new stadium with the team quality that the move was designed to help generate. They’re at the end of that long journey now, but what’s to say there aren’t more good times ahead?  


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Leicester City: 2018-19 Season Preview

Leicester have had a weird existence as a Premier League side over the past 4 seasons. They were facing certain relegation for large parts of 2014–15 until they pulled off the great escape, parlayed that into the most shocking title victory in modern English football history, and then finished 12th and 9th in consecutive seasons, with murmurs going on last season in particular about the style of play not being to the fans liking. In a vacuum, had you told Leicester fans in August 2014 that in 2018 they would be looked upon as a mid-table club, they would’ve gladly taken that. Of course, we aren't in a vacuum and, for better or worse, the 2016 title changed things for the club. Without the glories that came from that season, 2017–18 would’ve been much more palatable season than it turned out to be.

On the surface, Leicester seem to be heading for another mid-table finish. They lost their best attacking player in Riyad Mahrez after multiple transfer requests and even a mini-strike after the January window, but their summer signings offer promise and could cushion the blow of Mahrez’s departure. There's still some talent left on the squad from previous years, but it's a squad that's continuing to undergo a transition from the highs of 2016.

2017–18 Attack

Last season was a odd one for Leicester. Claude Puel clearly tried to steer the club into more of a possession based system compared to how they had played during previous seasons. No longer would they solely be dependent on creating scoring chances from blistering counter attacks, but rather they would have the capacity to create longer sequences of possession that ended in shots. It seemed like there were two dependable ways that Leicester could build something interesting from the back. Harry Maguire provided worth because of his adventurous ball carrying as a center back. He would dribble into midfield areas, draw players to him, and then pass it onto an open teammate. If that didn’t work, Leicester would use Mahrez as almost another central midfielder, to compensate for some of the passing deficiencies and creativity elsewhere in the squad. He was shifty on the ball and had the passing acumen to get the ball to  teammates in dangerous positions. Having Mahrez in this position gave Leicester a greater opportunity to create quick hitting plays that scrambled the opposition defense.

Overall there were some growing pains, as Leicester were in the bottom 10 in shots created from open play, and the bottom five in cross completion percentag which is a problem since they were also top five in percentage of penalty box entries coming from crosses. In general, Leicester’s crossing came from quite static situations where they were pumping it into the box without much movement before hand. Wide players were consistently isolated against a defender and swinging crosses into the box for the likes of Jamie Vardy to get on the end of. Being a heavy usage crossing side who can’t actually connect on crosses is a recipe for disaster in open play.

   

The one saving grace for Leicester in attack was that they got a lot of mileage out of their corner kick routines. Most of them were just small alterations to a single central  plan of having one man within the six yard box to cause some commotion for the opposing goalkeeper. No team created more expected goals from set pieces than Leicester, so it’ll be interesting to see whether they rank even in the top 5 once again this season. Maybe they could even incorporate some of the pet plays that England drew up for the likes of Harry Maguire during the World Cup to maintain their strong set piece play.

Without further reinforcements, it’s hard to see how Leicester’s overall attack improves on what they did last season, and it could frankly become worst as they no longer have the luxury of having Mahrez. The best case scenario is that another season under Puel helps with continuity, added reinforcements soften the blow of losing Mahrez and players like Demarai Gray and Kelechi Ihenacho develop to help round out the attacking corps. It’s a bet that could come good, and one that Leicester desperately need to.

2017–18 Defense

It’s hard to find something that Leicester were good at last season on the defensive side. At just over 13 shots a game, they conceded more shots than the league average. That would be fine if this were a Burnley situation, where the team was willingly giving up territory in order to force opponents to take bad shots. It wasn't. Leicester were around average in quality per shot conceded. In addition, they were also average in deep completions allowed per game. The technical term for this statistical profile is, a whole lot of meh. And sure, that's better than being a raging tire fire, but it's still nothing to write home about.

Leicester defended in a passive 4–4–2 shape. They didn’t put too much pressure on the ball from the back line, but do try and press further up the field. Vardy would hound opposing center backs, supported by pressure from the midfielders to not allow the opposition to turn and play forward. When it worked, Leicester would deny middle penetration with their man-marking scheme and allow the opposition to circulate the ball across the backline, eventually forcing the ball back to the keeper to go long.

When it didn’t work, and more times than not it didn’t, there wasn’t much resistance once the opposition got into advantageous areas. Just by stringing together a few passes teams could my Leicester’s shape look disorganized.

One of the other problems that Leicester had was that once a turnover happened, they didn’t have the structure in place to put out any potential fires. Leicester were 6th worst in shots conceded within 20 seconds of an incomplete pass or dribble. Leicester didn’t tend to counterpress much after losing the ball in the opposition half, which would be fine if they remained in something resembling a compact shape, but they were all over the place once a turnover occurred and teams were able to take advantage of it to create shooting opportunities.

If you wanted to take a glass half full approach, the place to look is Puel's 2016-17 Southampton side, which were one of the best defensive sides from open play. That team was able to function well defensively while still pressuring opponents at a higher intensity than what we saw from Leicester this past season. While Leicester don’t have someone on the level of Virgil Van Dijk at the back, perhaps with another season of Puel at the helm they improve on the margins defensively and go from an uninspiring defensive side to a decent one.

Transfers

Here are two true things about Leicester’s recruitment since coming to the Premier League in 2014:

  • They pulled off one of the better transfers you’ll find this decade in N’Golo Kante
  • Before this summer, their recruitment outside signing Kante was all over the place.

For proof of how disorganized Leicester’s transfers have been, just look at the glut of forwards that they still have on the roster: Ahmed Musa, Jamie Vardy, Kelechi Ihenacho, Shinji Okazaki, Islam Slimani, and Leonardo Ulloa. The glut of forwards that Leicester have accumulated has blocked Ihenacho from having a bigger role on the squad, which hurts his development and on a selfish level, it denies people like myself who have wondered how Ihenacho would fare if he played 2000+ minutes in a season. He’s been an analytics darling going back to his days at Manchester City, and his transfer to Leicester was intriguing from the standpoint of just how much could his bonkers numbers translate under a heavier minutes burden.

With all that belly aching out of the way, Leicester’s summer business has looked quite sound. Johnny Evans isn’t the world’s greatest CB, but at £3.5 million for three years, it’s hard to quibble too hard with the price. Though he is 30 years old, he plays in perhaps the position most forgiving to the aging process and should help bolster Leicester’s CB rotation. Danny Ward at £12.5 million is a bet at the goalkeeper position that I’m not sure will work out, but maybe it does and at a reasonable cost there are worse mistakes to make. The bigger fanfare comes from the acquisition of James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira, two players with the potential to contribute big things very soon.

Maddison was one of the best players in the Championship in 2017–18. He offers Leicester a type of player that they haven’t had over the past few years, a shifty playmaking central midfielder who is comfortable breaking the lines of opposition with his passing along with the potential to contribute over 15 goals if he plays a 2500 minute season. Ricardo Pereira has been one of the better fullbacks in European football, someone who frankly could’ve easily been signed at one of the big six clubs and started for them right away. He was arguably the best fullback in France during his time at Nice and he continued his solid play in Portugal. Both Maddison and Pereira are genuine coups for a Leicester recruitment department that's had a pretty spotty record over the past few years. Some of the excitement over Leicester’s transfer recruitment this summer gets shoved aside because of the departure of Riyad Mahrez, but that was a long time coming and the club should’ve been prepared to ease the blow by now, especially considering that they got a lot of money from Manchester City.

 

Conclusion

Leicester may very well end up being the best club outside of England's top six despite losing Mahrez. Their summer acquisitions shows a level of foresight that had been missing by them for a while, and there’s still some intriguing pieces left in the current squad. If Maddison and Pereira hit the ground running and become two of the better players in the PL at their respective positions, that could allow them to restructure their attack in open play in a positive manner. On the other hand, it’s also conceivable that Leicester go from having an average attack to one that is below average through a decline in set piece play along while not fixing their open play problems. If the defense continues to be a whole pile of meh, now you’re going from a team that was just above even in expected goals difference to one that would be below it, and that decline if it also ran into bad variance through conversion rates could lead to trouble.

All things being equal, Leicester will be probably be fine and it'd be hard to envision them being dragged into any potential relegation scrap. That’s not necessarily the most exciting prognosis. It would be nice to see Leicester use the fact that they're unlikely to be relegated to take more calculated risks like acquiring more young talents to try and reduce the gap between themselves and the top six, but having another season as one of the seven to 10 best teams in the league and further consolidating your status as a mid-tier PL side is something of note.

 


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Manchester City: 2018-19 Season Preview

Well. That went alright didn’t it? Manchester City’s 2017/18 was nonsensically good. They broke so many records (most points, best goal difference, most wins, ad infinitum) that even fervent supporters will have lost track at some point. Pep Guardiola and co. did the same thing to the Premier League that they did to the Bundesliga with Bayern - perhaps to an even greater degree.       City's bread and butter is obviously their possession game. They had just shy of 1000 open play possessions that featured at least 10 passes last season. A bit over 200(!) more than the team with the second most. Their xG per possession on those 10+ pass possessions was - as you may have guessed - the best in the league. All that possession high up the pitch has a clear tradeoff: lots of space in behind. The possibility of that space being exploited is they key defensive worry for any adventurous team, but City did an excellent job of marshalling it. And, to stay on theme, their xG per shot allowed on these was also the lowest in the league. Yet their repertoire expanded beyond being slow, ball-hog masters. When you're facing bunkered defences so often it pays to squeeze extra bits of useful attack from your press (or closing down, if you prefer some good old fashioned terminology). The amount of shots City generated from off-ball defending - bearing in mind how much time they spend on the ball - was impressive. They allowed their share of chances on the other end (the percentage of their shots conceded where only the goalkeeper was in between shot-taker and goal was second highest in the PL) but gave up so few opportunities overall that it balanced out.

High press shots = Shots generated from possessions that were won within 5 seconds of a defensive action (pressure/tackle/interception/blocked pass) in the opposition’s half.

They weren't always brilliant, however, waning as the season rolled on. The instinct is to attribute this to facing defences that were ever-deepening out of fear of being steamrolled, but the data doesn't back this up. The average defensive distance of their opposition didn't really change over time - in fact they were pressed in their own half more often in the second half of the campaign. This became somewhat of a problem as, when City failed to complete a pass or dribble under pressure in their own half, they ended up conceding shots following that at a mid-table rate. They didn't increase in conservatism either; the average position for their fullbacks, again, actually got higher up the pitch near the end of the campaign, and they were attempting just as many risky passes. Their creation from set pieces also slumped from January onwards, dropping from 0.38 xG per game to 0.28. There's all sorts of stuff you could run through but really it's just a combination of a few smaller problems, all likely brought on by the simple fact that it's hard to maintain a high level of performance over a lengthy season. Fatigue, familiarity, all sorts of factors start to kick in. Then there's also that most dreaded of topics: reversion. Premier League winners generally follow a specific statistical trend. Most years, the clump of teams at the top of the table are quite close in actual quality. The teams who pull away from the pack benefit from hot streaks - mostly in terms of goal conversion both for and against - that exaggerate the differences between them and everyone else. They convert shots at a ridiculous rate, their goalkeepers save shots against them at a ridiculous rate, so on and so forth. This isn’t to say these teams weren’t the best team in the land that season, or that they were overtly ‘lucky’. You can judge that for yourself. The point is that the margins are smaller than they appear when the league table is finalised. These aspects come down to earth as the league calendar turns over. This was the case with Man City too. They converted shots at an obscene pace, and on our own xG model they overperformed by around 20 goals in attack. One shouldn’t expect this to repeat in 18/19, even with their stacked set of talent. The thing is though: they were so far above to begin with that it basically doesn't matter. In every regard you could consider - be it shot differential, expected goal difference, various passing metrics etc - they were clearly the leaders. Repeat that season without the variance bounce and they still walk it. Everything else was merely the hot sauce on top that helped them be next-level historic. In reality, the team likely isn't as invincible as they first appeared. There are little holes in their game to be poked at, but the same is true of every team ever. There will be a couple of games next season - probably against Liverpool, natch - where the opposition will be able to blunt their attack and/or ferociously exploit the spaces they naturally leave open. That happens. No approach works all of the time, but Man City's works pretty damn often. __________________ The player who completed the most throughballs in the PL last season was Kevin De Bruyne. In second place was Riyad Mahrez, who now plays for *checks notes* oh... Obviously City didn’t make Mahrez their club record signing (£60m!) purely because of his throughball numbers, but this partially illustrates their reasoning. How do you improve a juggernaut attack? One way to go about it is to snap up possibly the only remaining player in your league that fits your stylistic template. Among players outside the top six Mahrez lead his peers by some margin in xG assisted. He’s a creative force to pile on top of other creative forces. At Leicester he mostly thrived in transition, but with his lovely weight of pass through small windows, as well as tight, slinky ball-control, he should slot into Guardiola's system nicely.

If there's one problem with Mahrez, it's his shot selection. The man is a serial bad-shot taker, with an unsightly xG per shot. Last season that didn’t matter as he banged in 12 goals anyway - nearly double his xG. Flash back to 2016/17 and he managed three non-penalty goals from a similar profile. Such is the variable life of the technically superb yet overly ambitious shooter. The one bright spot is that his off-ball movement is solid on the occasions he utilises it. He got on the end of 18 transition shots (shots taken within 20 seconds of the opposition losing the ball deep), the second most in the league.  What really sticks out - aside from the pops from distance - is his predilection for coming inside and firing from wide angles. The man’s a solid dribbler and gets into dangerous locations using that skill, but the decision making from there is not so hot. He enjoys probing forward from central areas too. One imagines that Guardiola will emphasize the inventive side of his game. Pass don't shoot. And then, every few games, Mahrez will curl one in the top corner from a ridiculous angle just to remind you how gifted City are. Is this addition at all necessary? No, let's be honest. It's a wild fee for what is essentially pouring more melted chocolate onto a running fondue fountain. Consider this though: Guardiola can now conjure up whatever positional potpourri he desires from a stable that includes Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané, Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva, with Sergio Agüero to pop up front. That’s absurd. Beyond Mahrez, City's transfer window is curious more for the players they aren't buying. Silly as it may seem to say considering their overall riches, the midfield situation is looking a tad precarious. The current rotation of Fernandinho/İlkay Gündoğan/Fabian Delph is plenty talented but Fernandinho is 33 years old, Gündoğan is a constant injury risk and Delph is pulling double duty as a backup left back. Should one go down - or should their main left-back Benjamin Mendy have time off, forcing Delph to take that spot - that's some iffy territory. The club was heavily linked to Jorginho prior to him joining Chelsea, a missed move that would have gone a long way to quashing this unease. As it is, they may have to fall back on some Pep tactical tinkering if legs grow weary (an increased role for youngster Oleksandr Zinchenko?), or a winter window splurge. __________________ Most seasons are preceded by repetitions of “insert team who won last season’s title here look well placed to defend it this year”. Invariably, things tend to spiral from there. The vagaries of football wreck merry hell on everyone's assumptions. Once the sheen has worn off and we come to see that teams are only ever that good for a short while, the landscape looks very different. However, with Manchester City, this isn’t just conventional lip service. There are concerns there, primarily the slightly uneven second half of last season and the potential for depth issues. Yet the aggregate gap they opened up was so large it would be foolish to suggest anything other than this: these are your indisputable 2018/19 title favourites. Have at 'em. __________________ Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Premier League Preview Introduction

Welcome to the StatsBomb Premier League season preview. Over the next two weeks we’ll be previewing every team, breaking down the good and the bad, but sadly no longer the Charlie Adam. This post is your one stop shopping for all of those previews. You can scroll on down and find links to each piece as they post. If you’re familiar with our work, that should be just about all you need. Check back daily, we’ll be posting a couple of teams per day more or less. If you’re discovering us for the first time, here’s a little FAQ to get you started.   What exactly is StatsBomb? We do cool things with football data. We collect it, poke it, slice and dice it, and learn stuff from it. The company does all sorts of consulting. You probably don’t care about that, but if you do here’s how to get in touch. The website also does cool stuff with football data. We use our data to do analysis that is intelligent and fun, and hopefully makes interested readers smarter about the game.   Oh, so you’re nerds. Do you even watch the games? Yeah. We watch the games. Everybody here loves the game. That’s why we do this. We just also happen to like numbers and using numbers to help learn about the game.   But if you watch the games, why do you even need numbers? An excellent question! There are a handful of different ways that numbers are useful even to people who obsessively watch the sport. First, no matter how diligent a watcher you are, even if you’re one of the lucky few who get paid to watch the sport for a living, there’s more football going on across the globe than you have hours in a day. Stats are not a replacement for watching, but they can be a guide. You’re definitely not watching the vast majority of League One matches, but if your team gets linked to a precocious talent plying their trade there, these stats can give you a road map for what to expect if you decide to tune in. Second, stats are an extremely effective tool for detecting small changes across large numbers of games. It’s hard to watch a couple of different strikers play five games each and then come away and know for sure which one took five shots per 90 minutes of play* and which took three. The former would be the most prolific shooter in the Premier League, the latter barely in the top twenty. *Most stats you’ll see here are recorded on a per 90 minute basis instead of a per game basis, that way starters who play the lion’s share of the minutes and substitutes who get short runouts get examined on even footing. Knowing that a player shoots more, or scores more, or does anything else more isn’t useful if it turns out the only reason they do it more is that they play more minutes. Third, numbers are an extremely effective way to describe what’s going on over large periods of time. Using statistics to describe a team or a player is a way of supporting (but not proving) and argument. Most football analysis is done at the minute and specific level, analyzing unique and individual moments. Watching a fullback get spun inside out by a winger is a good way to determine what went wrong in the leadup to a goal. Statistics are the tool that helps to figure out whether that fullback gets roasted too often week in and week out. In the end statistics, and their slightly fancier cousin analytics, are a tool to be used. Coaches have video now to help them prepare for games in ways they wouldn’t have been able to before. Television viewers have instant replay, and tactical cameras, and super slow motion all of which provides more information than a generation ago. Statistics work similarly, providing more information than ever before, another tool in the arsenal for players, managers, supporters and anybody else interested in the ins and outs of how football works.   Okay but what about that Disraeli thing about lies, damn lies, and statistics? Well, first of all, it’s not actually a Disraeli quote. Mark Twain attributed it to him, but nobody really knows where it came from. It’s also not wrong. Be wary of people using statistics to provide firm answers. While analytics and stats can answer some basic questions, what they’re best used for is helping to ask better questions. They can, for example, move the conversation from “Is Raheem Sterling bad because he can’t shoot?” to how is Raheem Sterling so good, even though it seems like he can’t shoot. Analytics has all sorts of tools to help do that. Whether it’s normalizing things to per 90 minutes, or using expected goals to try and figure out exactly how good or bad various shots are, using numbers smartly helps to offer a better baseline for discussions about the game that fans are having all the time.   You wore me down, and I clicked on that last link. It talked a lot about expected goals. It’s the same thing annoying people on twitter talk about all the time. Why should I care about expected goals? An official sounding definition of expected goals would be something like, the average number of goals that a player or team would be expected to score given the set of shots that they took. Here’s a whole bunch of details on how the metric works, but the long and short of it is that expected goals is a better predictor of future goals than actual goals. Because scoring is so difficult, and so much stuff can go right or wrong on a given shot, or in a given game, or even a given month, taking a step back and looking at the quality of chances created and conceded is a more reliable indicator of a team’s ability than the actual amount of goals teams have scored. Frequently, the stat is also used as a shorthand way to describe a single game. It’s useful knowing a team’s expected goal total in a single game, and can help describe a game with more context than other numbers, but single game expected goals aren’t particularly predictive. Asking the question, “do the expected goal numbers of these two teams accurately reflect the game I just watched?” is a useful exercise for analysis. Saying, “This team had 3 goals, but only 1.2 xG so they were undeserving winners” isn’t. Like I said before, analytics is about asking better questions more than it is about providing definitive answers.   So all you people do is nerd out about expected goals and I’m supposed to read 20 previews about that? Nope. We’ve got lots more. It’s useful having a metric that helps more accurately depict which teams are better than they might seem and which teams are worse, but it’s much more interesting diving into the why and how of it all. That’s what these previews will be about. Using data (and lots of other stuff), these previews will be breaking down not only how good each Premier League team might or might not be, but more importantly what they actually do that makes them tick. Which players do which things in which areas of the pitch and how often. Who needs to up their game and how. Which managers will have the biggest impacts, and which ones might be past their primes. All of the kinds of questions that football fans are interested in, StatsBomb is interested in too. We just use data to help figure out the best way to approach them.   Shockingly, you’ve persuaded me, a fake person on the internet asking you questions on the website you run, to go ahead and read all the previews on your site. Excellent. Enjoy! And be sure to check back every day.   The Previews: July 30 -- Manchester City July 31 -- Tottenham Hotspur July 31 -- Leicester City August 1 -- Manchester United August 1 -- Liverpool August 2 -- Wolverhampton Wanderers August 3 -- Watford August 5 -- Southampton August 5 -- Cardiff City August 6 -- Bournemouth August 6 -- West Ham August 7 -- Everton August 7 -- Arsenal August 8 -- Newcastle August 8 -- Brighton August 9 -- Chelsea August 9 -- Burnley August 10 -- Crystal Palace August 10 -- Huddersfield Town August 10 -- Fulham   Header image courtesy of the Associated Press

Inside League One: Using Data to Look At Players

One of the key benefits of forming a football data company is that you can choose which leagues to collect data for. As such, StatsBomb have added English League One to the roster and collected data for 2017-18, and will continue to do so going forward. Having high quality data for a league that has been under served in the past is a fascinating starting point for analysis, so let’s dive in, identify some players who performed well and discuss their game. This will be the first of two articles written discussing League One via data, so be sure to keep an eye out for the second one next week. A relevant disclaimer: StatsBomb endorses data use as part of a fuller process that involves traditional scouting methods too. Data has an important role in refining ideas but cannot be the sole driver towards a complete analysis. The profiles here can act as a start off point and show how data can help refining multiple leagues worth of players towards a far more efficient process. Jack Marriott (Peterborough) Marriott’s 27 league goals led the division, and his move up a division to Derby appears well deserved. While the league’s top scorer might appear to be an obvious pick, when evaluating players, it’s important to understand the inputs that went into a performance to get an idea of whether or not it’s intrinsically likely to recur. A look at his shot chart shows how the Peterborough man accrued his impressive total: Chiefly impressive here is the sheer variety of his goals. He scores from set pieces, he scores from crosses, he scores from through balls. He scores headers, he scores from outside the box, from wide and from close in. He’s also matched expectation: 26 goals from an xG of 25.7. His rate of over four shots per game ranked second only to Wigan’s Nick Powell and his rate of shots related to all touches was over 7%, nearly 2% higher than anyone in the league; he’s a pure striker. Without even going any deeper we can see that his season has been an accurate reflection of the chances his teammates have created for him. If we are to be critical, the volume of wider shots he took, particularly from the right side, is probably too high, but he’s not intrinsically wasteful, and this is a good shot chart for a striker. He did not manage to score after a dribble, but he showed an ability to carve out his own opportunities in that manner, ranking second in the league for shots inside the box after a dribble with ten. We can see here his next actions post-dribble, and those wide shots crop up. The ability to generate his own shot should not be undervalued though, as it’s likely that this type of chance allows his team to relieve pressure, and lightly implies a good workrate. Something that more strongly implies workrate are pressure events, and Marriott scores fairly well here. His rate of around twelve opposition half pressure events per 90 puts him in the top 10% of players and fourth for those with over 3000 minutes registered. Like many pure strikers, he doesn’t possess the ball to any great volume, but he does put work in to retrieve it. Callum Styles (Bury) Sometimes a young player can raise interest from a brief first team spell and while you would like more minutes to evaluate, what they have done in a short period of time is enough to merit further investigation. Callum Styles to date is chiefly known as the first player born in the 21st century to play in the Football League, which he did for Bury back in 2016. Still just 18, Styles got 900 minutes for Bury in the back half of 2016-17 but then figured only sporadically for Bury during the majority of their dismal 2017-18 season that eventually saw them relegated after finishing rock bottom by nine points. Styles' time in the team this time round started in March 2018, and from there on in he completed the full 90 minutes in Bury’s last eight games. Bury were all but doomed at this point, but given the chance to contribute, Styles certainly did just that: Via the pressure data we record at StatsBomb we can see that in the ~850 minutes Styles played, he led the league for pressure events recorded, with 25.6 per 90. We can see from the chart here the areas that he covered (where grades of red equate to exceeding league average). Pretty much the whole midfield band. Related to this, he also led the league for pressure regains--defined as occasions in which his team regained the ball within five seconds of the player’s pressure event--which suggests that he targeted his pressing effectively within the team. Beyond that, of the 25 players who recorded 20+ pressure events per game Styles ranked second to another young player who played limited minutes, Aidan O’Neill of Fleetwood, for the volume of which turned into pressure regains--around 19%. The caution here is the small sample of games but this is a good example of where data use can point towards player performance, and start the process towards fuller evaluation. Cheyenne Dunkley (Wigan) In truth, this whole article could have been about Wigan players. They won the league and were never out of the top three from the end of September onwards and though Blackburn Rovers pushed them hard to secure the second automatic promotion slot, Wigan were top scorers and had the best defence too. Nick Powell was a contender for the best player in the division and was joined by defenders Dan Burn and Nathan Byrne and forward Will Grigg in the PFA Team of the Year while Sam Morsy was a stalwart in midfield. However in a post-World Cup environment where Harry Maguire is one of the most important attackers in world football, the performances of Cheyenne Dunkley were notable. Signed on a free transfer from Oxford United in the summer of 2017, last season was only Dunkley’s second in League One having battled his way up from non-league. He scored seven goals and it’s fair to say he had a method: A striker would be proud of a shot chart like that. Dunkley’s success here once more represents the value in using set pieces as part of a mixed attacking strategy. Jay Dasilva (Charlton) League One is a division that is still used by top clubs as a breaking ground for their young talent, and one unarguable success story last season was Jay Dasilva during his time at Charlton. The young Chelsea prospect rejoined Charlton after a spell there during 2016-17 and after captaining England’s side that won the UEFA Under-19 European Championships during the following summer. He started 34 games for Charlton last season, won their Fans Player of the Year award and graduated to under-21 honours. Out of possession, left back Dasilva did his job: At the other end of the pitch, Dasilva showed signs of being well capable of playing within a possession-oriented team. He led his team for final third passes completed (17.2 per game, and ranked tenth within the division) of which 30% were forward, enough to rank second among the top twenty players for final third volume. And these number weren’t padded by crosses, he scarcely attempted them. He was also able to contribute to chance creation; 1.3 key passes per game (with a value of 0.15xG Assisted) ranked third for Charlton, impressive from left back. He’s also a capable dribbler and ranked second in his team for the percentage of pressure events that led to a regain of possession (21%). It appears likely that Dasilva will once more head out among Chelsea’s loan army this summer, and his general progress in League One implies that he will be capable of performing at a higher level. His time at Charlton is the ideal representation of how the selective loan of a young player can benefit the player’s owner and the loan club to an equal degree.  


  That's just a flavour of what you can pull from via StatsBomb's League One data. Ahead of the new season starting next week, we will return with a further post, and as the season progresses keep checking our social media for updates.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Paul Pogba: Beyond Pogood and Pogevil

Whether it be with a pass, shot, or celebration, Paul Pogba’s ability to send the footballing community into hysterics remains unprecedented. As one of the most polarizing figures in football, his dab with the world cup wasn’t the first time he’s sundered opinion and it certainly won’t be the last. But Pogba’s divisive nature comes down to much more than a dance or how he styles his hair. As the star of an ostentatious marketing campaign, the expectation for the Frenchman to be an offensively minded midfield dynamo stems from his time at Juventus. With the Old Lady nearly conquering Europe, Pogba’s talents as a supremely gifted technical and physical specimen shined bright in a system that elevated his gifts, ultimately earning him a move back to his boyhood club, Manchester United. A few years down the road, however, and the story isn’t as fulfilling as fans and Adidas executives alike, would have wanted it to be. After two drab seasons of Mourinho-ball, Pogba’s stock plateaued. While flashes of brilliance as a press-resistant star have kept people believing in the astronomic height of his potential, the lack of end product in an offensively conservative system also made believers into doubters., And, much like the more unforgiving assessments of Pogba, France’s display at the World Cup was rife with an overwhelming sense of underperformance. Though the majority of their games were justifiable wins, the expectation that came with such a star-studded team sheet  made people feel like the defensive approach Didier Deschamps favored was a misuse of immense talent. Outside of games against Sampaoli’s certifiably insane Argentina and a freakish final, there was no palpable explosion of French attacking play. But, that wasn’t Pogba’s fault. Though France’s tournament  wasn’t the summer blockbuster hit featuring Pogba some that hoped it would be, the Frenchman’s contribution to the eventual champions was indispensable. As a deep passer of the ball that excelled at progressing possession in meaningful ways, Pogba quietly thrived in a system that really only provided a stage for Kylian Mbappe and some of the other forwards to shine. However, his success, regardless of how known or unknown it was, presents the problem Pogba has faced since joining the red devils: his ability to be proficient at the things many would typically suggest a “6” does in football plays into Jose Mourinho’s tendency to deploy the Frenchman in deeper midfield. And yet, not only is it a contrast to what the footballing community, marketing executives, and possibly Pogba, wants, but his deployment under Mourinho vastly differs from his role with France. Though at a cursory glance they may appear to be similar, there are quite a few reasons why it differs. There’s more than one way to be constrained by a system. First and foremost, international football is entirely separate from club football in format. Though a team like France may have had the option of possession versus counter-attack in stylistic choice, club teams don’t have the same luxury. Playing a more complex, possession-oriented style of football is a requirement for teams with access to talent in the club game, not an option. As the chart above shows, much of Pogba’s talent as a passer was used to fuel the effectiveness of France’s counter-attacks. Mourinho may forever see himself as the quintessential counter-attacking manager, but the nature of being Manchester United means the vast majority of your opponents will take a reactive approach to the game. With little space to move into, Pogba’s current role at United nullifies the progressive passing numbers that made him so effective this summer. Second is personnel. Long has the debate surrounding Pogba been about those surrounding him. Nemanja Matic was the player intended to finally free the Frenchman from the defensive duties that shackled his brilliance going forward, and while the Serbian is a more than adequate midfield partner for just about any player, the relationship Pogba was able to strike up with N’Golo Kante this summer has been so much more effective. With the Chelsea man making the tackles and Pogba moving it forward, Deschamps was able to forego playing a traditional attacking midfielder in their 4–2–3–1 formation since much of the creation stemmed from the transition created by their midfield duo. Any discussion of what Pogba’s game with United should look like needs to start with an understanding of why it won’t replicate what he did this summer. His relative ‘failure’ at Manchester United is down to his ability, or lack thereof, to fulfill a role few can even define. Somewhere between the player he’s marketed as and only making sideways passes lies the role he’s supposed to play. We know he has the ability to be the number ten the shirt selling giant wants him to be because his strong numbers at Juventus, though over two years old, are still relevant. We also know that his ability in a deeper position could be of use as well. What perhaps needs to be allowed is a redefinition of what Pogba’s success looks like- something beyond what our current mental construct of Paul Pogba allows for. The most frustrating reality United fans have experienced under Mourinho is that there seem to be so many avenues for their marquee signing to thrive, and yet he’s experienced none of them. Whether it’s a re-imagining of his attack-minded form at Juventus -something that’s all the more probable with the addition of Fred- or letting go of the idea that he should be whatever this is, and allow him to flourish as a deeper midfielder, Pogba, like any player, requires direction. For the media, much of the blame is easily lumped on a player that seems all too distracted by hair-dye and Fortnite celebrations, but it’s clear that the downturn in attack isn’t entirely his fault. No one in Jose Mourinho’s United has thrived offensively, and most of the team’s underlying attacking numbers pale in comparison to players of similar positions in the top six. In his final year at Juventus, Pogba ranked 7th in Serie A in both xA and xGChain. At United last season, he ranked 42nd and 37th respectively. The massive drop-off in production isn’t all him, and a World Cup winning summer in Russia all but proves that. Pogba can still be great; he just needs to be allowed to.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

In Defense of Everton's Richarlison Purchase

If there’s one piece of transfer advice that should be tattooed on the inside of the eyelids of everybody even remotely connected with football it’s this: Pay for what a player is going to produce, don’t pay for what they’ve already done. That isn’t as easy as it sounds of course. Projecting performance is hard! What a player has done, isn’t necessarily indicative of what they will do. There are all sorts of things to take into account. How will a player react to a different system? Will changing leagues impact their performance? Have they played with really great teammates who flatter them, or really poor ones who held them back? If they are moving countries how will the adjustment impact them? Will there be language barriers, either on the player or coaching side, which slow down the bedding in process? And that’s all before trying to take the fickle nature of the football gods into account. Throughout all the complication though, one thing is easy. Aging. Young players tend to get better and older players tend to get worse. That’s simply the way of things. Too often teams make the simple mistake of looking at a 27 or 28 year old’s production and assuming that they too will continue to get those goals. It just doesn’t usually work that way. There are exceptions of course, the Cristiano Ronaldo’s of the world. But, for the most part it's Wayne Rooney, not Ronaldo who is the norm. A player who is getting signed to play through age 30 is a player who is going to get worse. The flip side of the coin is also true. Young players get better. They don’t all improve of course. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. It’s hard enough to predict how a player will perform when they change teams, but add in the uncertainty of aging and things get very fuzzy very fast. All players eventually get worse, not every young player gets better. And so we come to Richarlison, who Everton just spent something like £40 million on. To judge that transfer solely on what Richarlison has produced to date would make it loot absurd. In the year since Watford acquired him for £10 million from Fluminese he scored five goals and assisted on four more and that’s supposed to quadruple his value? Well. Maybe. The place to start, as always is a quick look at his expected goals. His xG numbers are much more promising. A 21 year old who racks up 12.05 expected goals is actually quite an exciting prospect. That’s not to say that Everton should assume Richarlison is nailed on to bounce back to his underlying numbers. That’s a pretty big gap, it’s certainly possible there was a reason the young Brazilian attacker was so wayward. But, what is nailed on is that you’d much rather buy the player who had five goals from 12 expected than the reverse. In the absence of more data the default assumption should be that Richarlison’s xG is a more faithful representation of what he will produce in the future than his actual goals. In a world where Richarlison took exactly the same shots but 14 or 15 of them ended up in the back of the net, nobody would bat their eye at this price tag. The fact that Richarlison is 21 years old suggests that he’s likely to improve. The fact that he scored fewer goals than expected is a sign that what Everton are getting is a player likely to produce more than he did last season. The fact that he’s already performed at a promising level for a year in the Premier League alleviates some of the adjustment concerns. Everton are operating in an environment considerably more definitive than Watford were. Watford took on the risk of buying Richarlison without having any guarantees about how moving from Brazil to England would impact the young player. Everton are not. Then there’s the issue of teammates. Richarlison was the most prominent attacking force for Watford. He led the team in expected goals per 90 minutes (players with at least 1200 minutes) with 0.36 Despite playing from the wing, he took the most shots on the team with 3.02 per 90, and had the second highest xG/shot with 0.12. He also had the third most touches in the box with 8.82 per 90 (virtually tied with Andre Gray’s 8.92 and really only trailing Troy Deeney’s 10.30). Contextually these numbers paint the picture of a player who was pushing at the edges of what he could do given the teammates around him. Everton aren’t world beaters, of course, but they do certainly have more talent than last season’s Watford side. Players like Gylfi Sigurdsson, Theo Walcott, Oumar Niasse, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin aren’t, for various reasons, elite players, but they’re certainly a better attacking corps than Troy Deeney and company. It’s yet another sign post pointing towards Richarlison being a player who will likely be better in the future than he was in the past. And finally there’s the matter of the actual specific skills Richarlison brings to the table. He’s a scoring winger, but he’s not small. At 179cm he makes for a surprising aerial presence as well. Last season there were only seven players who played over 1000 minutes and averaged both more than one successful dribble per 90 and more than one aerial duel won. They’re an interesting group, Romelu Lukaku is the only star in the mix. And Salomon Rondon is the only striker besides Lukaku. Serge Aurier, the forever frustrating Spurs right back is the lone defender on the list, unless you're like Slaven Bilic chose to count Michail Antonio there for some reason. Then it’s Mikel Merino, Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison. That’s a weird list, but at the very least it’s indicative of an interesting and relatively unique skillset. Does that all add up to a player whose worth the hefty price tag? Well, there’s a lot more that goes into evaluating a transfer fee than a player’s potential. Were there other ways Everton could have spent the money better? What will the market look like in three years’ time? What are Richarlison’s wages? All of those things are important factors in weighing whether Richarlison is worth what Everton spent. There are absolutely reasons to be skeptical of Everton’s purchase of Richarlison. It’s just that the fact that he only has five goals and four assists isn’t one of them. Richarlison profiles as an exciting prospect, one who has buckets of talent and a reasonable chance of turning that talent into stardom. Everything about his last Premier League season screams that his production is likely to improve, and quickly. Young players, with numbers and experience that suggest that their best performance lies ahead of them are exactly the kinds of players that teams should be pursuing. Richarlison fits that profile to a tee.     Image courtesy of the Press Association

Three Premier League Questions before August

Does it seem like this summer is moving fast? The World Cup isn’t even two weeks behind us, and the Premier League season is barely two weeks away. The early start to the season, combined with the fact that the transfer window will close for Premier League sides on opening day, means that clubs have had very little time to prepare for the season. Here are five pressing questions that Premier League teams will need to answer as the calendar hurtles into August.  

Will Manchester City reinforce their midfield?

The fulcrum of Manchester City’s midfield is Fernandinho. It’s his ability to patrol midfield behind David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne that has allowed City to fully embrace Pep Guardiola’s extremely aggressive tactics. It’s not hyperbole to say that Fernandinho is everywhere. He’s also 33 years old. Early in the summer it seemed like City recognized that they needed to add depth to that midfield base. Jorginho was heavily linked to them before he was Chelsea’d away by Chelsea. He seemed to be the perfect fit for exactly what City needed. He could have played in place of Fernandinho when rotation warranted or in case of injury. He also would have been able to play alongside the Brazilian as part of Guardiola’s quest to see how many center midfielders it’s possible to cram on the field at the same time. But, after losing out on Jorginho, City have not turned to other options. Instead they signed Riyad Mahrez. He’s a great player, and one who will provide useful wing depth and perhaps free Bernardo Silva to spend more time closer to the center of the pitch, but he certainly doesn’t address City’s real need. As of now, City’s midfield depth is Ilkay Gundogan and Fabian Delph (assuming Delph’s leftback duties are reduced with a healthy Benjamin Mendy returning). Gundgan is a great midfielder, but not a particularly gifted last line of midfield defense. He’ll be fine for those games that City dominate, but against top opposition, when he’d be called upon to win the ball back as much as pass it forward, he’s nowhere near Fernandinho’s level. Delph might have been the surprise of the season for City at fullback last year. Pressed into emergency duty after the injury to Mendy, he turned himself into an absolutely dominant performer. Guardiola has a history of blurring the line between midfielder and fullback, but he completely ignored Delph as a possible option for a full season, while both Aleksander Kolarov and Gael Clichy struggled in the role. The major question for City is can Delph translate his breakout season into a similarly distinguished turn playing significant midfield minutes? Is last season an indication that Delph finally found the role he was born to play, or that he will continue to flourish as a 28 year old late bloomer in a more central area? If City don’t make any moves to add to their midfield, the answer to that question may hold the key to City’s title and trophy aspirations.  

Will Manchester United Make Any Major Moves?

Jose Mourinho is never shy about demanding new and better players. He will constantly (and often correctly) point out just how deficient he finds his squad in comparison to those of his rivals. It’s not so much an implication, but a screamed assertion, that disappointing results aren’t his fault, they’re the fault of whoever is giving him the players who are just not good enough. The thing is, Mourinho isn’t wrong that United aren’t good enough to contend for the title. Last year’s second place finish relied heavily on David De Gea playing out of his skull. And yet, so far, United have made a grand total of two moves. They brought in Fred from Shaktar Donetsk, who is certainly a promising midfielder. But he’s 25 and joins a crowded midfield. Does he improve United? Probably. But it’s on the margins, by improving the midfield options in support of Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic. And other than Fred the list of transfers is a grand total of one teenage fullback. Diogo Dalot might be good one day. He might even be a capable backup right now. He doesn’t make United meaningfully better than they were last season. And more alarming is the warmed over list of names the team keeps being linked to. Whether it’s Ivan Perisic or Ante Rebic or Willian or even Harry Maguire. The names that keep popping up are either old Mourinho favorites, or players who were just notable at the World Cup. After saying, with justification, all season last year that the team’s fullbacks weren’t good enough, the team’s position is now that fullback is fine, and that Ashley Young, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Dalot will provide what the team needs. There are still two weeks left, but on the current course, it sure seems like the result of this transfer window will be Jose Mourinho complaining in November that the team isn’t good enough to contend.  

Is the Bottom Half Better?

Last season all three promoted teams remained safely in the Premier League. The teams that descended, Stoke, Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion were all longtime Premier League sides. Stoke were there for a cool decade, Swansea for seven years and West Brom for seven (and eight of the last nine). And it’s not just that newcomers Huddersfield, Brighton and Hove Albion and now perennial yo-yo Newcastle, survived. But, two of the three reloaded. Huddersfield managed to hold onto manager David Wagner and spent 30 million net to bring in six outfield players who are all under the age of 26. Brighton have already spent a similar amount and are now linked to Eredivisie leading scorer Alireza Jahanbakhsh. It’s only Mike Ashley at Newcastle who, having secured his survival in the Premier League, hasn’t yet looked to cement the squad with a more ambitious talent level. And now, two of the three promoted sides are making giant waves. Fulham managed to land Jean Michael Seri, and are closing in on Andre Schurrle, two talented pieces to add to a squad that already played fairly expansive football. And Wolverhampton, have spent the last two seasons turning themselves into Portugal north thanks to Jorge Mendes’s rolodex. It’s an ambitious plan that saw them run away with the Championship last season. Keeper Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho are the latest to join a team that includes Diego Jota, Ruben Neves, Will Boly (who’s French but arrived after stints at Braga and Porto). That’s not to say that all four of these teams will definitely survive, or that Newcastle will definitely be relegated. But, what’s clear is that none of these bottom half sides are scared of taking big swings, reinvesting in the club, and generally spending money to get better in innovative ways. Gone are the days where a successful bottom half survival season meant simply selling a star, reinvesting the money and hoping to do it all over again. As the river of money has flown ever further down the Premier League table, the variety of options open to ambitious clubs has increased. Fulham chose to spend on a couple of big ticket items, Wolverhampton went all-in on Portugal. Huddersfield and Brighton both held onto their players and then spread the money around to increase the baseline talent level of the club. Whether or not these approaches work is an open question, but it’s definitely a far cry from the normal desperate casting around that the bottom of the Premier League has seen in recent years, Brighton, Huddersfield, Fulham and Wolverhampton all are attempting to implement unique plans. They probably won’t all succeed, but it’ll certainly be more interesting to watch them try than the dreck that was drifting to the bottom of the Premier League table the last two seasons.

Did Messi Fail Argentina, or Did Argentina Fail Messi?

Argentina are out of the World Cup, and all eyes are unsurprisingly on one man. The tournament is over, and now it’s time for the quadrennial tradition of arguing about whether it’s all Lionel Messi’s fault. Messi generated the most expected goals of any Argentina player at the World Cup. He had the most open play passes into the box while still managing to get into the area for the second most touches in the box. He managed the most dribbles and the most shots of anyone in the squad. He had the most key passes and assisted the second most xG. All of this led to him reaching the joint highest total xGChain in the side. Yet, all it got him was a single goal, two assists, and an early flight home to a furious Argentine public. To the shock of no one, there has been a strong reaction both in support of and critical of Messi. Inevitably this is heavily driven by club loyalties, with Real Madrid fans keen to attack him while Barcelona supporters desperately defend their man. But what exactly did Messi do in the World Cup? Were there choices he could’ve made to improve the side, or did his teammates simply fail him?  

Game One - Unable to Break the Ice

Iceland had a plan for stopping Messi and Argentina, one that certainly seemed to frustrate him. The main man registered ten shots in the game, more than half of his attempts in the entire World Cup. None managed to pose a serious threat, however, and he produced a shot map that matched the colours of La Albiceleste’s home kit. How Iceland managed to do this is not complicated, but it was still impressive in execution. Their low block 4-4-2 system was able to pack an abnormally large number of players behind the ball at any one time, not unreminiscent of Sean Dyche’s Burnley. When looking at a heatmap of Iceland’s pressure events, the gameplan becomes obvious: frustrate Argentina in deep positions around the edge of the box, making it extremely difficult to break through. We can see this plan on the pitch too, with a full eight Iceland players behind the ball as Messi attempts one of his many shots from range. What’s even more notable is that this is at 0-0, long before a side would typically be settling for what they have. While  Iceland played well, their style wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had seen them at Euro 2016, and it’s not clear what manager Jorge Sampaoli’s plan was to break them down. Messi was nominally playing as a number ten behind Sergio Aguero, but he would often be seen drifting to his familiar right sided role or into a deeper midfield position to compensate for the lack of progressive passing from central areas. Giving one of the best players in the history of football licence to roam isn’t in itself a bad idea, so long as there is a clear structure around him. As it was, Maxi Meza and Ángel Di María in the wide roles were themselves often coming inside. Had they held their positions on the flanks, this could have stretched Iceland’s compact block and created some space for Messi in central areas. But they didn’t, so the whole thing was without structure and this allowed Iceland to easily keep their compact shape. Messi was extremely isolated in this game, a number ten standing between the lines alone, surrounded by two Icelandic banks of four. Argentina’s only thought to break down the deep block of Iceland was to give the ball to Messi and let him figure it out, which, yes, he was unable to do, but there really should’ve been another idea.  

Game Two – Pressed by Croatia

Considering the structural problems in the first game, it wasn’t a huge shock to see Argentina change formation against Croatia. The new system was a 3-4-3 in possession (though it often looked more like a back four without the ball), seeing Messi and Meza both take up number ten roles behind Aguero. The idea behind this appeared to be an attempt to fix the structural problems against Iceland, with Marcos Acuña and Eduardo Salvio taking up wide positions as wing-backs to stretch the play and free up Messi. There is one obvious problem with this approach, however. Croatia’s style could not be more different to Iceland’s. If Messi’s first game was best understood by shot quality, his second can be seen through the lens of volume. After ten shots against Iceland, he managed just one attempt against Croatia. Yes, you read that right. One. A fairly basic idea about defending in football is that a deep block will look to blunt the opposition’s shot quality, forcing them into attempts from range, while a more aggressive high pressing system will attempt to stop the problem at the source and limit the number of shots conceded. Looking at a heatmap of Croatia’s pressure events, it becomes obvious that they were much more interested in causing problems for Argentina in midfield than Iceland were, trying to prevent the ball from even reaching the final third. Meanwhile, Argentina’s approach seemed to be to press Croatia most aggressively in wide areas and allow them to play through midfield. You know, the midfield with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. Whether this was a deliberate strategy, or simply the result of Croatia’s midfield taking advantage of Argentina’s ageing legs is unclear, but either way it was obviously suboptimal. One of the central themes of the game was Croatia winning the ball in midfield and using Modrić and Rakitić’s excellent passing range to quickly get the ball to the attacking players. That Croatia’s front three effectively got to have a 3 vs 3 contest with Argentina’s back three was also not ideal. The kindest thing to be said from an Argentine perspective is that expected goals saw it as a much closer contest, with StatsBomb’s model evaluating it at 1.74 to 1.35 in Croatia’s favour (though the game state must be noted here, with Argentina continually having to create new attacks while Croatia were in a comfortable position for most of the game). In fact, the two sides were neck and neck until Rakitic’s excellent 91st minute goal to make it 3-0. The other two goals were from a brilliant Luka Modric strike from range and a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Willy Caballero, hardly systemic issues. Messi himself had the highest xGChain of any player on the pitch, showing that he was involved in Argentina’s gameplay, even though he wasn’t able to make many decisive contributions. Even if there were unheralded positives from this game, the manner of defeat again led to Argentina throwing everything out and trying a completely different system.  

Game Three – Just About Good Enough Against Nigeria

For the final game in the group stages, a match that Argentina absolutely had to win, the side switched to a 4-3-3 formation. Whether this was purely Sampaoli’s decision or it was heavily influenced by the players is something we’ll never know, but it had several effects on the team. Obviously this system gets an additional central midfielder into the side, which may have been another reaction to the problems in the previous game. It also helped that said extra midfielder was Éver Banega, one of the best progressive passers in European club football. The other notable shift was that Messi himself now played on the right of a front three, a position he has played a lot for Barcelona. This allowed him some more space, and the new position along with Banega’s ability to find him let him take a very involved role in the proceedings. Looking at the passmap, it’s obvious how much of an emphasis there is on getting the ball to Messi down the right flank. And so It followed, Messi scored his first goal of the tournament, Argentina got a 2-1 victory and made it into the knockout stages. It worked! About that… Argentina were able to generate very little against Nigeria, and when one includes the penalty they conceded, expected goals has them as a clear second best. And the penalty itself was the crucial factor in the game. While the incident itself against Javier Mascherano was a debatable one, it allowed Nigeria to focus on defending in more of a deep block that Argentina would need to break down. And in switching to this, they limited Argentina to just 3 shots over 40 minutes, with a total xG of 0.10. That Marcos Rojo happened to connect well with a cross should not cloud what a poor attacking performance this was. One of the most frequent images of the game was of Argentina players with no genuine passing options, thanks to the extremely poor structure of the side. This was just enough to get through the group stages, but it was obvious that any side of higher quality would put them at serious risk of elimination. Which brings us to…  

Game Four – Beaten on the Counter by France

There was only a single tactical change for what proved to be Argentina’s final game in the competition, but it was a significant one. After looking fairly comfortable on the right of a front three against Nigeria, Lionel Messi started as the central striker against France. As anyone who watched Barcelona in the first half of this decade will remember, Messi interprets the striker role very much as a false nine, dropping deep and looking to play short passes with the central midfielders. This is fine and can be a very effective tactic providing other players are making runs beyond the striker and into the box. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side exemplified this with wide players such as Pedro and David Villa positioned narrow in order to exploit the space Messi vacated. Sampaoli’s side, however, opted to have Ángel Di María and Cristian Pavón take up very wide positions on their natural sides, as is visible from the passmap. Throughout the game, Messi would drift around the halfway line, looking to receive the ball, while Di María and Pavón would stay wide waiting to cross the ball to… no one. A further indictment from the passmap is that, despite often moving into midfield areas, Messi made almost no decent connections with Éver Banega, Enzo Perez and Javier Mascherano. Despite specialist passing midfielder Banega being in the side primarily to get the ball to Messi in dangerous areas, the strongest passing link Messi had was with right back Gabriel Mercado. What lost this game for Argentina was an inability to deal with France’s pace on the counter. Much was written about how this match represented a changing of the guard, with Messi looking past his best and Kylian Mbappé rising as football’s new superstar. What the French side understood was that the most effective way to use Mbappé in this game was to have him running into space, with balls over the top putting him in a footrace against Argentina’s ageing defenders and midfielders. Argentina, however, had no real idea of the best way to use Messi in this game. It seemed as though he was playing the false nine role mostly because it’s a position where he has done well in the past, but the rest of the team seemed to be built as though a true striker such as Gonzalo Higuaín or Sergio Agüero would be playing there.  

Conclusion

Argentina played four games at the World Cup and managed to pull out four entirely different systems. Astonishingly, none of these systems actually seemed set up to deal with the problems that the opposition of that day would cause, and it often just felt like the lineups were attempts to fix whatever the problem was in the last game. That they kept changing strategies without ever addressing one of the core issues of ageing legs in midfield is quite odd, though may speak to the dressing room dynamics rumoured to be at play in the squad. Messi was central to everything Argentina did, but almost by default more than any systematic plan to get the most out of him. Having a star in your side with such a rich and varied skill set can often pose problems about how best to use him, but one can at least attempt to create familiarity with a coherent side. Messi failed to deliver the decisive moments his country needed to progress further in the World Cup, but it is almost impossible to argue that he was given the best platform to do it.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

How Good is Watford's Abdoulaye Doucouré?

Abdoulaye Doucouré is one of the more fascinating players going into the 2018–19 PL season. That might seem weird, given that he played on a Watford side that finished 14th last season with a -20 goal differential. As the big six clubs in the Premier League have separated from everybody else, it’s almost become a badge of honor if players are thought by the general public as the best player not plying their trade at a bigger side. From Riyad Mahrez (now at Manchester City) to Wilfied Zaha (linked with Tottenham among others) to Pascal Gross, there were several candidates that emerged last season.

Doucoure was included on that list. His scoring contribution of 10 combined non-penalty goals and assists along with general capabilities in disrupting play in the middle third made him one of the more hot properties come the end of the season. There have been reports of Watford rejecting offers and with every day that passes, it looks like Doucoure will stay with the club for another season. On the surface, that sounds great because Watford retained the services of someone that did good things for them. On the other hand, a lot of praise being put on Doucoure’s performance doesn’t exactly pass the smell test if you dig a little closer.

Doucoure wouldn’t be the first player to suffer from having a reputation that wasn’t backed up by his statistical resume. In the summer of 2016 both Andre Gomes moving from Valencia to Barcelona and Moussa Sissoko’s move to Tottenham, looked quite bad from a statistical perspective. Doucoure's output makes him a prime candidate to join them in dividing opinion this summer.

People who rate Abdoulaye Doucoure as a player think of him as something of an all action midfielder, an archetype of a player who can turn defense into offense in a blink of an eye. Players who can perform this role are ridiculously valuable, with N’Golo Kante being the preeminent example, and there have been enough glimpses here and there with Doucoure to think he could perhaps do it at a bigger club should that time come.

Doucoure’s ability to hound players in general is quite good, so much so that it makes up for the fact that his possession adjusted tackle and interception numbers aren’t anything to boast at from a central midfielder. He uses his solid mobility to bother opponents and make it uncomfortable to shoot or pass with him in the vicinity. His pressure map shows that he overall provided lots of value as something of a roamer defensively who made it tough on his opponents.

Doucoure's game ability to use his mobility to pressure opponents is something that would likely translate to a bigger club. The other eye-catching feature of Doucoure's season for Watford was that he contributed 10 non penalty goals this season, which is not an insignificant figure for a player that nominally plays as a defensive midfielder. Being someone who can play that position and can contribute goals is valuable. In particular, Doucoure does a good job of making himself another player that has to be accounted for inside the penalty area with his runs into the box. He also generated the type of shots that one would expect from a deep midfielder, running into the open space near the penalty area that’s been vacated by the defense.

It's possible that with better teammates, would there be more opportunities for those type of shots to happen, and it's possible his shot quality would, on average, be better because of other factors like better spacing. Even with that said, it’s hard to ignore the variance which Doucoure benefited from when it came to his shooting. Unless you're willing to believe that he's so good as a finisher to be nearly two times his xG output, chances are that his goal tally will come down to earth unless he's able to generate better shooting opportunities.

That's the good you get with Doucoure, and it's not as if these aren't valuable traits to have. Having a midfielder with an ability to make runs into the penalty box along with being an active member defensively is something noteworthy. But, the deficiencies of Doucoure's game make his strengths not pop as much as perhaps they could. While Doucoure does have the ability to make incisive runs into the penalty box, his positioning further back during buildup play can leave a lot to be desired. In particular, one thing that was odd when watching Doucoure is that he loves to run back to receive the ball. This in of itself isn't a major problem, and it does partly explain why his xG buildup rate of 0.502 ranks among the 10 best rates for players not in a top six side. But, his penchant for always moving backwards and at times even being parallel to the teammate in possession of the ball does himself a disservice. Just moving five to 10 yards forward to make it easier on himself and his teammates to receive the ball with space to attack the defense would improve his buildup play. Even though Doucoure may not be an amazing dribbler, he certainly can be enough of a threat and provoke the defense to close him down, which could lead to a disorganized defense. Here's an example from the very beginning of Watford vs Burnley; the ball is passed back to one of the Watford center backs and they have a three against one advantage. There is a lot of space in front of Doucoure and the potential for a third man run to occur and provoke the defense, but he doesn't move forward and it results in a failed long ball and turnover of possession. Perhaps at other clubs he'll be told to be more aggressive with his positioning, and if that's the case, then this is becomes a moot point, but he could be better in this department. What is undeniably true is that Doucoure profiles as both a conservative passer and one that isn't good when trying to make high level passes, which should be enough of a red flag to warrant skepticism of his worth as a player. He'll show glimpses here and there of decent passing and getting the ball forward to his teammate in stride, but it's just glimpses. At his worst, watching Doucoure pass can be like watching a golfer hacking helplessly from a bunker. It just doesn't look smooth seeing him trying to get the ball out of his feet. Given the flaws to his game, it's fair to wonder how much could Doucoure help bigger sides if given a prominent role on the first team. With his suspect passing and positional awareness, he doesn’t really fit for where football is at the highest level in both the PL and in European football. One player that I thought of that could serve as a comparison would be Paulinho, someone who performed fairly well at Barcelona last year. With the limitations that Paulinho had in possession, he was used best as someone who could wreak havoc and provide stability with his movements into the penalty box. That's how he ended up producing ridiculously high numbers. Maybe Doucoure could fulfill this role to similar capabilities, but it's hard to find top clubs having that specialized role available. Perhaps this is why we haven't seen a lot of concrete rumors involving Doucoure being linked to bigger clubs as the summer has worn on.  At age 25, Doucoure doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a player who has a reservoir of untapped potential to his game, he’s more so a peak age player firmly in the prime years of his career.

There’s enough evidence to suggest that Doucoure is more or less an average PL player that has an inflated reputation that can be attributed to his goal scoring. While his positioning can be erratic, he does make nice runs forward which can help an attack. In addition to that, his work defensively in terms of pressure on-ball is legit. On the other hand, his play during possession is uninspiring, and his shooting in the grand scheme of things can be chalked up to variance more than something that’s sustainable moving forward. Combine that with the fact he doesn’t provide nearly enough equity in terms of driving play from deeper areas of the pitch (Tanguy Ndombele from Lyon is someone who does provide that dimension) to compensate for other possible deficiencies in his game, and it’s hard to come up with an argument other than Doucoure is a player who at around the level of where his talents suggest he should be. There’s nothing wrong with being an average player, but if we’re talking about the best of the best, Doucoure falls short of that standard.

  Header image courtesy of the Press Association

StatsBomb July Mail Bag

It’s mailbag time! The World Cup is over, the European domestic season will be here again in just a few weeks. Just enough time to fit mailbag questions into the interim. Let’s get right to it.   https://twitter.com/sammcbride19/status/1020029531510509569 https://twitter.com/OmVArvind/status/1019416596178178048 These are two similar questions about expected goals and goalkeeping that get at an important point. It’s really hard to evaluate goalkeeping. So, the first part here, how useful is the difference between goals allowed and expected goals allowed in measuring keeper performance? Well, it’s not useless. If there’s a large gap between the two it means there may at least be something worth looking at. It’s useful as a flag for further investigation, but not much more than that. Question two gets at why. Without the kind of post shot information that expected goals doesn’t include, it’s impossible to tell just from the numbers how much to credit or blame a keeper. A keeper who concedes a few shots with low expected goal values might do so because he had the misfortune of finding the corner, or he might do so because he was caught flatfooted and left an entire side of the goal open. Traditional xG won’t differentiate. Expected goal models that take post shot information into account will certainly be better judges of what’s happening on the field. They’ll better pinpoint the degree to which keeper’s just get unlucky and face a string of shooters aiming for the corners or are bundling more mundane shots. But, even there we should be careful. We simply know very little about the causal mechanisms of goalkeeping. In theory modeling involves testing outcomes against prior assumptions, and when it comes to keeping we should be very careful about giving our prior assumptions a lot of weight. This cuts both ways because as the question points out, the conventional wisdom on evaluating keeping, at least in the public sphere, is awful. Generally speaking, analysis starts from whether or not the ball ended up going in the back of the net and works backwards. That’s not how you want to do things. An expected goal model with post shot information is certainly helpful against that baseline, but it’s an exceedingly low bar to clear. Ultimately, whether we’re talking about using analytics or our eyes to evaluate keeping everybody should be very aware of just how much they don’t know.   https://twitter.com/edpham/status/1020037974166200320 Why even run a mailbag if you don’t take at least one question to be self-indulgent? I’ve had a weird and somewhat peripatetic career path. I graduated college during the height of the online poker boom and was a professional poker player for a couple of years. I left poker to work in finance (literally on Wall Street, right above the New York Stock Exchange) for a couple of years, and then left that job when my now wife joined the United States Foreign Service. I needed a job that was portable and I could do from almost anywhere so I started writing, about finance for money, and about soccer as a hobby. Writing about soccer is the first thing I’ve done professionally for more than two years in a row. The unifying factor through all of this is that in some way I’ve always been interested in explaining technical ideas to a broader audience. In poker, the online boom meant that a field that had been mostly based on conventional wisdom and some very basic math all of a sudden became an incredibly data rich environment. Some conventional wisdom turned out to be very wrong, though a lot turned out to be pretty accurate, and the devil was in the details, the edge cases, the places where understanding the rule of thumb meant figuring out what the exceptions were faster than everybody else. In finance I happened to work for a youngish boss who was a natural with numbers, and grew up staring at as many computer screens streaming numbers as was humanly possible. His boss, however, was an old school stock exchange floor broker, a world built on relationships as much as math. Lots of my job involved making sure the two of them didn’t strangle each other. I view my work in soccer analytics in a similar light. Around five years ago when I started doing this as a hobby I saw a world which was both highly technical, but conceptually not very far away from what most fans were used to. Lots of very smart people were bringing a new set of tools to the game, but they were trying to answer the same questions that football fans have been wondering about for time immemorial. I was drawn to the challenge of bridging that gap. Taking the tools that people were using and making the things they were learning accessible to a broader audience. I’m still pretty obsessed with that challenge.   https://twitter.com/releaseclause/status/1020023009002762241 Stats are useful immediately. The question is can you get good and reliable stats? It’s certainly true that lots of players, even ones that show up as promising statistically, will flame out. It’s also true that lots of players that scouts flag as promising will miss the mark. There’s no magic bullet to projecting talent. There’s only making the best decisions you can when faced with lots of limited information. Even very early on stats can help in a number of ways. Most teams have limited budgets for scouting. It’s important to scout players, but figuring out who to spend limited man hours chasing down and watching is a huge part of recruitment. Also, scouts need to be able to set their expectations. How likely is it that the player they’re seeing is having an off day, or a spectacular one? What specific traits are they looking for? Historically, these kinds of decisions have been made by networking. Sometimes that works well, and sometimes it works in the favor the agent of agency doing the networking. Stats are simply another tool to use to help make decisions in the face of imperfect information. That said, especially at young ages, it’s simply hard to get good numbers. Kids don’t play that many games with the senior team, and when they do it’s almost always against skewed competition (weak sides in cup games for example). So there’s an extreme sample size problem. Numbers can help set your expectations but it’s important to maintain a willingness to change as the evidence evolves. Still, you’d certainly rather have numbers, even a small set of them, to complement what an agent or scout has, than not have them at all. One last point here is that teams themselves can use numbers within their own development system in all sorts of creative and effective ways. We talk all the time about just how hard it is to tease out finishing skill from the numbers. Well if you have players at your disposal for years on end, and you can track and record and compare all of their shooting in practice, and even design drills meant to provide information, then it becomes a lot easier to figure out who is better at what. That gives a team added information when it comes to both developing, and valuing their own players. It’s a great piece of private information that can help teams separate the signal from the noise among their own players and give them a leg up over the competition.   https://twitter.com/George_ymb/status/1020035964721336322 They would not. Because I am terrible beyond terrible. There’s actually a real point to be made in here. Part of the reason that analytics works is that sports operate in a relatively closed environment. Players that are too terrible to play in a league don’t end up playing in that league for long. When analytics people say that “shooting skill doesn’t exist” (a position which I don’t endorse but is still closer to being right than wrong) what they mean is that at the top of the football pyramid everybody is close enough to being equal that the differences don’t matter. They don’t mean that I, Michael Goodman, am equally as good at kicking a football as Sergio Aguero. The reality of professional sports is that at some point everybody who steps on the field is really really good, and that the differences between them dwarf the differences between professional athletes and everybody else. That’s the world analytics operates in. Players that are significantly worse than the general standard of the league they’re playing in by and large get found out quickly and nailed to the bench. The differences between players that football teams or scouts, or analytics nerds, or supporters are looking at are extremely minor compared to the differences between the set of professional players and the rest of humanity. It’s worth keeping in mind for two reasons. The first is that it properly contextualizes the work that’s being done, and the second is that it’s helpful in dealing with outliers. Sometimes a really unlucky seeming player is just so terrible that the they fall outside the context that analytics provides. Not always, sometimes they’re just very (very very) unlucky. But doing thorough analysis means allowing for the possibility that an outlier of a player is just, simply, a terrible player.   https://twitter.com/Classlicity/status/1020023913420554242 I was, um, surprised by the number of relationship questions I actually got to fill this slot. I’d really love to answer all of them. I also like my job running a soccer analytics website, so one question it is (although if you happen to be an editor in the market for a totally unqualified advice columnist who is reading this because they just happen to love soccer stats and stumbled on my fun little gimmick but now wants to shower me with money to write an actual advice column you know where to find me). Ok, enough preamble, advice time. Dear Carolyn (I will absolutely not call you DD in D), You seem like you’ve got a pretty good life going on! You’ve got friends, and family and a cool job and are writing a novel (some of these things I happen to know because we are twitter friends and you tweet about them). As you say in your question 90% of your free time is taken up by hanging out with friends and family. Honestly that seems to me like it’s a lot of fun. So, I guess what I’m kind of wondering is, how much do you actually really want to be dating? It doesn’t strike me that you are having trouble dating, it strikes me that you are having trouble wanting to date. You are prioritizing things other than dating, and honestly seem pretty happy about it. Look, nobody reads a fake advice column for bullshit pseudo economic buzzwords, but it sure seems like we’ve got a case of revealed preferences going on here. Because the easy answer to your question is if you want to date more and meet single people, then you need to juggle around the priorities in your life so that you aren’t spending 90% of your free time with friends and family and have more than the exhausted 10% left for thinking about dating before reasonably deciding that sleep seems more appealing. There are of course ways this can be bad. If you were, say, secretly pining away for love at all hours and only deigning to show up at happy hour or nana's birthday as a way to distract yourself from your misery, that would be a problem. Or, if you decided to give up on love because you talked yourself into believing it was impossible, and viewed your social life as a consolation prize, I’d say that that’s probably not healthy and something that you should go ahead and work through. But, like, there’s nothing wrong with living a happy fulfilled life with dating as a deemphasized part of it. Maybe at some point your priorities will change and you’ll shift your time around and choose to skip the occasional hang in favor of dabbling with a dating app of your choice or doing those corny singles activity nights (is speeding a thing still? It is on bad network TV dramas, but I am old and married and sit at home and watch bad network dramas and don’t do things like speed dating.). Or maybe something fun will happen when you least expect it. Friends and romance aren’t mutually exclusive of course, and entirely walling off the two from each other seems, at the very least, impractical. For now though, there really isn’t anything wrong with not dating because you’d rather be doing other things. If you want to date more, you can always reprioritize your time and go do it.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association