The Best Two Way Premier League Players

Looking for players that contribute on both sides of the ball is often a difficult task. Separating out tactical responsibilities from player abilities, and individual shortcomings from schematic ones is always hard. Does a player not track back because he’s lazy or because he has instructions to remain high up the pitch? Does a midfielder keep passing it sideways because he cannot pick a forward pass or because the manager’s approach calls for conservative possession? With that in mind, I looked at a collection of players that excelled at two very specific things. I wanted to find players who both applied lots of pressure on the defensive side of the ball, and also were instrumental to their team bringing the ball into the attacking third. The idea was to focus on role rather than position, although for the most part looking at deep progressions and pressures will yield midfielders and wingers. Then, filter out great passers who are defensive liabilities (hello Granit Xhaka) as well as defensive destroyer specialists (with apologies to Mo Diame). There are, so far this season, 36 players in the Premier League who have played 300 minutes or more and are averaging more than 20 ball pressures per 90 minutes. There are 64 players who are averaging over 5 deep progressions per 90 (deep progressions measure how often a player brings the ball into the final third either by any means). There are, thanks to the round number gods, exactly ten players who appear on both lists.  

James Milner and Naby Keita

It’s no surprise to see a large chunk of Liverpool’s midfield featured here. The team is built on taking the ball back and relentlessly working it forward to the front three. Milner is averaging 22 pressures and 12 deep progressions while Keita is on 21 and 10. The two have incredibly similar numbers across the board with Milners slanted slightly to the defensive side of the ball while Keita is taking up more advance positions in and around the penalty area somewhat more.  So, while their possession adjusted tackle numbers are virtually identical, Milner has 2.82 and Keita 2.79, Milner has a bunch more interceptions, 2.61 to 1.24 while Keita is taking more shots per game 1.88 to 0.72. Regardless these two are absolute midfield machines for Liverpool and the engine that drives their attack forward. Milner, in particular, at 32 years old is a wonder to behold.

Jesse Lingard and Fred (Fred?)

Somewhat surprisingly, Manchester United are the only other team to have two players on this list. They’re also the two most active defenders, the only two players on the list averaging over 25 pressures per 90 (both are between 25 and 26). For Lingard, the stats fit well with is overall reputation as a grafting winger, equally happy checking back and bombing forward. Also, since he’s frequently playing with two more attack minded players across the front line, it makes sense that he’d be the one tasked with dropping deeper to help with ball progression. Fred is the surprise. He hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire over his first few months at the club. But, the man knows how to intercept a pass, and is competent at bringing the ball forward with his feet. His passing leaves a lot to be desired, but he does just enough on the attacking end to get onto this list while contributing quite a bit when it comes to harrying opponents all over midfield.  

Dele Alli

Alli stands out on this list because not only is he a capable ball progressor who is, for the first time, doing tons of defensive work, but he’s also a scoring machine. His expected goals per 90 this season is a whopping 0.50, almost double anybody else on this list. It’s not that he’s taking a lot more shots than other players. Half the players on this list, including Alli take between two and two and a half shots per 90 minutes. But Alli’s shots have been great ones. His xG per shot is 0.22, nobody else is above 0.12. It’s hard to capture Alli’s role this season effectively. Is he a midfielder? An attacking midfielder? Both? Neither? Whatever he is, he’s doing work.  

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

After beginning the season as a starter, Mkhitaryan has ended up as the odd man out as Unai Emery tries to cram as many attackers as he can onto the field. It’s possible he should rethink that decision. The Armenian winger is the only member of Arsenal’s attacking squad that both puts up robust attacking and defending numbers. His ball progression numbers aren’t actually that impressive, but that’s because they’re also almost an afterthought to his game. Playing in a side that frequently features both Mesut Ozil and Granit Xhaka, Mkhitaryan is the third most important transition player. He’s also contributing 2.5 shots and over a quarter of an expected goal per match. Impressive numbers given that, again, he’s supporting more prominent attacking players in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Alexandre Lacazette (or both). Mkhitaryan specializes in being the third best attacking player on the field at absolutely everything. Which is an extremely useful role to play.  

Everybody Else

It’s interesting that Bernardo Silva is the only Manchester City player here. It’s hard to run up the defensive stats, even pressures, when your team always has the ball, see also the absence of Kante, N’golo. Wilfred N’didi is a defensive machine who does just enough ball progression from deep to get on the list. Idrissa Gueye does the same for Everton. And Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is having himself a heck of a season.

In Search of the Premier League’s Seventh Best Team

The top six. You know them and probably hate them. Watford may currently sit in fourth place, but only the most ardent of Hornets supporters would argue that there aren’t at least six better teams than them. Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United are England’s elite. Everyone else has to make do with simply being, well, everyone else. But who is closest to the cream of the crop? Which side deserves to be considered the Premier League’s seventh best? Let’s take a look at the contenders.  

Watford

Watford are, to put it honestly, not the most exciting team in the league. The side consists of many veteran players (weighted by minutes played, Watford have an average age of 29.2) that manager Javi Gracia instructs to play solid, defensive football. But it’s hard to argue that Gracia has not built a good defensive side. When looking at the xG trendlines since the Spaniard’s arrival in January, there’s a distinct decrease in the volume of expected goals conceded. Most pleasingly, the attacking numbers haven’t had to suffer for this, indicating a clear improvement overall. The way the team defend might not be what you’d expect for a side that aims to keep it tight. The defensive activity map shows that Watford actually press quite high, with much more of the work being done in the opposition’s half. The usual aim of high pressing defensive systems is shot suppression, and Watford tick that box, with their 9.83 shots against per 90 the fourth best of any side in the Premier League this season. While it’s hard to argue with Watford’s defensive credentials, on the attacking side they leave something to be desired. At first glance, things seem good, with their 11 goals scored the joint sixth best in the league, but this comes from just 6.75 expected goals, merely the twelfth best in the division. Considering Watford did not beat xG under Gracia last season, the expectation should be that this is merely a hot streak that will come down to earth soon. One of the reasons for this is a lack of creative passers in the side. In terms of completing deep progressions (defined as “passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third per 90 minutes”), Watford’s most prominent progresser of the ball is Abdoulaye Doucoure. While not a player without merit, Doucoure’s passing has been described by StatsBomb’s Mohamed Mohamed as “like watching a golfer hacking helplessly from a bunker”. The second most prominent ball progressor is Jose Holebas, a veteran fullback who has never in his career shown himself to be a hugely expressive passer. If these are the guys you’re relying on to move the ball forward, you may not be very good at moving the ball forward.  

Bournemouth

If you can’t beat them, join them? Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth have spent most of their time in the Premier League since 2015 attempting to defy the normal rules and play entertaining football on a budget. The cost was of being rather atrocious defensively, but Howe’s side were usually able to offer just enough going forward to counterbalance it, and attempts to make the team more solid were abandoned after bad results. Until now. As we can see from the xG trendlines, Bournemouth have managed a fairly dramatic drop-off in expected goals conceded since the final games of last season. Like Watford, for now at least, they have been able to do this without seeing much in the way of a dip in attacking production. The change in approach is obvious from the adjustment in personnel. Lewis Cook, the 21 year old central midfielder who was Bournemouth’s key ball progressor last year and tipped by many for bigger and better things, has yet to start a league game this season. The current central midfield pairing of Dan Gosling and Andrew Surman are nobody’s idea of entertaining football, but they do offer more solidity. While neither Gosling nor Surman are completing as many deep progressions as Cook did last season, both are delivering more pressures than the England international. Usually playing a 4-4-2, Bournemouth are now more reliant on David Brooks and Ryan Fraser in wide midfield roles than last season, with central midfield offering better protection. The other dramatic shift for Bournemouth is in the quality of the chances they both attempt and concede. The xG per shot that the Cherries create for themselves has risen from 0.09 to 0.11, while the xG per shot they face has itself fallen from 0.11 to 0.09. Games featuring Bournemouth are less event heavy than ever, but Howe’s side are much better in making sure the shots they do take and concede are the right ones. The huge asterisk is of course the relatively soft schedule the team has dealt with. The only top 6 club Bournemouth have faced are Chelsea, a match they lost 2-0. October is another relatively easy month for Howe, so this team may not find things difficult until a rough November and December involving every other top 6 side. If Bournemouth are the real deal, they will have to show that this more conservative style is better able to get points in the harder games.  

Leicester

For all the frustration about Claude Puel’s time in charge at Leicester, the club currently sit in a perfectly respectful ninth place in the Premier League. The Foxes continue to transition away from the ageing side that won the title in 2015-16, with Jamie Vardy and Wes Morgan the only starters from that team that still regularly get a game. This shift has been felt in attack more than defence, with this season’s 1.06 expected goals per game down from last year’s 1.30. The loss of Riyad Mahrez is obviously a significant factor here, with new signings Rachid Ghezzal and James Maddison not yet offering the same attacking threat. Maddison in particular offers a great creative passing threat, but combines it with a frustrating willingness to shoot from bad locations. This is part of a broader trend in recent months that has seen Leicester’s attacking play decline without adding any extra solidity on the defensive side: With Puel having instigated a move away from the fast paced counter-attacking style associated with Leicester under Claudio Ranieri and maintained under Craig Shakespeare, it’s not all that obvious what the point of this team is. The squad probably has more talent than any other team on this list, and that may be enough, but a lack of a cohesive style of play may prove to be their undoing.  

Wolves

So, Wolves have been good. Really good. There’s obvious reluctance to go too far in rating a newly promoted team, but there surely hasn’t been a side in the modern era to come up to the Premier League with as much talent as Wolves. 9 points from 6 games and a neutral goal difference is solid work for any promoted side, but what sticks out most is that Wolves have so far underperformed expected goals at both ends. Their expected goal difference of +3.13 is fourth best in the league, ahead of Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs among others. How Wolves go about it is interesting. Without the ball, Nuno Espirito Santo’s men stay deep and compact, allowing the opposition to hold onto the ball largely untested. The side’s high press rating (based on StatsBomb’s pressure data) is the fifth lowest in the league. The aim of low press systems is to restrict the quality of the chances conceded rather than the volume, and this is exactly what Wolves have managed, with their xG per shot conceded of 0.07 the best in England’s top flight. When Wolves do manage to get the ball back, the midfield is extremely effective at moving the ball forward. The double pivot Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho achieves a combined 16.47 deep progressions per 90, a fairly remarkable number for two midfielders alongside each other. That Wolves are able to get so much ball progression out of their midfield without sacrificing defensive solidity might be the most impressive thing about Nuno’s system, and while there is an instinct to suggest this will eventually be exposed, Wolves have faced a fairly tough schedule so far and done fine with it. It feels too soon to proclaim Wolves as the seventh best team in England. The history of the Premier League is littered with promoted clubs that have started strong before falling by the wayside fairly rapidly. Perhaps Everton will get over their start so poor they didn’t make this article to take back their eternal “best of the rest” trophy. Leicester remain a club still integrating new talent and could well find themselves in a stronger position toward the end of the season. Nonetheless, if you’re asking me to name the seventh best team at this very moment, Wolves are the best bet. The West Midlands club have so far been able to arrange their considerable attacking talent in a way that allows them to do their thing while maintaining a defensive structure. We will see if it works over a full season, but if it does, we could have the best newly promoted team to the Premier League in a long time.

Bundesliga Roundup: Schalke is Bad, Werder Bremen are Good and Favre is Favre

The Bundesliga is in full swing. Bayern Munich, to nobody’s surprise, are way better than everybody else. Despite a late slip against Augsburg leading to a 1-1 draw, they remain by far the best team in Germany. Here’s what’s going on in the rest of the league.  

Schalke are terrible now?

After a surprising second place finish last season, Schalke are currently dead last with zero points. Their underlying numbers paint a slightly better picture, but only slightly. The good news for the side is that defensively they’re clearly running bad. Through their first four games they conceded eight goals. That’s quite a bit worse than the 1.19 expected goals per match you’d expect them to give up. That expected goals conceded number is actually the fourth best in the Bundesliga. Their strategy of uglifying the game, deploying a defensive press and breaking up possession in the opposition half before it can flow into a counterattack is actually working more or less as it’s supposed to. There’s lots of red in all the right places. The problem is that teams keep scoring goals anyway. If they keep doing what they’re doing defensively, the goals conceded will likely come back in line, and they’ll return to their stingy ways. The bad news is that with what appears to be an absolutely putrid attack, those stingy defensive ways may not be enough. Schalke are averaging 0.91 expected goals per match through four matches. That’s the second worst total in the Bundesliga. The problem isn’t that they don’t generate shots. They take 13.50 shots per match. That’s almost exactly average for Germany. Eight teams take more. Those shots just simply aren’t good ones. They average 0.07 xG per shot, tied for the lowest in the league. This is just a brutal set of shots. The team presses a lot, and they turn those pressures into shots. They just don’t turn them into effective ones. So, while it's true their attack is running below expectations right now, even if they return to expectations their attack will remain extremely poor. If Schalke have any hope of recovering their season, their attack is going to have to improve, probably dramatically, even as their defense returns to last year’s level of excellence.  

High octane Werder Bremen

Werder Bremen appear to have put the proverbial petal to the metal this season. After an entirely indistinct midtable finish last year, they’re currently second, only two points behind the Bayern behemoth. They’ve done that by pushing the throttle all the way open. Their 1.74 expected goals per match are the third highest in Germany. That’s allowed them to rock an expected goal difference of 0.35 that's fourth best in the league (just a shade behind Wolfsburg’s 0.36) despite an average defensive expected goals record. They concede 1.38 expected goals per match, ninth best in the league. The team is playing an extremely possession oriented brand of attack and using the ball to build good chances for themselves. They only take 13.60 shots per game, but their expected goal per shot of 0.13 is second in the league. Of particular note is just how hard Bremen have crushed it from set piece situations. From only 14 shots, they have four goals and 2.73 expected goals. Also of note is just how diffuse the scoring opportunities have been. The team has nine non-penalty goals, but only midfielder Maximilian Eggestein has more than one. Not only is the scoring well balanced throughout the team, but so are the attacking touches. The four players who occupy the front three slots most frequently, Max Kruse, Claudio Pizarro, Martin Harnik and Yuya Osako all see plenty of the ball in the box. A major concern for Bremen will be their defense's ability to hold up over the course of their season. They’re very aggressive. The average distance from their own goal of a defensive action is 47.21 yards, the third most advanced in the league. And their PPDA (passes allowed per defensive action) is 10.03, the second lowest in the league. So they’re out there running around and trying to turn the ball over. But, for all that pressing they still concede 12.40 shots per match, only the eighth best total. A better version of this team would add a hefty dose of shot suppression to the attacking and defending they’re already doing. That’s Werder Bremen’s challenge for the rest of the season. If they don’t pull it off, they’ll end up being a team that seems fun, but isn’t great (although in Germany this year that still might be enough to qualify for the Champions League), but if the defense improves we might have a really good team on our hands.  

Lucien Favre is back to his old tricks

Borussia Dortmund games don’t have many shots. Through four matches the team has averaged only 8.50 shots per match, and conceded only 10.50. That’s the second lowest shots total, and the third lowest shots against total in the league. And the team has a corresponding expected goals problem as well. Their expected goals difference is negative 0.26 per match. And yet, the team has scored eight times and conceded only three. That old Favre expected goal tricking magic is back at work. If Favre didn’t have priors, Dortmund would look like a team primed to tumble down the table. They’re overperforming expectations on both sides of the ball, and doing it for no obviously discernible reason. But, his previous sides, at both Nice and Borussia Mönchengladbach have done the same thing. He is the original xG busting wizard. On the attacking side of the ball the stats make some degree of sense. The side's selective shooting profile coincides with a high expected goal total per shot of 0.13. That’s fourth (marginally behind two other sides with the same value thanks to rounding). That, along with a low reliance on crossing, only 23% of their entries into the opposition penalty area are from crosses, the second lowest in the league, paints an accurate picture of a team striving to build high quality attacks. Add some help from the finishing gods and it all comes together. Their shot chart backs that up. It’s the defensive side of the ball where things get weird. On the one hand they look exactly like a pressing team. They concede few shots, but seemingly good shots. They give up 0.13 expected goals per shot, the third worst total in the league. Their defensive actions are mostly high up the pitch. And yet they don’t concede. Somehow they still manage to have defensive cover their own penalty box. Their defensive actions tick back up above average as teams attack their own. And, despite the seemingly high value of the shots they’re conceding, they simply don’t find the back of the net very often. Again, if this was Favre’s first rodeo it would make sense to be cautious drawing conclusions here. But it isn’t. Favre has frequently pulled this trick over the years. The magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models. That’s what Dortmund are doing now, and they’re doing it very well already. It’s a far cry from the wide open attacking side that they’ve been over the years, but after struggling though managerial changes last season, Dortmund at least look like they have a plan fully implemented. It’s not the most attractive football, but it’s worked before, and it sure looks like it’s on its way to working again.

Shots Under Pressure Part 2: Headers

We first introduced our exploratory data analysis of shot pressure last week, that article can be found here. Now we’re going to examine specifically at headers. The goal is to see if there are any striking differences in the raw pressure metrics, and also look at the players topping each list and which passers are the best at pinpointing “wide open” shooters. As the tables show, 72% of shots from a player’s head are under pressure versus 62% of all shots are under pressure. The average distance from goal for headers is 9.6 yards, roughly half of the average distance for all shots which is 18.8. That means the pressure radius is on average only, 2.3 yards. Thus, the defensive pressure on these headers is typically even closer to the shooter. Let’s take a closer look at where the pressure is coming from.   Looking at the pressure directions for headers, we see nearly identical results as what we saw with all shots in part 1 of this exploration into shot pressure.

Which players in the EPL take the most shots under pressure?

Players who take the highest percentage of their shots under pressure tend to be the big beefy boys who come up and crowd the box on set pieces. Then there is Steve Mounie and Ashley Barnes, attackers for notably conservative teams Huddersfield and Burnley. To some degree this is likely to be a function of the fact that the vast majority of many defenders shots come from set plays while most attackers will have some mix of set piece and open play headers on their statistical resume. In the cases of the attackers on the list disentangling their set play attempts from open play attempts would be a worthwhile next step.

Which players in the EPL take the fewest shots under pressure?

Notably, players that take a low percentage of their headers under pressure are a much more traditional set of attackers.

Which passers find the “open” player most often?

What we want to look at now is which players are finding teammates in positions to take open shots. It can be assumed at this point, that shots free from pressure are prefered to shots under pressure. Using the “pass_shot_assist” variable in the StatsBomb data we first look at the difference in proportion of shots under pressure given that they were taken after a key pass or not. Now we can argue this is confounded by team strengths, teammates who make great runs and other factors. We could also argue that headers taken under pressure are not necessarily bad shots. But, given the clear, increased likelihood of scoring in the absence of pressure, it is definitely not a bad thing to be able to target open shooters. The players in the list above definitely pass the eye-test and in coming articles of this series on shot pressure, we will dive even deeper into those passers, their own shooting tendencies and identifying open players/better decisions through freeze frames.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

In Lyon, Is Talent Alone Enough?

Ligue 1 has been home to some fascinating attacking units over the past few years. Set aside the death star known as PSG and there's still the Marseille team from 2014–15 that produced 2.0 goal per game, an average that was only bettered within the big five leagues by 5 teams that season. And, of course, there was the 2016–17 Monaco side that scored 107 league goals, one of the great one season outliers in recent memory.

Last season Lyon piled up 87 goals and a 2.29 goals per game rate, a rate bettered by only six teams. It’s no surprise that a team featuring Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay, and Bertrand Traore would be able to put up a fair number of goals. Each of these players are extremely talented in their own ways, and their combined speed turned lots of broken sequences into shooting opportunities. They made Lyon a team with a good blend of shot volume, locations. That. combined with some blessing from the variance gods allowed them to lay waste to most opponent in their way.

While it was highly unlikely that Lyon would rise to the same heights as last season, this was a really fun team that had healthy numbers in attack even if you strip out the variance that they benefited from. The fact that they brought back the majority of their core talent along with the same manager should’ve meant that business would go on as usual, but so far this season things haven't been quite that smooth. Lyon are on pace for around 63 goals, which would be a pretty solid goal total but not quite as awe inspiring as last season. The team has also change tactically; through their first few games this season they've doubled down on shot volume at the expense of shot locations. That's an interesting quirk given that football over the past few years has generally become smarter with teams looking to take better, higher percentage shots.

It gets even more stark when looking at their distribution of shots from last season versus this season in open play. Lyon shot a lot last season, but their shot locations on average were good enough to more than tilt the numbers in their favor. What’s gone on this season is that the balance between shot volume and locations has been off as they’ve settled for a lot of bad shots, with over 60% of their shots having an expected goal output of 0.05 or less.

Even with their attacking success last season, there’s always been a feeling that Lyon win more with their massive amounts of talent rather than a detailed approach in possession, that they’re a younger and more athletic version of Arsenal during Arsene Wenger’s later years right down to having similar structural problems. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be a team with loads of attacking talent that freelances. Over the course of a season you’ll still be able to cobble something worthwhile offensively by having ample firepower, but it can leave you susceptible to weird stretches like what Lyon have gone through so far this year.

A major theme with Lyon when building attacks is that there always seems to be noticeable gaps that exist during buildup. In general, Lyon have a hard time gaining access to the middle as and they settle for circulating the ball across their back line to a fullback. This gets amplified when only one midfielder comes back to receive the ball, which makes it easier for the opposition to defend by having a lone forward up top positioning himself to block passing lanes. This sequence against Caen is an example of the problems that Lyon has with presenting passing options for the man on the ball. Multiple times the player who receives the pass has no option to pass it in between the line and has to pass it either horizontally or backwards. With no forward options, Caen's defense sniffs that play out and forces a throw in.

Those noticeable gaps occur higher up the pitch as well. When Lyon try to create overloads and triangles on the pitch, they don't do it particularly well. Their attempts at trying to distort the opposition can sometimes even lead to numerical disadvantages leaving them facing four defends with only three attackers trying to play through or something to that effect. The players will be stationed in something of a circle when they have possession of the ball, with no one being in the middle to help connect play. Lyon’s tendency to have their front line be on the shoulders of the opposition back line and try to find openings amplifies the problem and creates a disconnect between the man on the ball and the players making runs in behind the defense.

Another issue with Lyon is that they'll often have odd player alignments. When the ball is near the flanks, they'll have multiple players occupying the same space which doesn't really do much to confuse the opposition. In particular, at least once or twice times a game, a Lyon player will end up with the ball and two of his teammates are positioned in a straight line. Without the proper spacing needed, it's hard to build successful attacks as passing options become limited as attackers get in the way of each other. Lacking proper structure, Lyon will often try to switch up the play to get one of their wide players isolated against a defender. This isn’t the worst backup plan. Having someone like Traore sizing up most fullbacks in Ligue 1 is something you don’t mind trying. Lyon have been able to spring him free on the right wing for advantageous scenarios and create something worthwhile. His production so far this season has been noteworthy despite the structural problems of the team around him. It's actually a credit to the talent base that Lyon have built up over the past few years that even with some noticeable deficiencies in their gameplan, they've still got enough to produce offensively. What's impressive about Lyon is that they have a really good blend of athleticism and passing skills across numerous positions, which makes it possible to freelance and create eye pleasing goals. Their performance against Marseille over the weekend was illustrative of just how overpowering their collective talent level can be. Sometimes the spacing being all messed up just doesn't matter. All of this paints a picture of a team that has to work harder than it perhaps should to generate good looks, which can make it a bit annoying for some considering that Lyon have a ludicrous amount of talent to work with. Through their ability to manufacture star talents from their famous academy along with smart player acquisition, Lyon have created a squad that can hold its own with a lot of clubs in Europe. It’s just that when they have to play as a possession side against an opponent that’s willing to suck up pressure, the lack of a gameplan can be exposed. For all the good things that can be said about Bruno Genesio as a coach, including his willingness to put faith in the young talents coming through the academy, Lyon having problems during possession has not been a new criticism that people have levied against him. In the grand scheme of things Lyon should largely be fine, at least within Ligue 1. Despite the surprising starts that teams like Lille and Montpellier have had this season, Lyon are probably not in much danger of missing out on qualifying for the Champions League. It should also be acknowledge that we're dealing with a small sample size, a small enough total to where volatility in the numbers is a real thing. But these issues that Lyon are dealing with aren't new and have been bubbling under the surface for quite awhile now. Maybe it won't matter and by the latter stages of the season Lyon's league numbers will bounce back to a healthier place place of their own accord. But this is a team could truly be something special if they were able to fix some of the structural problems they have in place, but as more times passes and the same problems remain, it becomes more reasonable to wonder if Genesio is the man to do it.  

Wolves Defend, Burnley Don't and Other Stats for Your Premier League Weekend

Week six of the Premier League is upon us. As we head into the weekend, here are six surprising stats from the season so far.  

0.13

That’s Bournemouth’s expected goals per shot. It’s the highest mark in the Premier League. Eddie Howe has his team playing an entirely different attacking style so far this season, moving from back to front quickly, rather than trying to build possession methodically. The results have been a huge success. It’s still early and their strong start of ten points in four games might well be due to an easy schedule. Their wins came against Cardiff, West Ham, and Leicester and they picked up a draw against Everton. We’ll see if the newfound style lasts as they play against a more representative range of opponents. Regardless, managers rarely change style so dramatically year to year, so it’s notable to see just how differently Bournemouth are approaching the game this season.  

41.27

The average distance of a Wolverhampton defensive action from their own goal is 41.27 yards. Only six teams in the Premier League defend closer to their own net on average. Wolves have been an extremely strong defensive team so far this season. Their expected goals conceded tally of 0.77 per game is the second best in the league, behind only Manchester City. They concede 11.40 shots per game, the seventh best total in the league, but only 0.07 xG per shot, tied (again with Manchester City) for the lowest xG per shot. Wolves, with their back three system have been incredibly difficult for teams to break down, and they do it largely by maintaining a disciplined tactical shape, not by pressuring the ball. Their defensive heatmap sure doesn’t look like the heatmap of a team which doesn’t give much away. Squint and you can just about see a team which funnels opponents to the sides and then pounces, it’s just that the actual pouncing happens fairly rarely. This approach is all the more surprising when you consider how they played last season. Wolves dominated the Championship. They were the most talented team, and they played like it. They kept the ball, and used the ball to create chances, break down opponents, and generally do the kind of incisive attacking things that good teams do to less talented ones. So, to see them deploying a more conservative defense this season, and doing it so well is interesting. It certainly speaks well of the team’s flexibility and their chances to end up solidly midtable this season.  

2.02

Burnley are conceding 2.02 expected goals per match. That’s…that’s a lot of expected goals. It’s the third worst mark in the Premier League, behind only Fulham and West Ham. The success of the Sean Dyche warlock program was always built on being a roughly average defensive team with a bit of magic thrown in (combined with a lot of goal scoring from half chances at best on the attacking side of the ball). This is not that. This just looks like a bad defensive team performing badly. Burnley simply aren’t denying high quality chances in the same they did last year. They’ve already conceded seven shots with an expected goal value over 0.40 this year. Last year they gave up a total of 19. There are any numbers of reasons this might be happening. From Joe Hart taking over in goal, to the fact that they’ve had to open up to try and overcome deficits against sides like Fulham and West Ham, Burney’s path this season has thus far not been much more rocky than last. But, the bottom line is that the team’s defense is currently broken in boring and easy to see ways. They need to fix that before even beginning to worry about where the Dyche magic has gone.  

0.00

Christian Benteke still hasn’t scored a goal. Benteke is supposed to be Crystal Palace’s target man, And he seems to be doing an effective job of it in every way but the way that matters. Last year he had a hellacious finishing season. He scored a grand total of two goals from open play on 57 shots, despite having an expected goal total of almost 9. For his struggles he was benched as Roy Hodgson went with an unconventional striker partnership of Wilfred Zaha and Andros Townsend down the stretch. Still, those numbers suggest that there was reason to believe Benteke would bounce back this season. And yet. This season is simply more of the same for Benteke. He’s putting up respectable numbers in almost every category. He’s taking 3.72 shots per 90 minutes, which is tied for eight in the league (among players with 180 minutes or more played). His xG per 90 of 0.53 sneaks him right in at the bottom of the Premier League’s top ten. He is comfortably his teams most potent attacking threat, leading Palace in total xG. But still, no goals. Coming off the heels of one horrible no good very bad finishing season, Benteke is hard at work on the sequel. He’s currently sidelined with a knee injury, and set to miss his second game in a row. When he returns, if the goals don’t start coming soon, there’s a real chance Hodgson won’t keep waiting for them.  

13.30

Southampton midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg has had limited run this season. He’s only been on the field for 270 minutes. But, in that time he’s been an absolute beast when it comes to progressing the ball. He’s averaging 13.30 deep progressions per 90 minutes. That’s second in the Premier League (again among players who have played over 180 minutes). He’s one of only three players in the top 20 who aren’t on a top six team. The others are Ruben Neves with 10.44 in ninth and Fulham’s Tom Cairney right at the bottom of the top 20 with 7.79. Højbjerg arrived at Southampton from Bayern Munich two seasons ago after never quite making the grade at the German super club. But, he’s still only 23 years old and should just be starting the prime of his career. It’s often difficult to assess exactly what creative passing midfielders can bring to a side, and in restrictive systems, like the ones deployed both by Claude Puel and Mauricio Pellegrino, those skills can often be left to atrophy. If these progression numbers are real though, and through only five games that’s a big if, then Southampton have a midfielder they can build around. Southampton have had a mediocre start to the season with five points from five games, and things are about to get more difficult with matches against Liverpool and Chelsea in two of the next three weeks. This season may be a bumpy one, but if Højbjerg emerges as a true midfield maestro, there’s at least some reason for optimism.

0.67

Wonder winger Mohammed Salah is off to a great start to the season. He’s averaging 0.67 expected goals per 90, the fourth highest total in the league (for players with over 180 minutes) and he’s taking 4.64 shots, the fourth highest total in the league. Those numbers are both better than his totally from last year of 0.58 and 4.21. What’s changed is that Salah’s finishing through the first five games has been poorer, leaving him with only two goals. Last year Salah spent the season unable to miss. This year, even as his underlying numbers have gotten better, that’s been masked by more mediocre finishing. What’s scary for the rest of the league is that despite Salah’s shooting hiccup, Liverpool have been basically unstoppable. Imagine what might happen if his scoring catches up to his numbers.

One Year Later: Ousmane Dembele Finally Arrives at Barcelona

You know when you’re a kid, and you get that massive playset of Legos for Christmas? You think to yourself “this is it, man. I can build the castle over here, and the drawbridge will lead to the pizza city, and then the river will lead to the orc battlefield.” For once in your life, you have the means for which your grandest ambitions can be achieved. You’re young, you’re innocent, you’re satisfied by a product of capital. Well, Thomas Tuchel had that very same ‘pizza city’ experience at forty years old. After his untimely departure from Dortmund, in a sports talk at a coaching school in Dubai, Tuchel walked people through that very experience. He spoke candidly about how in that final year, the one where Klopp cemented his place in Liverpool-Valhalla, he had all the tools to make his dream system complete. He envisioned the process of a goal coming from some combination of Ousmane Dembele linking up with Mario Gotze in a half space, who would then pick out Raphael Guerreiro, finally finding Pierre Emerick Aubameyang unmarked at the back post. That beautiful vision, or at least some version of it, actually materialize for a year at Dortmund, only to be liquidated after the season ended with only a German cup to show for it. For a year, everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.   Mats Hummels would go on to join the machine that is Bayern Munich, Ilkay Gundogan would leave to the shores of Manchester, and Dembele would ascend into football heaven and link up with Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Though many players played significant parts in that extraordinary Dortmund side, Dembele's experience as the teenager that dazzled Europe was one to remember, and yet it's something that many seem to have forgotten just two years later. /// To say that any recent Barcelona team is lacking in any part of the field is a bold statement f, but suggesting the same of the one that nearly went undefeated in La Liga last season seems, at first glance, to be concern trolling of the highest order. The Spanish champions might’ve gone yet another year watching their arch rivals lift a European title, but they made sure they did so with a seventeen point gap between them at home. Ernesto Valverde’s recalibration to the philosophy that won them their most recent treble, one that emphasized a sense of duality on and off the ball, proved to be exactly what they needed in a post-Neymar Catalonia- at least on the surface. Though Barcelona were undoubtedly proficient in the league last season, they also ran well ahead of their numbers. They outperformed their expected goals by a 20 goal tally, scoring 96 goals from open play with an xG of just over 79.49. On the defensive side they conceded 27 from open play with an xG conceded of just over 41. Even with a once in a generation player like Messi to account for their attacking numbers, Barcelona should expect some regression to the mean. Unless, of course, they had one of the best young talents in the world acclimating to the demands of their manager warming the bench last season. Such a player might increase the team’s expected goal numbers even as the squad’s finishing returned to more normal levels. It’s taken Dembele a full year to settle in at Barcelona. How much of that arduous journey to consistent involvement is his fault is an open question. He suffered from a string of injuries but, his inability to break into the team when he was finally fit led to doubts over his quality. The details of his transfer from Dortmund aren’t the most pleasant. Dembele’s willingness to skip practices following scuffles with teammates in order to facilitate the move isn’t the most promising indicator of the kind of personality one might want at a club. But, with four starts in four league games, Dembele finally seems to be settling into the club of his dreams. His lost year is behind him, and the talent that made Tuchel swoon, and Barcelona break the bank is coming through for all to see. With a few crucial goals in both the league and Champions league, the most significant area of growth appears to be within his own tactical use. Dembele’s electric pace and a bi-pedality that is frankly terrifying have always made it seem like the most natural fit for his skillset would be on the wing. Under Tuchel his natural attributes shined bright in a system that sought to reap the benefits of positional play. By isolating Dembele and providing a variety of runners to pick out through the middle, Dembele’s 12 assists at just 19 years old were just the early signs indicators of his exceptional talent as a provider. Perhaps even more exciting than his wing play were the flashes of experimentation at Dortmund that saw Dembele closer to the center of the front line.. Tuchel’s propensity for fluidity within the formation meant that a variety of players took up positions they were initially unfamiliar with.. , For Dembele that meant getting deployed in the half spaces to use his rare dribbling talents to devastating effect. Thankfully, this experiment has taken on a life of its own in Spain. With Barcelona’s fullbacks more rigidly tasked with providing the width, Dembele’s fluidity across the front line is getting more out of him as a scoring outlet. Barcelona are one of the best teams in the world at their particular brand of possession football; a combination that’s increasingly potent as Messi and the crucial players around him, age like fine wine. By flattening the opposition’s defensive through the aforementioned width, Suarez, Messi and Dembele alternate in making perfectly timed runs in behind the defensive line. And when one darts forward the other two, use their time and space on the ball to pick out a characteristically clever dinked ball. While this action is more a Messi trademark than anything else, the ability to find players free in the box is becoming infectious. Despite fierce competition in forward areas, Dembele’s proficiency as a part of their attacking trio has meshed nicely with the hybrid role Philipe Coutinho has played as a left central midfielder. While it would be foolish to suggest that either of these new weapons could entirely replace the two that they’re most naturally filling the void for in Neymar and Iniesta, Dembele and Coutinho are making it difficult not to draw comparisons to the ones that came before them. Another area where Dembele helps Barcelona is in their ability to be direct. Though the palpable difference between play styles across Europe’s top five leagues is often debated, the prominence of teams in La Liga with an aggressive PPDA rating is a reliable indicator that they’re willing to go after the league’s elite. While the most marketable league in the world had five teams with PPDA ratings under 10 last season, La Liga had fourteen. It’s in these games that Barcelona are often most seriously challenged. Last season, their defensively oriented 4-4-2 formation gave them a defensive shape to cope with some of the surprises that a high pressing team might create, but limited their options for escaping being clever high lines and pressing traps that pinned them in their own half. Where Tuchel's Dortmund looked to isolate, Valverde's sophomore Barça looks to separate. Given that the defensive and midfield lines of their 4-3-3 are rife with talented players on the ball, Messi, Suarez, and Dembele often stop the opposition from maintaining an efficient pressing shape by pushing up to the defensive line and using the threat of a run in behind to keep them at bay. This also creates space between defensive and midfield lines for one of the front three to drop into and attack. The result is, more often than not, Messi Suarez and Dembele running entirely unchecked at a disheveled back four. You didn’t have to be a Nostradamus to predict that Dembele moving to Barcelona was going to end in success. The fact that many were more than willing to doubt the twenty-one-year-old after just half a season of not being excellent is more reflective of the current impatient, hyper-accelerated news cycle, win right now at all costs football world than Dembele’s ability. It might've taken him some time, but, rest assured, Ousmane Dembele has arrived.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Closing Down: How Defensive Pressure Impacts Shots

One of the things that makes StatsBomb data unique is that we have defensive positioning data for every shot. The challenge is rigorously translating the freeze frames that capture that positioning into usable information about how defensive pressure impacts the players taking the shots.  

Defining the Problem

To start, we need to define what specifically pressure means. Obviously we’re looking at defenders within a certain radius of a shooter. Our first challenge is defining the distance around the shooter that we should examine. Adjusting the Pressure Radius (PR) for arbitrary distance categories would unjustly increase or decrease the radius for shots just inside or just outside a given category. Therefore, we create a piecewise linear function for all shots. This is defined as: –          PR = DFG*0.15 + 0.85 for DFG <= 24 (where DFG = distance from goal) –          PR = 4.5 for DFG > 24. –          In other words, it is the straight line from the point (PR, DFG) of (1, 1) to (4.5, 24). The PR is relatively arbitrary, but intuitively defined. It is designed to differentiate pressure at different positions on the pitch and with further research can be easily modified to best model defensive pressure. In simplest terms, the closest to the goal you are, the closer defenders must be to pressure you and influence your shot and the further away from the goal you are defenders may be slightly further away in order to impact a shot. Here is an example of what that radius looks like:

 

Pressures from each side

In addition to dealing with distance, we also need to separate out the pressure defenders apply by direction. The idea here is to more specifically understand both how pressure effects change goal scoring probabilities and also how they interact with a shooter’s own tendencies. If we take the circle around the shooter with radius = PR as defined above, then we can define pressure from four different sides as: –          Pressure Left = AngleToShooter > 315 and AngleToShooter < 45. –          Pressure Behind = AngleToShooter >= 45 and AngleToShooter <= 135. –          Pressure Right = AngleToShooter > 135 and AngleToShooter < 225. –          Pressure Front = AngleToShooter >= 225 and AngleToShooter <= 315. We will later see how the pressure from each of these sides influences a player’s decision of shooting foot and the observed goal rates. For example, here is a shot that had pressure from the left of the shooter.

 

Overall Shot and Goal Rates Under Pressure

After testing the pressure metrics both visually and numerically we apply the pressure values to all shots in our data set, and then view some summary statistics. Please note that all results below only reflect shots in the run of play. In the tables above we can see that roughly 65% of all shots, under this definition are “under pressure”. We can also see that a significantly higher proportion of goals are scored in the absence of pressure than under pressure. The only angle that does not have a higher proportion of goals scored is the pressure behind the ball which would make sense, since the pressure behind the shooter is not disrupting the view to goal.

The Cool Stuff We Found

Once we define “under pressure” values for all of our shots, we can analyze a multitude of different aspects of the game and the player. First, we will look at whether the direction of pressure has any impact on the player’s choice of foot to shoot with. Furthermore, we look at whether the combination of the player’s dominant foot, shooting foot and direction of pressure has a significant relationship with the proportion of shots that become goals. We view the results in the tables below. When the pressure from the left is greater than the pressure from the right, the proportion of shots taken with the player’s right foot is about 75%. When the pressure from the right is greater than the pressure from the left, the proportion of shots taken with the player’s right foot is still greater than 50% at approximately 50.2%. An obvious explanation for this is the vast majority of right footed players continuing to want to shoot with their right foot regardless of the pressure. Interestingly enough, we see in Table 3 that the highest proportion of goals are scored when a right footed player gets off a shot with his right foot and there is less pressure on the right side. The next thing we wanted to look at with shots under pressure were the raw numbers on a player level. Which players players are trigger happy and will pull up regardless of who’s around? Which players are more selective with their shots? Or, which players happen to find themselves in better places to get shots off without defenders breathing all over them. Using 2017-18 Premier League numbers, the 10 players who take the greatest proportion of shots under pressure are summarized in table 5 and the 10 players who take the lowest proportion of shots under pressure are in table 6.   This pressure data contains tons of interesting information about what exactly is happening and players put the ball on net. There are certainly further factors that can be worked in too. This is only the beginning of the kind of information that we can glean from how players are pressured as they take shots.    

Champions League Preview, Part Two

After we previewed the first half of the Champions League group stage in part one, here’s what you can expect from groups E to H.  

Group E - AEK Athens, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Benfica,

It’s a new season and a new manager, but Bayern have still started the Bundesliga with their usual complete domination. Three wins out of three with nine scored and two conceded suggests nothing of note has changed under new boss Niko Kovac, though the arguably declining quality of the Bundesliga suggests tougher tests await in this competition. Bayern still have the depth to rotate heavily, and should be able to get out of this group without breaking a sweat. Ajax have started the Eredivisie brightly, though there remains a sense that Erik ten Hag’s side are not as strong as the 2016-17 edition managed by Peter Bosz. The club continue to play the possession heavy 4-3-3 one would expect, though the ball may be harder to come by here than in domestic competitions. Obviously all eyes are on Frenkie de Jong, back in central midfield after an extended stint as a centre back, but Hakim Ziyech’s creative passing also remains a delight. Ajax didn’t make it into the group stages last year, but it’s not especially obvious that this is a stronger team a year later, though this relatively kind group could see them through. Benfica have started well in this year’s Portuguese Primeira Liga, surely wanting to do better than last year’s embarrassing Champions League group stage exit in which they lost all their games and scored only one goal. The team do have some good attacking talent.  Andrija Zivkovic (whom StatsBomb has covered before) is developing into an excellent creative midfielder, though Pizzi has so far taken his role in the side this and is doing very well. Rui Vitoria, now in his fourth season managing the Lisbon side, will have to improve significantly on last year’s aforementioned horrendous showing, but it is not clear that this team is significantly different. Greek football is in something of a rut, with the Super League unable to avoid the country’s wider economic problems, and no club has made it out of the Champions League group stages since Olympiacos did so in 2013-14. AEK, making their return to the tournament proper after over a decade away, don’t look especially likely to change this, having won last year’s domestic league by 3 points in no great style. Unless things improve financially, it seems like we will have to wait a long time before Greek football can seriously compete in Europe again. To go through: Bayern, Ajax (at a push)  

Group F -  Hoffenheim, Lyon, Manchester City, Shakhtar

Manchester City, the bookmakers’ favourites to win the Champions League, have started this year in the same blistering form as the last. Their expected goal difference per game of +2.6 is by far the best in the Premier League so far this season, with left back Benjamin Mendy giving them an additional threat compared to Fabian Delph’s industrious inverted full back work last year. With Pep Guardiola continually reshaping this side in his own image, City are about as dominant as any team can be at the moment, and should be heavy favourites to finish first in Group F. Julian Nagelsmann continues to overachieve at Hoffenheim (though not for much longer, as he has agreed to move to RB Leipzig next season). Nagelsmann has continually been able to cope with the loss of key players at the club, and his high risk, high reward approach has been effective in the Bundesliga. There is the risk, of course, of a result like the 6-3 defeat to Liverpool in last year’s Champions League play off round, especially with strong teams in the group, though there is no reason to think they won’t put up a good fight for second place. Lyon have started the season strongly, and for a side best known for high profile attacking talents, it is the defence (best expected goals against in Ligue 1 so far) that is proving formidable. The team have been more aggressive, with StatsBomb’s high press rating giving them a big jump to 48.49 compared to 43.76 last year. As for the famous attackers themselves, Nabil Fekir is showing himself to be an all around threat of shot involvement, ball progression and elite pressing work, while Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore remain excellent pacey options. This is a team stacked with young talent, and they may just have the edge over Hoffenheim for second place. While the Ukrainian Premier League probably isn’t watched by many people outside of Ukraine, Shakhtar are possibly a better side than you think, having comfortably finished ahead of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in last season’s group stages. Euro Club Index actually has them as the 15th best side in Europe, ahead of teams like Borussia Dortmund and Monaco. The side is in something of a retooling phase, having sold Brazilian stars Fred and Bernard to England and replaced them with youngsters out of the Brasileirao, so they may not be so strong this year. Still, it would be a mistake to assume they will finish fourth and take a number of bruisings. To go through: Manchester City, Lyon  

Group G - CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Roma, Viktoria Plzen

After an era of huge success defined by continuity, it has been a summer of change for Real Madrid. Having obviously sold Cristiano Ronaldo (he’s not bad, you know) and replaced man manager Zinedine Zidane with more of a tactical philosophy coach in Julen Lopetegui, the reigning European champions are in the process of transitioning to a more conventional Spanish tiki-taka style. Thus far, Real have picked up decent results in La Liga without much in the way of scintillating football, and one suspects the new approach might not be as suited to this competition as the Zidane era system. Still, they will be strong favourites to top this group, and rightly so. Roma were able to put together a terrific run to the semi finals in last year’s Champions League but were not nearly as impressive in Serie A, where they finished 18 points behind perennial champions Juventus. Once again, sporting director Monchi has overseen a lot of turnover to the squad, with young wide forward Justin Kluivert the standout name of the newcomers. The new look Roma has had a slow start domestically, with just 5 points from 4 games, and this will need to change fairly promptly in order to make it through this group, though the squad is surely talented enough to do it. CSKA Moscow, last season’s Russian Premier League runners up have had a mixed start to the season, picking up 12 points from 7 games and sitting in 5th place in a 16 team division. With Aleksandr Golovin the only really significant loss to last season’s side, it is not especially clear what the issue is at the moment. Since CSKA failed to get out of an even weaker group last season, there isn’t great hope that this year will be different. A Europa League run may be their best hope of having any significant impact in Europe. Czech First League champions Viktoria Plzen are likely to only really be a threat to taking the third place position that moves the teams into the Europa League. Czech football hasn’t seen a side reach the knockout stages of the Champions League since Sparta Prague in 2003-04 and it’s hard to imagine this changing. All but one of the players in this squad are Czech citizens, yet only four Viktoria Plzen players made it into the most recent Czech Republic national team squad, showing how little valued domestic football is in the country. It remains a great shame that teams from smaller nations cannot challenge for European competitions, and Plzen are likely to keep this trend going. To go through: Real Madrid, Roma  

Group H - Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys

Juventus remain totally at ease in Serie A, winning all of their first four games and currently topping the table. It goes without saying that Cristiano Ronaldo is the big addition to the side and he is, you know, good at football. Expect manager Max Allegri to approach this competition the same way he usually does, looking to defend deep and seal close wins with an excellent ability to both defend leads and come back from behind. This is a relatively tough group but they should be able to make it through without too much trouble. Manchester United are, shall we say, experiencing some turbulence at the moment. After getting good results with fairly unremarkable numbers through the magic of David De Gea, things are regressing to the mean quite quickly. Mourinho’s team are still able to win a lot of Premier League games against weaker sides just by shear talent, but it doesn’t feel like more difficult Champions League ties are necessarily the Portuguese manager’s forte anymore. They have a reasonable chance of making it into the knockout stages, but a deep European run should likely not be expected. Current Valencia boss Marcelino has successfully brought Champions League football back to the Mestalla without playing the most exciting stuff. Playing a fairly low block 4-4-2, the club made it to 4th place while beating expected goals, though Marcelino overperformed in this regard at Villarreal so there may be more sustainability than one would think. The club were able to bring back last year’s star loanee Goncalo Guedes on a permanent deal while adding Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi, so there is some genuine firepower in the side. The betting markets expect Juventus and Manchester United to make it out of this group, but it would not be a shock to see Valencia usurp the Premier League team. Swiss Super League winners BSC Young Boys make up what is something of a nightmare group for them. The Bern club have never made it out of the group stages since the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League, and this squad of mostly Swiss players does not seem hugely likely to break new ground. To go through: Juventus, Manchester United (though don’t be surprised if Valencia manage it)   Header image courtesy of the Press Assciation

Champions League Preview, Part One

The thing about cup competitions is that they’re designed to be unpredictable. In theory. Looking at the projections for this season’s Champions League on FiveThirtyEight, no team is seen as having a greater than 15% chance of winning the competition. It even gives us a 57% chance that a team that has not won the tournament this decade will lift the trophy in May. We genuinely could have an unfancied side win the whole thing. Of course, we could also have two relatively unfancied sides make it to the semi-finals only for Real Madrid to win it again. With the competition as always being played over two nights, we’ll break down the groups as they kick off. Here are Tuesday’s teams.  

Group A - Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge, Monaco

Anyone who has watched this competition over the past five years knows what to expect from Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone. There has been significant player turnover over the years but the core ideas remain the same. The team will be compact and deep without the ball, look to go 1-0 up and then be happy to eke out a narrow win. As effective as this approach is, they may have to accept that they’re not always going to be everyone’s first pick of sides to watch, but that won’t concern them. Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco are also a known entity. The side have shown a fairly supernatural ability to score more than their expected goals, with last season’s 78 scored in Ligue 1 from 59.16 xG not even meeting the previous year’s incredible title winning overperformance. This side perhaps isn’t as strong as in previous years. They’ve sold some key players and largely replaced them with younger prospects. Their counter-attacking style still has the ability to excite, but Group A is largely well equipped to defend against that kind of attacking, so there may be difficulty in navigating a way out. Borussia Dortmund have made the fairly dramatic move from the expansive high pressing style of the past decade to the opposite of that under Lucien Favre. Getting bodies behind the ball combined with patient build up play is now the way things are done. Results have been good so far, with 7 points from 3 games, though this might be unsustainable with 7 goals from just 2.98 xG. Favre’s status as the original xG warlock may raise eyebrows, but his work has generally been done on the defensive side of the ball. Dortmund’s fairly poor defence last year probably triggered this appointment, but it still is unclear what this new side will become. Club Brugge are inevitably cast as the fourth placed team and it’s hard to find reasons to argue differently. Their Euro Club Index places them as the 68th best side in the continent, comparable to a midtable Premier League side. The problem teams from outside the top leagues often face in this competition is having to adjust stylistically to playing against clubs more likely to dominate games than themselves, and it seems as though Brugge will have the same trouble here. To go through: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund  

Group B - Barcelona, Inter, PSV, Tottenham

After a few years of fumbling around, Barcelona have finally made the squad improvements they needed. With last year’s key additions Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele now properly integrated into the starting eleven as well as this summer’s added depth, this looks a much more balanced team than last year’s “all Messi, all the time” edition. The bookmakers currently have Barcelona as second favourites and this may even be underrating them. A test they rarely face, though, is a good side pressing them high, which is what one expects Tottenham will do. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have had some issues this year, with an increasingly concerning defence and a not quite firing Harry Kane. If Spurs are able to fix, or at least mitigate, these issues when they welcome Barcelona to Wembley in October, we could have a terrific contest to watch. Inter under Luciano Spalletti have not always been the most exciting side in Serie A, with the club just about scraping to Champions League qualification over a much more interesting Lazio team. Inter are certainly capable of causing problems for any side in this group, but unless Spurs’ issues don’t get resolved at all, they may have to settle for a Europa League spot. PSV traded manager Phillip Cocu for Mark van Bommel this summer seemingly without any hitch, as the Eredivisie champions currently sit at the top of the league with 15 points and somehow 21 goals from 5 games with only 3 conceded. The club managed to hold onto exciting young wingers Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn and they form a key part of the club’s game, with Van Bommel opting for a conventional Dutch style of an attacking 4-3-3. It’s possible that this will cause issues against higher quality sides, but PSV could be involved in some entertaining games nonetheless.  

Group C - Liverpool, Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, Red Star

After merely achieving almost complete domestic dominance, it’s a new era for PSG under Thomas Tuchel. Tuchel is a known tactical tinkerer, with it likely that he will deploy the absurd attacking talent at his disposal in a number of ways depending on the profile of the opposition. With PSG’s previous European campaigns leaving something to be desired, it would be a surprise if this competition wasn’t his primary focus, andgetting out of the group stages is well less than the minimum requirement at this point. The last time Thomas Tuchel faced Jurgen Klopp led to a thrilling spectacle as Liverpool beat Borussia Dortmund 5-4 on aggregate to go into the Europa League semi-finals. Liverpool are a much stronger side now than they were in 2016, with Klopp’s counter-pressing system not only getting the best out of the front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino but finally functioning in a defensive sense as well. The good news for Klopp is that his opponents in this group are likely to press and leave the space in behind that his system craves, and as such we could see Liverpool push PSG all the way for the top spot in this group. After Napoli played some really unique football under Maurizio Sarri, it’s something of a return to normality with Carlo Ancelotti. Expect the Italian side to still attempt to dominate possession, but in less of an absolute clear structure, with a greater willingness to alter the core principles just for a one off game. Ancelotti obviously has an excellent record in this competition, and his greater flexibility could serve Napoli well in the knockout stages. Unfortunately for him, though, he has found himself in a very difficult group, with PSG and Liverpool perhaps too strong to stop. As for Red Star, the Serbian SuperLiga champions have marked their return to this competition with a horrible group. Euro Club Index ranks them as the 73rd best side in Europe, between Southampton and Bournemouth, and it looks a tough ask for them to achieve something beyond fourth place. To go through: Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool  

Group D - Galatasaray, Lokomotiv, Porto, Schalke

Domenico Tedesco, a recent graduate of the long line of exciting young German managers to come out of nowhere, is perhaps the most interesting thing about this group. Tedesco’s Schalke were able to finish second in last year’s Bundesliga with a low possession style built on solid defensive work. Schalke have endured a very difficult start to the Bundesliga, but with only three games played, the assumption should probably be a return to their success of last season in this competition. Portuguese Primeira Liga champions Porto were unceremoniously knocked out at the round of 16 last year with a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool and it is unclear whether or not they are better placed this time. With manager Sérgio Conceição and most of last year’s attacking talent remaining, this side should be capable of qualifying from the group, but beyond this it is unclear about how good Porto are against top opposition. Lokomotiv were able to win last season’s Russian Premier League, but this year have found themselves in significant trouble domestically, sitting in the bottom half of the table with 9 points from 7 games. The Moscow club have made high profile international additions including Benedikt Höwedes and Grzegorz Krychowiak, though Höwedes has thus far only played 9 minutes of league football for Lokomotiv. With largely unremarkable expected goals numbers to match their poor results, there’s not a strong case to think that this side can cause Schalke or Porto any huge issues right now. Last season’s Turkish Super Lig winners Galatasaray have kept the show on the road this year with 12 points from their first 5 league games, placing themselves at the top of the division on goal difference. That this has been done without last year’s Super Lig top scorer Bafétimbi Gomis is most pleasing, with new signings Henry Onyekuru and Emre Akbaba scoring two each in what looks like a more balanced side. It doesn’t seem especially likely that Galatasaray will follow last season’s Turkish entry Besiktas in making it out of the group, but nonetheless this is a capable team. To go through: Schalke, Porto   We’ll be back with part two, focusing on groups E to H.

Sarri's Chelsea are Just Getting Started

Chelsea are perfect. They’re coming off their most impressive win of the season, a 4-1 demolition of Cardiff City. Despite going behind early, Chelsea dominated the game, took the lead just before halftime, and coasted home before putting it away late. Five games into the season, we now have enough time to look at exactly what makes Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea tick.   An Attack on the Rise The scary thing about Chelsea is that despite being perfect, their attack hasn't really fired on all cylinders yet this season. While Sarri’s attacking mindset is well known, Chelsea’s numbers in that department are respectable, but not outstanding. They take almost 19 shots per game, which is great, it’s second only to Manchester City’s outrageous 25. But their expected goals per game total is only at 1.59. That’s good, it’s fourth in the Premier League, but it’s not overwhelming. The fact that they’ve scored 14 goals, tied with Manchester City for most in the Premier League, is, to some degree, a product of a hot finishing start. A quick look at their shooting profile shows that they’ve showed more than their fair share of unlikely goals, with four of their goals coming from shots that were worth 0.15 xG or less, and six coming from shots below 0.20. This suggests that while Chelsea may be dominating the ball, they’ve yet to really break down teams in the final third. Rather, they’ve had to settle for an avalanche of speculative efforts and rely on accumulating enough individual moments of brilliance to break through defenses that are resolutely packed against them. This was somewhat less true against Cardiff, where the team created four chances of 0.15 xG or higher (as well as a penalty) despite playing against a team in Cardiff that is one of the more defensively conservative sides in the league, and was incentivized to play even more on the back foot thanks to taking a lead a quarter of an hour in. One particularly noticeable difference in Chelsea was how starting Olivier Giroud instead of Alvaro Morata changed the passing dynamics of Chelsea’s front three. Giroud was extremely involved in linking play over the course of the game. He created Chelsea’s biggest chance by playing midfielder Mateo Kovacic through on goal. Giroud played eight passes to Eden Hazard and four to Kovacic as parts of moves that resulted in 1.12 expected goals. Giroud’s ability to exchange passes around the top of the box in close quarters changed the positional dynamics of Chelsea’s attack. Here’s what their pass map looked like against Cardiff. This is what it looked like against a similarly committed defensive team in Newcastle, with Morata starting. Morata is much less involved. The wingers are wider. The midfielders are deeper. Everybody is green instead of red (a measure of contribution to expected goals). This is a much more typical striker profile. A player who is relatively uninvolved but for getting goal scoring chances. Giroud, on the other hand, is doing a lot of creative work. Over the years, Sarri’s system has operated with a myriad of different striker profiles. His Napoli teams moved from Gonzalo Higuain to Arkadiusz Milik to Dries Mertens all of whom have incredibly different skillsets. Higuain is a classic all around striker, who scores goals in every way possible while also providing creditable link-up play. Milik is a dedicated goal poacher. Mertens is a converted winger whose skills are centered around his ability with the ball at his feet. Clearly Sarri will be able to incorporate either Giroud or Morata, it's just an issue of which striker can play better with the talent around him. Both strikers are ultimately going to play a lot of minutes. With Europa League kicking off this week, Morata and Giroud will both need to start and contribute. What the early returns seem to suggest, though, is that they are not interchangeable parts. Giroud’s presence is important to Chelsea when it comes to breaking down defenses, while Morata remains a much more dedicated goal scorer. He’s more mobile than Giroud, more able to create chances for himself, or bother a back line without support, but he won’t contribute much beyond goals when it comes to breaking down a set defense.   An Underrated Defense Chelsea’s defense has also been surprisingly strong this season. While philosophically Sarri is known as an attacking manager, thus far his team is living proof that other team can’t score if they don’t have the ball. Chelsea are only conceding nine shots per game, the third lowest total in the league, and they’re only giving up 0.87 expected goals per game, second best in the league and one of only five teams below the one goal mark. They’re doing that all with a defensive pressure map that looks like this. On the one hand, all that blue is to be somewhat unsurprising from a high possession team. On the other, most high possession teams display a pattern of pressing high up the field to win the ball back. That is, typically, a good press is the engine that drives high possession, and thus prevents other teams from having opportunities. That does not appear to be the case with Chelsea. Rather than showing a high propensity to win the ball back, they simply show an extreme tendency to always have the ball. This creates two potential problems going forward. The first is, what happens against other teams that are also good at holding the ball. They’ve only played one match against a team committed to attack, and Arsenal spent a half ripping through them. Chelsea won because after a wide open first half which ended 2-2, Arsenal manager Unai Emery decided to try and defend his way to a draw in the second half. But, in that first half, Chelsea conceded 1.31 expected goals. The second problem is what happens when they play against a team that excels at counterattacking into space. Most teams that attack as aggressively as Chelsea do make a concerted effort to maintain their spacing in order to end counterattacks deep in opposing territory before they start. We’ve yet to see any evidence that Chelsea can implement that approach. It’s possible to overwhelm teams like Cardiff and Newcastle, to use sustained possession to turn a defend and counterattack approach into defend and pray. But, there are good teams that are able to counterattack at speed. Liverpool, for example, has often chosen to adopt a more counterattacking posture when it comes to clashes against the other best teams in the world, and used it to great effect. Manchester United are less dynamic, but they too will look to play up midfield and then play up the field quickly using a center forward and a winger in combination. Despite Chelsea’s impressive defensive start, there’s still not a lot to indicate that they are well equipped to deal with the attacks that other good teams will bring to the table against them. Chelsea have a lot of promise this season. Their perfect start gives them a strong leg up for finishing in the top four. They’ve managed to take every point available while a new manager implements a new system while dealing with a whole host of players who had very little preseason time together thanks to the World Cup. That’s a tremendous early season accomplishment. That said, the finished Chelsea article is likely to look slightly different from where they are now. Their attack will probably improve, and they’ll pick teams apart even more ruthlessly than they have so far. Their defense on the other hand, despite it’s gaudy numbers, remains unproven. Before considering the team as an actual contender for the Premier League title, Sarri needs to show some evidence that his approach has a plan for dealing with teams that won’t simply be overwhelmed by their attack. Those remaining defensive questions will likely determine whether Chelsea are simply a good team, or they’re a title contending one.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association