The Statistical Stars of the FA WSL

Football is a team game, but every team is made up of individuals. And if there’s one thing about fans, it’s that we love individual players to rally behind. And there are plenty to choose from up and down the Women’s Super League. From Arsenal, running away with the league; to recent champions Manchester City and Chelsea, as well as Birmingham City and Reading, in the chasing pack; down to struggling teams at the bottom like Brighton, Yeovil, and Everton. Here are some of the best picks from StatsBomb’s WSL data. (Ed. note- as always please allow for some data lag in our analysis. Specifically the Manchester City v West Ham match is currently not in our data set, therefore crediting Georgia Stanway with two fewer goals than her actual seven)

Youngsters tearing up the league

WSL is blessed by some great young wingers. Two are on Merseyside, Liverpool’s Rinsola Babajide and Everton’s Chloe Kelly are first and third in the league for successful dribbles per 90 minutes. Babajide is averaging over four, literally off the charts on our radars, so woe betide any full-back coming up against her. Between Babajide and Kelly is Manchester City’s Caroline Weir. Weir consistently terrorises the right-side of opponent defences, averaging 3.15 dribbles per 90 minutes. She has three goals to her name already, including a superb strike against West Ham United (a reward for some otherwise slightly errant shot selection that sees her shots average just a six per cent chance of going in). At the moment, she’s off the charts for the quality of chances that she sets up. They’re worth over 0.34 expected goals per 90 minutes that she plays - or one assist for every three full games. Only two other players in the league - Beth Mead at Arsenal and Gemma Davison at Reading - do better.  

Working hard on the wing

It’ll usually be players at the top teams who dominate statistical categories - and we’re going to see some real heavyweight examples of that later on - but there’s a lot of incredibly hard work going on across the WSL. Ellie Brazil at Brighton leads the league for pressure events per 90 minutes, locking down the right flank (defending the goal to the left of the graphic). Just behind her, and on the opposite flank, is Ella Rutherford at Bristol City. At 19 and 18 respectively, Brazil and Rutherford are putting in hard yards for their team and getting experience that will serve them well in the future.

Dominating the middle

Chasing down opponents isn’t just for teenagers though. Behind the two whippersnappers, and leading the way for pressures that lead to her team getting the ball, is Manchester City’s Jill Scott. Scott’s been at the top of the game for over a decade, winning her first England cap back in 2006, and is still a hell of a midfielder. She’s arguably the best defensive midfielder in the WSL. Running her close, though, is Arsenal’s summer Swiss signing Lia Wälti. Wälti makes an impressive amount of tackles and interceptions considering how much of the ball the Gunners have, and, once she gets it, she moves it forward towards goal as well. The combination of defensive actions and successful dribbles make her a very important part of the team.

Safe hands

While we’re speaking about crucially important parts of the team, it makes sense to mention Ann-Katrin Berger, Birmingham City’s goalkeeper. As things currently stand, the Blues are third in the league, just two points behind Manchester City and three points ahead of WSL holders Chelsea. Berger’s part in that can’t be understated - out of WSL’s starting goalkeepers she leads the way for saves above expectation. Taking into account the quality of shots she’s faced, she’d be expected to save 69.9 per cent of them; in actual fact, she’s saved 82.8 per cent. Is there anything opponents can do to improve their chances? StatsBomb’s data suggests there might be a couple of holes low to her right or high to her left...  

Racking up goals like no tomorrow

Not that Vivianne Miedema or Nikita Parris would need help scoring goals. The pair are extraordinarily good, both in terms of volume and quality of chances that they get on the end of (although being on teams as good as Arsenal and City certainly helps). The amount of pressure that Parris applies on opponents embodies defending from the front. Parris’ team-mate Georgia Stanway has also been amongst the goals recently, although who knows whether it’ll last. She’s scored more than double what her expected goals would think, with a shot map that’s almost the exact opposite of Parris’. Across the entire league there are some cracking players to be excited about, and there’s just over half of the WSL left to go. Get yourself down to a game.

Will Giovani Lo Celso Be PSG's One That Got Away?

It is difficult to believe that at some point over the next five or six years, Paris Saint-Germain won’t look back and regret their decision to provide Giovani Lo Celso with an accessible pathway out of the Parc des Princes. Lo Celso arrived at the club in January 2017 after making his name in his native Argentina as part of the attractive Rosario Central side managed by Eduardo Coudet that reached the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores in 2016. Playing as an attacking midfielder, he not only provided goals, assists and incision but at least one “wow” moment every match: a delicate touch, a scooped pass, a confounding flourish. Playing time was severely limited in his first six months in Paris, but he worked hard to settle in and prove himself useful to coach Unai Emery. He was rewarded with a good set of minutes last season, making 19 starts and 21 substitute appearances across league and Champions League play. He made up part of the midfield three, and was even sometimes employed as the central defensive midfielder - a role he had never previously occupied. Given those demands, he put together a very solid campaign. The low point of his season came in the first leg of the club’s last-16 exit from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid. he was rather hung out to dry in that central role in front of the defense (the lack of alternative options perhaps demonstrating some of the same lack of foresight that led to PSG loaning Lo Celso out this season), his inexperience showed. He struggled to establish any sort of presence in the match and conceded a penalty in a 1-3 defeat. It was a blot on an otherwise promising campaign, one in which Lo Celso displayed the range of his abilities. Fully settled, he seemed set to push on. However, just 10 minutes of action over the course of the club’s first three matches of the new season suggested he wasn’t to the taste of new coach Thomas Tuchel. On the last day of the summer transfer window, he joined Real Betis on an initial one-season loan, with a €25 million purchase option (mandatory if Betis qualify for Europe; executable without PSG’s further approval if not). It already looks an excellent match. At a top-line level, he has provided five goals and two assists in league and Europa League action, at a rate of a direct goal contribution of 0.72 per 90 minutes. He stole the show in a standout performance in the thrilling 4-3 win away to Barcelona earlier this month, impressing with his ability to make space for himself with good touch and awareness of his surroundings when receiving - attributes also evident in his ultimately futile late strike away to Villarreal on Sunday. It is difficult to decide which radar best encompasses Lo Celso’s output to date. Betis usually line up in either a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1 formation. In the former, he is part of midfield three; in the latter, one of the two attacking midfielders behind the central striker. Wherever he is positioned, however his role is defined, his numbers are impressive.   In attack, he completes more dribbles and advances the ball into the final third more often than any other Betis player, while also ranking in the top three in terms of xG and xG assisted. In defense, he leads the team in tackles and pressures, and ranks second for pressure regains. More broadly, no other player in the big five leagues this season with 500 or more minutes of action under their belt has been able to match Lo Celso’s combination of an xG contribution (xG + xG assisted) per 90 of 0.30 or higher, three or more successful dribbles, nine or more deep progressions, 15 or more pressures and over 3.5 tackles and interceptions (indeed, on a possession-adjusted basis, he is making 5.04 successful tackles per 90, seventh best in the big-five leagues). In short, he is providing a uniquely well-rounded contribution. Unsurprisingly, Betis have made it clear that they want to take up their purchase option next summer. They view Lo Celso as a player around whom an ambitious project can be built. He, too, has suggested he is keen to stay in the south of Spain. If he continues to perform at his current level, market forces may determine otherwise, but at this time, the partnership between Betis and Lo Celso is clearly a mutually beneficial one. If his high number of turnovers (4.73 per 90, sixth highest in La Liga) means he still cannot quite escape the assessment from Brazil’s 1970 World Cup winner turned columnist Tostão that he is a player of “many moves, few decisive,” he has, in Quique Setién, a coach committed to providing his most talented players with the necessary supporting structure to take the risks required to provide incision. To provide moments of quality like the back-heel that released Loren Morón into the area to score against Celta Vigo. Given his capabilities, it remains strange that Lo Celso was one of two outfield players not to receive a single minute of playing time for Argentina at the World Cup. Jorge Sampaoli cycled through almost every other combination of personnel and formation available to him but never once called on Lo Celso. Meanwhile, Lionel Messi was left having to do pretty much everything by himself in attack: progressing the ball, setting up chances, taking shots. There were suggestions from inside sources that the coaching staff were concerned about Lo Celso’s ability to handle the pressure of representing his country at the World Cup, but current interim (possibly soon permanent) head coach Lionel Scaloni was part of that group and has still made the 22-year-old the centerpiece of subsequent national team friendlies. Lo Celso therefore looks to have bright future ahead of him at both club and international level. The relatively meager figure of €25 million that PSG placed on his head already looks a startling misjudgment on their part. Betis have a player they can enjoy and derive success from right now, and a prime asset if and when he outgrows them.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

How Long Can Lionel Messi Avoid Father Time?

Is Lionel Messi slowing down? This is a sacrilegious thing to suggest. Messi is a god. Crucially though, unlike the whatever higher power you choose to worship, Lionel Messi is also aging. He’s 31 years old. That’s a good three years past when most players, even the best ones, begin to lose their fastball. There’d been precious little evidence of that with Messi though. He’d evolved his game, morphed from the greatest creative goal scorer on the planet to the greatest creator on the plant….who also happened to be a thirty goal scorer. What Messi was doing on the pitch changed, but his production was as otherworldly as ever. Before we take this dive, the first thing to make clear is that Messi is still unreal. Compared to people not named Lionel Messi he’s still just better than them. The question is not, how does Lionel Messi compare against the other mere mortals he deigns to take the pitch beside? Rather, the question is, how does Messi compare against past versions of himself. And, there’s reason to believe that from last season to this there’s been a slight decline. The first, and most obvious place to look is the scoring numbers. Last year he was a major goal scoring force. He scored 34 goals, 32 of them from open play. That was way beyond his 21.97 open play expected goals. But even his expected goals were impressive. His 0.63 expected goals per 90 were the third highest in the league, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and teammate Luis Suarez, an especially impressive total since they were accompanied by 0.38 expected assists per 90 minutes by far the most of any player with over 1000 minutes played. This season, so far, his goal scoring has taken a noticeable hit. His 0.48 xG per 90 is still very good but it’s a decidedly new occurrence to refer to Messi’s output as merely very good. He’s the sixth best scorer by xG per 90 in Spain and taking a step back and looking across Europe’s big five leagues. He’s not in the top 10, or even the top 20. He’s 30th in Europe by xG per90 (among players with over 500 minutes played). That’s…well, it’s certainly different for Messi. And it’s easy to see from his shot chart that he’s simply not getting great shots this season. Most of his shooting is coming from outside the box, and even those shots which are from closer to pointblank range still aren’t the kind of clean red hot looks Messi typically ends up getting on the end of. None of this would be at all concerning if Messi’s slowly declining scoring rate was being offset by a rise in his creative numbers. That’s what’s happened over the last couple of seasons. Messi has become the best attacking creator in the world. Except that hasn’t really happened. Messi’s expected assists numbers have nudged up slightly from 0.38 to 0.40. That’s an astounding number and the most in La Liga by a comfortable margin. But it doesn’t offset the drop in scoring. And it’s compounded by the fact that Messi is doing less buildup work than he used to. His xGBuildup (a measure of how much he is contributing in moves that lead to the eventual xG accumulated by shots) has dropped from 1.03 last season to 0.88 this season. This all paints the picture of a player who is beginning to focus in on the things that he’s best at while the other parts of his game start, ever so slightly, to decline. It’s always hard to define Messi’s position. But, however you look at him, either as a striker or as a midfielder/winger, the picture is the same, a player whose game hasn’t changed over the past two years, but whose production is eroding just a bit. There are also sorts of potential reasons for that decline of course. Even the great Messi doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Grace Robertson has written about how Ernesto Valverde made stylistic changes to the squad in his second season. It’s certainly possible that it’s those changes that are slightly hampering Messi. The rest of Barcelona are also aging, and quickly. Pique, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, and Luis Suarez are all the wrong side of 30. New young blood like Ousmane Dembele still hasn't fully settled in the side, and Philippe Coutinho has those huge theoretical, though actually probably fairly small actual, Andres Iniesta shoes to fill. It’s possible that the physical limitations holding Messi back aren’t his, but are, in fact, everybody else’s. Even if that’s the case though, that would be a new development. One of the things that has defined Messi’s prime years, and contributed to his greatness, is his ability to but up god like numbers no matter what’s going on around him. Play him on the wing or in the center. Play him as part of a front three or a front two. Play highly possession oriented football or a swashbuckling counterattack. Prioritize defensive stability or attacking flexibility. Historically none of it matters to Messi, he’s going to do what he’s going to do and what he’s going to do is put up gigantic numbers and lead his team to titles. This year, he’s probably going to do that again, but the numbers, at least so far, are slightly less gigantic. It’s also important to emphasize that he hasn’t even played 1000 league minutes yet this season. The blip could be just that. Maybe Messi goes off for a month, lights the league on fire, and this is just a little bit of noise that he once again successfully puts behind him. But, once players turn 30 these small downturns become more alarming than they’d otherwise be. The chance that small declines are permanent increases. Slight nagging injuries start to linger for longer. Legs that used to be fresh end up just a little bit heavier. Dips in from that a decade ago might have naturally ended quickly now stubbornly hang around. It’s too early to say that’s definitely what Messi is going through, but it’s not too early to worry that he might be. Barcelona are still the best team in Spain. Compared to anybody else Lionel Messi is still the best player on the planet. But, compared only to himself, there’s just enough decline to start to wonder. Is this the beginning of the tail end of Messi’s career? Has he finally reached the point where instead of doing everything well, he’ll have to make choices and sacrifice some parts of his game in the service of others? Even if that’s not, in fact, what’s happening, it’s bound to happen before too long. Messi is the best, but not even the best outrun father time.

Idrissa Gueye Powers Everton's Surprising Defense

Everton are just chugging right along. A third of the way through the season the team sits in sixth place. On the one hand that’s not quite enough success to raise eyebrows. They still trail five of the traditional big six, and we all know about Manchester United’s tire fire of a season. At the same time, they aren’t wildly exceeding expectations the way some other top half sides like Watford or Bournemouth are. Everton are just a team that people thought might be pretty good, that are in fact pretty good. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting though. Marco Silva arrived at Everton with a swashbuckling reputation. His sides at both Hull City and Watford pressed high and sacrificed defensive solidity for attacking opportunities. They weren’t necessarily better than their talent suggested they should be, but they were definitely more entertaining. After half a season with Sam Allardyce Everton fans certainly understand exactly how important trying to be fun while also trying to get results can be. But while Marco Silva’s Everton are fun, it’s actually their defense that’s making them competitive. Their attack is fine. They average 1.14 expected goals per game, that’s 11th in the Premier League. They take 13.54 shots a game, that’s the sixth most. So they create a lot of below average shots and hope to eventually grind opponents down. It’s not the prettiest thing in the world, but they’ve hit on a combination of attackers with Richarlison up front, Theo Walcot, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Bernard in a band of three behind him and Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne providing simultaneous width that more or less gets the job done. But, what’s fascinating about Everton is that this acceptable attack is complemented by a strong defense. The Toffees are one of only six Premier League teams that allow opponents less than one expected goal per game. Their 0.96 xG allowed is fifth best in the Premier League. They do it by allowing comparatively few shots. Opponents take 10.15 shots against them per match, only Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea allow fewer shots. In theory these numbers paint a clear picture of an effective pressing team. You’d expect this team to press a lot, win the ball back high up the pitch frequently, take shots quickly, and then do it all again. And yet, here’s their defensive pressing map. Hrm. That’s not the defensive pressure map of a team that presses a lot. It’s not really the defensive pressure map of a team that does anything a lot. What’s going on? Well, the first thing to check is the possession numbers. It’s possible that if Everton just keep the ball a lot they could just be playing under the radar good defense. Extreme possession imbalances could, at least in theory, lead to a team pressing when they don’t have the ball, but simply not logging that many pressing events due to how rarely that happens. And while even then we should find some evidence of pressing, at least skewed possession numbers would show us where to start. But Everton don’t actually have high possession numbers. They play 469 passes per game, only the 11th highest total in the league which nullifies the fact that they only allow 455, the fifth fewest. They aren’t keeping the ball for long stretches, and they certainly aren’t allowing the opponent to play a lot of passes themselves. But, stubbornly, it doesn’t look like they do much defending either. Something just doesn’t add up. The missing piece of the puzzle comes if you filter out pressures. This is Everton’s head map only looking at the more traditional defensive stats and voila, we begin to see something resembling a defensive shape appear. Silva’s team may not apply a ton of pressure to their opposition, but they’re very focused on taking the ball away right before it gets into their own half. The pattern shows up in Everton’s midfield star Idrissa Gueye too. Here’s a defensive heat map of all of his actions. Here’s one that only looks at defensive actions that force a change in possession. Looked at the first way, he’s a pretty good midfielder who patrols his area of the pitch but not much more. Looked at the second way and he sure seems like an elite ball hunter. Same story comes through on his radar where he maxes out tackles and interceptions adjusted for possession but is much more average when it comes to pressures. In fact Gueye leads the Premier League (among players with 500 minutes played or more) with 3.63 possession adjusted tackles per 90 minutes this season and he’s seventh with 2.01 possession adjusted interceptions. Even if you don’t adjust for possession he’s still third in the Premier League in combined tackles and interceptions with 5.11 per 90 minutes. He’s not a machine at applying pressures, but he is one when it comes to winning the ball back. This is the Everton gamble. They’re a high wire act. They get tons of bodies forward, and position themselves high up the field, but rather than work collectively to pressure the ball, they rely on an elite midfielder to win the ball back for them. Without Gueye the entire system would collapse. The fullbacks would get caught high up the field, Andre Gomes would constantly be stranded in space. The center backs would be left out on an island. That still happens sometimes, Everton's shots conceded map shows that the opposition has some success taking the ball to the rim, but not nearly as often as it might, and that’s all thanks to Gueye. On one level, Everton’s defensive plan isn’t a strong one. Pushing high up the pitch while not pressuring the opposition effectively is a massive tactical red flag. It’s how teams get themselves ripped to shreds by any old half decent counterattacking operations. Giving an opponent time and space to pick a pass against a high defensive line is asking for trouble. But, either by design or just dumb luck, Silva’s setup gets the absolute most out of Gueye. Gueye’s unique ability to turn the opposition over in midfield backstops the entire setup. Teams can’t exploit Everton because Gueye takes the ball back as they try. Everton are in the thick of a battle to qualify for the Europa League. Should they succeed a lot will be made of their newfound open style. New players like Richarlison and Bernard will garner plaudits in attack, and the former (and maybe future when his loan ends) Barcelona midfielder Andre Gomes will get credit for bringing much needed passing to Everton’s midfield. But, it’s Gueye who makes it all possible. He’s the heart of Everton’s defense and the reason Everton are able to play an open attacking high volume style and still get away without pressing the ball well in transition. Idrissa Gueye is Everton’s most important player, the reason their defense functions, the reason their attack and be so open, and the reason Marco Silva has Everton in sixth place. This weekend as Everton roll into Liverpool to face their rivals, if they have any hope of an upset it’ll be because every time the ball looks like it’s headed towards Jurgan Klopp’s killer front three, Gueye shows up to win it back. It’s what he does.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

The Numbers Behind the Best FAWSL Sides

A few months into the newly formed FA Women’s Super League, it’s a good time to have a closer look to see how the biggest clubs in England have performed so far. Arsenal, who were third favourites at the start of the season, have been irresistible, stream rolling everything put in front of them. Last season’s top two, Chelsea and Manchester City, have had stuttering starts, trailing behind Joe Montemurro’s side. The race for the title and the final Champions League spot is still on so let’s take a look at the numbers to see what the rest of the season is likely to have in store. (Ed.'s note: All stats and results up to date as of November 14th)

Arsenal

Arsenal have made a blistering start to the season, winning seven out of seven. They are three points ahead of 2nd place Manchester City with a game in hand but have yet to play Nick Cushion’s side. Arsenal have managed to blow teams away this season with their impressive attacking play, scoring 34 goals in 7 matches. The most impressive result being the 5-0 win at Kingsmeadow against the double winners, Chelsea. From the above image, we can see that most of their attempts are in promising areas, mainly central inside of the penalty area. It is not surprising to see how Arsenal are able to create these opportunities as they are the most aggressive side in winning the ball back in and around the central parts of the 18 yard box which enables them to have clearer opportunities on the opponents goal, which the image below demonstrates . Most of the praise has been given to the current top scorer in the league, Vivianne Miedema. While stats for goals scored, xG per 90 and shots per 90 are impressive, her game is not just about putting the ball into the back of the net. The Holland international is integral in trying to win the ball off of the opposition but contributing to setting up chances for teammates. While Arsenal’s attack gets most of the praise, we have to also acknowledge the defensive part of their game.  Arsenal come up on top on goals conceded and number of shots conceded. When looking at the image below, we can see that Arsenal protect their penalty area extremely well, forcing their opponents to shoot from distance or put aerial balls into the box which their centre-backs are more than happy to deal with. Manchester City Manchester City, like Arsenal, are still undefeated in the league. However, they’ve managed to draw three, with probably the most disappointing one being Bristol City at home, in which they conceded two sloppy goals and the Bristol City goalkeeper, Sophie Baggaley, in inspired form to ensure they only came away with a point. It’s interesting to compare the Arsenal and Manchester City attacking numbers. Man City have generated a very similar amount of shots per game (21.33 and 21 respectively), but the league leaders have much better xG (shot quality) numbers, 3.04 per match to 1.89.   When looking at Manchester City’s shots map, it’s easy to notice why that is. When compared to Arsenal, Man City take many more shots from outside of the penalty area from various angles and more headed attempts which are harder to score from, resulting in lower shot quality.      At the other end of the field, there don’t appear to be too many issues. Ellie Roebuck has looked accomplished in between the sticks since taking the number one jersey off of Karen Bardsley while Stephanie Houghton consistently marshals her troops at the back as opponents find it difficult to create clear chances.

Chelsea

Finally, we get on to Chelsea. Emma Hayes’ side has picked up some poor results in the league despite being dominant against everyone they have faced so far in the Continental Tyres Cup and Champions League. From a defensive point of the view, they have better numbers than City and similar to Arsenal. Arsenal's opponents tally 0.60 expected goals per match while Chelsea restrict their foes to 0.53. Chelsea manage that despite allowing 8.57 shots to Arsenal's 7.17 because they restrict opponents to 0.06 xG per shot as opposed to Arsenal's 0.08. Their main concern is in attack. Chelsea have scored only 5 goals, the same number as Brighton, Bristol City and Yeovil. A few factors have contributed to that. As the reigning champions, most sides have adopted a very defensive game which Chelsea have not found easy to deal with. Having said that there are many games, like away against Bristol, where they deserved victory by a goal or two but poor finishing, brave defending and top goalkeeping have cost them dearly in the defence of their title. When comparing with Arsenal’s attacking game, there are clear differences with Chelsea’s numbers significantly lower on Clear Shots (shots generated per game when only goalkeeper was in between shot-taker and goal), xG/shot (average expected goals per shot taken by a team), 6.50 to 3.43 and Counterattacking Shots (shots generated per game within 15 seconds of a possession that originates in the originates in the opposition’s half), 1.33 to 0.43. This potentially signals that their build up play is much slower compared to Arsenal, which makes it easier for opponents to get into good defending positions to prevent Chelsea having clear sight of goal, with Ballon D’Or nominee, Fran Kirby, requiring better service. However, we must acknowledge that Chelsea are in the latter stages of the Champions League. They have played more midweek games than any of their league opponents so Emma Hayes has had to rotate her starting 11, which has potentially disrupted their game.   Conclusion Arsenal are in pole position to win their first league title in 5 years. The games vs Man City will be key and last season’s runners up will be in a good position to capitalise if they win both of those of encounters. Chelsea, on the other hand, have potentially left it too late to make a recovery for Champions League qualification via the league, but if they improve their attacking part of the game and go on a impressive run, which they are more than capable of, then second spot is still possible.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Introducing the Schedule-Adjusted League Table

“The league table never lies!” and it usually doesn’t, but sometimes, there’s a bit more that can be extracted from league results, especially during the early parts of the season. If a team has faced difficult opponents, but has the same number of points as another team with a much easier schedule, then the points’ total may not reflect the whole picture. This is an attempt to produce an alternative league table which takes into account the strength of schedule faced by each team. For lack of a better name, I’ve called it the Schedule-Adjusted League Table. The idea behind the Schedule-Adjusted League Table is to compare the teams based on their results against the same opponents. Using the Premier League as an example, take Arsenal and Tottenham. As of the 11th of November, these are their matches played:

Arsenal Matches Tottenham Matches
Opponent Venue Opponent Venue
Man City Home Newcastle Away
Chelsea Away Fulham Home
West Ham Home Man United Away
Cardiff Away Watford Away
Newcastle Away Liverpool Home
Everton Home Brighton Away
Watford Home Huddersfield Away
Fulham Away Cardiff Home
Leicester Home West Ham Away
Crystal Palace Away Man City Home
Liverpool Home Wolves Away
Wolves Home Crystal Palace Away

  Out of their 12 matches each team has played so far, there are 4 of them that are against the same opponents, at the equivalent venue (home or away). These are shown in the following table, accompanied by the number of points each of Arsenal and Tottenham have secured in each match:

    Arsenal Tottenham
Opponent Venue Result Points Result Points
Man City Home Lost 0 Lost 0
Newcastle Away Won 3 Won 3
Crystal Palace Away Drew 1 Won 3
Liverpool Home Drew 1 Lost 0

  Of these 4 matches, Tottenham took 6 points (or 1.50 per game) whereas Arsenal took 5 points (1.25 per game). Using the same basis to compare these two teams, we might argue that Arsenal are slightly worse than Tottenham at a rate of 1.25 – 1.50 = -0.25 points per game. Let’s now turn our attention to another pair, Arsenal and Man United. Using the same procedure we find that these two teams have both faced the following 4 opponents at the equivalent venues:

    Arsenal Man United
Opponent Venue Result Points Result Points
Chelsea Away Lost 0 Drew 1
Everton Home Won 3 Won 3
Leicester Home Won 3 Won 3
Wolves Home Drew 1 Drew 1

  Man United took 8 points (2.00 per game) from these 4 matches, whereas Arsenal had 7 points (1.75 per game). This would suggest that Arsenal are slightly worse than Man United too (also at a rate of -0.25 per game). So let’s now compare Man United with Tottenham. Same drill as before, here are their 3 common opponents:

    Man United Tottenham
Opponent Venue Result Points Result Points
Brighton Away Lost 0 Won 3
Watford Away Won 3 Lost 0
West Ham Away Lost 0 Won 3

  Man United took 3 points whereas Tottenham had 6. There was also a match between the two teams which ended in a win for Tottenham, so out of these combined 4 matches Man United had 0.75 points per game whereas Tottenham had 2.25 (a difference of -1.50 points per game from Man United’s point of view). Overall, there are 190 pairs of teams in the Premier League which we need to compare. Note that the pair Arsenal-Tottenham is the same as the pair Tottenham-Arsenal. We can compute the relative difference in points per game for each of these pairs and then solve an overdetermined system of equations (190 equations with only 20 unknowns) to find the rating for each of the 20 teams. As there will most likely be no exact solution to the system, we estimate the solution by minimizing the sum of squared errors. More specifically, for a 20-team league, we construct W, a 190 x 20 matrix (one row for each pair of teams, one column for each team), a 20 x 1 vector x, which stores the ratings of each team (to be calculated) and a 190 x 1 vector r which has the relative difference in points gained per match. The W matrix consists of 0s apart from the column corresponding to the pair’s first team where the matrix element takes the value 1, and the column corresponding to the pair’s second team where the matrix element takes the value -1. To illustrate this, in a 4-team league, where there would be a total of 6 pairs, the W matrix would be given by:

(Team A) (Team B) (Team C) (Team D)
(Pair A-B) 1 -1 0 0
(Pair A-C) 1 0 -1 0
(Pair A-D) 1 0 0 -1
(Pair B-C) 0 1 -1 0
(Pair B-D) 0 1 0 -1
(Pair C-D) 0 0 1 -1

  Essentially, the system that we need to solve is defined by Wx = r. As there will generally be no solution to the system, we can approximate it by minimizing the sum of squared errors, which leads to the ratings solution vector given by:

x = (WTW)-1WTr

where the inverse is a generalized inverse. Once the ratings solution vector x is calculated, a suitable scaling is applied – huge thanks to Christopher D. Long (@octonion) for the help provided in this part – and the schedule-adjusted points for team i is given by:

AdjPtsi = mi * (xi + TotPts/2n)

The results from this analysis in tabular and graphical form are presented below (after 12 Premier League matches):

Actual Points Adjusted Points
Man City 32 33.67
Liverpool 30 30.94
Tottenham 27 29.57
Arsenal 24 26.61
Chelsea 28 26.44
Man United 20 22.4
Everton 19 19.5
Watford 20 18.46
Wolves 16 18.04
Bournemouth 20 18.03
Leicester 17 17.22
Brighton 14 14.54
West Ham 12 13.86
Crystal Palace 8 9.32
Newcastle 9 7.18
Huddersfield 7 7.11
Burnley 9 6.71
Southampton 8 5.87
Cardiff 8 5.45
Fulham 5 2.08

This methodology would suggest that teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, Man United and Wolves have registered points’ totals which underestimate the true value of those wins and draws. On the other hand, the value of the points gained by teams like Fulham, Cardiff, Burnley and Southampton is in fact lower, once the strength of teams they faced is taken into consideration. We can also view how the schedule-adjusted points compare against the actual points on a gameweek-by-gameweek basis in the following animation: In a sense, teams above the 45-degree orange line are shortchanged as the true worth of their points gained is more than the league table would suggest, whereas teams below it may be viewed as having a deceptively high number of league points given the true worth of those points. Alternatively, one could view the teams’ ranking on the horizontal axis as the actual league table and the teams’ ranking on the vertical axis as the schedule-adjusted league table. As the season progresses, the points will approach the diagonal, before lying exactly on it in their final ranking, whichever that may be. Some additional notes on the methodology:

  • It does not depend on any prior beliefs regarding the strength of each team. Therefore, a win against a presumed weak team which however has been getting results will contribute more compared to a win against a traditionally strong team which hasn’t been getting any league points.
  • A team’s adjusted points might change even if that team does not play a match, conditional on other results. This means that the adjusted points gained from a win against a particular team might increase or decrease, depending on whether that particular team has been winning or losing subsequent matches. This provides a continuous update on the true strength of a team and therefore adjusts the value of points already gained by other teams against it.
  • Any concept of “form” is not considered. As a result, the schedule-adjusted table would still be the same, even if we re-arranged the playing order of the matches up to that point.
  • By construction, all teams are considered as equal at the start of the season hence the schedule-adjusted league table will appear compressed compared to the actual league table in the early stages of the season. This is corrected once the number of pairwise comparisons between teams increases, as that will provide additional information on the relative strength of each team.
  • The schedule-adjusted table converges to the actual league table once all matches have taken place.

It should be stressed that this methodology can be extended and applied to other similar situations irrespective of the metric used. For example, given its recent popularity, one could use it to assess the true worth of xG figures registered by teams, once the difficulty of the opposition has been taken into account. So there you have it! This piece provides the idea and the methodology to produce schedule-adjusted rankings. Next time someone points at the league table to support an argument, get your calculator out and check if that table is indeed telling the truth. Happy schedule-adjusting!

What’s Up with Tottenham?

After twelve games, Tottenham Hotspur find themselves with a very respectable 27 points, but there are still signs that things aren’t quite right. Mauricio Pochettino’s time at White Hart La… Wembl… soon to be “Tottenham Hotspur Stadium” has been associated with continual improvement. Though last season’s points total couldn’t match 2016/17, the performances were arguably even better, with Harry Kane’s nuclear form fuelling a terrific all around side. Things started stalling towards the end, though, with the expected goals trendline showing a significant decline in the final stretch of last season that has yet to be reversed this term. Last season, Spurs generated an xG difference per game of 0.82. This year, it’s down to 0.33. Tottenham are a half a goal per game worse than last year. What perhaps makes it even worse is that this drop off has been split fairly evenly between the attack and defence, so the answer is not simply to change on one side of the ball. As such, the both issues need to be examined. The central stylistic shift that can be seen in the data is that the Spurs press has dropped off significantly. Last season, StatsBomb’s high press rating put Spurs behind only Manchester City. This time, Tottenham’s high press is below average. This shouldn’t automatically be understood as a bad thing, but merely a change in style. While teams that aggressively press high will look to generate a high volume of shots and concede very few, sides that are more conservative here should be making it up in terms of quality, limiting the opposition to longer range efforts and carving out better, if fewer, chances themselves. And this is indeed what we are seeing in an attacking sense, with Spurs’ xG per shot rising from 0.10 to 0.11. The problem is that this improvement in quality hasn’t been nearly enough to balance out the decline in quantity, with Tottenham taking over 4 fewer shots per 90 than last season. Defensively, Spurs can’t even point to a positive in shot quality, with the xG per shot conceded the same figure of 0.09 in both seasons. That is, with the side now conceding 2.3 more shots per 90, rather concerning. This is no longer a side with the kind of data profile we’d expect from a high pressing, shot dominant team. It is not especially obvious whether this is a conscious change in approach from Tottenham or merely a failure to execute the usual style. Hugo Lloris’ comments that Spurs “always try to press the opponent” and “whatever is the score we try to play the same way” would imply that Pochettino has not attempted to make a stylistic shift. But nonetheless, a change has occurred. And, when looking at the defensive activity map, it becomes very clear just how unbalanced Spurs’ pressing is right now: Spurs’ volume of pressing is below average on the left flank and significantly above average on the right. It has been established in the past that Spurs concede an unusually large amount of their chances down the right, so perhaps this is a case of teams targeting that flank and thus there is more defensive work to be done. With Kieran Trippier being such an important attacking cog this season (he easily leads Spurs in open play passes into the box per 90), perhaps his defensive duties have taken a hit. Whatever the cause, when one considers that Spurs’ pressures last season were largely symmetrical, it certainly feels like something isn’t quite right, and the press is dysfunctional as a result. If one were looking for a personnel explanation for the press not functioning as it used to, the player most would likely point toward is Mousa Dembele. The defining mental image of Dembele’s Spurs career has been of him dribbling through a packed midfield, shielding the ball with the opposition seemingly unable to tackle him. This aspect of his game seems to have declined quite drastically. While Dembele completed 2.40 dribbles per 90 last season, this year he is down to just 0.98. Spurs’ way of controlling the midfield has generally relied so much on Dembele’s ability to seemingly be a one man fix for everything, and this isn’t quite happening anymore. Dembele is actually pressuring the ball more than in previous years, but this seems to be just a result of Spurs’ inability to control the midfield as they once did. He is having to do more work without the ball because he cannot dictate the game with it. While a few recent performances looked like he was beginning to find some form again, injury struck once again, and Spurs must hope that Dembele can find something close to his past form in 2019. Dembele’s dip has caused issues for other midfielders. Eric Dier has received some criticism this season, for both his Spurs and England performances, but his traditional midfield partner’s issues can’t be helping. Always more about a fixed role than the “all action” template one associates with English midfielders, Dier is being expected to become more of a two way force to compensate for Dembele, and he doesn’t seem able to do it. Meanwhile, Harry Winks has shown a lot of talent in possession without contributing a lot defensively. Victor Wanyama’s injury issues still persist, and Moussa Sissoko remains Moussa Sissoko. It’s hard not to look at Spurs’ failure to sign a top class central midfielder this summer as a very costly mistake. The issues in controlling the midfield seem to have affected players higher up the pitch, too. Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen have been central cogs in this Spurs attack for several years now, with the Alli/Eriksen/Kane axis having been central to the Pochettino era. Possibly due to a lack of security in the midfield and a less well structured press, both have been doing more defending this season, with their defensive output numbers seeing noted increases in the radars below. This seems to have hampered them in their ability to really influence things when in possession. The other factor for an attacking output decline may be the elephant in the room, the striker whose form has not yet been discussed… And now, it’s time to talk about the form of a certain Harry Kane. Undoubtedly the driving force behind last season’s attack, there remains a lot of discussion over whether he fully recovered from the injury he received in March. His total goals scored of 6 looks fine, though this is inflated by 2 penalties. The facts remain that his shot volume has dropped significantly while the average quality of the chances he is taking has stayed the same. Many have made the case that Kane seems to be playing a slightly deeper role than last year, and while this may be true, it has not seen a significant rise in his creative work and general play outside the box to compensate for the decline in goalscoring threat. According to StatsBomb’s similarity scores, the Kane of last season most closely resembled Cristiano Ronaldo and Edin Dzeko. This year? Ollie Watkins and Giovanni Sio. Yeah. While he has started in recent times to mix some good performances in with the bad, he is still yet to find any real consistency. The hope is that he is still gradually finding his way back after playing at below 100% fitness, but it is simply that: a hope. This article has largely focused on the issues with individual players because it does seem like this is the root cause of the problem. There does not appear to have been a huge shift in how Pochettino intends this Spurs team to play, and there is little reason to think that he has suddenly become bad at coaching these players. This is the same group of players with the same manager as 2017/18, but the issues around Kane and Dembele seem to have shaken the foundations of the side. But perhaps that is part of the issue: it is the same side. The desire to get Kane on the pitch as much as humanly possible is an understandable one, considering the alternative striking options are Fernando Llorente and Vincent Janssen. Yes, that’s right, Vincent Janssen. But that these are the other options shows how poorly Spurs have bought strikers in recent years. To find a centre forward they purchased who would be considered a success, one has to go back to Emmanuel Adebayor, and even he only performed in spurts. Similarly, Dembele’s recent struggles have been unfortunate for a side so reliant on him to make them tick. But, as is well publicised, Spurs’ did not manage to sign the central midfielder needed to reinvigorate the team this summer. The core of players that Pochettino has been working with has remained largely static for several years. Of course, these issues are not apocalyptic. While Spurs look a fair bit behind Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, their numbers remain significantly better than Arsenal and Manchester United. A top four finish remains theirs to lose. Pochettino remains a manager more than capable of finding tactical solutions to adjust to some of the personnel issues he has right now. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Spurs have taken a step backwards this season, and we have yet to see evidence that they will be able to reinvigorate the side in the transfer market well.

An Incomplete List of Football Thanks

It’s Thanksgiving in America. That means turkey, fights with relatives about politics, and gimmicky content. With that in mind, here’s an entirely incomplete list of things I’m thankful for across soccer this year.   Attackers getting healthy Callum Wilson Wilson has been the catalyst for Bournemouth’s surprisingly strong start. The team sits in sixth with 20 points, and has an expected goal difference of 0.33 per game, also sixth best in the league. Wilson is a huge part of that. He’s one of only seven players (with over 500 minutes played) in the Premier League who are averaging over 0.30 expected goals per match and 0.20 expected assists. The rest of the list is Sergio Aguero, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Mohammed Salah, and Raul Jimenez. In other words, he good. He’s not a particularly high volume player, but when he does touch the ball he turns the opportunity into an extremely high quality shot for himself. Of the league's higher volume shooters (those averaging over two shots per game in 500 minutes played or more), he’s one of only two players to average over 0.20 expected goals per shot. He’s at 0.20, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang just noses him out at 0.21. Wilson is coming off of two separate cruciate ligament ruptures, one in 2015-16 and one in 2016-17. Last year he was finally healthy and managed to start 23 Premier League games and appear as a sub in five others. And while he only managed eight goals and two assists it’s certainly reasonable to hope that last year was about getting back to former form and this year marks a return to the production he logged before his knee blew up a couple of times. When he injured himself in his first Premier League season, Wilson was coming off back to back 20 goals seasons, first with Coventry City in League One and then with Bournemouth as they won the Championship. Hopefully, especially for Bournemouth, this season just marks the slightly delayed arrival of Wilson at the top level that those two years portended.   Marco Reus He’s always been great. He’s always been injured. Now that he’s back and firing on all cylinders he’s the scoring machine from the wing (and sometimes the front) that Dortmund’s title challenge is built on. He's 29, he probably doesn't have too many hurrahs left, so if this is his last one, hopefully it's a good one.     Helter skelter La Liga There are only seven teams in Spain who concede more expected goals per game than Barcelona. They are hanging on to their first place position not because of anything they’re doing on the defensive side of the ball, but because Lionel Messi is leading a line that can (and has to) outscore anybody and everybody. The shots that defense gives up are pretty pretty ugly looking. It’s not just Barca either. Second place Sevilla has leaned into attack at the expense of defense. Alaves in fourth place is an even worse defensive team than Barcelona (Alaves also has the third worst expected goal difference in the entire league at -0.46, so just exactly how they’re in fourth place remains a mystery). Even the vaunted Atletico Madrid fortress is conceding over an expected goal per game. Only Getafe, Eibar, and Valencia have managed to hold opponents below the one expected goal level. La Liga is weird this year. There’s upheaval at Real Madrid, weakness at Barcelona and some traditional second tier competitors like Valencia and Villareal have played well but struggled to get results. Sometimes weirdness leads to defense and boredom, but thankfully in La Liga this season it’s leading to good old fashioned end to end stuff.   The Burnley keeper experiment Last season Burnley were magic. They finished seventh. Part of what happened was Nick Pope did this. He was great. Last season Joe Hart played for West Ham. He was terrible. So naturally when Pope got hurt, Burnley went out and bought Joe Hart and handed him the keys, as you do. So far, he’s been…entirely average. What does it all mean? I have no idea! But this experiment should help us figure it out.   Young stars breaking out Andre Silva Everybody thought Andre Silva had potential. After announcing his presence at 20 years old for Porto with 16 goals in 32 games (albeit with five from the penalty spot) he promptly moved to AC Milan where, for whatever reason, he fell on his face. He only started seven games and scored two goals. A year later, he’s still only 23 years old, and he’s a fixture of Sevilla’s high-flying attack. He already has seven goals and his 0.52 expected goals per 90 is fourth in La Liga among players with more than 500 minutes. He’s not the highest volume shooter, 3.03 is tenth in the league, but his 0.17 expected goals per shot is fourth in La Liga among high volume (more than two shots per game) shooters. He camps out in the middle of the penalty area and puts it on net, and that’s exactly what Sevilla needs.   Luka Jovic He’s 20. He’s scored nine goals in less than 600 minutes. Apparently all he does is shoot. It sure seems to be working.   Jaden Sancho Whooooo boy.   Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy your Turkey.

Kit Analysis: What the Premier League is Wearing This Season

We’re ten games into an incredibly exciting Premier League season (ed. note: due to the extremely intensive nature of fashion data collection, there's a two match lag between matches played, and data collected so all numbers are current as of match day ten) and we’ve amassed just enough data for folks to produce thoughtful and nuanced insights. We know that Manchester City is ludicrously good but there may still be a race for the title, we can see what an Arsene Wenger-less Arsenal looks like, we can place better bets on when Jose Mourinho will get sacked. But, I hear absolutely no one cry, have we also reached a point where we could analyse, understand, and make predictions based on completely unfounded metrics? Absolutely. Would Wolves be netting more of their shots if they dressed like actual wolves? (They’ve scored about 6% of the shots they’ve taken so far, and I’m sure real wolves have a much higher conversion rate.) Would Mourinho be having a better third season at the helm if United’s pink were just a shade hotter? Did Arsenal come together under a new manager when they switched from the usual red to their plum away kit? Can we predict this season’s winners based on what their first, second, and third kits are? No. The answer to all these questions is no. Does that, however, mean that someone shouldn’t painstakingly grade every kit that’s been worn so far and see what insights we can gather from the data? Absolutely not*. *To be clear, I mean "yes, we should." English is a very confusing language. Before we dive into the data, we should establish that there is absolutely nothing scientific about the methodology or the analysis. The data collection isn’t consistent, and there were definitely teams whose kits were ranked poorly based on how irritated I was to be seeing the same thing again and again. It should go without saying that all data gathered is subjective and none of it is reproducible. Football kittery is also a struggling artform (if you aren’t the Super Eagles), so the ranks assigned to kits had to account for a lot of monotony and reward attempts made. The scores were assigned as follows:

Points awarded Description
1 Drabbest drab to ever drab
2 Inoffensive, but that’s all you can say about it.
3 At least I’ll remember it.
4 Bold choices were made.
5 This is the best thing that’s happened to my eyes in at least 20 minutes.

 

The team with a winning strategy and kit

We should start with Watford: the only team in the Premier League brave enough to dress like a member of the animal kingdom -- a bumblebee. Watford have had an excellent start to the season and are sitting pretty at 7th. Sure, they were at a similar position 10 games into the previous season, but this season has been a completely different beast. For one, there are only seven points between the Hornets and table leaders Manchester City. This time last season, that difference was thirteen points. Watford have been playing consistently excellent football with six pretty convincing wins so far. It’s unclear whether their form has been a result of their home kit’s touching homage to an endangered species, but how else can you explain Watford’s 2-0 victory against Wolves, a team that clearly has no regard for its namesake? Sure, we can look at the xG sum for the game (it was 0.68-0.79), but how do you think they got those stats int the first place? Bees. It was the bees. Watford also has the highest mean kit quality (kQ, if you will)* in winning games as a result of their second kit: a lovely deep green with neon green trim. With colors like that, it’s really unlikely that the Hornets are going to stumble anytime soon this season. *Points for winning kit divided by number of games won. Kit difference (or kD) is points for winning kit minus points for losing kit. It’s a work in progress.  

Old classics are still a winning formula

Much to everyone’s chagrin, but absolutely no one’s surprise, it’s the two teams that have discovered a winning formula that are top of the league. Manchester City are a force to be reckoned with (even more so than normal), and Liverpool are trying to match them step for step. Apart from having a near-perfect start to the season, both teams also opted to preserve their classic look. City’s pale blue and Liverpool’s red home kits have clearly been chosen as a form of psychological warfare where opposition teams begin quaking in their spikes any time they see the colors. And that’s it. That’s all those kits have going for them. The battle for the title can’t rely on just that, though. Just because it’s not broken doesn’t mean a little glitter won’t hurt. Take Liverpool: they’ve almost entirely won games on a kit graded as inoffensive, except for a single game where they came out kitted in dishwater*. Their goal difference is also 8 fewer than City, who have been slightly more liberal with their use of their away and third kits (both of which are nowhere near as plush as Liverpool’s purple and pink away number). Will that help Liverpool stop City? Probably not, given City are just that good, and while Liverpool certainly seem better than last season, it’s unlikely that they’re good enough. But hey, at least they can look spiffy while they try. *I had initially ranked that kit as being memorable because I thought it’d be seared into my skull forever, except between last Tuesday and Thursday, I promptly forgot about its existence. Presumably, my brain took into account the other horrors we’re currently surrounded by and decided to cut me a break on this one.  

New managers and second kits

And while we’re talking about second kits, we can’t ignore everything that Arsenal and Chelsea are doing, both under new managers. Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea and Unai Emery’s Arsenal are at third and fourth on the table, both with seven wins. Arsenal, however, have lost two games so far this season, possibly* because -- unlike Chelsea -- they didn’t kick off their season in their away kit. Chelsea’s away kit this year is a bright yellow that was clearly chosen to look amazing on N’golo Kante and very few other people, presumably in deference to his overall awesomeness. Chelsea also had their biggest victory (4-0 against an inoffensive Burnley) in that kit. Similarly, Arsenal’s biggest win came in their plum kit (5-1 against a frankly drab Fulham). There is a lot of hand-wringing about when exactly this Arsenal side will stop winning unconvincingly and finally collapse,  *The word ‘possibly’ really can cover all manner of sins  

There’s something about United

It’s really hard to talk about this season without mentioning Mourinho and United. Mourinho’s been closely watched this season, largely because there’s an enormous amount of schadenfreude in his third season at any club. And the third season woes: they’re definitely there. WIth an ongoing rift between the manager and team star, Paul Pogba (read Jonathan Liew on the subject), and a team that just can’t seem to get it together, United have a goal difference of 0 and have managed to keep only a single clean sheet in 10 games. There have been moments of brilliance from the team, but they’ve been fleeting. Should United have made their kit a darker shade of pink this season? Yes. Would it have done anything to stop the Mourinho curse? No.  

Relegation zone

Then there’s the teams that just haven’t caught a break this season. Let’s talk about Fulham and that awful white-with-black-label monstrosity they’ve been sporting. When taking mean kit quality difference (kD) into account, Fulham’s many, many losses came with the highest mean difference. They were consistently poorer, in kit and play, than the teams they lost to. Fulham have no clean sheets this season, and they have managed a single win against Burnley. Is this a deserved result for the massive kD we’re seeing? Maybe.  

Best dressed team that really hasn’t gotten it together yet

And on the other side of that kD is Crystal Palace: a team that has some of the best kits overall in the league (seriously, just look at them), but is really failing to see that brilliance shine on the pitch. Palace have won just two games and conceded 13 goals, but that’s much, much, much better than this time last year when their kit was a stripe-y mess and they were sat firmly at 20th after a string of losses. Palace have made very few changes to the team that fought their way to a mid-table finish apart from swapping out the bold stripes for a much classier fade, so it seems   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Sevilla's Bounce Back Year

Sevilla are riding high in La Liga on the back of an excellent start to the season. Powered by the second best attack in the division, they have good underlying numbers to underpin what will likely be a genuine challenge for their first top-three finish in a decade. It is all far removed from the madness of last season. That summer, coach Jorge Sampaoli and long-serving transfer guru Monchi departed. Sampaoli’s replacement Eduardo Berizzo was gone before December, his replacement Vincenzo Montella lasted until the end of April, and Joaquín Caparros then stepped in for the run in of three wins and a draw that rescued a place in the Europa League qualifiers. Oh, and they also reached Copa del Rey final and the last eight of the Champions League. In the midst of all that, a finishing position of seventh, with the league’s seventh-best xG difference, was a pretty decent return. After his temporary reign on the bench, Caparros moved into a director of football role, and turned to Pablo Machín, fresh off an accomplished debut top-flight season with Girona, to lead Sevilla forward. Machín’s team weren’t quite as impressive from a numbers standpoint as fellow newly promoted side Getafe - who again look very solid this season - but their intense and direct approach yielded results and was a good fit with Sevilla’s traditional style of play, one that Caparros himself helped forge as head coach between 2000 and 2005. Girona pressed high, regularly won the ball in the middle of the pitch and then transitioned swiftly to attack, with plenty of diagonal passes out to their rampaging wing-backs and crosses into the box. They were also very effective on set-pieces, with a league-high 38.64% of their non-penalty goals coming from such situations. They generated over 50% of their non-penalty xG from a combination of set-pieces and open-play crosses. It was all relatively simple yet well-drilled - the culmination of Machín’s four years at the helm. With a few tweaks that approach has so far scaled well to a bigger club. At Sevilla, the 3-4-2-1 formation Machín utilised at Girona has given away to a 3-5-2 (perhaps a 3-1-4-2 or 3-5-1-1 depending on how you wish to split the bands), clearly visible in this pass map from last month’s home victory over Celta Vigo. At Girona, the wing-backs were usually the first attacking out ball, maintaining high positions to stretch play horizontally and thus create space infield for the two attacking midfielders, who operated almost as classic inside forwards. At Sevilla, however, his use of two forwards, with André Silva generally playing just off of Wissam Ben Yedder, occupies the opposing central defenders, stretching play vertically and generating space for the two advanced central midfielders to attack. The wing-backs normally join in a bit later. The identity of Sevilla’s regular midfield starters makes it clear that the focus of the side is on attack. A trio of Pablo Sarabia, Éver Banega (getting regular minutes as a lone defensive midfielder for the first time since his early days at Boca Juniors weaving wonderful passing patterns with Juan Riquelme) and Franco Vázquez is certainly not one constructed to provide defensive resistance, as their numbers for the season to date attest. Sevilla’s xG conceded has marginally improved from last season, to a league-11th-best 1.18 per match, but their attacking output has shot up from 1.33 xG per match last season to 1.80 this time around, driven by increases in both shot volume (15.08, up from 13.66) and quality (0.12 per shot, up from 0.10). A side who were passive and one-paced for large stretches of last season are now direct and incisive. After a barren year at Milan following his big-money move from Porto, Silva has quickly made an impact at the Sánchez Pizjuán. Not only is he scoring goals (seven, off 5.72 xG), but he has impressed the coaching staff with his ability to hold up and link play. His strike partner Ben Yedder is also very much enjoying himself. The ever-productive Sarabia is another thriving in this setup. As the right of the two advanced central midfielders, he is able to turn infield onto his favoured left foot and enjoy a propitious panorama, with Jesus Navas advancing wide to his right, two forwards ahead of him and other options emerging to his left. He already has four goals and four assists, and ranks towards the top of the team in terms of deep progressions, key passes and on the other side of the ball, pressures and pressure regains. Sevilla’s defence was a clear weakness last season - they conceded three or more goals on seven occasions - and Machín has simply chosen to embrace the talent imbalance in his squad. His team generate plenty of opportunities, but it is also relatively easy for opposing teams to advance through the center of the pitch and get off shots against them. Their matches have averaged a pretty evenly distributed 30 shots. Machín is betting that by throwing numbers forward his side will create better quality chances than they give up. It is a risky strategy but one that’s working well so far. Sevilla are currently just a point shy of leaders Barcelona following a hard-fought, come-from-behind victory at home to fast-starting Espanyol prior to the international break. There is little in their underlying numbers to suggest that form is unsustainable; on xG difference, they are La Liga’s second-best team. But there are some question marks. Have they benefited from the fitness boost of getting into competitive action earlier than others due to their participation in the Europa League qualifying rounds? Will that catch up with them later in the campaign, especially given that six outfield players have started at least 11 of their 12 league matches to date? Will they fall off like Machín’s Girona side did last season? Girona ran a positive xG difference of 0.20 per match through the first half of the campaign but that dropped into negative territory at -0.26 per match thereafter, with regression at both ends of the pitch. Whether that was due to tiredness (he again ran his favoured starters hard) or opponents figuring out their approach, it is something Machín will need to guard against this time around. Conversely, he still hasn’t been in charge for all that long. Sevilla aren’t yet the organised pressing unit his Girona side were, while their set-piece productivity is also likely to improve with further practice of routines and strategies - something that various members of the squad have highlighted as a focus. Barcelona have so far been a step below their level of last season, opening up a window of hope for Sevilla in terms of a title bid. The top three is probably a more realistic aim given Real Madrid’s relative struggles and the fact that Atlético Madrid, currently level on points with Sevilla, are having real problems in attack. At the very least, Valencia’s poor start - in terms of results rather than underlying numbers - has opened the door to the top four and Champions League qualification, which in of itself would represent a good return from Machín’s debut campaign. Header image courtesy of the Press Association