Manchester United: 2019-20 Season Preview

What to say about Manchester United that hasn’t already been said? They were uninspiring but ok at the start of last season, then the defence began to fall off a cliff. Then Jose Mourinho was sacked and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found himself at the wheel of a bus that had a V8 engine and an open highway in front of it as United rolled over a string of low-quality teams. Then the highway ran out, or the wheels fell off, or some other tired bus-based metaphor. The attack did what the defence had done at the end of Mourinho's reign, and yeeted itself off a cliff. And what to say about Manchester United for 2019/20 that will stack up by the end of the transfer window? Harry Maguire may arrive, Paul Pogba may leave, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic may arrive, Romelu Lukaku may leave. Paolo Dybala, might be a thing. Sean Longstaff's name is still floating around. The signings that have made it over the line are, at least, interesting. Aaron Wan-Bissaka only has one full season behind him, but he looks well worth making a painful-sized dip into the bank account for. His defensive output is, of course, incredible, and with 2.01 dribbles per 90 minutes he’s well above the league average in the position. Earlier in July, Mohamed Mohamed took a detailed look at the full-back, which should be essential reading. It will be interesting to see whether Wan-Bissaka’s strengths get squeezed to their last drop at United: the defensive qualities will be appreciated, but is it the priority for a top six full-back? And as for the dribbling, neither Ashley Young (0.71 per 90) nor young Diogo Dalot (0.99) took on opponents much last season. Still, Manchester United sorely need presence high up the field on their right flank. With no real winger or wide forward option on the right, and Paul Pogba having an advanced role on the left-side of central midfield, the Red Devils’ attack is pretty strongly skewed on the left. Even if, as Mohamed highlights, Wan-Bissaka doesn’t offer much with his passing, the fact that he can get high up the field and still defend the flank behind him should help things. Daniel James – another primarily left-sided attacker in a squad that already has Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – for £15m is an interesting one. He contributed 0.42 expected goals or expected goals assisted last season against a league average in his positional group of 0.31. That’s promising, but not stand-out, and growing to know football in a time of Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley is enough to make anybody suspicious of players whose statistical peak is in winning fouls. That’s not to say that James is a similar type of player to either of those two. However, it feels like players who win lots of fouls tend to excite fans in the short-term but frustrate after the initial glow wears off. A foul might win you a free-kick, but completing the dribble and switching the ball into a new area is more valuable. And while James is a good ball carrier (he moves the ball a quarter of the pitch or more over 1.5 times per 90, sixth-highest in the league) his number of actual take-ons – where he beats a player – isn’t exactly noticeably high. And his end product after completing a take-on is fairly sparse, with just seven shots and three key passes. He’s young, though, and opposing defenders have given him the kind of rough treatment in pre-season friendlies that rarely gets given to players who aren’t worth it. The rest of United’s window has been a swirl of speculation. Harry Maguire looks likely to join, so let’s, for the moment, work on the assumption that he will. StatsBomb Towers, the home of the set-piece stanning, likes Harry Maguire. As Ted Knutson has pointed out before though (in tweet and then elaborated on in podcast form), it’s hard to know the value of set-piece threats from the data. https://twitter.com/mixedknuts/status/1140669681679896578?s=21 In his two seasons at Leicester, Maguire averaged around 0.61 shots from set-pieces per 90 minutes. But this was more than doubled at the 2018 World Cup (1.41), where England were much more focused on their dead-ball routines. There are only so many set-pieces that a team can get in matches, and you can’t target Maguire on all of them (although game theory probably says that the mere presence of an oft-targeted Maguire will open spaces for other threats as well). What is for sure, though, is that if a club wanted to eke out every piece of set-piece value from Maguire, they could get a lot more from him than Leicester did. Including the shots that he will have helped set up, that’s at least a couple of shots per game from him during that Russian summer last year. That may not give a huge edge, but it’s enough to nudge the needle nearer to your favour each match. United can’t afford to overlook that. Despite what he offers from set-pieces and his undeniable strengths on the ball, his actual defending still raises questions. He’s slow to accelerate and turn, he has a slight tendency towards clumsiness, there seemed to be an unusual amount of communication problems with Wes Morgan at Leicester (not all of that can be put on Maguire). He’ll probably fit in alongside Victor Lindelof, who seems to be the preferred central defensive choice both for United managers and United fans at the moment. It’ll impact on how the team defends if that really is the partnership, as neither are the most comfortable when stepping up onto the back of forwards who’ve dropped between the lines. Still, think of the ball progression, I guess. Having finished sixth last season and not even having finished it well, United have a bit of an uphill climb if they want to break back into the top four. Chelsea’s transfer ban and new manager might give them an opening to target, and perhaps the effect of Tottenham surviving on stamina and Sellotape will start to show (or, at least, United will hope so). That's assuming no further departures. If Pogba goes - a possibility that the weight of rumours doesn't seem hugely behind at this point but, hey, who knows - United will lose a major part of their team. Last season he was fourth in the squad for expected goals per 90, fourth for expected goals assisted, and first for deep progressions. All that as a nominal central midfielder. He is capable of playing a more reserved role, but it doesn't get the best out of him. Finding a way to help Fred, who put up very high defensive activity numbers but looked a bit lost outside of that, could be a good start. Across the season as a whole, United's expected goals difference was in a group of teams including Arsenal but also Wolves, Leicester, and Everton. The financial heft of the two traditionally top teams will probably get them over the Top Six line (and if not, it’ll get them back there next season), but Top Four? Solskjaer would need to come up with a system that works as a whole. There is a lot of talent in the squad (mostly on the attacking end), but the team as a whole needs to function. There have been slight signs that it's getting there, but will it stand the test of the new season?   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

West Ham United: 2019-20 Season Preview

Can West Ham crash the top tier party? The last three seasons of the Premier League have led to the terms 'top six' and 'big six' being somewhat interchangeable. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have occupied those spots without fail. A perfect storm of  a couple of managers with club legend status but questionable managerial credentials, a transfer ban for one team, unsettled major earners at some, a few key departures at others and the continued pressure of competing on multiple fronts might just see those six broken apart for the first time since 2015/16. West Ham United finished tenth last season and have the promising combination of a Premier League winning manager on the bench, a run of financially profitable seasons and, in a departure from recent seasons, the good sense not to set fire to those profits in the transfer window. Smart spending on recruiting, on top of everything else, has given West Ham the air of the upwardly mobile. The Hammers have been tipped in some quarters as one of the teams that might puncture the top six this season but do last season's stats coupled with analysis of their new signings and existing squad support this as a realistic aspiration? West Ham United kicked off the 2018/19 season, their eighth spent consecutively in the Premier League, with a 4-0 loss at Liverpool and followed that up with three more defeats in a row. A fairly good group of attacking players and some pretty stark defensive issues resulted in a topsy turvy, predictably unpredictable season which included four wins a row during December, three straight losses at the end of March and victories in each of their final three games. Not exactly forever blowing bubbles and not exactly forever blowing ballgames, just a whole lot of uncertainty which ultimately landed them right in the middle at tenth.  Manuel Pellegrini had followed a grab bag of the usual suspects in Redknapp, Pardew, Allardyce and, most recently, Bilic and Moyes as manager and can point to a leap of three places and ten points compared to 2017/18 performance as progress. Underpinning this was an improvement in attack with almost two additional shots taken per match, moving the Hammers to eight lowest shots per match from fourth lowest, and an increase of xG per match of around 0.25. The shot count improved at the other end too, from the second most conceded in 2017/18 to the sixth most conceded in 2018/19. However, Pellegrini's team gave up some very good shots at times and actually conceded 1.49 xG per match, an increase of around 0.12 per match compared to 2017/18.  The reality is that while West Ham United were seen by many as a fun, quite attacking mid table team their offensive metrics were never really more impressive than mid table and many of their defensive metrics were, well, quite a bit lower down the table.  Felipe Anderson is a good ball carrier from the left but his shot map resembles the diet version of Wilfried Zaha’s. He combined well with Marko Arnautovic's bootleg Zlatan bit (at least in physique and arrogant nature) through the middle and Michail Antonio or Andriy Yarmolenko popped up with the occasional finish to a move from the right side but the sum of these parts was just the eleventh best open play xG per match in the division. On the other side of the ball a lack of willing, capable pressing from the front, mobility and ball wining deficiencies in midfield and quality issues at fullback led to the average West Ham United defensive action being located closer to their own goal than that of any other Premier League team and to the Hammers gifting their opponents the most clear shots, allowing the second highest xG per shot conceded and conceding the third most xG from open play per match in the division.  West Ham’s midfield, particularly when it comprised the good but not yet great Declan Rice and the good but never was great Mark Noble, was a pretty porous place at times. Rice deserves respect for playing regularly at this level at the age of just twenty and is a fine recycler of possession. Noble is still a fine leader but while his ability to organise others may not have diminished, his command over his own legs has. Played together there is a both a lack of variation in possession or smart vertical movement and, perhaps more critically, real issues in terms of covering ground and putting out defensive fires. Those fires kept igniting for the Hammers between the lines and in wide areas.  Arthur Masuaku has been given a contract extension this week tying him to the club until 2024 and seems to get a pass from Pellegrini for defensive errors in those wide areas given the perceived value he adds in attack. It’s not clear that his dribbling out of defence during transitions really adds all that much in an attacking sense to the team but he is not alone in terms of being suspect at times defensively. His competitor at left back, Aaron Cresswell, and the right backs Ryan Fredericks and Pablo Zabaleta did not excel at the back last season and none of the four has the two way ability required for a player in this position at the very top level. Nineteen year old Ben Johnson, a converted winger capable of playing on either defensive side, has impressed in preseason but might not be ready to stake a claim to be first choice in this problem position yet.  One player who must continue to be not just a first choice in his position but perhaps first choice on the team sheet is Lukas Fabianski. The thirty-four year old Polish goalkeeper was, well, fab! Last season Fabianski saved West Ham’s bacon to a quite incredible extent by keeping out almost fourteen goals more than a league average goalkeeper would have been expected to. That’s significantly more than anyone else in the Premier League managed in 2018/19 and even exceeds the performance of David De Gea in the same metric in 2017/18.   Overall, the attacking improvement and goalkeeping heroics did lead to an improvement in results but a jump from the fourth worst xG difference in 2017/18 to just the sixth worst xG difference in 2018/19 justifies some skepticism about expectations that the club can end this forthcoming season higher up the table than tenth, let alone in the top six.  Pellegrini, in tandem with Director of Football Mario Husillos, appears to be able to exert more influence over the club ownership in terms of recruitment than previous managers and there seems to be a transfer strategy with an eye on the longer term than before. While the midfield may still be in need of a mobile ball winner and progressor such as Ibrahim Sangare or Erick Pulgar and there could certainly be an upgrade at fullback, gone are the days of filtering a shortlist for free agents with league title winning experience in their distant past or scrabbling around for any old striker as deadline day approached.  The Hammers' new record signing, Sebastian Haller, could certainly be considered indicative of a smarter approach. Purchased for around £45 million this summer from Eintracht Frankfurt the twenty-five year old Frenchman is a modern center forward, capable of contributing in multiple ways and possessing a highly impressive statistical profile. He's been on the StatsBomb radar for some time and, given that within the top five leagues in 2018/19 he had the eighth highest scoring contribution (Goals + Assists) per ninety minutes overall and the third highest xG per shot of any forward, might represent something of a coup for West Ham United. Haller signed his first professional contract, for Auxerre, between appearances at the 2011 FIFA under 17 World Cup before moving to FC Utrecht in the Netherlands on loan in 2015. That loan became a permanent move and a fine goal scoring record under the management of Erik Ten Hag led to a step up the footballing ladder to the Bundesliga in May 2017. At Eintracht Frankfurt he often formed part of an excellent three man attack alongside Luka Jovic and Ante Rebic and has shown himself to be a mobile and strong athlete with a good touch who is able to drop deep to create space for others and link play, dominate in the air, press intelligently and hit a varied range of powerful strikes from great shooting locations. These attributes led to an impressive twenty goals and twelve assists in thirty-nine Bundesliga and Europa League matches last season. Haller did not exceed two shots per ninety minutes in either of his Bundesliga seasons and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to a system where he is likely to be a solo forward with more of an expectation to be the main goal getter. An encouraging sign could be that during Eintracht Frankfurt's drive to the 2018/19 Europa League semi-finals he did push the needle to over two and a half shots per ninety minutes and, while his shot quality and xG assisted did reduce, he was able to marginally increase his xG per 90 in comparison to what he achieved in the Bundesliga.  One source of more shots for Haller could be the playmaking of fellow summer signing Pablo Fornals. The twenty-three year old Spaniard set up twelve La Liga goals in the 2017/18 season for his Villareal teammates and his range of passing, sharp vision, positivity in possession and ability to break through the lines could lead to plenty of chances for his new side. In 2018/19 as part of a generally very poor Villareal side shorn of top scorer Cedric Bakambu he did experience a dip in output to just three assists and a corresponding, if less dramatic, reduction in open play xG Assisted from 0.23 to 0.16. Ideally last season should temper expectations and allow the highly regarded Fornals time to adapt to a new league and playing system. He is versatile positionally and can create from wide areas but is best suited to a role through the middle as he needs to be involved, running the play and on the ball. In that position he can add urgency to a team, getting them into attacking areas through his good engine, smart movement and instinctual ability to get out of trouble in one on one situations. Haller and Anderson in particular could benefit from his capacity to play defence splitting passes while carrying the ball on the counter attack. Fornals is a winner, having been one of the best players at Spain's 2019 Under 21 European Championship triumph, and could perhaps be something like the player that the Hammers hoped they were getting when they signed Jack Wilshire. Of course with that extra added ingredient of actually being able to play a full season's worth of football!  Haller and Fornals are significant steps in the right direction but more smart moves are needed if West Ham are to make the leap they want to. There is a possibility that those bad defensive numbers continue, Fabianski doesn’t replicate anything like last season’s form this go around and things don’t immediately click at the other end of the pitch. Perhaps best case scenario is maintaining at mid table for the next couple of seasons while phasing out some older pieces, including now second oldest manager in the league Pellegrini, and continuing to replace them with younger pieces that share the club’s aspirations to improve. Basically, keep coming back for these previews Hammers fans. There are reasons to be cautious about 2019-20 but plenty to be optimistic about in your near future.    Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Arsenal: 2019-20 Season Preview

The past two seasons Arsenal have gone all in to qualify for the Champions League. The team hoped that continuing to load up on veteran talent would eventually come good and bring forth the extra Champions League revenue needed to be in a better position to retool the squad for the long term. That bet failed in both seasons, and Arsenal entered this summer with a creaky squad needing an infusion of young talents (something that's been said about Arsenal dating back years), yet not necessarily being in an optimal financial state to do so. They delayed the bill for as long as possible, but now that it's come due, it's possible they can't pay.

The 2019-20 season promises to be an intriguing one for Arsenal, both because of the manner in which they went about improving the squad, and just how much their moves could help the worrying metrics that Arsenal had last season.

Metrics

Before getting to the squad remodeling that’s gone on over the summer, it’s important to highlight the level of performance that occurred last season as a reference point. To put it bluntly, Arsenal were not good in 2018–19, and it’s hard to make an argument otherwise. What had been a top four side in terms of shot quantity and quality for the greater part of this decade began to slip in both areas during Arsene Wenger’s last season, and that slide accelerated in season one of Unai Emery’s tenure. Even during the highs of the unbeaten streak that bought Emery some good will, there were the real worrying signs about how sustainable those good times were.

The raw numbers aren’t pretty when accounting for Arsenal’s ambitions to reclaim a top four spot: 10th in shots for and 11th in shots conceded, eighth in expected goal differential and 11th in non-penalty expected goals conceded. The only positive was placing fourth in non-penalty expected goals for, but given how bad the defense was, the end result is an xGD of only 0.09. For reference, Leicester City had a higher xGD at 0.15. Also worrying was how anemic Arsenal were in set pieces, ranking last in set piece xG and ninth in set piece xG conceded. Put it all together and what pops out is the statistical profile of a mid-table side, and were it not for variance going their way (particularly in attack), Arsenal wouldn’t have been nearly as close to finishing in the top four as the sides 70 point tally got them.

What’s also interesting is examining how ball progression and overall passing compared between 2017–18 and 2018–19. For good and for bad, one of the key features of Wengerball was the high level of improvisation in attack which featured a high volume of passes into the final third and eventually the penalty box. In Wenger’s last season Arsenal led the league in passes into the box at five per game. That figure slipped a bit to 4.45 per game under Emery, which still placed second in the league behind Manchester City’s preposterous 6.45 per game. Arsenal increased their percentage of penalty box entries via crosses from 24% in 17–18 to 27%, going from lowest to 5th lowest. Though not uniform, it is generally accepted that as you adopt a more cross heavy approach within the final third, the attack becomes less efficient. For further examining on overall passing tendencies, a great way of displaying how Arsenal passed in different zones is via Statsbomb’s pass sonars, which shows subtle differences that exist between 2017-18 under Wenger and 18-19 under Emery.

Transfers

The good news for Arsenal is that though the financial situation still seems to be sub-optimal, as currently constituted, there are things to like with their summer business given the resources they're reportedly working with. Arsenal essentially took a punt on Gabriel Martinelli, though it's hard to see how he'll make much of an impact in year one besides being used for squad rotation. In the acquisition of William Saliba, the club has taken a genuine shot at finding a young center-back with potential greatness in the near future. Saliba in particular has the positive indicators needed to have some confidence in projecting future stardom given his sophisticated ball-playing capabilities along with capable defending, not to mention that it’s not everyday that you see a 17–18 year old central defender playing over 1000 minutes for a top five Ligue 1 side. While an argument could be made that Saliba might already be Arsenal’s best CB even at his young age, it’s probably for the best that he gets another season in France where he gets to make mistakes and hopefully grow further as a prospect.

Acquiring Dani Ceballos was also a good move for the club, albeit only as a loan without an option to buy. It’s a smart signing for multiple reasons: it’s never a bad idea to poach young talents at super clubs who have some track record of production and are in need of game time, acquiring someone like Ceballos gives Arsenal options in the midfield, and it allows the other young midfielders in Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira to not be burned out towards the end of the season. Though his game time at Real Madrid has been limited over the past two seasons, Ceballos has been super promising as a ball progressing midfielder who is a magnet for drawing fouls. It’s been awhile since Arsenal had a midfielder who could combine functional athleticism along with high level passing; the days of Santi Cazorla roaming the midfielder in an Arsenal shirt are fast becoming a distant memory.

But the real headliner of Arsenal’s summer business is the reported acquisition of Nicolas Pepe at a staggering fee of £72 million, far outpacing the previous record of £56 million spent on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. There are multiple ways to look at the Pepe acquisition. Even after accounting for 9 of his goals coming via penalties, it’s undeniable that Pepe had a solid season and it’s not everyday that you find wide attackers in their age 23 season who have a non-penalty scoring contribution per 90 rate of 0.61 in a big 5 league. His style of play last season scales fairly well towards playing for bigger clubs given his coordination on-ball as a chance creator and dribbler, the ability to operate within the halfspace through cleanly receiving the ball to turn, and awareness to exploit holes in the back line either with passes into the box or off-ball movements.

https://twitter.com/StatsBomb/status/1155053927970299904

Where the issues lie is that Arsenal paid a premium for Pepe’s services. Targeting an athletic wide player isn't the issue, given Arsenal's real decline in collective athleticism over the years, but the price point that it took to help address it is extreme. In an ideal world, given Pepe's production along with the concerns that this is his first season of good production, you would hope to pay around £45 million and perhaps up to £55 million at the high end for someone who had a good but not necessarily great season in Ligue 1. It is beating a dead horse when saying this, but Arsenal are paying the price that they could’ve avoided years ago with better squad planning. By getting these type of talents at an earlier stage in their development, you avoid having to pay these sky high prices, and it becomes even more of a masterstroke if you’re able to get these attacking talents for dirt cheap via transfer or through the academy. One way to help mitigate that worry a little bit is if the young kids continue to impress during the season as they have in preseason, and they start to slowly build up value as assets.

Having said all that, and while the reported £72 million represents a gargantuan fee, there does remain the chance of some upside existing with this acquisition. If Pepe truly hits and becomes one of the top players in the league, that would be of great benefit to Arsenal both in the short and long term. At 24, he is just young enough that you can do the balancing act of getting ~3 years of awesome production and perhaps selling him for very good money down the line, in the scenario where he hits his apex as a player. So long as Pepe continues to hit at around 0.6 non-penalty scoring contribution rate during his time as an Arsenal player, the move won't go down as a unmitigated disaster.

Overall it would be fair to classify Arsenal’s business as fairly promising, and perhaps even good given the doomsday scenario that fans feared heading into this summer, though there's still some potential downside since the holes at leftback and central defense remain unfilled. Locking in a future transfer for a potential stud at center back was smart, and could look like a stroke of genius if Saliba eventually turns into a world beater. Finding a short term option in midfield via a highly promising midfielder (with the faintest of hopes of concocting a future permanent agreement in the following summer if things go well) was also rather shrewd. The Pepe deal represents a big gamble that could swing either way, and though addressing that position was smart, it does make one wonder how exactly Arsenal will use him, Alexandre Lacazette, and Aubameyang throughout the season.

2019–20 Outlook

It’s not impossible to make an argument in favor of Arsenal finishing in the top 4, though that line of thinking is not necessarily one centered on their 18–19 performance, but rather educated guessing surrounding competition around them. Chelsea are being led by a manager in Frank Lampard who has had only one season of managerial experience at Derby, and that Derby side relied on a whole lot of variance in both defense and attack to finish in sixth place. While he’ll have a much better squad to work with, he’s also facing a Premier League that is stacked with talented managers throughout. Add to it the departure of Eden Hazard and two of Chelsea's young stars in Ruben Loftus Cheek and Callum Hudson Odoi recovering from devastating Achilles injuries, and the recipe exists for Chelsea to experience a turmoil heavy season that sees them far away from the top four.

As for Manchester United, the evidence of Ole Gunner Solskjaer being the type of manager that you would want to have if you’re aspiring to be in the Champions League is at best inconclusive. Though United were better last season with him as manager than Mourinho during their respective half season stints, Solskjaer's didn't necessarily instill the level of confidence needed from someone who eventually became the long-term manager. The squad as well has not seen the type of remodeling that would instill confidence. They took a major bet on Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the rumors surrounding departures for Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku have not gone away, and potentially spending £80 million on Harry Maguire would be another example of United's inability to operate in the transfer window with any semblance of rationality. Like Chelsea, the downside risk is real for a tumultuous 2019-20 campaign to occur.

And then we come to the Premier League clubs who reside below the big six, the likes of West Ham, Wolves, Everton and Leicester. Of all the seasons in which England has had a defined big six, 2019-20 has the greatest potential for one or two of those members to slip out and create chaos in the league table. That's an exciting prospect, though it's fair to wonder just how equipped these clubs exactly are to taking advantage of such an opportunity. Everton's reported acquisition of Moise Kean is a big plus to their summer business, though selling Ademola Lookman could look bad if he becomes a star with RB Leipzig given how having multiple young talents simultaneously making the leap is extremely helpful in bridging the gap towards a run at a top spot. Wolves have European football to deal with, West Ham have done well to add genuine attacking talent but still the concerns remain in midfield and defense, and Leicester could very well have missed the boat by overpaying on Youri Tielemans and Ayoze Perez. As fashionable as it's been this summer to make proclamations about this being the season of changes occurring at the top, someone from this group of four has gotta actually be good enough to make that happen.

Add everything up, and the road map exists for Arsenal to make it into the top 4, even if that last spot amounts to a rock fight that rewards whoever screws up the least (especially if it ends up being between Arsenal, United and Chelsea). Where the positive vibes end is if Arsenal once again have another season where their shot quality and quantity resemble a mid-table side, because even with the high end talent that Arsenal have, expecting them to have such positive variance between expected and actual goal difference doesn’t amount to a sustainable strategy (another factor: whether Bernd Leno could once again have a noteworthy shot stopping season despite his dubious track record in the Bundesliga). Having another disappointing season that ends without qualification for the Champions League could very well make Unai Emery's position untenable, and once again add further strain to Arsenal's finances.

It's clear what the stakes are for Arsenal in 2019-20, as anything short of getting into the Champions League would represent another disappointing season. Whether this Arsenal squad will attain their goal is anyone's guess.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Moise Kean, Player Profile

News reports suggest Everton are on the verge of acquriring Juventus starlet Moise Kean this week. What can the data tell us about him? Bare basics tell us he still won’t be 20 years old until next February. He’s played less than 1700 minutes in Serie A during his short career between parent club Juventus and Verona where he went on loan in 2017/18. That’s less than 19 full games to you and me. Not much to go on but he’s packed a fair whack in already. Everton fans want a goal scorer. Well he’s that. Roughly 9 xG with 10 goals to actually show for it all told. He shoots in decent volume in decent positions. Here’s his shot map for last season at Juventus: A quick look at his radar shows you that beyond that shooting profile he carries the ball pretty well to beat opponents but beyond that we’re struggling. Moise isn’t one for setting up colleagues, can’t head it, and like Cristiano Ronaldo, left all that boring final third defensive work up to Mario Mandzukic: Quite how that sits into Everton’s current forward line is a difficult one. Richarlison, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin all put shifts in when they pull on the blue shirt. The Goodison Park crowd won’t stand for anything else these days and manager Marco Silva’s set-up requires it too. You also have to consider that Everton’s favourite way of creating chances under Silva is the humble cross – mostly launched from the boots of Lucas Digne and Sigurdsson. Eyes back up to Kean’s shot map. Yep, not one header in there. It’s also interesting to note that Kean only started getting real game time in March, netted 6 times from then on, but Juventus’s team xG did this: But you want positives, don’t you? I reckon the eyes will give you more of those. Go and have a look at some highlight reels. Kean looks great receiving the ball on the deck with his back to goal. He gets on the half turn very quickly if defenders get too tight. He has two good feet, good close control and good acceleration to get away. His running style with the ball puts me in mind of a Samuel Eto’o/George Weah hybrid. I’ll watch that all day long. Can the kid score goals? No doubt. Can the kid play? No doubt. Is he the right fit for Everton right now? Doubt. Would I mind if Everton bought him anyway? Doubt.

Norwich City: 2019-20 Season Preview

Norwich are back in the Premier League. The team overcame a shaky start to last season to power on and secure promotion as the eventual champions of the Championship, five points clear of their nearest challengers. Daniel Farke’s side practiced a swashbuckling style of play that saw their matches average more goals (3.26) than those of any other promoted side over the last 10 years. In that time, only the dominant Bournemouth side of 2014-15 scored more than their 93 goals, while only five promoted teams conceded more than their 57. In terms of underlying numbers, Norwich married the league’s joint-best attack (1.47 expected goals (xG) per match) to its third-best defence (0.94 xG conceded) for the second best xG difference (0.53 per match) in the division. As I discussed in my piece following their promotion in May, solid shot volume and quality in attack was matched to a defence that gave up a fair number of shots but of low average quality -- only those conceded by Sheffield United were less dangerous. Norwich were an assertive team, equally capable of creating chances from quick turnovers in possession as they were in constructing more considered moves from deep. Without the ball, they pressed fairly aggressively in a mid-to-low block amongst spells of higher pressure. With plenty of movement and neat combination play, they produced some lovely football. https://twitter.com/NFFCshow/status/1096992518053474304?s=20 The question is how well that approach is likely to transfer to the Premier League, particularly as they have not invested heavily in reinforcements. Almost as soon as promotion was sealed, sporting director Stuart Webber started to play down expectations of a summer spending spree. He views the huge television rights windfall that comes with Premier League participation as an opportunity to rebalance the books of a club who have been reliant on player sales for much of their revenue in recent years. He was never going to repeat Fulham’s ultimately fruitless £100-million outlay of last summer. Instead, much of Webber’s work has focused on tying down the stars of the promotion campaign. Ben Godfrey, Emiliano Buendia, Kenny McLean, Marco Stiepermann, Onel Hernandez, Teemu Pukki, Tim Krul, Timm Klose, Todd Cantwell and 2018-19 EFL Young Player of the Year Max Aarons have all signed new deals this summer. Keeping Aarons, Buendia, Godfrey and Jamal Lewis (who signed a new deal last October) gives Norwich a core of young talent with plenty of upside. But there have been a few incomings. The most expensive new arrival, at least in terms of the fee, is the reported £2.7 million paid for the season-long loan of Schalke goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann. He has been brought in as competition for last season’s number one Tim Krul, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he becomes first choice at some point over the course of the campaign. Krul ranked just 18th of 37 amongst all goalkeepers who made at least 10 starts in the Championship last season in terms of our shot-stopping ratings, and conceded 3.44 more goals than the average goalkeeper could have been expected to; Fahrmann, in contrast, ranked eighth of 22 in the Bundesliga by that same measure, and conceded 1.70 fewer goals than expected. Of course, there is more to the work of a goalkeeper than simply stopping shots. Yet while Fahrmann may not necessarily be able to match the intangibles that Krul provides -- “...he’s helped in our dressing room in terms of being a leader and culture,” Webber explained earlier this year. “He is the guy that leads the culture in that dressing room, among others” -- in terms of what happens out on the pitch, he would seem to be a solid stylistic fit. Germany has been a popular source of talent for Webber since his appointment in the summer of 2017 -- in addition to head coach Farke, he has made 12 signings from German teams in that time  -- and Fahrmann is joined by another new arrival from the Bundesliga in the form of the Swiss forward Josip Drmic. A free transfer signing from Borussia Monchengladbach, whatever promise was once there has since been consumed by injuries. Over the last three seasons, he hasn’t even seen 1000 minutes of league action. It is a similar case with the full-back Sam Byram, brought in from West Ham for a nominal fee. The 24-year-old has produced mildly promising output, particularly defensively, when he’s made the pitch, but that hasn’t happened often. He made just six appearances on loan at Nottingham Forest last season, missing seven months of the campaign following knee surgery. Norwich are clearly shopping in cheap markets, seeking to draw more from players who have struggled to convert various degrees of promise into reality. In that context, their most intriguing signing is arguably that of Patrick Roberts, on loan from Manchester City. The 22-year-old spent last year at Girona in La Liga, where he did a lot of dribbling... and not much else. Roberts didn’t shoot, set up chances, progress the ball into the final third or move it into the box. He also missed a third of the season through injury — a familiar scenario from his previous two-year loan at Celtic. Maybe Farke can work his magic and unlock some of the potential that once had Roberts pegged as an up-and-coming star. Initial impressions in pre-season have certainly been positive. But if nothing else he at least provides like-for-like competition for Hernandez, the team’s leader in dribbles last season (2.25 per 90). Norwich are yet to add to their options in central midfield, an area of the pitch in which they lacked a bit of dynamism last season. They were, at times, too easy to play through in transition, and against better quality opponents, those situations will more often be turned into good shooting opportunities. Perhaps they will do some more work later in the window as new possibilities arise, but the squad as it stands is largely likely to be the one with which they begin the campaign. Webber has cited the Bournemouth team of 2014-15 as one who were able to successfully adapt to the Premier League by keeping the nucleus of their promotion side together, and that is how Norwich will approach their third promotion to the top flight this decade. They lasted three seasons between 2011 and 2014, peaking at 11th in 2012-13, but just one season last time they made it up for the 2015-16 campaign. If they are to survive this time around, they will require their young players to take a step forward, some of the older members of their squad with limited or no previous top-flight experience to perform above expectations, and for at least a couple of their somewhat risky set of signings to work out for them. Over the last five seasons, sides who have come up from the Championship have on average scored 40.23% less and conceded 47.04% more goals on a per match basis in their first season in the Premier League than they did during their promotion campaign. Accepting that average does, of course, ignore a number of contributing factors, including the degree to which those teams strengthened upon promotion, it provides a solid baseline for what to expect. On that basis, Norwich would be looking at a final goal difference of somewhere around -21; last season that would have put them in the cluster of teams just above the bottom three. They will certainly not be afforded an opportunity to settle in slowly, as their opener away to Liverpool is followed by encounters with Chelsea and Manchester City in two of their next four matches. But they if can find their feet thereafter they will have a solid chance of avoiding an immediate return to the Championship. Norwich have got this far by doing things their own way. They trusted in their process even through Farke’s disappointing first season. Promotion was the first reward; perhaps Premier League survival will be the next.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Bournemouth: 2019-20 Season Preview

Bournemouth, I keep being told, are an exciting football team. This seems to be a multipurpose euphemism, recognizing the club’s limited stature, mildly radical interest in scoring goals, and Eddie Howe’s distinction as the least-dour English manager. (Historically, this has not been a fiercely contested title.) All of those plaudits are deserved, but they add up to something less exciting than the idea of Bournemouth. All the moment-to-moment excitement the club has generated in four seasons of Premier League play has produced what might generously be termed radical stasis. Bournemouth is football’s Groundhog Day; no matter what it does, it keeps having the same season. Mind you, there are worse fates.  At this time last year, James Yorke noted that Bournemouth’s time in the Premier League had been characterized by low transfer spending, more attacking play than you’d expect from a club of their stature, points collected in hot stretches that were consistently followed by long periods of ineffectiveness, and season totals narrowly clustered between 42 and 46 points.  One year later, all those characterizations hold true. Bournemouth spent little in 2018-19 and accrued the bulk of their 45 points in an early-season run that was followed by a remarkable period of futility. One could therefore argue that Bournemouth had a typically Bournemouth season. There’s just one catch: Eddie Howe’s team produced this familiar outcome in a wholly new way.  Bournemouth’s tactical and personnel changes in 2018-19 are best understood as attempts to solve the longstanding problem of opponents regularly waltzing into their penalty box. Howe switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 and dialed back his team’s pressing to leave two midfielders stationed in the problem area in front of the penalty box. This shift left playmaker Lewis Cook without a clear place in the team, but his absence was smoothed over by the arrival of David Brooks, a right-winger with central pretensions. These changes saw Bournemouth go from a team that did little defending in front of its box to one with above-average defensive activity in most of that area:  This wasn’t defensive activity for defensive activity’s sake: Bournemouth conceded fewer shots in 2018-19 and those shots they allowed were of a lower quality than in the previous season.  Those changes, combined with Callum Wilson being a very good striker and Ryan Fraser doing a ton of creative work, made Bournemouth an attractive proposition — at least in a spreadsheet. They were 8th in terms of expected goals created (1.24 per 90 minutes) and tied for 13th in expected goals conceded (1.29 per 90). With the league’s 11th best expected goal difference, Bournemouth had the statistical profile of a mid-table team. There was just one problem:  Conceding fewer and lower quality shots only matters if you can keep those shots out. Bournemouth, to put it delicately, did not. Only two teams conceded more goals than the Cherries last season, and they were both relegated with extreme prejudice.  Whenever a team so egregiously underperforms its statistics, one can safely assume that many things went wrong. There were probably some injuries. Luck clearly wasn’t on their side. Still,  Asmir Begovic, who started the majority of Bournemouth’s game’s last season, was a disaster. Only Marcus Bettinelli was a worse goalkeeper on a per-90 basis, but at least Fulham — Fulham!!! — had the good sense not to start him as often as Bournemouth started Begovic, who put up the worst season totals of any keeper. Even Joe Hart, whose benching fixed most of Burnley’s defensive woes, had a better season. Begovic conceded a whopping 8.4 more goals than expected. His backup, Artur Boruc, was also notably substandard.  Bournemouth, with a settled Jefferson Lerma and a healthy Lewis Cook in midfield, could be a league-average goalkeeper away from delivering on last season’s mid-table promise. The club has been linked with Jack Butland, but Howe is reportedly unwilling to meet Stoke’s transfer fee demands. (Butland was useful in Stoke’s 2017-18 Premier League campaign, but was slightly below average in the Championship last year.) Failing that, the club appears to be hoping that Bergovic and Boruc won’t be the league’s worst goalkeeping tandem in consecutive seasons.  It’s not like Bournemouth is that much more prolific with its outfield transfers. They’ve purchased young fullbacks Lloyd Kelly and Jack Stacey from Championship clubs and sold center back Tyrone Mings and forward Lys Mousset. Bournemouth is on track to make a profit this summer, but its squad remains worryingly thin. Retaining a striker of Wilson’s calibre is the club’s main transfer success in this window. While Bournemouth has limited means, Howe has also spent scarce resources erroneously (the ghost of Jermain Defoe is still under contract and back from his loan spell at Rangers) or failed to integrate the likes of Mousset or Dominic Solanke. His squad, which was improved by the signing of Brooks and Lerma last summer, is still never more than a couple injuries from catastrophe.  Injuries happen. Bournemouth’s strong start to the 2018-19 season coincided with a period of good health, and the omnishambles that followed was exacerbated by a series of key players going down. Lewis Cook and Simon Francis are unlikely to rupture their cruciate ligaments in consecutive seasons, but it’s foolish to expect that nothing else will go wrong. The drop-off from Bournemouth’s ten best outfield starters to their backups is significant and worrying.  When projecting Bournemouth’s 2019-20 season, the team’s inconsistent play represents the main interpretive challenge.  One can make a generous argument that the team’s streakiness last year was largely a function of its schedule; Bournemouth beat up on lesser teams early in the season and struggled against better competition. Injuries further accentuated this dynamic. Reshuffle the order of the matches, the argument goes, and you have a relatively normal profile for a 14th-placed team.  After four seasons of Premier League football, though, Bournemouth’s hot-and-cold nature seems like more of a feature than a bug. The team last won consecutive matches in January and was defeated by relegation-bound Fulham and Cardiff. This wasn’t solely a quirk of sequencing; Bournemouth got worse as the season went on. And even smoothing their stats into a ten game rolling average doesn't sugarcoat their inconsistency. Much as Eddie Howe deserves credit for the big-picture shifts in Bournemouth’s tactics last season, his inability to solve problems during the season should be interrogated. (“All our goalkeepers are less effective than training pylons” is admittedly one of the harder problems to solve by tweaking tactics, but it’s not like Howe has done much in the transfer market to address this glaring weakness.) The situation is reminiscent of the late Arsene Wenger years at Arsenal, where the manager would stumble into a good tactical switch — using a defensive midfielder, trying a back three/five — and then not tweak it at all until the cycle restarted 18 months later. Howe could do worse than become late-period Wenger, but his upside, like Bournemouth’s, may not be as high as some optimists suggest.   Still, the cautious outlook for Bournemouth is not that grim. For the first time in its Premier League history, the club has done enough to suggest its defending won’t be atrocious. Moreover, the club barely flirted with relegation last season despite incompetent goalkeeping and mediocre injury luck. A healthy Bournemouth shouldn’t be tipped for relegation this year, but it’s unlikely to improve on last year’s potential of mid-table comfort — even with a good goalkeeper.  Eddie Howe’s transfer record and historical inability to fix problems mid-season suggest another finish in the 14th-16th place range is likelier.    Bournemouth are likely to produce another Very Bournemouth season. The only question is how.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

StatsBomb Calls For Research Proposals For Its Inaugural Innovation In Football Conference

After the Messi Data Biography and the Women’s World Cup, StatsBomb is now offering another chance in 2019 to work with our exclusive data. If you want to present your work to clubs, federations and other industry professionals, this is your chance. StatsBomb’s first ever conference will be held at Stamford Bridge stadium on Friday October 11th 2019. There will be multiple panels with high-level football professionals, a live StatsBomb podcast and presentations by some of the best sports analysts around. StatsBomb has always had a close connection to the wider analytics community and it’s important to us that this group of people is represented at this conference. For this reason, we are inviting you to send us your research proposals. The best submissions will be offered the chance to write a paper using exclusive StatsBomb data and present it to an audience of industry professionals. The StatsBomb dataset has multiple features that are primed for investigation. Pass footedness, our unique pressure events, attacker and defender locations on all shots are just three such areas that make StatsBomb Data stand out from the crowd. We will be happy to take submissions involving these added elements but encourage creative and original ideas around any aspect of the dataset.

Available data

The research competition gives everyone the unique opportunity to work with the most comprehensive event data set in football. Participants will be given access to: – Their choice of two seasons from 2017-18 and 2018-19 of English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, English League 1 or Ligue 1. OR One season (2018-19) of the top five leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France) Submissions based on the publically available StatsBomb Data (2018 World Cup, 2019 Women’s World Cup, Messi Data Biography and  2018-19 FAWSL) are also welcome.

Proposal details

The proposal will be judged on the following criteria:

  • Originality: StatsBomb have the richest event data in the world and we’re looking for innovative approaches to analyzing it.
  • Application: Can your work be used to help clubs make better decisions or be the basis for future research?
  • Feasibility: Is your proposal a realistic one for the given timeframe?

Both foundational and applied research is welcome. We are dedicated to providing a platform for the most innovative research in football analytics, whether that means theoretical or practical work. For example, papers on how best to use StatsBomb data in opposition analysis would be appreciated.

  1. Title
  2. Summary (max 500.) What are you researching? Why do you think this is an interesting question? What is your expected outcome?
  3. What organization do you work for?
  4. What is your experience in football?
  5. What is your experience with data analysis?
  6. What experience do you have presenting?

Proposals should be sent to conference@statsbomb.com Only one proposal per person. The deadline for submissions is 21th August 2019. Candidates will be informed at the latest by the 24th August whether or not their proposal has been accepted. The deadline for submission of the final papers is 30th September ahead of the event on 11th October. Proposal review The proposals will be judged by the analysis department of StatsBomb, led by Head of Analysis James Yorke. Assistance to everyone who is chosen to present his or her paper will also be available.

Why words matter: an incomplete guide to accurately describing the footballers in front of your nose

The endorphins from the World Cup are still wearing off, and several of us are procrastinating thinking about the season ahead by remembering its best moments fondly. Unfortunately, as is the case with all World Cups, it’s impossible to think about the games, without their soundtrack. Remembering the good times means remembering the commentary as well.  There’s the sudden panic that engulfs a team on the mic when they realize they know next to nothing about entire countries (usually non-white ones), or the seconds of dead air after a commentator flubs a name and tries to pull up whatever fun fact they internalized from the fact sheet meant to stand in for the last four years of research.  For those with the fortitude not to mute their TVs, the cliches are inevitable: comments about “pace and power” if its a team from Africa, “discipline and hard work” for Asian teams, and “passion and hot-headedness” about Latin American squads. There is, of course, nothing new about commentators relying on lazy and incorrect stereotypes, but due to many international players, and especially international women, being less well known, each time another World Cup rolls around, we’re treated to an egregious increase in just how often we hear those cliches substitute for actual analysis.   This World Cup was no different. Nigeria were repeatedly referred to as “physical” and were told to rely on their “physical presence” because it was their main strength (Michael Caley had an excellent thread breaking down exactly why this assertion falls short.). China, despite having one of the most physical teams in the tournament, were almost always described as “disciplined.” (Very disciplined high tackles flying everywhere.) Fox Sports commentators gave us an absolute gem when they said the white, European coach that Nigeria had brought on was responsible for the team’s newfound discipline and tactical knowledge The problem with relying on stereotypes instead of giving non-Western teams and non-white players nuance and consideration was highlighted perfectly in the aftermath of the England vs. Cameroon game. Sure, the Cameroonian players conducted themselves in an unsportsmanlike way, but the narrative that reared its ugly head after the final whistle was the natural successor to “pace and power”: denigrating the players and the team, turning their emotions into yet another caricature of “angry black women,” and holding them responsible for what little girls watching football would think of the game. It should be possible to both recognize Cameroon’s unsporting conduct for what it was, and also understand that the reaction to that conduct was built upon the same lazy tropes that can substitute for analysis when the players are on the pitch.  It's that kind of disparity which led FIFA to open up a disciplinary case against Cameroon after a full day of media outrage despite the fact that they never did anything similar after matches like the Battle of Nuremberg, a game some might argue was one of the least disciplined ever played. But it’s a complicated world out there and there’s no way to clearly show the correlation between clumsy (and damaging) stereotypes employed by commentators and the media and the ways in which the sport becomes hostile to non-white players and fans--whether they’re on a national team or playing for their clubs. Luckily for us, we’re in that peculiar bit of time where everything is a bit fuzzy and there’s a bit of room between all our ears before our regular programming begins. So, in the interest of everyone being just a bit more accurate about how we talk about the players we’re watching, here’s a handy guide to some other adjectives and phrases commentators could learn before they sit down for their next game:

Intelligent

Football intelligence comes in many different forms, of course, and the adjective can be applied to several players that demonstrate many individual skills. Take Cameroon’s Ajara Nchout for example. Nchout emerged from this World Cup as the undisputed champion of dribbling with an average of 6.14 successful dribbles per 90 minutes. It takes incredible control and decision-making to be achieve a success rate that high. It’s not that she isn’t athletic, but ascribing her dribbling success only to athleticism and not crediting her on ball control paints an incomplete picture, a picture heavily influenced by the preconceived notions of those talking about her Similarly, Jun Endo is surely disciplined, but watching her on the pitch and the adjectives that come to mind are almost entirely focused on how quick and versatile she is with the ball, and how good she is at reading the pitch as she’s moving the ball forward. 

Creative

Let’s spin this one forward and talk about how we might use a word like creative in the upcoming season. It’s almost always reserved for the playmakers on a team, a category that should include Sadio Mané. Liverpool’s incredible 2018/19 season was in no small part due to Mané's was ability to create scoring chances, and pile the pressure on every single opponent. Sure, Mané’s fast, but it's not just that he's fast. He moves the ball forward but he does it while rarely leaving himself exposed defensively. He finds ways to be a dynamic attacking player while not shirking his defensive duties (or having a system that relieves him of defensive responsibilities). Creativity isn’t just what happens when a player or their team has the ball. The heatmap of his defensive activity is amazing because it shows just how active he is able to be while still being one of the league’s best at getting forward from his wide position. 

Incredible read of the game (Tactical acumen)

The other thing the best playmakers need is an incredible ability to read the game. Manchester United had a largely disappointing campaign last season, and there’s a lot that can be (and has been) said about why that was, including about the performances of both Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba. But putting the toxicity of the last season, and the football media in general, aside, it’s very hard not to describe both players as having incredible tactical acumen and a game-winning ability to read the pitch.  Lukaku has perhaps one of the most iconic creative plays in recent memory under his built, one which didn’t even necessitate him touching the ball. Nacer Chadli’s goal in the 2018 World Cup is only memorable because of Lukaku’s dummy: the perfect move that drew attention away from Chadli and allowed the latter to catch the Japanese defense and goalkeeper, Eiji Kawashima, off guard. That ability to read the game also results in Lukaku finding space for himself in the penalty area and habitually taking great shots. His 0.20 expected goals per shot was by far the highest on Manchester United last season. As for Pogba, whatever faults he might have as a player, his ability to see the pitch is beyond reproach. His 8.44 deep progressions per 90 minutes led the team. And he reliably stepped to just behind the 18 yard box on the left and tried to slip passes to the forwards in front of him. Here are all his passes to Marcus Rashford from those positions (red are complete and yellow incomplete) Manchester United had plenty of issues, and Lukaku and Pogba might have had imperfect seasons, but it certainly wasn’t their inability to read the game that was the problem. Lukaku and Pogba are both incredibly smart players, despite what lazy preconceived notions might suggest. Relying on stereotypes is easy. It’s also lazy and damaging, and sells the players and the game short. And, in addition to the harm it does, it’s also just plain wrong. Tropes lead to misdiagnosing what’s going on the field, and making mistakes in analysis. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for commentators to actually analyse what’s in front of them instead of relying on cliches which lead them to make bad conclusions and leave an audience ill informed.  And to maybe purchase a thesaurus or two while they’re at it.

William Saliba, Player Profile


William Saliba is officially property of Arsenal. The young defender will go on loan back to Saint-Étienne for another season before officially making the move to North London. Here are some basics about what Arsenal can expect from their shiny new center back. First, he’s very very young. At only 18 years old, it’s no surprise that Saliba doesn’t have very many minutes under his belt. Still, he only made 16 league appearances for his club last season, and only played a full 90 minutes on 11 occasions. His output when he did play is quite strong. There are, of course, considerable questions about what it means to be a center back who makes a lot of tackles and how that relates to broader team defense, and positional awareness, but Saliba definitely won the ball a lot, 2.5 possession adjusted tackles per 90 minutes, and has an all-around profile with very few statistical weaknesses. The challenge for Saliba will come when he eventually has to adjust to the different tactical questions that playing for Arsenal will pose, although it’s fair to wonder exactly how different his job will really be. Despite playing in vastly different contexts, top six in England and France but an above average defense in France, as opposed to a bottom half one in England, Arsenal and Saint-Étienne actually have fairly similar outputs. That said, the two teams have chosen to defend very different areas of the pitch. When Arsenal defend high up the pitch, they make their stand primarily in central areas. Saint-Étienne press very high and wide, but largely cede the center until the ball is close to their own penalty box. Arsenal are clear getting a very talented, very active center back. He can physical do it all, but that doesn’t mean that when he arrives a year from now, he’ll be ready and able to do it all for Arsenal.

João Félix, Player Profile

Something new that we’re going to try this season here at ye old StatsBomb is to give you some brief profiles of players or teams in the news. In addition to our regular stream of great in-depth content, we want to provide some relevant bite sized nuggets. Today, let’s take a look at the Atletico Madrid’s replacement for Antoine Griezmann, João Félix. His radar is well rounded, but not particularly impressive along any one particular axis. Considering his extremely young age, 0.45 xG per 90 minutes is certainly impressive, but it’s representative of a striker with potential, not one who is already elite. The mix of 3.43 shots per 90 and 0.13 xG per shot is a fine balance of shot volume and shot quality. It’s also important to note that João Félix isn’t a one trick goalscoring pony. He supplements his solid shot getting with 0.21 XG assisted per 90. One thing worth noting here is that these numbers were accrued in substantially less than a full season. This isn’t abnormal for a young player. But, he didn’t become a regular league starter until the end of January. The numbers are impressive, but they were established only over roughly half a season. As often happens with talented young prospects who garner a lot of attention, his goal scoring somewhat outran his xG, but the xG numbers themselves are very respectable. Would his price tag have been as high if he scored closer to eight or nine goals instead of 15? It’s possible he’d have moved for less, but those eight or nine goals on their own would themselves be quite impressive. Lastly, and maybe most importantly for Diego Simeone, João Félix is a willing and active defender. He was frequently tasked with covering a wing and gamely did so. Simeone’s system frequently employs two strikers but asks one to drop back and defend a wing, a role which his new young star will be more than equipped to deal with. Put it all together and you have a very young, very talented player arriving in Spain even if his goal scoring is slightly misleading. Whether or not his potential ultimately justifies his extremely lofty price tag, there’s a lot to like about João Félix.

A Sneak Peak at IQ Tactics + A Brief History of Radials/Sonars/Wagon Wheels in Soccer

Our summer project in StatsBomb IQ has been something I wanted to develop and release for more than 18 months now, but development work on the project was sidetracked by becoming a data company. Unintended consequences and all that jazz. Anyway, it looks like we will release this new section of StatsBomb IQ as a beta release next week and we are calling it IQ Tactics.  I’ll give you all some brief previews of the new module toward the end of this article, but first we’re going to talk about wagon wheels.

No, not THAT wagon wheel… these.

Why are we talking about wagon wheels? A fair question, and one I am glad you asked. The answer is partly because we have incorporated them into IQ Tactics for some good reasons, and partly because I’m a nerd who feels the need to cite and credit past examples and influences when producing new things.  So what is a wagon wheel? It’s a cricket vis that shows where batters have hit the ball around the pitch. You can use them to better place fielders, find batter tendencies, or for various and sundry other reasons specific to the game of cricket.

They make a lot of sense for cricket, because unlike nearly every other sport, cricket’s primary battles take place in one central spot of the pitch (okay, technically two) surrounded by a circular surface. Obviously football is played on a rectangular pitch and has no consistent central points of origin - why are we talking about this type of vis at all? Well, because passing data is a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. You can’t just map the data and have it make any sense because there is too much of it. This is sort of true for a single game, but especially true when it comes to mapping a high volume passer, or even a low volume team across a stretch of games or an entire season.

 



Here are maps of three different aggregations of passing data. Red represents one completed pass, yellow represents an incomplete one. The first map is Manchester City across a single game. The middle is Marco Verratti across the whole of last season. And the last one is Burnley from last year. As you can see, the last two kind of stretch our ability to make any sense of what is happening apart from the colors here suggesting that Marco Verratti is considerably better at completing his passes than… um… Burnley.
So what do you do? Well, lots of things are possible, but from a process perspective, you need to take all of this highly granular data and abstract it in a way that can be interpreted. Traditionally we use heat maps or zone maps to help here, but like all vis, these have their own strengths and weaknesses. These are zone maps from Engine Room in StatsBomb IQ. They allow us to compare passing tendencies when the ball gets to a particular position in the pitch. In this case, I’m comparing Manchester City and Cardiff City from last year.

This vis shows where the NEXT pass typically goes for both teams. Notice the difference between how often either team plays the ball wide vs central, or in Man City’s case, directly backward from the zone they are in.

And this vis shows where the buildup pass came from. An entertaining 4% of all passes played into the zone directly outside the 18-yard box for Cardiff City came directly from the GK, while practically none of the passes Man City played into that zone came from their own half. Good ol’ Neil Warnock, out there tacticsing the place up. Anyway, these are fine and zonal or topographical heat maps are probably better, but for our new module I wanted to explore the radial/wagon wheel/sonar vis style and see what we could do with that.  As noted before, football differs from cricket in that it has no fixed origin point, but what if you made the origin of the pass the central point of the vis, and then looked at all passes from that perspective? These types of plots have been around in football/soccer for quite some time.

The first time I remember seeing them was a link from Howard Hamilton pointing to some random Chelsea blog doing the visualisation work in Tableau. Now this was before I was doing any work in football analytics (I was in gambling back then), so I didn’t pay much attention other than to mentally note, “hey this thing exists,” before totally forgetting about it again. It turns out that piece was written by current interim editor-in-chief of SB Nation, Graham MacAree. Before he was being full-time obnoxious to Zito Madu (a noble cause, if ever there was one), Graham was creating unique data vis for Chelsea fans on We Ain’t Got No History. Two things continue to impress me about Graham’s foray into radial passing plots.

  1. He did this in 2011.
  2. The bloody thing STILL WORKS.


So yeah, Graham is very clever and has been for a very long time, and if you ask him, he will tell you all about it. The next time I remember seeing these types of vis were in David Sumpter’s FourFourTwo pieces circa 2015.


Sumpter took a zonal approach to wagon wheels on the pitch that he called a “distribution map.” Longer lines meant longer passes on average from that zone, and he used a black-to-white colour scheme to indicate how common passes were in each radian, with black meaning very common and white meaning uncommon. With Graham’s design, this colour scheme isn’t necessary, but the single line scheme quickly gets overwhelmed as the season progresses. The next iteration of these I saw came from Ben Torvaney in April 2016. He used radial shards from a single zone and analysed Middlesboro’s passing by game state to see how aggressive or conservative they had been. It’s a lovely wrinkle to the analysis and a very readable blog post.

The aforementioned Howard Hamilton circled back on these in late 2016 with a very faithful cricket-style vis.


Finally we get to Eliot McKinley’s work on Twitter and the American Soccer Analysis blog. The ASA guys have been quietly innovating different vis approaches for years - partly due to a willingness to just try shit and a lot because they are smart - and Eliot’s passing “sonars” are by far the most attractive version of the radial/wagon wheel vis that I have seen
. The initial ones I saw were the positional sonars like the one below…

I looked at this and started thinking about zonal versions like what Sumpter and Torvaney had done to help look at game model information to make things more easily interpretable. Discussion around the concept even ended up in my Barcelona Coaches Summit presentation.

So even though the vis wasn’t there yet, the application was now fairly clear in my mind. The idea stemmed back to some old work Oliver Gage described in writing about his coaches’ game model when he was an analyst at University of Virginia. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was ideas like, “How often did we get the ball into these various zones? What did we do when we got there? We need to pass the ball forward x% of the time when we get into these spaces in order to put pressure on the opponent and have a chance of success.” This felt like one of those situations that these types of plots was made for. Eliot also started doing zonal plots around the pitch, though he uses different size for his zones than we do at StatsBomb. For our own versions, we ended up using length of shard compared to league average for the spatial component (shard length) and then the colour component is just raw pass completion percentage as default. However, we’ve added a number of other options that may still see release for IQ users to tweak to their liking. We’re also keeping the name “sonars” out of respect for Eliot’s gorgeous work. He will tell you himself that he wasn’t the first to try this style of vis on passing data (and MacAree probably wasn’t either, he’s just the first I am aware of), but Eliot’s are certainly the best versions and he deserves the recognition. Though we may choose to give the throw-in specific “thrownars” a miss...

 



So these are seasonal sonars for passes made by Manchester City and Cardiff City. It's a heatmap scale where deep red is a very high level of completion and blue is a comparatively low completion percentage.
And then these are sonars for Man City’s passes (again) but the second image is passes from Manchester City’s opponents.

You can also do player seasonal sonars like this one for Lionel Messi, Barcelona 2018-19. We also can go from abstraction (with the sonars) to explicit data with a simple click of the button.


My tweet of Ederson’s goalkicks compared to PSG’s went viral last week while I was playing around with the new tool. Then came a flood of requests for other comparisons. Here are Ederson, Allison, and Manuel Neuer’s goalkick maps from last season.



Even when compared to other famous goalkeepers, Ederson - and how Manchester City use him - really is something else.
And the new Tactics tool can do this type of vis for any team or player, with dozens of potential filters added on. And this is just the sonars section, which is probably the smallest and least powerful part of the new release. *deep breath* This is already long, but I’ll give you just one more teaser of what's coming next week before I wrap up. Let’s say you wanted to look at Virgil van Dijk and those raking crossfield balls he plays for Liverpool. First you load up VVD’s profile. Then you click passes, and you select starting origin of his own half and ending origin of the wide zones on the pitch.  Voila!

Okay, now just show me the ones to Salah and Mane.  And finally… just show me the passes he made with his left foot compared to those made with VVD's right.


IQ Tactics will change how coaches and analysts work with data from a tactical and opposition scouting perspective. Our goal is to take this information and make it as simple and intuitive as possible to deliver insight that helps our customers win games. I helped design the thing and I still can’t quite wrap my head around all of the cool stuff it can do. It is genuinely that exciting.
Anyway, it goes into Beta release on the StatsBomb IQ platform next week for our customers. If you are interested in having a demo of the new toys AHEM tools, ping sales@statsbomb.com to get started.

--Ted Knutson CEO, StatsBomb ted@statsbomb.com

PostScript: If you find yourself wondering what can be done with IQ Tactics and the Messi. Data Biography, you are in good company.