Wagner hits all the right notes: How Schalke's new manager is conducting a soaring rise for last year's biggest Bundesliga disappointers

When Schalke edged Mainz on matchday five, thanks to Amine Harit’s excellent outside of the boot winner, they had made it three wins in a row and people in German football began to take notice. That sort of streak is not exactly what Schalke fans are used to. They won six in a row in the spring of Domenico Tedesco’s miraculous second place season. The Royal Blues also had just two two game winning “streaks” in a dismal last season that saw them gain 33 points from 34 matches. Even more impressively, they followed up that Mainz result with a 2-1 victory over then league leaders RB Leipzig. It was Schalke’s first win against a team in the top spot in 14 tries and now they are the talk of Germany. You see, Ruhrpott giants and one of the Bundesliga’s best-supported clubs, Schalke are a team of extremes, with little room for anything in-between.

Addition by squad subtraction

Schalke are now on their fourth permanent head coach in five seasons, David Wagner, the German-born American/Klopp best man of Huddersfield Town fame. Schalke have exhausted a range of coaching philosophies - going from Andre Breitenreiter to Markus Weinzierl to Domenico Tedesco and then, on an interim basis, Huub Stevens. RB Leipzig’s Jochen Schneider was appointed to the front office right around the time the team was bus getting thrashed 7-0 by Manchester City in the group stages of last season’s Champions League. He helped lead a squad overhaul along with long-time Bundesliga squad planner (with stints at both Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich) and now technical director, Michael Reschke. Reschke joined Schalke from Stuttgart over the summer, cleverly exercising a 15 million Euro buyout clause to bring with him 19-year-old Turkish center back phenom Ozan Kabak, who he originally signed for Stuttgart in January, then for Stuttgart. With just four minutes played so far in the league due to a preseason injury, it’s hard to call Kabak the catalyst to Schalke’s success and the same can be said of the speedy winger addition of Benito Raman (6.5m from Düsseldorf) who is scoreless in 192 minutes. The real addition, aside from the useful young English fullback Jonjoe Kenny, who has quickly nailed down the right back spot, has been via subtraction. First, there came the departures of the perennially disappointing/injured Breel Embolo (last seen missing chances at Gladbach)  and failed young guys like Hamza Mendyl - the speedy left back’s lasting memory will be Tedesco desperately throwing him on as a striker against Borussia Dortmund in the Revierderby in a move that makes FIFA novices shudder. Then, Schneider and Reschke tried to erased the overpaid reaches of former sporting director Christian Heidel. All in all Heidel spent 82.5 million on five players, whom Schalke was able to sell for 11.5 million (Embolo and Yevhen Konoplyanka) with Sebastian Rudy and Hamza Mendyl needing to go out on loan, and former Spurs player Nabil Bentaleb - rehabbing a knee injury - finding no takers in the summer. Of course, the balance sheet of Heidel isn’t all bad, as several of the current key Schalke players were brought in under his tenure. There is the versatile Benjamin Stambouli, who settled in at center back, and the rejuvenated Omar Mascarell who, thanks to David Wagner’s transition into a pressing oriented system,is slowly recapturing his form in the number six role that caught the eye of many in Niko Kovac’s Frankfurt. Also, in six games so far, Suat Serdar's production has simply exploded with almost every single aspect of the 22 year-old's game exploding. He also looked like the best player on the pitch against Leipzig. The star of the bunch is of course Amine Harit, whom our Sam Planting identified as recapturing his 2017\18 early season magic. Far be it for me to rub salt into those very open Dortmund wounds (yes, we SHOULD be worried about BVB), but many in Gelsenkirchen still fondly recall the time when Harit came on in the 32nd minute down 4-0 to BVB and turned the game around with his dribbling and ability to draw fouls, leading to one of the most remarkable 4-4 draws in recent memory. Even if his goalscoring cools down and he stops scoring all his shots inside the box, Schalke’s transition-heavy attack can rely on his individual ability to draw fouls (the penalty against Leipzig) and Serdar’s improved ball progression to at least generate something.

Wagner focuses on playing without the ball

Wagner’s Schalke still defines itself primarily against the ball. Having abandoned the 5-3-2, they now play a flexible 4-2-3-1 with some high and intense counterpressing, often with 7-8 players on the ball side. The more aggressive defensive approach has, so far, improved the sides overall performance. It remains relatively early days, so things can change rapidly, but the defensive heatmap from Schalke this season shows a lot of action all over the pitch. Last season Schalke's defensive approach was considerably less high action. The front of the 4-2-3-1 features Guido Burgstaller, yet another player who has benefited tremendously from Wagner's arrival. That said, goal scorer remains a problematic position. Nobody on this team is close to Burgstaller's xG total. And this comes after last season where there was very little in the way of goal scoring threat anywhere on the squad. Wagner has shown some excellent tactical creativity by dusting off and playing little-used Rabbi Matondo at second striker. In what looked like a narrow 4-4-2, (perhaps a 4-3-1-2 with Harit behind the strikers), the Welshman’s pace gave their counters another dimension against Leipzig, and left Nagelsmann befuddled. Matondo walked away with five shots, a goal and 0.88 xG. Still, given the attacking struggles though, it's no wonder the excellent fellas over at Schalkemerica have started the #freeKutucu movement, in an effort to play the 19-year-old Turkish striker, about whom Manchester City inquired in the summer. Behind the striker, Wagner has played former right back Daniel Caligiuri as a traditionally dribbling and pressing winger on the right, though his performances have not been great. On the left, there is Amine Harit, who can move into the ten spot, but also take Benito Raman’s spot as a creative inverted winger on the left. Aside from the aforementioned goals, creativity and dribbling, Harit is also a functional defensive contributor. Raise your hand, if you had Harit - the same player who was banned from a Duisburg casino in January for “his own good” - as a natural fit at winger for a team implementing an intense counterpressing system. At the ten/eight spots they alternate two incredibly dynamic and versatile players in Serdar and Weston McKennie, who is equally capable of pressing as a second striker, as he is at joining Mascarell in the double pivot. With that kind of organization, positional flexibility, intensity and athleticism, Schalke can hold a lot of teams for big spurts. That includes Bayern, who even tried a funky use of  David Alaba as a false full back alongside the now regular number six Joshua Kimmich, but were for large portions of the game, unable to break through the Royal Blues pressing. https://twitter.com/BundesPL/status/1165929569460924416?s=20 And of course, Leipzig, whose XG flatlined after Nübel’s double save on Forsberg and Sabitzer in the 16th, with the Austrian shattering the crossbar a minute earlier. In terms of their attacking structure, Wagner plays with 2 center backs and when pressed by two strikers like against Paderborn, Omar Mascarell drops in between them. Yet, due to some structural issues (Serdar\McKennie don’t always get into proper receiving position) and particularly Salif Sané’s risk averse passing, their ball progression from the back, is still a work in progress. It consists mostly of Stambouli’s usually excellent long passes, or a hoofed ball under pressure by the goalkeeper, Alexander Nübel, which if Burgstaller is able to control or lay off can work, considering the athleticism of Harit/Raman/McKennie/Caligiuri/Serdar. Otherwise, Schalke aim to progress the ball through switches to free up one of the fullbacks who then plays a one two with the 8s\ and either bombs down the flank or finds Amine Harit to create something. Under Wagner, set pieces have reappeared as an integral part of the game plan, with three goals on 18 shots. That’s almost half of the  6 goals on 122 shots last season and one direct free kick goal on 18 tries. It’s not quite at the otherworldly 14 (!!) goals on 100 shots plus 2 direct free kicks in the silver medal season under Tedesco, but they're clearly getting results. The dynamic is somewhat complicated. Their set piece xG is not all that impressive, in fact at 0.25 per match it's the seventh lowest in the league. But that's mostly down to a lack of opportunities. The three shots per match they're averaging from set pieces is one of the lowest totals in the league. They team seems to do good set piece work when they have the chance to, they could just benefit from more chances.

Cooling the hype train with numbers

Amidst all the positivity, there is some cause to be cautious, though that word is not exactly a household item in the Gelsenkirchen area.  There is the fact that before the Leipzig triumph, 3 victories came against Hertha Paderborn and Mainz, three of the four lowest ranked Bundesliga teams. The 3-0 over Hertha was with the help of two own goals and it took nearly 270 minutes for Jonjoe Kenny to finally score the first goal by an actual Schalke player.  The numbers, albeit improved from a dismal last season that saw them way underperform, also should cool some of the Schalke hype: shots against is down from 13.26 to 12.5, a respectable seventh in the league and non-penalty xG against is down from 1.25 to 1.08. the fourth best Bundesliga mark. Pair that with a 1.31 xG per match tally on the attacking side of the ball and you get a 0.23 xG difference. That's good, but it's not third place good. Still, thirteen points from six games is an amazing and unexpected haul considering they were without a point in their first five matches last year. The reality of this team falls somewhere between the two extremes of 14th and second place in the previous two campaigns. The good news from a Schalke perspective is that neither last year’s signing Mark Uth, nor the new ones in Raman and Kabak have added much. Before matchday six, the top three looked like Bayern, Leipzig and BVB in some order, but as Dortmund continue to be extremely worrying there are some other candidates: Leverkusen and Gladbach appear to be righting the ship after getting spanked by BVB and Leipzig and failing in Europe, while Wolfsburg shipped the fewest xG against (non-Bayern Munich division) Then, there is Schalke who could sneak in the back door despite having, in late August, a higher chance of being relegated than making the Champions Leagie, according to fivethirtyeight.com.  With four of the next five against struggling Cologne, Hoffenheim, Augsburg and Düsseldorf their slow climb up the table just might become an all out sprint.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association 

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After years of instability, Nottingham Forest may finally be on the right track

Will this be Forest’s season? Since 2011, not a season has gone by at Nottingham Forest in which the manager in charge at the start of the season has been the same manager who has finished it. The routine consequences of employing 13 permanent managers in an eight-year period could be predicted by most: a muddled squad acquired for multiple different blueprints, and little sense of a tactical identity. Even the summer sacking of Martin O’Neill and same-day appointment of his successor came with a side dish of chaos given that the decision was made as late as June 28th, precisely one day before Forest’s first pre-season friendly. The current incumbent of one of the hottest seats in football management, Sabri Lamouchi, has been handed a one-year contract and the same remit as his predecessors: finish in the top six or else. Not only did Lamouchi have less than 24 hours before selecting his first XI as the new head coach, he also had to contend with choosing from a squad that had become severely bloated and contained as many as 39 professionals. Probably with the length of contract in mind and with the blessing of those above him, he swiftly chose a group of players to work with and cast aside the remainder, instructing the players not in his plans to train at a separate time from his desired group and to seek transfers away from the club. All of this is relevant because it’s under those circumstances that Forest have returned a W4-D3-L1 record from their opening eight league games to leave them sitting in 6th; their sole defeat coming on the opening day against West Brom, while trips to Leeds, Swansea and Fulham, as difficult as they come in the Championship, returning seven points. What is a tricky start to the season by any measure has led to a platform for the East Midlands club to build upon and a sense of optimism is now quietly brewing in those parts.

A Clear Impact

Lamouchi must be as clear-cut and concise in his coaching as he has been in making those off-pitch decisions. There are already transparent patterns in Forest’s play both on and off the ball. They’ve settled into a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-1-1 with the playing principles remaining largely identical in either shape, the only real difference being the use of a single or double pivot to anchor the midfield. It’s their work out of possession where Forest have really caught the eye so far. There’s already a clear impression of Forest’s organisation in their press, often sitting in and allowing the opposition to come onto them up to the halfway line but, almost like a switch gets flicked, launch into a much more aggressive and intense effort to win the ball back once the opposition build into Forest territory. The formation naturally lends itself to this approach given the lack of forwards available to press the centre backs but also the coverage it has in both central and wide areas. The three central midfielders work with cohesion to execute the press when the ball gets moved through the central channels, whilst the wide men are equally important in their contribution to locking down the flanks. Forest’s wingers are regularly seen doubling up with their full back in an effort to successfully turn possession over or at least force the opponent to play the ball backwards. Their defensive organisation is not only compelling to watch though, it also turns up some intriguing trends in the data. First of all, Forest are rock bottom in the Championship for Defensive Distance – the average distance from a team’s own goal that it performs defensive actions – with the scarcity with which they’ll defend from the front showing clearly in this metric. They perform defensive actions closer to their own goal than any other team in the league. As you might expect of a side so keen to engage and disrupt the opposition when in their defensive third, Forest are also successfully limiting the quality of chances their opponents are able to create. They’re actually around mid-table for the amount of shots they’ve conceded so far – a shade over 12 per game – but the quality of those has been quelled and the average expected conversion rate of the chances they’re allowing is just seven percent, which is third best in their league. If we look at the distribution of those shots, we can see more clearly how they’ve kept this figure down. The Reds simply don’t concede clear cut chances. In eight games they’ve conceded a mere six opportunities that have an expected conversion rate of 20% or higher. If I remind you again that they’ve already played away at Leeds, whose dominance has already been covered on this site, and recently relegated Fulham, who boast a front three that are arguably the cream of the division in Ivan Cavaleiro, Aleksandar Mitrović and Anthony Knockaert, then it becomes even more impressive. It sounds like management-speak to say that the star performer of Forest’s season so far has been the team, but it is largely true. Two of the more impressive individuals though have been in central midfield with Ben Watson, enjoying a late-career resurgence, receiving plaudits for his all-round game and intelligence in locking down the central area in front of his defence, and summer signing Samba Sow who’s really embodied what Lamouchi’s Reds are about. Sow, once he’s identified his target, has the defensive approach akin to that of a homing missile. It’s clear that Forest’s best work comes when not in possession of the ball and their work in this area offers them a strong base to build from. What will be interesting is how well they can maintain their success if they continue to do well and start coming up against teams that are as happy to sit in as they are. They should be reassured that Lamouchi’s work on the training ground isn’t just limited to making them a cohesive unit without the ball as they’ve seemingly been putting the hours in to make them proficient at set plays too, a factor that could prove decisive in matches that are closely fought. Currently the Reds have created 0.36 xG per game from set play situations whilst conceding just 0.11 xG per game at the other end, figures that are both top four compared against their league rivals. Slightly less impressive is their output at the attacking end of the pitch, but it’s fair to argue that matters less when a) they’re keeping it locked down on the defensive end and b) they’ve had a tough schedule and Lamouchi isn’t a miracle worker.  The amount of shots Forest take per game (a shade under 12) is much closer to league average and it’s a similar story with the amount of Expected Goals they’ve created, which is currently ninth highest in the league. They’re quite happy getting forward by playing through the thirds or by transitioning quickly on the counter attack but one clear trend to their attacking play is their proclivity to move the ball out wide as their primary means of creating chances: their Box Cross % - the percentage of penalty box entries that originate from a cross - is 34%, a figure that is joint sixth highest in England’s second tier. Not only tenacious in his protection of the backline, Watson’s importance again comes to the fore when watching how Forest build their attacks. He often drops in to receive the ball from centre halves Michael Dawson or Joe Worrall, both products of the Reds’ youth academy albeit in different eras. The experienced midfielder then looks to circulate the play and waits for the right time to progress the ball to a more creative outlet within the Forest side, something clearly visible when looking at Watson’s passes that originate from his own half, often moving the ball out wide or into one of his midfield partners who’ve moved beyond the opposition’s midfield line. Watson works mostly in deeper areas but further forward it’s Joe Lolley, responsible for 22 combined goals and assists last season, who’s probably most important to Forest’s ability to get into the final third and in creating chances once they’re there, though the burden on him to produce decisive moments in the final third appears to have lessened this season. A member of England’s university and semi-professional teams before he made his breakthrough into the professional game, Lolley is constant in his desire to pick up the ball and drive up the right flank and has so far completed 87% of his dribbles and carries that end in the opposition half in his eight league appearances. Experienced Championship campaigner Lewis Grabban has played every minute up front in the league and will be relied upon to provide clinical finishing to the end of Forest’s attacking moves if they’re to succeed this season, with their defensive base providing what should be a solid platform to pick results up from, if they maintain this level of performance. All in, it’s a promising start for the Tricky Trees with Sabri Lamouchi making a compelling early case to be the first manager for eight seasons to stay in the Forest managerial hotseat from season’s start to season’s end. But it’s top six or else.

Three early breakout stars of the Bundesliga season

Elk nadeel heeft zijn voordeel. Translation: every disadvantage has an advantage. It was one of the many, many Dutch sayings coined by the greatest footballer and football-mind the country has ever known, Johan Cruijff. A saying that currently is applicable to the situation wherein the Bundesliga finds itself. The glory days of 2013, when Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund faced off in the Champions League, and 2014, the year in which the German national team became Weltmeister in convincing fashion, seem like the distant past. The Bundesliga clubs, excluding Bayern - although, even they have not been great these past few editions - have struggled to make their mark in the final stages of the Champions League recently. The financial gap with the Premier League clubs and the mainstays from Spanish La Liga is not being bridged either. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that a scenario like last year’s Champions League (no German club in the quarter finals) or like the edition of 2017-18 (not a single non-Bayern team from the Bundesliga present in the knockout stages) will occur once more. A scenario that would be deemed impossible, just a few years ago. But, there’s a reason I started this article with a quote the great JC. Because with adversity comes opportunity. While the Bundesliga might not be the best league in terms of general level of play right now, it has a good claim on the title of ‘most trustworthy talent-factory of European top football’. Just take a look at the rosters at the very top: almost every elite team has a few Bundesliga alumni amongst their most important players. So, with that said, it seems like a sensible idea to take a quick look at the newest crop of breakout players in this year’s Bundesliga. International stars like Heung-Min Son, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Leroy Sané took their first steps to full-blown stardom in the German league - a scenario that the players below also hope for.

Zack Steffen (24), Fortuna Düsseldorf

For those among you who follow Major League Soccer closely, Steffen’s very rapid emergence in the Bundesliga will come as less of a surprise. The USMNT goalie - one of the handful of U.S. national players who is up to par for an internationally adequate level - was rather impressive at Columbus Crew the past few seasons. That's why Manchester City paid a pretty lofty sum (8 million euros) for a buy-and-stash goalkeeper. The fans of Fortuna Düsseldorf are most likely thrilled with the one-year loan of Steffen. He posted a whopping total of ten saves on his debut, a game in which Fortuna rode Steffen’s cat-like reflexes to a surprising 1-3 away win. After five match-weeks, Steffen already seems to have an insurmountable lead in save totals amongst Bundesliga keepers: he has already tallied 33 saves, which gives him a 14 save lead to the second most-active shot topper in Germany’s top league. Looking at the more advanced stats, Steffen comes off looking, if possible, even better. He's saved almost five goals more than an average keeper might be expected to. That's the best mark in the league. If instead of raw numbers, we look at percentages, Steffen's 79.5% save percentage is 12.2% higher than expected given the profile of the shots on goal he's faced. That's the third highest gap in the league. Anyway you look at it, Steffen is playing his face off. It is at least worth noting, in the face of this amazing form, that during Steffen's last season at MLS his save % was actually lower by 5.1% than expectations. Düsseldorf, who deploy a fairly direct, counter-attacking playing style, are currently giving up a whopping total of 17,6 shots against per game, so Steffen will have a lot of opportunities to showcase his array of skills. The American shot-stopper’s main calling-card are his reflexes - Steffen could develop into one of Europe’s premier ‘line keepers’ - but he also impresses when the ball is at his feet, displaying pretty nifty ball-control and a really nice long ball. Steffen’s ‘floor’ seems to be a future wherein he is a very solid back-up for Ederson Moraes at Manchester City. But, if this form continues, he already seems to be a little too good to stand in someone else’s shadow, and only play in ten to 15 cup games a year.

Amine Harit (22), Schalke 04

This breakout is one that is near and dear to my heart. In 2017/18, when Schalke somehow clawed itself to a shocking league finish in second place under the guidance of Domenico Tedesco, the Moroccan dribbling machine regularly showed glimpses of future superstardom. But then, Schalke went full Schalke last season. The Königsblauen, the Royal Blues of Gelsenkirchen, filled their 2018/19 campaign with more personal drama than any given high-school drama currently filling up Netflix. With results falling flat early, Tedesco tightened up his already opponent-focused playing style, before his tenure ended amidst some very Schalke-esque muddiness. Harit was already slumping, but when Schalke turned to Huub Stevens, the most old school of football oldheads, in times of crisis, the Moroccan’s season crashed. Harit played in a grand total of nine minutes in Schalke’s last five league games of the 2018/19 season. The arrival of former Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner in Gelsenkirchen has revived Harit’s play. Wagner’s switch in playing system - the 5-3-2 formation of the past two seasons has been replaced by a more traditional 4-2-3-1 - and bigger roles in midfield for the talented Suat Serdar and the ever-energetic Omar Mascarell, have had a really positive effect on Harit, who plays as an inverted winger on the left side. In six competitive games for Schalke this year, Harit has already scored three goals - including a very juicy side-footed game-winner from distance last weekend (2-1 against Mainz) - tallied two assists, and won a penalty. Clearly Harit is benefiting from a finishing hot streak, but if we take one step back and look at his dribbling we see where he really shines. Only Jadon Sancho and Leon Bailey are averaging more completed dribbles per 90 minutes (out of players who have played more than 200 minutes) after five Bundesliga games than Harit's 3.90. And, as we can see from this map of all his carries, he's a frequent and secure mover with the ball at his feet.  

Gonçalo Paciência (25), Eintracht Frankfurt

Last year, Eintracht Frankfurt - a club with a huge amount of fans, but a perennial mid-tier inhabitant (at best) in the standings - almost finished in a Champions League spot, thanks in large part to their super threesome of attackers: Sébastien Haller, Luka Jovic and Ante Rebic. Selling Haller (West Ham) and Jovic (Real Madrid) this summer already made Frankfurt about 100 millions euros, with Rebic currently loaned out at AC Milan. There’s no way that Frankfurt had another hugely undervalued, complete striker on their roster, last season, right? Right? RIGHT? Errhmm. Yeah, Gonçalo Paciência is good, y’all. Really good. The Portuguese striker is a clinical finisher, a strong aerial presence, and surprisingly calm and smart as a passer. While his goal scoring is a little ahead of his xG, of 0.43 per 90 minutes is perfectly respectable. And, also pretty important when playing for a Bundesliga club, he works his ass off in pressing the opposing build-up all over the pitch. Frankfurt bought Paciência last summer at a bargain price, as well. FC Porto agreed to a transfer fee of 3 million euros. Paciência, who has scored three and assisted one in both the Bundesliga and Europa League this season, will make Frankfurt another fortune in the near future. The recent recruitment successes of Die Adler with sporting director Fredi Bobic at the helm will have a strengthening effect on the club in the long term. In the short term, they are mostly felt in the form of loads of goals by strikers bought on the cheap.

La Liga's newly promoted sides are all up for the survival challenge

Eleven of the last 15 teams promoted to La Liga have managed to secure a second season in the top flight, and Granada, Mallorca and Osasuna have all started the new campaign in a manner that suggests that they, too, are going to make a decent fist of doing so. Their current league positions and goal differences vary considerably, but ahead of the midweek round of fixtures, all three of them had carried positive expected goal (xG) differences through their opening five matches of the campaign.

Granada

Granada were up in third at end of the weekend on the back of three wins, one draw and one defeat, and the fifth-best xG difference in the division. They’d already been quietly impressive before Saturday’s 2-0 win at home to Barcelona thrust them into the limelight. Deservedly so. After taking an early lead, they limited their opponents to eight shots that only added up to 0.51 xG. Barcelona didn’t even get an effort on target in open play until the 82nd minute. The club’s promotion campaign was built upon a sturdy defensive unit that conceded just 28 times, and they are yet to lose by more than a single goal across Diego Martínez’s 47 matches at the helm. That will again be the foundation of any success they enjoy in the top flight; all three of their victories to date have been to nil. But their performances have also made it clear that they are a team capable of varying their approach according to the circumstances of each match. Martínez has said that he wants his team to be chameleonic. That was one of a number of words he scrawled on the dressing room whiteboard prior to the match against Barcelona. Others, equally apt, included: cohesive, competitive, intelligent, dynamic, compact, brave. “Playing well means being flexible and having the necessary organisation to respond appropriately to whatever a match demands of you,” he explained. That was certainly evident against Barcelona. Granada were equally comfortable pressing further up the pitch in the first half: GranadaPressuresFirstHalfBarcelona As they were in a largely deeper block after the break: GranadaPressuresBarcelonaSecondHalf Going forward, Granada have a pair of able shot creators in Antonio Puertas and Darwin Machís and are getting off a solid 12.2 shots per match (seventh-highest in the league), even if a fair number of them (a league second-high 4.60 per match) come from outside the area. In Ángel Montoro, they possess a pretty slick ball progressor, especially in transition. Angel Montoro Slick Progression vs. Barcelona Granada have also taken full advantage of set-piece situations. In an admittedly small sample size, they lead the league in terms of both goals and xG from set-pieces (with Montoro their regular taker). Being good at attacking set-pieces doesn’t always transfer to defending them. They require different skillsets, and it isn’t as easy to hide players with concentration issues on defence. But Granada have been equally impressive there. Again in a low sample size, they have the third-best record in the division in terms of xG conceded from set pieces. LaLigaSPxGCRound5 It is early days yet, and no one at Granada will be getting carried away. But they’ve shown themselves to have a varied enough toolbox to suggest they can make a good fight of remaining in the top flight.

Osasuna

In his blue jeans and navy blue t-shirt with red, four-point star emblem, Osasuna coach Jagoba Arrasate dresses as if on his way to a heavy metal rock concert. His team play at a similar amplitude. Theirs is high-octane, physical football, based around a 4-4-2 formation, a cross-heavy attack and a determined mid-block press, especially on home soil. Osasuna dropped just four points at their atmospheric El Sadar stadium during their promotion campaign and are unbeaten there to date in the top flight following draws with Eibar, Barcelona (who, like Granada, they limited to just eight shots and under half a goal of xG) and Real Betis. Overall, their underlying numbers are similar to those of Granada, just slightly worse in attack and slightly better in defence. Amongst the league, they carried the sixth-best xG difference through the first five fixtures. By taking better shots than those they’ve conceded, they’ve been able to convert an equal shot difference into a 0.40 xG difference. If they can sustain solid defensive numbers -- you’d expect them to drift upwards from their current mark of 0.59 xG conceded per match, but as I’ve said before, this might just prove to be an abnormally cautious season -- Arrasate’s side should have enough going forward to maintain a positive balance. Osasuna’s attacks are almost exclusively rapid ones down the flanks and into the channels. Notice the almost complete lack of central interplay in this pass map from their 0-0 home draw against Betis on Friday. (Red = completed pass; Yellow = incomplete pass) OsasunaPassMapvsBetis A league third-high 39% of their penalty box entries to date have come from crosses. Those are usually considered a pretty inefficient way of creating good-quality chances, but they do also have some players capable of varying things, including Chimy Ávila, one of the fastest players in La Liga and a constant menace both in and out of possession. The shots he gets you aren’t always of the best quality, but he generates, often off his own back, a good number of them: 3.69 per 90 at Huesca last season; 3.16 per 90 at Osasuna. He’s also capable of moments of creativity that add imagination to an otherwise functional attack. ChimyAvilaImagination

Mallorca

Mallorca are back in the top flight following two consecutive promotions, the second achieved with a rousing comeback to overturn a two-goal first-leg deficit and defeat Deportivo La Coruña in the playoff final towards the end of June. They only finished fifth in the Segunda last season, so had more ground to make up than Osasuna and Granada. They’ve also made a less impressive start to the season, particularly in terms of results. They were just outside the bottom three ahead of the midweek fixtures following one win, one draw and three defeats, although their underlying numbers do paint a more promising picture. While not quite as good as those of the other promoted teams, a 0.23 xG difference through their opening five matches was the eighth-best mark in the league. Conceding four penalties, three of which were converted, certainly conditioned their top-line results. Mallorca’s summer transfer work was focused on adding shots to their attack and quality to their midfield. In attack, Yannis Salibur averaged over three shots per 90 at both Guingamp and Saint-Étienne in Ligue 1, while Cucho Hernández, signed on loan from Watford, managed 3.12 per 90 for a relegated Huesca side last season; in midfield, Aleix Febas was a good free pickup, while Real Madrid loanee Takefusa Kubo brings talent as well as clear commercial opportunities -- he has already made Mallorca the most watched Spanish team in his native Japan. Hernández is a particularly interesting signing. He got into positions to score far more than the two non-penalty goals (plus a further two from the spot) he grabbed at Huesca last season. Unless he turns out to be a historically bad finisher, he has the potential to be a very useful addition once he returns from injury. CuchoHernandezShotMap1819 To date, with Ante Budimir, another summer purchase, leading the attack, Mallorca have created better opportunities than their tally of four goals would perhaps suggest. While they have occasionally had problems moving the ball cleanly out of defence and through midfield into attack -- Iddrissu Baba had a particularly poor match in that regard in their weekend defeat to Getafe -- they have enough firepower up there if that can be rectified. MallorcaShotMap1920R5 The interesting thing to keep an eye on with Mallorca will be the degree to which coach Vicente Moreno rigidly sticks to the formula that led them to consecutive promotions. While both Granada and Osasuna appear to be teams who are comfortable defending at various distances from their goal, Mallorca have a more set and passive defensive scheme. They defend deeper than the league average, while only three teams have allowed more passes per defensive action (a solid measure of aggressiveness out of possession). That has so far proved less effective in containing opponents and also means they create fewer turnovers in good areas from which to launch counters. They are bottom of the league in counter-attacking shots and rank third-bottom on shots emerging from a high press. That won’t necessarily be a problem if they can find ways of getting their creative midfielders and shot-generating forwards on the ball in good positions from more extended possessions, but they do have the personnel to adopt a slightly more proactive off-ball style if their current approach doesn’t yield results.

Stats of Interest

How bad have Barcelona been away from home this season? Pretty bad (and it would look even worse had Athletic not gifted Luis Suárez a 0.59 xG chance with an errant back pass): BarcelonaAwayShots1920 Next up this weekend, a Getafe side who conceded just 4.8 shots per match through the first five rounds -- comfortably the lowest mark across the major European leagues. “We’ve had six goals scored against us this season despite barely allowing shots on target,” coach Pepe Bordalás said after their 4-2 win over Mallorca. That much is true. They’ve only given up 11 shots on target. But the shots they have conceded have had the best average quality in the league. GetafeShotsConceded1920R5 Most shots without a goal to show for it so far this season. Step forward Rubén Rochina (who should perhaps take a few more steps forward before shooting): RubenRochinaShots1920R5   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Can Leicester City Gatecrash the Top Six Party?

If any football club knows about breaking the hegemony of the top sides, it’s Leicester. Cast your minds back to the ancient days of summer 2019. Things were simpler back then. The days were longer. The weather was warmer. There was a consensus about an emerging “chasing pack” of teams capable of challenging the Premier League’s top six. Wolves, Everton, Leicester and West Ham were all seen as having a real chance of breaking in. Some even put Watford among that group. Cut to late September and we’ve seen some differences in fortunes. Wolves and Watford sit at 19th and 20th in the table. They’re both capable of turning things, but a midtable finish would look like a positive right now. Everton also look like they can shake off some early season rust, but it does seem as though there are concerns in that side. West Ham find themselves with an impressive 11 points, but there are concerns in the numbers. Their 10.70 expected goals conceded is the second worst in the division, while 7.51 xG on the attacking side is only league average. The Hammers should be pleased with their start, but it feels like their midfield solidity questions have not been answered satisfactorily. So that leaves us with Leicester. The Foxes find themselves third in the table and the thing to note is that they haven’t had a gentle schedule. The club have already faced three of the “official” top six, with a very reasonable four points from those games. A tough start to the season obviously necessitates a more defensive minded approach, and Leicester have defended very well so far. Things have gone their way a touch, but their 5.35 xG conceded is currently the fourth best in the league. Of course, there have been payoffs at the other end, with Leicester’s 6.46 xG on the attacking side looking below average, though this has a chance to shift when the fixture list eases up. This feels like a conscious choice on the part of manager Brendan Rodgers. While the image of the Northern Irishman for many is of the high scoring, high conceding Liverpool side of 2013/14, he is ultimately a chameleon, borrowing tactics from elsewhere and implementing them quickly before other sides catch on and find solutions. While much of Leicester’s most exciting football has come with James Maddison and Youri Tielemans playing in front of Wilfried Ndidi in a midfield three, Rodgers has opted to shift Maddison wide this year and add the extra solidity of Hamza Choudhury for four of this year’s six games. Choudhury is a solid defender, but his threat on the ball remains extremely limited and he thus mostly opts to simply recycle possession. Rodgers’ solution to this has been to instruct Choudhury to move to a left sided role while in possession, with Maddison moving in to become a number ten. This obviously allows Maddison to become much more involved in the attacking phase while minimising the number of times Choudhury has to touch the ball. The passmap against Manchester United shows it well, with Choudhury taking touches in much wider areas despite nominally playing a more central role than Maddison. It’s not obvious whether this fixes the problem or simply moves it around. Yes, it ensures Maddison is the most involved creator, but it means Leicester essentially sacrifice any attacking threat from a left winger to do so. When Maddison or Tielemans receive the ball as the team is attacking, they now only have two obvious outlets making runs into the box: Jamie Vardy or whoever is playing on the right wing. In terms of Vardy, the past year or so has shown him continue to defy father time and produce a good volume of shots in dangerous locations. That hasn’t happened as much this year (his xG per 90 is an underwhelming 0.25), but it can perhaps be excused due to Leicester’s generally defensive approach. When looking at his shot map, the thing that stands out is just how many of his chances are still from through balls. It would be hard to do that if he had physically declined in a big way. And Leicester need him to make those runs to receive through balls, because they’re not getting a lot from the right. Ayoze Perez has been played there most frequently, and it’s fair to say he’s not interpreting the role in the most exciting way. He’s taken all of five shots so far for just 0.3 expected goals, but you can’t say he’s not working hard. It takes the midfield radar to show just how much effort he’s putting in on the defensive side: For whatever reason, Rodgers made the decision to concentrate on defensive stoutness in the opening part of the season. But some hope has come recently for a more progressive football. Leicester returned to starting Maddison and Tielemans as free eights in the win against Tottenham, with Harvey Barnes and Perez wide. The passmap below shows how willing Maddison and Tielemans were to push up, making it a genuine 4-1-4-1 in possession. That Rodgers was willing to role this out against a “big” team like Tottenham shows a bravery that has been lacking previously this season. That it worked should hopefully encourage him to do it again. The Tielemans/Maddison axis has been a real positive of Rodgers’ time at the King Power Stadium, and it would be frustrating to see Choudhury continually shoehorned in. Maddison in particular looks like he’s on the cusp of a breakout season. There are still questions about his tactical role, and it feels like Rodgers is more likely to encourage him to flourish than try to teach him a stricter positional understanding. This could hurt him later in his career (see: Coutinho, Philippe), but for now, it’s hard to deny that he’s awfully exciting to watch in full flight. When looking at his profile compared to last season, it definitely seems like he's enjoying the freedom. And the reason Leicester are able to compensate for Maddison’s chaotic nature, even when Choudhury isn’t on the pitch, is just how much work Ndidi manages to get through. He knows what his job is in this team. He does it. A lot. There’s not much more to it than that. The biggest question for Leicester is whether Rodgers will trust Ndidi to just do his thing here. We haven’t seen a lot of new signing Dennis Praet yet, but it seems like the idea is for him to play the Choudhury role with a little more threat on the ball, and that would be a shame. On the attacking side of the ball, Leicester have the balance right with two central creators in Maddison and Tielemans, and two direct running wide players either side of Vardy. Swapping out a runner for a more patient central midfielder like Praet or Choudhury can make the side too slow in the build up, and lead to periods of stale possession. This is a fine option in certain situations, but shouldn’t be the primary tactic. Rodgers is a fidgety manager. Every time he seems to have settled on something, even something that’s working really well, he gets bored and changes it. He came up with a core shape straight away at the King Power, but has subsequently tweaked it to add more midfield solidity. It’s a strange tradeoff that seems to play against the strengths of the side. As the season goes on, he will certainly play around with the system some more, but this could be a positive for Leicester. He’s built himself a flexible squad of players who can fill a variety of roles, and it’s likely we’ll see all manner of formations this year. Rodgers’ methods tend to maximise players’ output for the first year or two before he starts to run out of solutions, so that would suggest this year is the window for Leicester. It would only take one of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Tottenham to fail to solve any of their problems and have a poor season for a top six spot to really open up. That, combined with Leicester keeping it together, would be the recipe for a very successful season for the Foxes.

AC Milan can't score, Domenico Berardi can, and other early Serie A stories to watch

Remember the old catenaccio cliché? The first four matchdays of the Serie A saw 123 goals in 40 games, the start with the most goals since 1950/51. A total of 24 games ended with at least three goals scored, 14 with at least four. In the five major European leagues, only the Bundesliga has a higher goal per game average (3.24) than Serie A (3.08). The fight for the title seems more open than ever and matches have been full of goals, open till the last minute and really entertaining to watch. But, other than there have been loads of goals, what do the numbers tell us? Four games is a tiny sample in football in which the schedule could introduce a significant bias and it is still too early to judge the many teams that have changed manager during the summer.  Despite their dubious statistical significance, there are already some early trends that deserve to be highlighted and that in some cases are going on since last season. 

Bologna are the best team in the league, but not for long 

Unfortunately for them, in recent times Bologna have regained the spotlight after the announcement of the medical condition of their coach Sinisa Mihajlović. Despite his illness, the Serbian coach decided to keep his job and continue building on the excellent work he did last season. Last season, Mihajlovic replaced Filippo Inzaghi as Bologna coach in January, when they were seriously in trouble. Yet, not only did he managed to get them out of the relegation zone, but he gained an unexpected 10th place finish. The former coach of Sampdoria literally reversed the fate of Bologna as confirmed by the manifest reversal in the team xG trend. Bologna also brought in reinforcements over the summer to look to capitalize on last season's strong finish and in beginning of the season things have continued to get better. Their performance has improved so much that we could easily consider them the best Italian team after four games, even though they collected “just” seven points.  So far just the stellar Guardiola’s Manchester City (3.02) and Borussia Dortmund (2.14) recorded a higher non-penalty expected goals per game average than Bologna (1.92) in the top-5 European Leagues. Yes, read it twice if you don’t believe it. And if set pieces were key in the rise of Bologna's since Mihajlovic's return (they scored nine out of 24 goals this way), this season, while dead balls continue to be important (0.31 xG per game), the Rossoblu are also building a lot of chances in open play. They lead the league in open-play xG (1.61 per game) and xG per shot (0.12). For now, Mihajlovic's team has not even managed to collect as much as it could, since it scored only five goals compared to the 7.75 xG generated. In this regard, it's fair to say that Bologna lacks a reliable finisher. Last season Federico Santander was exceptional at converting headers (3.37 xG, 5 npg) but way below average with every other body part (5.00 xg, 3 npg), and despite an early 27% increase in his shots per 90 average (now at 3.81), his shot quality is too low to suddenly turn him in a 15-goal per season striker. Mattia Destro is not exactly a striker you could rely on for an entire season, although he scored four goals with just 12 shots in 2018/19. Indeed, so far 37-year-old Rodrigo Palacio is the only striker to score at least once. In the long run this could become a serious problem, unless Mihajlovic finds a consistent goal-scoring threat in wide players like Riccardo Orsolini or Nicola Sansone. Moreover, the level of offensive performance of Bologna has certainly been affected by game state and by the fact that on three occasions out of four the Rossoblu found themselves in numerical superiority. They've actually played more than a third of total minutes so far with 11 against 10. Their starting schedule was pretty easy as well. In the first three games they collected four points against newly promoted sides (Hellas Verona and Brescia) and won against SPAL (13th last season). Their first loss came Sunday against Roma, and while it took a 94th minute goal to do it, during the game they fired just five total shots, after averaging 19 in the previous three games. The strength of Bologna's schedule has certainly inflated their numbers in the defensive phase too (third in xG conceded), but Mihajlovic has always built his successes first of all on a solid defense and nothing makes us think that this team is any different. So far, the Rossoblu have shown the ability to dominate lesser opponents, but they also have the weapons to be effective in transition against stronger sides. It is no coincidence that the directness value measured so far for them is the highest in Serie A. As the season progresses and the schedule becomes harder, we could see them settling on a system of play that leads to a less expansive offensive production, but that could still lead them to improve last season's ranking. The outlook for the team seems good and we hope with all our heart that it will be the same for his coach.

Should we trust Domenico Berardi?

Staying in Emilia, we cannot ignore how Domenico Berardi got off to a flying start. In just 279 minutes played he's scored five goals, all from open-play. He's already scored more open-play goals than in 2016/17 and 2017/18 combined. The left-footed inside forward also served an assist that means he was directly involved in 60% of Sassuolo’s 10 goals scored so far (second best attack tied with Roma) even though he missed the first match against Torino due to suspension. Last season, the first under Roberto De Zerbi, Berardi showed some progress with regard to the two previous seasons, but few expected such a start. He seemed to be just another prospect unable to keep his promises. Yet, Berardi was never your average prospect. As a teenager, he scored 31 goals (although 12 from the penalty spot) in his first two Serie A seasons, and he is one of only four players born from 1994 onwards to boast at least 50 goals in the top-5 European leagues along with Kylian Mbappé, Timo Werner and Raheem Sterling. Not bad company. The many penalties scored in the early years of his career have always distorted our perception of his ability as a finisher and perhaps led us to overestimate his ceiling, but so far he has not only been clinical in converting his shots but his-shot selection shot has been excellent, too. His xG/shot has almost doubled up from 0.066 to 0.129. (It's certainly possible that playing four seasons under Eusebio Di Francesco compromised his development on that front) He still tends to shoot too much from outside the box, with the classic movement from the right towards the center of the pitch he does before winding up and unleashing on goal, but for now he leads the league in xG per 90 among players with at least 200 minutes played.  However, Berardi has always been a streaky finisher, capable of extraordinary moments followed by games played like he was an ectoplasm. It is therefore very difficult to predict whether he will be able to continue at this rate. What is sure is that he is unlikely to keep a goal/xG ratio above 250% for much longer, but projecting his average xG onto a season and assuming a year finally free of injuries that allows him to at least play as many minutes as last season, he's on pace to score between 18 and 20 goals this season. That's exactly what he would need to boost his career and finally live to early expectations and become one of the best Italian footballers.

Milan and Juventus are struggling to create chances

Gennaro Gattuso's AC Milan were a team that tried to dominate the ball, but with a risk-adverse style of play, especially in build-up. We could say that in some cases, possession was first of all a defensive weapon. Their defense was pretty good (they conceded 0.94 xG per game), but with 1.16 xG per game (the same amount generated by relegated Empoli) they finished just 5th. Gattuso was fired at the end of the last season and the management chose Sampdoria’s Marco Giampaolo as a replacement, a coach considered capable of proposing a fun and proactive game, consisting of vertical balls and rapid combinations. For similar reasons, after five victorious years, Juventus decided to part ways with Massimiliano Allegri and replace him with Maurizio Sarri, who like Giampaolo, first began to make his expansive style of play known when he was sitting on Empoli’s bench. Despite the plans, both teams are struggling to create opportunities and the transition to a more proactive style of play is taking longer and more effort than expected. Both teams are recording xG numbers well below league average (1.18 xG per game). Milan (0.89 xG per game) are struggling to find the net so much that they have scored just one open-play goal in four games. Somehow, they still managed to gain six points, but after the defeat in the Derby (in which, in all fairness they showed slight improvements, at least in build-up) the situation is getting more and more difficult for Giampaolo who still has to solve a multitude of tactical questions. At the end of last season Juventus showed a worrying downward trend in their xG production. Sarri hasn't managed to reverse it yet and so far, the Bianconeri are averaging around 20% less xG than 2018/19 (1.04 per game). Still, they have managed to limit the damage, scoring nine goals (four against Napoli) and earning 13 points out of 15 available if we include the match against Brescia played last night. All in all, they've scored just six open play goals in five games, considering they benefited from a penalty against Hellas Verona and two own goals against Napoli and Brescia. If they do not improve, the technical quality of the individual players will not be enough to bring home yet another championship. An ambitious project necessarily requires the patience of the management and the fans I am pretty sure both Juventus and AC Milan’s offensive production will improve in the next few games, but their current situation is an excellent example of how complicated it can be to change a tactical paradigm.

Inter Milan’s defensive strength

Thanks to the contribution of Antonio Conte’s tactics and the arrival of Diego Godín, who now forms with Stefan De Vrij and Milan Skriniar one of the most solid defenses of the championship, Inter Milan have so far conceded only one goal.

Not only does Inter lead the league, with 12 points from four games, but they are also the best team per xG conceded, just 0.59 on average. They have been both the team that conceded the least shots (9.75 per game) and the one the conceded the lowest average shot quality (just 0.06 xG/shot). They also tend to defend far away from their goal with an average defensive distance of 48.29. The schedule has not been particularly difficult for now and the team has still room for improvement in attack. It will be the next matches against Lazio (tonight), Sampdoria and Juventus (preceded by the Champions League match against Barcelona) which tell us if Conte's Inter is for real.

Who's gonna fix Wolves?

Things are not great in Wolverhampton. Wolves sit second to the last in the table, one of only two teams without a victory. Only fellow winless side Watford are preventing them from sitting in dead last. This was a team that finished seventh best last season, with numbers that were arguably better than that. So what’s going on? Is it time for Wolves to panic? The first place to look, as always, is at the expected goals. There’s some good news here for Wolves. In attack they’re basically running at xG with six goals for against 5.61 xG (plus a penalty). On the defensive side of the ball is where the good news is. Sure they’ve given up 11 goals, but only 6.49 expected goals. That’s exactly the kind of performance you’d expect to see turn around without doing too much of anything different. Specifically all of that extra conceding seems like it’s down mostly to keeper So far this season he has the worst goals saved above average % of any regular starting keeper in the Premier League. He’s only saved 50% of the shots he’s faced while his expected average giving those shots is 66.1%. That’s really bad! Patricio’s -16.1 GSAA% is significantly behind Everton’s Jordan Pickford at -9.9% and Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga’s -9.1%. Encouragingly for Wolves, last year Patricio’s was almost exactly flat against expectation. He saved 71% of shots and was expected to save 71.1%. So this horrible form will probably work itself out. They don’t need him to be great this season, they just need him to be fine. So far, he hasn’t been, but there’s not a ton of reason to suspect he won’t be going forward. So that’s the good news. Here’s the bad news. Even adjusting for the unexpected defensive lapses, Wolves haven’t been nearly as good as last season. Last season StatsBomb had their xG difference at 0.28 per match, virtually tied with Spurs for the fourth best in the Premier League. This season, so far it’s dropped to -0.16. That’s not nearly bad enough to be where they are in the table, but it’s not in any way remarkable. It’s just outside the top half of the table (and interestingly enough again virtually tied with Spurs). That difference amounts to almost half a goal per match, or just under three goals in six games. For a team that’s drawn four times and lost another match by a single goal, that’s a massive difference. Their sixth match, a 2-5 home defeat to Chelsea was one of the wilder mostly balanced xG matches you will find. Last season Wolves were a great defensive team. They were one of only four teams to concede fewer than one xG per match (0.91). They were also a decent attacking side. They accumulated 1.19 xG per match, which is nothing to write home about but landed them exactly in the middle of the league. This year they’re just worse on both sides of the ball. This year their defense is average, at 1.09 xG conceded, which trails eight other teams and their attack, well their attack at 0.92 xG per match is simply an utter mess. Then there’s a matter of the schedule. They’ve played a relatively difficult set of six games so far, facing Leicester City away, Manchester United at home and Chelsea at home. Though given the sides early season aspirations those were all games they’d be expected to compete in and taking only two points is minorly disappointing. That said, if they’d taken more than two points from Burnley at home, Everton away, and Palace away nobody would have much noticed the struggles against the top teams. If Wolves had taken six points from the easy half of their schedule they’d currently be tied with the six teams sitting in seventh through 12th place. Instead they’re beginning a fledgling fight against relegation. The next month remains pretty easy for Wolves. Before the end of October the side will face fellow relegation battlers Watford at home and Newcastle away, as well as hosting Southampton (currently in 13th place). Just ignore that they fourth match in that stretch of time is against Manchester City. It’s possible that with a handful of strong performances Wolves numbers will improve, and their results will follow (especially if that is combined with their luck turning). Another month of struggling though, and the discussion slips from having a minorly disappointing season to a real relegation battle. There are, as there always are, all sorts of possible reasons for the poor start. There’s the added burden of Europa League, especially on a squad that was fairly short to begin with and didn’t add much depth this summer. Even minor rotation for a team exceptionally used to a fixed starting 11 can be disruptive. Wolves have been starting bit players from last year like Morgan Gibbs-White and giving super sub Adama Traoré starts at wingback. It’s also possible their numbers are being impacted by playing from behind so much. They’ve conceded first in five of their six matches (and the sixth was the 0-0 opening day draw against Leicester). For a team built to defend, the fact that they’ve been forced to chase the game so often might be dragging their numbers down (one might for example imagine a world where they have improved numbers because several of their draws came from late, lucky equalizers rather than what actually happened where they scored late themselves). This again is the kind of factor that generally, although not always, evens itself out as the season progresses. The bottom line for Wolves is that there is no reason to panic. The team’s defense is its calling card, and that defense has been pretty unlucky so far this season. It will likely improve as the season goes on, just by dint of getting out from whatever soccer god cloud is currently raining goals on them nonstop. That should be enough to turn them into a somewhat below average team that’s safe from relegation. After last year, however, that shouldn’t be enough for Wolves. This side was genuinely impressive last season, and they’ve come out of the gate this year looking genuinely average. Whether it’s Europa League or something else, Wolves have taken a step backwards. The fact that it won’t likely cost them relegation doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be disappointing. This was a team on a meteoric trajectory. Without some sharp improvements over the next month, they’re now overwhelmingly likely to be just another midtable side.

How do you stop Kevin De Bruyne?

Pep Guardiola has a way of creating attacking patterns that are easy to predict, but almost impossible to stop. At all his clubs Guardiola has devised schemes in the final third that his teams keep repeating, and that keep coming off. At Barcelona, especially in the early days, Lionel Messi would keep dragging the left-back inside and leave space for Dani Alves to attack, often set up by a floating Xavi diagonal pass. At Bayern Munich, Guardiola moved full-backs Philipp Lahm and David Alaba inside to control the game. These moves accentuated the qualities of the key players, created numerical overloads in crucial areas and enabled Guardiola to move his best players into the centre. At Manchester City the Catalan has achieved the same by using Kevin De Bruyne as a central midfielder. By now the two have worked together for three years, and so most know how De Bruyne moves, yet he seems more dangerous than ever. In six league games he has scored two goals and notched seven assists. Few will be surprised to see him top the Premier League list for open-play key passes and passes into the box per 90 minutes, but his expected assists rate from open play is striking even by his standards: his average is 0.73. The next on the list in the league is Mahrez, with 0.44. The radar below fails to do De Bruyne justice: the scale of his creativity is literally off the charts. Part of what makes De Bruyne hard to stop is that Guardiola has put a player with such extreme attacking qualities in a conservative staring position. Most teams facing City will ask a central midfielder to track De Bruyne. When De Bruyne then moves out wide, it takes an unusually alert and rapid player to track him, and it’s likely to mean trouble for most players not named N’Golo Kanté. Even if the central midfielder does track De Bruyne, the rest of the team can be dragged out shape. On Saturday the way in which De Bruyne drifted out wide was representative of his movement so far this season. The graphic shows the tactical harmony with which Guardiola has set up his team. City tend to move slightly towards the left, because they build more of their attacks down that side: last season Oleksandr Zinchenko averaged 92.4 passes per 90, Kyle Walker 77.4. Some reasons might be that Aymeric Laporte, the most gifted centre back, plays on that side, and that David Silva is a master at linking up in small spaces, as opposed to De Bruyne, whose longer legs need more space. Look closely at the map above and you see that Rodri sends the ball far more often to Silva than to De Bruyne. The same happened the previous game in which De Bruyne started, at home to Brighton, even though he played in an unusually central role here. In total Rodri has sent 38 passes to Silva and 24 to De Bruyne this season. Thus, it will surprise nobody that Silva has played more passes per 90 this season (69.2) than De Bruyne (56.3). Not only does it exploit Silva’s nimble feet and clever movement in small spaces, but it opens up more space for De Bruyne once the ball is shifted to the right. The trigger will often be a diagonal pass, and before the opposition have managed to move their team across, De Bruyne will have made a run or a decisive cross. Meanwhile Silva will join the striker and the left winger in moving into the centre, anticipating the delivery from wide, which is part of the reason why Silva has nearly twice as many touches in the box per 90 (11.96) as De Bruyne (6.11). On Saturday all these factors came together in the opening goal: City started the attack on the left, then switched the ball over to De Bruyne, who swung in a cross for Silva who scored from close range. Whenever the ball reaches De Bruyne on the right, City tend to follow a small number of specific patterns. One is the deep cross, as with Silva’s goal. If the precision of these crosses is astonishing, the timing of the runs is too. There was another big chance in the first half against Watford that came when Fernandinho floated a diagonal pass to Bernardo Silva, who was making a rare appearance on the right. As the ball traveled towards Bernardo, De Bruyne was already positioning himself in order to receive the support pass. At the very moment that Bernardo sent the ball back to De Bruyne, on the edge of the box, Sergio Agüero darted towards the far post, certain that De Bruyne would 1) whip the ball in first time and 2) place it right on his head. Of course De Bruyne did so, and Agüero should have scored with his close-range header. Though Watford had three defenders well-positioned in the box, the speed and timing of the move made it difficult for any of them to track Agüero. Earlier this season, when City drew 2-2 at home against Tottenham, City scored with this move, only with Sterling popping up at the far post instead of Agüero. The rest was identical: City move the ball from the left to the right, Bernardo then passed it back to De Bruyne, who swung in a cross from the edge of the box towards the far post. These moves are not only hard to stop because City can pull them off blindfolded; they also originate from areas that would otherwise be fairly harmless. Against most teams the alarm bells are hardly ringing if a midfielder has the ball out wide on 30 yards, yet with De Bruyne this is lethal, and City keep exploiting it. His passing sonar shows how direct his distribution is outside the box. Beyond the deep cross De Bruyne also makes runs in behind the defence, such as when he assisted Bernardo in the second half on Saturday. Again this is a well-rehearsed move, and there are plenty of other examples. Typically the right winger will get the ball by the touchline, then find De Bruyne, who has moved in behind the left-back too quickly for any central midfielders to follow him. Since both Bernardo and Mahrez are left-footed, they can make this pass to De Bruyne with ease. On Saturday it was Mahrez who played this pass, enabling De Bruyne to fire a low cross towards the far post. Here Raheem Sterling tends to produce a tap-in. That the player who appeared in this zone on Saturday was his direct replacement, Bernardo, shows how deeply Guardiola has drilled these patterns into the team. So how do you stop De Bruyne? There are few obvious answers. You can try to press high and shut off the supply, but good luck doing that against City. If you want to sit deep and keep the lines close together, you need centre backs who can deal with the deep crosses. Perhaps the best way is to use a back three, so that the left-sided centre-back can pick up De Bruyne’s runs. Coincidentally or not, the only coach who has beaten Guardiola’s City in a league game at the Etihad in which De Bruyne has started is Antonio Conte, who set Chelsea up in a 5-4-1. In any case, Conte is gone and De Bruyne looks certain to be a menacing presence throughout the season. That City’s rivals know what’s coming is unlikely to be of much consolation.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Is Frank Lampard's youthful approach to Chelsea the right one?

It’s the thing everyone has been asking top Premier League sides to do for years, and Chelsea have done it. “Play the kids, that 30 year old is over the hill”. “Give young English players chances”. “Stop making expensive signings when you’ve already got a young player who can come in”. The top six have all received these kinds of comments, but none more than Chelsea. And it’s not hard to see why. Look at the England youth squads in recent years and the Blues produce many more players than any other club. The Chelsea academy is a machine, sucking up so much talent from London and the South East and churning out excellent young footballers. Of course, everyone loves saying it until it actually happens. At which point people remember that young players are youthful and inexperienced. Frank Lampard’s early steps as Chelsea manager have seen exactly the kind of blend of enthusiastic fun and questionable defensive errors anyone would expect from a team in this kind of situation. The expected goals tell a story. Overall, Chelsea are landing about where you’d expect, but through wild overperformance on the attacking end and underperformance defensively. Is this genuinely evidence of what the team is doing or just one of those things that we shouldn’t expect to continue? That remains to be seen. This team does have something of the feel of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2016/17, who seemed to be wide open in a way that the xG models couldn’t quite grasp. The very high xG per shot conceded suggests there might be something happening here. But it is, of course, entirely possible that this is nothing and we will see a more normal finishing rate at both ends going forward. On the attacking side, all the talk has been about the kids. It’s a nice stat that all of Chelsea’s goals this season have been scored by academy graduates, even if the numbers paint this as somewhat unlikely (“the rest” have taken a combined xG of 3.92 without yet finding the back of the net). One could only describe Tammy Abraham’s current form as on fire, sitting as the joint top scorer in the Premier League with seven. The negative takeaway is that he’s overperforming xG by a fairly comical margin and yes, he will slow down a bit. He’s not going to score a goal every 49 minutes. But even so, he’s still getting a decent number of shots away in good positions. It doesn’t look like there have been any issues in transferring his Championship form to the top flight. There are positives to take from his all round game as well. It’s fairly obvious from his height that he should be useful in the air and he’s done fine there, even if Lampard’s Chelsea aren’t really a “long ball” team. His link-up play to the eye has also looked much more positive than expected. It was always going to be a concern for Chelsea in possession that they lacked an obvious creator in the final third with Eden Hazard’s departure. Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Pedro and to a lesser degree Willian and Ross Barkley are all more adept at running into space than receiving the ball to feet and progressing the ball. If Abraham had merely operated as a poacher, this would have made things much worse, but he’s been willing to involve himself. Shots are taking up a smaller percentage of his total touches than last season. He’s taking more than twice as many touches inside the box as he did on loan at Villa, and his involvement outside the box has increased as well. Lampard is seemingly asking him to be a much more complete striker than in his past seasons, and he looks to be thriving at it. If this is Abraham’s trial to see if he can answer the long term centre forward issue at Chelsea, he’s done nothing to suggest he isn’t the solution. The story is similar for Mason Mount. English football has become quite adept at producing young attacking midfielders who can press well and take shots, with Mount fitting this mould perfectly. Lampard seems to be using him as the player to trigger Chelsea’s press, and as unstructured as it might be right now, Mount has taken to the role like a duck to water. On the other side, three shots per 90 is a promising volume. The concern was that Lampard would encourage him to hit them from range a little too often, and he’s had a few of those, but enough have been from decent opportunities to balance it out. The concern would be his lack of creativity on the ball. Mount has achieved just three open play passes into the box so far this season, fewer than full backs César Azpilicueta and Emerson as well as Jorginho. He achieves just over half an open play key pass per 90, which is very underwhelming in his role. That he is trusted to take set pieces suggests this is not an issue of technical ability but simply his involvement in open play. For now, Chelsea have someone who can trigger the press and get shots away at age 20, which is impressive. If he is able to add more creative passing to his game, the Blues could really have a player on their hands. And the weird thing is that these are Chelsea’s most used attacking players. Generally they’ve been joined by a mix of Pulisic, Barkley, Willian and Pedro, but those players all seem to be competing for the third spot in this forward line. Pulisic has had some bright moments but it seems as though it’ll be some time before he fully settles into this side. As for the other three, well, chances are you already have an opinion on them. With Callum Hudson-Odoi returning to fitness, it will take an uptick in these players’ form to prevent Lampard from fielding an attack composed entirely of Chelsea academy graduates. Midfield was the area where things were supposed to look pretty solid. The UEFA Super Cup showed real promise of a midfield three consisting of Jorginho, N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić easily overpowering Liverpool’s trio. The problem has been Kanté’s fitness. The Frenchman is, as you’re surely aware, quite good at football. The injuries seem to have been coming more frequently, though, than in previous years. According to Transfermarkt, Kanté has missed 62 days to injury since May 2019, having previously only been out for 34 days since the 2015/16 season. We of course have not seen the medical records, and it’s more than reasonable to think that this is just a blip on his way back to full strength. If it’s not, however, and we can expect Kanté to suffer knocks every now and again going forward, that is quite a concern for the solidity of Chelsea’s midfield. The midfield as is seems poorly constructed. On the ball it seems wonderful. Jorginho, the symbol of former manager Maurizio Sarri’s style, actually looks comfortable playing more direct football and being able to hit the players in front of him more quickly. He has even registered an assist, a rather belated response to all of those complaining that he never seemed to get any last year. When looking at the passing sonar of this season (on the right) compared to last year (on the left), it does seem like he’s going long much more frequently. Kovačić meanwhile can offer a threat dribbling with the ball at his feet. If Chelsea had a ball-dominant playmaker in the final third (a certain Belgian comes to mind), one could imagine this being a really fluid and impressive attack. As it is, Chelsea merely have excellent ball progression into the final third, with some interesting but flawed players when they get there. On the defensive end, both are solid contributors. But with Chelsea’s press being, to put it kindly, not especially well structured, solid contributions aren’t really getting the job done. If Kanté can get fit, he’s the ideal firefighter here. If not, then the press will really have to improve to lower the defensive workload. The defence is still something of a question mark. Azpilicueta has been on the receiving end of a lot of Chelsea fan criticism, and Mike Goodman has already written about his form for StatsBomb, with the data indicating that there may be some reason for concern. If reports are to be believed, Lampard is about to drop Azpilicueta for yet another youngster returning from injury, Reece James, so this issue could become old news very soon. As exciting a prospect as James apparently is, it’s unreasonable to expect a 19 year old to come into a struggling defence and not make at least a few mistakes. Lampard’s recent switch to a 3-4-3 system could potentially be with an eye on integrating James into the side, giving him the slightly easier defensive role of right wing back. This could allow Azpilicueta to move over to right centre back, a position he excelled in under Antonio Conte, and that could perhaps lock down the right side a little better. If Lampard were to go to go to the trio of Conte’s final year at the back, with Azpilicueta and Antonio Rüdiger either side of Andreas Christensen, he might have a solid building block, though it seems likely he’ll switch between three and four man defences. Lampard is proving to be a stark contrast to his predecessors in a number of ways. Where Sarri, Conte and José Mourinho were insistent on the strict system they wanted to play, Lampard has yet to settle on a strong idea of what he wants other than pressing. Where those managers were very comfortable sidelining players who did not fit the mould, he is keeping his options open, trying to cultivate a more inclusive atmosphere. Where those sides were very defensively solid and tough to break down, this one is rather more porous. And where those managers were distrusting of youth, Lampard has has not just embraced it but made it his raison d'être. And this is the central story about Chelsea. The average age is down from last year, at 27.6 then (weighted by minutes) and 25.7 now. And it’s going to get younger. Abraham (21), Fikayo Tomori (21), Pulisic (21) and Mount (20) look set to be joined by James (19) and Hudson-Odoi (18). Noises have been made about Manchester United and Arsenal making use of their academy players, but with all due respect to those clubs, this is a categorically different project. The Chelsea academy is unique in English football in terms of the volume of talent it produces. Some of the brightest prospects at other clubs, such as West Ham’s Declan Rice and Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster, were overspills from Chelsea. This group have every chance of being a special generation. It might be that Lampard is not up to the job of managing a top club. It might be that the Stamford Bridge hierarchy need to make a change and bring in more of a tactical teacher to improve these players. But the work being done this year in integrating them into the first team, in blooding them in the side, could pay dividends for many years to come.

Joshua Kimmich is the key to Bayern's revitalized midfield

Considering that it’s my first weekly digest about the Bundesliga on Statsbomb - Sam, nice to meet you etc. - I figured that I’d start off with a spicy take about the powerhouse of German football. And by take, I mean TAKE. Ready? Here it goes. I believe that Bayern München, who have been criticized a fair bit on their transfer business these past few months - most notably when they missed out on signing Manchester City winger Leroy Sané or RB Leipzig speedster Timo Werner as the future frontman of their attack - might have made one of the sweetest deals amongst all the big summer signings in international football. His name? Benjamin Pavard. Really, Benjamin Pavard. Yes, the same Pavard that was the most boring starter on one of the most boring World Cup-winning teams in recent memory - mind you, in a French starting eleven that featured Oliver Giroud as a striker up top. Yes, the same Pavard that played in the heart of VfB Stuttgart’s defence, which ceded 70 goals in 34 league games on its way to relegation last season. Yes, even the same Pavard that hasn’t looked all that comfortable on the pitch in his first weeks as a Bayern regular. The most logical question to ask now would in fact be: why? Why is the signing of this clearly talented, but somewhat boring and at times even shaky, young French defender such a win for Bayern? The answer is rather simple. Because the arrival of a dependable right back has promptly given Der Rekordmeister one of the best - if not the best - midfield duo’s in all of European club football. The presence of Pavard on the roster has provided manager Niko Kovac with a legitimate option at the right side of defense, which has opened up the door for Joshua Kimmich to move up to a spot in the heart of Bayern’s midfield, right next to the oft-injured, but excellent Thiago Alcántara. This midfield is good, y’all. Yes, there was, or is, a strong case to be made that Kimmich might have been the best right-back in all of European football for the past few seasons. Especially from an offensive point of view. Kimmich played in 81 Bundesliga and Champions League games the past two seasons, in which he posted the absurd tallies of 28 assists and 178 chances created. Which is - *check notes* - ridiculous for a fullback, even one who specialises in corner kicks. This level of production for a fullback goes a long way in explaining how Kimmich did not make the transition to midfield earlier at Munich - as a teen at Leipzig, he actually played as a midfielder. Kovac et al already knew what Kimmich’s skill-set was, but the risk of giving up a large chunk of his output on the flank made the seemingly logical switch to midfield a pretty dicey proposition. Ralf Rangnick once lauded Kimmich as the most tactically sound, positionally fluid player he had ever seen. Kimmich is the poster child for the wave of tactical and technical innovation that swept through German in the last decade plus: he’s lightning-quick as a decision-maker, has always been smart beyond his years in positional play, reacts fast, possesses good ball-control with both feet, applies pressure on the ball in a rather relentless way, hounds passing lanes and, maybe most importantly for a player in his tactical role, is the type of star player that can also excel in a non-star-role. Which, at Bayern, is kind of a big deal. If Kimmich is the Prince of Pragmatism (from the House of Gegenpressing), Thiago can be viewed as the Sultan of Style. The Spaniard is often overlooked in the debates about who the best midfielder in the world currently is, and that has a lot to do with Thiago’s one glaring weakness: he truly deserves the label ‘injury-prone’. Even though the playmaker has avoided another major injury since his ACL tear in 2014, Thiago has missed 40 out of a possible 208 competitive matches with nine different smaller injuries since the start of 2015-16. When Thiago is able to play, he pretty much balls out. Due to his silk first touch, his Xavi-esque vision of what transpires around him on the pitch - he is one of those passing wizards for which the football cliché of ‘player X sees things before they even happen’ seems to be invented - his at times jaw-dropping ball control, his accurate short ánd deep passing and his impressively calm on-field demeanour, Thiago regularly looks ‘un-pressable. Unsurprisingly, he led Bayern in deep progressions per 90 minutes last season (among players with over 1200 minutes). The combination of his flair and ball progression with the durability, stamina, and tactical flexibility of Kimmich gives Bayern something they’ve been searching for for quite some time: an elite midfield duo at the heart of their squad. The fact that a bunch of the star players were deteriorating at the same time last season, drew some attention away from Bayern’s ongoing search for the ideal balance in midfield. Whilst an at times unrecognizable Manuel Neuer, a slowed-down Jérôme Boateng and an out-of-form Mats Hummels took the brunt of the criticism last year, mainly due to the team’s vulnerability against the counter-attack, the midfield just wasn’t all that good, for the lofty standard Bayern have set for themselves. Especially in the games where Thiago was out. This midfield struggle, one of the main reasons Bayern struggled in the early months of Kovac’s tenure last season, was a long time coming. They simply didn’t have the same amount of really good-football-plsaying dudes that they did it in the days of Guardiola. Javi Martínez’ decline was foreseeable, the Basque defensive band-aid in midfield never was much of a speedster, and quietly fell off a cliff, agility-wise, last season. Renato Sanches just wasn’t Bayern material. Corentin Tolisso missed all of last year with an ACL injury. Leon Goretzka is a good all-around player, but seems to be functioning better in a more attacking role. But none of the midfield sets Kovac could forge out of those options, seemed anywhere near as comfortable in possession as Bayern has looked in its last two league games, against Mainz (6-1) and at RB Leipzig (1-1). In the first big league fixture of Bayern’s league campaign, they were cruising in the first half against Leipzig. If it weren’t for two rigorous tactical changes from Julian Nagelsmann at half-time - switching from a 5-3-2 to the Red Bull-approved 4-2-2-2 ‘vice grip’ formation, and letting Yussuf Poulsen start his press from a cover shadow on one of Bayern’s midfielders in the second half - that brought new life to Leipzig’s patented press, the reigning champ would’ve crushed the energy drink-fueld new kid on the block last weekend. Making Leipzig’s pressing scheme look ineffective, even toothless, is one tall order. And Thiago and Kimmich managed just that in the first half, with Pavard not only providing solid defensive work on the right in Kimmich’s old spot, but also offering Bayern a lot more flexibility in its build-up: varying between ‘3+1’ (three defenders, one midfielder in the build-up), ‘3+2’ or ‘2+4’ is a lot easier when both your fullbacks - Pavard and the big money signee Lucas Hernández (from Atlético Madrid) - have had experience at positions in the center of the defense. Bayern’s offense looks to be zooming, at the moment. And the prospect of Thiago-and-Kimmich-run midfield is very exciting for all of us tactics nerds out there. The biggest question mark in the formation is the 10-position. Goretzka has proven to be a valid option for that role, with his patented box-runs and general technical usefulness. If Bayern can coax the real Philippe Coutinho from the ghost-version of him in his days at Camp Nou, the Brazilian would be the main option. But as it stands, it seems that all signs point to - who else? - Thomas Müller. If you put the premier Raumdeuter - ‘explorer of space’ - in front of a functioning central midfield and behind a world-class striker, watch out. And that is exactly what Bayern’s competition should do.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association