EFL 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

As we hurtle through the midway point of this unrelenting EFL season, there's just time to quickly take stock. A top-to-bottom analysis won't be much use when it’ll all have changed within a week, so instead we’ve picked out 10 of the most interesting storylines from a typically chaotic opening half of the EFL season.

1) Swansea City Shut-Outs

Play-off semi-finalists in 2019/20, Swansea are going well once again. So well, in fact, that they’re currently on course to break a Championship record since it rebranded in 2005 for the fewest goals conceded in a league season. Preston North End’s miserly 30 concessions in 2005/06 is the yardstick to beat - The Swans’ record of 14 conceded from 25 games puts them on course. Steve Cooper's made a clear move towards implementing a more robust defensive structure: their Aggression % - the percentage of opposition pass receipts that are tackled, fouled or pressured within two seconds – has dropped from 23% to 18%, and this new approach has paid rich dividends across every defensive metric.   Their diligence in the defensive transition means they've conceded seven(!) counter-attacking shots all season, as well as just 22 shots that have solely the goalkeeper between ball and goal. Simply, the team doesn’t concede valuable chances. The Swans have faced just 11 shots with an xG value greater than 0.30 all season. In laymans terms, they very rarely concede anything approaching a clear-cut chance. Such stinginess could power them all the way back to the Premier League.  

2) Pressing Matters With Callum O’Hare

After a successful loan spell, securing Callum O’Hare’s services on a permanent deal was a crucial piece of summer business for newly promoted Coventry. They’ve been rewarded with an unrivalled work rate from the young attacking midfielder. This comes as no surprise considering O’Hare led League 1 last season with a whopping 33 pressures per 90. That number is slightly down this campaign – understandable given the especially tight schedule – but relative to the Championship it’s barely noticeable. The result is that no one in the entire EFL registers more pressures per 90 than O’Hare, and in the Championship it’s not even close.   When you consider that he’s played more minutes than all-but-one of the other players in the top 10, it's even more impressive. The prolonged off-season Coventry enjoyed compared to their Championship rivals is certainly paying off for both O’Hare and the Sky Blues.  

3) Has ‘The Beast’ Unlocked a New Level of Physical Dominance?

It was a different world when Adebayo Akinfenwa last appeared on the StatsBomb site back in October 2019. At that stage there was one unknown and one unlikely: the unknown was whether then-37-year-old Akinfenwa would continue playing this season, the unlikely was that Wycombe would secure promotion to the Championship for the first time in their history. Fast-forward and here we are, with both Akinfenwa and Wycombe playing at Championship level for the first time. Bayo was never likely to turn down the opportunity to go to war with Championship centre backs, having bullied their League One and League Two counterparts in his career up to now. Last season in League One he managed 9.7 aerial wins per 90, league-leading for players with more than 1200 minutes, but this season he’s taken that aerial dominance to a new level despite the rise in class, in what is a notoriously physical league in the Championship. His current rate of 14.6 aerial wins per 90 is the best in England’s top four divisions.     Wycombe’s not-so-secret weapon continues to provide a valuable outlet for them in making the ball stick up front. Can they and Akinfenwa together pull off an unlikely survival in the second half of the season?  

4) MK Dons: Camped In Enemy Territory, But Defensively Exposed

Into League One now where MK Dons have caught the attention of the EFL audience for their possession-based style of play. They’ve gained a lot of plaudits for their ability to control the territory but, whilst being easy on the eye, they’ve struggled to convert this dominance into points, currently sitting 16th with a return of 28 points from 24 games. There’s a real dichotomy between the process and the outcomes at Stadium MK. The Milton Keynes based side, with 52.8 Deep Progressions per 90, enter the opposition’s final third more often than any other team in League One and, once they’re there, they’re also completing more passes within 20m of goal than any other side, completing 6.4 Deep Completions per 90. However, this dominance isn’t translating into shots or good chances on goal: the Dons rank 13th in League One for both shots and expected goals created.   It’s a similar story at the back. MK are behind only Sunderland for both final third entries conceded and Deep Completions conceded. It’s only a good thing that the opposition are spending so little time in threatening positions, but the issue is what happens when they do break into MK Dons territory - find space and cause a lot of damage. MK’s xG per shot conceded of 0.13 is the worst in the league.  

5) Josh Emmanuel: Full Back Attack

There are many great sights within the beautiful game. Surely one of the best is a player carrying the ball with power and dribbling at speeds the casual spectator could only dream of. When it comes to seeing this in the EFL, Josh Emmanuel is a stand out. Flying up and down the wing was something Emmanuel could have done in a completely different sport having been offered trials at Saracens in Rugby Union as a youngster, but it’s now on Hull City's right flank where Emmanuel’s heels are shredding turf. Emmanuel’s average carry length is currently the fifth-longest amongst other League One full backs and wing backs, but he’s a much more dependable outlet than those above him. His 38.7 Carries per 90 is by far the most of that group, and completed at a higher percentage than his competition too.   It’s not just carrying into space that he thrives in, he’s capable of taking the ball past an opponent too. Emmanuel’s completed the most dribbles of League One full backs this season and was behind only two others in 2019/20. This on-ball capability makes him a key player in the attacking phase of Hull’s game: making the second-most final third entries of his side, the third-most passes into the box, and has the third-highest xG assisted from open play.  

6) Chuks Aneke: Bench Warmer, Ice Cold Finisher

A hark back to the good old days of sub-effects now. Chuks Aneke is excelling in the role of super-sub this season. The Arsenal academy graduate has played in 20 of Charlton’s 25 games so far but made only seven starts to accumulate a total of 999 minutes - just 40% of the minutes available. And yet… Aneke has been absolutely smoking tired League One defences this season. Of his nine goals, just three have come in matches he’s started, the other six have come when being deployed from the bench. When he starts he scores at a rate of 0.52 goals per 90, when he comes off the bench it's 1.12 goals per 90.   The sub-effects are real but that’s not to downplay his impact. Aneke is objectively (and subjectively) putting in some of the best forward performances in the league. Ignoring his monumental return off the bench, his contribution of 0.52 goals per 90 from the start would be the 5th best return in League One. All in, for players with at least 900 minutes played this season, Aneke is tops the league for all of Shots per 90, xG per 90, and goals per 90.  

7) Max who? Max Watters

There's only one place to start in League Two and that's with probably the story of the entire EFL season up to now. Released by League One Doncaster after five forgettable appearances, Max Watters rocked up at Crawley Town in October to little fanfare, having only been spotted by the Crawley staff when playing against them in a friendly for non-league Maidstone United where he was on trial. Three months, 15 appearances and 13 goals later, Watters was off to Cardiff City in the Championship for a reported seven-figure fee.   Watters was a touch ahead of his expected goals, notching his 13 goals from 8.1xG, but he repeatedly showed a nose for getting into good goalscoring positions and finishing in a variety of ways too - scoring with his left foot, right foot, or head - and with little-to-no wastage whatsoever in his shot selection. His rate of 1.06 goals per 90 was so extreme that it was nearly half-a-goal better than the next best record in League Two, and his 0.66 xG per 90 was also a clear standout ahead of the rest. Just three months of very successful League Two football was enough to persuade Cardiff to give him an opportunity in the Championship. Returns like the ones he was making at Crawley would make the fee an absolute bargain.  

8) Sunshine and Beechball in Cumbria

There were no signs in Carlisle’s unremarkable 2019/20 campaign to suggest they'd embark on a promotion push just months later, but here we are. With no discernible improvement in results, the November 2019 appointment of Chris Beech went largely under the radar last season, but behind the scenes foundations were being laid. This season has seen a move to a style of play that pundits have christened “Beechball” – an energetic, high pressing and direct game that has brought praise for both its entertainment and its efficacy, with the Cumbrians currently top of the table by points per game. Last season most of Carlisle’s defending was done in their own half, but this season they’re active much further up the pitch: their Defensive Distance – the average distance from a team’s own goal that it makes defensive actions – has shifted from 41.2 metres, 23rd in 19/20, to 47.4 metres, 1st in 20/21. It’s working too – Carlisle are conceding the fewest shots in the league.   They’re also thriving in possession and pose a well-rounded threat. An average of 17.5 shots per game is the most in the league and three more than next best Newport County, and they’re generating opportunities from all phases of play. Carlisle rank 1st for counter attacking shots, illustrating their speed and threat in transition, but also rank 1st for set piece xG, with 0.48xG per 90. Significant output in this area could go a long way to helping their promotion push – creating half-a-goal a game from set plays, extrapolating to 23 goals over a full season, is a juicy cherry to put on top of the open play cake. Even within set plays they’ve got all bases covered, creating regular chances from corners, indirect free kicks, and throw ins. The latter has been particularly noteworthy with winger Josh Kayode catapulting projectiles into the opposition penalty box at every available opportunity.  

9) The Second Best Attack In The Country

Across England’s top four divisions, Exeter are second only to Liverpool for goals scored per 90 and xG created per 90. By xG per shot, they rank top. Given the competitive balance in League Two, it’s a big surprise to see a team putting up numbers of that scale, particularly one that currently sits 9th in the table. The Devon-based club have implemented a style of play under manager Matt Taylor that sees them look to enter the box from high-value areas rather than playing into it from deeper positions. Almost all of their box entries have come once they have possession in the final third.   Watch an Exeter game this season and you’re guaranteed to see the ball being flashed across the face of goal or pulled back towards the penalty spot again and again. The optimal execution of this strategy came in their November fixture at home to Colchester United, who had no answer for Exeter’s relentless probing of their penalty area. All six of Exeter’s goals that day came from within the six yard box and – typical manager interview cliché incoming – it really could’ve been even more.   A case of blatant stat-padding, but even excluding that game Exeter still rank first in League Two for both xG created and xG per shot. Maintaining this level of creativity could see them go one better than last season’s play-off final defeat.  

10) Lionel Wessi Seeing Out His Career In Cambridge

Contrary to Exeter, Cambridge take a slightly different approach to progressing the ball and getting into the opposition area. A strategy that makes total sense when you have a player of Wes Hoolahan’s – Lionel Wessi’s - skillset in your ranks. The U’s, top of the league at the time of writing, are much more inclined to take a vertical approach through the centre of the pitch and Hoolahan’s driving runs and subsequent through balls have become a common sight at the Abbey Stadium. Even at 38, the class and quality that earned him over 100 Premier League appearances whilst at Norwich are still obvious and a major asset to Cambridge’s attacking game. You can pick out Hoolahan’s trademark slide passes through gaps in the opposition defence when looking at his open play passes into the penalty box.   The creative spark in the midfield, on a per 90 basis Hoolahan ranks top in League Two for Carries of the ball and more importantly through balls, providing a high-class link between the middle and final third.  

11) Bonus Nutmegs

Lastly, a small, nutmeg-flavoured palate cleanser now we’re at the end. Here's the top five Nutmeggers and Nutmegees of the 2020/21 EFL season. Enjoy.  

Player

Club

Competition

Nutmegs

Antoni Sarcevic Bolton Wanderers League Two 8
Adam Armstrong Blackburn Rovers Championship 7
Siriki Dembele Peterborough United League One 6
Scott Sinclair Preston North End Championship 6
Conor Wilkinson Leyton Orient League Two 6

 

Player

Club

Competition

Nutmegged

James Brophy Leyton Orient League Two 5
Emiliano Buendía Norwich City Championship 4
Oliver Rathbone Rochdale League One 4
Josh Laurent Reading Championship 4
Nathan Byrne Derby County Championship 4

 


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The Players to Watch in the Copa Libertadores Final

Palmeiras and Santos meet in the famous Maracaña stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday in the final of the Copa Libertadores. The two Brazilian teams, both from São Paulo, have a number of interesting players, and here are some to watch out for in the final of South America’s primary club competition.

Rony, Palmeiras

Rony has been Palmeiras’ most productive attacker in their Libertadores campaign, scoring five goals (including one penalty) and providing seven assists. Abel Ferreira’s team take full advantage of opportunities to attack in transition and Rony, fast and direct in all of his actions, plays a key role in the final stages of those attacks. The 25-year-old stood out at Athletico Paranaense last season for the quantity of shots he both created and took, and he has repeated that production at Palmeiras. Not only that, but he has significantly improved his shot locations, taking fewer long-range efforts and more from inside the six-yard box, while also benefiting from an increased throughball supply. Rony is capable of playing on either side of the attack as well as through the centre, as he has done on occasion this season. With or without the ball, he aggressively attacks the penalty area. Only two wingers in the Brazilian top flight, Serie A, touch the ball there more often. Ferreira has a potent attack, with the former Shakhtar Donetsk striker Luiz Adriano at its centre and Willian, Raphael Veiga and the young Gabriel Veron as additional options in the wide positions. Some of them may have had better league seasons, but there can be no doubting that Rony has been the star of the Palmeiras attack in the Libertadores.

Yefferson Soteldo, Santos

Yefferson Soteldo is the key player in the Santos attack. He is at the centre of their ball progression in the attacking half... ...he creates more chances than anyone else... ...and he even gets himself on the scoresheet sometimes, too, as he did in the return leg of the semi-final against Boca Juniors. The pint-sized Venezuelan doesn’t stand out for his ability to break defensive lines with his passing. Amongst all the attacking midfielders and wingers of Serie A, he ranks among those who least often pass the ball forward, both in general and in the final third. But when there is space to attack or when he creates space off the dribble, he is the accelerator of his team’s attacks, driving forward purposefully with the ball at his feet. At an individual level, Soteldo is Santos’ most important player. If he plays well on Saturday, their chances of lifting the Libertadores trophy will be greatly increased.

Gabriel Menino, Palmeiras

Among the primary draws of the Libertadores is that it is a competition studded with ascendant stars, and few enjoyed as ascendant a 2020 as Gabriel Menino. He made his first team debut in January, quickly established himself as a regular starter and was then called up to the Brazil national team in September. Now, after a standout performance in the first leg of the Libertadores semi-final against River Plate, he has the chance to continue his upward momentum in 2021. Menino played as a midfielder in the Palmeiras youth teams, and although he has shown himself to be a versatile player in the first team, playing at full-back, in central midfield and even as an attacking midfielder, he interprets every position in pretty much the same way. National team coach Tite considers him an interesting option at right-back precisely because of his natural inclination to step infield and join the midfield line. The 20-year-old is not especially quick but he does have the necessary strength and technical ability to retain possession under pressure and free himself of his marker to advance the ball via passes or carries. In Serie A, where we have a bigger sample size, he has an important role in progressing the ball forward inside the attacking half, something that is also reflected in a smaller sample in the Libertadores. Menino also provides some output in the final third, with between 2.5 and 2.8 shots and key passes per 90 between the Libertadores and Serie A -- solid figures given the amount of minutes he has played at full-back in both competitions.

Marinho, Santos

Marinho is a wide forward by trade, but he is Santos’ primary shot-taker. Eighteen-year old Kaio Jorge has a more collaborative and supporting role in the centre of the Santos attack -- although he has been more active inside the penalty area during the Libertadores run than he has in the Brazilian league -- and Marinho is the player who takes most advantage of the space created by his movement, cutting in diagonally from the right flank to get off shots. His shot locations do leave something to be desired. If he were still a young player with an opportunity to move on to Europe, it would be something to be worked on and refined. As it is, with a total of 13 non-penalty goals across the Libertadores and the league, the 30-year-old is in the best form of his career. At this stage, he likely is what he is, and this season it is definitely working out for him. Marinho is not an especially efficient player, but he is very active inside the final third and could have a decisive role to play in Saturday’s final.

English Players Abroad: German Bundesliga

Fraser Forster in 2016. The first player based outside of England (in, er... Scotland) to be called-up for an England major tournament squad since Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) and David Beckham (Real Madrid) for the 2006 World Cup. With the recent trend of young English players turning their noses up at the perceived lack of available pathways at Premier League clubs, or seeking a cultural experience on different shores, there’s no denying that this generation of players are not shy of trying their hand away from home and it's highly likely Gareth Southgate's squad for this summer's Euros will contain at least one non-domestic based player. Jadon Sancho’s 2017 move to Borussia Dortmund made him the poster boy for this movement, and he’s the obvious place to start in our round-up of young Lions that have landed in the German Bundesliga. A rising star that went supernova is the only way to describe his 2019-20 season as Sancho contributed 32 non-penalty goals + assists (17G + 15A) at a rate of 1.21 per 90. Only Timo Werner (33 goals + assists) and, of course, Lionel Messi (39) contributed more in the big-5 leagues, and this was from a 20-year-old. The resultant hype was completely justified but expecting Sancho to repeat that was always going to be a big ask (for somebody not called Lionel Messi, at least). To re-align expectations ahead of this season, one could point out that Sancho’s expected contribution numbers – his expected goals plus expected assists – for last season were behind, on a per 90 basis, those of Serge Gnabry, Christopher Nkunku, and Kevin Volland, to name just three in the Bundesliga. All this to say, England's Bundesliga Beau has been having a tougher time of it in this campaign, netting just 2 goals and 5 assists in his 1287 minutes up to now. Let’s be clear, that’s still pretty good: it shakes out at a rate of 0.49 goals + assists per 90 - a goal or assist every 2 games. But, for a player many regard as having a talent worthy of gracing the pinnacle of the game, it’s not quite good enough. Let’s look at the underlying numbers. This season is the first time in Sancho’s Dortmund career that he hasn’t overperformed on his expected numbers by quite a margin. In 2018-19, he netted 25 G+A from 14.35 xG+xA. In 2019-20, it was 32 from 18.26. This season it’s 7 from 7.97. That’s comparing apples and oranges though, given the differences in playing time between the seasons. At a per 90 rate, his expected goal and assist numbers have remained strong across all three seasons: 0.49 in 18/19, 0.69 in 19/20, and 0.56 in 20/21. Whilst bearing in mind that 0.56 xG+xA per 90 is very impressive, it's still a noticeable drop on last season and suggests there's something going on besides the surface-level decline.   It's worth posing the question as to whether Sancho's issues are symptomatic of a bigger collective issue within Dortmund as a team, but no dice. Sort of. There is some symmetry between Sancho underperforming his expected numbers that Dortmund are also guilty of this season, but whilst Dortmund have improved their chance creation this season, Sancho’s output has receded. Let’s look into why. His shot maps from the past three seasons reveal what might be going wrong in a goal scoring sense. There’s one type of chance that Sancho was getting previously that he hasn’t been this season: the high-probability, open-goal tap ins from ~6 yards out.     What is also obvious from the shot maps is that he just isn’t hitting the target as often this season. His Shooting % - the percentage of shots that are on target – is down from 54% last season to 23% this. Needless to say, that alone will cost you goals. There are also issues creatively. His expected assist numbers in open play have dropped from a 1-in-3 expected-assister (0.30 OPxA) to a 1-in-5 expected-assister (0.19OPxA). Drilling down, this appears to be an issue with his final ball. His dribbling numbers are up this season compared to last, as are his Open Play Passes Into the Box (3.57 per 90 up from 2.19), suggesting there's nothing wrong with Sancho's ability to progress the ball into dangerous areas. However, his passes completed inside the box have dropped from 1.09 per 90 in 19/20 to 0.49 per 90 this season. Once inside those dangerous areas, it's not coming off for him. It could be that the increase in Successful Dribbles and Open Play Passes Into The Box but decline in goal-contributions are because Sancho’s playing a bigger role earlier in the attacking phase and he just hasn't been required to lay on the chances or apply the finishing touch as much as he was last season. Well, that theory gets debunked too when looking at the xGChain – a model that attributes the xG value of the final shot to all players involved in the entire possession - of Dortmund’s squad over the last two seasons.     Sancho was consistently involved in Dortmund’s most-productive attacking moves in 2019/20, whereas he’s far less involved this time. So, either Dortmund aren’t moving the ball through Sancho as much or Sancho is being more wasteful with the ball. The data would appear to suggest the latter. His pass completion % (I know, I know) is down from 84% to 79%, his Dispossessed rate is up, and so are the number of Turnovers he's registering. Overall, it's been a much tougher campaign for the starlet this time out, but it needs stressing that this is in the context of his very, very high standards. It’ll be interesting to see whether his form picks up at all under new Dortmund interim coach Edin Terzic, following Lucien Favre’s sacking. Sharing the Dortmund dressing room with Sancho is Jude Bellingham, who's enjoying another positive campaign. In case you need reminding, Bellingham banked 32.0 English Championship 90s last season at the age of 16(!). He can’t drink or drive, but he can outclass experienced professionals twice his age and look comfortable in a physically demanding league. Those who watched him last season will know that the amount of first team minutes was in no way premature, nor was the transfer and size of fee that sealed his move to Dortmund, and nor are the steady stream of minutes he’s now getting in the centre of one of the most talented teams in the world. A mix of starts and appearances off the bench has seen him feature in 7.8 90s - about 40% of the league minutes available so far - and he’s already making an impression in the Bundesliga. Bellingham famously wears the #22 shirt because he can play in all of the ‘4’, ‘8’, or ‘10’ midfield roles and his Jude-of-all-trades skillset has been on display: contributing in breaking up opposition attacks, playing combination passes in buildup, carrying the ball through the centre of the pitch, or making runs beyond the defensive line to get on the end of chances. With the extreme caveats that he’s only featured in <8 games worth of minutes so far and will have enjoyed the sub-effect benefits of having fresh legs off the bench, here’s how his output this season compares with his output at Birmingham last season.     Stepping foot on the pitch for a club of Dortmund’s pedigree at his age would be a good enough indicator of his talent, but Bellingham has already been having a positive influence on the team and making a valuable contribution in every third. Add in the fact that he made his England Under-21 debut in September and his senior England debut in November, it’s been another season of rapid progression for the youngster and there’s half of it still to play. Not bad for a kid who turned 17 in June. As if one 2003-born Englishman getting regular Bundesliga minutes at a German giant wasn’t enough, Jamal Musiala makes it two having muscled his way into the Bayern Munich first team setup this season. Moving to Bayern’s youth setup from Chelsea in the summer of 2019, Musiala became the Bavarian behemoth’s youngest ever Bundesliga player when he came off the bench against Freiburg at the end of the 2019-20 season, aged 17 years and 115 days. It’s said that even Bayern are surprised by the speed at which he has progressed since joining the club: in just over a year, Musiala has moved through Bayern’s under-17’s, under-19’s, and reserve team to join the first team. This season has been another leap in his rapid progression. Musiala has made 13 Bundesliga appearances – 2 starts, 11 off the bench – and has accrued 405 minutes by the mid-way point in the season. Like Bellingham, these aren’t token minutes geared at giving them experience and game time, Musiala has also made telling contributions to Bayern’s season already, his technical ability and impressive work ethic out of possession showing him to be already capable of contributing at this level. It’s a similar story in the England youth setup, with him making his Under-21’s debut in November. Some of his teammates and opponents in that game were five years his senior. His first goal, becoming Bayern’s youngest ever goal scorer in the process, came on the opening day in the 8-0 thrashing of Schalke 04, cutting in from the left flank to finish clinically inside the near post from 16-yards, but his most impressive moment so far came in the top of the table clash against RB Leipzig on December 1st. Having made his first start for the club versus Werder Bremen two weeks prior, Musiala was trusted to be first sub off the bench on 24 minutes after an injury to Javi Martínez, coming on ahead of a more direct replacement in Marc Roca. He made his mark within 5 minutes of coming on, bringing the scores level with another technically-accomplished finish from the edge of the area.     A series of impressive cameos and goal scoring contributions have justified Hansi Flick’s trust in throwing him into the first team so quickly and it leaves him in a good position to continue picking up valuable development time on the pitch and take part in a title race in the second half of the season. Last but not least: Ryan Sessegnon. With Spurs seemingly viewing Sessegnon's long-term future at left-back, as opposed to a more advanced role, a move to a club that would a) play him there but b) allow him to harness his innate attacking instincts was key for his development. It looks like he's found that at Hoffenheim. On the surface, it’s so far, so good. He’s getting the game time he desired when making the move, playing 891 minutes – 54% of the available minutes in the Bundesliga - and his performances have been productive too, netting two goals in trademark style: calm, close-range finishes from the left-hand channel of the box after making a run inside from the wing. Sessegnon's form was so good in November that he won the club's player of the month award. https://twitter.com/RyanSessegnon/status/1334178219063455746?s=20 The regular gametime in his long-term position has been crucial to Sessegnon's progression after an injury-hit first season at Spurs. Playing at left back in the Bundesliga will develop his defensive game through being tested by the calibre of wide players found in a top 5 league, but Hoffenheim's style of play also allows him to continue to influence the game in the final third. His touch map shows that he has the license to play his natural game, get up and down the flank and come inside to attack the box when Hoffenheim are in the attacking phase.     Things are looking rosy for the latest set of English imports to the Bundesliga. There's plenty of reason to keep a close eye on their development and progress in the home stretch of the campaign.


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In Review: The 2020 Swedish Allsvenskan

After the 2019 Allsvenskan season ended in dramatic fashion - Djurgårdens taking the title from Malmö and Hammarby by a single point on the final day, after coming from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 - the 2020 edition had a tough act to follow.

IFK Norrköping were quickest out of the blocks, going 6-2-0 in the opening eight rounds to build a strong lead at the top of the table. Talismanic forward Christoffer Nyman and tricky winger Sead Hakšabanović – eventual top scorer and top assist maker in the league - were dovetailing to great effect at the top of the pitch, with support coming from an unlikely source in centre back Rasmus Lauritsen, responsible for 3 goals and 3 assists in the opening period of the season.

Jens Gustafsson and his team were aiming to go one better than their 2018 title challenge and the early underlying numbers suggested they were on their way to doing so: the Östergötland-based club had the best expected goal difference across the league after eight games. This was largely thanks to an attack that had notched 18 goals (plus 2 penalties) from 13.38 xG, an expected goals figure that was league-best at the time.

However, as we can see from their expected goals trendline, the team were unable to maintain their strong early-season form. As performances dropped off, so did results.


Malmö took full advantage. New manager Jon Dahl Tomasson’s reign had begun steadily and they sat seven points behind Norrköping after that eight game period due to a 3-4-1 start to the season. But, just as Norrköping’s engine faltered, Malmö went pedal-to-the-metal, winning their next eight fixtures in a row to ascend to the top of the table.

The approach in those wins was apparent as Di Blåe imposed their game on the opposition, defending further up the pitch and playing as much of the game in opposition territory as possible. Their Defensive Distance – the average distance from a team’s own goal from which it makes defensive actions – was 53.4 metres through this period, much higher than their average of 49.4 metres across the full season. That was matched by an aggressive press; Malmö recorded 629 pressures in the opposition half through this eight game spell, the highest in the Allsvenskan, and their ratio of pressures in the opposition half versus their total pressures of 59% was also a league-high.

The opening goal of their July fixture away to Östersund set the tone in this regard. As Östersund tried to play out from the back, Malmö formed a very high block and forced the home side to play a rushed clearance to the halfway line. Centre-half Oscar Lewicki made the interception and a string of quick, forward passes saw Ola Toivonen finish a Marcus Antonsson cutback unmarked 12-yards out, just seven seconds after the turnover.


That run of form saw them move into top spot after gameweek 13, a position they would hold onto for the rest of the season in a dominant campaign. They went the entire season unbeaten at the Eleda Stadion, taking 11 wins and 4 draws from their 15 home fixtures, and a goal difference of +34 was more than twice the value of the next best goal difference in the league. Of course, a well-rounded side wouldn't be complete without a solid record from set-plays too; Malmö netted the most set-play goals in the league and also had the joint-best goal difference in this phase of the game.

2019 Allsvenskan 'Midfielder Of The Year' Anders Christiansen retained his title after another season of commanding performances in the middle of the Malmö midfield, and went one better in 2020 to claim the league’s 'Most Valuable Player Of The Year' award for the season too. The Dane was a key contributor on both sides of the ball but his ability to knit defence to attack in particular was crucial in the club’s 21st Allsvenskan title win.


In the battle for European qualification, IF Elfsborg and BK Häcken edged out Djurgården to finish 2nd and 3rd respectively and enter the 2021/22 UEFA Europa League competition.

Djurgården, Allsvenskan Champions in 2019, finished just 1 point behind Häcken and might be frustrated not to have secured a top three finish on the back of some very robust defensive performances. Their 25.8 expected goals conceded, not including penalties, was the best record in the division by this metric, whilst their 0.08 xG per shot conceded ranked 2nd best, reflecting their ability to stifle the opposition from creating quality chances. It was underperformance at this end of the pitch, conceding 31 goals, that ultimately cost them a European qualification spot.


Runners-up Elfsborg had many of the league’s standout performers. Per Frick worked hard up front allowing Rasmus Alm and Simon Olsson to flourish behind him, while Johan Larsson was also a key contributor from right back, finishing as the club’s top assist-maker with 6 having registered both the most Key Passes in the league and the most xG assisted. It was Allsvenskan 'Forward Of The Year' Jesper Karlsson who stole the show for Di Gule though, his performances on the wing earning him a September transfer to AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie.


3rd place was BK Häcken’s highest placing since the 2012 season and their front-foot approach was central to their success. The Gothenburg side repeatedly showed their ability to quickly create shots off turnovers as they ranked joint-2nd for High Press shots - shots generated within 5 seconds of a defensive action in the opposition half - and tied it together effectively with their direct approach in transition, creating the most shots from counter attacks in the league.

Star player Daleho Irandust was central to this approach as his driving runs through the centre of the Bravida Arena pitch to carry Häcken into the attacking third were a regular sight, and his creativity in the final third saw him accrue the 2nd-most xG assisted from open play across the entire Allsvenskan. His high output in this area was a sizeable reason why he was recently identified as having a similar style to Atalanta keystone Papu Gómez by the Similar Player Search tool in our IQ platform.

As exciting as it was at the top, some of the brighter storylines were to be found further down the league table. To say that newly-promoted Mjällby adapted to their new surroundings with ease to stay up comfortably would be an understatement. Returning to the top flight after their 2014 relegation, the Hällevik-based club finished 5th, a club record, and their tally of 47 points was only four behind runners-up Elfsborg at the close of play.

It was a combination of deep defending and wise shot selection that powered the surprise package to their lofty position: up front the side paired the 3rd-best xG per shot with the 3rd closest average Shot Distance, taking the fewest shots from outside the box in the process. At the back, the team combined the 2nd highest Passes Per Defensive Action with the lowest percentage on StatsBomb’s Aggression metric at 17% (the proportion of an opponent’s pass receipts that are tackled, fouled or pressured within 2 seconds), prioritising their defensive shape over engaging the opposition.


Which brings us to Varbergs BoIS. Promoted alongside Mjällby and themselves making their debut in the Swedish topflight, the West Coast side led by Joakim Persson took a different approach to that of their fellow Allsvenskan newcomers. While Mjällby were happy to sit in their shape out of possession, Varberg were much more proactive in their defensive approach and recorded the most Pressures as a team in the 2020 Allsvenskan season, actively engaging the opposition across virtually the entire pitch.


Star of the show for 7th-placed Örebro was undoubtedly goalkeeper Oscar Jansson, whose efforts were recognised with a 'Goalkeeper Of The Year' award. Örebro finished the season with a -4 goal difference, but with a -16.8 expected goal difference (including penalties). Such a large discrepancy wasn't solely down to Jansson's heroics, but the data still shows the former Tottenham Hotspur 'keeper to be a worthy winner of the award: StatsBomb data ranked Jansson as having the 2nd best Shot Stopping %, relative to the quality of the shots he faced, in the league, as well as ranking 2nd in StatsBomb's "Claimable" metric, a measure of how likely a goalkeeper is to claim a "claimable" pass.


At the bottom of the table, a three-horse relegation battle was eventually won by Kalmar, consigning Helsingborg and Falkenberg to the 2021 Superettan. Kalmar’s defence-first approach in the final few weeks of the season saw them keep four clean sheets and pick up nine points from their final six games to overtake their rivals at the bottom of the table, having sat bottom of the league as late as gameweek 26.

Their penultimate fixture away at AIK was the key result, an 83rd minute Erik Israelsson goal from a corner securing a win that, combined with Helsingborg’s draw with Falkenberg, confirmed that Kalmar would avoid automatic relegation.


Their 2021 Allsvenskan place was finally confirmed after a 4-1 aggregate victory in the relegation/promotion play-off over Superettan’s 3rd-placed side Jönköpings Södra. With Helsingborg and Falkenberg dropping a division, their places will be taken in the 2021 Allsvenskan by Superettan champions Halmstads BK and runners-up Degerfors in what promises to be another lively campaign.

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Süper Lig analysis: January update

Welcome back to the Wild East!

What's happened since the last Süper Lig update? We have a new top goalscorer in Aaron Boupendza having just scored 12 goals from 6 starts, a new leader in Beşiktaş who shot up the table from 9th at the time of my previous article, a title holder Başakşehir that, despite having the second best xG in the league, roams right above relegation spots, and more. Let’s take a look at the underlying numbers in the 9-match period since November 27. Beşiktaş made amends for their terrible start by cruising through this period with 23 points from a possible 27 and found themselves top of the league, while Alanyaspor slipped from the top with 10 points out of possible 30. Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, meanwhile, kept their pace in around the top spot.

Beşiktaş – Sergen Yalçın’s Winning Formula

  Let’s start with Rachid Ghezzal who is topping the assist charts in the league with eight to his name. Leicester City didn’t quite get what they were looking for from their Riyad Mahrez replacement and that should not come as a surprise looking at the radar below – not quite the all-rounder even at Süper Lig level. However, he’s producing a staggering 0.28 open play xG assisted and 0.44 xG assisted per 90 for Beşiktaş so far. Those are elite numbers, and they’d be quite happy if he kept on doing just that. What sort of player you would want on the other flank of a 4-2-3-1 if Ghezzal on the right is creating chances at such rate while having close to no goal scoring potential? A goal scoring wide forward with box presence and a nous for getting into high quality shot locations? Introducing Cyle Larin, second top goalscorer in the league with 11. Previously a striker, the Canadian reinvented himself this season as a wide forward under Yalçın and he’s finding himself on the end of a ton of chances so far, producing elite output both with his 0.64 xG per 90 and his xG/shot of 0.24. Besides the perfect fit of these two players in the final third, the majority of the success is coming from Yalçın finding the right formula in buildup play and how his team positions themselves in the opposition half – in fact, Ghezzal and Larin could only start three of these nine games together. Yalçın found box-to-box skills out of 37-year old veteran defensive midfielder Atiba Hutchinson who contributed with 3 goals and 4 assists, while Hutchinson’s defensive midfield partner Josef de Souza often drops between the centre-backs and has improved the build-up play. Full-backs Valentin Rosier and Rıdvan Yılmaz have been playing very well in advanced roles to aide the aforementioned roles of Ghezzal and Larin, and striker Vincent Aboubakar has been excellent in link-up play. Players have been rotated in and out of the 11 through this period, but Yalçın deserves credit for fitting the rotation players into the same dynamics and getting results. That said, Beşiktaş have overperformed their underlying numbers by 6 goals in total, so the recent honeymoon might not last forever.

Galatasaray – Best In The League, Too Reliant On Their Positional Play?

  Galatasaray boasts the best xG difference in the league by a margin, both in this 8-game period at +1.0 xG difference per 90, and with their season average of +0.87 per 90. Galatasaray fans would not have expected to be the best team in the league after not being able to sufficiently strengthen the squad in the summer, and doubts still remain, with the slightest hiccup leading to heavy criticism of the team by the fanbase. Yet, Fatih Terim managed to put together a side that’s out to dominate games and definitely looking a strong contender for the title considering the output to date. However, as a symptom of the squad’s shortcomings, Galatasaray might be too reliant on their positional play. Terim is a manager that wants to dominate games, and the attacking options in the team are mostly technical but slow players that lack mobility and stamina, such as Sofiane Feghouli, Younes Belhanda, Arda Turan, Emre Akbaba, and Ryan Babel. Add striker Mbaye Diagne to that equation, who barely does anything on the pitch besides poach goals, and the fact that Galatasaray is having a disastrous season in set-pieces, and what you end up having is a team that purely relies on positional play to score goals. The team can’t counter-attack, can’t press much, and can’t score from set pieces. So far, by the underlying numbers, a combination of strength in positional play and a league-best defensive performance seems to be doing just fine and Galatasaray is on a good course if they keep this up, but diversifying would definitely help as they do struggle when the opposition has a good enough plan to stifle their positional play. If Monaco’s Henry Onyekuru comes back in January for a third spell on loan as rumored, he could provide some counter-attacking shots to the mix.

Fenerbahçe – Bulut Flying The Mourinho Flag

  One of the biggest talking points within this nine match period was the war of words between Fenerbahçe manager Erol Bulut and Alanyaspor manager Çağdaş Atan after Fenerbahçe’s 2-1 win at home. Fenerbahçe ended the game with 30% possession, which led Atan to moan about the Istanbul giant not making a proper game out of it with their approach and that no title winner in top 5 leagues plays like that anymore. Bulut replied in a Mourinho-esque way, saying it was the right strategy to beat Alanyaspor and only the win matters. Fenerbahçe looks like the opposite of Galatasaray in attacking terms – open play issues continue with a mediocre open play xG of 1.0 per 90 that is only slightly above league average, but is compensated for by a best-in-class 0.46 xG per 90 from set plays. On the defensive side, although things were looking really drab in two bruising losses in a row versus Yeni Malatyaspor and Gaziantep containing some alarming centre-back performances, Fenerbahçe is a good defensive unit as a team with second best underlying numbers and an increasingly healthy pressure in the opposition half, as shown below. It’s fair to say the Süper Lig underdogs struggle to create in the positional play they find themselves handed against Fenerbahçe, as they are mostly hardwired to counterattack against these sides. Averaging only 52% possession to date, Erol Bulut is clearly showing much less interest in dominating games compared to his title rivals, flying the “Mourinho” flag in Süper Lig. Their main source of creativity in open play is crosses from left-back Caner Erkin who’s at 98th percentile of the full-backs in the world with 0.21 open play xG assisted per 90. That’s double that of Trent Alexander-Arnold this season. He’s also responsible for creating the lion’s share of the set-piece xG.   Looking at the above trendline with a 5-game rolling average, we can see that Fenerbahçe’s performance has been on the decline but they still managed to get four wins on the bounce in their last four, two of them against strong sides in Başakşehir and Alanyaspor. A good chunk of the decline can be attributed to the set-piece xG that crashed back down to Earth, with 0.30 per 90 in last 9 games after an incredible 0.60 in the first 8 games. How can they improve in open play to compensate for that? The rumoured transfer of Mesut Özil could certainly help, but there are deeper tactical issues with Bulut’s approach to be confident of sustainably being able to unlock deep defensive lines for the remainder of the season. We will see whether Bulut or Atan proves right, but Atan has a point in questioning the footballing identity of choice.

Başakşehir – A Classic Case Of Variance In Football Stats

  To say holders Başakşehir are struggling with their title defence would be an understatement. They find themselves 12th in the table after 17 games played, just six points above safety. They are indeed unlucky this season – they are underperforming their xG difference by 10 goals, but last year’s title win saw them have a goal difference of +31, overperforming their xG difference by 15 goals. Başakşehir actually has almost identical xG difference per 90 with last season, with a very healthy xG right below Galatasaray, but a league average defensive performance is the main problem. One bright spot for them is their star midfielder Irfan Can Kahveci, who first made the headlines after a Champions League hat-trick against RB Leipzig, and now with Fatih Terim publicly declaring Galatasaray’s interest in him. The transfer looks unlikely due to the gap between Galatasaray’s budget and Başakşehir’s asking price, but let’s take a look at how he compares to Galatasaray’s Younes Belhanda, who he would likely replace as the playmaker in the midfield trio. Neither player seems that interested in the defensive side of things, but Irfan Can grabs the attention as an elite dribbler compared to Belhanda and progresses the ball to final third significantly more than his Moroccan counterpart.  

Alanyaspor In Freefall

  Alanyaspor’s fall from grace is not like Başakşehir – their initial excellent start was entirely deserved, but so is their demise since late November. Their offensive output has fallen off a cliff, as seen below in their attacking radar. What happened? Teams started treating them like a big club in their tactical preparation, to the extent that even Fenerbahçe did, and they are so far finding it hard to break those defences down. It’s also telling that two of their wins through this terrible period came against Beşiktaş and Başakşehir - teams that were willing to play open.    

Aaron Boupendza

  Finally, since we mentioned him at the start, here’s Aaron Boupendza’s radar. More of a goal-every-other-game type of underlying performance rather than 1.50 goals per 90 as you can see, but that’s not to take away from the start to his Süper Lig career. Let’s see if he ends up as one of those that graduate to the big three of Istanbul.   If you are a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please get in touch.