There was a point in the last couple of seasons where Brentford’s eventual promotion to the Premier League upgraded from a strong possibility to a complete inevitability. Pedants will point to 4:55 pm on 29th May 2021, the moment Chris Kavanagh put the whistle to his lips to bring the curtain down on the play-off final victory over Swansea, but for many the realisation came months, if not years, earlier.
How many times have we seen Brentford lose a vital member of their squad over the last few seasons?
Players regarded as some of the best the Championship had to offer, let alone the Brentford XI, whose departures unquestionably weakened the squad? The names roll off the tongue: Gray, Tarkowski, Hogan, Woods, Colin, Jota, Egan, Mepham, Konsa, Maupay, Benrahma, Watkins. Each were sold for millions, sometimes tens of millions of pounds, and represented a substantial loss to a team with promotion ideas.
Or at least they would’ve meant a substantial loss to other, less smart teams. But this was all part of the process for Brentford. The consistency with which the Bees would simply get harder, better, faster*, stronger (not always faster, Scott Hogan had some meeps) after selling a high-quality footballer was as impressive as it was daunting for their competition. The funny thing about it? Brentford more or less told everyone what they were doing, and executed anyway. It’s one thing to identify an edge or three, but to then give your rivals a big clue as to what you’re up to and how you’re going about it, before gesturing a friendly wave at them in the rearview mirror as you speed past, is another. The steely bullishness of the club initially drew scorn from some quarters who turned their nose up at it early on, but scorn was soon replaced by curiosity, and curiosity soon replaced with acclaim.
The evolution towards the team they have now was an interesting road that took many seasons, and lessons were clearly learned along the way. Under Dean Smith, the team was young and volatile; wild swings in form and turbulence in results were a common trend. As Thomas Frank came in, the recruitment strategy turned towards a more rounded blend of age and experience. In the 2020/21 promotion season, the squad saw an almost perfect allocation of minutes; a sprinkling of youthful exuberance, a heavy dose of peak-age ability, and a select few wise old heads to steer the on-pitch ship.
The makeup of the squad, and Thomas Frank’s tactical evolution of the side, started to steady what were previously unstable results. Brentford were prone to streaks of both positive and negative form under Dean Smith. They’d be playing great football and looking like one of the best sides in the league in one month, and the next be exposed repeatedly in defence with the team looking unbalanced towards attacking flair. Frank took a while to get his ideas across, but there’s no arguing with the process or the results in his two full seasons in charge.
Frank was a member of the coaching staff under Smith and took over the hotseat in October 2018 when Smith departed for boyhood club Aston Villa. It created an interesting dynamic: he clearly would’ve been involved in the implementation and drilling of the game model under Smith, but also must’ve been watching with some clear ideas of his own as to how the team could improve. There were very subtle changes in the team’s attacking output; the team became more open to crossing the ball and attacked with slightly more pace, but process and outcomes more or less remained the same.
But it was on the defensive end where Frank made a huge difference and clearly demonstrated that he can coach a more effective defence than Smith, or at least the Smith that was at Brentford. Under Smith, the Bees earned a deserved reputation for playing free-flowing, attacking football in the Championship, a draw for the many talented attackers they recruited in the Matthew Benham era. But the factor that finally earned them promotion was developing a league-best defensive process. Only Leeds conceded fewer expected goals (xG) than Brentford in 2019/20--no one bettered them in 2020/21.
The thing about the promotion-winning Brentford side was that they were good at… well, everything. Pick a metric, Brentford were within touching distance of the top of it at both ends of the pitch. This was a team with many strengths and very few, quite honestly any, weaknesses.
|Metric (per 90 minutes)||For||Against|
|Expected Goals||1.40 (2nd)||0.79 (1st)|
|Shots||13.2 (3rd)||8.4 (1st)|
|Counter Attacking Shots||1.1 (3rd)||0.6 (5th)|
|High Press Shots||2.2 (3rd)||1.3 (4th)|
|1 v 1 Shots*||2.4 (2nd)||1.3 (2nd)|
|Set-Piece Goals||0.27 (8th)||0.18 (5th)|
|Final Third Entries||38.1 (7th)||34.9 (5th)|
|Passes Inside The Box||3.2 (2nd)||1.6 (1st)|
*Shots with just the goalkeeper between ball and goal
They could hurt you on the counterattack, but you couldn’t hurt them back. They could press you high and turn the ball over, but they’d just play through you if you tried to do the same. They regularly created clear chances on goal, but you always found an outstretched Ethan Pinnock leg in the way when you caught a rare glimpse of the net. They’d bully you from set-pieces, but David Raya was always there to punch yours away. They found it easy to pass their way through your defensive setup and reach dangerous territory, but you’d be doing well if you completed two passes in Brentford’s penalty area in a game.
The irony won’t be lost on anyone – least of all Benham and his staff – that Brentford were automatic promotion candidates in each of the last two seasons according to the expected goals “table of justice”, but fell short on both occasions to land in a play-off spot in the real-life-football-is-played-on-grass-not-spreadsheets table. Brentford had the 2nd best expected goal difference in 2019/20 - many observers felt they deserved to go up that year - but they fell short in the last half an hour of the season, losing in play-off final extra time to Fulham. They must’ve feared a similar outcome this season when they were again 2nd-best in the expected goals table, this time just behind Norwich, and were again favourites in the play-off final, this time against Swansea. They needn't have worried. The game could hardly have started any better to settle the nerves. An early Ivan Toney penalty ten minutes into the game, followed by a lightning-quick, smooth and slick counterattack to put them 2-0 up midway through the first half was enough to see off Swansea, who never really came within touching distance after that.
So what to expect in the Premier League? Gut instinct says that the same calm serenity that comes from the top of the club will remain, enabling Frank and his team to attack the division as they see fit, likely taking a pragmatic approach to each individual challenge; sometimes taking the game to the opponent, other times hoping to nick a draw or win with carefully selected counterattacking opportunities. Two bits of their summer business, in particular, give strong clues as to the areas of the game they’ll be prioritising in their maiden Premier League outing. Frank Onyeka’s arrival from FC Midtjylland adds depth to the central midfield, particularly with news of Josh Dasilva’s struggles to get fit. When Dasilva broke down in February, it was clear that Brentford missed his ability to dribble the ball through the midfield, weaving through challenges as he carried the ball into the final third. Dasilva was second only to Mathias Jensen for the number of passes and carries made into the final third on a per 90 minute basis - ball progression from the middle third was an area they needed to strengthen this summer and Onyeka’s profile is not dissimilar to that of Dasilva’s.
Judging by Onyeka’s profile, he’ll bring a similar ability on the ball and there are strong indicators that the 23-year-old will be able to cope with the intense pressure and physicality that comes in a Premier League midfield battle. Being able to retain the ball under pressure will be key if Brentford are to continue to play through the thirds and execute swift counterattacks. Onyeka won 2.7 fouls per 90 minutes last season (2nd amongst Danish Super Liga central midfielders) and turned the ball over just 1.3 times per game, bringing a press resistance and drive to the centre of Brentford’s midfield that’s lacking without Dasilva. It helps that Onyeka is a capable and regular contributor to the defensive side of the ball as well. The second key signing is that of Yoane Wissa from Lorient. Wissa signs after a six-goal + four assists (not including penalties) season in Ligue 1 after establishing himself as one of Ligue 2’s best wide forwards in the two seasons prior. We all know how effective Brentford have been at shopping for the best attacking talents in Ligue 2 before – Neal Maupay and Saïd Benrahma were sold for nearly £50 million to Premier League clubs, and Bryan Mbeumo is regarded as every bit as talented as those two. Who’d bet against Wissa replicating that success, albeit at a higher level? Wissa profiles like a goalscoring wide forward with an ability to get on the end of close-range chances in the box. His data profile is encouraging, contributing 0.40 xG & xG Assisted per 90 minutes for a side that finished 16th in the table, and in a league that has traditionally translated well to the Premier League.
The Congolese forward clearly favours shot quality over shot quantity with an xG per shot of 0.16, meaning we could expect a goal roughy every six shots from him. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him and 33-goal Ivan Toney battling to tap in the numerous loose balls that Brentford seem to so consistently generate around the six-yard box. Toney may not like it, but it can only be a good thing for Brentford. What does Wissa’s profile have in common with Onyeka? Fouls won. Wissa drew 3.1 fouls per 90 last season, fourth in Ligue 1 for attacking midfielders and wingers. The prominence of both Onyeka and Wissa’s foul winning rates leads to a suspicion that this may be a deliberate ploy to draw more set-piece opportunities in a season where Brentford may have to lean on them for goalscoring chances… we will have to wait and see.
The other incoming to date is that of Kristoffer Ajer from Celtic, a move seen as something of a coup given the Norwegian has been linked with clubs much higher in the food chain than Brentford in recent seasons. After a season in which Celtic’s stock fell, Brentford took advantage to add a pacey and technical ball-playing centre back to their ranks and a player who looks like a great complement to the aerial and defensive skillsets of Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock. Could Brentford’s plan A be the same 3-5-2 they deployed towards the end of last season?
Something that may surprise fans and Premier League observers is that the betting markets rate Brentford as the strongest of the three promoted sides. To those that keep an eye on these things, it’ll be less surprising—Brentford were consistently one of the promotion favourites in the Championship for several consecutive seasons before they actually got over the line. Their underlying numbers plus general reputation for being canny operators mean that the markets have a lot more confidence in them than you’d perhaps expect for a side playing top-tier football for the first time in 74 years. The Bees will hope that there’ll be three sides worse off points-wise than them come May - their fellow promoted clubs plus Crystal Palace, Newcastle, and Burnley are seen as their main competition. Clubs that have perennially struggled at the bottom of the Premier League should be wary of the fact that Brentford now have a Premier League budget on which to execute what they’ve demonstrated time and time again is a highly effective blueprint. Even if they don’t quite pull it off, you can’t help but feel this is only the beginning of Brentford’s longer-term Premier League journey.
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The introduction to last year's Leicester season preview reads:
It’s extremely uncharitable to take a look back at 2019-20 and declare it anything other than a success for Leicester. Yes, Champions League qualification looked likely for most of the season, and to miss out was ultimately a disappointment, but the trajectory and outcome were more than fine.
So, I guess it appears as though Leicester are destined to live out the same season over and over again, in some weird Edge of Tomorrow like fashion. Champions League qualification looked likely, they were disappointed to miss out, but the trajectory and 5th place outcome were more than fine, AND they took home an FA Cup for their troubles this time around. It’s the trajectory that counts and Leicester are certainly on the right track. The Headline Numbers Whilst on the surface Leicester's 5th place finish matched their 2019/20 placing, when you dig a little deeper there's actually been quite a bit of change. Firstly, the underlying numbers have taken a hit from the lofty heights they set in 2019/20 when they finished 4th for expected goal (xG) difference. Last season only Sheffield United dropped off more in this regard. All of their overperformance came in attack. They conceded 46 goals from 46 xG, but up front scored 58 goals from 47 expected. Kelechi Iheanacho, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes ran especially hot, with Iheanacho's emergence as a reliable goalscorer in particular really helping to propel the Foxes into European contention, notching 12 goals from seven xG. Iheanacho’s contribution was especially important given that Jamie Vardy had his first poor finishing season in four campaigns, flipping Iheanacho’s conversion rate by getting seven goals from 12 xG. Looking across the season as a whole, you can see the oh-so-difficult Christmas period that really hurt the underlying numbers, even if actual results around that period weren't so bad. Something that many teams struggled with in a particularly intense fixture schedule in 2020/21. We get some interesting results when we break these xG numbers down further by looking at Leicester's xG difference during each game state. Here you can see that Leicester are an exceptional team when they're winning, which is perhaps no surprise given the attacking talents they have to play in transition and Brendan Rodgers’ track record of setting teams up to play efficiently on the break. The squad lends itself to this approach: Vardy is notoriously great in this phase of the game, Barnes is a fantastic ball carrier at pace, and then you have Maddison and Youri Tielemans who can play the high-value pass whilst having enough mobility to stay with the play. On the other hand, Leicester really struggle when losing. They don't have trouble moving the ball into the final third - they ranked 6th for deep progressions - but keeping the ball in-and-around the box has not been a strength of theirs as they rank 13th for deep completions (successful passes within 20 meters of goal). A large factor in their struggles when behind is that their xG per shot drops from 0.13 to 0.08, meaning they either resort to lower-quality efforts on goal or they struggle to break down teams defending a lead. Their most common pass clusters tell a similar story of ball progression, but only up to the final third. They're also quite lopsided in the opposition half - a lot of play goes through Tielemans and subsequently Iheanacho, who's much more involved than his striker partner Vardy. Let's dig deeper into whether those passes are providing value. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), rates the impact of each action on the pitch and estimates the positive or negative impact the action has on a team’s likelihood of scoring. The OBV Leicester generate across the pitch when they’re behind versus when they’re ahead is revealing: That right-sided bias is showing through again and it becomes more prominent when they're chasing the game, but they still generate plenty of OBV in deeper areas down that right-hand side regardless of game state. In contrast, the left side is a bit of a black hole when Leicester are losing - hopefully Barnes can return to his best and resolve much of this - he clocked the 16th highest OBV per 90 last season after all, for players with >900 minutes played. Where Leicester found it difficult to create high-value chances against their opponents when behind, their opponents did not find it as difficult to create high-value chances against them. When Leicester were pushing for equalisers, their xG per shot conceded rocketed up to 0.21--their opponent's shots in this game state had a 1-in-5 chance of being converted. The evidence suggests that Leicester struggled to manage the threat of the counter when they were pushing to get back in the game. The xG trendline also shows their xG conceded has been creeping upwards, so what's going on at the back? One explanation might be Leicester's pressing, which was down quite a bit last season. This is despite an ongoing uptick in defensive activity since Rodgers' arrival, so it seems unlikely this was a deliberate change in approach. Leicester averaged 168 pressures per 90 in 2019-20 compared to just 135 last season. Now a lot of this will be down to the crowded schedule, and we saw pressures drop on the whole across most leagues, but Leicester appear to have suffered more than most. Here's the defensive activity maps for both seasons: The Squad The Foxes have developed a reputation for being shrewd operators in the transfer market, showing great patience to build the squad up again since the title-winning season. It can be difficult when squad building to balance future potential versus immediate strength, and they've executed particularly well to maintain a challenge for top four while simultaneously getting themselves into a position to continue targeting Europe for the next few years. Key players like Wilfred Ndidi, Iheanacho, Tielemans and Maddison will begin to hit their peak over the next few seasons, while Barnes, Wesley Fofana and James Justin have years ahead of them. The squad was hit by some big injuries last season just as it was the season before, but it's a sign that they're operating from a solid internal process given they always have players ready to step in, whether from the academy or through recruitment. That the forward line hasn’t needed major regeneration for a number of years is testament to Jamie Vardy’s longevity but, at 34, the time is finally getting close for him to hand the reigns over. Leicester are confident they’ve found his replacement in RB Salzburg forward Patson Daka, the big question is: is he any good? Probably! Player evaluation can be tricky when they play for a team as dominant as Salzburg are in the Austrian Bundesliga, but his numbers certainly pop. That they still pop when he plays in the Champions League is an encouraging sign, albeit the sample size gets rough. One thing to note is that the 22-year-old shows real maturity - his shot locations are excellent and he seems to have a good understanding of his own game. Much like Vardy, he plays on the last man, is great in transition, and understands how to use his pace without the ball at his feet. It might take some time for him to find his feet, but given how Iheanacho just reminded us all that player development is rarely a smooth upward trajectory, Daka should receive plenty of slack. As for the other signings, it all looks very good - from the sensible in Ryan Bertrand and Jannik Vestergaard (assuming that deal gets over the line) to the downright exciting in Boubakary Soumaré. Parting Thoughts You might be inclined to read the headline underlying numbers above and think Leicester could be in for a difficult season if they produce similar numbers to those of last season. It’s a possible outcome, but given the quality of the squad and manager, and the general outlier than last season was as a whole, it seems more likely that Leicester revert to a process that should see them knocking on the door of the Champions League places once again. They’ve bolstered the squad with what look like top signings, and the return of Barnes should balance the attack better. As noted, we’ll need to watch out for how they perform when behind; if they continue to struggle, that could lead to dropped points that could cost them a place or two in the table. But, this team can play fantastic transition football and, with the current state of the modern game, you can go a loooong way playing great transition ball. All it takes is some better luck with injuries and one of last season's top four to have issues, and Leicester are in business.
Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here If you're a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn
First let's take a moment to salute Roy Hodgson. From Palace youth player to retiring as Palace manager by way of a successful 45 year multi-continent managerial career, Hodgson has been a titan of the game and he will be missed, not least from the post-game interview circuit, on which he was ever good value. In truth, he leaves Palace at a good time for his legacy, as results have skewed ahead of expectation for a couple of seasons now and we can but speculate how much of a factor his veteran savvy was when placed next to landing on the right side of some statistical variance. What statistical variance would that be? That's the expected goals for Hodgson's (nearly) four seasons in charge and here are the seasonal outcomes: [table id=104 /] If i'm Roy Hodgson i'm pointing at the league table. Last year I wrote that ahead of the season were Palace given the option to take 17th, they would be wise to accept. The trending in metrics season to season was bad enough that it was a valid suggestion. The team had just scored 31 goals total in a season and seen their expected numbers crater by nearly 20 goals. In reality, Palace were never really in danger of relegation--by early March they had 30+ points and were ten points clear of 18th place--while their metrics got worse, in particular further declining as they coasted in to port late on. What was bad about 2020-21 Crystal Palace? Firstly, the defence conceded a lot of goals--66 was more than everyone bar Southampton and West Brom. Now that's a top line red flag that doesn't improve when peering beneath the surface, Vicente Guaita did have a less successful 2020-21 compared to 2019-20, but he basically kept goals out at expectation instead of buying his team an extra eight goals as he had done before. At the other end of the pitch, finally Christian Benteke scored ahead of xG (10 goals vs 8 xG) for the first time in a number of seasons and was backed up by ahead-of-xG finishing from Eberechi Eze (4 from 2) and Wilfred Zaha too (9 from 6). In attack, finally nobody bombed out. As we know, this kind of overperformance is nice to have, but impossible to rely on and technically, only Sheffield United's attack was worse. Enter Patrick Vieira, but which one? The Patrick Vieira that managed New York City FC initially brought a possession game to the team before transitioning towards a high energy outfit stocked with younger talents, and was relatively successful, insofar as his team competed at the top of their Conference. Upon accepting the challenge to move to Nice in 2018, it could perhaps be presumed that Vieira might pursue a similar style, but what transpired wasn't quite the same. Nice weren't unsuccessful with Vieira at the helm but at least in his first season, 2018-19, goals were super hard to come by (they scored 30, one fewer than Palace in 2019-20) and finished seventh after a raft of low scoring games. At this point the style of play was somewhat disjointed, still prioritising a passing game from the back, but not necessarily very effective with it. Nice were a young team though and pointed upwards the following year in finishing fifth, albeit with warning signs. A season long ballooning over their non-penalty expected goal difference, which remained a steady -0.18 per game across both seasons helped but they remained a possession heavy (58% in 2018-19, 55% in 2019-20) unit with no real commitment to any kind of press and with very little functional cutting edge. His eventual dismissal in December 2020 was the result of a succession of stepped-on rakes in the form of five straight defeats in all competitions, four of which were at home, but actually coincided with metrics finally pointing upwards: There isn't a ton to get excited about here, but sub-par metrics plus above par outcomes does speak quite loudly as to Hodgson's last two seasons, albeit via a structurally different plan. Vieira is coming in here taking over a team that has struggled recently, and it does feel a risk if he looks to deploy a possession first outlook, mainly due to the transition that will be required in this Crystal Palace team. In recent seasons, it has escaped nobody's attention that Palace have been an aging team and their 2020 transfer window started address that with the signings of Eberechi Eze and Nathan Ferguson. Unfortunately Ferguson missed the entire season injured while a steady opening season from Eze was suffixed by an achilles injury which is thought to see him likely to miss a good portion of 2021-22. Not part of the plan, we go again! Weirdly my preview last season included a section on Conor Gallagher which detailed how his split season across Charlton and Swansea in 2019-20 saw different aspects of his play come to the fore, and was a useful instruction to factoring in team styles into player evaluation. He then rocked up at West Brom and found similar divergence playing first for Slaven Bilić and then for Big Sam Allardyce, each of which meant that his statistical profile once more varied: It paints a mixed picture, but is pretty positive for a young player in their first season in the league on a relegated team. The guy who logged 83% pass completion for Bilić will fit in nicely to Vieira's plans, the 75% guy who played for Allardyce perhaps less so. Elsewhere, the proverbial chequebook has come out for some promising talent in Reading's Michael Olise and Chelsea's Marc Guéhi, who impressed on loan at Swansea last season and is likely ready for a step up in league. Both these signings look ideal, talented young players ready for the next step in their career, but the caution is in the entire squad profile. Palace's rebuild appears to have come a little late, and as such the squad skews away from the age group it likely needs to--prime. The one signing that sits bang on the line here is that of Joachim Anderson, another player who spent 2020-21 on loan at a relegated side (this time Fulham) while performing not without credit. He was linked with Tottenham earlier in the summer and can viably be considered a coup for Palace. Guéhi and Anderson likely slot right in at left and right centre back especially give that the 1-2-3 2020-21 depth at left centre back (Gary Cahill, Scott Dann and Mamadou Sakho) have all departed and right centre back was mainly manned by Cheikhou Kouyaté, who may be a centre back now but certainly wasn't always. A slew of contracts ended for Palace in the summer of 2021 and in particular, departures from long term veterans and regular performers such as Andros Townsend and Patrick van Aanholt mean the squad currently looks light overall, with a particular deficiency in midfield. Of course the transfer window is open a while yet so remedial action may be taken, but it appears likely that Palace will start the season without a strong bench. It's possible that Palace are waiting for the music to stop elsewhere and planning to offer regular playing time to some of the top clubs less wanted stars, and that's certainly a strategy that may bear fruit. Projection Squad turnover and thinness, a lack of prime age players, a new manager likely to change the style of play and long term sub-par metrics all point at risk factors ahead of 2021-22. Palace have rightly been praised for some of their moves in this window for addressing their long term future, but they still need to stay in this league in the present to benefit from those moves and that may prove tough. Last season's projection was thus: The trending is wrong and it will take distinct and real change to the team's metrics to give them a chance of steering clear of a relegation battle. Hodgson has been in the game long enough to see the warning signs and in most Premier League seasons there are double the amount of teams that perform at a level to put themselves into the relegation mix, so he may like the chances of winning a coin flip. But planning and execution of strategy are what limit risks such as this, and having been reactive rather than proactive in turning over their squad it could well be tough for the club. Offered seventeenth today, you'd have to take it. In truth very similar remarks apply now. The bookmakers have Palace, Brentford, Norwich, Watford, Burnley and Newcastle in the mix for sub-40 points at this juncture, meaning once more a likely six teams for three relegation spots, the same either/or dynamic as last season. This end of the table is a new challenge for Vieira and he will need all his man management skills to get the best from this squad, week in, week out and keep them competitive. Offered seventeenth today, they should take it.
Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here If you're a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn
It was a season of two halves on Tyneside. In the early stages of 2021, the club lingered just three points above the drop zone and frustrations were swirling around the fanbase. But, tactical shifts and shrewd January signings saw Steve Bruce oversee a solid finish to the campaign and a 12th place finish. A repeat of that will be the aim in 2021/22. The football in the first half of the campaign was defensively reactive and blunt in attack. Things were objectively below-par at both ends of the pitch: Newcastle were consistently being out-created by their opponents and coming out on the wrong side of games. Tactically, they consistently started with either a 4-4-2 or dropped into a more reactive 3-5-2/3-4-3 (defaulting to 5 at the back when they are without the ball). Within that, it’s hard to define the football that Steve Bruce’s team were trying to play. In possession, Newcastle completed the 2nd-fewest passes within 20 metres of goal (2.7), completed just 1.5 passes inside the opponent's box (both metrics per 90 minutes), and 37% of their passes into the penalty area came from wide crosses. This matches the eye test. When playing a back four, the central midfield pairing (usually two of Jonjo Shelvey, Isaac Hayden, or Jeff Hendrick) were outnumbered 3v2 against the majority of teams in the league, who mostly opt for three-man midfields (if you care about this sort of thing, 4-2-3-1 was the leading shape of choice in the Premier League last season). This lead to plenty of hopeful punts up the pitch into the channels for the centre forwards to chase and, with the back three often a back five, there was rarely much width offered by the wing backs; consequently they were unable to play much of a role in build-up play. Out of possession, Newcastle had the lowest PPDA in the league with 13.8; applied just 37% of their pressures in the opposition half; and conceded 15 shots per game. Essentially, Newcastle sat deep and looked to bend but not break to the opposition pressure. Regardless of formation, they sat very narrow and flooded the centre of the pitch to negate the opponent’s ability to play through them. Fine if you’re able to keep your rivals at arms length, but it presented issues in the attacking end with all their creativity parked behind the ball and in areas that made it difficult for them to perform. Looking at their On-Ball Value numbers - our new possession value model that rates every action performed on the pitch by how much it positively impacts the team’s likelihood of scoring in that possession - we can see that their biggest contributors were Matt Ritchie, who played wing-back, Ryan Fraser who was rarely on the pitch, and Jacob Murphy who played wing-back.
|Player||OBV per 90|
In Newcastle’s style of play, their attackers had much more ground to cover in order to get to the final third and create danger on the ball. This isn’t necessarily an issue in itself - counter-attacking teams can thrive in the Premier League - but the approach requires a centre forward who can provide an outlet. Callum Wilson or Joelinton were often positioned so deep that the team simply couldn’t get a foothold in the opposition half when they regained the ball. This only allowed the pressure to build on their defence to keep repelling the swathe of opposition attacks. Raw possession numbers always require context, and with this information the 38% of the ball possession they had in 2020/21 makes a lot of sense. The Springtime Bounce A run of W2-D0-L8 at the start of 2021 was Newcastle’s worst spell of the season, but it was then followed by their best. From the start of February to the end of the season, Newcastle picked up 20 points, winning five of their last eight to power them up the league table. The team switched shape to either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-3-3 and were comparatively more front-footed than earlier in the season. The change seemed to coincide with the arrival of first-team coach Graeme Jones, who you may recognise as a member of Gareth Southgate’s coaching staff during the EURO 2020 tournament this summer. The changes provided Callum Wilson with support up front and allowed Miguel Almirón to have more of an influence on the game, getting on the ball in more central areas. More importantly, it allowed their wide players to thrive and be more direct. Allan Saint-Maximin returned from injury to finish the season up front, alongside Wilson but allowed to roam across the front and dribble or carry the ball over distance. This is apparent when comparing the plots of his carries: in Newcastle’s more reactive system he’d start his carries around the halfway line, thus with more players to beat and more distance to cover. After the system change, he started receiving possession in the channels in the opposition half and was isolating 1v1 vs his defender more often than previously. This is a beneficial situation for any player to work with, let alone an exciting wide player like Saint-Maximin. Besides tactical changes, the January loan signing of Joe Willock proved to be one of the most successful signings of the window across the entire league. Willock was simply a goalscoring machine, equalling a club record number of consecutive games scored in with some bloke named Alan Shearer. Outside of his hot streak in front of goal (and it was a hot streak – 8 goals from 3.5 xG), Willock’s ability to contribute on both sides of the ball fit perfectly in line with the tactical changes Bruce and Jones implemented. Willock was proactive and industrious without the ball and provided a threat making late runs into the opponent’s box. In making these changes, Newcastle’s metrics improved drastically towards the end of the season, taking more shots and creating chances of better quality. Though still anemic in some areas, moving their struggling attack from one of the league’s worst up into the middle ground of the league goes a long way to powering a push up the table and separating from the bottom of the pack. How Do Newcastle Recreate The Late Surge This Season? If Newcastle want to maintain the improvement we saw late in the season, how do they go about doing this? The primary point is to lean into the style of play that steadied the ship at the end of the season that saw them gain 20 of their 45 points from February 27th onwards. If they can sustain the improved attacking numbers over a whole season while keeping things relatively tight at the back, then it’s incredibly unlikely they’ll struggle as much as they did in the first half of last season.
|Shots (all units per 90)||11.5 (14th)|
|xG Conceded||1.33 (11th)|
|1 v 1 Shots||2.0 (9th)|
|Shot Distance||16.3 metres (8th)|
It was mostly their attacking metrics that improved. While they became more proactive without the ball than they had been previously, they still ranked as one of the lowest-block teams in the league. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are plenty of examples of teams (Wolves in 2019/20 for one) who have played counter-attacking football to great success. However, going on last season, it’s not clear that Newcastle have the capabilities to do that: allowing the opposition to monopolise the ball under little duress moves defenders deeper… and then you have the same issues we saw from August to January. Newcastle need to find ways to better taper off their periods of high pressure with lower block defending. No season preview would be complete without a transfer section, but there’s little action to speak of so far, only bringing in a couple of younger players on free transfers who’ll likely become part of their development squad. Looking at the squad they have now, their average age is only slightly above the league average, but a considerable volume of minutes are being contributed by players above the “peak” age bracket. The most exciting rumour is that of the permanent signing of Joe Willock, who had such a transformative effect on the Newcastle midfield, as we detailed earlier. His addition would be a major plus. Up front they still look short behind Wilson, with Joelinton struggling to make an impact and Dwight Gayle never quite managing to contribute in the top flight, which is a concern given there doesn’t appear to be many goals in other areas of the side. Some will point to Willock’s goalscoring streak but we shouldn’t expect that rate to continue, converting his eight goals from just 3.5 xG. They’ll need others to step up alongside Willock: with an attack that looks underpowered, they should be looking for goals by committee rather than relying on one or two individuals. Where Do They Stand? Fan discontent has been a common theme among Newcastle supporters for a number of years now, and last season as a whole won’t have served as much encouragement despite the stronger finish. All of this makes benchmarking them pretty tough. Are there likely to be at least three worse teams than them in the league? I believe so. But they still have some way to go to become more than the sum of their parts, and continuing to build upon the foundations laid at the back-end of last season should be the ambition. It’s a tough ask for them to improve beyond that without much investment in the squad.
Game over. Bad luck, try again. Press ‘OK’ to start a new game. Great! Now choose your character. You have selected Rafa Benítez. Last season, Everton gripped the joystick, ready for another attempt at surpassing level 8(th) of the Premier League. Carlo Ancelotti’s character was an eye-catching choice given his appearances at the boss level in previous editions of the game; he was chosen for his high marks in ‘reputation’, ‘trophies’ and ‘man management’ but fell short in other areas to crash out at level 10(th). Enough of the gaming. Everton hired Ancelotti in the middle of the 2019/20 season to try and calm the turbulence that swirled around the Marco Silva era, to bring in more steady and consistent success after the wild swings of the Portuguese coach. 2020/21 was Ancelotti’s first full campaign in charge, but the inconsistency continued: four wins and a draw in their opening five was immediately followed by four defeats and a win, which was immediately followed by four wins and a draw. You get the picture. Judging by performance levels towards the end of his tenure, Ancelotti's voluntary exit could've saved Everton a hefty severance package. The good news is that Everton finished the season with 59 points, their highest tally since 2016/17. The bad news is that they were only able to finish 10th, an improvement on the 12th place the season prior but a 10th place finish all the same. But the other good news is that 59 points would’ve been good enough for 7th or 8th in eight of the nine seasons before 2020/21. So it’s not unfair to say Ancelotti finished right in the Everton zone, unable to smash through the glass ceiling to the 6th place paradise that those toffee-making hands so desperately want to get their sticky fingers on. Following a summer of investment, Ancelotti had a squad that was at minimum above the league average in depth and quality, but the metrics he and his players delivered did not meet that level. The league average for expected goals (xG) per game last season was 1.19 in both attack and defence. Everton’s attack came in just below the average at 1.14 xG per game, and the defence also just below at 1.29 xG conceded per game. League average shots were 12.0 per game: Everton took 10.4 per game and conceded 13.2 per game. This was not a stint that made the squad better than the sum of it’s parts. In terms of a tactical footprint, the Italian tried to implement a deeper defensive line than his predecessor, becoming less proactive off the ball and preferring to retract into a defensive shell when losing possession. PPDA rose, allowing the opposition more passes on the ball and causing less disruption to their possession chains, and the average distance from goal of their defensive actions dropped back from 44.0 metres at the end of Silva’s reign to 41.25 metres under Ancelotti. The Italian has not stuck around to take charge of the Toffees in this campaign, seeing the offer of a return to Real Madrid as an opportunity too good to turn down - probably a wise decision given the potential damage another season of midtable obscurity might have done to his reputation. You know who else tends to get his teams to defend in deeper areas of the pitch? Rafael Benítez. Ancelotti’s replacement comes in from left-field with an interesting profile, one that underground tactical hipsters have been observing closely during his time managing in the Chinese Super League. Billed as hot property in the Asian managerial market, Everton moved quickly to secure the services of a promising young manager that tactical analysts predict can transfer his game model implemented at Dalian Pro right to the very pinnacle of the game. Bad jokes aside, Benítez is very much a known quantity and safe pair of hands, and perhaps the right appointment for what Everton are looking to achieve in the next season or two: namely an adherence to Premier League financial fair play rules and regulations. The transition in playing styles should be reasonably smooth, with Benítez looking to embed similar principles but with arguably a better reputation than his predecessor for setting teams up effectively. Compare Everton’s defensive activity map from last season with Newcastle’s in 2018/19, the last time Benítez was seen in the Premier League. The other trait Benítez has a reputation for is never getting less from the sum of a team’s parts. Interestingly, Newcastle’s metrics under Benítez in 2018/19 were very similar to Everton's metrics last season, both in expected outcome numbers and stylistic ones. The key difference here is that Everton’s squad is significantly stronger on paper than the players Benítez had at his disposal at Newcastle, perhaps a cause for optimism. Observers of Everton’s pre-season friendlies have noted three key themes: an organised defensive shape, quick attacking transitions, and crosses into the box. Everton were already pretty adept at crosses last season, looking to hit Dominic Calvert-Lewin early with the quality deliveries of Lucas Digne and generally finding him in uncrowded boxes. In broader terms, Benítez will have to work with more or less the same squad that was available last season, with very little outlay in the transfer market occurring this summer. They relied on 16 core players to get through 2020/21, with the 17th most-used player accounting for just 677 minutes. There will be some new faces. Jean-Philippe Gbamin surely takes the “like a new signing” award in the Premier League this summer - if he can stay fit. It’s been a rough start to his Everton career with just 160 league minutes since signing in 2019, but if or when he can return from injury, he’ll add much-needed energy and dynamism to the Everton midfield. The three transfers that have been made this summer reportedly amount to an outlay of just £1.7 million but do address needs in the squad according to Benítez’s game model, and all are known quantities to the Premier League. Asmir Begović signs as keeper cover, but analytics-favourite Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray should both contribute minutes in the wide positions and aid the shift towards a more transition-based style of play with their tendency for direct and pacey carries. The future of James Rodríguez seems to be causing less concern to the fanbase than you might expect. Rumours that the side’s predominant playmaker could be leaving the club would normally cause more distress, but with the fans not particularly enamoured with Rodríguez’s commitment and Benítez reportedly keen to save on his wages, it’s hard to imagine the Colombian being graced with a fond farewell. Should they keep him, they’d be retaining a player who contributed six goals and four assists in ~50% of league minutes, and who led the team for xG Assisted in open play per 90 minutes and passes or carries into the final third per 90 minutes. Regardless of how well the fanbase took to him, there’s no denying Rodríguez is an A1 talent in this squad and contributed when on the pitch. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), which rates every action on the pitch by how much it positively or negatively affects a team’s chances of scoring, rated Rodríguez very highly for his actions last season: among players with >900 minutes played, he ranked 5th in the Premier League for OBV contribution per 90 minutes, behind the likes of Jack Grealish and Kevin De Bruyne. In the Everton squad, it wasn’t particularly close. Meanwhile, Dominic Calvert-Lewin could be one of the main beneficiaries of Benítez’s appointment, not that he needs the help after a stellar 2020/21 campaign. Last season was the year that ‘DCL’ established himself as one of the Premier League’s leading marksmen and he should thrive if the team deliver the volume of crosses that Benítez desires. Calvert-Lewin is master of the danger zone between the penalty box and goal and, for players with >1200 minutes played and >40 shots, had the highest xG per shot in the league last season. Projection It’s been a good few seasons since expectations have been this low around Goodison Park. Frustrations at being unable to break back into the Premier League’s top seven, as well as a tightening of the purse strings this summer, has seen an apathy set in around the fanbase. Having failed to climb up the table following heavy investment before, it takes a creative imagination to envisage they might achieve it without the same spend. The points spreads have once again benchmarked them in the Everton zone; predicted to finish around 8th-9th place with a total of ~53 points, a total that reveals a belief that Benítez doesn’t really move the needle for the Toffees. In a top-half beginning to overflow with upwardly mobile teams, the levels only seem to get harder. Let’s see what the Spaniard can serve up.
Heading into last season, it seemed that Marcelo Bielsa’s sense of goodwill amongst Leeds United fans couldn’t get any higher. A return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004, some incredible football in the Championship, and a sincere mutual appreciation with the fanbase. But after a top-half finish in 2020/21 and continued entertainment against some of the biggest teams in the country, it looks like Bielsa’s status has elevated even further. The storylines to look out for next season circle around their production at both ends of the pitch. How do they stabilise their attacking unit whilst improving their defensive metrics? Setting the Scene - Attacking Strength Looking at last season, the attacking metrics were exceptional: above the 75th percentile in the big 5 leagues for all of xG per 90; xG per shot; shots taken following a high press; attacking pace towards goal; and clear shots on goal (shots with just the goalkeeper between the shooter and the goal). Anyone who watched Bielsa’s team last season won’t be surprised by these benchmarks: Leeds carried over the high intensity, high tempo, adventurous attacking style which tore the EFL Championship apart in 2019/20. A style which has become his hallmark since moving to the Whites, although it has been consistent with his philosophy over the years: verticality in attacking, rotational interchanges, third man combinations etc, etc. In possession, Leeds are committed to building from the back, with goalkeeper Illan Meslier impressing last season with his ability to contribute in the first phase of buildup. They create space in this phase by positioning their advanced midfielders high up the pitch and creating width with their full backs, pinning the opposition deeper and therefore freeing Leeds to create and make the types of passes shown below: When it comes to playing into the attacking third and chance creation, Leeds are extremely vertical in their intentions, leading to quick attacking moves, few wasted passes in the final third, and lots of possession shifts.
|Pace Towards Goal||2.8 m/s (6th)|
|Deep Progressions per 90||43.7 (8th)|
|Possessions per 90||197.4 (1st)|
The key players in this style are the wide players, who facilitate a lot of goalscoring opportunities. Whether it be running at a stretched defence or receiving in pockets in the final third against more settled blocks, it’s the wide players who fare best for Leeds in our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV). OBV rates every action on the pitch and estimates the extent to which each action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Jack Harrison and Raphinha were clearly effective players by the eye test and in the OBV model, and it’s imperative they generate similar numbers if Leeds’ attack is to continue to impress in the new season. Patrick Bamford, long time analytics darling, didn’t have another frustrating season in terms of underperforming xG, and some of that can be attributed to how Leeds’ wide players took a load of him in terms of goal creation, not to discount his evident Premier League ability. The Double-Edged Sword - Leeds In Defence Where their defensive pressing style had been nearly impossible to play against in the Championship, it at times left them overexposed in the Premier League. Leeds really struggled to prevent the opposition from creating chances last season, and their defensive style is so unique that it’s worth investigating into the specifics of the tactics that could be the root cause of the issues. First, how they press and defend in the opposition’s half. Leeds employ a heavy, man-oriented pressing system - the most aggressive in the division. Their principles are generally ball-oriented in that they focus their position based on the ball position rather than the opposition players, but in how this manifests itself structurally, they are man-to-man: each player is tasked with an opponent to pick up, which makes their responsibilities very straightforward. Without getting too deep into the tactical weeds, this creates variations in how their forward players put pressure on an opponent’s buildup since they are -1 up front: 3v2 if they play a back three, and 3v4 if the opposition use a back four. Either way, this strategy of keeping opponents as far from goal as possible to stop them from getting into the Leeds half has been successful: they conceded the 5th-fewest deep progressions in the Premier League last season. The issues started to arise when the opponent broke the press or when Leeds had to defend in more traditional “blocks”. They conceded 1.48 xG per 90 (18th in the league), 14.5 shots against per 90 (17th), and were vulnerable to being pressed high and hurt in transition, conceding shots from those situations at similarly relegation-level rates. The same reasons they’re so effective in attack that were highlighted in the attacking section – pushing players ahead of the ball, stretching the defence wide, making adventurous rotations – are the same reasons they struggle defensively; they’re left overexposed. Combine that with a talent deficit, less of an issue in Leeds’ case but still an issue in newly promoted clubs, and you’re going to leave yourself open, something that Bielsa will surely be working on into next season. While it was an enforced change thanks to injuries in midfield, Stuart Dallas played a very good role in helping solidify the deeper areas directly ahead of defence compared to his peers. Set-pieces have been something of an achilles heel to Leeds ever since the Championship days, particularly corners. This is thanks (or no thanks!) to a combination of player profile and tactical setup. For one, Bielsa’s sides defend corners in an almost-exclusively man-to-man system. Only one player (usually Bamford across the near post) acts zonally and could be regarded as “free”. Similar to their defending in open play, this puts a lot of responsibility on the individual to win their 1v1 battle. That said, the advantage will always be with the attacking team on dead balls: concepts such as picks, blocks, and screens mean you can isolate players free of their markers and create clear-cut chances. Without many “fail safes” to defend against this (i.e zonal players), you’re leaving yourself prone to these manoeuvres and manipulations. Transfers As with most teams this summer, incomings have been slow at the time of writing. One of the positive bits of transfer business has been to convert Jack Harrison’s loan into a permanent contract after three seasons on loan from Manchester City. The winger was a significant contributor off the left last season: coming in with an OBV per 90 of 0.31, placing him in the 71st percentile for players in his position in the Premier League. At £11million, this was a no-brainer. Junior Firpo has come in from Barcelona to replace the outgoing Ezgjan Alioski at left back. Firpo found game time few and far between in La Liga, but his profile certainly fits the type of defender who should fit the Leeds system. Firpo is primarily a threat when attacking space from deep and arriving into the final third, and represents a tangible upgrade on Alioski in terms of buildup play, ranking favourably in xG Buildup throughout his career. Patience could be required defensively as any player faces a period of adaptation when they first join a Bielsa side, but he certainly fits the physical profile to make the jump successfully. Talking potential additions now: the Leeds support have been clamouring for an addition in the centre of midfield. We spoke earlier of Stuart Dallas’ move into the centre of the park that helped to solidify the defensive shortcomings Leeds were struggling with, but this doesn’t feel like a long-term solution. With Kalvin Phillips’ place in the XI under no doubt, Leeds will be looking to sign a player capable of providing pressing and ball-winning while also being able to play in pockets of space and higher up the pitch. Links with Huddersfield Town midfielder Lewis O’Brien have lingered all summer, and he certainly fits the profile of a player that could contribute those aspects. European Hopefuls? As a newly promoted side, Leeds had an exceptional 2020/21 season to finish 9th. Which makes projecting their placement next season tricky – it’s a challenging benchmark to repeat with teams above them in the table some of the biggest and most well-backed in the world. The blueprint for improvement is clear: maintain the attacking output while tightening up defensively. Achieve this, and they could well embark on a West Ham-esque challenge for the Europa League places. We know Bielsa won’t change his style, so the question is whether Leeds can bolster and strengthen their ranks enough before the transfer window closes. Either way – it’s going to be fun!
Where do you go from here? In 2012, Chelsea sacked their concept manager, Andre Villas-Boas, handed the reigns to a club legend, Roberto Di Matteo, finished miles off the pace with 64 points then promptly went out and won the Champions League. In 2021, Chelsea sacked their club legend manager, Frank Lampard, handed the reigns to a concept manager, Thomas Tuchel, finished miles off the pace with 67 points then promptly went out and won the Champions League. It took Tuchel 123 days to hit that high point and he did it by focusing first and foremost on defence. In 19 Premier League games under Tuchel, Chelsea gave up more than one expected goal twice: firstly against West Brom in the freakish 5-2 defeat and latterly against Manchester City, two games from the end of the season in a match they won regardless. The difference that Tuchel made to the team was as stark as it was swift and they were clear second best behind Manchester City in the back half of 2020-21. In their first ten game phase under Tuchel the team closed everything right down. The attack was yet to gel together but the defence gave up a remarkable four xG and conceded just two goals. By season's end Chelsea's Tuchel era metrics were in hailing distance of Manchester City with a +1 xG difference per game across his reign (for the same period City were +1.2) with the impressive side still mainly defence (0.56 xG against) while at least in terms of process, the attack had perked up and landed at a decent 1.56 xG per game. Only two teams have put up metrics of this ilk in recent seasons: Liverpool and Manchester City. It may be a short spell, but the strong indicator here is that Tuchel has managed to organise Chelsea's high quality, high potential squad into a shape that is capable of contending. Lampard had the makings but not the execution, Tuchel had both. So what did he do to harness the talent in this squad? First up the obvious switch from Lampard's general 4-3-3 and variations towards a distinct 3-4-3. This had the instant benefit that if you were a centre back, then welcome aboard, you now had a great chance of getting good minutes regardless of what had been happening so far in the season (hello Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen), ditto anyone who had experience of playing wing-back, let's say in a league winning side playing a similar formation (come on down Marcos Alonso) and anyone called Mason Mount, mainly because he's literally the ideal player for any team playing any formation, something on which both Lampard and Tuchel agreed, more later. Here's the minutes splits across the squad: Chelsea had a relatively injury-light 2020-21 (and the squad to survive it too) so the balance between the Lampardis and Tuchelistas is fairly reliable to spot. Each manager loved Mount, Edouard Mendy, Timo Werner and Reece James--these were a core four and come rain or shine, their managers picked them. More Lampard favoured were Ben Chilwell (a bit), N'Golo Kanté, Kurt Zouma and Tammy Abraham while Tuchel was big on César Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Rüdiger, Christensen and Alonso. Kanté and Chilwell get a pass here too really as once the business end of the Champions League kicked in they were solid picks in that tournament, as was Kai Havertz. The risk players for this squad are quite clear: Abraham was losing minutes to Olivier Giroud, who has now left and has likely seen his potential position gazumped entirely by Romelu Lukaku (a transfer for him seems imminent too). Hakim Ziyech struggled to see pitch time for either manager last season and at the moment looks like the big miss/square peg among the high class attackers purchased in summer 2020, despite quite good statistical contribution when on the pitch. Christian Pulisic saw more game time at the back end of the season, enough to think he's likely to stick around and feature, while Callum Hudson-Odoi remains a statistical marvel but repeatedly flits in and out of favour whoever is in charge. Seriously, Hudson-Odoi is fascinating. Snooping around earlier in the summer I spied this and tweeted it: More than 1000 minutes, more than 2.4 OPEN PLAY key passes per 90? 3 qualifiers in the PL, De Bruyne, Grealish and... Hudson-Odoi Then when I was poking at our new OBV model numbers for this article, he leapt off the page again, albeit predominantly in the Lampard era where he was clocking 0.56 OBV/90. This was right around better players in the league, albeit in pretty small minutes, which cautions against excitement, especially when you have The Real Deal Mason Mount in the mix:
People sometimes like to argue about model outputs, but I'm not interested in that here, as Mason Mount is constantly selected and great. In ways he reminds me of Italian midfielders of the late 1990s, an Angelo Di Livio or Massimo Ambrosini or Alessio Tacchinardi, players that were surrounded by flair and technical brilliance yet absolute team soldiers and vital cogs. That possibly denigrates everyone I'm talking about here, particularly Mount, who can contribute well at the business end of the pitch too, yet it's really not meant to, Mount himself has had to semi-justify his position in the Chelsea and England team for the best part of two years, but Lampard knew his worth, and perhaps saw something of himself in him, succeeding through will and graft where more naturally gifted rivals faltered. He started him in 49/57 league games for Chelsea and only missed pitch time in two. Tuchel is under no illusions either, in May saying "He is crucial for our game, he is an absolutely key player" and the fans voted him Chelsea Player of the Year last season. And he's still just 22! Unfortunately fellow midfield man Jorginho took the Champions League / Euros double, to hit his own high note, but let's move beyond that for now and celebrate Mount, who also successfully boosted all of his expected metrics moving from Lampard's team to Tuchel: Sorry, a sideline. So what did Tuchel do? We established that the defence improved, and it did so in the most desirable way: they reduced the volume of shots they were giving up and the shots they did give up were harder to score than the ones they had been giving up before, magic! Check out the annotation, one shot! For the record a Christian Benteke header, you can maybe understand how the scout report may have missed on that as Benteke's long game of undershooting xG for multiple seasons paid off with decent goal returns in 2020-21. Overall, reducing the volume and quantity of shots allowed came across all facets of the game. They halved the volume of "clear" (just the keeper to beat) shots they allowed, reduced opposition set piece effectiveness and gave up fewer counter attacking shots. Part of how they got there was that Chelsea upped their tempo out of possession. Under Lampard they were fairly active and ranked fourth to sixth for all of PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action), the average height of their defensive actions and their overall responsiveness to pressuring opposition ball receipts (our "aggression" metric). It took a little time under Tuchel--recall a handful of slower, possession heavy chance-lite fixtures in the early weeks--but during the second half of the season, they were second for PPDA (behind Leeds, of course), third for height of defensive actions (behind Man City and a resurgent Liverpool) and second for aggression (behind Leeds again), all notable moves in a more active direction. Just for raw pressure events and defensive actions, the workload went up, up, up before coming down, down, down just as they were all in on the Champions League, but we can see here more events, and a higher proportion of pressure events as Tuchel's tenure settled in. They have the makings to play this way now and be effective with it: Some of the methodology also involved
ball-hogging dominating possession: they played more passes than Manchester City in their 2-1 win and routinely outpassed weaker teams by large volumes. But they could win in other ways too, as a 1-0 victory over Liverpool showed. They played a fairly rigid and deep 3-4-[big gap]-3 and outworked their opponents while giving up next to nothing shot (7) or xG (0.28) wise. On the largest stage, the Champions League final was not dissimilar. How do you improve a Champions League winning team that has shown it can outwork, out pass, out shoot and out defend its opponents, seemingly at will? Chelsea are eternally in "win-now" mode and "win-now" mode means buying Serie A's best striker for close to £100m to End Instantly debates around how you can man your front three, whether a false 9 will work best or if your very-good-but-to-my-mind-not-quite-good-enough-to-lead-a-Chelsea-front-line-perhaps-a-tier-lower-23-year-old-academy-graduate is the right choice. And why have they done this? Finishing. The divergence between Chelsea's stellar Tuchel era metrics and the reality of clambering into the top four slots can be blamed on one thing: the attack fired well under expected values under Tuchel. Analytics 101 remains get the process right and let the variance work itself out. In truth this was a team effort. Thirteen Chelsea players took ten or more shots in the Premier League under Tuchel and of those thirteen, a meagre two of them exceeded their goal expectation: Kurt Zouma (one goal from 13 shots and 0.85 xG) and Marcos Alonso (two goals from 20 shots and 1.62 xG). This is frankly ridiculous, and not really a reflection of the quality of Chelsea's players. Werner and Havertz may have had personally less impressive seasons than they may have hoped but they're not obviously sub-par finishers, nor historically was Olivier Giroud. One specific aspect of play they did not get from their forward corps was as follows: Yes; a guy crashing the six yard box. It's not that Lukaku is a noted plus finisher, more that he is a reliable scorer--he will take up the positions you need from your main striker and score goals. To this regard Lukaku does have the vibe of a missing piece and seven years on from departing for a decent fee is returning. It will be hoped that as a focal point, Lukaku can enable his equally talented colleagues to thrive around him, and regardless he's surely as close to guaranteed as any Chelsea striker to chip in handily. More broadly on personnel, while clued up fans may bemoan the loss of Abraham and Fikayo Tomori, they're getting very good fees for these players and the supply line from their youth teams to the first team is doing just great, with Mount, Christensen and James all hitting big recently. Projection There's a disconnect between stellar Tuchel-era metrics and winning the Champions League contrasting with 2020-21 points accrual (76 point pace) and bookmaker expectations (around 76-78 points). This plants Chelsea firmly alongside Liverpool in a "best-of-the-rest" category, a couple of clips ahead of Manchester United yet trailing Manchester City. In real terms they will likely need to bounce forward another ten points on top of that and make a +20 points season jump to season to contend for the title. With a summer of planning for Tuchel, a stable squad that isn't undergoing much remedial work and the natural belief of a successful team, it's possibly easier imagining Chelsea steering upwards once more than not. With Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and now Tuchel in the Premier League mix, it would be thrilling to see these three teams battling hard on all fronts and this season is well set for these coaching titans to tee off. Evidently Tuchel has not found long term stability in his managerial career, but with this squad and the big prize already in his back pocket, he may be primed to stay a good while yet. The league is better for that.
Burnley FC. Sean Dyche. Bastions of consistency and stability. A slap in the face for the notion that being predictable can only be a bad thing. You know what you’re going to get from Burnley, and still they remain in the Premier League. Because Burnley are good at being Burnley, and Burnley when being Burnley are hard to stop. Turf Moor will be hosting Premier League football for the sixth season in a row. The 17th placed finish in 2020/21 represented their lowest position and points tally since promotion five years ago, so it's not unlikely that armchair pundits are to start speculating over Burnley's Premier League future. There was some regression, sure. Their expected goal (xG) difference slid back from a Burnley-best-since-they-were-promoted of -0.08 per game in 2019/20, down to -0.47 in 2020/21: They lost 0.10 expected goals per game in attack equating to ~four goals a season, fairly negligible but still a knock, but the biggest concerns emerged at the back. You can see below that 2019/20 was a significant step forward on what came before for the team, mainly cutting out the games where they got tonked. The differences between that impressive season and last season in the graphic are not exactly apparent to the naked eye, but that in itself could perhaps be a larger red flag. Look closely. In 2019/20, the cluster of games to the right of the trendline represents games where Burnley edged out close games by xG, a valuable skill for a team trying to avoid danger. In 2020/21, a lot of games shifted both left (creating less) and up (conceding more). You can make excuses if it's a handful of really bad games making the difference, but this seemed to be a collective shift down in their performance levels. Their defence was -0.29 expected goals per game worse off than the season prior and, with the -0.10 shaved off the attack, it worked out to a ~15 goal regression over the whole season. The sort of sum that forces a team down the table--and it did. However, there is some context that needs to be applied here. Dyche regards last season as his most challenging yet in their Premier League stint. They came into the season having spent just £1million on third-choice ‘keeper Will Norris and backup midfielder Dale Stephens. Then they had to contend with injuries in the opening sequence of games: the back four in their opening day 4-2 defeat to Leicester was (right-to-left) Phil Bardsley, Kevin Long, Jimmy Dunne, and Charlie Taylor. James Tarkowski returned in game three and Ben Mee followed in game seven, but the damage had already been done: Burnley had just two points from their opening seven fixtures. The season was bookended with poor form—a W0 D2 L5 run to start, a W2 D0 L7 run to finish. But, the middle two-thirds should serve as encouragement ahead of next season. A W8 D7 L7 record works out to 1.41 points-per-game: bang on the 54 points they got the season before when extrapolated over a whole season and considering they won't have the off-field uncertainty surrounding the takeover, nor the condensed schedule to contend with, and maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about Burnley after all. Survival remains objective number one, and it was mission accomplished once again. They can't learn from it if they don't dig into what caused this decline on the pitch, so let's wield our spades on their behalf. Given their approach and mentality, the defence is where we need to examine. xG conceded per game rose from 1.17 to 1.46--where did those additional 0.29 expected goals per game come from? The biggest factor in this change was in the quality of the chances they conceded – something Burnley have notoriously thrived at. Their xG per shot conceded was 0.08 in 2019/20, 2nd-best in the league, but increased to 0.10 xG per shot conceded last season, putting them at league average. Burnley have previously opted to soak up a lot of shots while suppressing the quality of them, but they struggled with the latter last campaign. The main cause of this was that the opposition were allowed to shoot from much closer to goal than previously. There were times in 2019/20 where Burnley's low block was straight up impenetrable and their opponent's resorted to launching missiles from range in an attempt to break them out of their shell. Their opponents shot distance from goal was 17.0 metres away on average, the furthest in the league that season. This dropped to 16.4 metres in 2020/21, a small but not-insignificant change that was a big cause of the bump in their xG per shot conceded. Closer shots equals better shots. Burnley were trying the same out of possession techniques - pressing high in the first phase but then dropping right off should the opposition begin to advance - but were unable to maintain the same intensity required when bunkering, largely due to the intense schedule. It always surprises people to learn that Burnley's Defensive Distance - the average distance from their goal that they make defensive actions - has always been pretty high: behind only Manchester City and Liverpool in 2019/20, and the same pair plus Chelsea in 2020/21. They press the opposition from goal kicks and from turnovers in their attacking third, but soon sink into their defensive shape once the opposition starts to enter their half of the pitch. Simply, they just lacked the energy to disrupt the opposition in 2020/21. The percentage of opposition pass receipts that were pressured, tackled or fouled within two seconds dropped from 20% to 16%. Burnley have always been towards the lower end of these rankings in previous seasons, but the lost intensity clearly harmed their overall effectiveness in disrupting the opponent’s build-up and chance creation. Load up the trebuchet! In possession, Burnley continued to Burnley. Their top-five most commonly used pass clusters will be familiar to regular observers: Plenty of long, high passes into the opposition half and attacking third and, once they're in there, plenty of crosses from the flank. We can see those patterns of play when examining the nine most over-represented pass clusters plotted individually:
- Cluster #3 represents the Nick Pope pump into the opposition half
- Clusters #1 and #2 represent the channel balls played down the flanks to put the wingers in a foot race with their full backs
- Clusters #7 and #8 are shorter versions to the wingers feet
- Clusters #5 and #9 are the crosses regularly seen played into the box
Cluster #6 is the only pass of any real range played from the middle third, and this can mostly be attributed to Ashley Westwood. Westwood’s become a steady, unheralded Premier League performer but his importance to Burnley shouldn’t go without saying. He made the most open play passes in the squad, played the ball into the final third most often, made the most passes into the penalty box in open play, AND made the most open play key passes. He clearly has the best passing range in the team, a vital attribute to the Clarets when they do need to play through the middle third, and completed by far the most switches of play of his Burnley teammates. What I’m about to say next may shock you*, so make sure you're sitting down: Burnley played the most high-passes in the league, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of their total passes. Of their passes into the final third, 44% of them were high-passes - a league-high -, and the value of those passes are captured in our new possession value model, On-Ball Value, which estimates the extent to which an action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Burnley accrued the most OBV from high-passes in the whole league. *just kidding And their danger from crosses remained. Unlike most teams in the modern era, they’re not as bothered about crossing from closer to the byline and the goal in general. Instead, Burnley look to get the ball into the mixer much faster, with Chris Wood, Ashley Barnes, and Matěj Vydra all well attuned to attacking the early balls into the box. Crossing from deep can be more difficult to execute, but it does have its upsides. Because Burnley get the ball forward so quickly (their Pace To Goal of 3.04 m/s was second only to West Ham), they’re often able to attack against unset defences, meaning their attackers can often have more space and less competition to attack the ball when it’s played into the box. Thanks to StatsBomb 360 data, we can now measure how many attackers versus how many defenders teams have in the box on crosses, and can see that Burnley attackers averaged the least competition in the box (measured by attackers in the box minus defenders in the box) in the whole league. Knowing Burnley as we do, we can expect the same again next season. Likewise, we can expect the same playing squad. Dyche's squadron has been together for several seasons now, with very little surgery performed in the last few transfer windows. Cohesive, yes, but the squad's age profile is starting to veer dangerously close to post-peak territory, where we can start to expect a simultaneous decline in performances from several key members of the squad. Some botox is required sooner rather than later. Dwight McNeil and Josh Brownhill were the only players below the league average age to play a significant number of minutes. You have to go all the way down to their 16th most-used player last season, Robbie Brady, to find one who has left the club this summer. This is no bad thing in a squad full of dependable performers, but the sense that some fresh blood is required is most certainly there. In transfer news, Wayne Hennessey’s signed as ‘keeper cover, but the main (and only other) signing has been that of Irish beanpole Nathan Collins from Stoke, a signing that does start to provide a solution to their age problem. A promising centre-half who’s impressed in significant Championship minutes, Collins represents an heir to the throne of Tarkowski and Mee, and will shadow them for minutes in the middle of the defence next season, but also at right back as he integrates into the squad. Projection In context, there’s no reason to think Burnley should perform any worse than they did last season, which was enough to stay up albeit not much more. With a more relaxed schedule and more stability off the field, they should be able to get back to what they do best, but question marks remain over whether an aging squad can implement Dyche’s gameplan with the required energy levels-- something that cost them defensively last season, as described earlier in the piece. The betting markets have benchmarked them for a repeat of the 39 points accrued in 2020/21, 16th in the market and in the mix with the promoted sides plus Newcastle and Palace, and without any major (or even minor) investment in the squad, that feels fair. Survival is the aim, again.
After five seasons of relentless progress under Jürgen Klopp, culminating in that precious 19th title, Liverpool fell to their lowest points total since the first of his tenure. Third place and a Champions League quarter-final would generally be a perfectly acceptable season, but it represented a clear decline from 97 and 99 points in the prior two seasons, plus a sixth European Cup and World Club Cup trophy for good measure. The good news is that the route to that finish was unprecedented and circuitous, which promotes optimism for a new season and a rebound into domestic and European contention once more.
Until Alisson trotted forward in the 95th minute at the Hawthorns, the most memorable thing about Liverpool’s season was the injury crisis that plagued them through most of the season. The innocent days of September as Fabinho filled in alongside Virgil van Dijk at Stamford Bridge was in hindsight a clear example of first act foreshadowing. Not only did they lose their defensive bedrock in van Dijk, they then proceeded to lose centre back after centre back as the season progressed (including the midfielders succonded to the backline). Jürgen Klopp filling in at the back was a mix of gallows humour and momentary consideration at one point. Throw in injuries in the midfield ranks to the mix and that 3rd place and European quarter-final takes on a different complexion.
For all the early-season injuries and absences, Liverpool actually found themselves top of the league as Santa rolled into town (for the third consecutive year). Nine wins, four draws and the solitary loss in the debacle at Villa Park put them four points clear of Leicester and eight clear of Manchester City (albeit having played a game more). It took just a single month for their hard work to be undone. Three points in five games saw them drop out of the top-four and fall seven points behind the eventual title winners. That wasn’t even the worst of it: a further run of six losses in seven games left them in eighth and seven points behind fourth place. Suddenly a team that had lost nine league games in three seasons had lost nine in 28 (and eight in the last 12). And still the roller-coaster ride wasn’t over, as 26 points in 10 games to finish the season sent them into third place and 69 points - a mediocre season overall compared to the prior two seasons but a decent achievement given the context. Looking under the hood at Liverpool’s metrics over the course of the season, we can identify four phases:
- Weaker defence combined with stronger attack
- Improved defence, but with a weaker attack
- A worsening defence while the attack remained stable
- The attack lifts off to close the season
As much as injuries played a role in Liverpool’s season, the thing that truly cratered their season was a massive finishing slump after putting seven goals past Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in December.
Overall, Liverpool’s metrics were strong, with the best non-penalty xG on the attacking end offsetting the fifth-best defensive record, equating to the second-best non-penalty xG difference over the season. From the perspective of xG, their numbers were remarkably similar to the title-winning season, although winning the league with seven games to spare plays a part here.
Aside from the goal-scoring skewing in the wrong direction, the biggest shift was in their post-shot xG; in 2019/20 the team was extremely proficient at challenging (and defeating) opposition goalkeepers, while also reducing the shot-stopping workload for Alisson and Adrian. Those positive skews reversed in 2020/21, and the aforementioned finishing slump exacerbated the issues on the attacking end. In old money, Liverpool’s shot-on-target differential declined from 115 in 2019/20 (+3.0 per game) to 64 in 2020/21 (+1.7 per game), despite an increase in their overall shot differential. This was a classic example of taking the rough with the smooth, albeit with the smooth ending a 30-year obsession with the title.
Dancing through midfield
One question heading into last season was how the signing of Thiago would impact Liverpool’s play. While the midfield incumbents were certainly no slouches in possession, the primary playmaker played at right-back rather than in the midfield. After an injury-disrupted first-half of the season, Thiago himself grew into his role in the team and dovetailed nicely with Fabinho when the latter returned to midfield during the closing stages of the season. As expected, he offered strong ball progression and chance creation from midfield, although the assists didn’t reflect his underlying numbers. An intriguing aspect of his passing was those cross-field passes from right-to-left, which are very much Trent’s music. To an extent, that ate into Trent’s passing profile, as while those diagonals were still his most distinctive pass-type, they weren’t quite as prevalent as prior seasons.
There was an added dimension to Liverpool’s midfield last season; a greater emphasis on ball-carrying, particularly from Curtis Jones and Thiago. Using our On-Ball Value (OBV) model, we can illustrate this in the maps below and also compare at the player-level; Wijnaldum’s OBV from carries almost doubled year-on-year, while Jones performed at similar levels to noted ball-carrier Naby Keïta.
There was less emphasis on the full-backs in terms of xG assisted and OBV, particularly the left-hand side through Robertson. These tweaks resulted in broadly similar underlying metrics in the aggregate and, as with many trends over the past two years, it will be interesting to track how they evolve in a (hopefully) more normal season.
For the first time since Philippe Coutinho’s departure, there are questions around the forward line of Mané, Firmino and Salah after Diogo Jota’s strong performances in his injury-hit debut campaign. The trio have essentially been ever-present when available, with Xherdan Shaqiri playing as part of a front-four in 2018/19 being the only real deviation from that template. Jota could supplant one of the incumbents, with Mané and Firmino being the most likely candidates according to the discourse. Alternatively, we could even see a new Liverpool-based fab-four emerge. Examining the underlying process and outcomes, it’s clear that at least some of the whispers can be ascribed to the finishing streaks of said quartet. After consecutive seasons outpacing his xG, Mané came back down to earth in 2020/21, while Firmino continued a now three-season spell of undershooting his xG totals. Both had almost identical year-on-year underlying outputs in terms of xG and xG assisted though, and it’s safe to say that nobody was questioning their position while Liverpool cantered to a title. On the other hand, Jota pulled out the neat trick of compounding strong underlying numbers with a hot finishing run after his own finishing woes in his final season at Wolves. Ironically, the one member of the quartet with fewer question marks from the commentariat was the one who showed a (slight) decline, although it’s hard to paint Salah’s numbers as anything but elite.
So, nothing to see here and we’re safe to file this as a nice problem to have? Digging a little deeper through the prism of OBV paints a somewhat different picture regarding their performances, particularly in the case of Mané. His overall contribution declined sharply year-on-year, with his shooting accounting for ⅔ of the decline. The other major area of concern was his passing, as he moved from a net-positive contributor to a net-negative one; an increased number of turnovers and a decrease in his pass completion rate is symptomatic of this. Mané’s style of play can sometimes resemble something of a high-wire act – moments from something magical or maddening – and it seems he last season tipped more often towards the latter than the former.
While the above points towards some elements of concern, realistically Liverpool are in the enviable position of having four high-class, starting-calibre forwards with a complementary set of elite skills. Klopp even has the possibility of rotating the front-line without a significant reduction in quality, or tailoring the forward-line to certain situations and match-ups. Perhaps the natural order will shift over the course of the season, but the forward line provides both depth and quality at this point.
From his assuredness on the ball and plug-and-playability across a number of roles, Gini Wijnaldum’s sheer robustness may well be the most keenly felt aspect of his departure. In the past two seasons, he was absent from one solitary EPL & CL squad, with 82 starts, ten substitute appearances and one match warming the bench. While the midfield options provide a good level of depth in terms of numbers and quality, several have had either long-term injuries or regular short-term absences over the past few seasons, so there is perhaps a degree of concern here. Defensive reinforcements have arrived in 22-year old Ibrahima Konaté, who comes in from RB Leipzig. From a numbers perspective, perhaps the most eye-catching one is the shade under 2000 minutes he played in the Bundesliga & CL combined over the past two seasons, which is a quite magnificent trolling of the fanbase, it has to be said. He did, however, play close to a full season in 2018/19 as Leipzig finished with the Bundesliga’s best defensive record (and second-best by xG). He was generally in the squad last year but struggled for playing time in the second half of the season after returning from injury. Konaté profiles as an active front-foot defender, with Joël Matip being his closest parallel in the Liverpool squad, and like Matip he also enjoys carrying the ball forward.
Konaté displayed notable strength in the air on a high volume of duels in the Bundesliga, but how well this translates to the Premier League is a key question if he is to find playing time early in his Liverpool career (Ozan Kabak’s strong aerial win percentage certainly didn’t translate during his short spell on Merseyside.) Based on the types of high passes usually made in the respective leagues and by Liverpool and RB Leipzig’s opponents, we can observe distinctive traits:
- England tends to be biased towards crosses into the box and longer passes into the final third
- Germany generally sees shorter passes within the middle third of the pitch, and a much smaller emphasis on crosses into the box
Such traits point towards a somewhat different challenge. It’s likely a period of adaptation will be required.
Konaté’s passing range appears somewhat limited as he is heavily skewed towards short and/or sideways passes. The longer passes he does play tend to be lower percentage vertical ones down the line that tend not to feature in Liverpool’s centre back profile. Demonstrating the ability to play those progressive diagonal passes out towards the full-backs that are so favoured by the Liverpool backline would be a very encouraging sign.
With Manchester City as the firm favourites for the title, the bookies have Liverpool in the high-70s in terms of points, alongside Chelsea, which seems a reasonable median expectation (I’d probably go a bit higher, but red-tinted spectacles and everything). We saw the floor of that kind of range last season, and they still finished third and made a Champions League quarter-final. The path to stronger performances and both domestic and European contention is also clear: a more normal level of injuries, the best forward line in the league finishing their chances, and van Dijk returning from injury somewhere close to his previous performance levels. Taking last season as an anomaly, Liverpool have consistently put themselves within striking distance of glory and, if a team is to challenge City, then the team that has averaged 88 points over the last three seasons seems the most probable candidate. But they’ll need to hit their ceiling once more.
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Welcome back to another edition of the StatsBomb Premier League season previews!
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Relegation in 2019/20 ended Watford’s five-year stay in the Premier League, but they yo-yoed at the first attempt to regain their place in the top tier, finishing Championship runners-up in 2020/21. They came into the new season with plenty of optimism. Vladimir Ivić was a somewhat left-field appointment to lead Operation Bounce Back, but he did have trophies from stints in Greece and Israel on his CV. He also had what some pundits believed to be the strongest squad in the Championship, having retained the likes of Will Hughes and Ismaïla Sarr to terrorise second-tier defences. Watford’s start to their promotion push was ~fine. Nothing more, nothing less. They won games – nine of their first 20 – and positioned themselves in the promotion pack heading into Christmas. But both board and fanbase were becoming increasingly twitchy with performances, and the sense that Ivić wasn’t getting the most out of the players available to him continued to grow with every grinding – and, frankly, boring – game. Just 1.9 goals per game were scored in Watford matches under Ivić. Approaching the halfway point in the season, the underlying numbers pegged them as the 7th best team in the league, and that was enough for the Watford senior management -- not known for their patience with managers -- to cut ties with the Serbian. Ivić was sacked after 20 games with the team 5th in the table. Their chosen replacement for Ivić was even further out of left-field. So far left that it could’ve been right. And so it came to be, eventually. Xisco Muñoz joined from Georgian powerhouses Dinamo Tbilisi -- yes, Dinamo Tbilisi -- after taking just 11 games as a manager -- yes, just 11 games -- to kickstart their stuttering promotion campaign. To the layman, it seemed a risky appointment with so much at stake, and initial performances didn’t encourage. Results remained ~fine, taking 14 points from their first eight under Muñoz, but short of the standard required to close the gap on the automatic promotion places. The eighth game of Muñoz’s tenure, a 0-0 draw away at Coventry City, was the catalyst for the run that eventually took them back up. A turgid performance lacking any invention prompted senior players, feeling their chances of an immediate return to the Premier League slipping away, to insist that the team took a more front-foot approach going forwards. The results were instant. Muñoz switched the team from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 shape, and Bristol City were put to the sword. They never looked back. Watford became a relentless winning machine, taking maximum points in 14 of their remaining 18 fixtures to seal promotion. Their defensive record was critical to the promotion, something that should stand them in good stead this season. Ivić laid the foundations, but Muñoz improved the team as a whole, taking the handbrake off and allowing the players to express themselves while retaining their defensive solidity, even improving in this aspect. From the time Muñoz was appointed, Watford conceded just 15 goals and ~20 expected goals, both league-best rates over the 26-game period in which the Spaniard was in charge. The main driver of their exemplary defensive record was their ability to shut down the quality of chances created against them. Watford conceded 10.6 shots per game under Muñoz – 9th-best in the league in his tenure – but their xG per shot conceded was just 0.07, far and away the stingiest in the league. It became very difficult to create good chances against this team. A lot of this can be attributed to their defensive organisation and determination to reduce the sight of goal available to the opposition forward. When the opposition created footed shots in the box, Watford had an average of 3.8 defenders positioned deeper than the shot location, suggesting they effectively slowed the opponent attacks down enough to set themselves in a good defensive position. Consequently, this meant that Watford could get a defender between the shooter and goal more often than not, averaging 1.1 defenders between the ball and goalkeeper – something that would greatly reduce the quality of the opening. Footed shots in the box are the holy grail of chance creation, but not if a defender is blocking your way. The broken finger suffered by goalkeeper Ben Foster, one of few players in credit after the opening half of the season, in January could’ve been a blow to their promotion push, but replacement Daniel Bachmann rose to the challenge to make it a seamless transition. The data over Bachmann’s time in goal reflects his solid performance as Foster’s replacement and the solid performance of the defense as a whole. As a benchmark, Foster faced 2.5 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.70 per game, whereas Bachmann faced 1.9 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.43 per game. That is to say, the quality of shots on target that Watford’s opponents were generating were worth just ~4 goals every ten games once Bachmann took his place in net. Both keepers saved goals above expected based on the post-shot xG faced, but it’s clear that Bachmann’s time in goal was a freak outlier thanks to the protection afforded to him by the defence. Personnel & Transfers Retaining Ismaïla Sarr will be objective #1 for the Watford hierarchy this summer; to their relief there doesn’t seem to be any major interest in his services. Sarr’s contribution in the final third and penalty box was crucial to the Hornets’ promotion as he demonstrated that he was far too good for the Championship, predictably so, having been a more-than-capable Premier League performer in 2019/20. Sarr’s 17 goals + assists were five more than the next best in the Watford squad, and his ball carrying was a constant thorn in the opposition side. His quality in carrying the ball was evident in our possession value model -- On-Ball Value (OBV) -- numbers from last season. OBV estimates the extent to which an action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Sarr’s OBV/90 was the sixth-highest of all Championship players with >1200 minutes played last season, and his OBV/90 from carries was fourth highest. There are some concerns over the future of midfielders Will Hughes (2,118 minutes) and Nathaniel Chalobah (2,816 minutes), with both entering the last years of their contracts and reportedly exploring options elsewhere before committing. But central midfield reinforcements are already in place: Imrân Louza joins after some steady Ligue 1 performances for Nantes over the last couple of seasons, while Jan Kucka comes in from Parma as an experienced Serie A campaigner. A third midfield signing will be most familiar to English audiences. Peter Etebo’s name may ring a bell after a short stint at Stoke City that never really got going due to several managerial changes in the season he arrived at the club. A loan spell at Galatasaray in 2020/21 showed glimpses of what Etebo can offer as a defensive midfield enforcer, but the Nigerian is also capable of filling in as a shuttling midfielder with the ability to contribute between both boxes. Wide-attacker Emmanuel Dennis could be another one that people have a faint recollection of, having scored twice in the Champions League against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in 2019 while with Club Brugge. Dennis has played at right wingback, right-wing, and striker over the last three seasons, so provides versatility, but he struggled in the Bundesliga while on loan at FC Köln in the second half of the campaign, making just nine appearances over 495 minutes as Köln narrowly avoided relegation. It remains to be seen whether Dennis will be an automatic starter or a squad option at Watford, but his data over previous seasons suggest a capable dribbler with a knack of getting in behind the defence and onto the end of throughballs, qualities that would be welcome if they can add some goals to Watford’s survival bid. Josh King and Danny Rose bring Premier League experience to the dressing room. Projection After stabilising in the Premier League, the quality of Watford’s playing squad gradually declined and was a large factor in their relegation. Being objective, the current roster does not appear much better than the one that went down in 2019/20, but if they can continue good defensive habits built under Vladimir Ivić and improved by Xisco Muñoz, perhaps the Hornets can grind matches enough to stay in contention, relying on the likes of Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro to provide the goals at the other end to give them a chance of staying up. Given they finished 2nd in the Championship, it’s noteworthy that the betting markets rate Watford as the side least likely to stay in the Premier League, benchmarking them for a ~34 point season and 20th place. It’s perhaps understandable given there are still question marks over Muñoz’s managerial ability despite promotion; he improved the side, yes, but it was a side that was underperforming given their talent level before he arrived. Muñoz simply raised them to their par. Has he got the quality to give them an edge in a season that their squad looks one of the weakest in the league? We’ll soon find out.
It's the end of an era over at Tottenham, but which era? When Mauricio Pochettino left the club in November 2019, a Champions League final was fresh in the memory yet team metrics had declined precipitously. A week before he left he commented thus:
"We are in the process to [re]build and we will see if we have the time to build what we want"
With a team largely powered by a core of players remaining from Pochettino's era, a season and a half of Jose Mourinho followed. Talks of rebuilding continued to surround the team but despite vigorous work in the 2020 transfer window, the innate core of the team remained similar to before, and results and metrics continued to plateau. When Mourinho himself was jettisoned in April 2021, it came as no real surprise. In particular, Tottenham waned against the better teams in the league, and a 4-3-9 WDL record against teams in the top half under Mourinho in 2020-21 simply didn't cut it. When your entire schtick as a manager is that you're a winner, you really need to win games at a faster clip than that. Now Mourinho certainly chose a reactive style of play but we can see here that he failed to fundamentally improve the team's metrics to even the level of Pochettino's declined 2018-19 outfit: With Mourinho's departure entirely justifiable, an extended recruitment process eventually landed on Nuno Espírito Santo, fresh away from Wolves after a tough season saw them part ways. What Espírito Santo will bring to the team is somewhat open to interpretation; his Wolves teams often played with apparent caution in a 3-5-2 and he had a small squad. Tottenham also saw time with three centre backs during Mourinho's time, and played in a similarly reactive style, but are awash with talented attackers, to the extent that it seems feasible that Espírito Santo may deploy a more offensively charged system, much as he has in former jobs. Indeed, pre-season has seen more of a 4-3-3. But who will form the core of the team? That question is harder to answer and the arrival of Juventus' former Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici has accelerated early summer transfer activity both in and out of the club; one thing is for sure now: it is rebuild time. The good news is that two of the team's main attacking stars appear likely to be retained for 2021-22 albeit under slightly different circumstances. Son Heung-Min had another great season and recently signed a new four year contract. His shot map shows quite clearly what Mourinho tried to get from him: open shots off throughballs, and he exceeded his expected goals by a decent margin for the fifth straight season: There's an interesting question around Son's new contract--he's 29 years old, somewhat of a speed merchant and signed up until he's 33. The next four years may not be his best four years, but his elite finishing ability may keep him as a significant net plus contributor ahead of what may normally be expected from a player with his style. Balancing these decisions is never easy--see Liverpool's trio of late-peak forwards as a case in point--but at the very top of the sport, I suspect a player as an asset to the team persists longer than general age curve work suggests. Similar comments could apply to Harry Kane, who has never been a speed guy, but has always been a plus finisher. However, there's enough noise in the room to suggest that Kane is more inclined to finish his footballing days outside of North London than within, albeit his contract situation (3 more years), likely asking price (a lot) and Manchester City already dumping £100m on Jack Grealish all look like reasons that may preclude his departure, at least this summer. That said, those of us who recall the departure of Gareth Bale back in 2013 will not be wagering on any specific outcome. The big analytics story on Kane is that in 2020-21, he was very much back and there will always be the suspicion that the enforced pandemic break was the best thing that could happen to him. Prior to that a series of injuries and quick returns had apparently derailed his overall effectiveness and seen his underlying metrics drop off, albeit without the goals ever really disappearing. Mourinho certainly set up teams to get the best out of Kane, and 2020-21 saw his highest shots per 90 (3.6), xG per 90 (0.48) rates since 2017-18 and the added boost of high volume creation, in particular towards forward partner Son. From a metric perspective, it's fascinating to note that essentially what Kane is doing on the pitch is broadly the same as before--apart from the key aspects of well, shooting and creating shots. Back when he declined from nearly five shots per game in 2017-18 to around half that in early 2019-20, I attempted to investigate what he was doing differently and found scant evidence outside the shot decline, his average touch was slightly deeper, but little more. It seems that Kane is resilient enough to endeavour to play a similar game to that which he has found great success with, but how or if a manager uses him as a focal point within the team may well define outcomes. Mourinho recognised that and built a team to get the best from Kane, and he got that. Did other players suffer by way of comparison? Perhaps? Either way, this season will be informative once more. The under-the-radar story for this team is the second departure of Gareth Bale. In a fitful season, when he was on the pitch (around one third of available minutes) he was lights out good. He scored eleven goals at around double his xG, added a couple of assists and was the only player in the league with above one goal contribution per 90. For shot contribution, only Kevin De Bruyne (6.7) and Bruno Fernandes (5.5) exceeded his 5.2 per 90. He also ranked second in the division behind Grealish in our OBV/90 metric. Any way you slice the Bale pie, it came up tasty. Sure he wasn't a key starter and in the aggregate trailed Kane and Son, but having this kind of weapon as a bench option will be missed. Personnel So far the rebuild has been as follows: 1. New goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, initially on loan from Atalanta. This makes some sense, as Joe Hart was the back-up to Hugo Lloris and with Lloris entering the last year of his contract, a degree of succession would be logical, possibly Gollini represents that. 2. Left footed left winger 20 year old Bryan Gil swapped for a chunk of cash plus club legend Erik Lamela with Sevilla. Lamela at 29 was good to go, and this kind of one for one "past out, future in" equation is nice and tidy from a squad management perspective. Dissecting a stats case for Gil is curious as playing for a stylistically distinct and struggling Eibar team in 2020-21 wasn't the passport to ballooning metrics as we can see here: Okay, so what's the story here? Much of what we see here grades out at around league average, and the combination of team style and his age enables us to be perhaps more positive than may seem at first glance. If you're 20 years old and clocking league average metrics, the prospect of what you can do down the line is pretty positive. People who watch football, which couldn't be me, also appeared happy with this deal. 3. Probably Cristian Romero No Tottenham fan is likely to complain about defensive reinforcements and the departure of Toby Alderweireld makes that a pertinent detail. Given how readily media talk around moves has turned into reality this summer, it very much appears that the Argentinian international centre back Cristian Romero is likely to arrive shortly from Atalanta via Juventus. Fresh from being crowned Serie A Defender of the Year and a Copa America triumph with his national team, it's easy to see why Romero is coveted and could attract a large fee. A twin effect jumps out from our metrics: during both his time at Atalanta and Genoa he has recorded extremely high pressure volumes and extremely high foul volumes. The centre back archetype in the modern Premier League is somewhat opposite to this, for example Virgil van Dijk pressures and fouls infrequently, and it's a logical detail. If you enact pressure, you may well get beaten and leave space behind and be forced to foul. Atalanta routinely play high up the pitch and need robust and active defenders, Genoa in 2019-20 less so, but Romero was notably active in both teams. How Romero slots into Espírito Santo's presumably more cautious set-ups and how active he is will be a story to follow, as the handful of Argentinian Copa America games are less conclusive here. What else occurs personnel wise is hard to know. At Juventus Paratici frequently oversaw large scale squad turnover on a season to season basis, and having already sold Alderweireld to Al-Duhail in Qatar (as a natural replacement for Mehdi Benatia who he sold there in 2018 from Juventus), it's clear he is well capable of finding clubs where others may not. However should Romero follow Gil in though the door, that would be around £75m invested in the squad, and it's hard to see the club allocating significantly more resources for player purchases without some balancing of the books. We shall see. Projection In 2016-17 Tottenham finished second, the following year they finished third, then fourth, then sixth and in 2020-21 seventh. With Leicester apparently well in the mix for top four places these days, the big six appear to have either shrunk to four (Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd) or extended out to seven (add in Arsenal). Either way, Tottenham's desire is to be firmly in the mix with the smaller group, and the Mourinho experiment did not slow a decline that was straightforward to forecast via metrics even as they finished fourth in 2018-19. As such, bookmaker predictions have them in that second tier alongside Leicester and Arsenal and an estimation of around 60 points doesn't deviate far from either of the last two season totals (59, 62). None of this is easy to counter in either direction. The squad remains fairly deep and talented while appearing to lack some of the cohesion and clear ethos that we see from the league's best sides. Last season's top four will be a hard nut to crack for all teams this year and a deal of hope has to surround further recruits and whether Espírito Santo can take a more talented squad than he had at Wolves (two seventh placed finishes) and land them higher up the table. Fifth to seventh remains by far the most likely outcome and anything over 65 points would represent a step in the right direction. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor just one transfer window.