Norwich City: Championship Champions in 2020/21

Norwich City are back, promoted as Champions of the Championship for the second time in three seasons to return to the Premier League for the 2021/22 season. Talk of ‘trusting the process’ has been heard numerous times in recent weeks – The Canaries stuck with the same formula that had already earned them promotion in 2018/19; same manager, same principles, same players (mostly). The dual pursuit of success and self-sufficiency instilled by Sporting Director Stuart Webber came at a sporting cost last season in their Premier League relegation, but having sent Daniel Farke “to war without a gun” in 2019/20 – the highest figure Norwich spent in the summer of 2019 was £750,000 - Farke certainly had the benefit of a full range of weapons in 2020/21. The squad had been refreshed with depth and quality but, more importantly, Norwich retained their best performers from the previous two seasons to lead the charge back to the top flight. Of the eleven most-used players this season, four were in the eleven most-used in 18/19 (Emiliano Buendía, Tim Krul, Teemu Pukki, Max Aarons) and only three were summer signings: Oli Skipp, Ben Gibson and Jakob Lungi Sørensen. Grant Hanley, Todd Cantwell, Kenny McLean and Mario Vrančić were all less-prominent parts of the 18/19 group but were this time around well ingrained in Farke’s playing style and much more prominent members of the squad. There’s little doubt that Norwich have been better this time than when they won the league two years ago. The 2020/21 iteration felt more complete as a side, almost entirely down to performing much better defensively than in 2018/19. They scored 18 fewer goals in this campaign, but they conceded 21 fewer across the 46 games as well, nearly half-a-goal-a-game drop-off on their last Championship season. The improvement at the back can be put down to a few different factors, most of them more refined performances from individuals in executing the gameplan as the underlying numbers remained similar: in 2018/19 Norwich conceded 53 (non-penalty) goals from 47.2 expected goals, in 2020/21 it was 33 conceded from 45.7 expected goals. But there was more balance to the side now. Kenny McLean and Oli Skipp anchored the midfield and kept the middle of the park on lock to allow the attacking talents to dovetail in advanced areas of the pitch without fear of being hit in transition. Skipp had a particularly stellar season on loan from Spurs, receiving immense credit for his positional sense and tidiness in the midfield and often covering for Max Aarons’ raids down the right wing by preventing the opposition from transitioning down that flank if possession was lost. If the ball did reach dangerous areas, Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson were almost always there to clean up – Hanley made the most interceptions and the most clearances (both adjusted for possession) of all centre backs in the Championship - and Tim Krul also had a much better season in goal too. After conceding 52 goals from 49 post-shot expected goals in 2018/19, which takes into account the placement of the shot to judge the probability of the goalkeeper making a save, he fared far better in 2020/21 to save Norwich roughly seven goals, conceding 22 goals from 29.2 post-shot expected goals. His Shot Stopping % of 7% - the measure of goals saved above average, as a percentage of shots faced by the goalkeeper – ranked the highest of all Championship goalkeepers this season. Norwich finished the season with the second-best defensive record and the second-best attacking record, combining for the best goal difference overall. Their attacking game and approach in possession drew the most attention and praise, in-part because of the ease on the eye and in-part because of the elite talent, especially so at Championship level, they had executing it. The Canaries had more of the ball than any other side in the second tier this season but also moved it into the areas that matter more than anyone else: entering the final third more than any other team, completing the most passes within 20m of goal (Deep Completions), and completing the most passes within the opposition penalty area. Their short passing and combination play resulted in some wonderful football being played at times, Cantwell and Buendía in particular regularly producing technical quality way above Championship level when tucking into central areas from the left and right flank respectively. That technique and invention compounded with the intelligent movement of Teemu Pukki resulted in a regular supply line of through balls splitting the opponents' defence. Rarely did a game go by without Norwich getting in behind the opposition, completing 105 through balls for an average of 2.3 per game. For context, the teams with the third and fourth-most through balls in the Championship, Brentford and Bournemouth, completed 108 defence-splitting passes combined. Of the players to complete the most through balls in the league, three were from Norwich, with Buendía and Vrančić making the top two and Cantwell rounding out the top five just below Harvey Elliott and Callum O’Hare. Buendía's starting position on the right flank is on teamsheet only. In reality, it's Aarons who'll keep the width when Norwich are in the attacking phase with Buendía tucking into central areas - where he can cause more damage with a greater sight of goal. It's clearly observable when looking at his through balls, only two of which were played from an area wide of the penalty area, the rest coming from a more narrow starting position. It's also notable how many of those threaded passes were played from deeper areas. These were not typically passes that broke the opposition's deep block, often they were quick and laser-like passes in transition where Buendía and particularly Pukki’s skillsets thrived. After winning the ball in their defensive third, if Norwich could get the ball to Buendía lurking intently in the space between the opposition midfield and defence then it would spell trouble for their opponents, with Pukki playing on the shoulder and poised to make a perfectly timed run in behind. Buendía’s influence on this Norwich team and the Championship itself was so great that there have been discussions in recent weeks as to whether this has been the greatest individual season ever witnessed in England’s second tier. The quality shown in the final third has been closer to that seen in the Champions League than the Championship, with the Argentine finishing the season on 14 non-penalty goals and 14 assists, backed up by accruing the most xG assisted in the league (13.2) from the most key passes (120). His influence in the final third bears out in how often Norwich were able to get him on the ball in those areas, with Buendía completing 760 final third passes across the season (19.4 per 90 minutes) and 82 open-play passes into the penalty area (2.1 per 90 minutes). Both were league best numbers, as was the fact that just 8% of his passes in the final third went backwards, a league-best figure amongst Championship attacking midfielders and wingers and a number that illustrates his ability to keep the attack moving towards goal. That he’s one of the league’s most active defenders is just the cherry on top. The truth is, Buendía very likely would’ve won the Player Of The Season award for his attacking play alone, but his contribution on the defensive end only adds to the mesmeric nature of his performances. His determination and work rate has landed him disciplinary trouble at times, picking up 2nd yellows for a red card on two occasions this season, but his discipline out-of-possession has been a key part of Norwich’s success, providing support to Oli Skipp and Max Aarons in defending the right flank. Adjusted for possession, given Norwich had more of the ball than any other side this season, Buendía recorded the most pressures of any player in the Championship in 2020/21. Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without another exemplary season leading the line from Teemu Pukki, playing the role of 20+ goal striker yet again. Pukki’s role in the team remained the same as it always has – lead the press and provide a nuisance when the team's out of possession, make devilish runs and finish lethally when the team's in possession. Following on from earlier, 1-in-5 of Pukki’s shots came after a through ball. One of the most archetypal forwards in the league, both in role and in attributes, Pukki was behind only Adam Armstrong for the percentage of total touches that are a shot, with 5% of his touches being a shot on goal. The Fin eventually finished third in the goalscoring charts, both with & without penalties, but his expected numbers were ahead of Ivan Toney and Armstrong – Pukki finished with 27.3 expected goals + expected goals assisted, the most in the Championship this season. Deserved champions, the common consensus is that Norwich are much better prepared than last time to attempt Premier League survival next season. A period of uncertainty around whether they can keep their best stars in yet another transfer window will surely ensue, but one thing we can be certain of – the process will remain the same.

Farming French Soil: Scouting Ligue 2

Perhaps we’ve misunderstood all along. For all the years that French football has had the "farmers league" tag directed at it, supposedly for the lack of quality in the league, is it possible that the accusers have the whole time been referring to the fertile soil that churns out huge quantities of players talented enough to play on the continent each season?

It’s true of Ligue 1, and it’s certainly true of Ligue 2. Of all the second tiers of the ‘Big 5’ European leagues, Ligue 2 stands out as one of the most prolific and consistent breeding grounds for players that go on to play at the top of the game. In the last couple of years alone we’ve seen Alexis Claude-Maurice (OGC Nice), Pape Gueye (Marseille), Silas Wamangituka (VfB Stuttgart), and Maxence Lacroix (VfL Wolfsburg) graduate from France’s second division to play towards the top end of some of the best leagues in the world. Tino Kadewere, another example, made the summer move from Le Havre to Lyon with great success, completing a seamless transition from the top half of Ligue 2 to a title challenge in Ligue 1.

And so, the next batch. Already confirmed as the next graduate out of Ligue 2 is Kouadio Koné. After a breakthrough season in 2019/20, the 19 year old Toulouse midfielder has dialled it up in 2020/21, enough to convince Borussia Mönchengladbach to part with a rumoured €9million in January to secure his services for the 2021/22 season, leaving him at Toulouse to finish the Ligue 2 campaign. Koné profiles like a classic box-to-box, do-it-all midfielder, contributing plenty on the defensive end, impressive in transition both in carrying the ball and playing forward passes to his attackers, and not shy of testing the goalkeeper from range.

Very active off the ball, Koné has shown a tenacious streak both in his propensity for closing down the player in possession, or making a tackle to win the ball back, or generally firefighting across the midfield.

Koné picks up far fewer Interceptions relatively speaking, with 0.9 interceptions per 90 ranking 50th of 57 Ligue 2 central midfielders to play at least 1200 minutes this season, which is perhaps unsurprising for a player so eager to engage the opposition rather than hold his position. On the flip side, that tenacity has seen him rack up the fifth-most tackles per 90 minutes amongst Ligue 2 central midfielders, as well as the sixth-most pressures.

That’s to ignore the fun stuff though.

Clearly the French U19 international’s standout attribute is his ability to get the ball -> carry the ball. That penchant for engaging the opponent isn’t limited to his defensive work, he’s keen to take them on when on the ball as well: Koné attempts (4.0) and completes (2.9) more dribbles than his Ligue 2 centre midfield contemporaries, and completes them at a rate (73%) only Leverton Pierre (76%) of Dunkerque can beat for players who attempt at least 2.0 dribbles per 90. His ball-carrying ability is also reflected in his Carry numbers, the volume of which is around league average, but his average carry length of 6 metres is second only to Rominigue Kouamé of Troyes with 6.2 metres, displaying his ability to carry the ball over longer distances from the centre of the park.

It’s the areas of the pitch that Koné is dribbling in that make him an interesting player. Clearly a useful asset to have when transitioning from defence to attack, he utilises this skill both in the defensive half and in the attacking third and drifting left or right, with 1.8 completed dribbles per 90 in the middle third and 1.0 in the attacking third. Not just utilising this asset in moving Toulouse up the pitch, but also as a means to create space in the attacking phase as well.

 

When it comes to progressing the play through passing, Koné has also shown ability here, just behind teammate Branco van den Boomen for moving the ball to the final third (5.2 Deep Progressions per 90) , a figure that puts him 10th overall in Ligue 2 central midfielders. Indeed, he profiles similarly to van den Boomen across most passing metrics, showing similar importance and sharing responsibility in possession with his more senior midfield partner. It’s easy to see why he’s trusted with the ball when he’s able to protect it so well, completing 81% of his passes under pressure.

There isn’t too much of a goal threat from Koné yet, but that’s not to say he hasn’t contributed there, averaging 1.8 shots per 90 – with most of them from 18 yards out or further - amounting to 0.10 xG per 90, a figure which has translated into two goals this season.

Remembering that he's only 19, it becomes easy to see why Mönchengladbach decided to take him on as a project player, clearly possessing the ability to compete at a higher level. If Koné can mimic the success that compatriot Maxence Lacroix has managed in his first season of Bundesliga football at Wolfsburg, then Gladbach fans are surely going to be pleased.

One player who hasn’t sealed a move in advance but has hardly been going under the radar is Mohamed Bayo. The Clermont Foot forward has been spearheading the third-placed side’s promotion push and leads the scoring with 17 goals - 15 when you exclude penalties. Bayo clearly has a superior goal threat to his striking peers in Ligue 2 with 3.4 shots per 90 the highest rate in the league, and many of them come from high-probability positions - an xG per shot of 16% is the eighth-best rate amongst Ligue 2 forwards.

TL;DR: LOTS of GOOD shots.

Bayo’s path to the Clermont first team is an interesting one. A graduate of their academy, he spent the 2019-20 season in the Championnat National on loan at USL Dunkerque, top scoring for his temporary side with 12 goals to lead them to promotion to Ligue 2. It was only the sale of Clermont top scorer Adrian Grbic to Ligue 1 Lorient in the summer of 2020 that gave Bayo the opportunity to enter the XI and lead the Clermont forward line. He hasn’t looked back.

Clearly a capable penalty box forward, scoring all of his 15 non-penalty goals from inside the box, the 22 year old’s contribution to Clermont’s attack extends further than his goal scoring exploits. Defensively his output could be a little higher, registering 10.8 pressures per 90 – slightly below average for Ligue 2 forwards, but his contribution to the attacking phase cannot be questioned. As well as carrying the ball reasonably well, with an average carry length of 4.6 metres and carrying the ball into the box 1.4 times per 90, behind only Paris FC's Gaëtan Laura, and as well as being plenty capable taking on defenders, completing 1.9 dribbles per 90 (only three Ligue 2 forwards complete more), it’s his contribution to creating chances for his team mates that stands out. He sets up 1 open play shot per game on average, and assists 0.17 expected goals per 90, which, when you do the math, means that the average chance he sets up has an expected conversion rate of 17%. Given the average shot is converted at ~10-11%, Bayo’s clearly chooses his moments to pass wisely when he’s not pulling the trigger himself, setting up quality goalscoring opportunities. That creativity plus the expected goals output of his own shots mean that Bayo's expected goals contribution amounts to the highest of all Ligue 2 forwards this season.

Clermont could well be playing Ligue 1 football themselves next season if they can seal promotion, currently two points with a game in hand behind Kouadio Koné's Toulouse, but otherwise it seems highly likely there’ll be interest from the top tier of French football, let alone elsewhere on the continent, for a forward that’s clearly stood out in the second tier this season. Kouadio Koné will certainly be in the big leagues. We'll wait and see if Mohamed Bayo joins him too.


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Bundesliga 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

Our final look at the major European leagues sees the German Bundesliga come under the spotlight. Talk of a Bavarian behemoth, a alliterative forward winning with Wolves, hard-pressing Hütter, and sorry Schalke 04. On the back of a Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal, and UEFA Champions League treble, Bayern Munich continue to meet their lofty standards. On course for yet another 80+ points haul, the juggernaut continues to plough a furrow through the Bundesliga, but there are some curious trends in their performance levels this season. Bayern aren’t swatting teams aside with the ease and comfort that we’ve come to expect of them - their xG difference of 0.64 per game is their lowest since 2016/17. Their 15-game expected goals trendline since the start of the 2018/19 season illustrates the fact that they haven’t quite been at their imperious best so far this campaign. The 26 goals they've conceded already is only six shy of the 32 they gave up in the entirety of 2019/20. There was even a six-game spell between FC Köln on October 31st and Union Berlin on December 12th inclusive that Bayern didn’t “beat” their opponents on expected goals – in each of those six matches the opposition created the more dangerous opportunities. But FCB didn’t lose a single one, claiming three wins and three draws from their “wobble”. Since then, they’ve flexed their muscle and performances have improved in line with a commanding haul of 21 points from the next eight, a run that has seen them pull clear at the top. RB Leipzig are looking to go one better than last years third-place finish and their metrics look sufficiently strong to support them, but it's below them where chaos starts to ensue: just three points separate Wolfsburg in third and Borussia Mönchengladbach in seventh. Wolfsburg, who had to win the Bundesliga relegation/promotion play-off match two seasons in a row between 2016-2018 just to stay in the league, are currently on course for their highest finish for six seasons and Champions League qualification. Big Wout Weghorst - to give him his full name - is having his best goalscoring season in the green of Die Wölfe. He's behind only Robert Lewandowski for non-penalty goals with 11. At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Koen Casteels is on course to concede fewer goals than expectation for the fourth season running, with the best Shot Stopping % in the Bundesliga this season (Save % - xSave%). Another team gunning for a rare Champions League qualification is Eintracht Frankfurt, who haven’t qualified for the premier European competition since they lost the 1960 final to Real Madrid (when it was known as the European Cup). Right now, they're in position to break that duck. You know what you’re going to get with an Adi Hütter side. The ex-RB Salzburg and Young Boys coach has again instilled an aggressive press into his team, one that’s proven effective as Frankfurt currently sit fourth in the table, having lost just two of their 19 games. No other side in the league engages the opposition as regularly as Frankfurt: their Aggression % - the portion of opponent’s ball receipts that are tackled, fouled, or pressured within two seconds - is the highest in the Bundesliga at 24%. Andre Silva, like Weghorst, is having his best Bundesliga season yet, but it’s supplier-in-chief Daichi Kamada who’s providing the chances for the Portuguese forward. Kamada, who top-scored himself for Frankfurt in 2019/20, is behind only Thomas Müller and Marco Reus for xG assisted from open play. Meanwhile, the irony will not be lost on long-term followers of football analytics discourse for the way that Lucien Favre lost his job at Borussia Dortmund, on the back of some pretty large underperformance on their expected goals. Favre's teams were notorious for outscoring the performance metric, but this season it came unstuck and Dortmund currently languish in sixth place despite having the strongest expected goal difference this campaign. At 37.5 xG, which happens to be the same as Bayern’s, their chance creation in attack has been the best in the Bundesliga, but where Bayern have scored 51 non-penalty goals from their 37.5 xG, Dortmund have finished bang on expectation, scoring 37 times. They haven’t been able to match this in defence, conceding 25 non-penalty goals from 19.6 xG. Despite a strong start, going 5-0-1 in their first six games, the five games that followed cost Favre his position as Dortmund won just once. His last match was a heavy home defeat to VfB Stuttgart - there was no ambiguity over who deserved the result on that day. Speaking of VfB Stuttgart, they’re making an impressive mark on the league following promotion back to the Bundesliga in 2019/20. Previously assistant to Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim, Pellegrino Matarazzo was appointed to his first senior management role in December 2019 and led Stuttgart to 2nd place in the Bundesliga 2. Right now, Stuttgart have the fourth-best xG Difference but are behind expectation in both defence and attack, to have a goal difference of +6 from an expected goal difference of +9.5. At the bottom, Schalke 04’s sorry season has persisted despite two managerial changes already. David Wagner was politely asked to leave just two games into the 2020/21 campaign after back to back defeats continued an 18-match winless run, and the appointment of Germany under-18’s coach Manuel Baum did not have the desired effect. He was relieved of his duties after just 10 games. Now it’s Christian Gross who looks to dig something out of the Miners in his 33rd year of management. Nine points adrift and bottom of nearly every performance metric you can think of, it’ll be some turnaround if Gross can steer them to safety.


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Premier League 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

The latest destination on our traverse around the Big 5 European Leagues sees us land in England. The Premier League pendulum could be swinging back across the North-West, it's halcyon days if you wear claret-and-blue, whilst a couple of yo-yos appear to be unwinding at the bottom. It's been four seasons since the top of the Premier League table has been this close after 22 games. There was a 25-point gap between 1st and 4th at this stage in 2019/20, it's just seven points in this campaign. Both Liverpool and Manchester City have taken it in turns to race ahead of the pack in recent seasons - some title races have been processions as early as January - but, for now, things remain congested. With heavy recency bias, the current prevailing narrative is that Liverpool may well have ceded their title defence already. We all know how unrelentingly good they were last season (they were 21-1-0 at this stage) and maintaining those otherworldly standards was always going to be tricky - and that's even before you factor in the injury to Virgil van Dijk (and Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip...) as well as the issues in negotiating a pandemic-condensed fixture list. It'll raise eyebrows, but there’s virtually nothing between Liverpool’s metrics last season and this. Their attack is identical, creating 1.8 xG per 90 and, ok, shots have risen from 15.4 to 15.6, whilst their defensive metrics have also seen a slight improvement, knocking 9 shots per game down to 7.7, and xG conceded from 1.0 xG to 0.9 xG.   The metrics may be the same, but obviously the results are not. Why the big difference in outcomes? More detailed analysis on their title win can be found in their season preview by James Yorke, but it boils down to this. Liverpool were extremely good at taking the lead in games last season, scoring first in 16 consecutive wins between November and February, for example. Not only that, they were also very good at doubling their lead once they were ahead. And what happens when you’re 2-0 ahead? You stop attacking as much and your opponents start attacking you more. Your chance creation decreases, your opponents chance creation increases. This would’ve kept a ceiling on their metrics last season, and therefore those metrics may not actually be a true reflection of how good a team they really were. This season, they’ve spent far less time ahead and haven’t opened the scoring as regularly, meaning they’ve had to keep their foot on the accelerator more often and their opponents have sat back to try and soak up the pressure - conditions under which you’d expect the metrics to skew more in Liverpool’s favour. So, whilst season-to-season the numbers may look the same, they're the product of very different game scenarios. Another factor is that Liverpool are scoring slightly behind expectation in both attack and defence in 2020/21. Turns out this team is from Planet Earth after all, despite their near-perfect showing last time out suggesting otherwise. For all that’s gone wrong at Liverpool, relatively speaking, let’s talk about what’s gone right at Manchester City. The pendulum swung away from City last season as they finished a distant second, but right now it’s looking like it might be their time again. City are top, with the best goal difference, a game in hand, and have just won nine games on the spin. Which means that their start to the season is already an imperceptible spec in the rear-view mirror. Just 12 points from their opening eight fixtures suggested City might fall short again, but that reaction now looks like it may've been premature, both with hindsight and when you consider they had to face Liverpool, Leicester, Spurs and Arsenal in a tricky set of opening fixtures.   A run of 11-2-0 from their next stretch has seen them muscle their way to the front.   What may've been underplayed is that this is a different Manchester City team to the relentlessly attacking one we've been accustomed to in recent years. Their insatiable desire for goals has been replaced by an insatiable hunger for clean sheets. They're creating less in attack compared to previous seasons, but this is also the tightest they've been defensively in a long time. The trendline below shows the single-game xG values for each fixture and illustrates how consistent they've been at the back. They've conceded more than 1.0 xG on just one occasion.   They're successfully limiting the number of shots their opponents are able to generate, but it's mostly a very noticeable decline in the quality of chances that City are giving up that has driven this improvement - this is the lowest xG per shot conceded that City have recorded in four and a half seasons of StatsBomb data.   The title appears to be City's to lose at this stage, but the red half of Manchester are very much in this race as well. Manchester United are 2nd in the league and are also top scorers with 46 goals. The entire United squad appear to have to magic finishing touch right now with the exception of Anthony Martial and, perhaps surprisingly, Mason Greenwood. Greenwood blazed his way to 10 goals from 3.6 xG last season, but it's just 1 goal from 2.5 xG this. Fortunately, his teammates have taken on the mantle to leave United as a whole ahead of expectation. Bruno Fernandes has continued his excellent form since signing in January last year, serving up chances for the United attack with the regularity that Marcus Rashford serves half-term dinners. Fernandes has been the creative cog and link player between the midfield and attack that had been missing from the United side for years, and his performances have put him firmly in the conversation for the end-of-season player of the year award.   Leicester are third and at the speed they’re picking up points are rightly considered contenders, though they’re coming off less impressive metrics than their competition. Their expected goal difference is just above zero without penalties, but that comes with the caveat that they haven’t had to be as productive in open play due to their rate of winning spot-kicks, which at a 1-in-every-2-games rate is currently the highest in the Premier League and also the highest since the 2016/17 iteration of Leicester City. What Leicester do have in their favour, and the secondary explanation for their strong points tally despite the average metrics, is their record when taking the lead. The Foxes have gone in front 15 times in matches this season and conceded equalising goals on just two occasions. They’re at their best when ahead in games as seen in the positive-game-state shot maps below. They still create more than the opposition despite having a lead to hold onto. It’s also notable that six of their ten penalties have been won when they're ahead, allowing them to settle nerves and secure victories. A collection of over and underachievers exist in the smörgåsbord between 5th-10th. Even now, ignoring pre-season expectations, if I asked you to put Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Spurs, and West Ham in order of where you think they lie in the xG difference table, I bet it wouldn’t be this: There’s also a deserved word to be said on Leeds too. People can’t seem to stop talking about Marcelo Bielsa's side this season and it’s not hard to understand why: they've come up from the Championship, changed nothing, and the result is the fourth-best attack and the second-worst defence by xG. Leeds games are box office; their press like a 90-minute swarm of angry Yorkshire bees, with a regular flow of chances at both ends of the pitch. Leeds' PPDA of 5.9 is a Premier League low in the last four seasons. Lastly, the bottom of the table where three teams find themselves cut adrift of the pack. Just three points separate Fulham, West Brom, and Sheffield United between 18th-20th, though that gap was larger before Sheffield United picked up three wins in their last five. There was talk of the Blades’ possibly becoming the Premier League’s worst ever side before that renaissance, but it’s newly-promoted West Brom who would be the strongest candidates for that dishonour on current showing, had they not already surpassed 2007/08 Derby County’s points tally. The Baggies currently have the worst xG difference per game and the worst xG conceded of the past four and a half seasons of StatsBomb data. And as the ancient football proverb goes: what yo’s up, must eventually yo down.


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Ligue 1 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

We go to France next in our mid-season reviews of the major European leagues, where the title race is far from the foregone conclusion it has been in recent seasons, and with some surprise packages providing entertaining support acts along the way. Just once in the last eight seasons - Monaco in 2016/17 - has the Ligue 1 title not been won by PSG. The Parisian’s grip on French football has not just come in the form of league titles, it’s also been the processional inevitability and comprehensive margin of victory that observers have become all too used to in recent seasons. Not this season. Mesdames et messieurs, we have ourselves a title race. We’ll start with the holders. PSG began their title defence with defeats in the opening two rounds of the season, the first time they’d done so since 1984/85. A curtain-raising defeat to newly promoted Lens was still a shock despite several enforced absences due to positive Covid-19 tests or isolation, including the pair of Mbappé and Neymar. The following 1-0 loss to Marseille in Le Classique was the equivalent of using sandpaper to rub salt into the wound. The subsequent eight-game winning streak, scoring 26 and conceding 1, that followed suggested on a surface-level that Les Rouge et Bleu were back on course and their period of plain sailing was to continue, but that wasn't to be the case. Hints at a downturn in performance turned into nudges, and then nudges turned into sharp elbows to the ribs as the team’s attacking output drifted away. A run of three wins in seven games saw the end of Thomas Tuchel's managerial reign. Whilst their attack only cooled in more recent games, there had always been warning signs on the defensive end that all was not well, despite conceding the fewest goals in the league at the midway point. It’s thanks to a combination of poor finishing from their opponents as well as consistently good goalkeeping from Keylor Navas that PSG have so far retained the best goals against record in the league because by xG, they are far from the most watertight defensively, conceding chances worth 23.4 xG, only the seventh-best record in the division. This is where the most obvious improvements can be made for the incoming Mauricio Pochettino. It’s the team at the top of the xG conceded ranking that also tops the league table as things stand. Lille have the lowest expected goals conceded and have indeed conceded only one more goal than PSG – a defensive record that has helped them to lose just two games in 22 this league season. It’s a clichéd blend of youth and experience in the centre of defence providing the sturdy foundation for Lille’s title charge to sit on. The now 37-year-old José Fonte partners the highly-rated Sven Botman, freshly graduated from the Ajax academy, and both are screened by the busy Benjamin Andre in central midfield, who leads the league in tackles + interceptions. It’s a highly effective partnership that Fonte and Botman share, with each excelling in different areas on the game – Botman providing the progressive outlet in buildup, playing the second-most passes from open play in Ligue Un, whilst Fonte sticks to putting his body on the line in front of goal, ranking joint-first in the league for blocks made per shot conceded. This willingness to keep the goalkeeper's gloves clean at any cost has helped Lille to concede the joint-fewest Clear Shots in all of Ligue 1 – shots with just the goalkeeper between ball and goal - rarely allowing their opponents a straightforward view of the goal. Organised in the defensive phase, they’re equally well-drilled in the defensive transition, running an effective counterpress high up the pitch to prevent the opposition from hurting them with space in behind, resulting in a league-low return for shots conceded on the counter attack. 2nd placed Lyon currently have the best underlying numbers in the league and lead the pack by expected goal difference. It's mostly due to massively upgrading their attack that they've been able to push themselves into title contention: compared to last season, they’ve added 3.5 Shots per game to their output, and are also taking those shots from better locations, resulting in a 0.8 xG per game upgrade on their final third output. Manager Rudi Garcia, a Ligue 1 title winner with Lille in 2010/11, took Lyon to the Champions League semi-finals in 2020 despite a 7th-placed finish in the league, and has managed to translate that European success into domestic form in this campaign. Despite playing as the centre-forward, Memphis Depay has been the team’s leading creative outlet, laying on the chances for wide players Karl Toko Ekambi and Tino Kadewere rather than providing the main goal threat himself. Depay ranks second only to Ángel Di María for xG assisted per 90 in Ligue 1. Toko Ekambi and Kadewere are the willing recipients off the left and right flank respectively, with both having the second and third highest xG per 90 respectively in the league. It isn't just their cohesive and potent attack that's giving Lyon a very credible chance at winning their first title since 2008 though, it's the balance they've found between that and a very competent defence. Les Gones have the best xG per shot conceded and it’s largely down to allowing just six(!) shots within their six-yard box all season. AS Monaco are well in the race as well, just six points behind leaders Lille, and their on-pitch process appears to back that up, having the third-best xG Difference in the league. Goalkeeping issues have held them back so far - Benjamin Lecomte had the worst Shot Stopping % (Save% - xSave %) in the division before breaking his hand, and replacement Vito Mannone fared almost equally poorly. The result is that Monaco have conceded 27 non-penalty goals from 18.8 xG, though it’s also only fair to point out that this has been counter-balanced by some overperformance on the attacking end. Their attack has been powered by a sizeable output from set plays with 14 goals a full six goals clear of the next best team in this phase. Centre backs Guillermo Maripán and Axel Diassi have netted seven goals between them up to now, with Maripán, at 0.44, currently enjoying a better goals per 90 rate than Neymar. Elsewhere, there are two surprise packages sat in the top half - Metz and Lens. Metz finished 15th last season following promotion but are already sat on the same points tally they finished last season’s curtailed renewal with, on 34 points from 22 games this campaign. There’s been some overperformance at both ends of the pitch for Les Grenats, but there are also some clear signs they have improved on their 2019/20 showing. Their xG per shot against of 0.08 is only marginally bettered by Lyon and Lille, and they’re keeping this down by preventing their opponents from shooting from close range as often as possible – the average Shot Distance by their opponents of 18 metres is the second-furthest in the league. Lens are interesting for two reasons: that they’re newly promoted and that their underlying numbers are actually legit – they have the sixth-best expected goal difference. Franck Haise’s side are running a highly effective defence and are one of the most disruptive sides in the league in their own defensive third, preventing their opponents from moving the ball close to their goal. Lens have conceded the second-fewest passes inside their own penalty area and second-fewest passes within 20m of their goal. Their organised block stops the opposition from having any meaningful possession in areas that threaten their goal. Towards the bottom, Dijon find themselves 19th in the table despite having conceded the joint-ninth fewest goals with 31. How? Because they’ve scored just 15 times. Things could be even worse too, given the quite mysterious misfiring of their opponents in front of goal, whilst there’s nothing in fellow strugglers Nîmes underlying numbers to suggest they might pull off an equally dramatic escape. There are genuine threats to PSG’s title defence this campaign and from multiple directions. Pochettino will need to have an immediate impact on his Parisians if they’re to retain yet another Ligue 1 victory.


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EFL 2020/21 Mid-Season Review

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

1) Swansea City Shut-Outs

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

2) Pressing Matters With Callum O’Hare

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

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

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

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

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

5) Josh Emmanuel: Full Back Attack

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

6) Chuks Aneke: Bench Warmer, Ice Cold Finisher

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

7) Max who? Max Watters

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

8) Sunshine and Beechball in Cumbria

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

9) The Second Best Attack In The Country

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

10) Lionel Wessi Seeing Out His Career In Cambridge

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

11) Bonus Nutmegs

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

Player

Club

Competition

Nutmegs

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

 

Player

Club

Competition

Nutmegged

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

 


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English Players Abroad: German Bundesliga

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


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In Review: The 2020 Swedish Allsvenskan

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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