WSL newcomers Manchester United will be a major challenge for league leaders Chelsea

After the dismal showing by The Lionesses in front of a record crowd of 77,768 at Wembley, we can all breathe a big sigh of relief and get back to some Women’s Super League this weekend. There are several tasty looking fixtures too. It’s derby day on Merseyside and also in North London, but not to be outdone, league leaders Chelsea host new kids on the block Manchester United at The Cherry Red Records Stadium (the artistic ground formerly known as Kingsmeadow). According to expected goals, Emma Hayes’ Chelsea thoroughly deserve their top spot. Their non-penalty xG per game stands at 2.08, easily the best in the league, while the against figure is 0.65, narrowly second-best behind Arsenal’s. A goal and a half per game better off than opposition is impressive even if the opening fixtures have been fairly kind. Hayes has settled on a fairly robust 4-4-2-ish set up in recent weeks with either Fran Kirby or Ramona Bachmann playing slightly off the ever-ready Bethany England up front. With Chelsea putting teams on the back foot with their possession through a mix of both buildup from the back and direct balls into the channels, a lot of good attacking work comes from quick turnovers. Erin Cuthbert and Ji So-yun stand out in winning the ball back and Chelsea lead the way in high press shots. Here those two are combining for one of those: Ji is basically Chelsea’s go-to player. Dominant in so many metrics, the South Korean’s closest player match-ups in the Statsbomb database include Barcelona version Andres Iniesta, Liverpool version Philippe Coutinho and Manchester City’s David Silva. Enough said: Even against champions Arsenal, playing in a two v three in the middle of the park, she’s bossing it: What of Casey Stoney’s Red Devils, then? United currently sit fourth in the non-penalty xG difference table at 0.51 per game and sit fourth in the actual table too, leaders of the ‘best of the rest’ group. That’s pretty impressive for a newly promoted side, no? With impossibly horrific opening fixtures against Manchester City and Arsenal, followed by Liverpool, Reading and Spurs, Stoney has tinkered about with the side, setting them up differently almost every time. Consequently, the squad has been well rotated already. Whoever is picked, though, it’s fair to say United like to defend deep and bring the opposition on: The team wallow at the bottom of the passes per defensive action (PPDA) table, allowing over 12 passes before making a defensive action. Even perennial bus parkers Bristol City get stuck in quicker than that. On average, United make their defensive moves well over 10 yards further back than upcoming opponents Chelsea. In goal, England No.1 Mary Earps is fairly well protected, as United are pretty good at preventing high-value shots, second only to Arsenal. She’s having a good season so far, conceding only 2 goals when post-shot xG would expect nearly 5. While for England, Phil Neville has her playing out from the back, at United, she goes longer than any other keeper in the league. This showed while watching the England match live last Saturday. Earps didn’t appear switched on enough to doing things quickly and looked slow and deliberate with the ball at her feet. To be fair, however, Steph Houghton and Leah Williamson were also in a daze too. Left-sided midfielder, Katie Zelem is generally the hub of the team. That considered, you can see from her radar that perhaps United aren’t a run of the mill side: The pass sonar for Zelem also reveals how United might want to play Chelsea. Zelem’s pass completion is perhaps represented by how often the vertical ball is chosen over merely recycling possession. Looking back at the defensive viz for United we can see defensive pressure being applied into the far corners. In the opener against City, United repeatedly sent the ball down the sides and chased the superior footballing team backwards. United hunted in packs of 3s and 4s, bombing on to put City under pressure. This accomplished two things: it made them a threat on the counter, and forced City as far away from goal as possible, having to build moves from their own box while having opposition players cutting off passing lanes. Ultimately it didn’t work, but United did create good chances and were really unlucky not to score. It is almost written in stone that Chelsea will dominate the ball in this fixture, and it will be a fascinating cat and mouse game if United can prevent Chelsea from scoring early on. That’s a big if, however. United are a physical team but so are Chelsea. United look like they can run all day at times, but if there’s one side that will stand up and fight it’s Chelsea. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chelsea make United pay at corners. I’m not convinced by Earps’ ability to relieve the pressure there. Chelsea have good routines and good aerial ability while United have the worst numbers in the league when it comes to conceding chances at corners. United do have a wildcard in youngster Lauren James. I first saw James properly last season running rings around older players and generally making things look too easy. Therein also lies James’ problem. All too often it seems so easy for her that she can’t be bothered. It would be brilliant if she turned up and shone in a big game like this. As it is, I’m not even sure she’ll make the starting line-up. Which is a shame because she can do this:

The Super League’s action filled (ish) opening weekend

Last season Bristol City were able to secure seven wins from 20 games despite scoring just 17 goals. Weekend opponents Brighton scored just 16 goals and won four games.  The FA Women’s Super League media team must have been absolutely chuffed when they found out the powers that be had made this fixture one of the two opening games to be televised. Both side’s defensive activity maps last year were things to behold. There’s sitting deep, and there’s sitting deep, and there’s Bristol City and Brighton: No surprise then that the game ended 0-0. However! Despite the similar outputs at season’s end in terms of goals, the underlying numbers suggested Brighton created nearly twice the amount of goal threat in terms of expected goals during the 2018-19 season. And that seemed to bear out in this game as Hope Powell’s Seagulls repeatedly pecked away at Tanya Oxtoby’s Vixens. By half time the shot count was 13-1 in Brighton’s favour (including a penalty brilliantly saved by Sophie Baggaley). At 75 minutes, that count had extended to 21-1. The introduction of Ebony Salmon and Olivia Chance stretched the game a little and there was a late flurry of activity but it still looked like this at the end: Ouch. The worry for Powell is that not taking chances, a habit that plagued Brighton last year, has already rolled over into the new season. Both main striking options, Kayleigh Green and Iniabasi Umotong, were culprits last season, ending up with goal tallies at nearly half of their xG totals. The positive is that the 2.1 xG posted here was as good as anything Brighton managed last year. The negative is that those high xG postings last year were against relegated Yeovil. And Bristol City may end up as this year’s Yeovil if they’re not careful. Chelsea took on Tottenham in front of a big crowd at Stamford Bridge and according to shots and xG it was another one-sided game. Newcomers Tottenham started conservatively with Ria Percival tasked to sit in front of the back four to protect and screen whilst watching the keeper and defenders play tippy-tap out from the back. It didn’t start well. In Spurs’ first build up, Percival (No.3) did her best to make a show of looking to receive the ball while never actually intending to. She was wrong-footed trying to move away from play just as the pass came, leaving Bethany England to pick the ball up and smash it into the top corner. It really was brutal punishment for Spurs starting in neutral: Percival continued to trundle about protecting the space in front of back four rather than aggressively seeking to destroy. She also continued to walk about and look entirely uninterested in receiving the ball during Tottenham’s build up play, appearing to tell team mates to calm down and ignore her as an option: One nil down at half time, it looked like Spurs’ manager Karen Hills had to do something other than keep the ball away from Chelsea’s central midfield. And she did. On came Chloe Peplow for Coral Haines with Percival moved further forward. It started to look much better on the eye. Peplow (No.8) was immediately more aggressive and higher up the pitch in possession: She was also more dynamic in build-up from the back, actually offering for the ball and then moving her marker around to create room to switch the ball around: The effect on possession of the ball can be seen by comparing the pass networks before and after the break: That said, it didn’t alter the flow of traffic in terms of attacking. Chelsea continued to dominate the shot count and the numbers were resoundingly in the Blues’ favour:   I have to say, despite this awful looking chart, I enjoyed Tottenham’s performance. The first half plan of trying to stifle Chelsea and play down the sides wasn’t successful but at least Spurs’ were trying to stick to their principles of trying to build from the back. It gave the first half pass map the classic U-shaped look that connoisseurs of more direct football (people like me) are so fond of calling impolite words: Still, despite Chelsea racking up the shots, Tottenham seemed fairly well drilled in defence and kept shape. Chelsea just looked more able physically. And had better players. Going forward, the odd attack on the break through Gemma Davison’s ball carrying and Siri Worm’s charges down the left felt more dangerous than the numbers suggested. Tottenham’s riskier second-half approach felt encouraging and should instil a bit of belief that against sides of lesser quality than Chelsea, this Spurs team should be able to mix it. Increasingly these days I’m in favour of teams using these ‘throwaway’ fixtures (against far superior opposition) to concentrate on their own game to help future performances – especially in a league as disparate and short in games as FAWSL. Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea are in a league of their own according to recent historic xG numbers. With a small number of fixtures to play against more evenly matched teams, is it worth wasting a few weeks a season practicing specific defensive game plans in the forlorn hope of snatching a point? It may be for Bristol City who’ll do it whoever they face, but Spurs and the rest? Not so much. I was therefore impressed with West Ham’s showing against Champions, Arsenal. Manager Matt Beard set the Irons up to have a decent go and so they did: The front two, Martha Thomas and Kenza Dali, both brought in from French clubs look an intriguing pairing. Dali dropped deep to pull the strings while Thomas harried and harassed and scored an absolutely brilliant header, rising and nipping in front of her marker to steer the ball inside the post. This is the first time I’ve seen Thomas who played college soccer in the US before moving to Division 2 side Le Havre. She looked to have everything you’d want in a forward – pace, aerial ability, an eye for goal and a good old-fashioned enthusiasm for terrifying defenders. The Hammer’s certainly needed more creativity and firepower up front to improve last season’s middling numbers. As you can see from the trendline below, defence was perhaps the bigger problem for Beard early on in the season. Things got better as winter drew in: However, still clearly feeling the need for reinforcements, West Ham signed left-sided German defensive duo Katharina Baunach and Laura Vetterlein in the summer along with right-back Cecilie Kvamme. All got game time this weekend but couldn’t stem the Arsenal tide. What they all did do, however, was get heavily involved in build-up. Midfielder, Tessel Middag, finally got to play some football in this country following two consecutive ACL injuries. The Dutch international will feel she has some catching up to do. West Ham are going to be an interesting side to watch this year. Newly promoted Manchester United complete my hattrick of plucky losers on opening weekend. The difference here is they actually beat Manchester City on the xG count 0.78 to 0.40 even if they did get beat in reality. No team managed to restrict City that much in a game last season. So how did United do it? Like Spurs, United tried to play round the outside of the opponent. They also created a nice U-shape for the pass map but they did something different too. They continually sent the ball long into wide areas and the inside channels: This enabled two things. Firstly, an ability to create chances by turning City towards their own goal: Look how many United players bomb on in support in those clips making it 4v4 and 3v3. Secondly, even when the ball was given away, the long ball and application of pressure meant City had to build from their own third rather than on half way. This happened again and again. It was really aggressive from United and kept City far away from the danger zones. There are plenty of routes to watching live FAWSL games for free this season. If you haven’t yet, then you should. It’s a product that’s going to get better and better and better. And Statsbomb have all the data, and it’s all free if teams want it.

Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Player Profile

It’s been a baptism of fire for Jean-Philippe Gbamin in an Everton jersey. On after 45 minutes on opening day to replace fan favourite André Gomes. Midfield partner Morgan Schneiderlin sent off 30 minutes later. Alongside new partner Tom Davies for the last 20 minutes with 10 men. And to top it off he was a starter this week to partner Gomes against tough Watford duo Abdoulaye Doucouré and Étienne Capoue. And breathe. It’s fair to say a few Evertonians wobbled at JP’s wobbles, particularly in that first game against Crystal Palace.  Will the real Gbamin please stand up? We’re here at Statsbomb Towers, so let’s have a look at his radar: So yeah, moving swiftly on to a comparison with last season’s radar at Mainz. What else is in his locker? Ok, so still nothing amazing. But extra facets to his game there that we’ve not seen yet in the small sample of 120 minutes so far at Everton. His passing can be better, he can carry the ball nicely, and he can press the ball more. Good. Even though the sample is small, the different aspects of his play on the radar are mirrored in his defensive work at both clubs too. At Everton, he’s mainly stuck to the right-hand side of the pitch: Despite starting nominally on the right side of the pitch at Mainz too, he still found a ton of time to roam the pitch much more freely to disrupt play: Are we likely to continue to see a more restricted Gbamin in Marco Silva’s line up? His shot map last season in the Bundesliga featured a fair few bombs. Two hit the target: He hasn’t even pulled the trigger yet at Everton… On signing the Ivorian, Silva stated that Gbamin wasn’t a direct replacement for Idrissa Gana Gueye. Yet due to injury and suspension that’s how he’s chosen to play him so far. Can we assume Gbamin was bought so Everton could gradually switch to a three and have Fabian Delph and Gomes in there with him? Personally, I think this would be a forward step to resolving Everton’s attacking issues where Gylfi Sigurðsson either does something wonderful or does nothing at all. An extra Gbamin shaped body in the middle of the park might lead to more control than the team completing just 300 passes against Watford at home. Would this disruption of shape without the Icelander who works so hard to close down opponents at every opportunity ruin Everton’s good defensive numbers? They’re used to playing this system now and The Toffees are grinding out results with it, but will it get Everton where the club need to go? If Silva thinks it is, I was interested to look at what the radars suggest Gbamin and Gomes bring together as a two: They clearly both bring different things to the team, which is a good, but it just doesn’t look like it’s enough at this point. Stretching play with deep progressions isn’t part of either’s game or seemingly in Silva’s tactical plan. The lovely Statsbomb Tactics IQ dashboard can show us successful passes (red) versus unsuccessful (yellow). Those longer vertical balls just haven’t come off yet for the new boy: The radar also suggests both are content to sit and hold ground in the middle. The front four do a hell of a lot of the defensive work in front of them. Add in the form of centre back pairing Yerry Mina and Michael Keane and it perhaps explains those good defensive numbers The Blues have right now and showed for most of last season. It’s a safe system. I get the feeling a straitjacket isn’t a look that Gbamin’s particularly keen on. I think he naturally wants to be free. Silva might worry enough to replace him if Delph is back soon from injury. Everton haven’t bought a £25m misfit. He’s just one piece of an expensive jigsaw that isn’t all that easy to put together. The Portuguese may well change it round again for Villa on Friday night.

Everton: 2019-20 Season Preview

Can Everton distinguish themselves from the rest of the Big Six chasing pack, or will Marco Silva’s second season in charge see them plateau or decline as the last two Toffee managers did?

How did Everton look on the numbers last season?

One of my favourite ways to use expected goals these days is by using what I call a ‘Dominance Table’. It’s based on the outcomes of individual matches. ‘What? Using individual game xG values?’ I hear you cry in horror. Yes, my little Statsbombalombas, using individual game xG values! The basic premise is a side has to score full points of xG. They’ve got to do enough to prove that game dominance. It’s a nice, down and dirty way to separate out significant instances of bad luck, from the larger ocean of variance.

  • 0.78 plays 0.44? That’s 0-0.
  • 3.99 plays 0.99? That’s 3-0.
  • 2.01 plays 2.77. That’s 2-2.

Everton were absolutely hopeless in the Dominance Table last season until the end of February. Then, something happened. Suddenly, Everton won seven of the last eight games on those xG dominance scores to finish the season with a flourish. A search of my twitter timeline and you’ll see I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Marco Silva’s appointment last summer. The numbers told me that at both Hull and Watford, he couldn’t get his team to control games to save his life. In game it was a rollercoaster. From game to game it was…also a rollercoaster. With any xG for and against trendline you’ll see at least some volatility, but Silva continues to be The Tycoon: Here’s three tweets I sent in the last 12 months. One from last July, one from December and then one in April. Dominic Calvert-Lewin finally started getting regular starts and game time from March onwards. The team started to improve again in attack. It had sunk back to Sam Allardyce levels previously.

Do Everton desperately need a centre forward?

I’ve heard many Everton fans say Calvert-Lewin can’t finish, that we need someone who is going to score more goals. Everton already have a natural finisher in Cenk Tosun. He just can’t do anything else. Apparently, Everton need a target man who can hold it up, has pace and mobility and can score 20 goals a season on top of that. Well, no kidding. The thing is, Calvert-Lewin is great in the air, can hold it up, has pace and mobility (and a great work ethic) and he can finish. xG? Statsbomb say 10 over the last two seasons. Goals? 10. Maintaining par with xG over time is good. The only youngsters (below 23) in the Premier League shooting enough in open play to get more xG than Calvert-Lewin (mostly with more minutes played too)? Gabriel Jesus, Marcus Rashford and our very own Richarlison. That’s it. But Silva wants a new forward. Wilf Zaha was on on their radar before Everton acquired Italian youngster Moise Kean from Juventus for £29 million. Read my statistical profile of him here. With these type of players, and the recruitment of Richarlison last summer, it would appear Silva wants a fluid front line rather than a central focus.

What does this team need then?

Despite my criticisms of his game management, one thing the numbers make pretty clear is that Silva sorted the team’s defending out on the whole. Forget a bit of early set-piece woe for a minute, Silva’s dragged the defensive numbers back to David Moyes levels according to xG. That is damned impressive for his first 12 months in charge. Peering back into my own, pre-Statsbomb model makes it clear. Keeper spots look sorted. Jordan Pickford’s come through his wobble it seems and had a solid season on the numbers again. Everton have added Jonas Lossl (urgh) to deputise with Maarten Stekelenburg (double urgh). Neither have ever looked any good on the numbers but barring an injury to Pickford, it probably doesn’t matter all that much for now. Kurt Zouma had a very successful loan spell last season and ended up playing more than twice as much as Colombian Yerry Mina who Everton brought in permanently after an impressive World Cup. Everton appeared to want him permanently but it looks like Frank Lampard wants Zouma to stick around at Chelsea and Zouma isn’t going to upset that applecart. Mina excelled again for Colombia in this summer’s Copa America. If he doesn’t get more game time this coming season, it would seem something may be up behind the scenes at Goodison for our Yerry. Will Mason Holgate return and deputise at centre back following a pretty successful loan at WBA where he mostly played at right back? Left back looks sorted with Lucas Digne having an impressive debut season, Leighton Baines signing a year’s extension and Fabian Delph now providing even more cover if need be. The right back slot looks a weak link. Seamus Coleman has recovered from a serious leg break but doesn’t consistently look his old self. Youngster Jon-Joe Kenny has gone off to the Bundesliga on loan with Schalke after huffing and puffing but never really looking convincing. Holgate may well provide cover there too. Midfield is where Everton need a damn good revamp With Idrissa Gueye turning 30 this year, I wanted him off in January for the money PSG were willing to pay. Rumour had it that Director of Football (DoF) Marcel Brands wanted that too but Silva dug his heels in to keep the Senegalese. He must’ve been wearing fairly flat shoes, though, as Gueye’s now gone. Fabian Delph? Same age as Gueye, gain money on the transfer fees involved, lose a chunk of it on the wages Delph will command. It strikes me as a fairly pointless exercise as we’ll still be looking for replacements. It doesn’t move the team forward beyond next year. Is Delph going to come to sit more of his waning career out on the bench of a lesser team for less money? You have to assume that if Delph comes, he’s been told he’s first choice or at least getting a bundle of minutes.  Is Andre Gomes good enough to challenge the top 6? Even his most ardent fans concede how badly he struggled during the winter months when the team slumped. Let’s look at what last season’s midfield two brought to the table as individuals. Greyed area is league average, blue is our player: No surprises with Gueye. A pint-sized defensive juggernaut battering about the pitch knocking guys (ahem) half his size about. There’s next to nothing between them on the ball, though. Gomes has the reputation amongst fans of being a cultured ‘baller while Gueye is regularly accused of giving it away every five seconds. The stats don’t back those eye witness accounts up. At all. Gomes has a strong beard game and is pretty much Premier League average at everything. As it stands Gomes and Delph are probably the first-choice midfield two. Delph has been trained in the art of the press by the best in the business at City. But he’s also played mostly at left back for the last two years. Everton still have Morgan Schneiderlin, James McCarthy and Muhammed Besic hanging around like bad smells, don’t forget. Hopefully, at least two will have been deodorised by the end of deadline day. Then there’s Tom Davies. The blond, curly-haired skater boi got less than 1000 minutes playing time in the Premier League last season. Rather than get Delph at the wrong end of his career I’d honestly like to have given Davies a proper chance to actually see if he has what it takes to make the grade. The outcome is still the same at the end of it if he doesn’t – an about average midfield is on the pitch for a year or two and we spend big in central midfield to replace it. Delph is a good player. But it’s more money in the Goodison Park incinerator that we’ll never get a return on. And I’m sick of that fire burning bright since Moyes’ left. Midfield is still a hot mess for me that can’t be rescued with just one, possibly underwhelming, signing like Jean-Phillipe Gbamin. It’s a unit. It needs a full overhaul.

You haven’t mentioned our Icelandic friend?

Gylfi Sigurdsson plays more as a second striker than attacking midfielder or No.10. He still only touches the ball the same amount as the wide forwards and centre forwards. He still doesn’t dictate play. What he does bring to the side off the ball is an enormous penchant for closing down opponents. It’s damn useful and in tandem with fellow attackers Richarlison and Bernard’s work ethic it’s clearly gone a long way to helping keep xG against down. Every time I watch, however, I can’t help but think the sum of this team’s parts would be higher without Sigurdsson. I’d like to see a ‘link’ player, or Everton setting up with a more orthodox central midfield three that can work physically closer together on the pitch. Watch Everton and see how they struggle to build through the middle of the park. See how far away options are. The team still plays a relatively much higher % of longer balls then any of the sides they’re chasing. It ain’t great in possession. The midfield needs a full overhaul (sensing a theme).

I don’t much like the structure off the field either

In Farhad Moshiri’s time at the helm Everton have gone about things entirely backwards – hiring managers and then hiring Directors of Football. First time round was bad enough with Ronald Koeman and then Steve Walsh coming in. But then doing it again straight away going hell for leather for Silva months and months before appointing Brands was just…wow. For me, a DoF runs the show and is the direct link between board and the football side. He should be deciding how the team plays, who the players are to play that way and who the coach is to coach that way. Responsibility. I’ve already talked about friction over Gueye to PSG in January. Whose idea was it to bring Luis Boa Morte in as first team coach? Do we really think that’s Brands? Is Duncan Ferguson, a relative novice, the best man for handing out bibs and cones at training? For a club with a billionaire at the helm, is this really nil satis nisi optimum behind the scenes? The new stadium proposals look the absolute business, but they’ve been put together by an outsider being hired in. Let’s make the football club structure the absolute business too, please. Keith Harris and Jon Woods have gone from the board so that’s a good start. But not so long since, Brands became a member of the board. He may have to decide on whether to sack himself if it doesn’t work out. How’s that conversation supposed to go? Since last summer Everton have made some astute purchases that even I can’t moan about, but the players we’ve been linked with this summer still make me question the relationship between manager and DoF.

Make a prediction for next season, then

7th to 10th. Again.  The attack has been strengthened by Kean’s arrival but the team still struggle to create from further back. Thankfully the individual talent is there to get points when they’re not deserved, but some damn cohesion would be nice. I have my doubts we’ll get it but there’ll be some moments of brilliance along the way. Sign a ‘proper’ midfielder that can do everything well and we’ll get nearer to 6th both positionally and points-wise. Sign a younger, rawer version of Gueye, and it’s positive for the medium to long term but perhaps not the short term unless we get really lucky. If Silva does go for that fluid forward line rather than using DCL or Kean as the focal point, with Gueye gone, will the defence be protected enough in front? We may see that xG against creep back up. The earlier deadline day looms large and there’s still so much work to do before Everton can realistically start challenging the big boys. A squad heavy in age and wage makes maneuvering the transfer canvas an awkward, lumbering process. The longer it goes on the more you worry about having to swing a desperate haymaker for a knock-out blow. If it lands then boom, if it doesn’t…well, you’re even more out of shape than ever. I’ve made my own version of Arya Stark’s list that I repeat every night before bedtime. It contains every player at Everton that constantly feeds that money burning incinerator. All of them at the old man end of the age-curve and some of them are even brand (Brands?) new fuel: Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman, Kevin Mirallas, James McCarthy, Oumar Niasse, Maarten Stekelenburg, Morgan Schneiderlin, Yannick Bolasie, Cuco Martina, Cenk Tosun, Theo Walcott, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jonas Lossl, Fabian Delph. Lose most of these in the next 12 months and I’ll be predicting a much brighter, much more flexible future.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Moise Kean, Player Profile

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

Turning Theory Into Practice: Paul Riley Meets Swedish National Goalkeeping Coach Maths Elfvendal

Back in 2012, spurred on by my wife and a friend who out of boredom at work deliberately sparked daily debate with his outlandish football takes, I started blogging about football and using data to answer the questions it poses. Fast forward six years and what started as a mess about has become seriously surreal. Twitter gets its fair share of criticism, but it’s enabled me personally to reach crazy great people. At first it was all about volume of traffic and gaining new followers. Soon, it became about more than that. I was invited back to my home town to visit Bolton Wanderers’ Head of Analytical Development, invited by the Scouting and Recruitment Co-ordinator of my beloved Everton to speak with him at Finch Farm. It’s still bonkers to me that people in the professional game speak to me, read some of the words I’ve written and listened to some of the words I speak. Following my Statsbomb come back in August the Swedish national team goalkeeping coach messaged me wanting to chat.   There’s a feeling that the new generation of football club analysts and coaches, routinely more formally educated than their predecessors, are embracing new ways of communicating their ideas about the game. Maths Elfvendal is definitely one of these guys. “Wherever you’re working you need to be good in a lot of areas to be a good coach these days,* says Elfvendal, “but especially the bigger the club or the bigger the national side. It’s getting complex. You need to handle the social relationships. With the national team you have one, two, three goalkeepers who think they should be playing. You need to handle them with care – both individually and as a group.” Elfvendal has been a semi-professional footballer in Sweden. His father was goalkeeping coach for the Swedish U21 team, and coached in the Swedish top flight while Maths grew up looking on. Now the boy is grown up and goalkeeping coach for both IFK Norrköping and the national team. Elfvendal is still only 31 years old but has somehow also managed to fit in 5 and a half years of university – learning to be a secondary teacher in social studies. He sees his educational experience every bit as important as his footballing background: “I adapt myself to the goalkeeper I have. I speak to every goalkeeper in a different way. In one way I have those years learning how to teach. In another way I have years of experience in the dressing room and hear what footballers say. I need to adapt.” The concept of adaptation comes up repeatedly in our two hour chat. Elfvendal believes the new wave of technology and information available now is changing the game rapidly. It’s a matter of keeping up and developing your own philosophy or being left behind. “I’ve been reading your blog and it’s helped me a lot to build my own philosophy, both from statistics and also experiences with goalkeeper coaches and players,” says Elfvendal casually. I nearly choke on my cup of tea. “A lot of football experience can be short-cut these days. With all the information we have you can gain the necessary experience and knowledge of the game much faster now.” I have to admit, despite being flattered by Elfvendal’s comments I’m still a ‘football philosophy’ sceptic. If you have three keepers to look after with the national team and they’re all different how do you approach a training session they’re all involved in? “That’s interesting. They are different, definitely.” he says. “Physically, technically. They also play in different leagues. On international duty the standard is only three training sessions before a game. For me, to believe I can change them technically in that space of time and for them to then perform at their best would be naive. With the national team my training sessions are based on tactical aspects for the next game, for the next opponent. In that sense it’s easier. How do we want to build up our play, how do we need to protect the area from crosses or from cutbacks. These positional changes we can change a little bit. It’s more based on the game plan so the whole team is on the same page. At a club there’s more time to work on technical detail. Also, you have to respect that the clubs own the players, we just borrow them for the national team. I don’t want to change anything that will negatively impact them when they go back to their clubs. I don’t want to say something when the coach at their club says otherwise.” The teacher is eager to test me using some of the presentation slides he uses when delivering lectures to other coaches. “What position do you prefer the goalkeeper to take up?” he says flicking up a still of an attacking situation. The goalkeeper has been removed from the image. “See the positions marked there? One, two, three, four, five. I want you to tell me in 5 seconds what position you want the goalkeeper in.” “One or two?” My answer is more of a question. “Yes, thanks, next!” barks Elfvendal. “One, two, three, four, five?” “Two?” We go through a couple more before this bomb is dropped on me: I take longer than 5 seconds. “Er, five? I feel worried now, Maths.” He laughs at me. I start bleating: “It depends on your goalkeeper and what you want the team to do I guess.” “Ah,” he says switching to the next slide. “It’s in Swedish there but it says ‘What information do you need to have to answer the question of what the best position is?’.” “Are you asking me?” “Yeah, you taught me one of them so…” This statement doesn’t help. I start rambling about what your coaching style is (are you leading as coach or are you allowing the player to lead you). Is the keeper good at moving? Can he move his feet? “Ok, that’s two. Team tactics and goalkeeper style. Four more.” “Four?!” “You don’t need to answer, it’s just a fun game.” He sounds disappointed. I try and up my game. “Ok, so I want to know where my defenders are. Do I want to be aggressive and hit the opposition on the break if I can quickly gather it?” “That’s still tactics. I don’t have all the answers here…” My brain has gone. “Tell me what else?” “Expected goals! What is the expected goal value of a shot from here?” “Next to nothing.” “Right so what is the expected goal value if he is assisting one of the forwards? He can cross it here. There’s a defensive line four versus two. As a keeper you can either be aggressive and come and get it, say at position 2 or position 4 on the picture.” I remark that the Premier League I see more and more that keepers are taking up position 7 or even a 9 as if they’re terrified of being beaten on the near post. “Yeah, you have a big problem there if the header comes.” Elfvendal modifies the picture an adds an extra attacker: “How does your position change now?” “Possibly between 5 and 7?” “This is really interesting”, he says. “Do you think if the ball is played into him where the attacker has moved to now, do you have enough reaction time standing on his line?” “Yes.” “Yep. So if the ball is played in front of him to five and a half metres…ah…to the six yard line, I am talking to an Englishman now. Do you think you have reaction time?” Elfvendal is well aware of my comfort zone preferences. He’s fishing. Images of David De Gea saves flash through my mind. I take the bait: “Yes.” “I think you overestimate a little bit,” he laughs. “From my point of view you will have difficulty reacting in a good way from there. A guy called Scott Peterson is doing some science about this. What’s the likelihood of saving the ball depending on the distance between the ball and the goalkeeper? Imagine you are in position 8. You will be one to two metres away from the striker, less reaction time but close enough to block the sight of the whole goal with your body. Back on your line you have more time and reach but are not covering so much goal. Also Scott’s research shows that the conversion rate for a goal when the distance between ball and goalkeeper is 2-7m is significantly higher than any other distance.” I start protesting about sample size, the possibilities and permutations of what could happen as things stand in the still image. Anything could happen from here. Is Elfvendal teaching physical cues? He flicks another image on screen. “I showed this to one of the participants on my course,” he says. Yeah, by the way, Elfvendal is a course instructor on the UEFA goalkeeping A License. “We’re just looking at the biggest threat,” says the Swede. “From my point of view I’m trying to prevent a high value xG chance here. From position 2 or position 4 I can gather a cross to stop the header every time. I can also move to position 8 quickly if there is a striker coming to the near post like the second picture.” He shows me several video clips of keepers doing just that. Then he shows me another still. Pretty much the same as the first two but the man with the ball is just wider, out near the touchline about 25 yards out. “What if the keeper is super aggressive? What if he is out like near the penalty spot leaving his goal open? How does the xG change?” I’m still in stupid mode: “There isn’t enough sample to model it.” “I was expecting a deeper answer here,” he says sounding disappointed again. He perks up immediately and laughs. “Use your imagination! You can be aggressive here. I showed the goalkeepers, I put them in the position on the ball near the touchline that far out. I stood myself near the penalty spot. Try and score against me guys. Left foot from there, score on me now. They didn’t score a goal I can tell you that. It’s harder than people think. By being higher, you are not risking too much being beaten from there, but you’re helping the team by protecting a higher xG value chance being made from the cross.” And it dawns on me that right here is the value of theory meeting a real life practitioner. A practitioner influencing real outcomes, taking it to the next level with a logical step. I’ve been looking at this stuff for years, I’ve never even thought of it this way and this guy is here crediting me for the inspiration. “I see all kinds of rubbish on the internet about evidence based coaching,” I say. “This is the real deal.” “Yeah,” says Elfvendal, satisfied. After two hours, I think the coach is finally happy with me. He’s used every trick in the teacher’s book – serious voice, disappointed voice, gentle mocking, laughter and praise to bring it out of me. And how do I feel? In footballers parlance: “I’m buzzing.”

The Unique (and Not so Unique) Challenges of Goalkeeping in Women’s Soccer

The first professional women’s match I attended in person was the 2010/11 Champions League Final between Lyon and Turbine Potsdam. A few rows in front sat Trevor Brooking and Michel Platini. Yeah, I didn’t slum it for my first game. It was a great match with the technical French side winning 2-0 against the more physical Germans. Three things stood out. Firstly, Potsdam No 10 Fatmire Bajramaj, still one of the best technical players I’ve ever seen in the flesh. Secondly, Lyon substitute Lara Dickenmann’s half-time warm up that would’ve given a Ronaldinho trick show a run for its money. And lastly, but not erm, leastly, Sarah Bouhaddi, Lyon’s goalkeeper. Man, was she good. She effortlessly plucked every cross out of the air and was comfortable with the ball at her feet. Bouhaddi made a Champions League Final look like a training session. The last professional women’s match I attended in person was last week’s FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) game between West Ham and Chelsea. The Irons’ keeper Becky Spencer was given player of the match and certainly deserved it having made three great saves in the first half alone. Watch them here. It’s all a little bit odd as every time I speak to any male friends (who barely watch women’s football) they immediately raise the state of the goalkeeping as being terrible… The guys at Statsbomb have started collecting data on the FAWSL and the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States this year. Now, the data set is still waaaaay too small to conclude anything but imagine my delight on discovering that so far, when you lay a shooting model from the professional men’s’ game over the women’s data, the goalkeepers in women’s football are performing better than their male counterparts. They’re breaking the model. As the data gets gathered I felt it was a nice time to get some views from within the game itself. Andy Elleray is goalkeeping coach at Birmingham City Women and is England Women’s Youth International goalkeeping coach too. Do his coaching sessions for women look different to ones he coaches for men? What differences must be accounted for? “The sessions don’t look amazingly different to be honest,” says Elleray. “It’s all based around the keepers you’re working with and the way the club wants them to play. In terms of attributes, female keepers are not as powerful so lots of work is done on jumping mechanics, speed to cover the goal and defend the area. Distribution is a big area for us and the goalkeepers must be able to play with variation – especially in our half of the pitch. The length that females can strike a ball is more often than not shorter than males so we look for our goalkeepers to play what we call PACE (positively, accurately, consistently and effectively) rather than rely on hitting areas and turning the opposition defence.” The data collected so far backs these statements up. Only Sophie Baggaley at Bristol City and Megan Walsh at Yeovil relentlessly go long. Here’s what Birmingham keeper Ann-Katrin Berger’s distribution looks like: “With the role of the goalkeeper ever evolving I can see more statistics based around distribution,” says Elleray. “I have developed my own distribution analysis that I use at various points to assess how well we are retaining the ball or penetrating the opposition.” Lloyd Yaxley, goalkeeping coach at NWSL club Orlando Pride is in agreement. “I think there will definitely be statistical differences between the men’s and women’s data.  With distribution, the male goalkeepers’ range of passing is for the most part significantly longer than in the women’s game. I think if you were to take something as simple as a long goal kick and compare the average length of a Major League Soccer goalkeeper to a NWSL goalkeeper there would probably be at least a 15-20 yard difference.” Despite this, Yaxley states that like Elleray, his sessions for men and women don’t look that different. “I try and keep my philosophies towards the role of the goalkeeper as set as I can and how I want my goalkeepers to perform wouldn’t change all that much. I would want them to be aggressive in certain situations and then in other areas less aggressive and maybe play deeper in their goal. With shot stopping I like my goalkeepers to be deeper so to allow for more reaction time – especially when there are a lot of bodies in front – this I would keep the same for males and females.” Yaxley thinks having the ability to parry into safe areas is a significant attribute to have and is working to bring this to the women’s game as standards continually rise. “Men are used to the ball being struck at greater pace and therefore with greater movement too. We work on this with the Pride goalkeepers – especially if it’s a reaction exercise or I connect with a strike really well then we look at manipulating the body to best control the rebound. For example, when the ball is struck at pace and straight at you, rotating wrists and leaning with the shoulders late forces the ball into a wide area. If the lean of the shoulders comes too early, the control of where the ball ends up is often lost.” How much does data influence training at present? “I don’t really use data on a daily basis, but the higher you go at international level there is lots of work done on goalkeeper specific stats throughout the teams to analyse, review and compare keepers,” says Elleray. “I have written lots of research on goalkeepers from various view points and am a massive advocate of using video analysis throughout the coaching process. Recently there has been clubs using GPS data to measure goalkeeper training load and different types of movements and this is an area that I will be moving more towards. At any turn statistics should be used to aid the process not take it over.” Yaxley uses numbers in a different way. “The main data I analyse is where the opposition is shooting from and scoring from and on the flip side, where we are conceding shots from and conceding goal from. We look at opposition trends and their style of play, danger players’ traits – do they like to cut in from the left and shoot with their right, are they getting to the line and cutting it back, for example. That will all help shape my focus for the weeks training.” The level of detail Statsbomb collects at goalkeeping level now would aid such a process, and enable quicker analysis of your own players too. You’ve all seen the shot maps on site by now but there’s some cool new stuff deeper under the hood: We’ve never been able to dive down and get dirty to this degree until now. As one keeping coach I follow on twitter is fond of saying…I’m #alloverit   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Eddie Howe’s Change in Style is Key to Bournemouth’s Success

I’ve spent an hour or two (or three, or four) on the beaches along the Dorset coast over the last few years. And I reckon Alum Chine at Bournemouth is my favorite. Which is odd because it’s almost smack bang in the middle of my personal football hell. A few miles down the coast lies Sandbanks, home of Harry Redknapp, maybe one of my least favorite managers of all time. The game’s Donald Trump equivalent, a man who once said: “Whether it is 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, the numbers game is not the beautiful game in my opinion.” Before uttering in his next sentence: “It’s 10% about the formation and 90% about the players.” A few miles in the opposite direction stands the Vitality Stadium, the soccer home of Eddie Howe, a manager whose name I’ve physically winced at every time someone mentions it being on the list for the latest Everton boss vacancy. Unlike Harry, when Howe opens his gob, nonsense doesn’t pour forth. He comes across really well and speaks intelligently. I just don’t like the way he sets up his football team. Eddie Howe couldn’t control a game to save his life. As a neutral, watching Bournemouth in the Premier League has been a great experience. The Cherries play with great energy both in and out of possession and their games are end to end. Unfortunately for Bournemouth, it’s mostly been at their end. The expected goals numbers against Howe’s side have been fairly horrendous every season in the Premier League. To the extent that a certain James Yorke of this parish perennially picks them to get relegated. I’ve never been that down on them myself, but I’d never wanted Howe anywhere near my beloved Blues either. But something changed. First up, let’s have a look at the shot maps from last season after 10 games (left) and this season after 10 games (right): Okay, so they’ve had an easier set of opening fixtures this season but the reduction in expected goals against is pretty crazy. And okay, they still concede an above average amount of shots per game, but look at the reduction in shot quality against per shot: 0.104 last season, 0.073 this. That’s enormous. Not only that, but looking at the team’s rolling expected goal trends at both ends you see that they’re doing better in attack too: Numbers wise, it’s clear to see why Bournemouth were 19th in the table this time last year and they’re 6th in the table now. But what about what’s happened on the pitch? First up, with Callum Wilson fully available this season, Howe has committed to having two center forwards on the pitch as much as possible. Bournemouth have regularly played in a fairly traditional 4-4-2 set-up. It’s a bit too simple to say attackers attack, defenders defend and midfielders, er, midfield but you get the gist. Fullbacks are more and more important in the modern game and Bournemouth’s are no exception. They’re charged with getting forward a lot. How their forays are covered seems to have changed somewhat. Last season, the side was terrible at preventing the opposition getting into the box in open play. This was particularly the case on the left hand side to cover Charlie Daniels bombing forward. Andrew Surman got the easy job. However, Dan Gosling’s defensive pressure map was nuts considering he played as a center mid for pretty much all his minutes: Partnering with Jefferson Lerma this season, Gosling has kept shape far more, no longer having all the responsibility to cover Daniels: Bournemouth’s wide midfielders Ryan Fraser and David Brooks are getting lots of praise for their attacking prowess this season. When I’ve watched them, my pragmatism takes hold and I love seeing them tuck in, making a decent show of protecting their fullbacks. They’re not even that great at it, but just that extra presence makes a difference. Flanks are protected. The middle is protected. Fraser now mostly on the left, performs a nice solid block in the middle third. A bit less aggressive further up field than last season, he drops off more into a conservative position: On the other side, Brooks provides a more consistent steady approach to defending his flank than the likes of Ibe gave last season. With the steadier central pairing in place, Brooks isn’t having to drift inside as much to cover the middle either: Not only do Bournemouth have a more straightforward organisational structure off the ball now, they also have the most fun central striking pairing in the Premier League. In Joshua King and Wilson, the Cherries have the icing on the cake. Two willing workers and runners to harry opposition defenders who dally on the ball. Wilson is off the scale: With the rest of the team in a more orthodox and conservative shape, any quick transitions when opponents moves break down are ‘dip yer bread’ territory for the pacey front two, often with half a pitch to run into. It’s a sight to behold. You should definitely make room for more Bournemouth in your life, despite the oncoming winter chill.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Possession Football Remains Alive and Well for Spain and Germany

‘Tiki-taka’ died for the umpteenth time in Russia this summer. What with Spain and Germany’s possession game going home earlier than usual from the World Cup, there could be nothing else to conclude. Both these nations had been found out. Rio Ferdinand said: “Spain have been so successful with that style of possession football but there comes a time when you have to get the ball into the strikers. You have to change it up a bit. Spain got what they deserved.” Gareth Southgate said: “It has been unusual to see them (Germany) struggle as much as they have but the level of all of the teams is strong and they have played teams who have been tactically very good against them.” Since then, in the UEFA Nations League, Spain have beaten Southgate’s England and whooped World Cup finalists Croatia 6-0. Germany have drawn with World Champions, France, and beaten Peru. What. A. Crisis. The problem is that most of football – the professionals in it, and the fans watching it, still really struggle to look beyond the score line to back up their takes. In terms of shots, expected goals and creating chances, Germany battered everyone they played in the World Cup: Germany dominated the ball too, completing three times as many open play passes as its opponents. It wasn’t all sideways and backwards either. Germany proportionately played more balls vertically into the opposition box from the middle of the final third than any other team. No other side crossed the ball into the box more than Germany either. Maybe as Gareth said, the level of all teams is strong now and all the teams Die Mannschaft played were tactically very good against them. The only numbers that back that up are the score lines. They’re the only numbers that matter! scream the real football guys. As usual, here at Statsbomb, we beat the drum that the underlying numbers count for more in the long term and give a better reading of performance now and in future. The score lines since back that up. Spain didn’t actually lose a game in normal time during the World Cup. This is how the game Spain went out to versus Russia looked on the shot map: That big red square there on Russia’s map was a penalty. After Artem Dzyuba scored that spot kick on 40 minutes, Spain proceeded to have 24 shots to Russia’s 3. They also passed them to death for the entire game. Spain only allowed seven shots on target during its four game tournament but David De Gea conceded goals on six of them. Two were penalties, one was a peach of a free kick from Ronaldo and one he fumbled in from outside of the box. This was not a team in crisis (despite the loss of its manager on the eve of the tournament), it was a team whose path crossed with misfortune. Maybe it’s like Rio said. Spain had to change it up and get that ball into the strikers more. The only numbers that back that up are the score lines. They’re the only numbers that matter! scream the real football guys. As usual, here at Statsbomb we beat the drum that the underlying numbers count for more in the long term and give a better handle of performance now, and are a better predictor of it for the future. We repeat that message. A lot. Spain only did enough to get one or two goals versus Croatia last month according to expected goals. However, Luis Enrique’s men still totally controlled the ball with 70% possession. Keep dominating games as Spain do, and the cliff you occasionally fall off will, at the bottom of it, have a dinghy in the water to handily catch you before you get wet. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the opponent’s goalkeeper. A quick search of Google throws up all manner of newspaper articles looking at the secret of Croatia’s success both during and after the country’s run to the final. Much of it surrounded the wealth of character the people possess after what the nation’s been through over the years. I’m #justsaying the underlying numbers had them as a side dominating possession and shot counts. Presumably, a 6-0 drubbing precipitates calls for a change of style and play from our English soccer (yes, soccer) pundits. A quick Google search throws up nothing. It wasn’t a World Cup game after all, and it’s only Croatia. They’ve never won anything anyway so we’re not desperate to find a chink in their Balkan armor. Back in the Premier League, our pundits currently wax lyrical about the teams at the top of the table: Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool – the teams that, funnily enough, dominate the ball and most importantly, the shot count. But the pundits will never frame it that way. Remember Gary Neville questioning Guardiola (who’s won loads) and City last season? “Every single team that’s won the league, barring none, has had power and strength at the heart of them – that spine. I just wonder whether they can play that way. That’s the fascinating thing over the next 12 months. Can you play that way, with those players and win this league? That will be the real test.” Forget all the other nonsense, and get on board. City absolutely smashed everyone for shots and in the expected goals table last season. It’s the actual real test and measures the strength, heart and spine of any good side.

How Should England Build Their Team?

What did we learn about England at the World Cup?

First off, the team were heavily reliant on set-pieces to create chances. There was little to no open play creativity. Some were pretty convinced the new set-up was mainly for defensive purposes. I’m convinced otherwise because Steve Holland, Gareth Southgate’s assistant, said this in a great interview with Daniel Taylor at the Guardian:

The game against Holland in March was the first time you would have seen us play with two offensive ‘No 8s’ rather than a Livermore, for example, who’s a good player but more defence minded,” Holland says. “Nigeria was the first time we tried Dele there – the balance of him running forward, the positions Jesse was taking up and Raheem dropping short. That created problems for our opponent.”

After [Harry Kane], where are our goals? Dele has goals for Tottenham but hasn’t yet managed to do that consistently [for England]. Raheem has goals [for Manchester City] but hasn’t quite transferred that to international level. Jesse has taken time to get goals for Manchester United. He got into great positions [against Tunisia]. Have we better scoring options in that position? I’m not sure we have. We’re going with the players we think have the potential but they’re young men with not many caps. It might just take a bit of time.

In that same interview, Holland stated that Southgate knew the start of a qualifying campaign wasn’t the time for revolution.

Arguably, neither is the immediate run up to a World Cup tournament, but hey, they changed it. But the new look is 11 games old now. It’s been tested out for several months both with competitive matches and the rare month-long opportunity to get continuous work in on the training ground in Russia.

So at the start of another qualifying campaign, will Southgate stick, or be brave and twist? Following the tournament the England boss played growth and development bingo in his press dealings. He was talking a good game. I have my doubts he’ll walk it. Throughout his career, Southgate has been Captain Sensible, it’s almost unthinkable that he would change it up now, especially as the media and public are with him.

Perhaps more pertinently, the start of the UEFA League of Nations is upon us. The new tournament provides a potential parachute to those who don’t make it in qualifying proper for Euro 2020 – the groups for which won’t even be drawn until December 2019.

This whole new format is absolutely perfect for making important decisions about team set-up way before any matches of real importance get going. Before 2018 is done, England get to try the current system out 5 more times against good quality opposition in Spain (twice), Switzerland and Croatia (twice). Oh and the USA too.

That would be 17 games in 6 months to get things to gel in attack. If it does, great. If it doesn’t and England still can’t get those chance creation numbers up, there’s some serious evidence there to drop it and still a full year to come up with a new plan for qualifying.

The Current Set-Up

England have produced a “DNA document” that discusses their ideas behind how they want to approach how they play, and it states that:

England teams aim to regain possession intelligently, with a focus on winning the ball as early and as efficiently as possible.

The World Cup centre back trio were Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire. None of those guys regularly play in a back 3 for their club. Jordan Pickford does not keep goal with back three in front of him at Everton. Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young have never played regularly as wing backs next to a back three at club level.

By the numbers, the teams who press the ball highest up the pitch the last two seasons are Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool.

The teams that actually do as the DNA states don’t employ a back three regularly. Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola have flirted with one on the occasional trip out, but tend to go back to a four where they know it’s comfortable. Jürgen Klopp rarely strays from his beloved back four.

The Game Strategy “How We Coach” section of the DNA states:


  • Devise a specific tactical plan for each fixture
  • Use recommendations and evaluation from previous fixtures and training to inform planning

After each fixture the effectiveness of the game-strategy is reviewed against individual and team objectives. The review process utilises all available data and statistics and is supported by all performance service functions.

To my eyes during the World Cup, there didn’t seem to be much evidence of tailored specific tactical plan for each fixture. England played pretty much the same way against every opponent. And unless the effectiveness review was limited to just looking at the result, the poor attacking numbers in open play available clearly didn’t inform planning to change anything.

As our own Ted Knutson pointed out on Twitter even the set-pieces weren’t changed up. Everything was knocked in to Maguire. Effective? Damn, yes. A specific tactical plan for each fixture? Nope. We flog to death what we can see works right now.

Both Southgate and Holland have shaped the team into what they know themselves: the back three, the attacking full backs. Southgate as player played a huge chunk of his career in this system. Holland in the interview states his time at Chelsea under Antonio Conte influenced his back three thinking.

At the World Cup the back three dominated possession of the ball. All three made around a hundred more passes than anyone else. The only midfielder who made more passes than Pickford was Jordan Henderson.

Guardiola re-inspired football to the extent that people were talking about him playing with ten midfielders if he could. England are effectively trying to play with one. Where is the link up from all those ballers at the back to those runners up the front?

Sorry, but I’d drop golden boy Maguire. I don’t want three at the back and I want more people in midfield. As Pep has been caught saying: “The guy is not fast”.

Stones is just about better all round and more mobile, Walker is super quick, can defend 1 v 1 and mop up Stones’ gaffs (and his own). As a bonus, with no Maguire, it means England have to come up with a new set-piece routine or two before everyone figures out how to stop it.

After Harry Kane, where are our goals?

City don’t play with two offensive ‘No 8s’, a roving forward who also comes into midfield (Sterling) and a bustling centre forward (Kane) who also loves dropping off deep to receive the ball. Nor do Liverpool. Nor do Tottenham. Why? Because it doesn’t make any sense.

Recently, how has the ball transitioned from back to front effectively for England? It hasn’t. Which is why they created next to nothing and can’t score goals goals from open play even with all those ‘goals’ in the line up. Coincidentally the ‘transition’ part of the DNA document in the ‘How we play’ section is one of the shortest. There’s more mention of goalkeepers in it than midfielders.

The top clubs playing the pressing game tend to use if not one playmaker, then two, or if none at all, then an entire central midfield at ease with having the ball 60 times a game each. Both their defences AND midfield dominate the ball.

Back to the DNA document:

The game-strategy is a tactical plan based on the availability of players.

Let’s be honest. England don’t have a playmaker like Eriksen, De Bruyne or Silva.

So let’s look at Liverpool as an example. Once Coutinho had gone, they didn’t have a traditional playmaker either. They played Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. None are world beaters. But with the right coaching all are comfortable in possession, working the ball, feeding the more talented players, and pressing the ball. They got to a Champions League Final and were part of a team in the Premier League who boasted some damn good numbers. England might have had Henderson and Milner already but for the fact the latter retired from international football two years ago. And that’s a shame, for though Milner doesn’t fit the age ethos England have going right now, even to a fairly rabid non-fan like me, there is absolutely no denying it – he’s played really well for 18 months.

For me, that means Fabian Delph should come in. He ticks all of the pressing, physicality and ball possession boxes. He also adds some left footed balance to midfield. Can England find someone to do something like Wijnaldum does? If you look at the Dutchman’s passing patterns and volumes, then yes, and he already played for England at the World Cup. Eric Dier!

The groans are audible, people. Shut up for a minute. Does Dier play for a pressing side? Yep. Does he fit the age profile we want right now? Yep. If you don’t like him then there’s a younger model on the numbers and his name his Harry Winks. Does he play for a pressi…you get the idea. But forget Winks, let’s stick with Dier for now.

We’re balancing up the Dier groans with some yays because Young would be gone for me. He is nowhere near a left back that you’d want in a pressing team, who works solidly for 90 mins like, well…Kieran Trippier. Do we have a player who’s played left back for a pressing team, who’s comfortable on the ball, who gets forward? Yes! Two of them were in England’s World Cup Squad! Fabian Delph would fit the bill, but we’re using him in midfield so welcome Danny Rose.

That leaves us trying to replicate Liverpool’s front three in some way. First up let’s look to the sides, can we find a Sadio Mané and a Mohamed Salah? Wide forwards, great pace, ball carrying skills, ability to get into good areas in the box. Raheem Sterling does that for City. Every week. Does he play for a pressi…you get the idea…

After that we’re struggling a bit for direct replacements in wide positions. Sterling is more like Salah than Mané. So who can match Mané’s pace, intelligent, well-timed runs in wide areas and ability to get in the box for goal scoring opportunities? For me, it’s Jamie Vardy. He hasn’t got Mané’s eye for a pass but he brings everything else to the table. However, Vardy retired from international football so that brings us to Marcus Rashford. He is a lot younger, nicer(!), and is more effective at carrying the ball.

That leaves someone for the Roberto Firmino false nine-ish role. Without much forward dynamism in midfield, the player here has to be mobile. Do we have someone that loves to dart back and forth between midfield and the box? Someone who can create and score goals? Plays for a pressing team? Step forward Dele! Yep, I’ve just dropped Maguire AND Harry Kane.

With the likes of Kane coming in you could go for a more orthodox front three. There’s a lot of diverse young forward talent making strides in the Premier League right now to add in too. At the back, Maguire for Stones is not really a problem either. There’s seemingly never been more young English defenders playing regularly at top level than right now. Identifying these contenders is for another article. For now, the shapes all make sense and the players make sense. Well, to me at least.

Can England become a genuinely good team with sustainable ideas that fit their published ethos? For me, there are loads of options to make numerous variations of 4-3-3 work where England should be able to join it all up more effectively – dominate possession of the ball in BOTH the first two thirds AND press effectively from the middle third onwards – all the while posting good underlying numbers at both ends of the field.



Courtois and Pickford: The Tall and Short of Keeper Styles

At 19 years old, Thibaut Courtois was Diego Simeone’s first choice keeper at Atletico Madrid. After three full seasons in La Liga he was being touted as the best young goalkeeper in the world. Four seasons on, people were more likely to tout David De Gea, the man Courtois replaced at Atletico, as the best keeper in the world. Then, at the World Cup, over the span of a few games, De Gea has a nightmare, Courtois did well, won the Golden Glove, and suddenly he, and not De Gea, who’s on his way to Real Madrid. Welcome to the football merry-go-round. In the last two seasons at Chelsea, Courtois has conceded one more goal in the Premier League than models expect for the shots on target he’s faced. In Russia, his shot-stopping was worth one full goal during his seven games and he had the most work to do out of all the keepers out there (Here’s lookin’ at you, Bobby Martinez!). In the middle of it all he even managed to get into a mini spat with tiny, little, Jordan Pickford. Given time to pluck the ball out of the air from a long looping cross, there’s barely anyone better than gigantor, Courtois. He dominates aerially. He faced just three shots on target from the centre of his six yard box. He saved two of them. Pickford faced 11 and saved one. Pickford does not dominate his six yard box. He doesn’t dominate aerially. Size is important. Thibaut was right! Pickford responded to the comments by bigging up his own power and agility and not caring if he was the biggest. Power and agility is important. Jordan was right, too!Last season Courtois had a real problem in dealing with shots coming from central positions in the area around the penalty spot. Pickford didn’t. Whisper it quietly, but it’s almost like keepers have different make ups and different strengths and weaknesses. Because of his size, Courtois doesn’t often need to power from his set position into full length dives. He doesn’t do it often, and when Courtois does need to get power from his set position, he frequently fails to do so. Because of his size, Courtois is far too in the habit of just collapsing down in order to get to the deck quicker. He has to do this because he takes up fairly aggressive positions which restrict his reaction time. Courtois’ size also goes against him when situations develop quickly. He reacts once the thing has happened. He keeps by numbers, and is reactive rather than proactive. He decides to close out shooters when the ball is already at their feet rather than anticipating the play early. He is s-l-o-w. Check out what I’m talking about: Nit-picking? Maybe. But these are the small differences that make or break a goalkeeper’s season. Courtois’ save % from this area was 50% and way below average. Pickford’s was 64%. And those shots from wide areas in the penalty box like Adnan Januzaj’s goal against this summer Pickford? Last season Pickford saved 19 out of 22 of those. Courtois saved 10 out of 17. But, given time to react from longer range shots outside the area centrally, Courtois swallowed them whole. Pickford struggled. These patterns were exactly the same for season 2016/17, even with Pickford plying his trade at a different club with a different set-up. Football’s analysis is often confined by week to week constraints. There’s always a game around the corner during the season that needs to be prepared for. But, if you don’t break down a keepers’ numbers it’s difficult to break down their game. You could watch every game in real time and not note these patterns. The record of what actually happens, the information in the long term data highlights the problem. Long term success needs long term analysis and planning. Football has more flashes in the pan than a wok chef with pyromania. The need to ignore short term narratives is huge. Courtois’ weaknesses also highlights another keeper coaching bugbear of mine. Look at all the publicly available coaching videos. There’s more repetition in the drills than a Jive Bunny track. The keepers know what’s coming. Footwork steps, dive, get up, speed back to start position, footwork steps dive, get up, speed back to start position. Yes, developing some muscle memory is important, but how are you teaching visual clues as to what’s going to happen during the actual match if it doesn’t match your rigid training exercise? Saving a shot involves footwork, it involves diving technique, agility, power, handling. But, first of all, it involves making dynamic decisions about how to handle each situation as it develops. Coaches are taking this away in their sessions. Every recorded shot on target in a model has all this information built in by virtue of it simply happening in thousands and thousands of top level matches over many years. Long term data tells you what’s working and what’s not. Use it. Or don’t. At window’s close, with Courtois off to Madrid, Chelsea spend a whopping £72 million to replace him with Kepa Arrizabalaga. Pickford, who was briefly rumored to be on Chelsea’s list to replace Courtois stayed at Everton for at least another season. Kepa is, as yet, unproven in the Premier League, but to prove himself better than Pickford he’ll have to clear a very competent bar. In the last two seasons, Pickford has saved three more goals in the Premier League than models expect for the shots on target he’s faced. Meanwhile, De Gea, sitting pretty above this summer’s transfer fray, he’s saved about five or six times that.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Jack Butland – Christmas No.1

I first set eyes on Jack when he was a lad at the 2012 Olympics. He was 19, a mixture of good and terrible, of confidence and over-exuberance. Three years on, and Butland is finally a first choice Premier League goalkeeper. He’s had a great start: conceding less than a goal a game and keeping 7 clean sheets in the process. Stoke sit comfortably in 11th position right now. I reckon The Potters would be right in the relegation mix without his contribution and my xG model says he’s prevented 5-6 goals more than expected for the shots he’s faced. Many fanalysts have written off keeping metrics as ‘voodoo’ because data-wise, there’s no repeatability in performance from one year to the next. Well, that’s not a reason to dismiss it and leave it there, that’s a reason to go and find the reasons why. Lack of anticipation of the shot is huge. There are tons of tiny technical goalkeeping details that are barely noticeable in real time. You have to slow the game footage right down and watch it again and again. Whether it’s mis-timing the take-off bounce when trying to increase diving power, or a small step the wrong way just before the shot comes in, getting set properly matters. I correspond with a Polish goalkeeping coach that has worked with his national side. He talks about crouching at the right moments. He talks about teaching better anticipation. He talks about reading of attacker/defender dyads and measuring movement patterns in training with strategically based cameras. Remember Carragher and Neville pulling Tim Howard and Simon Mignolet apart? Watch it again. Even if you disagree with some of the points made, it’s the best piece of football analysis and discussion there’s been on TV in a long time. Butland’s performances this season have been an absolute lesson in all of those technical details. Below is a graphic of all the shots on target he’s faced this season (yellow dots are goals). I’ve highlighted the danger zone SoTs. Currently, Butland’s save % here is at 85% – 20% higher than any keeper’s ever finished the season with:

Play with fully interactive xG and xA dashboards and data here
I fully expect that DZ save % to come down (there’s just a 0.5% chance he concedes only 3 of these so far) but for now I’m simply enjoying the performances. Here’s as much footage of those danger zone SoTs as I’ve managed to swipe. There’s some unbelievable saves in there and only on the Rondon goal does Butland get it wrong to any great degree: Joe Hart finally has some real competition for the England No.1 jersey. Follow me on Twitter @footballfactman Merry Christmas, and enjoy the Boxing Day games!