Premier League

It was a season of two halves on Tyneside. In the early stages of 2021, the club lingered just three points above the drop zone and frustrations were swirling around the fanbase. But, tactical shifts and shrewd January signings saw Steve Bruce oversee a solid finish to the campaign and a 12th place finish. A repeat of that will be the aim in 2021/22.

The football in the first half of the campaign was defensively reactive and blunt in attack. Things were objectively below-par at both ends of the pitch: Newcastle were consistently being out-created by their opponents and coming out on the wrong side of games.

Tactically, they consistently started with either a 4-4-2 or dropped into a more reactive 3-5-2/3-4-3 (defaulting to 5 at the back when they are without the ball). Within that, it’s hard to define the football that Steve Bruce’s team were trying to play. In possession, Newcastle completed the 2nd-fewest passes within 20 metres of goal (2.7), completed just 1.5 passes inside the opponent's box (both metrics per 90 minutes), and 37% of their passes into the penalty area came from wide crosses.

This matches the eye test. When playing a back four, the central midfield pairing (usually two of Jonjo Shelvey, Isaac Hayden, or Jeff Hendrick) were outnumbered 3v2 against the majority of teams in the league, who mostly opt for three-man midfields (if you care about this sort of thing, 4-2-3-1 was the leading shape of choice in the Premier League last season). This lead to plenty of hopeful punts up the pitch into the channels for the centre forwards to chase and, with the back three often a back five, there was rarely much width offered by the wing backs; consequently they were unable to play much of a role in build-up play.

Out of possession, Newcastle had the lowest PPDA in the league with 13.8; applied just 37% of their pressures in the opposition half; and conceded 15 shots per game. Essentially, Newcastle sat deep and looked to bend but not break to the opposition pressure. Regardless of formation, they sat very narrow and flooded the centre of the pitch to negate the opponent’s ability to play through them. Fine if you’re able to keep your rivals at arms length, but it presented issues in the attacking end with all their creativity parked behind the ball and in areas that made it difficult for them to perform. Looking at their On-Ball Value numbers - our new possession value model that rates every action performed on the pitch by how much it positively impacts the team’s likelihood of scoring in that possession - we can see that their biggest contributors were Matt Ritchie, who played wing-back, Ryan Fraser who was rarely on the pitch, and Jacob Murphy who played wing-back.


Player OBV per 90
Matt Ritchie 0.40
Ryan Fraser 0.34
Jacob Murphy 0.31
Joe Willock 0.31
Allain Saint-Maximin 0.26


In Newcastle’s style of play, their attackers had much more ground to cover in order to get to the final third and create danger on the ball. This isn’t necessarily an issue in itself - counter-attacking teams can thrive in the Premier League - but the approach requires a centre forward who can provide an outlet. Callum Wilson or Joelinton were often positioned so deep that the team simply couldn’t get a foothold in the opposition half when they regained the ball. This only allowed the pressure to build on their defence to keep repelling the swathe of opposition attacks. Raw possession numbers always require context, and with this information the 38% of the ball possession they had in 2020/21 makes a lot of sense.

The Springtime Bounce

A run of W2-D0-L8 at the start of 2021 was Newcastle’s worst spell of the season, but it was then followed by their best. From the start of February to the end of the season, Newcastle picked up 20 points, winning five of their last eight to power them up the league table. The team switched shape to either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-3-3 and were comparatively more front-footed than earlier in the season. The change seemed to coincide with the arrival of first-team coach Graeme Jones, who you may recognise as a member of Gareth Southgate’s coaching staff during the EURO 2020 tournament this summer.

The changes provided Callum Wilson with support up front and allowed Miguel Almirón to have more of an influence on the game, getting on the ball in more central areas. More importantly, it allowed their wide players to thrive and be more direct. Allan Saint-Maximin returned from injury to finish the season up front, alongside Wilson but allowed to roam across the front and dribble or carry the ball over distance. This is apparent when comparing the plots of his carries: in Newcastle’s more reactive system he’d start his carries around the halfway line, thus with more players to beat and more distance to cover. After the system change, he started receiving possession in the channels in the opposition half and was isolating 1v1 vs his defender more often than previously. This is a beneficial situation for any player to work with, let alone an exciting wide player like Saint-Maximin.

Besides tactical changes, the January loan signing of Joe Willock proved to be one of the most successful signings of the window across the entire league. Willock was simply a goalscoring machine, equalling a club record number of consecutive games scored in with some bloke named Alan Shearer. Outside of his hot streak in front of goal (and it was a hot streak – 8 goals from 3.5 xG), Willock’s ability to contribute on both sides of the ball fit perfectly in line with the tactical changes Bruce and Jones implemented. Willock was proactive and industrious without the ball and provided a threat making late runs into the opponent’s box.

In making these changes, Newcastle’s metrics improved drastically towards the end of the season, taking more shots and creating chances of better quality. Though still anemic in some areas, moving their struggling attack from one of the league’s worst up into the middle ground of the league goes a long way to powering a push up the table and separating from the bottom of the pack.

How Do Newcastle Recreate The Late Surge This Season?

If Newcastle want to maintain the improvement we saw late in the season, how do they go about doing this? The primary point is to lean into the style of play that steadied the ship at the end of the season that saw them gain 20 of their 45 points from February 27th onwards. If they can sustain the improved attacking numbers over a whole season while keeping things relatively tight at the back, then it’s incredibly unlikely they’ll struggle as much as they did in the first half of last season.


Shots (all units per 90) 11.5 (14th)
xG 1.13 (13th)
xG Conceded 1.33 (11th)
1 v 1 Shots 2.0 (9th)
Shot Distance 16.3 metres (8th)


It was mostly their attacking metrics that improved. While they became more proactive without the ball than they had been previously, they still ranked as one of the lowest-block teams in the league. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are plenty of examples of teams (Wolves in 2019/20 for one) who have played counter-attacking football to great success. However, going on last season, it’s not clear that Newcastle have the capabilities to do that: allowing the opposition to monopolise the ball under little duress moves defenders deeper… and then you have the same issues we saw from August to January. Newcastle need to find ways to better taper off their periods of high pressure with lower block defending.

No season preview would be complete without a transfer section, but there’s little action to speak of so far, only bringing in a couple of younger players on free transfers who’ll likely become part of their development squad. Looking at the squad they have now, their average age is only slightly above the league average, but a considerable volume of minutes are being contributed by players above the “peak” age bracket.

The most exciting rumour is that of the permanent signing of Joe Willock, who had such a transformative effect on the Newcastle midfield, as we detailed earlier. His addition would be a major plus. Up front they still look short behind Wilson, with Joelinton struggling to make an impact and Dwight Gayle never quite managing to contribute in the top flight, which is a concern given there doesn’t appear to be many goals in other areas of the side. Some will point to Willock’s goalscoring streak but we shouldn’t expect that rate to continue, converting his eight goals from just 3.5 xG. They’ll need others to step up alongside Willock: with an attack that looks underpowered, they should be looking for goals by committee rather than relying on one or two individuals.

Where Do They Stand?

Fan discontent has been a common theme among Newcastle supporters for a number of years now, and last season as a whole won’t have served as much encouragement despite the stronger finish. All of this makes benchmarking them pretty tough. Are there likely to be at least three worse teams than them in the league? I believe so. But they still have some way to go to become more than the sum of their parts, and continuing to build upon the foundations laid at the back-end of last season should be the ambition. It’s a tough ask for them to improve beyond that without much investment in the squad.

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Game over. Bad luck, try again. Press ‘OK’ to start a new game. Great! Now choose your character. You have selected Rafa Benítez.

Last season, Everton gripped the joystick, ready for another attempt at surpassing level 8(th) of the Premier League. Carlo Ancelotti’s character was an eye-catching choice given his appearances at the boss level in previous editions of the game; he was chosen for his high marks in ‘reputation’, ‘trophies’ and ‘man management’ but fell short in other areas to crash out at level 10(th).

Enough of the gaming. Everton hired Ancelotti in the middle of the 2019/20 season to try and calm the turbulence that swirled around the Marco Silva era, to bring in more steady and consistent success after the wild swings of the Portuguese coach. 2020/21 was Ancelotti’s first full campaign in charge, but the inconsistency continued: four wins and a draw in their opening five was immediately followed by four defeats and a win, which was immediately followed by four wins and a draw. You get the picture. Judging by performance levels towards the end of his tenure, Ancelotti's voluntary exit could've saved Everton a hefty severance package.


The good news is that Everton finished the season with 59 points, their highest tally since 2016/17. The bad news is that they were only able to finish 10th, an improvement on the 12th place the season prior but a 10th place finish all the same. But the other good news is that 59 points would’ve been good enough for 7th or 8th in eight of the nine seasons before 2020/21. So it’s not unfair to say Ancelotti finished right in the Everton zone, unable to smash through the glass ceiling to the 6th place paradise that those toffee-making hands so desperately want to get their sticky fingers on.

Following a summer of investment, Ancelotti had a squad that was at minimum above the league average in depth and quality, but the metrics he and his players delivered did not meet that level. The league average for expected goals (xG) per game last season was 1.19 in both attack and defence. Everton’s attack came in just below the average at 1.14 xG per game, and the defence also just below at 1.29 xG conceded per game. League average shots were 12.0 per game: Everton took 10.4 per game and conceded 13.2 per game. This was not a stint that made the squad better than the sum of it’s parts.

In terms of a tactical footprint, the Italian tried to implement a deeper defensive line than his predecessor, becoming less proactive off the ball and preferring to retract into a defensive shell when losing possession. PPDA rose, allowing the opposition more passes on the ball and causing less disruption to their possession chains, and the average distance from goal of their defensive actions dropped back from 44.0 metres at the end of Silva’s reign to 41.25 metres under Ancelotti.



The Italian has not stuck around to take charge of the Toffees in this campaign, seeing the offer of a return to Real Madrid as an opportunity too good to turn down - probably a wise decision given the potential damage another season of midtable obscurity might have done to his reputation.

You know who else tends to get his teams to defend in deeper areas of the pitch? Rafael Benítez. Ancelotti’s replacement comes in from left-field with an interesting profile, one that underground tactical hipsters have been observing closely during his time managing in the Chinese Super League. Billed as hot property in the Asian managerial market, Everton moved quickly to secure the services of a promising young manager that tactical analysts predict can transfer his game model implemented at Dalian Pro right to the very pinnacle of the game.

Bad jokes aside, Benítez is very much a known quantity and safe pair of hands, and perhaps the right appointment for what Everton are looking to achieve in the next season or two: namely an adherence to Premier League financial fair play rules and regulations. The transition in playing styles should be reasonably smooth, with Benítez looking to embed similar principles but with arguably a better reputation than his predecessor for setting teams up effectively. Compare Everton’s defensive activity map from last season with Newcastle’s in 2018/19, the last time Benítez was seen in the Premier League.



The other trait Benítez has a reputation for is never getting less from the sum of a team’s parts. Interestingly, Newcastle’s metrics under Benítez in 2018/19 were very similar to Everton's metrics last season, both in expected outcome numbers and stylistic ones. The key difference here is that Everton’s squad is significantly stronger on paper than the players Benítez had at his disposal at Newcastle, perhaps a cause for optimism.

Observers of Everton’s pre-season friendlies have noted three key themes: an organised defensive shape, quick attacking transitions, and crosses into the box. Everton were already pretty adept at crosses last season, looking to hit Dominic Calvert-Lewin early with the quality deliveries of Lucas Digne and generally finding him in uncrowded boxes.


In broader terms, Benítez will have to work with more or less the same squad that was available last season, with very little outlay in the transfer market occurring this summer. They relied on 16 core players to get through 2020/21, with the 17th most-used player accounting for just 677 minutes.

There will be some new faces. Jean-Philippe Gbamin surely takes the “like a new signing” award in the Premier League this summer - if he can stay fit. It’s been a rough start to his Everton career with just 160 league minutes since signing in 2019, but if or when he can return from injury, he’ll add much-needed energy and dynamism to the Everton midfield.

The three transfers that have been made this summer reportedly amount to an outlay of just £1.7 million but do address needs in the squad according to Benítez’s game model, and all are known quantities to the Premier League. Asmir Begović signs as keeper cover, but analytics-favourite Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray should both contribute minutes in the wide positions and aid the shift towards a more transition-based style of play with their tendency for direct and pacey carries.

The future of James Rodríguez seems to be causing less concern to the fanbase than you might expect. Rumours that the side’s predominant playmaker could be leaving the club would normally cause more distress, but with the fans not particularly enamoured with Rodríguez’s commitment and Benítez reportedly keen to save on his wages, it’s hard to imagine the Colombian being graced with a fond farewell.

Should they keep him, they’d be retaining a player who contributed six goals and four assists in ~50% of league minutes, and who led the team for xG Assisted in open play per 90 minutes and passes or carries into the final third per 90 minutes. Regardless of how well the fanbase took to him, there’s no denying Rodríguez is an A1 talent in this squad and contributed when on the pitch. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), which rates every action on the pitch by how much it positively or negatively affects a team’s chances of scoring, rated Rodríguez very highly for his actions last season: among players with >900 minutes played, he ranked 5th in the Premier League for OBV contribution per 90 minutes, behind the likes of Jack Grealish and Kevin De Bruyne. In the Everton squad, it wasn’t particularly close.



Meanwhile, Dominic Calvert-Lewin could be one of the main beneficiaries of Benítez’s appointment, not that he needs the help after a stellar 2020/21 campaign. Last season was the year that ‘DCL’ established himself as one of the Premier League’s leading marksmen and he should thrive if the team deliver the volume of crosses that Benítez desires. Calvert-Lewin is master of the danger zone between the penalty box and goal and, for players with >1200 minutes played and >40 shots, had the highest xG per shot in the league last season.



It’s been a good few seasons since expectations have been this low around Goodison Park. Frustrations at being unable to break back into the Premier League’s top seven, as well as a tightening of the purse strings this summer, has seen an apathy set in around the fanbase. Having failed to climb up the table following heavy investment before, it takes a creative imagination to envisage they might achieve it without the same spend. The points spreads have once again benchmarked them in the Everton zone; predicted to finish around 8th-9th place with a total of ~53 points, a total that reveals a belief that Benítez doesn’t really move the needle for the Toffees. In a top-half beginning to overflow with upwardly mobile teams, the levels only seem to get harder. Let’s see what the Spaniard can serve up.

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Heading into last season, it seemed that Marcelo Bielsa’s sense of goodwill amongst Leeds United fans couldn’t get any higher. A return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004, some incredible football in the Championship, and a sincere mutual appreciation with the fanbase. But after a top-half finish in 2020/21 and continued entertainment against some of the biggest teams in the country, it looks like Bielsa’s status has elevated even further. The storylines to look out for next season circle around their production at both ends of the pitch. How do they stabilise their attacking unit whilst improving their defensive metrics?

Setting the Scene - Attacking Strength

Looking at last season, the attacking metrics were exceptional: above the 75th percentile in the big 5 leagues for all of xG per 90; xG per shot; shots taken following a high press; attacking pace towards goal; and clear shots on goal (shots with just the goalkeeper between the shooter and the goal). Anyone who watched Bielsa’s team last season won’t be surprised by these benchmarks: Leeds carried over the high intensity, high tempo, adventurous attacking style which tore the EFL Championship apart in 2019/20.

A style which has become his hallmark since moving to the Whites, although it has been consistent with his philosophy over the years: verticality in attacking, rotational interchanges, third man combinations etc, etc. In possession, Leeds are committed to building from the back, with goalkeeper Illan Meslier impressing last season with his ability to contribute in the first phase of buildup. They create space in this phase by positioning their advanced midfielders high up the pitch and creating width with their full backs, pinning the opposition deeper and therefore freeing Leeds to create and make the types of passes shown below:

When it comes to playing into the attacking third and chance creation, Leeds are extremely vertical in their intentions, leading to quick attacking moves, few wasted passes in the final third, and lots of possession shifts.


Directness  88% (6th)
Pace Towards Goal 2.8 m/s (6th)
Deep Progressions per 90 43.7 (8th)
Possessions per 90 197.4 (1st)


The key players in this style are the wide players, who facilitate a lot of goalscoring opportunities. Whether it be running at a stretched defence or receiving in pockets in the final third against more settled blocks, it’s the wide players who fare best for Leeds in our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV).

OBV rates every action on the pitch and estimates the extent to which each action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Jack Harrison and Raphinha were clearly effective players by the eye test and in the OBV model, and it’s imperative they generate similar numbers if Leeds’ attack is to continue to impress in the new season.

Patrick Bamford, long time analytics darling, didn’t have another frustrating season in terms of underperforming xG, and some of that can be attributed to how Leeds’ wide players took a load of him in terms of goal creation, not to discount his evident Premier League ability.

The Double-Edged Sword - Leeds In Defence

Where their defensive pressing style had been nearly impossible to play against in the Championship, it at times left them overexposed in the Premier League. Leeds really struggled to prevent the opposition from creating chances last season, and their defensive style is so unique that it’s worth investigating into the specifics of the tactics that could be the root cause of the issues.

First, how they press and defend in the opposition’s half. Leeds employ a heavy, man-oriented pressing system - the most aggressive in the division. Their principles are generally ball-oriented in that they focus their position based on the ball position rather than the opposition players, but in how this manifests itself structurally, they are man-to-man: each player is tasked with an opponent to pick up, which makes their responsibilities very straightforward.

Without getting too deep into the tactical weeds, this creates variations in how their forward players put pressure on an opponent’s buildup since they are -1 up front: 3v2 if they play a back three, and 3v4 if the opposition use a back four.

Either way, this strategy of keeping opponents as far from goal as possible to stop them from getting into the Leeds half has been successful: they conceded the 5th-fewest deep progressions in the Premier League last season. The issues started to arise when the opponent broke the press or when Leeds had to defend in more traditional “blocks”. They conceded 1.48 xG per 90 (18th in the league), 14.5 shots against per 90 (17th), and were vulnerable to being pressed high and hurt in transition, conceding shots from those situations at similarly relegation-level rates.

The same reasons they’re so effective in attack that were highlighted in the attacking section – pushing players ahead of the ball, stretching the defence wide, making adventurous rotations – are the same reasons they struggle defensively; they’re left overexposed.

Combine that with a talent deficit, less of an issue in Leeds’ case but still an issue in newly promoted clubs, and you’re going to leave yourself open, something that Bielsa will surely be working on into next season. While it was an enforced change thanks to injuries in midfield, Stuart Dallas played a very good role in helping solidify the deeper areas directly ahead of defence compared to his peers.

Set-pieces have been something of an achilles heel to Leeds ever since the Championship days, particularly corners. This is thanks (or no thanks!) to a combination of player profile and tactical setup. For one, Bielsa’s sides defend corners in an almost-exclusively man-to-man system. Only one player (usually Bamford across the near post) acts zonally and could be regarded as “free”. Similar to their defending in open play, this puts a lot of responsibility on the individual to win their 1v1 battle.

That said, the advantage will always be with the attacking team on dead balls: concepts such as picks, blocks, and screens mean you can isolate players free of their markers and create clear-cut chances. Without many “fail safes” to defend against this (i.e zonal players), you’re leaving yourself prone to these manoeuvres and manipulations.


As with most teams this summer, incomings have been slow at the time of writing. One of the positive bits of transfer business has been to convert Jack Harrison’s loan into a permanent contract after three seasons on loan from Manchester City. The winger was a significant contributor off the left last season: coming in with an OBV per 90 of 0.31, placing him in the 71st percentile for players in his position in the Premier League. At £11million, this was a no-brainer.

Junior Firpo has come in from Barcelona to replace the outgoing Ezgjan Alioski at left back. Firpo found game time few and far between in La Liga, but his profile certainly fits the type of defender who should fit the Leeds system. Firpo is primarily a threat when attacking space from deep and arriving into the final third, and represents a tangible upgrade on Alioski in terms of buildup play, ranking favourably in xG Buildup throughout his career. Patience could be required defensively as any player faces a period of adaptation when they first join a Bielsa side, but he certainly fits the physical profile to make the jump successfully.

Talking potential additions now: the Leeds support have been clamouring for an addition in the centre of midfield. We spoke earlier of Stuart Dallas’ move into the centre of the park that helped to solidify the defensive shortcomings Leeds were struggling with, but this doesn’t feel like a long-term solution. With Kalvin Phillips’ place in the XI under no doubt, Leeds will be looking to sign a player capable of providing pressing and ball-winning while also being able to play in pockets of space and higher up the pitch. Links with Huddersfield Town midfielder Lewis O’Brien have lingered all summer, and he certainly fits the profile of a player that could contribute those aspects.

European Hopefuls?

As a newly promoted side, Leeds had an exceptional 2020/21 season to finish 9th. Which makes projecting their placement next season tricky – it’s a challenging benchmark to repeat with teams above them in the table some of the biggest and most well-backed in the world.

The blueprint for improvement is clear: maintain the attacking output while tightening up defensively. Achieve this, and they could well embark on a West Ham-esque challenge for the Europa League places. We know Bielsa won’t change his style, so the question is whether Leeds can bolster and strengthen their ranks enough before the transfer window closes.

Either way – it’s going to be fun!

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Where do you go from here? In 2012, Chelsea sacked their concept manager, Andre Villas-Boas, handed the reigns to a club legend, Roberto Di Matteo, finished miles off the pace with 64 points then promptly went out and won the Champions League.

In 2021, Chelsea sacked their club legend manager, Frank Lampard, handed the reigns to a concept manager, Thomas Tuchel, finished miles off the pace with 67 points then promptly went out and won the Champions League. It took Tuchel 123 days to hit that high point and he did it by focusing first and foremost on defence.

In 19 Premier League games under Tuchel, Chelsea gave up more than one expected goal twice: firstly against West Brom in the freakish 5-2 defeat and latterly against Manchester City, two games from the end of the season in a match they won regardless.

The difference that Tuchel made to the team was as stark as it was swift and they were clear second best behind Manchester City in the back half of 2020-21. In their first ten game phase under Tuchel the team closed everything right down. The attack was yet to gel together but the defence  gave up a remarkable four xG and conceded just two goals.

By season's end Chelsea's Tuchel era metrics were in hailing distance of Manchester City with a +1 xG difference per game across his reign (for the same period City were +1.2) with the impressive side still mainly defence (0.56 xG against) while at least in terms of process, the attack had perked up and landed at a decent 1.56 xG per game.

Only two teams have put up metrics of this ilk in recent seasons: Liverpool and Manchester City. It may be a short spell, but the strong indicator here is that Tuchel has managed to organise Chelsea's high quality, high potential squad into a shape that is capable of contending. Lampard had the makings but not the execution, Tuchel had both.

So what did he do to harness the talent in this squad?

First up the obvious switch from Lampard's general 4-3-3 and variations towards a distinct 3-4-3. This had the instant benefit that if you were a centre back, then welcome aboard, you now had a great chance of getting good minutes regardless of what had been happening so far in the season (hello Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen), ditto anyone who had experience of playing wing-back, let's say in a league winning side playing a similar formation (come on down Marcos Alonso) and anyone called Mason Mount, mainly because he's literally the ideal player for any team playing any formation, something on which both Lampard and Tuchel agreed, more later. Here's the minutes splits across the squad:

Chelsea had a relatively injury-light 2020-21 (and the squad to survive it too) so the balance between the Lampardis and Tuchelistas is fairly reliable to spot. Each manager loved Mount, Edouard Mendy, Timo Werner and Reece James--these were a core four and come rain or shine, their managers picked them. More Lampard favoured were Ben Chilwell (a bit), N'Golo Kanté, Kurt Zouma and Tammy Abraham while Tuchel was big on César Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Rüdiger, Christensen and Alonso. Kanté and Chilwell get a pass here too really as once the business end of the Champions League kicked in they were solid picks in that tournament, as was Kai Havertz.

The risk players for this squad are quite clear: Abraham was losing minutes to Olivier Giroud, who has now left and has likely seen his potential position gazumped entirely by Romelu Lukaku (a transfer for him seems imminent too). Hakim Ziyech struggled to see pitch time for either manager last season and at the moment looks like the big miss/square peg among the high class attackers purchased in summer 2020, despite quite good statistical contribution when on the pitch. Christian Pulisic saw more game time at the back end of the season, enough to think he's likely to stick around and feature, while Callum Hudson-Odoi remains a statistical marvel but repeatedly flits in and out of favour whoever is in charge.

Seriously, Hudson-Odoi is fascinating.

Snooping around earlier in the summer I spied this and tweeted it: More than 1000 minutes, more than 2.4 OPEN PLAY key passes per 90? 3 qualifiers in the PL, De Bruyne, Grealish and... Hudson-Odoi

Then when I was poking at our new OBV model numbers for this article, he leapt off the page again, albeit predominantly in the Lampard era where he was clocking 0.56 OBV/90. This was right around better players in the league, albeit in pretty small minutes, which cautions against excitement, especially when you have The Real Deal Mason Mount in the mix:

People sometimes like to argue about model outputs, but I'm not interested in that here, as Mason Mount is constantly selected and great.

In ways he reminds me of Italian midfielders of the late 1990s, an Angelo Di Livio or Massimo Ambrosini or Alessio Tacchinardi, players that were surrounded by flair and technical brilliance yet absolute team soldiers and vital cogs.

That possibly denigrates everyone I'm talking about here, particularly Mount, who can contribute well at the business end of the pitch too, yet it's really not meant to, Mount himself has had to semi-justify his position in the Chelsea and England team for the best part of two years, but Lampard knew his worth, and perhaps saw something of himself in him, succeeding through will and graft where more naturally gifted rivals faltered.

He started him in 49/57 league games for Chelsea and only missed pitch time in two. Tuchel is under no illusions either, in May saying "He is crucial for our game, he is an absolutely key player" and the fans voted him Chelsea Player of the Year last season. And he's still just 22! Unfortunately fellow midfield man Jorginho took the Champions League / Euros double, to hit his own high note, but let's move beyond that for now and celebrate Mount, who also successfully boosted all of his expected metrics moving from Lampard's team to Tuchel:

Sorry, a sideline.

So what did Tuchel do?

We established that the defence improved, and it did so in the most desirable way: they reduced the volume of shots they were giving up and the shots they did give up were harder to score than the ones they had been giving up before, magic!

Check out the annotation, one shot!

For the record a Christian Benteke header, you can maybe understand how the scout report may have missed on that as Benteke's long game of undershooting xG for multiple seasons paid off with decent goal returns in 2020-21. Overall, reducing the volume and quantity of shots allowed came across all facets of the game.

They halved the volume of "clear" (just the keeper to beat) shots they allowed, reduced opposition set piece effectiveness and gave up fewer counter attacking shots. Part of how they got there was that Chelsea upped their tempo out of possession. Under Lampard they were fairly active and ranked fourth to sixth for all of PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action), the average height of their defensive actions and their overall responsiveness to pressuring opposition ball receipts (our "aggression" metric).

It took a little time under Tuchel--recall a handful of slower, possession heavy chance-lite fixtures in the early weeks--but during the second half of the season, they were second for PPDA (behind Leeds, of course), third for height of defensive actions (behind Man City and a resurgent Liverpool) and second for aggression (behind Leeds again), all notable moves in a more active direction.

Just for raw pressure events and defensive actions, the workload went up, up, up before coming down, down, down just as they were all in on the Champions League, but we can see here more events, and a higher proportion of pressure events as Tuchel's tenure settled in. They have the makings to play this way now and be effective with it:

Some of the methodology also involved ball-hogging dominating possession: they played more passes than Manchester City in their 2-1 win and routinely outpassed weaker teams by large volumes. But they could win in other ways too, as a 1-0 victory over Liverpool showed. They played a fairly rigid and deep 3-4-[big gap]-3 and outworked their opponents while giving up next to nothing shot (7) or xG (0.28) wise.

On the largest stage, the Champions League final was not dissimilar. How do you improve a Champions League winning team that has shown it can outwork, out pass, out shoot and out defend its opponents, seemingly at will?

Chelsea are eternally in "win-now" mode and "win-now" mode means buying Serie A's best striker for close to £100m to end debates around how you can man your front three, whether a false 9 will work best or if your very-good-but-to-my-mind-not-quite-good-enough-to-lead-a-Chelsea-front-line-perhaps-a-tier-lower-23-year-old-academy-graduate is the right choice. And why have they done this? Finishing.

The divergence between Chelsea's stellar Tuchel era metrics and the reality of clambering into the top four slots can be blamed on one thing: the attack fired well under expected values under Tuchel. Analytics 101 remains get the process right and let the variance work itself out. In truth this was a team effort.

Thirteen Chelsea players took ten or more shots in the Premier League under Tuchel and of those thirteen, a meagre two of them exceeded their goal expectation: Kurt Zouma (one goal from 13 shots and 0.85 xG) and Marcos Alonso (two goals from 20 shots and 1.62 xG). This is frankly ridiculous, and not really a reflection of the quality of Chelsea's players.

Werner and Havertz may have had personally less impressive seasons than they may have hoped but they're not obviously sub-par finishers, nor historically was Olivier Giroud. One specific aspect of play they did not get from their forward corps was as follows:

Yes; a guy crashing the six yard box. It's not that Lukaku is a noted plus finisher, more that he is a reliable scorer--he will take up the positions you need from your main striker and score goals. To this regard Lukaku does have the vibe of a missing piece and seven years on from departing for a decent fee is returning.

It will be hoped that as a focal point, Lukaku can enable his equally talented colleagues to thrive around him, and regardless he's surely as close to guaranteed as any Chelsea striker to chip in handily. More broadly on personnel, while clued up fans may bemoan the loss of Abraham and Fikayo Tomori, they're getting very good fees for these players and the supply line from their youth teams to the first team is doing just great, with Mount, Christensen and James all hitting big recently.


There's a disconnect between stellar Tuchel-era metrics and winning the Champions League contrasting with 2020-21 points accrual (76 point pace) and bookmaker expectations (around 76-78 points). This plants Chelsea firmly alongside Liverpool in a "best-of-the-rest" category, a couple of clips ahead of Manchester United yet trailing Manchester City.

In real terms they will likely need to bounce forward another ten points on top of that and make a +20 points season jump to season to contend for the title. With a summer of planning for Tuchel, a stable squad that isn't undergoing much remedial work and the natural belief of a successful team, it's possibly easier imagining Chelsea steering upwards once more than not.

With Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and now Tuchel in the Premier League mix, it would be thrilling to see these three teams battling hard on all fronts and this season is well set for these coaching titans to tee off. Evidently Tuchel has not found long term stability in his managerial career, but with this squad and the big prize already in his back pocket, he may be primed to stay a good while yet. The league is better for that.

Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here If you're a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

After five seasons of relentless progress under Jürgen Klopp, culminating in that precious 19th title, Liverpool fell to their lowest points total since the first of his tenure. Third place and a Champions League quarter-final would generally be a perfectly acceptable season, but it represented a clear decline from 97 and 99 points in the prior two seasons, plus a sixth European Cup and World Club Cup trophy for good measure. The good news is that the route to that finish was unprecedented and circuitous, which promotes optimism for a new season and a rebound into domestic and European contention once more.

Until Alisson trotted forward in the 95th minute at the Hawthorns, the most memorable thing about Liverpool’s season was the injury crisis that plagued them through most of the season. The innocent days of September as Fabinho filled in alongside Virgil van Dijk at Stamford Bridge was in hindsight a clear example of first act foreshadowing.

Not only did they lose their defensive bedrock in van Dijk, they then proceeded to lose centre back after centre back as the season progressed (including the midfielders succonded to the backline). Jürgen Klopp filling in at the back was a mix of gallows humour and momentary consideration at one point. Throw in injuries in the midfield ranks to the mix and that 3rd place and European quarter-final takes on a different complexion.

For all the early-season injuries and absences, Liverpool actually found themselves top of the league as Santa rolled into town (for the third consecutive year). Nine wins, four draws and the solitary loss in the debacle at Villa Park put them four points clear of Leicester and eight clear of Manchester City (albeit having played a game more).

It took just a single month for their hard work to be undone.

Three points in five games saw them drop out of the top-four and fall seven points behind the eventual title winners. That wasn’t even the worst of it: a further run of six losses in seven games left them in eighth and seven points behind fourth place. Suddenly a team that had lost nine league games in three seasons had lost nine in 28 (and eight in the last 12). And still the roller-coaster ride wasn’t over, as 26 points in 10 games to finish the season sent them into third place and 69 points - a mediocre season overall compared to the prior two seasons but a decent achievement given the context.

Looking under the hood at Liverpool’s metrics over the course of the season, we can identify four phases:

  1. Weaker defence combined with stronger attack
  2. Improved defence, but with a weaker attack
  3. A worsening defence while the attack remained stable
  4. The attack lifts off to close the season

As much as injuries played a role in Liverpool’s season, the thing that truly cratered their season was a massive finishing slump after putting seven goals past Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park in December.

Overall, Liverpool’s metrics were strong, with the best non-penalty xG on the attacking end offsetting the fifth-best defensive record, equating to the second-best non-penalty xG difference over the season. From the perspective of xG, their numbers were remarkably similar to the title-winning season, although winning the league with seven games to spare plays a part here.

Aside from the goal-scoring skewing in the wrong direction, the biggest shift was in their post-shot xG; in 2019/20 the team was extremely proficient at challenging (and defeating) opposition goalkeepers, while also reducing the shot-stopping workload for Alisson and Adrian. Those positive skews reversed in 2020/21, and the aforementioned finishing slump exacerbated the issues on the attacking end. In old money, Liverpool’s shot-on-target differential declined from 115 in 2019/20 (+3.0 per game) to 64 in 2020/21 (+1.7 per game), despite an increase in their overall shot differential. This was a classic example of taking the rough with the smooth, albeit with the smooth ending a 30-year obsession with the title.

Dancing through midfield

One question heading into last season was how the signing of Thiago would impact Liverpool’s play. While the midfield incumbents were certainly no slouches in possession, the primary playmaker played at right-back rather than in the midfield. After an injury-disrupted first-half of the season, Thiago himself grew into his role in the team and dovetailed nicely with Fabinho when the latter returned to midfield during the closing stages of the season.

As expected, he offered strong ball progression and chance creation from midfield, although the assists didn’t reflect his underlying numbers. An intriguing aspect of his passing was those cross-field passes from right-to-left, which are very much Trent’s music. To an extent, that ate into Trent’s passing profile, as while those diagonals were still his most distinctive pass-type, they weren’t quite as prevalent as prior seasons.

There was an added dimension to Liverpool’s midfield last season; a greater emphasis on ball-carrying, particularly from Curtis Jones and Thiago. Using our On-Ball Value (OBV) model, we can illustrate this in the maps below and also compare at the player-level; Wijnaldum’s OBV from carries almost doubled year-on-year, while Jones performed at similar levels to noted ball-carrier Naby Keïta.

There was less emphasis on the full-backs in terms of xG assisted and OBV, particularly the left-hand side through Robertson. These tweaks resulted in broadly similar underlying metrics in the aggregate and, as with many trends over the past two years, it will be interesting to track how they evolve in a (hopefully) more normal season.


For the first time since Philippe Coutinho’s departure, there are questions around the forward line of Mané, Firmino and Salah after Diogo Jota’s strong performances in his injury-hit debut campaign. The trio have essentially been ever-present when available, with Xherdan Shaqiri playing as part of a front-four in 2018/19 being the only real deviation from that template. Jota could supplant one of the incumbents, with Mané and Firmino being the most likely candidates according to the discourse. Alternatively, we could even see a new Liverpool-based fab-four emerge.

Examining the underlying process and outcomes, it’s clear that at least some of the whispers can be ascribed to the finishing streaks of said quartet. After consecutive seasons outpacing his xG, Mané came back down to earth in 2020/21, while Firmino continued a now three-season spell of undershooting his xG totals. Both had almost identical year-on-year underlying outputs in terms of xG and xG assisted though, and it’s safe to say that nobody was questioning their position while Liverpool cantered to a title.

On the other hand, Jota pulled out the neat trick of compounding strong underlying numbers with a hot finishing run after his own finishing woes in his final season at Wolves. Ironically, the one member of the quartet with fewer question marks from the commentariat was the one who showed a (slight) decline, although it’s hard to paint Salah’s numbers as anything but elite.

So, nothing to see here and we’re safe to file this as a nice problem to have?

Digging a little deeper through the prism of OBV paints a somewhat different picture regarding their performances, particularly in the case of Mané. His overall contribution declined sharply year-on-year, with his shooting accounting for ⅔ of the decline. The other major area of concern was his passing, as he moved from a net-positive contributor to a net-negative one; an increased number of turnovers and a decrease in his pass completion rate is symptomatic of this. Mané’s style of play can sometimes resemble something of a high-wire act – moments from something magical or maddening – and it seems he last season tipped more often towards the latter than the former.

While the above points towards some elements of concern, realistically Liverpool are in the enviable position of having four high-class, starting-calibre forwards with a complementary set of elite skills. Klopp even has the possibility of rotating the front-line without a significant reduction in quality, or tailoring the forward-line to certain situations and match-ups. Perhaps the natural order will shift over the course of the season, but the forward line provides both depth and quality at this point.


From his assuredness on the ball and plug-and-playability across a number of roles, Gini Wijnaldum’s sheer robustness may well be the most keenly felt aspect of his departure. In the past two seasons, he was absent from one solitary EPL & CL squad, with 82 starts, ten substitute appearances and one match warming the bench. While the midfield options provide a good level of depth in terms of numbers and quality, several have had either long-term injuries or regular short-term absences over the past few seasons, so there is perhaps a degree of concern here.

Defensive reinforcements have arrived in 22-year old Ibrahima Konaté, who comes in from RB Leipzig. From a numbers perspective, perhaps the most eye-catching one is the shade under 2000 minutes he played in the Bundesliga & CL combined over the past two seasons, which is a quite magnificent trolling of the fanbase, it has to be said. He did, however, play close to a full season in 2018/19 as Leipzig finished with the Bundesliga’s best defensive record (and second-best by xG). He was generally in the squad last year but struggled for playing time in the second half of the season after returning from injury. Konaté profiles as an active front-foot defender, with Joël Matip being his closest parallel in the Liverpool squad, and like Matip he also enjoys carrying the ball forward.

Konaté displayed notable strength in the air on a high volume of duels in the Bundesliga, but how well this translates to the Premier League is a key question if he is to find playing time early in his Liverpool career (Ozan Kabak’s strong aerial win percentage certainly didn’t translate during his short spell on Merseyside.) Based on the types of high passes usually made in the respective leagues and by Liverpool and RB Leipzig’s opponents, we can observe distinctive traits:

  • England tends to be biased towards crosses into the box and longer passes into the final third
  • Germany generally sees shorter passes within the middle third of the pitch, and a much smaller emphasis on crosses into the box

Such traits point towards a somewhat different challenge. It’s likely a period of adaptation will be required.

Konaté’s passing range appears somewhat limited as he is heavily skewed towards short and/or sideways passes. The longer passes he does play tend to be lower percentage vertical ones down the line that tend not to feature in Liverpool’s centre back profile. Demonstrating the ability to play those progressive diagonal passes out towards the full-backs that are so favoured by the Liverpool backline would be a very encouraging sign.


With Manchester City as the firm favourites for the title, the bookies have Liverpool in the high-70s in terms of points, alongside Chelsea, which seems a reasonable median expectation (I’d probably go a bit higher, but red-tinted spectacles and everything). We saw the floor of that kind of range last season, and they still finished third and made a Champions League quarter-final. The path to stronger performances and both domestic and European contention is also clear: a more normal level of injuries, the best forward line in the league finishing their chances, and van Dijk returning from injury somewhere close to his previous performance levels.

Taking last season as an anomaly, Liverpool have consistently put themselves within striking distance of glory and, if a team is to challenge City, then the team that has averaged 88 points over the last three seasons seems the most probable candidate. But they’ll need to hit their ceiling once more.



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Burnley FC. Sean Dyche. Bastions of consistency and stability. A slap in the face for the notion that being predictable can only be a bad thing. You know what you’re going to get from Burnley, and still they remain in the Premier League. Because Burnley are good at being Burnley, and Burnley when being Burnley are hard to stop. Turf Moor will be hosting Premier League football for the sixth season in a row. The 17th placed finish in 2020/21 represented their lowest position and points tally since promotion five years ago, so it's not unlikely that armchair pundits are to start speculating over Burnley's Premier League future. There was some regression, sure. Their expected goal (xG) difference slid back from a Burnley-best-since-they-were-promoted of -0.08 per game in 2019/20, down to -0.47 in 2020/21: They lost 0.10 expected goals per game in attack equating to ~four goals a season, fairly negligible but still a knock, but the biggest concerns emerged at the back. You can see below that 2019/20 was a significant step forward on what came before for the team, mainly cutting out the games where they got tonked. The differences between that impressive season and last season in the graphic are not exactly apparent to the naked eye, but that in itself could perhaps be a larger red flag. Look closely. In 2019/20, the cluster of games to the right of the trendline represents games where Burnley edged out close games by xG, a valuable skill for a team trying to avoid danger. In 2020/21, a lot of games shifted both left (creating less) and up (conceding more). You can make excuses if it's a handful of really bad games making the difference, but this seemed to be a collective shift down in their performance levels. Their defence was -0.29 expected goals per game worse off than the season prior and, with the -0.10 shaved off the attack, it worked out to a ~15 goal regression over the whole season. The sort of sum that forces a team down the table--and it did. However, there is some context that needs to be applied here. Dyche regards last season as his most challenging yet in their Premier League stint. They came into the season having spent just £1million on third-choice ‘keeper Will Norris and backup midfielder Dale Stephens. Then they had to contend with injuries in the opening sequence of games: the back four in their opening day 4-2 defeat to Leicester was (right-to-left) Phil Bardsley, Kevin Long, Jimmy Dunne, and Charlie Taylor. James Tarkowski returned in game three and Ben Mee followed in game seven, but the damage had already been done: Burnley had just two points from their opening seven fixtures. The season was bookended with poor form—a W0 D2 L5 run to start, a W2 D0 L7 run to finish. But, the middle two-thirds should serve as encouragement ahead of next season. A W8 D7 L7 record works out to 1.41 points-per-game: bang on the 54 points they got the season before when extrapolated over a whole season and considering they won't have the off-field uncertainty surrounding the takeover, nor the condensed schedule to contend with, and maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about Burnley after all. Survival remains objective number one, and it was mission accomplished once again. They can't learn from it if they don't dig into what caused this decline on the pitch, so let's wield our spades on their behalf. Given their approach and mentality, the defence is where we need to examine. xG conceded per game rose from 1.17 to 1.46--where did those additional 0.29 expected goals per game come from? The biggest factor in this change was in the quality of the chances they conceded – something Burnley have notoriously thrived at. Their xG per shot conceded was 0.08 in 2019/20, 2nd-best in the league, but increased to 0.10 xG per shot conceded last season, putting them at league average. Burnley have previously opted to soak up a lot of shots while suppressing the quality of them, but they struggled with the latter last campaign. The main cause of this was that the opposition were allowed to shoot from much closer to goal than previously. There were times in 2019/20 where Burnley's low block was straight up impenetrable and their opponent's resorted to launching missiles from range in an attempt to break them out of their shell. Their opponents shot distance from goal was 17.0 metres away on average, the furthest in the league that season. This dropped to 16.4 metres in 2020/21, a small but not-insignificant change that was a big cause of the bump in their xG per shot conceded. Closer shots equals better shots. Burnley were trying the same out of possession techniques - pressing high in the first phase but then dropping right off should the opposition begin to advance - but were unable to maintain the same intensity required when bunkering, largely due to the intense schedule. It always surprises people to learn that Burnley's Defensive Distance - the average distance from their goal that they make defensive actions - has always been pretty high: behind only Manchester City and Liverpool in 2019/20, and the same pair plus Chelsea in 2020/21. They press the opposition from goal kicks and from turnovers in their attacking third, but soon sink into their defensive shape once the opposition starts to enter their half of the pitch. Simply, they just lacked the energy to disrupt the opposition in 2020/21. The percentage of opposition pass receipts that were pressured, tackled or fouled within two seconds dropped from 20% to 16%. Burnley have always been towards the lower end of these rankings in previous seasons, but the lost intensity clearly harmed their overall effectiveness in disrupting the opponent’s build-up and chance creation. Load up the trebuchet! In possession, Burnley continued to Burnley. Their top-five most commonly used pass clusters will be familiar to regular observers: Plenty of long, high passes into the opposition half and attacking third and, once they're in there, plenty of crosses from the flank. We can see those patterns of play when examining the nine most over-represented pass clusters plotted individually:

  1. Cluster #3 represents the Nick Pope pump into the opposition half
  2. Clusters #1 and #2 represent the channel balls played down the flanks to put the wingers in a foot race with their full backs
  3. Clusters #7 and #8 are shorter versions to the wingers feet
  4. Clusters #5 and #9 are the crosses regularly seen played into the box

Cluster #6 is the only pass of any real range played from the middle third, and this can mostly be attributed to Ashley Westwood. Westwood’s become a steady, unheralded Premier League performer but his importance to Burnley shouldn’t go without saying. He made the most open play passes in the squad, played the ball into the final third most often, made the most passes into the penalty box in open play, AND made the most open play key passes. He clearly has the best passing range in the team, a vital attribute to the Clarets when they do need to play through the middle third, and completed by far the most switches of play of his Burnley teammates. What I’m about to say next may shock you*, so make sure you're sitting down: Burnley played the most high-passes in the league, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of their total passes. Of their passes into the final third, 44% of them were high-passes - a league-high -, and the value of those passes are captured in our new possession value model, On-Ball Value, which estimates the extent to which an action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Burnley accrued the most OBV from high-passes in the whole league. *just kidding And their danger from crosses remained. Unlike most teams in the modern era, they’re not as bothered about crossing from closer to the byline and the goal in general. Instead, Burnley look to get the ball into the mixer much faster, with Chris Wood, Ashley Barnes, and Matěj Vydra all well attuned to attacking the early balls into the box. Crossing from deep can be more difficult to execute, but it does have its upsides. Because Burnley get the ball forward so quickly (their Pace To Goal of 3.04 m/s was second only to West Ham), they’re often able to attack against unset defences, meaning their attackers can often have more space and less competition to attack the ball when it’s played into the box. Thanks to StatsBomb 360 data, we can now measure how many attackers versus how many defenders teams have in the box on crosses, and can see that Burnley attackers averaged the least competition in the box (measured by attackers in the box minus defenders in the box) in the whole league. Knowing Burnley as we do, we can expect the same again next season. Likewise, we can expect the same playing squad. Dyche's squadron has been together for several seasons now, with very little surgery performed in the last few transfer windows. Cohesive, yes, but the squad's age profile is starting to veer dangerously close to post-peak territory, where we can start to expect a simultaneous decline in performances from several key members of the squad. Some botox is required sooner rather than later. Dwight McNeil and Josh Brownhill were the only players below the league average age to play a significant number of minutes. You have to go all the way down to their 16th most-used player last season, Robbie Brady, to find one who has left the club this summer. This is no bad thing in a squad full of dependable performers, but the sense that some fresh blood is required is most certainly there. In transfer news, Wayne Hennessey’s signed as ‘keeper cover, but the main (and only other) signing has been that of Irish beanpole Nathan Collins from Stoke, a signing that does start to provide a solution to their age problem. A promising centre-half who’s impressed in significant Championship minutes, Collins represents an heir to the throne of Tarkowski and Mee, and will shadow them for minutes in the middle of the defence next season, but also at right back as he integrates into the squad. Projection In context, there’s no reason to think Burnley should perform any worse than they did last season, which was enough to stay up albeit not much more. With a more relaxed schedule and more stability off the field, they should be able to get back to what they do best, but question marks remain over whether an aging squad can implement Dyche’s gameplan with the required energy levels-- something that cost them defensively last season, as described earlier in the piece. The betting markets have benchmarked them for a repeat of the 39 points accrued in 2020/21, 16th in the market and in the mix with the promoted sides plus Newcastle and Palace, and without any major (or even minor) investment in the squad, that feels fair. Survival is the aim, again.

Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here If you're a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Welcome back to another edition of the StatsBomb Premier League season previews!

Here's a handy place to keep them all, we'll update it as more previews go up on the site. Just click the links to read about each team.

Thanks to James Yorke, Nick Dorrington, Carl Carpenter, Will Thomson, Will Morgan, and Scott Johnson for writing and thanks from me to you for reading.

We hope you enjoy the articles. If you did, please share widely!


Aston Villa


Brighton & Hove Albion



Crystal Palace


Leeds United

Leicester City


Manchester City

Manchester United

Newcastle United

Norwich City


Tottenham Hotspur


West Ham United

Wolverhampton Wanderers

If you're a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Relegation in 2019/20 ended Watford’s five-year stay in the Premier League, but they yo-yoed at the first attempt to regain their place in the top tier, finishing Championship runners-up in 2020/21. They came into the new season with plenty of optimism. Vladimir Ivić was a somewhat left-field appointment to lead Operation Bounce Back, but he did have trophies from stints in Greece and Israel on his CV. He also had what some pundits believed to be the strongest squad in the Championship, having retained the likes of Will Hughes and Ismaïla Sarr to terrorise second-tier defences. Watford’s start to their promotion push was ~fine. Nothing more, nothing less. They won games – nine of their first 20 – and positioned themselves in the promotion pack heading into Christmas. But both board and fanbase were becoming increasingly twitchy with performances, and the sense that Ivić wasn’t getting the most out of the players available to him continued to grow with every grinding – and, frankly, boring – game. Just 1.9 goals per game were scored in Watford matches under Ivić. Approaching the halfway point in the season, the underlying numbers pegged them as the 7th best team in the league, and that was enough for the Watford senior management -- not known for their patience with managers -- to cut ties with the Serbian. Ivić was sacked after 20 games with the team 5th in the table. Their chosen replacement for Ivić was even further out of left-field. So far left that it could’ve been right. And so it came to be, eventually. Xisco Muñoz joined from Georgian powerhouses Dinamo Tbilisi -- yes, Dinamo Tbilisi -- after taking just 11 games as a manager -- yes, just 11 games -- to kickstart their stuttering promotion campaign. To the layman, it seemed a risky appointment with so much at stake, and initial performances didn’t encourage. Results remained ~fine, taking 14 points from their first eight under Muñoz, but short of the standard required to close the gap on the automatic promotion places. The eighth game of Muñoz’s tenure, a 0-0 draw away at Coventry City, was the catalyst for the run that eventually took them back up. A turgid performance lacking any invention prompted senior players, feeling their chances of an immediate return to the Premier League slipping away, to insist that the team took a more front-foot approach going forwards. The results were instant. Muñoz switched the team from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 shape, and Bristol City were put to the sword. They never looked back. Watford became a relentless winning machine, taking maximum points in 14 of their remaining 18 fixtures to seal promotion. Their defensive record was critical to the promotion, something that should stand them in good stead this season. Ivić laid the foundations, but Muñoz improved the team as a whole, taking the handbrake off and allowing the players to express themselves while retaining their defensive solidity, even improving in this aspect. From the time Muñoz was appointed, Watford conceded just 15 goals and ~20 expected goals, both league-best rates over the 26-game period in which the Spaniard was in charge. The main driver of their exemplary defensive record was their ability to shut down the quality of chances created against them. Watford conceded 10.6 shots per game under Muñoz – 9th-best in the league in his tenure – but their xG per shot conceded was just 0.07, far and away the stingiest in the league. It became very difficult to create good chances against this team. A lot of this can be attributed to their defensive organisation and determination to reduce the sight of goal available to the opposition forward. When the opposition created footed shots in the box, Watford had an average of 3.8 defenders positioned deeper than the shot location, suggesting they effectively slowed the opponent attacks down enough to set themselves in a good defensive position. Consequently, this meant that Watford could get a defender between the shooter and goal more often than not, averaging 1.1 defenders between the ball and goalkeeper – something that would greatly reduce the quality of the opening. Footed shots in the box are the holy grail of chance creation, but not if a defender is blocking your way. The broken finger suffered by goalkeeper Ben Foster, one of few players in credit after the opening half of the season, in January could’ve been a blow to their promotion push, but replacement Daniel Bachmann rose to the challenge to make it a seamless transition. The data over Bachmann’s time in goal reflects his solid performance as Foster’s replacement and the solid performance of the defense as a whole. As a benchmark, Foster faced 2.5 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.70 per game, whereas Bachmann faced 1.9 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.43 per game. That is to say, the quality of shots on target that Watford’s opponents were generating were worth just ~4 goals every ten games once Bachmann took his place in net. Both keepers saved goals above expected based on the post-shot xG faced, but it’s clear that Bachmann’s time in goal was a freak outlier thanks to the protection afforded to him by the defence. Personnel & Transfers Retaining Ismaïla Sarr will be objective #1 for the Watford hierarchy this summer; to their relief there doesn’t seem to be any major interest in his services. Sarr’s contribution in the final third and penalty box was crucial to the Hornets’ promotion as he demonstrated that he was far too good for the Championship, predictably so, having been a more-than-capable Premier League performer in 2019/20. Sarr’s 17 goals + assists were five more than the next best in the Watford squad, and his ball carrying was a constant thorn in the opposition side. His quality in carrying the ball was evident in our possession value model -- On-Ball Value (OBV) -- numbers from last season. OBV estimates the extent to which an action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Sarr’s OBV/90 was the sixth-highest of all Championship players with >1200 minutes played last season, and his OBV/90 from carries was fourth highest. There are some concerns over the future of midfielders Will Hughes (2,118 minutes) and Nathaniel Chalobah (2,816 minutes), with both entering the last years of their contracts and reportedly exploring options elsewhere before committing. But central midfield reinforcements are already in place: Imrân Louza joins after some steady Ligue 1 performances for Nantes over the last couple of seasons, while Jan Kucka comes in from Parma as an experienced Serie A campaigner. A third midfield signing will be most familiar to English audiences. Peter Etebo’s name may ring a bell after a short stint at Stoke City that never really got going due to several managerial changes in the season he arrived at the club. A loan spell at Galatasaray in 2020/21 showed glimpses of what Etebo can offer as a defensive midfield enforcer, but the Nigerian is also capable of filling in as a shuttling midfielder with the ability to contribute between both boxes. Wide-attacker Emmanuel Dennis could be another one that people have a faint recollection of, having scored twice in the Champions League against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in 2019 while with Club Brugge. Dennis has played at right wingback, right-wing, and striker over the last three seasons, so provides versatility, but he struggled in the Bundesliga while on loan at FC Köln in the second half of the campaign, making just nine appearances over 495 minutes as Köln narrowly avoided relegation. It remains to be seen whether Dennis will be an automatic starter or a squad option at Watford, but his data over previous seasons suggest a capable dribbler with a knack of getting in behind the defence and onto the end of throughballs, qualities that would be welcome if they can add some goals to Watford’s survival bid. Josh King and Danny Rose bring Premier League experience to the dressing room. Projection After stabilising in the Premier League, the quality of Watford’s playing squad gradually declined and was a large factor in their relegation. Being objective, the current roster does not appear much better than the one that went down in 2019/20, but if they can continue good defensive habits built under Vladimir Ivić and improved by Xisco Muñoz, perhaps the Hornets can grind matches enough to stay in contention, relying on the likes of Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro to provide the goals at the other end to give them a chance of staying up. Given they finished 2nd in the Championship, it’s noteworthy that the betting markets rate Watford as the side least likely to stay in the Premier League, benchmarking them for a ~34 point season and 20th place. It’s perhaps understandable given there are still question marks over Muñoz’s managerial ability despite promotion; he improved the side, yes, but it was a side that was underperforming given their talent level before he arrived. Muñoz simply raised them to their par. Has he got the quality to give them an edge in a season that their squad looks one of the weakest in the league? We’ll soon find out.

Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here If you're a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

It's the end of an era over at Tottenham, but which era? When Mauricio Pochettino left the club in November 2019, a Champions League final was fresh in the memory yet team metrics had declined precipitously. A week before he left he commented thus:

"We are in the process to [re]build and we will see if we have the time to build what we want"

With a team largely powered by a core of players remaining from Pochettino's era, a season and a half of Jose Mourinho followed. Talks of rebuilding continued to surround the team but despite vigorous work in the 2020 transfer window, the innate core of the team remained similar to before, and results and metrics continued to plateau.

When Mourinho himself was jettisoned in April 2021, it came as no real surprise. In particular, Tottenham waned against the better teams in the league, and a 4-3-9 WDL record against teams in the top half under Mourinho in 2020-21 simply didn't cut it.

When your entire schtick as a manager is that you're a winner, you really need to win games at a faster clip than that. Now Mourinho certainly chose a reactive style of play but we can see here that he failed to fundamentally improve the team's metrics to even the level of Pochettino's declined 2018-19 outfit:

With Mourinho's departure entirely justifiable, an extended recruitment process eventually landed on Nuno Espírito Santo, fresh away from Wolves after a tough season saw them part ways. What Espírito Santo will bring to the team is somewhat open to interpretation; his Wolves teams often played with apparent caution in a 3-5-2 and he had a small squad.

Tottenham also saw time with three centre backs during Mourinho's time, and played in a similarly reactive style, but are awash with talented attackers, to the extent that it seems feasible that Espírito Santo may deploy a more offensively charged system, much as he has in former jobs.

Indeed, pre-season has seen more of a 4-3-3. But who will form the core of the team? That question is harder to answer and the arrival of Juventus' former Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici has accelerated early summer transfer activity both in and out of the club; one thing is for sure now: it is rebuild time.

The good news is that two of the team's main attacking stars appear likely to be retained for 2021-22 albeit under slightly different circumstances. Son Heung-Min had another great season and recently signed a new four year contract. His shot map shows quite clearly what Mourinho tried to get from him: open shots off throughballs, and he exceeded his expected goals by a decent margin for the fifth straight season:

There's an interesting question around Son's new contract--he's 29 years old, somewhat of a speed merchant and signed up until he's 33. The next four years may not be his best four years, but his elite finishing ability may keep him as a significant net plus contributor ahead of what may normally be expected from a player with his style.

Balancing these decisions is never easy--see Liverpool's trio of late-peak forwards as a case in point--but at the very top of the sport, I suspect a player as an asset to the team persists longer than general age curve work suggests. Similar comments could apply to Harry Kane, who has never been a speed guy, but has always been a plus finisher.

However, there's enough noise in the room to suggest that Kane is more inclined to finish his footballing days outside of North London than within, albeit his contract situation (3 more years), likely asking price (a lot) and Manchester City already dumping £100m on Jack Grealish all look like reasons that may preclude his departure, at least this summer.

That said, those of us who recall the departure of Gareth Bale back in 2013 will not be wagering on any specific outcome. The big analytics story on Kane is that in 2020-21, he was very much back and there will always be the suspicion that the enforced pandemic break was the best thing that could happen to him. Prior to that a series of injuries and quick returns had apparently derailed his overall effectiveness and seen his underlying metrics drop off, albeit without the goals ever really disappearing.

Mourinho certainly set up teams to get the best out of Kane, and 2020-21 saw his highest shots per 90 (3.6), xG per 90 (0.48) rates since 2017-18 and the added boost of high volume creation, in particular towards forward partner Son. From a metric perspective, it's fascinating to note that essentially what Kane is doing on the pitch is broadly the same as before--apart from the key aspects of well, shooting and creating shots.

Back when he declined from nearly five shots per game in 2017-18 to around half that in early 2019-20, I attempted to investigate what he was doing differently and found scant evidence outside the shot decline, his average touch was slightly deeper, but little more. It seems that Kane is resilient enough to endeavour to play a similar game to that which he has found great success with, but how or if a manager uses him as a focal point within the team may well define outcomes.

Mourinho recognised that and built a team to get the best from Kane, and he got that. Did other players suffer by way of comparison? Perhaps? Either way, this season will be informative once more. The under-the-radar story for this team is the second departure of Gareth Bale. In a fitful season, when he was on the pitch (around one third of available minutes) he was lights out good. He scored eleven goals at around double his xG, added a couple of assists and was the only player in the league with above one goal contribution per 90. For shot contribution, only Kevin De Bruyne (6.7) and Bruno Fernandes (5.5) exceeded his 5.2 per 90. He also ranked second in the division behind Grealish in our OBV/90 metric.

Any way you slice the Bale pie, it came up tasty. Sure he wasn't a key starter and in the aggregate trailed Kane and Son, but having this kind of weapon as a bench option will be missed.


So far the rebuild has been as follows:

1. New goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, initially on loan from Atalanta.

This makes some sense, as Joe Hart was the back-up to Hugo Lloris and with Lloris entering the last year of his contract, a degree of succession would be logical, possibly Gollini represents that.

2. Left footed left winger 20 year old Bryan Gil swapped for a chunk of cash plus club legend Erik Lamela with Sevilla.

Lamela at 29 was good to go, and this kind of one for one "past out, future in" equation is nice and tidy from a squad management perspective. Dissecting a stats case for Gil is curious as playing for a stylistically distinct and struggling Eibar team in 2020-21 wasn't the passport to ballooning metrics as we can see here:

Okay, so what's the story here?

Much of what we see here grades out at around league average, and the combination of team style and his age enables us to be perhaps more positive than may seem at first glance. If you're 20 years old and clocking league average metrics, the prospect of what you can do down the line is pretty positive. People who watch football, which couldn't be me, also appeared happy with this deal.

3. Probably Cristian Romero

No Tottenham fan is likely to complain about defensive reinforcements and the departure of Toby Alderweireld makes that a pertinent detail. Given how readily media talk around moves has turned into reality this summer, it very much appears that the Argentinian international centre back Cristian Romero is likely to arrive shortly from Atalanta via Juventus.

Fresh from being crowned Serie A Defender of the Year and a Copa America triumph with his national team, it's easy to see why Romero is coveted and could attract a large fee. A twin effect jumps out from our metrics: during both his time at Atalanta and Genoa he has recorded extremely high pressure volumes and extremely high foul volumes.

The centre back archetype in the modern Premier League is somewhat opposite to this, for example Virgil van Dijk pressures and fouls infrequently, and it's a logical detail. If you enact pressure, you may well get beaten and leave space behind and be forced to foul.

Atalanta routinely play high up the pitch and need robust and active defenders, Genoa in 2019-20 less so, but Romero was notably active in both teams. How Romero slots into Espírito Santo's presumably more cautious set-ups and how active he is will be a story to follow, as the handful of Argentinian Copa America games are less conclusive here.

What else occurs personnel wise is hard to know. At Juventus Paratici frequently oversaw large scale squad turnover on a season to season basis, and having already sold Alderweireld to Al-Duhail in Qatar (as a natural replacement for Mehdi Benatia who he sold there in 2018 from Juventus), it's clear he is well capable of finding clubs where others may not. However should Romero follow Gil in though the door, that would be around £75m invested in the squad, and it's hard to see the club allocating significantly more resources for player purchases without some balancing of the books. We shall see.


In 2016-17 Tottenham finished second, the following year they finished third, then fourth, then sixth and in 2020-21 seventh. With Leicester apparently well in the mix for top four places these days, the big six appear to have either shrunk to four (Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd) or extended out to seven (add in Arsenal).

Either way, Tottenham's desire is to be firmly in the mix with the smaller group, and the Mourinho experiment did not slow a decline that was straightforward to forecast via metrics even as they finished fourth in 2018-19. As such, bookmaker predictions have them in that second tier alongside Leicester and Arsenal and an estimation of around 60 points doesn't deviate far from either of the last two season totals (59, 62).

None of this is easy to counter in either direction. The squad remains fairly deep and talented while appearing to lack some of the cohesion and clear ethos that we see from the league's best sides. Last season's top four will be a hard nut to crack for all teams this year and a deal of hope has to surround further recruits and whether Espírito Santo can take a more talented squad than he had at Wolves (two seventh placed finishes) and land them higher up the table. Fifth to seventh remains by far the most likely outcome and anything over 65 points would represent a step in the right direction. Rome wasn't built in a day, nor just one transfer window.

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If you’ll forgive the tired cliché, the only apt phrase to describe Southampton in 2020/21 is that of Jekyll and Hyde. One Southampton side made a 7-2-3 start to the season, lifting them into the Champions League places with a return of 23 points from 12 games. The other returned just 20 points in their remaining 26 games. Relegation form for two-thirds of the season puts a bit of scrutiny on Ralph Hasenhüttl’s reign at the club, but it’s necessary to dig a bit deeper to try and establish why they were so bad in the second half of the season, and whether there’s any reason to give Hasenhüttl and Southampton the benefit of the doubt coming into the 2021/22 campaign. The first place to look, as always, is in the expected goals (xG) numbers. And therein lies a lot of the story. Southampton’s performances in the first 12 games were ~fine, but there were clear signs that they’d made a start that was too hot for them to handle. They scored at double their expected goals in that period, plundering 22 non-penalty goals from 11.7 expected. The goals were coming from everywhere; Danny Ings and Che Adams had four each; James Ward-Prowse had already converted three direct free-kicks; Jannik Vestergaard had towered three headed goals from set plays. It was halcyon days on the south coast, but the warning signs were there that they might not last. That came to pass in an extreme way. From games 13-38, their hot finished deserted them; not only did they not convert their chances at a level close to their expected rate, but they actually undershot their 25.6 xG created by ~six goals. It was even worse at the back, where they conceded 45 goals from ~34 expected. Combined, Southampton finished ~17 goals behind expectation in the latter two-thirds of the season, an underperformance of 0.65 goals per game. You live by the sword; you die by the sword. The clinical edge that the Saints wielded in the opening fixtures was turned back on them. All of a sudden, it was the opposition who enjoyed the finishing streak. Unfortunately, a lot of the blame on the defensive end has to fall on Alex McCarthy’s shoulders. The goalkeeper enjoyed a solid shot-stopping season in 2019/20—second only to Hugo Lloris in our shot-stopping metric, based on the quality of shots faced—but completely regressed in 2020/21, putting in the worst season by that measure for goalkeepers with >1200 minutes played. He seemed to develop a real weakness for shots to his right-hand side in particular. We saw top-four results in the first third of the season, bottom-four results in the latter two-thirds. Southampton were neither as good as their early results suggested, nor as bad as the latter results implied. Taking the season as a whole, the likely reality is that Southampton’s true level is somewhere in the middle of the two. There were still hallmarks of Hasenhüttl’s high-octane style in Southampton’s play. They remained one of the most aggressive sides in the league out of possession—ranking 2nd in the league on the Aggression % metric, with 25% of opponent pass receipts being pressed, tackled, or fouled within 2 seconds, and they also made the 2nd-most defensive regains that occurred after a counterpressure. Southampton remained an awkward opponent to play against, engaging the press from the front, blowing attacks up in the middle third, and maintaining the intensity of that approach when the opposition reached their defensive territory. An interesting quirk in the context of their defensive scheme was that Saints started to defend deeper and deeper as results continued to nosedive. They seemed to withdraw inside themselves, perhaps due to waning confidence or a tactical shift to try and bunker down and ride out the rough period. After the first ten games of the season, the average height of Southampton’s defensive actions was 44.6 metres from their goal; by the end of the season it was 40.7 metres. Even though they were dropping deeper, the same aggressive pressing principles remained; Southampton just started allowing the opposition to come onto them a bit more before they engaged with them. Only 43% of their pressures --of which there were many-- came in the attacking half of the pitch. That, coupled with their own deficiencies in possession, meant that goalmouth action was hard to come by at St. Mary’s: there were just 77 final third entries per game in matches involving Southampton, the fewest in the league. The trouble was, when the opposition did break through into Southampton territory, they tended to cause some damage. Southampton only conceded 11.1 shots per game – the 8th-best record in the division – but the shots they did concede tended to be from close range and of high quality: their shots conceded came from 15.6 metres out on average (19th in the league), and the xG per shot of those shots was 0.12 (17th in the league). The opposite was true at the attacking end; their average shot came 17.1 metres from goal (18th in the league) and the average xG value of those shots was 0.09 (15th in the league). One area they did excel in was from set-plays, armed with one of the very few dead-ball specialists in the game at the minute. James Ward-Prowse put numerous deliveries on a plate for his teammates, creating 39 shots on goal from set-pieces, a total surpassed only by Mason Mount, but registering six set-piece assists, tied 1st in the league with West Ham’s Aaron Cresswell. The data confirms Ward-Prowse's world class dead-ball ability. He’s scored ten direct free-kicks from 4.4 xG and 72 shots over the last six seasons, a scoring rate that means it’s possible he genuinely might be an even better free-kick taker than Lionel Messi—Messi has 39 goals from 423 direct free-kicks across his entire La Liga shaking out at a 9% conversion rate, a clip that pales in comparison to Ward-Prowse’s 14%. Personnel & Transfers Let’s move onto the transfer window and the state of the current squad. Southampton Chief Executive Martin Semmens said this in May: “We have to invest this summer, and we will within our limits by buying young players who allow us to compete in the future. We will spend in the summer, and we already are well into the process of doing it.” The good news is that Southampton are delivering on the promise of signing younger players. The bad news is that they sold star striker Danny Ings. But is it bad news? Southampton received £30m from Aston Villa for a 29-year old in the last year of his contract and who had just had a quieter-than-usual season in 2020/21. It’s plenty of cash to potentially reinvest in a younger striking partner for Che Adams, whose scoring contribution of 14 matched Ings’ total for the season. The top target is rumoured to be another striker ready to graduate from the Championship in the same way Adams did back in 2019. Blackburn’s Adam Armstrong is the name, coincidentally a player we flagged back in November last year as a potential replacement for Ings at Southampton. Armstrong took by far the most shots per game in the Championship last season with 4.4 per 90, an astronomical rate and double the rate Ings managed at Saints. He fits the profile of a busy, high-usage forward who can get on the end of (and convert) the majority of chances a team creates while also being a tick in the “get younger” box. Armstrong’s capable of scoring from anywhere; letting fly from range, running in behind to receive throughballs, or poaching between the goalposts. His 0.12 xG per shot in 2020/21 was identical to the rate Ings put up. The other notable trade made at the time of writing is that of Ryan Bertrand’s departure to Leicester and his subsequent replacement by Romain Perraud from Stade Brestois. As per Semmens’ transfer window remit, Perraud comes in as a 23-year-old to replace the 32-year-old Bertrand with what appears to be a similar playing profile to his predecessor. Perraud provided seven assists from left-back last season, more than any other full-back in Ligue 1. Projection Southampton feel like a bit of an unknown ahead of this season. The squad’s about to undergo another transition: the departures of Ings and Bertrand are already confirmed, James Ward-Prowse and giant centre-back Jannik Vestergaard are also linked with potential moves away. That and the downward spiral in the latter half of last season has dampened faith in the Saints, and the betting markets have reduced their confidence in them accordingly, pegging them as a ~42 points team, one shy of the disappointing 43 point tally they ended 2020/21 with. The underlying numbers give cause for encouragement that they should at least match last year's points total and keep the relegation scrap at arm's length. In the bigger picture, a summer of squad turnover and regeneration towards younger players with less Premier League experience is designed to be a long-term blessing, but it could be a short-term curse if the incomings are unable to adapt straight away. But that said, Hasenhüttl’s style does lend itself towards youthful exuberance, and the new blood could be the refresh that the Southampton squad needs. It’s hard to see Southampton springing a surprise on the division, but they’ll be looking to take a step forward in their ambition to rise back up the Premier League table again.  

Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here If you're a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

As we enter Year Three of Mikel Arteta’s reign as Arsenal manager, it feels like this season could be make or break for his tenure. This time around there’s no recent FA Cup win to point to as a sign of progress; it has to be evident out on the pitch. Can Arteta achieve that?

One of the biggest issues facing Arteta when he joined was that Arsenal’s metrics had been not great for quite some time. Despite the clear positive of the style of play the Spaniard was attempting to implement, there was an alarming drop in performance at the start of the 2020/21 season:

Thankfully, in December -- a full year after his appointment -- he seemingly stumbled upon a formula that worked. From that point on, whilst results have continued to be hit and miss, their metrics have been much improved in both attack and defence. But they still need to maintain that into the new season, a campaign where they won’t be beholden to midweek trips to the continent. How will the increase in training and preparation time manifest itself? Let’s take a look at what Arteta should be looking at if he wants to take the Gunners back into Europe.

How do Arsenal improve?

In last season's StatsBomb preview, Ted highlighted three key areas that Arsenal needed to improve:  player recruitment, defensive style, and set pieces. The bad news? Player recruitment was a mixed bag. The good news? The latter two did show signs of improvement.

Arsenal’s overall expected goal (xG) difference improved from -0.09 per game in 2019/20 to +0.18 per game in 2020/21. The graphic below highlights the general trend of improving performances:

They shaved off 0.22 expected goals per game in defence, tightening up but still at the cost of some attacking output. Their open play xG per 90 was just 0.98 last season, compared with 1.42 per 90 in Arsene Wenger’s last season back in 2017/18. There’s still a long way to go to get back to that level.

Since replacing Unai Emery, Arteta's approach has been one of slowing the pace down and manipulating possession of the ball as much as possible. That was evident in Arsenal's passing trends last season: lots of deep passes in build-up play and very few cohesive or common patterns in the final third. While metrics highlighted some territorial domination (Arsenal entered the final third 49.2 times per game compared with their opponents' 42.4 entries), they struggled to translate that style into goals or a general threat. This must change if Arsenal are to break into Europe again.

Without the ball, Arsenal opted for a deeper, more conservative defensive line and press -- something they may look to move away from in 2021/22. They were among the least frequent pressers in the Premier League last season (18th for total pressures, 19th for pressure regains) but it's possible Arteta employed this style as a short-term measure until the players were able to adjust to his longer term ideals. Arteta took a pragmatic approach, being more proactive when the team were favourites and more reactive when they were playing perceptibly stronger opponents.

As mentioned, Arsenal did show some much-needed improvement in set-pieces. They dropped their set-piece xG conceded from 0.34 per game to 0.21 per game, which translated to conceding six fewer goals from set-pieces than they had done in 2019/20, a not-insignificant sum. They struggled in attack though, with just six goals scored from a paltry 0.18 set-piece xG per game, ranking 17th in the league in that metric. Things might move even further in the right direction this season as the club have signed set-piece coach and analyst Nicolas Jover from Manchester City in what should be a smart pickup given the impact he had on City’s set-pieces.

And now to review last season’s transfer business.

The two most notable signings were Thomas Partey and Gabriel. Partey emerged as a net-positive, but his lack of availability was a real cause for concern, whereas Gabriel started the season on fire before his performances dropped off as the matches piled up (not unsurprising for a younger player). He ended the season fluctuating between the bench and the starting XI.

The less said about Willian the better, but Martin Ødegaard’s January arrival did appear to be a smart pickup. He contributed just under 2000 minutes to a thin Arsenal squad, but overall his effect on the pitch was hit and miss.

The Current Crop

One of the biggest reasons for the uptick in Arsenal's performances was due to Arteta seemingly simplifying player roles within his game model, regardless of whether it was in his favoured 4-3-3 or the alternative 4-2-3-1 (his change to back three systems at the end of the season was mostly enforced). The complex system of positional shifts in and out of possession was gone, and players such as Emile Smith-Rowe, who could occupy space ahead of the ball and offer intelligent movement, were given chances. Boy genius Bukayo Saka was the biggest revelation of Arsenal’s season: his ability to simply find and manipulate space to his advantage was a big reason he became so important for the Gunners in 2020/21 and why he’ll be equally as important this coming season. Combine that with a versatility to play across the attacking band, in central midfield, or at full back/wing back and it's clear that Hale End has provided us with a good one.

Besides Saka, we can look at StatsBomb’s new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV) to identify other players who could be regarded as important contributors to this Arsenal side. The results very much match the general fan perception of who the key men are, but one player who's perhaps a surprise inclusion towards the top of the list is Hector Bellerin, a player once adored by the fanbase but nowadays viewed as a weak spot in the starting XI. Without getting too deep into the woods, it’s likely he ranks favourably in OBV due to his dovetailing with the likes of Saka and Nicolas Pépé on the right flank, and while his final ball can be very hit-or-miss, his role in attacking moves which free up the wingers to create chances is still important.

Player (Minimum 1,500 Minutes Played) On-Ball Value Per 90 
Alexandre Lacazette 0.31
Kieran Tierney 0.30
Nicolas Pépé 0.26
Granit Xhaka 0.22
Hector Bellerin 0.22


The biggest arrival so far is that of Ben White from Brighton. His transfer could be key to replacing David Luiz’s significant contribution in build up, something that is required in Arteta's dogmatic approach to playing out from the back. White looks a very promising and accomplished player as a ball progressor, capable of punching the ball between the lines and providing a general comfort in possession.

Nuno Tavares, a young left back from Benfica, as been brought in to provide competition to Kieran Tierney. Left back was a bit of a problem area for the Gunners last season -- not due to Tierney’s ability (as shown above in his OBV contribution), but his inability to keep fit. Arteta tried many atypical solutions to this problem, playing Cedric Soares and even Granit Xhaka on the left flank in Tierney’s absence. In a small sample from his time in Liga NOS, Tavares looks to be an energetic and aggressive front-foot defender.

The only other signing thus far has been depth option Albert Sambi Lokonga from Anderlecht -- a young central midfielder who is versatile enough to fill a variety of positions/roles in the centre of the park. Using our "Similar Players" feature in StatsBomb IQ, Lokonga’s profile matches those of other well-known midfielders such as Joan Jordán of Sevilla, new Leicester City signing Boubakary Soumaré, and… former Arsenal player Matteo Guendouzi.

In preseason, Lokonga has looked a shrewd addition: always looking to play forward, good in tight areas and capable of dropping in and filling holes as teammates move forward. While he likely won’t be a first-choice option, and expectations must be tempered, I think he could surprise a few.

What’s The Expectation This Season?

As was the case with Emery before him, Arteta has had to juggle a number of difficult issues in order to put Arsenal back on track to where the fans expect them to be: in Europe. With this in mind, even the most die-hard of Arsenal fans would be optimistic to think that a return to the Premier League top four is a realistic possibility this season: their competitors are starting from a stronger base and simply have the upper hand right now.

That being said, with clear progression in the underlying numbers as last season went on, one would expect results to be better this time around and for Arsenal to close the gap on those above them. The decreased demands of their schedule give Arteta an opportunity to really lay some groundwork towards his optimal style of play and this could prove to be a benefit in the long term. Metrics have been good for a while, now it’s time for Arteta to translate that into results.

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The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here

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By post-Ferguson standards, Premier League runners-up and Europa League finalists amounted to a good season for Manchester United in 2020/21.

Ultimately there were no trophies, but 'progress' has been the watchword for a few years now, and there have been signs of it both on and off the pitch. United’s trendline since the start of the 2018/19 season makes for pretty good viewing – attacking and defensive numbers have both been moving in the right direction for the most part.

However, a fairly distant second to a brilliant Manchester City is perhaps less impressive given the problems faced by United’s top four bedmates – a Liverpool without their three top choices at centre back, and a Chelsea that only really hit their stride after Tuchel arrived and turned them into champions of Europe. We are starting next season with the top end of the league in a very different spot; that makes United’s prospects less enticing.

Even with the problems endured by Chelsea and Liverpool, United were some way off the other Champions League qualifiers in terms of expected goal (xG) difference per game. Our numbers have them at +0.33 xGD per game to City’s +1.12, Liverpool’s +0.76, and Chelsea’s +0.70. Enough for fourth-best in the league, but still some way off the other three and you also have to factor in that United spent a good portion of the season chasing down 1-0 deficits, which could have inflated their underlying numbers slightly. All other things being equal, the gap between United and their top-four rivals could increase even more with their rivals starting in better spots than they were for much of last season.

There is, however, the small issue of the transfer window. Much will depend on whether or not the new signings can solve some of the issues that have plagued United for some time now. The over-reliance on the left side in build-up seems to be one of the issues United are trying to solve in this window with the signing of Jadon Sancho and fairly loud noises about Kieran Trippier. Likewise, the issue of depth at centre-back, with Eric Bailly’s injury proneness and Axel Tuanzebe’s youth, has been addressed in the way that issues of depth should be – by strengthening the first team. The addition of Eric Ramsay as a first-team coach who’ll be in charge of set-plays will also serve as music to the ears of this article's readership.

The Goalkeeper Dilemma(?)

One question United don’t appear to be trying to answer in the transfer window (despite Tom Heaton having a pretty stellar pre-season thus far) is: who is the first-choice keeper?

United spent most of last season with two keepers in direct competition for the first-choice berth. As always, competition for places should really fall into the ‘nice problem to have’ category. It's not something we often see when it comes to goalkeepers. From the outside, it seems that the most important factors in the decision are not things that can be measured directly: how comfortable the defenders are with the keeper, player morale, maintaining David de Gea's value for a future sale, the extent to which having to oust de Gea motivates Dean Henderson -- all of these human and managerial factors that football managers have to contend with and we don't have to worry about. There is not much in it from a playing point of view, so it’s all about the best way to manage the handover as far as I'm concerned.

Henderson was more aggressive in coming to get the ball, claiming the ball roughly 4% more than expected based on the crosses he faced. That is the only stark difference between Henderson and de Gea on these metrics -- they both had excellent positioning (measured by their average distance from a typical keeper location), distributed the ball similarly in terms of pass length and in finding free men, and were more-or-less average in terms of shot-stopping relative to post-shot xG. The minor differences here are pretty paltry relative to season-to-season variability.

Having the opportunity to bed Henderson in while also giving de Gea firm competition over the course of a season is a big luxury. The succession plan looked like it might be reaching completion towards the end of last season, so it will be interesting to see who is breathing down whose neck come the season's start.


United have clearly identified set-pieces as an area that can be improved. Eric Ramsay joins from Chelsea U23s as a young coach with a very good reputation and has reportedly been tasked with overhauling United’s set-pieces.

Their performance last season wasn’t terrible, but it was close to average, and set-pieces are an element of the game where focused work can pay real dividends in terms of goals and league standing.

What sort of impact could Ramsay have? A realistic objective is to get close to the top teams' set-piece efficiency of last season.

Let’s say United improve their xG/Set Piece from 0.0062 to 0.0082, and xG/Set Piece Conceded from 0.0064 to 0.0044, putting them about halfway between Everton and Man City on the scatter plot below. That’s an improvement of 0.2% of a goal for each set-piece conceded and taken. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering that teams take about 35 set-pieces in every game and concede about the same, improvements at both ends of the pitch would add up over a season.

That means United could (optimistically, but not fancifully) improve their xG difference per game by about 0.14 through set-pieces alone, a number that would make up about 38% of the gap between them and Chelsea. That kind of impact is really hard to achieve through player signings unless you’re spending big bucks on an upgrade to a current starter. This back-of-the-envelope calculation points towards a shrewd bit of business, as long as Ramsay can get United to somewhere near league-best.

Jadon Sancho

In signing Sancho, United have obtained one of the most exciting young prospects in world football, and in a position where they've been lacking for many years. According to StatsBomb's player similarity tool, the most similar players to Sancho in the top 5 leagues last season were Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic, Leroy Sané, Samuel Chukwueze, and United's own Marcus Rashford, who spent a good deal of time on the right last season. These are all quick, technically gifted wide players with an eye for goal.

Where Sancho stands out from these players (barring Dembélé) is in his creative output. 0.22 xG assisted from open play last season puts Sancho 19th of wingers in Europe's top 5 leagues. Having Erling Haaland to play those passes to is not a luxury Sancho will be afforded at United (unless...?) and, in their current incarnation, United are a bit less dominant in a typical league game than Dortmund. I'd expect his creative output to drop slightly, but he undoubtedly adds tremendous quality to an already exciting United attack.

There is always a question about whether a player will gel with a new team, but some of the personal issues players can face when moving to the Premier League are not really there for Sancho. He speaks the language, grew up with the league, knows lots of United players already, and knows Manchester. There won’t be much time to settle, coming straight off the back of the Euros, but I don’t see that being a problem despite the inevitable overreactions (including from me!) in the early stages of the season, good or bad. Right now, this looks a fantastic piece of business.

The left-hand side

Pre-Sancho, United's attack skewed towards the left-hand side. Here are their most over-represented pass clusters last season compared to the rest of the league:

Notice how similar the top-four teams look in terms of their most over-represented clusters. They all favour one side, and they all favour short-ish passes in the opposition half. There is not much getting away from this as a dominant side in the Premier League, and United clearly favoured the left flank.

This tendency is also borne out in United’s possession value. StatsBomb’s new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), estimates the extent to which an action improves a team's expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Looking at the figure below, it's clear that United were strongest down the left (relative to the other teams in the league). That over-represented zone was bearing fruit.

The corresponding area on the right looks pretty barren by comparison, with United only producing at around league average from there. Sancho should help to turn some of those zones red, but that will, in turn, have an impact on usage – Bruno Fernandes will carry less of the creative burden, and the left side probably won’t be favoured quite so heavily. It’ll be interesting to see how this map has changed by the end of the new season.

The midfield

Another area of the pitch in which many fans and pundits believe United needs reinforcements is central midfield. The general rationale for this is that United’s attacking talent might be better suited to a system where both Paul Pogba and Fernandes play centrally in front of a single, more defensively minded midfielder. The typical concerns are that neither Scott McTominay nor Fred can cover for them on their own, Nemanja Matić is unable to play enough minutes, and Pogba’s defensive tendencies aren’t well-suited to playing in the midfield two in the current set-up.

Finding this miracle player to unlock the ‘Silva & de Bruyne’ style of play that I think people are envisaging is not an easy task, so I expect we’ll see something somewhat similar to last season in terms of the composition of the midfield. Matic can still offer a lot in short spells, but it’ll be Fred, McTominay and Pogba who mostly share the two midfield berths.

But what is the state of the ‘McFred double pivot’? Using Statsbomb 360 data, we can look at how often players break lines with their passing. We define a line-breaking pass as any pass that:

  • successfully progresses the ball at least 10% closer to goal…
  • …and either splits two opposition defenders or ends in the space behind them, provided that the defenders are less than 5m apart vertically.

We filter to passes that are completed and that break a line in the opposition half, then normalise per 90: the results make Matic’s lack of mobility and inability to accrue significant minutes all the more annoying. He ranked fourth in this metric among PL midfielders with >900 minutes last season, bettered only by Thiago, Mateo Kovačić, and Fernandinho. Fred was 13th of 73, McTominay 26th.

These numbers are fine but probably not quite at the level United need. That said, Paul Pogba’s presumably increased minutes this season should help substantially with progression from midfield (provided he sticks around, of course).

We can look at a simple model of pass availability to explore this a bit more. We start by drawing defensive cover shadows that look like this:

Attacking players who are not in a cover shadow are classed as ‘available’. If they are located 10% closer to the opposition goal than the ball, they are classed as a ‘progressive option’. Then we can look at the percentage of the time a player takes a progressive option when it’s available to get some idea of passing aggression.

This approach comes with many caveats, and a better way to do this would be with a 360-based possession value model combined with a 360-based expected pass model. However, we aren’t quite there yet, so for now, we’ll proxy expected passes with ‘availability’ and possession value with ‘progression’. Also, we’re only looking at the frame in which the pass was played, so it could be that players are turning down progressive passes before allowing the opposition to block lanes, which makes it look like the option was not there by the time the ball is released.

All that said, we can see that some of the criticism levelled at McTominay’s progressive passing is perhaps unwarranted – movement ahead of him gives him a decent number of options to play progressive passes, and the data suggests he attempts to do so at a reasonable frequency. He is in the company of the more aggressive progressive passers in the league from deeper in midfield when it comes to attempting progressive passes. However, his technical ability and accuracy let him down, and he’s not massively proficient at completing line-breaking passes or progressing the ball overall.

Parting thoughts

United have been making steady progress in their underlying numbers for a few years and have strengthened substantially in attack and defence in this window. The bookies envisage the return of an established top four, with United the least-favoured of those sides, an assessment that seems about right. The new signings and appointments should make up some of the fairly substantial gap between United and their top four rivals from last season, but probably not to the extent that we’ll see them in title contention come the end of the campaign.

Lastly, I can’t finish this article without mentioning the cultural impact that Marcus Rashford is having and at 23 years of age. Whatever happens this season, he is a beacon of light.

Want to read about another team? The rest of our Premier League season previews can be found here

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