Bayern Relaxes, Dortmund Look Backward And Other Week One Impressions

It’s one game. Never get too bold about season long team qualities on one game. But it’s the first game. The first actual games we’ve seen in months means there’s a lot to learn. We can at least start to sniff some stylistic choices from a few teams, see some potential problems for others, and can confirm that Andre Schürrle might lead Europe in both shots and key passes. Again this is week one so we are going with light impressions, no firm conclusions, but here are some things that caught my eye.  

Dortmund’s Backward Looking Midfield and A New Distributor? For Dortmund there was a lot of passing among the CB’s. The 2 most popular passing combos in the whole league were Sokratis and Bartra to each other. The starting midfield was completely ineffective at moving forward: both Rode and Castro’s average pass travelled about 2.5 yards on average away from goal, a number that is terrifying and well worse than any player across the league put up season-long last year.

 

Snip20160828_106

Snip20160828_105

 

Things got better when Weigl came on but this is certainly a worry, especially when you know that advancing the ball was not something Rode did at Bayern. Schürrle and Dembélé stayed on their flanks while Kagawa was significantly advanced compared to last year (~9 yards closer to goal) so there’s probably some blame to be given to the front 4 for not being fantastic options at all times but no matter how you apportion the blame, there are seeds of a problem here.

Ousmane Dembélé showed all kinds of 1-on-1 skills (and a willingness to seek out opportunities to use them) and an aggressive tendency to hoist the ball toward goal, somewhat reminiscent of Filip Kostic or Douglas Costa type player. Andre Schürrle surprisingly played the role of the eyes down distributor, with 6! key passes and a conservative passing style to go with his 7 shots. He had just 26 KP’s in his entire time at Wolfsburg, averaging under 1 per game. 3 of his key passes went to Aubameyang, the highest # of key passes for any connection in the league. I thought we’d take a look at them to see if we can learn anything further in a new segment where we try to blend a bit of stats and video.

 

As you’d expect, hard to learn too much from just 4 passes but I will say it’s maybe too soon to crown him Mkhitaryan. An excellent header mixed with 2 quality crosses toward a crowded box make for a great day but we’ll need more to believe his transition from shot-happy striker to creator is full.

Bayern’s More Relaxed Way To Thrash Bremen

Bayern steamrolled Bremen 6-0 and things were just carrying on exactly as before without Pep, right? Well, not really. The fact that Bremen managed a 76% completion rate (72% in first half) indicates a major shift in how Bayern will play. Bremen had a higher completion rate than 10 other teams on the opening weekend and had a huge increase from last years 63% (52% in first half) at the Allianz. Bayern allowed Dortmund to complete 87% of their passes in the Super Cup this year after 69% in the Cup final last year. Carlo seems to be drastically shifting the team away from Pep’s pressure to a team that could conceivably be below average in the Bundesliga at contesting passes. Doesn’t mean they will be knocked off the top or anything but is fascinating to see such a stark change.

For Bremen, yes they were without Pizarro, Junuzovic, Kruse, and Bargfrede, but it was a pathetic effort and I mean effort as in trying hard. Clemens Fritz basically admitted the team was terrified. Playing Sambou Yatabaré as an advanced right-sided midfielder might be the worst personnel move consistently made by any manager in the league. He offers nothing defensively, is a horrific passer and his output is very low (1 shot and 1 KP per 90 at Bremen and .08 G and .12 A/90 over 7000 minutes in his career). The “pressure” on the Ribéry for the 2nd goal sums up a lot of what went wrong not just with Yatabare, but the entire team.

 

Most Entertaining Game

Great signs from the fans, open space, and a furious tempo made Hoffenheim-RB Leipzig the most entertaining game of the week, just over Gladbach-Leverkusen.

RB Leipzig attacked at an absolutely lightning pace. They took 23 shots while completing 235 passes, a ratio of 10 per shot that would have comfortably led Europe last season. Leipzig had 38% of their completions in the attacking third (nearly twice the league average of 20%) and ~9% in the final 25 yards (comfortably over twice the average). Dominik Kaiser, a midfielder, scored a great goal and took 6 shots.

This is horrible news for Hoffenheim, who last year were horrendous at slowing down opponents and constantly got overrun. The heralded youngster Julian Nagelsmann improved the team overall but they still gave up 7 SOT per game during his time. This year started out with all of the offseason’s worries immediately turned up to the max and they look to be a team that will have some huge goals against numbers barring a quick correction.

The Loss Of Something Unique?

Darmstadt were disappointingly reasonable with their ball as they got routed by Köln. Last year they lapped the league twice with 68% of their midfield passes being played forward. This year just 53% did, behind a handful of teams. Their old manager Dirk Schuster didn’t take his forward bombing style to Augsburg either, at least not on opening day. Against Wolfsburg, Augsburg were the same patient, probing team as they always were under Marcus Weinzierl. They played 53 passes into the danger zone, only Bayern and Dortmund played more, while Wolfsburg played just 23 only Gladbach and Bremen played fewer. But…Augsburg completed just 11 of those 53 while Wolfsburg were 13/23 the respective worst and best rates in the league. Wolfsburg’s attacking efficiency was atrocious last year so any signs no matter how small have to cheer even Dieter Hecking.

Ok, maybe not.

Hamburg didn’t start Alen Halilovic, though viewers were treated to a long tracking shot of him on the bench before kickoff and then a 7-minute look at his halftime warmup. They might want to because their attack needs a right side (though I’d love to see him in the center). Nicolai Müller started on the right and completed a whopping 7! passes in 66 minutes as Hamburg completed 60 passes on the left (Kostic’s side) and 18 on the right. The attack struggled badly with American Bobby Wood getting their only shot on target and goal on a pass that came from the goalkeeper.

Snip20160828_107

Gladbach Making It Count

Only Werder Bremen completed fewer passes in the danger zone than Gladbach’s 5 but no one who watched the game would conclude they were lucky to score 2 goals. They took 12 of their 14 shots in the box because the space they found behind Leverkusen’s press was gaping time after time. Strobl has started all 3 games over Dahoud and that means that where most teams have 2 players who start their passes 65+ yards from goal, Gladbach have 5 with Kramer/Strobl hanging very deep in front of a 3-man backline. It worked very well against Leverkusen, but it will be interesting to see how it looks against Freiburg who will have plenty of defenders back. The Stindl-Raffael axis is fantastic, no one loves Raffael more than me, but if you have Andre Hahn starting doing his only goals thing with 5 hanging deep there will be games that it’s really tough to supply those two in good position.

It was heartbreaking to see Aránguiz limp off as I thought he had torn his knee up again. It’s hard to come back from a devastating injury like he had last year, it takes a ton of work to do and mentally facing a serious re-injury so quickly after that can make your whole life look grey. Glad to hear reports it’s not so bad. His performance on the pitch didn’t scream out impact player however. He didn’t get the ball to Calhanoglu, Bellarabi, or Volland (5 completions combined with only 3 in any sort of advanced territory) and his overall passing map looked a bit Rode-ish in how he passed backwards a lot.

Snip20160829_114

That’s very un-Leverkusen. A big reason I thought they had a real chance to push Dortmund or Bayern for at least a while was a very dynamic midfield with Kampl and Aránguiz involved. Kampl was electric, completing 20 passes to forward players in very good position, but Aránguiz has not shown that dynamism yet. But then again, it’s 78 measly minutes and a handful of preseason games, plenty of time to get things fixed starting with his knee.

Can Schalke Take Another Step Forward?

The team with the best shorts in the league took a step forward last season after a disastrous 2014-15 campaign where they were outshot by 119. Climbing back to basically par shots and territory wise last year was a stabilizing step good enough for Europa in a league where so much of the positive side of the ledger goes to the top 2. Now they’ve traded one young big-money prospect in Leroy Sané for another in Breel Embolo and have brought in a new coach to try and push their young team to make the next step.

In: Breel Embolo 22.5m (Basel), Coke 4m (Sevilla), Abdul Rahman Baba 1 year loan (Chelsea), Naldo Free (Wolfsburg)

Out: Leroy Sané, Joel Matip, Roman Neustädter, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg

Shot Map

Snip20160729_62

Key Passing Combos

Sané-Meyer

Meyer-Sané

Kolasinac-Choupo-Moting

Long Distance

Johannes Geis might have been a truck driver in another life. Distance is no problem for him and heck a long-haul gives you more time to enjoy the view right? That’s how he plays all over the pitch. No one took shots from further out than Geis, who had over half of his shots come from set-pieces:

Snip20160724_10

No non-CB or GK played further passes than Geis

Snip20160814_27

and for good measure he adds being the league leader in share of passes played to the wings, alongside several other Schalke players:

Snip20160809_49

I admit I was fooled a bit last year when I talked about the Geis transfer in glowing terms for Schalke. He’s a guy that at first glance has solid raw attacking numbers as a high-volume passer but the deeper you look the more holes you can find. His shots are basically completely useless and the length with which he sweeps balls to the sidelines is not the ideal way to build an attack.

His defense was apparently not elite either. Maybe the most worrying metric is the Schalke team defense map in the center of their half. The green represents the pass rating (basically a rough tool to adjust completion % to account for where a pass starts and ends) and the Excel heat maps are always greener in the Schalke midfield.

Snip20160814_26

I can’t put that all on Geis, but clearly he’s not a defensive difference-maker on his own. Geis still is a useful player but would really benefit from a coach showing him these charts and trying to cut back on at least the long sweeping balls to the flanks. Don’t have to cut cold turkey, but you don’t want to head into your mid-20s as that guy, he’s 22 now and it’s time to start building better habits.

Max Meyer is another guy where the raw numbers might paint a bit too rosy of a picture. He had a fantastic passing percentage at 85.2% but was much further from goal to start with on average than most attackers and was one of only 9 players whose average pass was played backwards. His key passes also ended with their recipients further from goal than anyone else’s.

Snip20160724_18

We saw Meyer on the chart above as a guy who loves to spray it to the edges and we also see Leon Goretzka on that list. The entire passing system of those three put together doesn’t progress toward goal in many significant directions especially when you consider Sané is gone.

Snip20160815_28

This helps explain why Schalke don’t have any reliable attacking combos they could go to around opponents goal to create a shot. In the Gladbach preview we talked about the Stindl-Raffael combo being a reliable, high volume combo in the attacking third that helped the Foals set up shop. Schalke have no such connection, their most common attacking combo is only the leagues 37th most common (Kolasinac-Choupo-Moting). Part of this is explained by fullbacks splitting time. The only other combo in the top 100 was Sané-Meyer and the reverse. With Sané gone Schalke have a pretty big task ahead trying to build an attacking framework. Goretzka improved last year but will need to get the ball further forward this season if Choupo-Moting, Huntelaar and Embolo are going to be able to reliably get the ball in good attacking positions.

A strange thing is how rarely Goretzka and Geis played the ball to each other, each way only about 4 times per game. Both just quickly look wide instead of progressing the ball between themselves.

One Big Strength: The largest video-cube in Europe.

 

33956_160814_hisense_658x370

Great sign for the sport teams across Europe begin to catch up to lower-tier SEC football teams in size of video boards. My tip: stop paying transfer fees and player salaries and you can afford bigger video boards and join the big boys.

A real strength is they were pretty devastating when actually reaching the opponents danger zone. The 3rd-shortest danger pass distance went hand-in-hand with the league’s 3rd best danger zone completion%.

 

One Weinzierl Tic to Watch

Markus Weinzierl is Schalke’s new manager, hired from Augsburg this summer. He has long been praised by close Bundesliga watchers. Nothing in the stats ever stood out to me, but I concede it’s possible he was helping Augsburg (from the “nether regions of the Bundesliga” according to the announcer in Liverpool game) play above a really low talent level. It’s also probably more possible that even if he’s just an average manager he could be an improvement over Schalke’s last few years. The one distinctive tic Augsburg showed last year was how often his fullbacks stayed wide in their lane:

Snip20160724_12

That’s something to watch this season. Coke and Abdul Rahman Baba were presumably the two starters this season but with Coke’s injury, the right side will need to be patched up for a while. Better right than left as Sascha Riether was Schalke’s best fullback last year, even at his ripe old age of 33. Junior Caicara started in the Cup, but I still think he’s well behind Trusty Old Sascha.

Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting, Man With a Plan

He’s one of the more prepared players in the league and the way he prepares can be a template for analysts thinking about what information to provide players. He studies a ton of tape on opposition fullbacks to determine which foot they go into tackles with, whether they lay off or approach high up the pitch, how far they will go outside their zones, and if they like to leave the ground to try and win balls or not. For an analyst working with Schalke, he seems like a dream player to work with as you should be able to give him tons of reports/clips that you already know he appreciates. Schalke really need to work out their midfield just to reward Choupo-Moting with more dangerous touches, last year the left side was even tougher to work from than Sané as Choupo-Moting had a couple extra yards to work through when he received the ball. He’s a guy to root for for all of us who spend way too much time analyzing this game.

Good Season: Shots, territory, shots on target are no longer flirting with par all season and push well above 0. Stay closer to 3rd than 5th/6th.

Bad Season: Play still stifled far out on the wings too often, they don’t develop attacking combos and the lack of speed from Meyer and Geis keep them from going the full-Leicester and becoming a great counter team. Another muddled, mediocre 6th-7th place finish.

Atlético Madrid Without the Ball

The famous analyst Leo Tolstoy once eloquently stated “Every great attacking team is pretty much the same; every team that isn’t great at attacking is not-great in their own, unique way.” Powerful and flowing words. Why is this? Mainly because our statistical understanding of soccer is mainly shaped by the team with the ball.

We can measure most of what teams do with the ball and while 10 years from now we will look back on the rudimentary stats and conclusions we are reaching with amusement, we are least on a track that will lead us to a robust understanding of the game. When teams don’t have the ball we are still generally foraging in the dark. It’s not easy to get stats that correlate at even a .4 level while attacking stats correlate at .7 or more routinely. This makes not-great attacking teams often fuzzily look somewhat similar.

The one stat we know generally correlates well with preventing goals is possession. If you have the ball a lot, you can’t allow goals, think Manchester United here. This makes Atlético Madrid an even more fascinating case. Atlético are a, as Tolstoy would say, a “not-great” attacking team. They’ve scored fewer goals than Southampton, Eibar, Athletic, and Sampdoria. They don’t defend with possession at all: Las Palmas, Genoa, and Aston Villa are some of the teams who have had the ball more than Atleti’s 50/50 share.

Despite this, they are commonly floated as a UCL dark horse and led La Liga for a while purely on the back of their defense. They’ve allowed fewer goals than any team in Europe until this weekend, and even then hassled Barca at the Camp Nou with just 9 men. Arguably no team has a more unique defensive profile either, when I did a cluster analysis of every team’s defense in Europe last season the team hardest to find a group for was Atlético Madrid. We will take a look at the data here and see if we can find out more about how they play so well and so uniquely without the ball.

What do they do?
We will start with what they don’t do. We already noted they don’t keep you from scoring by holding the ball. When adjusting for amount of time the opposition has the ball: Atlético allowed fewer shots than anyone else in Europe last season. They allowed just over 10 shots per 400 completions (average was 15.4, with a SD of ~2). This year once again no team in Spain allows fewer shots per opposition pass than Atlético:

Snip20160126_16

They also don’t press high. Leverkusen, maybe the team most similar the Atlético in a philosophical sense, rely on heavy and high pressure to stop opponents. Atlético are basically league average in Spain when it comes to the high press.

What they do is to make it progressively harder for teams to move upfield. Of course every team does this, but Atlético stand out relative to any other team you can choose. We can see when opponents enter areas 70 yards from the Atlético goal, they are basically league average at stopping the pass. We see the z score increasing as teams get closer to goal, until they are basically 1.5 standard deviations tougher than average to complete a pass against when teams are getting into shooting areas.

Snip20160130_23

There is serious space between Atlético and 3 other top teams until about 30 yards from goal where Celta joins, then Barca and Celta eventually are harder to pass against from around 40 yards and out. Those are two of the highest pressing teams in Europe, so this should make intuitive sense. You can’t cover everywhere and Atlético are making the conscious decision to cover the most dangerous areas first.

Snip20160130_24

We can see that right around goal, no one in the league is tougher to complete against, in total. Above it says 2nd, those are entry passes only.

Snip20160126_17

Now plenty of teams decide to guard this most precious area of the pitch, but what often happens is the opposition simply has the ball too much in the area for the increased difficulty to make a big difference. If you are tougher to complete passes against, it doesn’t mean much if you are allowing other teams more opportunities. This is where Atleti differentiate themselves from other teams like Villarreal, Eibar, and Getafe who defend their area well is they don’t actually have to defend in front of goal that much. Last year Atleti opponents played a lower proportion of their passes in dangerous areas than any other team. This year the same thing is happening.

Snip20160131_28

Snip20160131_29

They don’t just sit back and guard the most dangerous areas, like Gladbach did under Favre. More than any other team in Europe Atleti make you work to even reach the area where you can start thinking about shooting. Once you get there your journey has just begun. Completing a pass is near impossible (toughest last two seasons), getting a quality shot is rough (2nd longest average shot allowed this year), and even trying to carry the ball is a slog. The average La Liga carry in the 25-yard danger radius is broken up after 10 yards.

This year Atleti break carries up after 6.2 yards. Last year, it was after 6.4 yards. These aren’t high-n samples but no La Liga team since 2012 has broken up carries quicker than either of their last two seasons. If you want to create a shot, you are unlikely to use a short, quick pass to get a quality chance. This is a map of all sub-20 yard passes that lead to chances created:

combine_images

Unsurprisingly, they allow the fewest amount of these short assisted passes as well. When you’ve finally worked so hard to claw your way into the danger zone and actually carry or complete your way into a (likely poor) position to get a shot off, no team blocks more shots than Atleti do (29%). They just never relent. To recap:

  1. Toughest to progress the ball into the danger zone against
  2. Toughest to actually complete a pass in the danger zone
  3. Toughest to carry the ball into the danger zone
  4. Toughest to play a short pass to set up a chance against
  5. 2nd (booo!) toughest to get a close shot against
  6. Toughest to get a shot clean through on goal against

So we know the what. Now can we figure out the how?

Hardworking midfielders

To pull this off you need a team that doesn’t stop working. Atlético’s midfield never stops working defensively. Tiago, Saul, Gabi, and Koke are the 4 players who have >700 minutes mainly in the midfield. Saul, Gabi and Koke all are in the top 10 in La Liga in tackles/90 by midfielders. Tiago, Saul and Gabi are in the top 11 in INTs/90. Tiago, Saul, and Gabi are in the top 5 in shots blocked by midfielders. None of these counting stats equals “Good Defense” but to see 3 different players at the top of all 3 defensive stats shows the effort put forth to stop the ball.

It’s not just midfielders: the team as a whole tackles more than any other team tracked on WhoScored (12 leagues). What can we learn from this? If you want to stop teams, you need probably 2 or 3 midfielders who can combine to form a wall and ideally they all go by one name. Building a midfield only isn’t enough, but it figures to be one of the key factors needed.

Is it reproducible?
I think it’s harder to reproduce than almost any other style. After getting past the point that defense is always harder to produce than offense, you can’t have any weak links. Atlético don’t and they deserve credit for that.

But who gets the credit here? It’s an important and difficult to answer question. Obviously we have to first give credit to the actual players working so hard and making the plays. Simeone and the backroom staff should get credit for molding these individual qualities into a wall. This doesn’t happen immediately.  The aforementioned players have been at Atlético for a long time now (Saul is the only one without >1000 minutes for 4 straight seasons) and this long working relationship has probably paid off in ways hard to replicate if you want to buy 3 players and plug them in today.

When you have 3 or 4 years with the same coach and same players with the right mix of personalities, it’s believable that you can accrue benefits from knowing where your partner will be, what they are thinking, and what they will do next. It makes sense to me that these “experience points” would be worth more on the defensive side of the ball, where teamwork among players is generally more important and tactical movements harder to drill. When you have the ball, it’s not that hard to know where to go as you can design movements when the ball is at a certain part of the pitch. When defending, it’s harder to be certain of what will be going on on the ball so the tactical possibilities multiply. Defenders with an understanding of each other could be helpful here.

Is it repeatable?
Yes. Last season Atlético was by far the toughest in Spain to complete a dangerous pass on and allowed by far the lowest proportion of total passes to come in the 25 yard radius in front of their goal. This season those are the two key metrics fueling their defense. Juventus has in the past shown an ability to repeat defensive metrics to a similar extent. This is more rare than elite attacks but happens enough to suspect they aren’t candidates for strong regression.

There is a downside to being so defensively-reliant. No matter how good your defense is, the general trend is a high-powered offense can set the game tempo against a defense. The variation for a top defense is much higher than a top offense and depends a lot on the quality of the opposition. When Atleti goes up against truly elite attacks, the edge still probably shifts slightly to the attacking team being able to create a few chances. They’ve just pushed the bar extremely high for the quality the opposition needs to be at to impose their will on the game. However, that will happen in the Champions League more often than it does in La Liga and makes them a candidate to be upset along the way by a team who probably isn’t as good.

Conclusion
We see teams who attack at an elite level all the time, across many different leagues. Atlético’s outlying numbers without the ball make them a special case. No other team can top their league in so many different categories and top Europe in many as well. It’s not as simple as packing everyone in your box and hoping your guys are stronger, to breakup play at a steadily increasing level without leaving gaps at the back requires commitment and quality from a large group of players and no weak links. It’s hard to imagine this lasting for too much longer or being commonly produced elsewhere, so for now we should enjoy one of the best teams without the ball we will ever see.

As always, data courtesy of OPTA.

Top 10 Postscripts Top 10 Lowest Proportion of Passes Allowed in DZ, 2014-15

  1. Atlético
  2. Nantes
  3. Napoli
  4. St Etienne
  5. Juventus
  6. Monaco
  7. Rennes
  8. Villarreal
  9. Lille
  10. Real Madrid

Top 10 Lowest Completion % Allowed, Intrabox Passes, 2014-15

  1. Gladbach, 26.4%
  2. Leverkusen, 27.9%
  3. Barcelona, 28.8%
  4. Atlético, 29.2%
  5. Villarreal, 31.1%
  6. Inter, 31.6%
  7. Bayern, 31.7%
  8. Torino, 31.7%
  9. Elche, 32%
  10. Lille, 32.5%

 

Chewing on the Champions League

The Champions League is the pinnacle of global soccer. It’s the only time we are sure to see teams from disparate leagues matching up at full strength with the same incentives. It’s also the only time we get to see teams from leagues off beaten path match up against the big boys and get their day in the wider public eye. So it’s kind of strange how it can sometimes be treated a bit like an afterthought in English writing and specifically among stats writers. I get why: it’s much harder to draw conclusions over a smaller sample and the wild differences in opponents make it hard to compare teams that the satisfyingly balanced league schedules absolve make easier.

With those limitations in mind, I still think there are lots of insights to be grabbed from looking deep into the Champions League stats. Right now is the perfect time, with 3 rounds down and the next kicking off today. We will look at the surprising blowouts in Group D, which of the little guys can hang, the battle for coefficient (not that one), Leverkusen’s softening press (?), and the fascinating subject of changing pass lengths and how that reflects on domestic leagues.

The Madness of Group D

After the draw, this was clearly the group to watch. 4 teams from Europe’s top 4 leagues in one group is reasonably rare. Last years Europa League winner in Sevilla, UCL runner up in Juventus and European-narrative-around-the-neck-having Man City joined a team I was fascinated to see make the jump to the big stage in Gladbach. I wondered in my Bundesliga preview whether their distinctive style of play would hold up on a bigger stage. That style is now in transition as Lucien Favre has been replaced by Andre Schubert but whatever Gladbach has done in the UCL, it has been torn apart.

In fact, this group which seemed the most evenly balanced has given us 4 of the most lopsided games so far. The combined deep completion maps for each of those games (separate colors representing the two different teams in a game) are below:

for Gladbach-City (81 deep completions by City are most by any team in a single game so far)

Snip20151102_9

for Sevilla-Gladbach

Snip20151102_12

for Juventus-Gladbach

Snip20151102_14

and in a non-Gladbach game that will stand out as one of the more dominant and surprising results of the year, Juventus-Sevilla (24-1 in shots)

 

Snip20151102_13

City-Sevilla and City-Juve have been the only really competitive games for 90 minutes so far in a group that promised much more.

The little guys

One of the best parts of the Champions League is seeing teams you’d never otherwise watch show up and make a name for themselves. Basel, Shakhtar, Porto, Galatasaray, Zenit, and Celtic have had great moments in the last few competitions that remind you just how many good players and teams there are out there outside the top leagues. We also generally have more data and see bigger teams a lot more so we need to conclude more on these sides in the small UCL sample.

Here we will use territorial data to see who among the small sides can hang and be competitive and who is just happy to be here. I use territorial data because it reflects team quality rather well and stabilizes extremely quickly  on the offensive side especially.

Can’t hang

BATE-the 2-0 win over Bayern a few years ago was not a sign of a Belarusian surge.

Malmo Maccabi Tel Aviv-provided maybe the scenes of the tournament so far with their celebration in front of a roaring crowd when they beat Basel in the playoff, but were lucky to advance after being thoroughly outplayed by the Swiss side and have been unsurprisingly battered in group play.

Astana-A fun story for the first Kazakh team ever in the Group Stage and a solid performance to get a home point against Galatasaray but still not close.

Dinamo Zagreb

Possibly can’t hang but extenuating circumstances mean we just don’t know

Olympiakos-Have had to play Bayern and Arsenal which is brutal for anyone but have created extremely little even against Zagreb.

Can hang to some degree

Dynamo Kiev-drew with Porto and Chelsea at home by completely constricting the game. Bland attack (though Everton fans might not agree) but holding teams like Porto and Chelsea to under 20 deep completions shows enough defensive solidity to rate a very conditional hang-with-rating. Creating offense over a 3-game span would be a much better indicator.

Shakhtar Donetsk-They have been outscored 8-0 which makes it weird to see them here, but their passing rating is 6th best in the Champions League. This factors in pass origin and destination with regard to how far from goal the ball is played from, 1 is set to be league average for an EPL team. So a completed 15 yard pass in your own half counts for much less than one in the opposition box. Shakhtar were put in a brutal group, they are good enough to advance normally.

Snip20151102_17

Realizing too late the labeling mistake: 1st MUN is Bayern, mid-pack MUN is Manchester United. GLA=Gladbach.

Galatasaray– A disappointing performance in Kazakhstan where they deservedly drew against Astana has Gala behind the 8-ball in terms of advancing but they have essentially played evenly with Atletico at home and Benfica away. The Atletico performance was particularly impressive as they put up the 7th most deep completions any team has on Simeone’s side since the start of last season (out of 51 games). Only Real Madrid, Sevilla x2, Real Sociedad and Barca x2 topped the 36 Gala piled up.

KAA Gent-Had 55% possession away at Valencia and 58% away at Zenit in close losses that could have easily been draws. Were overwhelmed territory-wise at home vs Lyon but played with 10 men for over half the game in a draw. Really impressive for a Belgian side to have 54% possession with the schedule and circumstances they have had in their first 3 games. An extremely soft back line (57% completion allowed in final 30 yards, 3rd worst in Champions League) has led to some worryingly high close shot allowed totals, but overall this looks like a team punching above their weight, and maybe a manager to watch and learn how to spell in Hein Vanhaezebrouck.

PSV

The battle for the coefficient

Snip20151103_21

No, not that coefficient. Enough virtual ink has been spilled over the England/Italy battle so lets focus in on the real important stuff: Russia vs. France vs. Portugal for a 3rd UCL spot. When I see I have written sentences like that, I step back and just get really glad we have sports. I hope you do the same. Now, onto the details.

These three nations are locked in a battle for a 3rd Champions League spot (which one league can win) and each have two teams in the league right now. Both Portuguese teams have been solidly average in the early going. Porto hammered Maccabi Tel Aviv and were very competitive in their games against Chelsea and Dynamo Kiev, gaining 4 points even if the performances were very slightly second-best. They are in great position to advance with home games vs Maccabi and Kiev remaining. Benfica have been similar to Porto so far, they top their group and are in a great position to qualify with a home game vs 3rd-favorite Gala. Their performance vs Galatasaray will be telling when it comes to determining if there is actually a big quality gap between the two sides.

Lyon have superficially disappointed. It’s easy to look at their single point and failure to beat a Belgian team playing with 10 men and say “look how awful France is”. That would be the wrong conclusion to make. There have been 13 instances of a team racking up 50+ deep completions so far this season in the Champions League and Lyon has 3 of them. Playing from behind helps some forcing the incentive but they’ve shown an ability to get the ball into dangerous positions that generally only good teams have.

Snip20151102_8

PSG have gone through the motions and will advance, probably in 2nd place. Still clearly the best team of any from these 3 leagues.

The Russian sides have been kind of disappointing. I like watching games in Russia as the games have a distinct feel and it gives the tournament a broader scope to include such a huge and important nation but CSKA and Zenit are not playing on the level of the top Portuguese/French teams yet.

Snip20151102_7

Shot distance is in yards.

So while personally I’d love to see more early games with players wearing gloves with visible breath played in front of Russian PA announcers bellowing at ear-splitting volumes, for the overall quality of the competition France and Portugal still bring more to the table.

Maybe a slightly different Leverkusen press?

To be fair, they have played Barcelona (82% pass completion rate allowed) but also had home games against Roma and BATE and have just managed to bring the total opposition completion rate down to 75% over the 270 minutes. In the Bundesliga, Leverkusen are holding opponents to 65% passing coming into the Wolfsburg game. Even BATE neared that at the BayArena. This isn’t a trend yet, but is more something to keep an eye on to see if Schmidt is taking a different defensive tactic into the Champions League or this is just an unsurprising result of facing better offenses.

They aren’t taking advantage of the sideline on the press like they do in the league either. In Bundesliga play, the circled areas are where teams go to die. Leverkusen destroys you when the ball goes there and they can use the sideline as an extra defender.

CRdALF4VAAAKDFl

In the Champions League they are in Hoffenheim/Bremen range, while Barcelona dominate that area.

Snip20151102_15

*Accurate only to 7 decimal points, I apologize for the sloppiness showing 9.

Changing Pass Length

Playing in the Champions League has a different effect on teams and their average pass lengths which seems to depend a lot on what league they come from:

Snip20151102_19

EPL Average Change: +0.1

La Liga Change: -0.8

Bundesliga Change: -0.6

Serie A: +1.1

Ligue 1: +.9

German and Spanish teams, coming from high pressing leagues at home, see their average pass length drop by nearly a full yard. That is very significant when we are talking about well over 1000 passes per team so far. English teams stay the same while French and Italian teams start playing significantly longer passes. This is very fascinating to me, and seems like it tells us a lot about the background these teams come from and how they adjust. One of those things to look deeper into later on, once the Group Stage is over.

Any ideas or explanations on this let me know in the comments or on twitter @Saturdayoncouch. Hopefully there will be time later to examine this but now it’s time to finish reading this and ready ourselves for the feast of the Champions League over these next two days.

Games with most on the line, Round 4

  1. Roma-Leverkusen
  2. Chelsea-Dynamo Kiev
  3. Sevilla-Man City
  4. Benfica-Galatasaray

 

PSV-Wolfsburg, Man United-CSKA in Group B and Bayern-Arsenal, Olympiakos-Zagreb in Group F are linked together.

Controlling the Game: Risers and Fallers in Dangerous Territory Dominance

Dominating territory around the goal is not the be-all, end-all of evaluating teams. Shooting skill, defensive pressure, set-piece strategy, countering skill, goal-keeping, quality of completion (to the strong foot? is it rolling nicely into the path of the shooter?), shot-blocking skill, and many more are factors I am essentially ignoring in this article. That’s because A: it’s very hard to tell what teams are good at that through 10 games and B: even if you had all those things if you don’t dominate the danger zones you still would be a bad team. This article will look specifically at teams who have seen big changes in how they are controlling dangerous territory this season. First, a quick FAQ on how I am calculating control.

The basic formula involves completions from 0-15 yards and 16-30 yards from goal. This is a semicircle that looks something like this. Crosses are a separate category and another category for completions from 16-30 yards. Converting passing into shots is also factored in for the attack.

Why are 0-15 yard completions treated as 4x more valuable than 15-30 yard completions?

See my previous article. I would have done some things differently if I had to re-write that article today, but the general conclusion holds that a completion from 0-15 is generally about 4x more dangerous than one from 16-30.

Why a sharp cutoff at 15 yards?

Well for one, it’s easier. More theoretically, I believe even an accurate gradient will over-value completions or shots at extremely close range to the goal. I am of the opinion that sharp spikes in models over short distances do not accurately reflect team skill but simply add more noise. I don’t think there is a skill to consistently getting shots from inside 5 yards compared to 15 yards. Willing to be proven wrong as always.

Why are completed crosses valued less?

Michael Caley showed completed crosses are worth only about 50% as much as non-crosses in dangerous areas.

Why do you generally treat offensive stats as more reliable than defensive stats right now? 

Offenses dictate the game to the defense, as I showed here. This means defensive stats in the early going are more dependent on the schedule, if you’ve played bad offensive teams it is easier to rack up superficially impressive numbers. Conversely, in that same article you can see that if you aren’t spending much time in front of your opponents goal by now, it’s unlikely you will the rest of the season (R2=.8 first 10 games vs rest of season deep completion rate).

Why is there a shot conversion factor for the offense but not the defense?

Both previous articles touch on this but the TL;DR is: the value of a pass attempt varies wildly depending on the team who makes it. Completions are turned into shots at consistent rates for attacking teams but there is much less consistency when it comes to preventing completions being turned into shots.

Is what you are about to show us correlated with winning and losing in any way?

It is reasonably successful in retrospective tests I have run, and am currently testing a version in the way every model should be tested: going forward against the bookies. It’s been successful in the early days of the season, I think it’s quick at identifying team quality due to the amount of information it churns through. Whether it will be as great all year long is TBD. But the best use for now is almost surely descriptive, and to use it with a handful of other metrics when looking at a team.

Alright the FAQ is out of the way, let’s get to the teams who have seen big swings in how they dominate dangerous territory. Each team who has played in the big three leagues the 2 last seasons is plotted below.

 

LA Liga dominance

Bundesliga control

EPL Control

Let’s break these down into categories, and remember the baseline is last seasons territorial dominance.

Legitimate Improvement

 

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 24: Laurent Koscielny of Arsenal celebrates scoring his team's second goal with during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Everton at Emirates Stadium on October 24, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Arsenal-Sometimes you don’t need to bring in a new player. Arsenal brought back the same team and have exploded offensively. Just look at this chart.

EPL Deep Comp leaders

The gap between Arsenal and 3rd place City in completing passes within 15 yards of the opponents goal is larger than the gap between City and the Los Angeles Lakers (meaning zero). That’s just absurd.

Bayern– Continue to push higher and higher. Sniffing goal has become even more of an accomplishment for their opponents this season. Opponents get just under 14 completions per game within 30 yards of the Bayern goal. Arsenal allow 29, Barcelona 24 for scale.

Celta-A simple look at their rank would cover up the fact that their attack has been nearly as good as Barca’s or Madrid’s in the early going. They are 3rd in dangerous territory control on offense but it’s a very close 3rd compared to last years distant 3rd.

 

Snip20151027_38

Still soft at the back, but this team is a legit Champions League contender. They outshot Barca/Madrid 35-32 in their two home games and smashed Barcelona for all three points.

Dortmund-Have actually passed Bayern in terms of completions in front of the opposition goal. The gap between them and Bayern is not as large as the 5-1 scoreline suggested.

Leverkusen-They were struggling to turn all their dangerous possession into goals until Schmidt rolled out the all-attacking lineup of Chicharito, Kießling, Mehmedi, Kampl, Calhanoglu, and Brandt last week with Wendell blasting forward as well. They are clearly the 3rd best team in the league.

Bremen Stuttgart

Alarm Bells Ringing

Louis_van_Gaal_2911698b

Manchester United-Convert their deep completions into shots at the lowest rate in the league and have just the 6th most deep completions. In 6/10 games they have spent a below-league average amount of time in front of the opposition goal. Are they slowly moving the ball to find the best shot or is there still something significantly off with this conservative, stilted attack? Either way, this doesn’t look like a Champions League attack even if you are really generous and assume they are finding final balls that no one else can. Memphis has been completely silent, helpfully illustrated by Paul Riley’s chance maps.

 

CSTfF6xWoAAJbw6

 

Stoke-All those big names brought in and they are only ahead of rooted-to-last Sunderland for most completions in the final 30 yards. Not far from being slung into a relegation battle.

Gladbach-Over the 5 post-Favre games (all wins after losing the first 5 games), Gladbach have closed the hole at the back with some players returning from injury but still there are major problems getting the ball in front of goal. They have scored a bunch of goals, maybe this has come from lightning counters or maybe they are just running hot. Overall, the attack still doesn’t seem to get the ball deep enough to score a lot of goals without last seasons off-the-charts passing ability. Hannover

Hoffenheim

Levante

Barcelona-I know Messi has been out for 4 games. Unsurprisingly their attack has dropped off without him (30% drop in deep completions in the last 4 games compared to the 4 games before that). But it’s still pretty worrying overall: look at this Eibar game:

Snip20151027_39

That is just not enough box activity for a team this good at home vs a tiny, should-have-been-relegated-except-for-some-Spanish-financial-craziness Eibar.

That worrying attack slippage is coupled with the fact they have allowed 30+ deep completions to Celta, Rayo, and Sevilla already when they went all of last season doing that just once (to Real Madrid). This isn’t nearly the same team that romped to the Triple last season. They are trying to survive until they can register Turan and Vidal.

Improvement, but wait and see how much

Swansea-It’s come on the defensive side. Last year Swansea’s opponents spent more time in front of goal (39 deep completions allowed per game) than everyone but Sunderland and West Ham, this season Swansea are above average in that category (30 per game). That shows definite improvement but they haven’t faced City or Arsenal yet which could see that number deflated a bit. And again, defensive improvements are always less reliable than those with the ball.

Minor Worries

Manchester City-I assume this is Silva and Aguero injury related. Those two and Yaya were huge standouts on a team full of stars last year when it came to moving the ball forward into dangerous positions. Last season City completed 4.7 non-cross passes per game within 15 yards of goal, this year it’s down to just 2.7. A slight uptick in crosses doesn’t come near cancelling that out and from yards 16-30 there is a drop as well. Those guys will be back and I would guess the stats will pick back up, but it deserves a check in.

Wolfsburg-Last year they had an unsustainable amount of points from their underlying performance and this year they are drifting backwards basically to being an average team. The Super Cup win over Bayern was a false indicator and long forgotten.

Atletico Madrid

Probably schedule related and unlikely to be a huge fall Everton-Toughest schedule in the league but the drops on both sides of the ball made this a tough call between schedule-related and minor worry. For now, the fact they have played Arsenal, Chelsea, City, United, Liverpool, and Southampton wins out.

Augsburg-They over-performed their underlying stats last year into Europe but are under-performing now. They aren’t one of the worst teams in the league this season. 11th-15th is their most likely performance level.

Probably Schedule related and unlikely to be actual large improvement

Deportivo

Real Sociedad-Have played 0 of the top 3 teams in territory dominance, only 3 of the top 10 but have played 3 of the bottom 4. Their increase comes entirely through the defensive side, so expect it to come down. Deportivo has had a similarly easy schedule. These two teams have had opponents spend the least amount of time in front of goal so far, that will change soon.

2015-16 Bundesliga Preview: Variety at the top, goals all the way through

The Bundesliga was my gateway drug into the high-flying, groupie-gathering, time-sucking, spreadsheet-staring, decimal-point debating, fantastic world of soccer analytics. I was your run-of-the-mill World Cup and EPL viewer before deciding one day I wanted to know more about the soccer world elsewhere and simply chose the Bundesliga to follow for a year. I put $200 in a betting account and began working to beat the bookies. I read Colin Trainor here on expected goals and built my own model. I manually input shots from all these different zones and adjusted for schedule.

After three weeks, I was ready to go and bet on Freiburg to draw with Bayern Munich. When Freiburg equalized right at the end of the game I knew I was onto something. The secret to soccer was in my spreadsheets! Of course, as the sample size got larger through each Konferenz I watched I realized that one: manually inputting shots into a spreadsheet for a few hours did not reveal underlying patterns no one had found before and two: it was really hard for me to tell Stuttgart and Frankfurt apart. Every few weeks I’d find something else: I wasn’t giving shots on target enough credit, blocks seemed to have some skill, what the hell were Gladbach doing? They are costing me money! That year might not have made me rich but it was a great entry level course into studying how analytics can be used in soccer.

I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this league, which I feel has become the lone challenger to England in terms of entertainment. The Bundesliga features top atmospheres, league-wide countering speed that floored Pep Guardiola, the most goals per game, and a variety of styles among the best teams that you can’t get anywhere else. Bayern, Gladbach, Leverkusen, and Wolfsburg play very distinct styles and Dortmund and Schalke are big question marks under new managers. Mid-table teams like Augsburg and Hoffenheim have distinct, fun identities and the bottom of the table featured a team that was in 2nd place in total goals, between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This preview will briefly dive into some of that to prepare for Friday’s opening kick.

1. Bayern Munich

Bayern are a team that draws you in as a viewer. Pep’s work ethic and creativity means you might see something new tactically and the teams quality means there is a chance to see something jaw-dropping every game. Last season they held Werder Bremen without a shot the entire game. The year before Schalke didn’t get out of their own half for 20 minutes and we all remember those 3 minutes without Man City touching the ball in Manchester. Inverted fullbacks, diagonal chips, full-field man-to-man marking at the Camp Nou, you never know what will come next.

However, for all the quality in Munich,when Ribery and Robben were out Bayern were simply very good, not out of this world. You can see this in their shots per game:

but the point is really driven home when you see their deep completion maps. The first is away games against Augsburg, Mainz, Frankfurt and Hertha with both healthy:

 

the second are the home matches against the same teams when both were missing due to injury:

The size of the circle corresponds to the distance of the pass, with shorter passes getting a larger circle. Orange means goal, light blue a shot and darker blue a normal completion. Without those two it was harder for Bayern to move their passing game toward goal. The gap between Ribery and Robben and the rest is reflected here:

 

No one is even in their area code. Ribery completes almost twice as many as any non-Robben player and Robben essentially renders the percentiles on player cards useless.

(for explanation on player cards see below)

When those two guys click, Bayern are untouchable. Defensively, Bayern are outstanding. They completely stifle the opposition, limiting them to 200 completions per game. They don’t have the soft underbelly some pressing teams develop either, teams struggle even when they break through the high lines. This is a deep completion map of their 3 home games against Wolfsburg, Dortmund and Leverkusen.

You can get a few shots targeting Dante and Bernat on the left, but not enough to really call it a weakness. This is a great defense.

Robben looks healthy, but Ribery remains a major doubt for this season. Douglas Costa is a Ribery replacement and was terrifying in the Super Cup for stretches. Bayern will likely win the league even if he doesn’t turn out to be a similar force as Franck but Costa replacing Ribery is important for the long-term dominance of Bayern in the Bundesliga. With Thiago back fully, Vidal joining, and Hojberg returning from loan Bayern should dominate the midfield even more in the next few years but to keep rolling to titles the wide quality is crucial.

 

2. Borussia Dortmund

It was almost as hard to get the ball deep against Dortmund as it was against Bayern. In lots of pretty important metrics including xG, Dortmund looked second-best to Bayern. They were far from that in last years table. These three graphs help describe Dortmund’s season:

 

Adjusted deep completion means the closer to goal a completion is the more weight it has.

Dortmund dominated territory at elite levels but yet were right behind relegated teams Paderborn and Freiburg and when it came to converting deep touches to goals. On the other end, they were well behind wide defense-optional teams in Stuttgart and Frankfurt in allowing completions to be turned into goals. A terrible defensive backline might explain the defensive side, but that’s wasn’t the case. Passes were still very tough to complete basically everywhere.

Maybe that one green spot in the center of the pitch explains it all, but I think there was some historically bad luck here. A deep completion was 3.5x more likely to turn into a goal vs Dortmund than it was against Gladbach. Just normal conversion rates on both sides of the ball would have turned them into a +40 GD team instead of +7. Thomas Tuchel comes in for Klopp (read my thoughts on him here) and there might be some bedding in time even if I am optimistic long-term. He has two of the best attacking midfielders in the league in Reus and Mkhitaryan along with the best deep midfielder in Gundogan. Gonzalo Castro from Leverkusen gives Dortmund the chance to have a very dynamic midfield. Controlling the center of the pitch was the major constant with Tuchel at Mainz as he switched between systems, Reus/Mkhi/Castro/Gundogan will let Dortmund control it going forward. Tuchel seems to prefer the youngster Weigl to control it defensively, maybe until Sahin returns from injury.

3. Wolfsburg

Last year was great for the Wolves, finishing second with a +34 GD in 2nd place comfortably but I think that will be tough to reach again, even if De Bruyne stays. Let’s take another look at how teams turned deep passes into goals

Wolfsburg are nearly off the charts, 9 points ahead of 2nd place. Even if they finish at the level of the second place team they could lose 15+ goals this season. Bas Dost won’t keep up his impossible 38% shooting percentage (see map below with orange as goals)

But that’s ok as Wolfsburg have improved at the striker position, getting Max Kruse from Gladbach. Kruse is one of the best passers at the forward position, Dost one of the worst. The idea should be that while the efficiency will drop the improved involvement of the striker will create a higher volume of passes and allow them to shape a few more involved attacks instead of lightning strikes though the wings. I worry Dieter Hecking will chase Dost’s goal total and give him first crack at the striker role while Kruse plays off the bench.

Outside of Atletico Madrid, Wolfsburg were probably the best team to focus attacks to a large extent down the wings.  This can be seen in a sampling of where there creative players receive the ball.

 

De Bruyne is clearly the main playmaker but is generally receiving the ball out wide. He’s not a heavy usage guy so even with him returning Wolfsburg’s attack still feels a little formless, but if he leaves there would be serious worries about Champions League. I expect a significant slip from last season, mostly from scoring fewer goals.

4 and 5, opposites attract: Gladbach and Leverkusen

Gladbach and Leverkusen make a beautiful pair. Essentially everything one does, the other does the complete opposite. These two are the ones that make the Bundesliga the beautiful, unique league it has become.

First, with the ball. Here is a map of Leverkusen’s passes from just inside the opposition half. Color and shading shows how far forward the pass is going, red=backwards.

And Gladbach’s.

Leverkusen is rampaging forward while Gladbach is taking their sweet time. The 26-4 difference in passes through the endline really highlights that. Shooting, it’s the same story. Leverkusen are firing a shot every 17 completions, with Gladbach at twice that.

Without the ball

Here are ease of passing maps for the two teams defenses.

Leverkusen

and then Gladbach

Gladbach are generally despised by shot-location or volume-based models and this make them one of the most important teams for stat-guys to watch. I’ve written extensively on them and how they beat models repeatedly and badly. They exposed my first manual xG model 2 years ago, and made light work of a more advanced model last year.

So go there if you want a full breakdown click the link, but even if you don’t go there watch Gladbach this season: they are an important case study in the soccer analytics world. I’ll show two quick charts here:

 

They are extremely patient on offense to pick out passes that have a high likelihood of being turned into shots and on defense stick close to goal, making everything easy elsewhere but tough inside the box. The Foals will move into the Champions League and lose one of their elite strike pair in Max Kruse, making this a fascinating season to join in and watch. Lars Stindl, in from Hannover, is an excellent offensive midfielder to pair with Xhaka giving Gladbach a base that can create as well as any outside of Bayern or Dortmund. Drmic is not the type of involved player Kruse was, which means the incredible offensive efficiency might take a different form, one that might see more Hazard and Traore. As long as they continue to shatter xG models through their unique style of play, Gladbach remain a must-watch team.

Leverkusen are a must-watch team for the sheer speed of the game. The pressure they apply without the ball is unmatched and unrelenting (see map above) and offensively no team remaining in the top flight of European football shoots as quickly. Stefan Kiessling plays up top but is the 4th option really when it comes to taking shots, the 3 attackers in Son, Bellarabi, and burgeoning superstar Hakan Calhanoglu all take more than the striker. The “90 minutes of Hell” strategy leads to lots of incomplete passes from both teams, making the loss of their one smooth-passing midfileder Gonzalo Castro a big one (until they signed Charles Aranguiz). They were good enough last season to comfortably grab the UCL playoff spot, defeating Lazio and then getting back to 4th in what should be a fierce race would be a successful season. The non-stop drive doesn’t always help, their midfield passing was very poor and you wonder if slowing down a bit on offense might help.

Leverkusen home shot map:

6. Schalke

Schalke are a bit of a head-scratcher. They are coming off a very poor season where they focused on limiting the opposition to poor chances and then forgot to create any of their own. Andre Breitenreiter replaces Di Matteo as the manager but he isn’t the most important addition, that is Johannes Geis. Schalke had a very stagnant midfield last season with Hoger, Neustadter and Kirchoff not adding much to the attack. (biggest size=goal, next biggest=shot, smallest=completion)

 

Snip20150810_32

Geis brings a huge improvement in dynamic passing (see below map) and took more shots per game than the other 3 combined.

Snip20150810_36

Last years midfield was also easy to cut through (12th in Bundesliga) but the backline was 2nd best in league in preventing shots on dangerous passes. I’d expect a much more proactive Schalke this season. Geis could very possibly be the signing of the season but Schalke still are the least likely of the big 6 to crack back into the Champions League.

Top 6 Predictions

Bayern, 80 points

Dortmund, 72 points

Gladbach, 60 points

Leverkusen, 58 points

Wolfsburg, 57 points

Schalke, 54 points

Extra Graphs

I’ve plotted deep pass to shot conversion on the Y-axis here, with midfield passer rating on the X. Both of these are from previous articles (here and here). The TL;DR of it is: the higher up the Y-axis you go the higher the rate that passes in the final 15 yards are turned into shots, the further right on the X-axis you go, the easier it is to move the ball closer to goal in the midfield. This is a general look at which teams contest or pass well in the midfield and convert or stop deep passes from being converted. It’s not necessarily a strong midfield, weak backline or vice versa, there are plenty of tactical reasons why the numbers could not reflect the talent level of a group.

First, the defenses:

 

Dortmund looks extremely strong here, the problem was just a huge amount of those shots turned into goals. Leverkusen and Gladbach, those mirror images, are at each end when it comes to toughness in the midfield.

The offenses:

 

Leverkusen’s frenetic attack did not reliably generate enough offense last year and that’s the main concern as they try for a 4th straight top 4 finish.

Others

Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim

Snip20150810_39

In between Barcelona and Real Madrid atop the goals/game charts we find Eintracht. Unlike those two, the goals come equally from both teams in Eintracht games. This comes from having the best average chance both for and against in the Bundesliga.

Hoffenheim are top 10 Europe-wide in both goals and shots per game and as you can see from the midfield map, play a high-risk defensive game that lends itself to great viewing.

Augsburg and Hamburg are two strong arguments against the deterministic theory that wage bill=league position.  Despite having a bottom 4 wage bill, Augsburg finished ahead of Schalke and Dortmund in 5th and will play in the Europa League this season. Augsburg feature a high press and a quick trigger to shoot when they have the ball. Hojbjerg returning to Bayern and poor attacking players make another top 6 finish unlikely. I’ve written about Hamburg before but they desperately need to awaken one of the worst offenses in all of Europe. One of the richest clubs in Germany, they have escaped two relegation playoffs the last two seasons. I wrote more about last years problems here.

Something to possibly cling onto for Hamburg fans is their horrendous goal/SOT rate. This generally has no correlation from year to year with the big caveat that relegated teams generally have the worst numbers each year but don’t show up again so don’t count in those correlations.

Players to Watch 

I will try to avoid repetition from those listed above. A fuller explanation of the player cards comes in my Ligue 1 preview but the short version is: Passer Rating is how well a player passes taking into account difficulty of pass, deep comps are within 25 yards of goal, involvement is basically how many completions a player gets and how central he is to his team. All are per 90 and compared to players in same position.

As usual, the caveat remains that these players are the ones who performed best in these metrics, choose different metrics and you get different players. Also performance does not always equal skill level or talent. There won’t be Bayern players in here as you can assume essentially everyone (except Weiser) comes out very strong in these types of measurements. The three to watch out for outside the very biggest names: Hojbjerg, Badstuber and Thiago.

Attackers

Marco Reus, Dortmund

Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Dortmund

Hakan Calhaonuglu, Leverkusen

Daniel Didavi, Stuttgart

Big year returning from injury.

One youngster to watch

Kevin Volland, Hoffenheim No player had a higher % of their completions come within 25 yards of the opponents goal. Here’s his completion map with estimated pass difficulty represented by circle size.

With Firmino gone, you figure he will be able to get more involved in Hoffenheim’s play.

Strikers

Raffael, Gladbach

No Bundesliga striker passed the ball better than Raffael. The patient attack of Gladbach surely helps their forwards rack up good passing numbers, as more options are available when the ball is moved slowly. It’s kind of strange for a Brazilian striker to play this well on a Champions League team and be so unknown, but hopefully he has some big games in the UCL to get his name out there this season.

Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, Dortmund

Solomon Kalou, Hertha Berlin

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Schalke

Eric Choupo-Moting, Schalke

Haris Seferovic, Frankfurt

Barely beats out last years league top goal scorer Alex Meier due to his edge in passing. Also only 23.

Midfielders

Ilkay Gundogan, Dortmund

Granit Xhaka, Gladbach

Zlatko Junuzovic, Werder Bremen

Junuzovic was the top non-Bayern player as far as deep completions go and was just behind di Santo when it came to top shots-taker on Bremen. The entire Bremen offense revolved around him.

Luiz Gustavo, Wolfsburg.

Milos Jojic, Koln

Fullbacks

Ricardo Rodriguez, Wolfsburg

Paul Verhaegh, Augsburg

Augsburg lost a great young prospect in Baba to Chelsea, but kept their best fullback.

Wendell, Leverkusen

Bastian Oczipka, Frankfurt

Daniel Brosinksi, Mainz

Final Words

Hopefully this has you ready for this Friday’s opening kick. Tune in and enjoy the goals, the counter-attacks, the high pressing, the atmosphere and the high level of play. My final piece of advice is to learn from me: don’t repeatedly bet against Bayern and Gladbach because they are due for regression in your personal xG model. Best to sit back, enjoy, and investigate the different flavors of soccer they bring us.

 

Controlling the Midfield (and why James Milner might not be the answer for Liverpool)

Each sport has it’s truisms about where the core of winning teams come from. In baseball it’s “up the middle”, the notion that if you get your defensive players in the middle of the field right, it’s easier to fill the rest. In football, games are won and lost “in the trenches” where the unappreciated lineman clear holes for skill players to score touchdowns. In soccer, it’s the midfield or in one of the more delightful sporting cliches: the engine room. Great forwards will not score goals without a solid midfield to move the ball up and give them plenty of touches. A top class back four can’t hold out for 90 minutes repeatedly if they have to constantly defend against passes coming toward their goal. These are widely accepted truisms but it is pretty hard to look at stats to determine which engine rooms are running at top speed and which are bogged down. Hopefully this is a step toward determining that.

First, we need to define where the midfield is. This is how I defined it, between 38 and 79 yards away from the goal in my advanced soccer graphics representation program. This was just my decision based on what looked right and there are probably other ways of defining it that might be more correct.

 

Next we want to determine what stats to use to determine whether a team is dominating the midfield. Number of completions for and against shows possession but we need more, completion percentage is nice but rewards simple, short passes back and forth just inside the area equally with incisive balls through the middle. In the end, I came up with 4 factors to measure a team’s midfield control.

The first three are simple. One: completions per game. Two: the share of passes that are going backwards, mainly for context. Three: how far the average pass travels.

The fourth is a little more complicated. It is basically adjusted completion % on forward passes. To measure which teams were actually best as moving the ball through the midfield, I created a rough model for how an average team passes. It takes into account how far from goal the origin of the pass is and how much closer to goal the ball goes. I did this separately for La Liga, the Bundesliga, and the EPL. For example, in the EPL a pass that originates 63 yards from goal and is targeted at a player 4 yards closer to goal (59 yards from goal)*, is expected to be completed 86% of the time. If a passer is 40 yards from goal and tries to play a ball 26 yards closer to goal (in the box 14 yards from goal) it is expected to be completed 20% of the time. Obviously there are big changes depending on pressure and number of options available: a striker playing a ball forward will have a lower % than a midfielder or a defender simply due to how the team is laid out. This is ok, especially at the team level, as we are simply using this to measure which teams are actually passing well and which teams might be inflating their completion percentage through short passes far from goal. We add up each passes expected completion percentage then compare how many passes were actually completed to see if a team is above or below what you would expect.

*from goal is measured directly from goal. So a pass completed to the corner would be measured as 30+ yards from goal, not 0 even though it might be completed on the end line.

To visualize all of these factors, we go to Tableau and look at the 3 biggest leagues graphed:

Clickable link for interaction

Far on the left side of the grap we see Crystal Palace, Burnley and Eibar. These are the three teams who completed a lot fewer passes than you’d expect an average team in their leagues to complete. They were only about 89% as likely to complete any given pass as the normal team was. Moving from left to right we see teams like Newcastle, Atletico Madrid, and Mainz around the average line when it comes to pass completion quality. Far on the right, we see the expected big boys in Bayern, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Gladbach, Everton, and both Manchester teams sit significantly behind those 3 in the second tier of this pass rating.

Looking at the bottom of the graph we see Man City and Arsenal in a group of their own when it comes to playing short passes. Up top we see 3 German teams play the longest passes, with varying rates of success. Paderborn, Mainz and Wolfsburg average midfield pass is over 5 yards longer than Man City.

Looking at the size of the bubbles, we see unsurprisingly that the best teams at completing passes are generally the ones who complete the most. One place we can see a contrast is between Tottenham and Atletico Madrid, who play similar short passes at similar success rates but the difference comes when we see Spurs play complete almost 40 more passes per game in the midfield.

The share of passes that go backwards is the color of the bubble. We see that Swansea and Manchester United are teams in the right half who play backwards passes more than anyone else, in fact Manchester United play the highest share of midfield backwards passes of any team on this chart. This is rare for a top team as you can see, and indicates a lack of forward options, a lack of aggression, or a tactic obsessed with keeping the ball.     Here is the defensive chart with a clickable link for more interaction:

 

Clickable, interactive link

We see two massive outliers immediately. One is Leverkusen, who were just enormously harder to get through the midfield against than anyone else. The other is the infintesimal dot representing Bayern. Teams complete 40 more passes per game in the midfield against Man City than they do vs Bayern. Two interesting teams to contrast are Manchester United and Rayo Vallecano. They see the same amount of passes, are both very good at stopping passes and allow a little above average pass distance. The main difference is teams play forward a ton vs Rayo (because they press extremely high) while opponents play backwards a high amount against United.

Still the single most interesting part of this graph is Real Madrid. Teams play extremely short passes while completing more than you would expect. This was not something I picked up on while watching and something that is hard to explain away as a tactical decision in a league where they are simply so much better than many of their opponents. Something was wrong with Real’s defensive midfield last season, and that looks to be a pretty big hole going forward for a team with UCL and La Liga ambitions.

Chelsea are somewhat close to Madrid, down by Swansea. This is more easily explained as a tactical decision as we know from my previous piece on converting shots to passes that Chelsea are one of the best at keeping teams at arms length or on the edge of the attacking area, and one of the best at keeping passes from being converted into shots.

The longest passes allowed are generally all German teams (see below for more on league differences) and then some bad Spanish teams and then Tottenham, who are right besides Augsburg. Only Man United and strangely QPR are better at stopping passes through the midfield than Tottenham, the main problem with their defense was the passes that get through are long and dangerous, and are converted into shots at a higher rate than any other EPL team. This would suggest at first glance that the backline is more of a problem than the midfield. United had similar problems, though they were tougher to pass against and not near as susceptible to passes being converted to shots.

Combining shot conversion and midfield control

We saw how Chelsea’s unimpressive defensive midfield numbers were overcome by the sterling job they do stopping deep passes from being turned into shots, let’s see if there are other interesting separations.

There are obvious tactical reasons for some of these (Gladbach’s shelling, Celta/Rayo’s high presses) but there are some general conclusions we can make. If my team was in the second group, I would look first to upgrade my back-line if I wanted to improve my defense.

Combining offense and defense for total control of the midfield

To see which teams really control the midfield as the title mentioned we will combine the offensive and defensive metrics. The ratio of completions/completions allowed and the amount pass ratings on offense and defense are combined for one ranking.

Top 10

1. Bayern Munich

2. Barcelona

3. Dortmund

4. Manchester United

5. Real Madrid

6. Manchester City

7. Celta Vigo

8. Arsenal

9. Liverpool

10. Tottenham

Real Madrid’s poor defensive showing is outweighed by its dominant offense. The rankings give some weight to the idea that a good midfield will build you a good team. One interesting team not in the top 10 is Chelsea, who were 15th overall but still won the league without a dominant midfield.

Looking at individual teams

When you see a team rank high or low, the next question becomes why are they so high? What players are dominating the midfield for them? While this is still a very hard question that I am in no way certain of answering, looking deeper at this kind of passing data can help tell us a little bit. We will look quickly at Man City and Liverpool, two teams who were both easily above average in number of passes and pass rating (completed passes compared to “expected” completions).

We won’t look at defenders (though I will mention Mamadou Sakho was nearly off the charts in how well he advanced the ball aggressively) or forwards (where the differences between Eden Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic and Aguero are very noticeable) but will focus only on midfielders for now.

The midfield pass rate is basically how well the player is doing at completing passes that move their team toward goal in the midfield. A rating of 1 means they do exactly as well as an average EPL player, as you can see everyone here has a rating above 1, except for Milner who is 6 points below the average EPL player when it comes to completing these passes. His role was obviously much different at City than it will be at Liverpool, but the number remains a big worry for Liverpool fans. He is now being featured in an area where he really struggled to move the ball last season. When you factor in every pass over the whole field (overall pass rate), we can see Milner rises above average indicating he was at his best in the final third. His volume of work will drop there and rise in the center of the pitch in the upcoming season. Of course, more than half of the game is missing here but defensive work will come in another time, another article.

Other interesting player notes: Jordan Ibe’s high rating in limited minutes bodes well for his future and it’s another reminder of how silly good Yaya Toure and David Silva are. Liverpool as a whole saw their pass ratings drop the further upfield they got, no surprise to Liverpool fans who watched as they played an extremely conservative style for most of 2015, committing very few players forward. The limited attacking options made it very hard to pass, which will make it interesting to check in on Sterling at Man City and Coutinho with more options to see if they raise their ratings.   This is a broad overview of midfields, there are probably 20 articles to be written simply on Liverpool alone and there are tons of ways of looking deeper (who is forcing teams to play through the edges, hint: Villarreal, looking at game-by-game throughout the season and wondering why Liverpool had such poor midfield numbers vs Tottenham and great vs Chelsea while awful at home vs City and great away, etc) but hopefully you enjoyed this start. Any questions, comments, criticisms, etc feel free to reach me on twitter @Saturdayoncouch or post in the relatively new comment box below and I will be glad to discuss. Spammers, if you have read this far I am all set on sunglasses so please do not post.

Postscript comparing leagues

I promised a breakdown between leagues, but ran out of time. Here is a quick graph comparing completion percentages for different length passes. The Bundesliga is noticeably harder to complete passes. La Liga tends to see more short passes and Bundesliga: more long passes. Another time, maybe we can expand but there’s never enough time, right?

optalogo