Who in the Premier League Deserves to win Player of the Year?

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Dear Premier League footballer,

It’s the time of year when you need to select your choice for PFA Player of the Year. But you’re stuck. You know who the frontrunners are (according to SkyBet), but you just can’t differentiate between their skillsets. You probably don’t usually rely on analytics too much in your decision-making process, instead preferring the eye test and gut instinct. But maybe you’re just not sure this year, and you’re willing to try something new. Allow us to give you a stats overview of the cases for and against the current frontrunners.

Sadio Mané

The bookmakers’ favourite for the award clearly has some things going for him.

 

He leads Liverpool in non-penalty goals and assists this season. Player of the year awards aren’t doled out on the basis of average performance, but he leads Liverpool per 90 minutes as well. And he’s doing this without a huge overperformance of expected goals. Here at StatsBomb, we often make fun of players who’ve sent in too many punts from long range, so let’s be clear that this is what very good shot selection looks like for a wide forward. There’s almost no fat.

The case for Mané is pretty straightforward. Liverpool are almost certainly the title winners, and Mané is their best attacker in goals and assists. But surely there are arguments to be made; for example, while he might be top at Liverpool, he is not the most explosive scorer in the league (we’ll get to him). And the argument that you, Premier League footballer, might make is that Liverpool are not about individuals, but the collective. In which case, many are arguing for…

Jordan Henderson

The player that embodies Liverpool’s team spirit. And my, what a difference a few months can make in the numbers. Jordan Henderson started the season on the right side of Liverpool’s midfield three, with Fabinho in the deeper role. His performances were well short of his best. Henderson interpreted the number eight role as one in which he would get high up the pitch, but then lacked the athleticism to recover from those positions. The numbers speak for themselves.

Then injury struck. Fabinho picked up a knock near the end of November that saw Henderson return to the deeper role. He’s looked better than ever since, growing into more and more of an orchestrator for the side. Liverpool’s deepest midfielder is, strangely, the one given the greatest licence for expansive passing, and Henderson has utilised that well.

But the case people are making for Henderson isn’t really about this so much as soft factors, particularly leadership qualities. And you, Premier League footballer, probably have a sense of this that can’t be shown through sats. Really, the only thing that could seriously dent Henderson’s credentials is if his injury lasts longer than the reported three weeks.

Kevin De Bruyne

If he doesn’t win it this year, you can sense it becoming one of those obscure bits of trivia everyone’s surprised by. “Wait, Kevin De Bruyne NEVER won Player of the Year!?”

De Bruyne leads the Premier League in non-penalty goals and assists with 23. Fifteen of those have been assists, meaning he needs five more to equal Thierry Henry’s record in that department. But even if he doesn’t, we’re talking about some playmaker. Best in the league in total xG assisted (nearly double that of second-placed Riyad Mahrez). Best in the league in total open play passes into the box. Best in the league in total deep progressions. If a player dominates the scoring metrics like this, there should be little doubt to his being the frontrunner. The main case for De Bruyne is that if you think creating is as important as scoring, he should be your man.

Virgil van Dijk

Well, he won it last year when Liverpool didn’t win the league, and with the Reds actually about to get over the line this time, why not again?

In truth there isn’t a great statistical case for the Netherlands captain. Liverpool look a worse side defensively than their numbers showed last year. Their xG conceded per game has risen (0.95, up from 0.77). Liverpool have relied on Alisson more than ever this year. Statistically, analysing centre backs is an infamous minefield, so it’s hard to point to a number and say “This is why Van Dijk is good”. Defending is a collective art, and individuals often have such different responsibilities that it’s hard to assign individual credit or blame. Purely to the eye, it looks like Van Dijk was a little better last year, when Liverpool sat ever so slightly deeper and he could afford to be a little less aggressive. In the understandable desire to praise Liverpool, it feels like Van Dijk would be more a pick by default than on merit.

Trent Alexander-Arnold

He’s a shoo-in for the Young Player of the Year award, but can he take both?

Alexander-Arnold plays such an unusual role that the radar doesn’t really do him justice. Last season, he set the record for Premier League assists from a “defender” with 12, and this year he’s already equalled that number. His underlying performance is better, too, with 0.30 xG assisted per 90, building on last campaign’s 0.22. If you want to see how much he’s doing things beyond expected from a normal full back, here are all his crossfield passes.

The case for Alexander-Arnold is that he’s redefining his position in a way no other Premier League player is. Of course, you can take the view that positions are social constructs and this is irrelevant to judging his abilities as a footballer, but he’s certainly in contention.

Mohamed Salah

Another one whose season can be broken into two parts. Salah legitimately looked to be in a slump at the start of this season. As Joel Wertheimer wrote for StatsBomb back in October, “He does look somewhat less explosive than he did the last couple years, not turning the corner in the box with the same gusto”.

But after that? He caught fire. Since late October, he leads the Premier League in xG plus xG assisted.

Salah likely suffers in the standings due to his 2017–18 breakout season. He holds practically every individual award for a season he’s unlikely to ever outdo. But he really is playing very well at the moment. Mané’s improvement has seen the side become a little more balanced between both flanks than in past years, when the side was overwhelmingly tilted towards the former Roma player, but that’s not a reflection on his performance.

A Proposed StatsBomb Wildcard: Sergio Agüero

Surely the best player ever to play in the Premier League and not win the individual award. Sergio Agüero has missed long stretches of this season and still sits only one goal behind Jamie Vardy and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the Golden Boot race. He has more non-penalty goals and assists per 90 than anyone in the league.

If Agüero is able to stay fit between now and the end of the season, there will be a real case to be made to crown him the year’s outstanding performer. Of course, you, Premier League footballer, have to decide before then. But with Agüero expected to leave Manchester City in 2021, time is running out for him to win the award.

Stats of Interest

You know who’s been really good since the start of 2020? Like, one of the best players in the league good? Dominic Calvert Lewin.

 

Back in November, I mentioned here that Jamie Vardy’s finishing seemed out of this world good and almost certain not to continue. And not to brag, but since then, well…

When you think of high pressing teams in England, your mind probably doesn’t go straight to Burnley. But StatsBomb’s pressure data currently has them with the third highest defensive distance in the Premier League. They continue to be fairly unique in their style.

Being (lucky and good): Liverpool

Barring something truly unprecedented, Liverpool will win the Premier League this season.

FiveThirtyEight’s model gives Liverpool a greater than 99% chance of lifting the Premier League trophy. Jurgen Klopp’s side is 22 points clear at the top, having won 24 out of 25 games. They’ve not just done it, they’ve done it in an astonishing manner. There can be no doubt that what Liverpool does, in purely results terms, is extraordinary.

But there’s been a certain dirty word to emerge recently: luck.

Now, regardless of how good they are, any team setting record-breaking points totals is likely to be at least somewhat “lucky”. It’s a fairly abstract concept, but inevitably some bounces need to go your way to do something amazing. But in a statistical sense, what’s really sparked this debate is expected goals. Take a look at the xG difference table for why.

 

Yeah. Manchester City are comfortably dominating this metric. But let’s head over to the actual goal difference and there’s an obvious shift.

City are scoring and conceding largely as expected, with a goal difference of +36 against an xG difference of +36.80. But Liverpool? Liverpool have gained hugely here, managing a goal difference of +45 against an xG difference of +25.09. The overperformance is split fairly evenly between both sides of the ball. Let’s start with the defensive end.

 

Liverpool have conceded nearly ten goals fewer than expected. With two different goalkeepers. But looking at one area in particular reveals an extremely good run.

The Reds have conceded just once from more than 21 yards. The goal in question was a quickly taken free kick straight after a rusty, unprepared Adrián was rushed on and thrust between the sticks. Despite plenty of opportunities, no opposing player has had a moment where he’s been able to strike a ball perfectly from range.

Liverpool have been extremely “effective” at ensuring shots do not reach the goalkeeper. As StatsBomb’s Head of Analysis James Yorke pointed out recently, Klopp’s team just do not concede shots on target from the right side of the box.

 

While Virgil van Dijk is a consistent presence at left centre back, on this side the role has rotated between Joe Gomez, Joël Matip and Dejan Lovren. At right back, Trent Alexander-Arnold hasn’t exactly been focused on defending. Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta have spent time as the right-sided central midfielder. It’s hard to point to a reason for this other than it’s just one of those things that happens.

On the attacking side? The topline figures aren’t too different, with the Reds beating xG by nearly eight goals. Another small thing to note is that they’ve scored all five of their penalties, which isn’t hugely unlikely but still isn’t the expectation.

 

Ah, you say. Liverpool have a world-class front three, and thus of course they’d score more than expected!

Well, not so fast. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino between them have accumulated 31.64 xG. And from that, they’ve scored 30 goals. Intuitively, we’d expect these three to be Liverpool’s best finishers, but that’s not happening right now.

So where are Liverpool finishing well? More than half the overperformance in attack can be found in set pieces.

 

Liverpool certainly seem to pay attention to this phase of the game, and we know it’s something where the masters of it can “trick” the xG models. Having said this, when you watch Liverpool take set pieces, you do not see elaborate, ambitious routines. You generally see a good cross put in for someone to get a good header. It’s a fairly straightforward approach that seems to be paying dividends. There might be repeatability in this, but we really don’t know.

So we’ve looked at various shots, but what about game state?

Liverpool have spent very little time behind this season, so there’s not too much we can draw from here (they’ve performed very close to xG in this period, though). When they are drawing, though, things are a little more interesting. On the attacking side, we can account for all of Liverpool’s xG overperformance when things are level.

 

Defensively, there’s also a bit of overperformance when drawing, but not a huge amount. Liverpool just finish their chances extremely well when things are level in order to get ahead. Once they get there, they don’t need to finish as well, and they’ve merely been in line with the model.

But what you actually need to do once you’re ahead is not concede. So it would be awfully useful to concede fewer goals than expected when you’re winning, right? Right.

Liverpool score more to get ahead, then concede less once they get there. They’re not just beating xG. They’re beating xG at the right moments, in the right ways, to maximise points. Manchester City, by comparison, beat xG in attack, but it’s all come when the side is already ahead. When losing or drawing, they’re a touch below expectation. Liverpool have broken exactly how they’d want to.

Is this “luck”? It’s hard to say with a great deal of confidence that pure chance is what’s driving Liverpool to beat the metrics. But that’s not the most important question going forward. What matters more is whether this is repeatable, and whether Liverpool can put up huge points totals for the remainder of this season, and in the next. This is where it’s harder to make the Reds’ case. Especially when a team overperforms in both attack and defence, it’s difficult to craft a story about how they’re doing it. Liverpool are experiencing a remarkable whirlwind of a season, but a confluence of factors outside their control have come to play a part.

If we were to deflate all these aspects, would we still have a Premier League title-winning side? That’s a more complicated question. It’s fair to say Man City have not had the rub of the green this year, which is also a factor outside Liverpool’s control. But at the same time, City just aren’t as good as they were last season. They’ve seen a 49% increase in xG conceded per game, and the attack has subsequently ticked up by only 8%. Even though City’s xG difference is better than Liverpool’s, it does seem as though the side has managed this by putting up big numbers when already ahead. Perhaps there are other realities where this is a nail-biting title race. Regardless, Liverpool are a really good side while also having had certain things fall their way this year.

Stats of Interest

Everton look like the Amy Klobuchar of the Premier League right now, charging up the table in recent weeks. Their schedule has been very kind, but they’ve put up some genuine numbers since Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival, especially in attack. With fixtures coming up against five of last season’s top six plus Leicester in the next seven games, this side’s newfound credentials are about to be seriously tested.

Crystal Palace, on the other hand, more closely resemble Joe Biden, with what seemed like a really promising season petering out rapidly as one of the most experienced figures around watches on. It’s worth mentioning they never looked great numbers-wise, benefitting from some hugely positive finishing skews. It happens to the best of us.

Some high profile mistakes from Jordan Pickford have led many to question whether he should start for England in the European Championships this summer. On a pure stats level, it does look like Gareth Southgate should be considering the case for Dean Henderson.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Are Rodri, Tanguy Ndombele and Dani Ceballos Changing The Way Their Teams Play?

New season, new look midfields.

Liverpool didn’t sign anyone of huge importance. Chelsea couldn’t sign anyone who wasn’t already registered at the club. Man Utd made the confounding choice to simply pretend the middle of the park doesn’t exist. But for the other three sides in the so called top six, arguably the most important additions they made were in midfield. It’s early days here of course, with both a period of adaptation allowed and the simple issue of a small sample size hurting any real analysis, but nonetheless there are initial signs that Rodri, Tanguy Ndombele and Dani Ceballos are changing how Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal play football. Let’s take a closer look at what each of the three are doing.

Rodri

A defensive midfielder has been Man City’s biggest and most obvious position of need for some time now. It’s not one that has gone unnoticed within the club, as City tried and failed to get Pep Guardiola’s biggest target in the role, Jorginho, last summer. What it meant was that City became ever so reliant on now 34 year old Fernandinho’s fitness to maintain the midfield control the system needed to function at its best. Still, City decided against signing a less ideal player last summer after Jorginho chose Chelsea, and their patience has paid off, with Guardiola now having someone with the ideal skillset for what he wants to do at the base of midfield.

What he wants to do might be slightly different from what we have seen previously. In City’s two title winning seasons under Guardiola, Fernandinho has been a permanent fixture in defensive midfield, an invaluable pillar upon which the side is built. What the Brazilian does is quite interesting. In terms of the defensive numbers he puts up, Fernandinho barely pressures the ball. He’s not traditionally involved in City’s high pressing game at all, as that work has already been done by those higher up the pitch, though his efforts have creeped up slightly in recent times. Take a look at his pressures per 90 when broken down into half seasons:

2017/18 (first half): 12.00

2017/18 (second half): 8.24

2018/19 (first half): 9.37

2018/19 (second half): 16.36

In the final stretches of last season, Fernandinho was pressuring opponents twice as frequently as twelve months ago. Obviously it wasn’t because a team that won 17 out of their last 18 games were suddenly rubbish at pressing from the front. But what it represented was a return to more midfield-focused play that defined an earlier part of Guardiola’s career. His Barcelona sides at times felt like exercises in fitting as many ball playing midfielders in a single team, with Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara and Cesc Fàbregas occasionally all getting into the same lineup in a system where the so called striker was Lionel Messi. This began to shift at Bayern Munich and really came to completion at City. In the Catalan’s second season, the preferred system would see Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling stretched as wide as possible on their natural sides, while “free eights” Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva would frequently push high into the final third. Left back Fabian Delph would move into midfield to support Fernandinho, but the system still frequently felt like five defenders and five attackers.

This now seems to be changing. Last season saw Pep often move to playing inverted wingers, with Sterling now positioned much more narrow on the left. Riyad Mahrez seemed obviously signed as part of this plan to offer left footedness from the right, but towards the end of the year it actually ended up being Bernardo Silva taking up that role. The Portugal international is naturally more of a midfielder than Mahrez, so this tweaks the balance even further. And thus what it meant was that Fernandinho’s role changed. Before, he was more than anything else a get out of jail free card. On the rare occasion that City allowed the opposition to form any kind of real attack, Fernandinho could spring into life and fix it. But increasingly, City do have a “real” midfield, being asked to contribute consistently to both sides of the game. And that’s why Rodri has arrived.

In City’s first league game against West Ham, Rodri put up 28 pressure events, the most of any player for the away side. The following game against Spurs saw him manage 15, an obvious drop off but still quite a number considering Tottenham were barely able to get the ball out of their own half. Rodri felt like a slightly strange replacement for Fernandinho because he’s not really that similar a player, nor is Jorginho from the previous links. He probably doesn’t have the mobility to be the instant “fix” if the press goes wrong, and in possession he’s less forthright. Look at the passing sonars by comparison. On the left is Fernandinho last year, while on the right is Rodri for Villarreal in 2017/18 (chosen rather than Atlético Madrid last season because Simeone’s system is so different to Guardiola’s). Rodri’s passing is much tidier and calmer than what Fernandinho offered.

So Guardiola has someone who likely isn’t as mobile as Fernandinho, but is generally a more involved player without the ball and offers a shorter passing game. Are there any comparisons to work with here?

 

Ah. Looks like a move to more Barcelona-esque football is on and he’s found his new pivote.

Tanguy Ndombele

The thing about Tottenham’s midfield last season is that there wasn’t much of one. Mousa Dembélé was previously the engine that drove Spurs’ midfield with his one-of-a-kind ability to evade pressure to dribble and progress the ball through congested areas. With his physical decline came poorer performances and eventually a sale last January. That plus Eric Dier’s poor form and Victor Wanyama’s injuries meant that Spurs were awfully light in such a key area, so much so that Pochettino adapted to a style of football that attempted to make the midfield largely irrelevant. But that always felt like more of a quick fix than something the manager really believed in for the long term, so Spurs decided to spend a big chunk of money on a ready-made solution.

In Tottenham’s StatsBomb season preview, Joel Wertheimer gave us a flavour of what the Frenchman is intended to provide in North London:

“Ndombele solves almost all of the problems Tottenham had last season. His ball winning is excellent, and while not quite Mousa Dembélé level, he offers much more range than Tottenham had in midfield last season. He also adds the ball progression that the team sorely lacked from midfield last season, and is perhaps the best deep midfield passer Spurs have had under Mauricio Pochettino. Mousa Dembélé, who had an elite pass completion percentage rarely pinged balls across the park like Ndombele can, instead beating a man and finding a good, simple pass that way. Ndombele’s 0.13 open play expected assists per 90 minutes represents attacking incisiveness in midfield Spurs desperately needed. In Spurs’ first preseason match against Juventus, Ndombele showed Spurs fans what they have been missing, picking off a crossfield pass at the edge of the final third, taking two touches, and threading a gorgeous through ball to Lucas Moura for a goal.  

Rather than being overstretched as the key player in midfield, the somewhat juvenated Moussa Sissoko will be able to play a more limited role. Harry Winks and Eric Dier will now be able to play at the base of midfield for Tottenham, and perhaps Dier can return to his old self after a season of never-ending maladies”.

And what have we seen so far? Signs are positive without being sensational. The game against Man City was one in which Spurs were penned deep into their own half, with Guardiola’s structured press being specifically aimed at stopping them from getting out. This was exactly the kind of situation where Dembélé would have been so useful in previous seasons, and one could easily imagine him playing through City’s press to get Spurs up the pitch. Ndombele is better than Dembélé at a number of things, but as seen from his dribbles and carries in this game, there weren’t too many occasions were he was able to really progress the ball that far forward.

 

 

What he does have, as Wertheimer mentioned, is a better passing range. Ndombele managed three final third entries against City, and all three were passes. The former Lyon man is undoubtedly a hugely gifted midfielder, and almost certain to be an excellent signing for Spurs, but he is not an identikit replacement for his near namesake. Ndombele is at Tottenham to star in an all new midfield, not merely replicate what came before.

Dani Ceballos

While Ndombele and Rodri are filling clearly defined roles for managers with very distinct systems, Ceballos is arriving to something much more flexible. The most obvious person he’s replacing in the squad is Aaron Ramsey, who certainly had his qualities but in different ways to Ceballos. Ramsey offered a somewhat interesting package of being a decently involved midfielder in possession while still getting forward to add goals and assists and also putting up solid defensive work. He wasn’t always fit, but he offered a good mix of talents. One thing he did not do so well is dribble, and that’s where things change now. If you know Ceballos for anything, it’s probably those compilation videos of his fairly ridiculous dribbling skills through tight spaces and congested midfields. When looking at Arsenal’s other midfield options, you have good passers in Granit Xhaka and Mattéo Guendouzi, a strong ball winner in Lucas Torreira, creators who generally like to play higher up in Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but no hugely gifted dribbler until now.

Ceballos played in a slightly more advanced role than he traditionally has against Burnley, as a number ten behind Guendouzi and Joe Willock. Nonetheless, he still ended up picking the ball in plenty of different areas, and his dribbles and carries show a player quite adept at driving the ball forward.

 

The question will be whether Ceballos is continually able to do this, or whether the more advanced role restricts him to being a pure number ten. That might be suboptimal, as it still feels like he produces his best work with more of the game in front of him. With Emery’s frequent tinkering he could easily tweak things if they’re not going so well. But regardless of position, Arsenal have themselves an excellent player who offers things no one else in their squad does.

Brighton and Hove Albion: 2019-20 Season Preview

Can a different style of football get more out of these players?

On the 17th April 2017, Brighton and Hove Albion were promoted to the Premier League.

The club knew that the side needed strengthening, and set about to make some interesting moves. Pascal Gross, Mat Ryan, Davy Pröpper and José Izquierdo came in amongst others and had a big impact, Gross especially. The team struck the right blend between manager Chris Hughton’s compact style with two banks of four and a sprinkling of quality in the final third. Brighton finished a hard fought 15th, hitting the magic 40 point number exactly.

Like any club heading into a second Premier League season, they wanted to further cement their place in the top flight, and so money was spent. First choice striker Glenn Murray was 34 years old, so Florin Andone and Jürgen Locadia were brought in to challenge him upfront. Right back Bruno was 37(!), so Bernardo arrived as his heir apparent. The team was heavily reliant on Gross for creativity, so Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Yves Bissouma arrived. Jahanbakhsh would also offer a goal threat from out wide, while Bissouma would improve the team’s ball progression from deeper areas while displacing the uninspiring Dale Stephens. It all seemed like it was well thought out, with clear long term thinking. Brighton could push on and perhaps may not even have to worry about relegation if these players hit the ground running.

Cut to twelve months later. Murray has turned 35 and played more football than Andone and Locadia put together. Bruno still put in 1200 minutes. Record signing Jahanbakhsh managed 12 starts all year, no goals or assists. Bissouma has done ok, but still played less than Stephens or Propper in midfield. The team finished four points worse off than the previous year, barely scraping survival. Hughton was sacked straight after the season ended. What happened?

Well, in a sense, nothing happened. In Brighton’s first Premier League season, they were a side with generally poor numbers save for a brief spell in the second half of the season where they looked solid. In 2018/19, largely the same thing happened again. The numbers were a shade worse, putting up an expected goal difference per game of -0.45 rather than -0.40, but nothing so dramatic as to suggest anything had seriously changed.

 

The biggest story seemed to be that Hughton had a clear idea of how he wanted to do things while the recruitment team had another. For Hughton, the number one priority seemed to be keeping a good defensive shape, and so that meant players who understood what he wanted and would follow the instructions, sticking with the guys he trusted. The recruitment team seemed to take the view that the club should be moving to a more expansive style to progress in the top flight, winning the ball higher up the pitch and playing some more aesthetically pleasing stuff. When you’re the manager, you get to win the battle. And so, in the way Hughton drew it up, Brighton were not an aggressive side in trying to win the ball back. Their passes per defensive action, the number of passes you allow the opposition to make before an attempt to regain possession, was the second largest of any team in the league. They were happy to sit back, get into a good shape, and soak up pressure.

 

When they had the ball, it was also a fairly traditional English style of play. Brighton relied on crosses to get the ball into the box more than any other side bar Huddersfield.

Whether this was the right or wrong approach by Hughton is up for debate. Perhaps Brighton would have been extremely porous without the centre backs receiving such a level of protection. Perhaps the players brought in last summer simply weren’t good enough. What can’t be argued, though, is that there was far too much disconnect between Hughton and the recruitment people. Thus it was imperative that chairman Tony Bloom and new technical director Dan Ashworth get everyone on the same page. It seems as though they took the view that Hughton was the problem rather than the players, and the former Republic of Ireland international was dismissed in favour of someone who could bring a more progressive style of football.

Enter Graham Potter.

Just about the only thing Hughton and Potter have in common as managers is their country of birth. The headlines around Potter are usually about some fairly outside the box approaches to man management, but the stuff he gets his teams to do on the pitch is usually interesting as well. Looking at his Swansea team of last season shows some interesting ideas. On one hand, they had the fourth highest average possession, at 57%. And yet they had the third highest passes per defensive action in the division. Swansea were extremely comfortable at retaining the ball when they had it, but were very relaxed about trying to win it back when they didn’t. In the modern game, possession football and high pressing tend to go hand in hand, but not with Potter.

 

Looking at their defensive activity map, this is the least active side I can remember seeing. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw. Potter has his players press relatively hard in both penalty areas, and almost nowhere else.

 

And any highlight reel shows you that they were capable of playing some pretty slick stuff out from the back when they had it. This approach isn’t too different to what Potter did at Östersunds, a team similar to Brighton in that they have a significant resource disadvantage to the bigger sides in the Allsvenskan, so it’s hard to imagine he won’t go for this style at the Amex.

 

 

Swansea were a better side than you probably think last season, with an xG difference per game of +0.25, the fifth best in the division. It’s not that hard to imagine an alternate reality where everything goes their way and they luck into a promotion. There was nothing to suggest Potter wasn’t the manager people thought he was after the miracles he was involved with at Östersunds.

There are reasons why it might be harder to translate his philosophy to the South coast of England than it was to South Wales. Though it had waned in recent years, possession football was at the core of Swansea’s identity dating back to their time moving up the divisions with Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers. At Brighton, he’ll be implementing them largely from scratch. Many of the Premier League era signings are comfortable in a different style of football, yes, but arguably more of a pressing game. The core of Hughton’s first choice eleven are largely untested at this kind of football. As such, signings are key.

First up is Adam Webster at centre back, arriving from Bristol City for £20 million. Potter likes to switch between two and three centre back systems, and incumbents Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have strong qualities but are not renowned for their work with the ball at their feet, so it made sense to add another option here. By comparison, Webster has some rather extreme ideas about how to play football. Let’s take a look at some passing sonars. Here are Dunk and Duffy’s (Dunk is on the left, Duffy on the right).

Fairly standard stuff we’d expect from a traditional style centre back pairing. Both are more active on their own sides and neither is really getting involved higher up the pitch. Now here’s Webster’s from last season, admittedly a division down.

 

If you didn’t know, it would not be at all obvious that this is the sonar of a centre back. The guy has no fear in pushing up the pitch and getting involved in attacking play. And he doesn’t seem to be much of a calming influence at the back, either. All of his passing seems to be high risk, focused on starting attacks. There’s a fun Twitter video of Webster dribbling up the pitch with total belief in his own ability, uninterested in keeping it tight and safe. His passing accuracy of just 76% is a testament more than anything else to how much he takes risks. He’s going to change the way Brighton play. Whether he’s a good enough defender at Premier League level is something we’re going to find out.

Elsewhere, Leandro Trossard is another of the raft of players coming over to England from the Belgian top flight. He’s a dribbly winger who adds goals and assists and will hope to offer what Jahanbakhsh failed to deliver on last season, but it’s difficult to predict how someone will adjust to the Premier League straight from Belgium.

Neal Maupay felt like one of the most obvious Championship players ready to move up to the Premier League. Along with his goal threat, Maupay offers speed in behind and a good ability to press from the front, though who knows if Potter will use that tool. His numbers look good, though not dramatically better than Andone in La Liga, and that was obviously a harder league than the Championship. But he does seem to offer more all round play, and it should help fade Murray out of the side, regardless.

 

There were times when Aaron Mooy felt like the only person trying to actually play some football in those Huddersfield teams. As such, it’s hard to read too much into his performances in the last two seasons, but if this move comes off, Brighton should get a decent creative passer in midfield who also puts a shift in creatively. As a loan, it’s hard to criticise the move too much.

The shift in approach for Brighton’s business this summer compared to last is dramatic. Trossard is the only player to arrive from a club outside of England, whereas all but one of the club’s first team outfield signings last time came from other shores. One can’t ignore the influence of Ashworth here, arriving from his role as The FA’s director of elite development. If it were up to me, I would have probably looked more towards Spain, Italy, France and Germany, but none of these signings feel totally without logic, and it does seem like there’s a much clearer understanding between those bought and what the manager wants to do with the squad.

I have no personal ties to Brighton, the club or the city, but I find myself really wanting this to work. Potter might be the most interesting English manager to emerge in a long time, and the league as a whole would benefit from him successfully coaching his style of play here. As much as we didn’t see it last season, I do think the players signed in past windows are capable of producing much more, and that it’s time to move away from some of Hughton’s trusted lieutenants. The signings are solid, but it’s not a drastic overhaul, so it really feels like the season will live or die on Potter’s ability to get more out of those on the fringes of the squad last season. It might fail. They might get horribly exposed and finish the season in 20th. But I feel positive about this. Brighton could surprise and do better than most expect this year.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

England Under-21s Had a Disastrous Euros. There Are Still Players Who Can Make the Step Up.

In terms of results, it’s hard to imagine England Under-21s having a worse tournament than what played out in Italy this summer at the European Championship.

Things started off reasonably well. England first played a France side stacked with top tier talents like Houssem Aouar and Moussa Dembélé. The Young Lions were able to play a mostly even game with the French for an hour, with a terrific individual goal from Phil Foden putting England ahead. An inexplicable moment of stupidity from Hamza Choudhury, however, put England down to ten men.

With the side not only a man down but playing without the squad’s sole defensive midfielder (in the kind of quirk that national teams often deal with, England’s talented young midfielders right now are overwhelmingly forward thinkers), England were totally unable to prevent France from generating attacks and deservedly conceded two late goals. The volume of good chances France created in the last half hour makes it hard to argue with the result, but there were genuine signs of encouragement when the contest was eleven against eleven.

There were fewer positive signs in the subsequent games. Choudhury’s suspension really hamstrung England, and an unbalanced midfield were never able to exert any control over matches. Granted, when you concede three goals from outside the box, as the Young Lions did against Romania, it’s hard not to feel like fate was working against you. But these were chaotic games where anything that could happen seemingly did. They spoke to England’s lack of disciplined midfielders, and arguably manager Aidy Boothroyd’s selection choices.

What they did not speak to, though, is the talent of the players. Of the 23-man squad, 14 have won a World Cup or European Championship at various youth levels with England. Among those without an international medal are Aaron Wan-Bissaka, recently bought by Manchester United for £50 million, and James Maddison, who would likely command an even higher fee if he made the same rumoured move. This is a promising group.

England senior side manager Gareth Southgate will surely want to see promote plenty of them in the coming years so let’s take a look at who might be progressing and how close they are to break through. (For purposes of this article, we have only looked at outfield players. Goalkeepers aren’t under as much of a time-crunch to develop, so let’s give Dean Henderson, Angus Gunn and Freddie Woodman a few more years before making serious judgements on them.)

Tier One: Ready Right Now

 

 

This is less a tier than a man. Mohamed Mohamed wrote about Maddison here at StatsBomb back in April, and it’s obvious that his qualities could translate to international football:

“[Maddison is] just constantly on his toes trying to get himself into open space for teammates to get him the ball. Whether it be moving a couple of yards diagonally to be between two opposition players, or making in-out cuts on the blindside of his marker to lose him, he’s got a lot of tricks in the bag… His positioning and ability to interpret space is arguably his greatest strength, constantly hunting for openings within the opposition. His ability to pass into tight windows in the middle third has been solid, along with his capacity to either be the initiator of combination plays or act as the link-man.”

No English midfielder under 24 completed more open-play passes into the box per 90 in the Premier League last season, while only Harry Winks managed more deep progressions. There were concerns earlier in the season that the 4-3-3 system England are currently operating would not have space for a No.10 like Maddison. This has been somewhat alleviated since Rodgers’ arrival at Leicester has seen the 22-year-old move into more of a “free eight” role alongside Youri Tielemans, though one can wonder whether England’s midfield shape is too conservative for someone like him.

Nonetheless, he offers playmaking qualities sorely lacking in a team that recently started a midfield three of Declan Rice, Fabian Delph and Ross Barkley. He might not be a perfect fit, but he would certainly offer variety to England’s build-up play that has been lacking. Call him up in September, Gareth.

 

Tier Two: Options For Euro 2020, if They Have a Good Season

 

 

Ryan Sessegnon’s first season in the Premier League could not have been under worse circumstances. In one campaign, Fulham went through three different managers, all with their own ideas about how to use Sessegnon, and all unable to build anything like a coherent side. It’s hard to fault Sessegnon for not setting the world alight in such an environment, and it’s not obvious that this should be a permanent black mark against him. Even through all this, he put up a better open-play expected goals assisted per 90 than any young English player in the Premier League except Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had teammates a fair bit better than Sessegnon’s. A move to Spurs has been heavily rumoured and Mauricio Pochettino could well help him develop his obvious talent. While Sessegnon offers a lot on the ball in the final third, his acceleration could better suit starting at the left-back role from which he can move up the pitch. Here he could easily challenge Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw for that England spot in the long term.

If any young player is obviously being groomed to make the leap to the senior team eventually, it’s Phil Foden. Player of the tournament in the Under-17 World Cup two years ago, Foden has transitioned to the Under-21 side without an issue, proving to be England’s outstanding performer against France. Of course, playing for Manchester City is both a blessing and a curse, as he has both the ideal manager to develop under and perhaps the toughest pathway to a starting role in world football. It’s very easy to imagine Foden playing less than 1000 league minutes next season and this would be a not insignificant hinderance to his development. Nonetheless, his talent is so obvious that even in those circumstances, one could imagine Southgate taking him to Euro 2020 as the 23rd man in the squad.

There are a lot of reasons to be sceptical of Frank Lampard’s appointment as Chelsea manager, but it could be good news for more than a few young English players. Mason Mount may or may not be ready to play Champions League football. What he does have is a season under Lampard at Derby, and if the new boss at Stamford Bridge takes some time to get Chelsea playing the way he wants, he may look to people who already understand what that is. Mount was more of a solid contributor at Derby than anything spectacular, but Lampard is clearly a fan, and anyone who gets serious minutes for Chelsea is likely to be in the England frame almost by default (see: Barkley, Ross).

 

 

In much the same boat is perennial StatsBomb favourite Tammy Abraham. Across two seasons in the Championship, the 21-year-old has scored 41 non-penalty goals, at a rate of just over half a goal per 90. Sandwiched in between those two second-tier seasons was a year at Swansea. While this year was deemed a failure by many (enough for Chelsea to send him back down a division), it came at a truly awful attacking side that spent a lot of time relying on the “playmaking” abilities of Tom Carroll and Sam Clucas.

Despite having as close as a striker will ever get to no service, Abraham still put up a solid 0.31 expected goals per 90, the best rate of any young English player outside the top six. Chelsea’s past disinterest in promoting young players has been particularly tough on Abraham, but he could well be the one to benefit the most from Lampard’s appointment. The solid-but-unspectacular Callum Wilson currently serves as England’s back up to Harry Kane and it’s not unreasonable for Abraham to target overtaking the Bournemouth man this season.

Wilson could well also face competition closer to home, and I’d be remiss not to mention another past stats (and personal) favourite here. His Bournemouth colleague Dominic Solanke is highly thought of within the England youth setup, having won the Golden Ball at the 2017 Under-20 World Cup and continued his good work at Under-21 level with nine goals in 18 appearances. On a purely numbers level, his time at Liverpool was fairly ridiculous in a very small sample size, putting up a figure of 0.76 expected goals and expected goals assisted per 90, better than anyone at the club save for Mohamed Salah. It’s entirely possible that this small sample size was wildly unrepresentative of his true ability, and some injury issues have seen him not yet hit his stride at Bournemouth, but it’s definitely possible that he could establish himself as Bournemouth’s most important striker, and Southgate would be hard pressed to take Wilson ahead of him next summer.

 

Tier Three: Longer Term Bets

Aaron Wan-Bissaka might be the unluckiest player on this list. The right-back had a huge breakout season for Crystal Palace, earning widespread plaudits and getting a big money move to Manchester United. Were he playing just about anywhere else on the pitch, he’d be a shoo-in for the England squad. As it is, Kyle Walker has fully established himself as the country’s first choice right-back while Trent Alexander-Arnold stands just behind him as one of the most promising young English players in any position. Wan-Bissaka is another player Mohamed wrote about recently for StatsBomb, and most of it remains relevant in an England context:

“Manchester United potentially spending up to £50 million on Wan-Bissaka represents a bet on him eventually becoming one of the better fullbacks in the world two to three years from now. For that to occur, his offensive value will have to get to a high enough level through ironing out some of the kinks. Given how good he projects to be defensively over the next few years, it might be that he merely needs to be a slight net-positive offensively rather than a no-doubt stud in attack. It’s not impossible to imagine that being the case for Wan-Bissaka: his dribbling abilities are outstanding and that alone brings value. His passing isn’t a lost cause, though it’s not a strength yet.

The hope is that his dribbling abilities continue to translate and create passing opportunities for him that it wouldn’t exist for others, and with more reps in advanced areas as well as playing with talented teammates at United, he becomes a better offensive player. That version of Wan-Bissaka would be more than worth the high price tag that United will reportedly paid for his services. The more pessimistic angle would be that Wan-Bissaka’s passing never appreciably develops from its current state, and as a result, his game doesn’t quite scale up to the highest level of competition and makes him less of an asset.”

It’s hard to disagree with Mohamed’s central thesis: that Wan-Bissaka is an excellent defensive full back who offers much in terms of dribbling ability but needs to improve his passing. This feels in complete contrast to his England rival Alexander-Arnold, who offers so much on the ball but at times gets caught out by fast wide players. The race to become Walker’s successor might be one about seeing who can add the other side to their game first. Right now, the Liverpool player seems very much in front, but time could be on the new Old Trafford arrival’s side if he can continue to improve.

 

 

Leicester pair Harvey Barnes and Hamza Choudhury have both acquitted themselves well under Brendan Rodgers and could easily make the jump to the national side at some point. In his half-season loan to West Brom, Barnes had the highest scoring contribution of any young English player in the Championship, with expected numbers largely backing up these performances. As one would expect, his numbers were a little worse when returning to the Premier League, but still offered enough as a solid wide forward contributor to suggest there could be a real player here. Choudhury, meanwhile, has put up big defensive midfield numbers in limited minutes. Leicester already have one of the league’s better aggressive ball-winning midfielders in Wilfried Ndidi, so minutes are limited for the youngster, but Rodgers has shown willingness to use them both in big games. Choudhury probably can’t contribute to England right now, but as Jordan Henderson ages out of the side and Eric Dier seemingly won’t push on, there may be an opening for him in the future.

 

 

Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been knocking around international youth football for some time now without ever seriously threatening to break into the senior team, but he still looks capable of doing so. His 3.9 aerial wins per 90 in the Premier League last season puts him as one of the more dominant target men in the division, and it’s relatively rare for someone to match that with the burst of pace that he has. Calvert-Lewin is still a fairly unimpressive goal threat, getting just six last year from 22.1 90s, but the raw tools are such that he could be an excellent all-round forward in a few years.

Morgan Gibbs-White could have the highest ceiling of anyone in this squad bar Foden, though there is still quite a lot of work that needs to be done to get there. The Wolves man was an impressive cog in the Under-17 World Cup winning side, failing to get the headlines of Foden or Rhian Brewster but still looking a cut above most of the others in the knockout stages. While his role in that tournament was out wide, most of his minutes for Wolves have been in more of a central, creative midfield role, and he may end up moving even deeper. Like many young players, it’s not obvious what he’ll end up being, but as a technique player capable of a dribble he should be able to fit in somewhere.

 

 

Elsewhere, Reiss Nelson was heavily flattered by a goal return in the Bundesliga last season of seven from an expected total of 1.94, but he nonetheless seems a useful wide forward who should hopefully get minutes for Arsenal next season and is young enough at 19 that he has time to develop into something more. Centre-backs are perhaps the most difficult position to project future success onto, since it relies so much on both surroundings and reading of the game that can develop a little later. Nonetheless, Derby’s player of the season Fikayo Tomori hasn’t done anything wrong yet. A fairly aggressive front foot defender, he should suit the relatively high pressing style that England want to implement long term. Lloyd Kelly has largely played left-back so far in his career, but the centre is probably his final destination. If past performance is an indicator, he’s going to a lot of defending to do under Eddie Howe’s style at Bournemouth, so there should be plenty of learning opportunities. Similarly, Ezri Konsa is making the Premier League jump after a year in the Championship and has a reasonable shot at being a very good defender, but it’s difficult to predict what he will end up being.

Tier Four: Longer Shots

It might be harsh to put Jonjoe Kenny in this category. He’s a right back who provides solid defensive work and decent attacking play with rare dominance in the air from that position. But if Wan-Bissaka is unlucky to have to compete against this right-back crop, the argument applies doubly so to Kenny.

Similarly, Jake Clarke-Salter could easily be in the above group, but for a 21-year-old Chelsea loanee to still spend time at Vitesse does not suggest he is considered a future star by the Stamford Bridge hierarchy. If he doesn’t at least go to a decent Championship side this season, he should be thinking about a permanent move away from Chelsea. Someone who has quit the Stamford Bridge loan army is Jay Dasilva, a solid all round left-back now owned by Bristol. He may surprise us, but considering Chilwell is only a year older than him as England’s established starter in that role, and he doesn’t have the upside of someone like Sessegnon, the future may not be bright for his England career. Kieran Dowell probably has a future at Premier League level, but it just might not be for England. After Choudhury was sent off in the first game and England lacked any other natural defensive midfielders, Dowell moved to the deeper role and looked as though his passing could be a threat from that position, perhaps more so than higher up the pitch. Spending the second half of last season on loan at Sheffield United, he looked ok, and will spend another year in the Championship at Derby. Dowell could be a solid player eventually, but it doesn’t seem like he’s particularly special.

Last and, to be brutally honest, least is Demarai Gray. At 22, he is no longer eligible for the Under-21 side, and in truth it’s not obvious that he should have played as much as he did at the Euros. Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi are both significantly younger than Gray and have already jumped well ahead of him in terms of Southgate’s wide options. Even Marcus Rashford is younger than the Leicester winger. Looking at his numbers, it’s hard to find anything that stands out as really exciting. All the best, Demarai.

 

Champions League Semi-Final Preview: Barcelona vs Liverpool

Barcelona against Liverpool is the kind of encounter that just a few years ago would have felt like David against Goliath but now seems, in theory at least, finely balanced. FiveThirtyEight have this fixture as tight as it could possibly be, with Liverpool favoured to go through 51% of the time, and while the bookmakers are somewhat more sold on Barcelona (SkyBet has the Catalans at an implied probability of 60% to reach the final), only the most ardent of Blaugranes would expect this to be a cakewalk. They could be right, of course, as anything can happen, but most are expecting a close fought encounter, so let’s take a closer look at what we might see over these two games.

The Season So Far

Barcelona once again won the La Liga title largely in cruise control. Real Madrid’s implosion and Atletico seemingly reaching their ceiling meant that Ernesto Valverde’s team merely had to be good enough, and that is what they have been. Looking at the numbers, Barcelona remain the best side in La Liga, but not quite at the heights we’ve seen in the past. The team are generating 1.70 expected goals per game, the most in the division, but down a notch from last season’s 1.96. The defence, meanwhile, hasn’t seen much of a change (0.99 xG conceded per game this year against 1.01 last time), but this isn’t much to shout about when it puts them as merely the 8th best team in La Liga on that side of the ball. Things have shaken out as largely the same in the Champions League, putting up an xG difference per game of 0.77 in this competition compared to 0.71 in the league. We’re still talking about one of the best sides in Europe here, but things aren’t quite what they once were.

Barca’s most potent attacking weapon is, well, you already know the answer to that question. First in xG per 90. First in xG assisted. First in xGChain. First in deep progressions. First in passes into the box. First in sponsorship deals with unhealthy junk food and soft drinks he certainly never touches. First in appearances on video game covers. No, it’s not Rafinha.

 

 

Almost exactly 50% of Barca’s expected goals this season have been taken or assisted by Lionel Messi, and that doesn’t even account for all the ball progression work he does before we get to the shot or the assist. As much as this team have issues elsewhere, Messi has once again been electric. This is very much necessary, as the club’s other key attackers are having somewhat down years. Luis Suarez has seen a 25% decrease in his expected goals and assists per 90 this season. Whether this is merely a disappointing year or the beginning of a terminal decline for the 32 year old remains to be seen. Still, there remains a strong understanding between Suarez and Messi, even as the former is the junior partner more than ever before. The same cannot be said of Philippe Coutinho. After flirting with a deeper role, the Brazilian has generally been fielded on the left of the front three, nominally the position where he played his best football for Liverpool. In those final 18 months where he really shone on Merseyside, however, his playmaking skills were emphasised, while Sadio Mane and later Mohamed Salah offered pace running in behind on the opposite flank. At Barca, the task for a wide player is totally different, with the need being to offer an outlet without the ball while Messi takes a ball dominant role. This is an awkward fit, and one he has only somewhat adapted to.

 

 

The team has not been static over the course of the season, and clear adjustments have been made along the way. Seemingly accepting that Marc-Andre ter Stegen is merely human, Valverde’s side have become more cautious as the year has gone on. When looking at the xG trendlines, there’s a very obvious move towards a declining attack met with an improving defence. Things are slowly tightening up.

 

 

The change here has been in the quality of shots faced. Since the winter break, the model estimates that the shots Barca have conceded are 10% less likely to be scored than those before Christmas. With the volume of shots conceded largely static, this quality difference has led to 0.15 fewer expected goals conceded per game. Valverde has improved his side’s biggest hole, even if it has come at a cost to the attacking end.

As for Liverpool, the story has been largely about maintaining a high level of performance across the season. The team’s xG difference per game of 0.98 lags somewhat behind Manchester City’s, but still puts them far and away ahead of every other team in the Premier League and, while you can’t really compare two different leagues on such a like for like basis, ahead of Barcelona. Jurgen Klopp’s team is, to put it simply, really good.

After a midseason flirtation with a 4-2-3-1 shape, the tried and trusted 4-3-3 has returned in recent months to good effect. This revolves around Roberto Firmino nominally leading the line and the press but frequently dropping into deeper positions to allow the narrowly positioned wide players, Salah and Mane, to attack the space he vacates and get on the end of chances. In the absence of width from the forward line, full backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have been positioned especially high, and crossing from these players has become an important part of Liverpool’s attack.

The compromise has come in the form of the side’s rather functional midfield. The current preferred trio of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Naby Keita are all performing relatively well, with Keita especially beginning to shine, but with the extent to which the full backs push up the pitch, there seems to be something of a reluctance to allow the midfield to focus on anything but hard work and solidity. This passmap in the most recent league fixture against Huddersfield Town illustrates the set up, with the central midfield trio not averaging touches any higher up the pitch than the fullbacks.

 

 

The emphasis on a functional midfield trio leaves the side without much in the way of a creative passing threat in central areas. Keita has started to offer more of a threat in this regard, but as part of an impressive all round game rather than being a specialist at it. This means that Liverpool lack traditional playmaking qualities in the centre of the pitch, and instead have to rely on two attacking threats: the aforementioned crossing from fullbacks, and counter-pressing situations in the opposition half. Klopp is famous for his claim that a counter-pressing system is the best playmaker in the world, and he’s taken it quite literally here. Fortunately for him, he’s coached a side extremely adept at creating these chances, with pressure in the correct moments a huge part of how Liverpool attack. Liverpool are not, unlike some top sides, a team that usually press to the opposition goalkeeper (though it has happened on a few occasions), but hit at specific moments, in specifically worked scenarios. It used to be that the way to counter this was to defend deep and narrow, but the increased use of the full backs in wide areas has made this more difficult.

The front three are without doubt the main attraction. Salah had a difficult patch in February and March, but this was the exception, and his form in April saw him return to previous heights. Mane has scored a number of goals and continues to do so in important moments, even if the extent to which this is repeatable is unclear. His 20 league goals from an xG of 14.27 is quite the return, though the underlying numbers are still strong. Firmino might be the most important element, though. His ability to lead a press from the striker position is perhaps unrivaled in European football, and his understanding with Salah and Mane is so strong that these frequently turn into goal scoring opportunities. That everyone in the world has accepted the Liverpool striker doesn’t have to score 25 goals a season is a testament to everything else he does. There are some questions over whether he will be fit to start the first leg of the tie, and this could have a huge impact on the game.

 

So How Will They Match Up?

Jurgen Klopp has approached big games this season in a number of different ways, so it’s not obvious what to expect. The likeliest scenario might be that Liverpool attempt to attack almost exclusively in moments of transition, avoiding much possession and looking to press Barcelona while unsettled, launching quickly into counter attacks. Considering the combination of Barca’s status as a relatively (though not outrageously) high pressing side and a number of ageing, increasingly slow players such as Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, there is a decent chance that this could cause some problems. Add in the importance of left back Jordi Alba as an attacking cog and the script for some defensive issues writes itself. Whether Firmino is fit to start is an important question, though it may not change Liverpool’s approach significantly. If he is unavailable, the most likely scenario is Mane moving to the centre forward role while Divock Origi plays on the left, continuing the counter-pressing style, albeit at a lesser ability.

At the other end, this may be a game for Liverpool’s fullbacks to be somewhat more conservative than usual. Messi obviously is a threat everywhere, and that he’s nominally attacking one of Liverpool’s strongest links between Robertson and Van Dijk might not necessarily have a huge impact. The other side might be less of a concern. As much as Alexander-Arnold has suffered defensive issues, it has generally been against fast players who want to run in behind, so Coutinho may be the ideal opponent for him. It’s a simplistic conclusion, but it feels like this tie will be decided by how much Barca are able to involve Messi. For now, though, the smart money might be on a relatively close fought affair tonight, leaving things wide open for the second leg at Anfield. Unless you are reading this after the game has been played and you are laughing at how completely and utterly wrong I was.

Should be a cracker.

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Are Southampton Making Progress Under Ralph Hasenhüttl?

When Southampton replaced Mark Hughes with Ralph Hasenhüttl in December, there was a real sense of getting back on track, of returning to the values that served the Saints so well in their first few years back in the top flight. So is it working?

In the crudest possible terms, Hasenhüttl’s primary job this season has been to keep Southampton up. The club are currently five points from the drop, and the bookmakers only have their chances of starting next season in the Championship at around 1.2-2.5%. Things should be ok. Hasenhüttl can not unreasonably expect to keep his job and look to take things further next year.

But the promise of the Austrian was more than a simple firefighter. The hope, the dream, was that he could have a similar impact to that of Mauricio Pochettino several years ago. Though a different brand of football, more the Austrian-German counter-pressing and transition-heavy style than Pochettino’s Marcelo Bielsa-influenced pressing to the goalkeeper, there was a belief that Hasenhüttl could implement a playing style into the club and build a side with a clear identity. This is a longer term project and it’s obviously too early to judge the success of this, but it’s worth evaluating how much has been achieved so far.

 

 

Quantitatively, it’s not obvious that this edition of Southampton are currently any better than the side we saw under Hughes. The Welshman saw the Saints put up an expected goal difference per game of -0.29. Hasenhüttl has seen that figure rise all the way to an incredible -0.28. In that regard it feels as though the “Alpine Klopp” is on a not too dissimilar first season in England than the German himself. Though Jürgen Klopp took over Liverpool in October 2015, it took until the following season for the side to really develop the identity one associates with them today. With a tactical structure yet to be introduced, the main thing Liverpool did that season was just a lot of pressing, often incoherently. Hasenhüttl’s Southampton, so far, have been not too different.

 

That’s a lot of red in the defensive activity map. Southampton may not be very good, but it isn’t due to a lack of effort. And they’re not just pressing harder, but higher. The side’s defensive distance has risen from 41.84 to 43.60 since the Austrian turned up.

This is in some ways a return to what Southampton are supposed to be doing. Hughes’ predecessors, Mauricio Pellegrino and Claude Puel, weren’t always producing the most entertaining football to watch, but both favoured something of a more proactive approach to defending. Looking at the graph of the number of opposition passes allowed before an attempt to win the ball back below, it’s obvious that Hughes’ team were much more relaxed about letting opponents have long spells of possession, and Hasenhüttl has overseen a return to Pellegrino levels. Hughes is less associated with defensive organisation than someone like fellow Welshman Tony Pulis, but he’s still a British manager at heart, and his instincts without the ball are for the side to stay relatively deep and compact, so he had the players cut down on the pressing. Less so with Hasenhüttl, and it’s not a surprise that everyone seems to have largely been able to switch back to what they were doing before. The crucial thing, though, is that the way Hasenhüttl ultimately wants Southampton to play is not simply to do plenty of pressing, but to press at specific moments, to win the ball back at the right times to force fast transitions. This, one would expect, will take a longer period of time to teach.

 

 

Another similarity with Klopp’s first season is that Hasenhüttl just can’t seem to settle on a formation. Southampton went for the kind of 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 we saw Hasenhüttl embrace at RB Leipzig in last weekend’s win at Brighton, but this broke a recent run of favouring a back 3. Obviously Hasenhüttl, arriving in December, has not been immediately clear of who his strongest personnel are and how best to use them. When he is attempting to teach his players a clear system, though, switching between different systems does feel as though it will slow down the process of imprinting his approach on the club.

In terms of players, there are some signs of things settling. Mario Lemina’s fitness problems have led to Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Oriel Romeu establishing themselves as the first choice midfield double pivot. Romeu is a fairly conventional defensive midfielder, getting through a reasonable volume of work without contributing hugely to the attack, a fairly classic fit in the genre of “unglamorous” midfielders.

 

 

Højbjerg offers more of a two-way option. A decent all-rounder, the Dane leads Southampton in deep progressions per 90 (passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third) while still providing defensive output. It does seem like Hasenhüttl’s system is capping his attacking output at least a little bit, with a now greater focus on pressuring the opposition, but this midfield pairing seems reasonably stable.

 

 

Yan Valery has emerged fairly suddenly as the right back replacement for the departed Cédric Soares, but purely based on numbers, the 20 year old still looks like a work in progress. A relatively active defender who looks stronger in the air than one generally expects in that position, he will have to learn to offer more on the ball to become a serious talent in this role.

 

 

Higher up the pitch is where some squad construction issues seem to lie. Dušan Tadić, a key creative outlet for a number of years, was sold to Ajax. Southampton’s leading players in terms of open play passes into the box per 90 last season were Tadić and the talented but frustrating Sofiane Boufal. This year, with summer signings Stuart Armstrong and Mohamed Elyounoussi not being write-offs but not quite offering this skillset, the responsibility has fallen to Nathan Redmond.

 

That the next three most frequent passers into the box are all full backs shows the issue here. Southampton lack great creative passers in the final third. James Ward-Prowse has seen a lot of praise come his way recently, but he is much more of a set piece specialist than a consistent threat in open play. Redmond offers a solid dribbling threat, while Danny Ings has shown himself to be a useful striker when fit, but it still feels like a creative passer is a must buy this summer.

It’s really a point of transition for Southampton right now. The first hurdle Hasenhüttl had to clear, avoiding relegation, is well in sight. The second, to build a counter-pressing side that can gradually move back up the table, is rather more complex. The team hasn’t yet shown signs of really improving under his tenure, but he seems to be attempting to move towards a cohesive system very different to what was done under Hughes.

Assuming he keeps his job, this summer will be crucial for the Austrian in multiple ways. The transfer market, obviously, is a chance to reshape the squad at least a little bit toward what he wants to do. But the chance of a long preseason of serious tactical work could really help get his ideas across. Many of these Southampton players have been asked to press before, but no two pressing systems are quite the same, and what Hasenhüttl wants might be quite different to anything they’ve done in the past. It’s still entirely possible that his time in the south coast ends up being a failure, if the side fail to improve on this season. But there at least seems to be a coherent plan this time, rather than the bizarre attempt at short term thinking with Hughes. Southampton have the right idea, even if we can’t yet tell if the execution is there.

 

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Can Borussia Dortmund Win the Bundesliga?

As the second half of the Bundesliga season is about to kick off, Borussia Dortmund sit six points clear at the top of the table. They should be heavy favourites for the title, right?

Well, not so fast. At the time of writing, the betting markets have Borussia Dortmund at an implied probability of around 53-58% to win the Bundesliga. The favourites, yes, but not overwhelmingly so. FiveThirtyEight’s predictions have even less faith in Dortmund, putting their chances of victory at just 33%. So what is happening? Well, it won’t surprise any long time readers of StatsBomb that it’s time to take a look at our old friend expected goals. On the defensive end, things seem mostly normal, conceding 16 non-penalty goals from an xG of 17.84. A slight overperformance, but well within the bounds of normal variance.

It’s on the attacking side where things start to get interesting, with 42 non-penalty goals scored from 26.3 expected. To put it another way, Borussia Dortmund have created just 0.63 expected goals for every goal scored this season.

What’s the general hypothesis for this? Well, magic.

The Warlock

Ask anyone who pays close attention to expected goals and the name of Lucien Favre will receive hushed tones. StatsBomb founder Ted Knutson claimed that the Swiss coach “has a long history of high performance in the table with his teams spoofing how good xG models expect them to be. He’s done this consistently enough at Gladbach, then Nice, and now Dortmund that I believe his style of play basically exists in all the holes of naive xG models”.It doesn’t seem to matter which players he has. It doesn’t seem to matter what country he is in. It doesn’t even seem to matter how he approaches the game. Favre’s teams regularly beat xG.

The assumption of how they do it has been tactical conservatism, but aggression at the right moments. As Mike Goodman wrote here at StatsBomb back in September, “the magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models”. This has certainly been the story of Favre teams in the past. His Borussia Monchengladbach side were very much in contrast to the hyper high pressing style favoured in the Bundesliga in the middle of this decade, instead looking to play more conservatively and selectively. In his time at Nice, he encountered a very different league, with French football generally being much less frantic than that on the other side of the Franco-German border. Favre responded by becoming perhaps even deeper, with the defensive activity map from his second season in the South of France showing a heavy concentration toward the team’s own goal.

And what about Borussia Dortmund this season? Well, things couldn’t be more different.

What makes things interesting is the way that Dortmund are pressing. This season, they are allowing the opposition to make an average of 12.72 passes before attempting to win the ball that’s more uncontested passes than even Favre’s Nice. What we are seeing, then, is a team that pressure the opponents heavily in their own half, but without necessarily trying to quickly win the ball back.

This makes a certain amount of sense for understanding what Dortmund are doing. Defending deep and getting bodies in the way of shots would make sense for a team that typically beat xG on the defensive side, but less so on the attacking end. As has been established, however, Dortmund’s magic is all about the attack. As for why that is remains something of an open question. The obvious answer would be that they are getting fewer opposition players than usual between the shot and the goal. StatsBomb’s model, though, includes player positions and would likely pick up at least some of this, but is actually less positive on Dortmund than more traditional xG. This does make one question whether this is sustainable or merely a positive skew in variance.

Another possible reason for this overperformance is speed. Dortmund have several players who are, to put it bluntly, really fast. Chief among the attacking players this season is old favourite Marco Reus, finally fit again and thriving in the number ten role.

Looking at what he’s doing does give some sense of how Dortmund might be tricking the model. When watching all his goals and assists this season, he seems consistently involved in fast breaks, counter attacks, and situations where the opposing defenders look like they’ve failed to track their men due to the attackers’ rapid movement.

Reus’ partner in crime is, of course, Jadon Sancho. Only ten teenagers have managed to play at least 600 minutes in Europe’s top five leagues this season. None of the other nine have managed to get and assist half as many expected goals per 90 minutes as Sancho. The scary thing is that he’s still involved in useful ball progression on top of that. Along with his great speed being obviously useful in Dortmund’s fast breaks, his dribbling ability can help slow things down on the occasions when that is required, while his passes and cutbacks from wide areas toward central players arriving in the box remains a vital part of how the side get into such dangerous positions. Sancho is making 2.48 open play passes into the box per 90 while no other Dortmund player is getting anywhere close to that. Finding future stars is extremely difficult, and there are plenty of examples of brilliant teenagers who never achieved much, but right now there’s a strong case to be made that Sancho is the most exciting young player in football not named Kylian Mbappe.

Then there is the outlandish goalscoring form of Paco Alcacer. Often coming off the bench, Alcacer has been scoring a goal every 45 minutes. The Spaniard really has been effective this season, but even a basic glance at xG shows just how unlikely he is to keep scoring at this rate.

Alcacer has scored 12 goals from 13 shots on target. Goalkeepers are going to get in the way of his chances at some point. No one is that good at kicking the ball into the goal.

As much as there might be something giving the side an extra boost, it’s hard to really be confident that they should genuinely be this far ahead of xG. Dortmund are outscoring xG from both open play and set pieces. They are ahead on both headers and shots with feet. They are ahead on chances created from crosses, created from through balls, and created from just about any other kind of pass. They are ahead on shots that were assisted and shots that were unassisted. They finish chances better than expected regardless of whether they are winning, losing or drawing. They are ahead in first halves and second halves. If there were certain types of chances, or situations, when they were specifically ahead, it would be much easier to isolate what is happening. As it is, as much as Favre’s Dortmund are playing a particular style of football, they seem to score more than expected regardless of the type of chance or situation in the game.

If there is something real happening, it likely can’t account for all of the overperformance. Dortmund could perform exactly to expectations for the second half of the season and still register as another case of Favre beating the models. The data has their expected goal difference as worse than RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim, which does seem harsh. But this may well be as close to their true level as the results.

Can Bayern Catch Up?

Everyone loves seeing a super team suffer. Bayern have been winning Bundesliga titles while barely breaking a sweat in recent years, so everyone had a good chuckle when problems started to emerge this season. But, at the risk of spoiling everyone’s fun, they look absolutely fine by the numbers, and have started to catch up to expectations after a very slow start, winning the last five games and cutting Dortmund’s lead over them to six points.

The main source of concern is Manuel Neuer. Once the belle of the world goalkeeping ball, Neuer’s shot stopping this season has been atrocious. Conceding 14 non-penalty goals from 10.10 post-shot expected goals, as well as all three of the penalties he has faced. StatsBomb currently ranks him 17th of the 18 first choice Bundesliga goalkeepers in terms of shot stopping. The obvious factor would be the injury that kept him out of almost the entirety of last season, and Bayern better hope that he’s still yet to fully recover, or simply going through an unlucky or otherwise temporary stretch of poor play, rather than permanently incapable of doing what he used to. If the latter turns out to be the case, the club will surely need to be in the market for a new number one, perhaps as early as this summer.

 

Other than that, it all generally looks okay for Bayern. The squad is getting older, but the experienced players are still mostly producing just fine. Robert Lewandowski is still getting plenty of good shots while doing more assisting work than ever. Thiago still does just about everything one could want of a midfielder. Arjen Robben is somehow still cutting inside on his left foot at 34. There is nothing broken about this team except the goalkeeper.

If the season reset to zero, Bayern would be strong favourites for the title, and deservedly so. This is a team with an expected goal difference per game of 1.29 against Dortmund’s 0.50. Bayern remain clearly the best team in the Bundesliga. The only question is whether they can be 6 points better over 17 games. If Bayern are able to cut the points gap further by the time Dortmund travel to Bavaria in early April, they could have a very good chance to overturn this. It remains very much in the balance, and the Bundesliga should be well set for a thrilling title race across the second half of the season.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Despite a Lack of Goals, Alexis Sanchez Remains Good at Football

Lord knows how much money it took to bring Alexis Sanchez to Old Trafford. And his arrival at Manchester United hasn’t gone smoothly. But after scoring the winner against Newcastle, he looks like he might finally turn things around.

Just three goals since signing in January is, on the face of it, a terrible return for someone of his reputation. That’s a shade under his expected goals total (especially if you include the penalty he missed), but we’re still left with a very unremarkable volume of chances nonetheless:

 

 

Adjusted for time on the pitch, he’s generating 0.27 expected goals per 90, a very middling figure for a wide forward at a club with as much talent as Manchester United. In his last season at Arsenal, by comparison, he was hitting an xG per 90 of 0.42, achieved mostly through a higher volume of shots than he’s attempting at the moment, even if a fair few were from range.

 

 

The numbers show what most can see with their eyes: Sanchez is much less of a goalscoring threat at United than he was at Arsenal. To many, this is the end of the story. Of course, football isn’t just about scoring goals, so let’s take a look at what else the Chilean can do.

Evolving Role

For such a widely acclaimed talent, it’s notable that Sanchez hasn’t had a fixed position over career. Having played in a range of roles at Udinese, Sanchez went to Barcelona at a time when Pep Guardiola was experimenting with a back three. The plan seemed to be for the Chilean to offer a wider threat than the inverted forwards David Villa and Pedro. This system was similar to that of coaches’ coach and Guardiola favourite Marcelo Bielsa’s approach with Chile at the 2010 World Cup, and Sanchez’s experience in that role was surely a big part of why he was signed.

Of course, Guardiola left Barcelona in the summer of 2012 and his successors Tito Vilanova then Tata Martino both returned to the more familiar 4-3-3 associated with the Catalan club’s best sides. This meant Sanchez competing for the inverted wide forward roles either side of Lionel Messi. Playing so close to the five time Ballon d’Or winner tends to force players to sacrifice their own games, and Sanchez was no exception, with his volume of shots and dribbles taking a significant hit in this system. Still, he proved extremely effective at the limited things he did do, contributing more than one goal or assist per 90 minutes in his final season at the Camp Nou. Sanchez was a player performing a specific role, and performing it to an extremely high level.

After that specific role came the freedom. Sanchez joined Arsenal as a marquee purchase to add speed and directness to the attack, and he could not have found himself in a more different environment in North London than the Catalan capital. Arsene Wenger (remember him?) always believed in keeping things relatively simple, opting to let the players figure things out, rather than overload them with complex instructions. This allowed Sanchez the chance to finally do his thing largely unrestrained. Usually playing on either flank in a fairly basic 4-2-3-1, Sanchez found himself with team mates well suited to complement him. In the number ten role was the perennially unselfish Mesut Ozil, extremely uninterested in much other than facilitating those around him, while striker Olivier Giroud has often been a target man who likes to link up with a goalscoring wide player. This generally saw a much more involved and active Sanchez, putting in dominant performances even if he was prone to frequently giving away possession in the final third of the pitch. In some ways he had come full circle from his Barca days, now heavily involved but with some poor involvements.

With Wenger looking to move away from the focal point and unable to sign a high profile striker, Sanchez was moved to the centre forward role himself for much of the 2016-17 season. This was clearly a big part in him reaching a career best 22 non-penalty goals that season, though it led to Arsenal having an overall less cohesive attack. Sanchez’ link-up play was significantly less tidy than Giroud, in part leading to an Arsenal side less fluid in possession in the final third. The solution that Wenger stumbled upon was a switch to a 3-4-3 formation, with Sanchez and Ozil both in relatively central attacking roles behind a true striker (initially Giroud, then Alexandre Lacazette after his summer purchase). This system certainly had its drawbacks, particularly in the way that it would expose the midfield partnership of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey. It did, though, get the best out of Sanchez, allowing him the freedom to do what he does without sacrificing the rest of the attack, as it did previously. The problem with him bleeding possession remained (as seen with the high number of turnovers on the radar below), but there was still little doubt that he was a highly productive attacking threat.

 

 

Which brings us to…

United’s Number Seven

Alexis Sanchez wasn’t supposed to go to Manchester United. He was expected to end up at Manchester City, where he would find himself reunited with Guardiola. While the City boss knows the player well, this always felt like it would’ve been somewhat of a luxury purchase, and Sanchez, who had at this point spent several years with limited tactical instruction under Wenger, may have found it difficult to adjust to the Catalan’s strict positional play.

United and Jose Mourinho made more sense in this regard. Existing wide options consisted of players like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, full of talent but still yet to deliver significantly in terms of goals and assists, or players without the dynamism of Sanchez, such as Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. In the case of Mkhitaryan, it also seemed that he was never going to be a good fit with Mourinho, so moving him on was logical, especially when he could be replaced with a player of Sanchez’s quality. Mourinho, while certainly someone much more defensively disciplined than Wenger, does like to keep it simple in attack, and allows his players much more of a licence to work it out themselves on that side of the ball than someone like Guardiola. The specifics of United, though, have proven not quite as ideal. Sanchez has generally featured in either wide role in a 4-3-3 system, which is fine. The central striker, though, has been Romelu Lukaku. There is no doubting that Lukaku is a terrific out-and-out striker, but he is someone who thrives as the side’s primary goal threat. Someone like Giroud was happy to allow Sanchez to dominate the team, but a club with Lukaku leading the line need to use the Belgian as someone to get on the end of chances, not facilitate them. With the sale of Mkhitaryan at the same time as Sanchez’s arrival, and Mata’s role being largely as a substitute, there was also a lack of an Ozil style playmaker. The best creative passer already at United was probably Paul Pogba, but the Frenchman has such a wide ranging skillset that it doesn’t always make sense to define him by simply one task. As such, Sanchez would have to take on more playmaking responsibilities himself. In this new team, the Chilean has had to reinvent himself as someone who both works harder defensively and does more of his work as a creator rather than a scorer.

On the first count, he is certainly a more active defender than before. Looking at StatsBomb’s pressure event data shows us that in his final half-season at Arsenal, Sanchez was making 13.09 pressures per 90. Since arriving at Old Trafford, that figure has risen to 20.92. Looking at Sanchez’s output on the midfield radar, we can see that while the attacking side has dropped off a little, he is working harder defensively.

 

 

On the playmaking side, it has gone largely unnoticed that Sanchez has taken on much more responsibility. When looking at open play passes into the opponent’s box per 90 minutes, Sanchez is the clear standout among players at United (this graph only covers last season, but he is also currently top of the stat this year, too).

 

 

His contributions have often come at big moments, as well, with the aforementioned winning goal against Newcastle not his first game changing moment. In the now famous 3-2 win to prevent Manchester City winning the title that day, Sanchez was involved in all three United goals, providing two impressive assists and a delightful “hockey assist” (the assist to the assist). Sanchez recorded the highest xGChain of any United player that day. He changed the game.

Conclusion

Sanchez has proven to be something of a chameleon over his career. The roles he has filled for Chile, Udinese, Barcelona, Arsenal and now Manchester United have all varied in what is required, and he has always adapted to the challenge. It is his time at Arsenal that most Premier League fans primarily know him for, and as such those are the kind of performances they expect, single handedly grabbing games and driving the team forward, scoring plenty of goals in the process.

For all of the issues that Mourinho has caused himself at Old Trafford, opting not to use Sanchez in this way is not one of them. In Lukaku, United already have a primary goalscorer, while Martial and Rashford offer threat in terms of wide forwards getting in the box and on the end of chances. What Sanchez does better than those players is offer a more complete threat, as someone who works hard defensively while getting involved in the build up play. This might not be a hugely beloved era of Sanchez’s career, but it isn’t without merit, and certainly shouldn’t be considered a write-off.

Champions League Preview, Part Two

After we previewed the first half of the Champions League group stage in part one, here’s what you can expect from groups E to H.

Group E – AEK Athens, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Benfica,

It’s a new season and a new manager, but Bayern have still started the Bundesliga with their usual complete domination. Three wins out of three with nine scored and two conceded suggests nothing of note has changed under new boss Niko Kovac, though the arguably declining quality of the Bundesliga suggests tougher tests await in this competition. Bayern still have the depth to rotate heavily, and should be able to get out of this group without breaking a sweat.

Ajax have started the Eredivisie brightly, though there remains a sense that Erik ten Hag’s side are not as strong as the 2016-17 edition managed by Peter Bosz. The club continue to play the possession heavy 4-3-3 one would expect, though the ball may be harder to come by here than in domestic competitions. Obviously all eyes are on Frenkie de Jong, back in central midfield after an extended stint as a centre back, but Hakim Ziyech’s creative passing also remains a delight. Ajax didn’t make it into the group stages last year, but it’s not especially obvious that this is a stronger team a year later, though this relatively kind group could see them through.

Benfica have started well in this year’s Portuguese Primeira Liga, surely wanting to do better than last year’s embarrassing Champions League group stage exit in which they lost all their games and scored only one goal. The team do have some good attacking talent.  Andrija Zivkovic (whom StatsBomb has covered before) is developing into an excellent creative midfielder, though Pizzi has so far taken his role in the side this and is doing very well. Rui Vitoria, now in his fourth season managing the Lisbon side, will have to improve significantly on last year’s aforementioned horrendous showing, but it is not clear that this team is significantly different.

Greek football is in something of a rut, with the Super League unable to avoid the country’s wider economic problems, and no club has made it out of the Champions League group stages since Olympiacos did so in 2013-14. AEK, making their return to the tournament proper after over a decade away, don’t look especially likely to change this, having won last year’s domestic league by 3 points in no great style. Unless things improve financially, it seems like we will have to wait a long time before Greek football can seriously compete in Europe again.

To go through: Bayern, Ajax (at a push)

Group F –  Hoffenheim, Lyon, Manchester City, Shakhtar

Manchester City, the bookmakers’ favourites to win the Champions League, have started this year in the same blistering form as the last. Their expected goal difference per game of +2.6 is by far the best in the Premier League so far this season, with left back Benjamin Mendy giving them an additional threat compared to Fabian Delph’s industrious inverted full back work last year. With Pep Guardiola continually reshaping this side in his own image, City are about as dominant as any team can be at the moment, and should be heavy favourites to finish first in Group F.

Julian Nagelsmann continues to overachieve at Hoffenheim (though not for much longer, as he has agreed to move to RB Leipzig next season). Nagelsmann has continually been able to cope with the loss of key players at the club, and his high risk, high reward approach has been effective in the Bundesliga. There is the risk, of course, of a result like the 6-3 defeat to Liverpool in last year’s Champions League play off round, especially with strong teams in the group, though there is no reason to think they won’t put up a good fight for second place.

Lyon have started the season strongly, and for a side best known for high profile attacking talents, it is the defence (best expected goals against in Ligue 1 so far) that is proving formidable. The team have been more aggressive, with StatsBomb’s high press rating giving them a big jump to 48.49 compared to 43.76 last year. As for the famous attackers themselves, Nabil Fekir is showing himself to be an all around threat of shot involvement, ball progression and elite pressing work, while Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore remain excellent pacey options. This is a team stacked with young talent, and they may just have the edge over Hoffenheim for second place.

While the Ukrainian Premier League probably isn’t watched by many people outside of Ukraine, Shakhtar are possibly a better side than you think, having comfortably finished ahead of Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in last season’s group stages. Euro Club Index actually has them as the 15th best side in Europe, ahead of teams like Borussia Dortmund and Monaco. The side is in something of a retooling phase, having sold Brazilian stars Fred and Bernard to England and replaced them with youngsters out of the Brasileirao, so they may not be so strong this year. Still, it would be a mistake to assume they will finish fourth and take a number of bruisings.

To go through: Manchester City, Lyon

Group G – CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, Roma, Viktoria Plzen

After an era of huge success defined by continuity, it has been a summer of change for Real Madrid. Having obviously sold Cristiano Ronaldo (he’s not bad, you know) and replaced man manager Zinedine Zidane with more of a tactical philosophy coach in Julen Lopetegui, the reigning European champions are in the process of transitioning to a more conventional Spanish tiki-taka style. Thus far, Real have picked up decent results in La Liga without much in the way of scintillating football, and one suspects the new approach might not be as suited to this competition as the Zidane era system. Still, they will be strong favourites to top this group, and rightly so.

Roma were able to put together a terrific run to the semi finals in last year’s Champions League but were not nearly as impressive in Serie A, where they finished 18 points behind perennial champions Juventus. Once again, sporting director Monchi has overseen a lot of turnover to the squad, with young wide forward Justin Kluivert the standout name of the newcomers. The new look Roma has had a slow start domestically, with just 5 points from 4 games, and this will need to change fairly promptly in order to make it through this group, though the squad is surely talented enough to do it.

CSKA Moscow, last season’s Russian Premier League runners up have had a mixed start to the season, picking up 12 points from 7 games and sitting in 5th place in a 16 team division. With Aleksandr Golovin the only really significant loss to last season’s side, it is not especially clear what the issue is at the moment. Since CSKA failed to get out of an even weaker group last season, there isn’t great hope that this year will be different. A Europa League run may be their best hope of having any significant impact in Europe.

Czech First League champions Viktoria Plzen are likely to only really be a threat to taking the third place position that moves the teams into the Europa League. Czech football hasn’t seen a side reach the knockout stages of the Champions League since Sparta Prague in 2003-04 and it’s hard to imagine this changing. All but one of the players in this squad are Czech citizens, yet only four Viktoria Plzen players made it into the most recent Czech Republic national team squad, showing how little valued domestic football is in the country. It remains a great shame that teams from smaller nations cannot challenge for European competitions, and Plzen are likely to keep this trend going.

To go through: Real Madrid, Roma

Group H – Juventus, Manchester United, Valencia, Young Boys

Juventus remain totally at ease in Serie A, winning all of their first four games and currently topping the table. It goes without saying that Cristiano Ronaldo is the big addition to the side and he is, you know, good at football. Expect manager Max Allegri to approach this competition the same way he usually does, looking to defend deep and seal close wins with an excellent ability to both defend leads and come back from behind. This is a relatively tough group but they should be able to make it through without too much trouble.

Manchester United are, shall we say, experiencing some turbulence at the moment. After getting good results with fairly unremarkable numbers through the magic of David De Gea, things are regressing to the mean quite quickly. Mourinho’s team are still able to win a lot of Premier League games against weaker sides just by shear talent, but it doesn’t feel like more difficult Champions League ties are necessarily the Portuguese manager’s forte anymore. They have a reasonable chance of making it into the knockout stages, but a deep European run should likely not be expected.

Current Valencia boss Marcelino has successfully brought Champions League football back to the Mestalla without playing the most exciting stuff. Playing a fairly low block 4-4-2, the club made it to 4th place while beating expected goals, though Marcelino overperformed in this regard at Villarreal so there may be more sustainability than one would think. The club were able to bring back last year’s star loanee Goncalo Guedes on a permanent deal while adding Kevin Gameiro and Michy Batshuayi, so there is some genuine firepower in the side. The betting markets expect Juventus and Manchester United to make it out of this group, but it would not be a shock to see Valencia usurp the Premier League team.

Swiss Super League winners BSC Young Boys make up what is something of a nightmare group for them. The Bern club have never made it out of the group stages since the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League, and this squad of mostly Swiss players does not seem hugely likely to break new ground.

To go through: Juventus, Manchester United (though don’t be surprised if Valencia manage it)

Header image courtesy of the Press Assciation

Champions League Preview, Part One

The thing about cup competitions is that they’re designed to be unpredictable. In theory.

Looking at the projections for this season’s Champions League on FiveThirtyEight, no team is seen as having a greater than 15% chance of winning the competition. It even gives us a 57% chance that a team that has not won the tournament this decade will lift the trophy in May. We genuinely could have an unfancied side win the whole thing.

Of course, we could also have two relatively unfancied sides make it to the semi-finals only for Real Madrid to win it again.

With the competition as always being played over two nights, we’ll break down the groups as they kick off. Here are Tuesday’s teams.

Group A – Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge, Monaco

Anyone who has watched this competition over the past five years knows what to expect from Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone. There has been significant player turnover over the years but the core ideas remain the same. The team will be compact and deep without the ball, look to go 1-0 up and then be happy to eke out a narrow win. As effective as this approach is, they may have to accept that they’re not always going to be everyone’s first pick of sides to watch, but that won’t concern them.

Leonardo Jardim’s Monaco are also a known entity. The side have shown a fairly supernatural ability to score more than their expected goals, with last season’s 78 scored in Ligue 1 from 59.16 xG not even meeting the previous year’s incredible title winning overperformance. This side perhaps isn’t as strong as in previous years. They’ve sold some key players and largely replaced them with younger prospects. Their counter-attacking style still has the ability to excite, but Group A is largely well equipped to defend against that kind of attacking, so there may be difficulty in navigating a way out.

Borussia Dortmund have made the fairly dramatic move from the expansive high pressing style of the past decade to the opposite of that under Lucien Favre. Getting bodies behind the ball combined with patient build up play is now the way things are done. Results have been good so far, with 7 points from 3 games, though this might be unsustainable with 7 goals from just 2.98 xG. Favre’s status as the original xG warlock may raise eyebrows, but his work has generally been done on the defensive side of the ball. Dortmund’s fairly poor defence last year probably triggered this appointment, but it still is unclear what this new side will become.

Club Brugge are inevitably cast as the fourth placed team and it’s hard to find reasons to argue differently. Their Euro Club Index places them as the 68th best side in the continent, comparable to a midtable Premier League side. The problem teams from outside the top leagues often face in this competition is having to adjust stylistically to playing against clubs more likely to dominate games than themselves, and it seems as though Brugge will have the same trouble here.

To go through: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund

Group B – Barcelona, Inter, PSV, Tottenham

After a few years of fumbling around, Barcelona have finally made the squad improvements they needed. With last year’s key additions Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele now properly integrated into the starting eleven as well as this summer’s added depth, this looks a much more balanced team than last year’s “all Messi, all the time” edition. The bookmakers currently have Barcelona as second favourites and this may even be underrating them.

A test they rarely face, though, is a good side pressing them high, which is what one expects Tottenham will do. Mauricio Pochettino’s side have had some issues this year, with an increasingly concerning defence and a not quite firing Harry Kane. If Spurs are able to fix, or at least mitigate, these issues when they welcome Barcelona to Wembley in October, we could have a terrific contest to watch.

Inter under Luciano Spalletti have not always been the most exciting side in Serie A, with the club just about scraping to Champions League qualification over a much more interesting Lazio team. Inter are certainly capable of causing problems for any side in this group, but unless Spurs’ issues don’t get resolved at all, they may have to settle for a Europa League spot.

PSV traded manager Phillip Cocu for Mark van Bommel this summer seemingly without any hitch, as the Eredivisie champions currently sit at the top of the league with 15 points and somehow 21 goals from 5 games with only 3 conceded. The club managed to hold onto exciting young wingers Hirving Lozano and Steven Bergwijn and they form a key part of the club’s game, with Van Bommel opting for a conventional Dutch style of an attacking 4-3-3. It’s possible that this will cause issues against higher quality sides, but PSV could be involved in some entertaining games nonetheless.

Group C – Liverpool, Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, Red Star

After merely achieving almost complete domestic dominance, it’s a new era for PSG under Thomas Tuchel. Tuchel is a known tactical tinkerer, with it likely that he will deploy the absurd attacking talent at his disposal in a number of ways depending on the profile of the opposition. With PSG’s previous European campaigns leaving something to be desired, it would be a surprise if this competition wasn’t his primary focus, andgetting out of the group stages is well less than the minimum requirement at this point.

The last time Thomas Tuchel faced Jurgen Klopp led to a thrilling spectacle as Liverpool beat Borussia Dortmund 5-4 on aggregate to go into the Europa League semi-finals. Liverpool are a much stronger side now than they were in 2016, with Klopp’s counter-pressing system not only getting the best out of the front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino but finally functioning in a defensive sense as well. The good news for Klopp is that his opponents in this group are likely to press and leave the space in behind that his system craves, and as such we could see Liverpool push PSG all the way for the top spot in this group.

After Napoli played some really unique football under Maurizio Sarri, it’s something of a return to normality with Carlo Ancelotti. Expect the Italian side to still attempt to dominate possession, but in less of an absolute clear structure, with a greater willingness to alter the core principles just for a one off game. Ancelotti obviously has an excellent record in this competition, and his greater flexibility could serve Napoli well in the knockout stages. Unfortunately for him, though, he has found himself in a very difficult group, with PSG and Liverpool perhaps too strong to stop.

As for Red Star, the Serbian SuperLiga champions have marked their return to this competition with a horrible group. Euro Club Index ranks them as the 73rd best side in Europe, between Southampton and Bournemouth, and it looks a tough ask for them to achieve something beyond fourth place.

To go through: Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool

Group D – Galatasaray, Lokomotiv, Porto, Schalke

Domenico Tedesco, a recent graduate of the long line of exciting young German managers to come out of nowhere, is perhaps the most interesting thing about this group. Tedesco’s Schalke were able to finish second in last year’s Bundesliga with a low possession style built on solid defensive work. Schalke have endured a very difficult start to the Bundesliga, but with only three games played, the assumption should probably be a return to their success of last season in this competition.

Portuguese Primeira Liga champions Porto were unceremoniously knocked out at the round of 16 last year with a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool and it is unclear whether or not they are better placed this time. With manager Sérgio Conceição and most of last year’s attacking talent remaining, this side should be capable of qualifying from the group, but beyond this it is unclear about how good Porto are against top opposition.

Lokomotiv were able to win last season’s Russian Premier League, but this year have found themselves in significant trouble domestically, sitting in the bottom half of the table with 9 points from 7 games. The Moscow club have made high profile international additions including Benedikt Höwedes and Grzegorz Krychowiak, though Höwedes has thus far only played 9 minutes of league football for Lokomotiv. With largely unremarkable expected goals numbers to match their poor results, there’s not a strong case to think that this side can cause Schalke or Porto any huge issues right now.

Last season’s Turkish Super Lig winners Galatasaray have kept the show on the road this year with 12 points from their first 5 league games, placing themselves at the top of the division on goal difference. That this has been done without last year’s Super Lig top scorer Bafétimbi Gomis is most pleasing, with new signings Henry Onyekuru and Emre Akbaba scoring two each in what looks like a more balanced side. It doesn’t seem especially likely that Galatasaray will follow last season’s Turkish entry Besiktas in making it out of the group, but nonetheless this is a capable team.

To go through: Schalke, Porto

We’ll be back with part two, focusing on groups E to H.