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

Ole Gunnar Solskjær is not the problem at Old Trafford, he’s just not the solution

This May will mark seven years since Manchester United last won the Premier League title. And it is unlikely they will hold up the trophy anytime soon, either.

It’s a familiar story at this point. Upon Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, United made a whole host of bad decisions, blowing a fortune on the wrong players and having them coached by the wrong managers. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s gang are just the latest iteration of how they continue to relieve the same ugly chapter.

Currently fifth in the table, the underlying numbers show a modest improvement, but nothing drastic. An expected goal difference per game of +0.55 is an entirely respectable fourth-best in the division, with a fairly supercharged Leicester season keeping them out of the Champions League places.

 

 

It’s on the defensive end where their real strength lies. United are a good shot suppressing side, with their 10.22 conceded per game the fourth-best in England’s top flight. They combine this with a solid xG per shot conceded of 0.10, the sixth-best in the league and better than the other top shot suppressors. United are not supremely talented at any one aspect of defending, but the strong performance across the board makes them a tough side for any opponent to break down.

 

 

This represents a genuine improvement—and a necessary one— as United no longer have their defensive cheat code. In many of the dark post-Ferguson years, David De Gea almost single-handedly kept his team afloat. His decline has been exaggerated by some, but it’s been a while since he’s performed many heroic feats. He’s looked a smidgen above average this season, and with the difficulty in finding long-term repeatability in xG overperformance, United probably shouldn’t bank on him saving them a significant number of goals going forward.

 

 

United’s defensive solidity has come at the cost of the attack just kind of . . . being there. Their1.26 xG per game is almost exactly the league average. Both their shot volume and quality are fairly mediocre. It’s all very whatever.

 

 

The one area where they do clearly excel is in counter-attacking shots. This intuitively makes sense given what we see on the pitch. United’s primary attacking weapons are Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Daniel James, while Jesse Lingard and Mason Greenwood have also stepped in this season. All primarily want to run into open space on the counter rather than build in possession in front of a deep block. A significant part of the side’s disappointing performances is that they don’t have obvious answers when denied the space to launch counter-attacks.

Perhaps surprisingly, Rashford is their primary creator in the final third. He leads the side in open play passes into the box per 90, well ahead of fellow attackers Martial and James, despite not being primarily thought of as a “passer”. That he’s added this to his game recently, in addition to his decent scoring and dribbling threat (as seen below), is impressive, especially given the underlying mediocrity of the team’s attack. It’s so frustrating that he’s now out injured, given he looks on the cusp of making the leap to being a genuine star.

 

 

Some might point out that Liverpool also have three attackers who primarily want to counter into open space, and they would be correct. Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino certainly thrive in counter opportunities much more so than when forced to break down a deep block. Jurgen Klopp’s side, though, have two critical advantages over United. The first is an expertly drilled counter-pressing situation aimed at forcing such opportunities rather than waiting for them to come naturally. The other is their use of the fullbacks as additional playmakers in wide areas, stretching the play and forcing opponents out of a narrow shape with their crossing threat. At right-back, United have Aaron Wan-Bissaka, a defender with a superb ability to shut down opposition wingers but real limitations in possession. He’s better at many things than his Liverpool counterpart Trent Alexander-Arnold, but there’s a humongous gap in quality on the ball when breaking down sides. On the other side, Luke Shaw isn’t incapable, but he lacks both the athleticism and technique that Andy Robertson possesses (Brandon Williams has shown some promise, but at this point nothing more than that). Solskjær’s side do not have the option of creating for their attackers through the fullbacks.

 

 

If creating for the attackers through the fullbacks is not a viable option, the work must come from the midfield. Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Paul Pogba has not played a lot of football for United this season and it seems possible that he won’t ever again do so. This would be a great shame, as Pogba is the only midfielder at the club with genuine vision and a consistent ability to move the ball forward into dangerous areas. In his brief appearances this year, mostly early in the season, he’s shown this, unlike everyone else at the club.

 

 

After Pogba, United’s player second in deep progressions per 90 is Fred. Yes, Fred is, in Pogba’s absence, the player most responsible for moving the ball into the final third for this team. Next is Ashley Young, but he’s now at Inter Milan. It is obvious to pretty much everyone that these players are not the playmakers a club needs to compete at the highest level. This club just does not have playmakers in the side. There are many ways for a team to build well in possession and create opportunities, but no coach has yet devised a system that can consistently create dangerous chances without anyone who’s good on the ball.

This is, first and formost, a squad construction problem. At the very least, no one at the club seems to be under the illusion that this is a squad capable of challenging for major titles, or will be any time soon. After a number of big-name, high-price signings brought in under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho, the club seem to have accepted that targeting mostly younger players who fit their desired style of football is a much more sustainable model. While none could be dubbed a huge success so far, the summer 2019 signings James, Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire have all broadly done what they were bought to do, and by this club’s recent standards that’s a big success. United do have a plan, and seem intent on sticking with it. That’s a marked change from 2013–18.

Having a plan is the first step, and it’s a big one. But the next step is having the expertise to execute it. United need to target and acquire the right younger players capable of high tempo attacking football. That their summer signings consisted of the highest-profile English centre-back, the most promising young right-back in last season’s Premier League not named Alexander-Arnold, and a young winger coached at the international level by Ryan Giggs does not suggest a great reservoir of knowledge lurking within their recruitment setup. The next challenge is to take these players and coach them into a proactive style that fits into the fast-paced, Ferguson-esque mould but who is capable of breaking down the many teams who will sit deep and allow United to keep possession. Solskjær has the aforementioned squad limitations to deal with, but even in their best performances, his side have played reactive, counter-attacking football all season. There has yet to be real evidence of a plan while in possession.

There are any number of talented people working in recruitment at football clubs who would jump at the chance to transform United’s process. On the manager side, Mauricio Pochettino is currently sitting at home, while almost any manager not currently in an elite job would be interested in the challenge, prestige and salary delivered by Old Trafford. It’s not that Solskjær is doing a bad job, per se. It’s just that there’s no obvious reason to think he can build the side the club need to challenge for titles again. United are currently looking like a competent side, which seems like a miracle compared to recent years, but it’s still well short of what they need to get back to the top.

Stats of Interest

Sticking with Manchester United for a moment, it’s now been over a year since Jesse Lingard last scored a Premier League goal. Considering he did not previously have a reputation for poor finishing, this seems like a bad streak that should come to an end sooner or later.

 

 

Alisson became the first goalkeeper this season to earn an assist at the weekend, and on his first key pass of the campaign. But he’s not the most creative goalkeeper in the league. That honour falls to Nick Pope, with 4 key passes adding up to 0.55 xG assisted this season. We all knew Burnley were direct, but using the goalkeeper as an actual attacking weapon like this is quite something.

Moise Kean finally got off the mark for Everton last night. It’s been a tough start for him in England, made all the more frustrating by some poor finishing from reasonable production. The goal is overdue, but it may signal the moment when he really kicks on.

 

How concerning is Tottenham’s early form?

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gets the equaliser and gives Spurs a whole international break of crisis narratives.

Tottenham sit ninth in the league table after four games and the talk is of “staleness”, and the possibility of Mauricio Pochettino and this team coming to the end of a cycle. Now, on the face of it, this could just be the fixture list. Draws away to Manchester City and Arsenal are not the end of the world, and Spurs beat Aston Villa in a fairly routine manner. Only the loss at home to Newcastle stands out as points obviously dropped. But to the eye and in the numbers there were clear issues at the Etihad and the Emirates that the results mask slightly, so let’s take a more in depth view of where Spurs are right now.

It was noted after the weekend’s defeat that Spurs conceded 56 shots to Arsenal and Manchester City combined (30 at the Etihad and 26 at the Emirates). That’s obviously a large number when you consider it’s more than any of Man City, Liverpool and Manchester United have conceded in all four of their league games so far. But how bad is it really? Is this not just an overreaction to two very difficult fixtures?

Not quite. Across the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons, Spurs did not have a single game in which they shipped 25 shots or more. The most was 23 away at Manchester United last season (in a game they won 3-0, because football is a funny old sport). That was their two year record and they’ve broken it twice before the first international break of the season.

Bleugh.

What solidifies the problem is that the xG per shot across the two games was a middling 0.1. These were not simply potshots against a team digging in and getting into a good shape behind the ball. There were some attempts from range, but also a decent chunk of high quality chances from good positions. One can’t really describe these defensive performances as anything other than awful.

 

 

On the attacking side, things are a little more mixed. After a turgid opening period, Spurs created largely at ease in the second half against Villa, with everyone pointing toward Christian Eriksen’s 63rd minute introduction as the key turning point.

 

 

Pochettino employed close to the exact same approach against Newcastle, again bringing Eriksen on after an hour. It worked to an extent in that Spurs created more chances towards the game. Yes, you could argue that Tottenham would usually score a goal or two from those chances. But barely over one expected goal at home to Steve Bruce’s Newcastle is hardly something to celebrate.

 

 

And as for the two big games, it’s something of a mixed bag. Spurs created essentially nothing against Man City. Three shots, two in City’s half, one in the box, somehow resulted in two goals. City can do that to you, but it’s somewhat concerning that Spurs created less against them than West Ham, Bournemouth and Brighton did. Against Arsenal things were a little better, but even then it was somewhat unbalanced. Spurs were able to pile up pressure on the hosts in the first half. Eriksen’s rebound goal was the one breakthrough from a number of productive attacking sequences.  But the second half was a different story. After Arsenal equalised in the 70th minute, Spurs didn’t register a single shot until one added time attempt from Moussa Sissoko. The shot maps below, with Tottenham’s first half performance on the left and second half on the right, show how the team didn’t create much of note after the interval. Spurs have only had two halves this season of really impressive attacking play.

 

 

So we’ve established that Spurs haven’t been great so far this season. But it’s only a four game blip, right? They were good last season, weren’t they? They got to the Champions League final!

Well…

 

 

Tottenham’s metrics started trending downwards in early 2018 and never recovered. Results still held up in that calendar year, but it’s hard to put a positive spin on the league performance in 2019. Since the turn of the year, Tottenham have achieved 9 wins, 4 draws and 9 losses in the Premier League. Needless to say, a side that would like to consider itself among the best in a division should not be amassing as many losses as wins. And xG has Spurs scoring and conceding almost exactly as expected, so there are no get out of jail free cards there. This is a real issue of Spurs just not playing well for a long time.

The obvious issue last year was in central midfield. In previous seasons, Mousa Dembélé was a one man fix for any midfield control issues, certainly the best player in the Premier League at evading pressure and dribbling through a congested central area. His physical decline made him incapable of doing what he did so well, and thus he was sold. His most frequent midfield partner Eric Dier seemed to struggle badly without him, while Victor Wanyama was continually injured. Pochettino found some tactical tweaks to minimise the issue, but it’s still the most obvious cause for concern from last season.

It’s also something that should theoretically improve pretty much immediately after the international break. Tanguy Ndombele was signed to be the saviour of Tottenham’s midfield. Mousa Dembélé is the template, though the Frenchman is fitting into a slightly different role in a slightly different set up. Whereas Dembélé was generally complimented by Eric Dier, a converted centre back, or Victor Wanyama, a natural holding midfielder, it looks like Pochettino’s preferred pairing this year is Ndombele and Harry Winks. There’s a lot to like about this partnership in possession. Winks is developing into a high volume passer who can deliver the ball to more progressive zone movers, and Ndombele can then be the guy to really drive the ball forward into dangerous areas. Neither are specialist defensive midfielders, though both contribute a solid amount on that side of the ball. Whether this will be enough without the ball in tough fixtures is unclear. Dier remains an option in that regard though it’s been some time now since he regularly played well, while Wanyama is still on the books but perennially finds himself injured. Whether Spurs have totally “solved” the midfield isn’t fully clear, but it’s a very obvious upgrade on last season. When Ndombele returns to fitness, which is expected to be after the international break, Spurs should function much better in midfield than they have for over a year.

An issue that should now fix itself even easier is the lack of Eriksen. He’s staying. He’s a Tottenham player. Spurs’ worst attacking football has come when the Dane isn’t on the pitch, and he should be on the pitch a lot more going forward. Not only do they have him, but they have the player signed as his replacement, Giovani Lo Celso, and that should ensure that Tottenham don’t go too many more games without one of these two on the pitch. Lo Celso also offers a lot of tactical flexibility, able to play both the Winks and Ndombele roles as well as Eriksen’s, even if he was signed to play higher up the pitch. His long term destiny is likely to be The New Eriksen, but for now he’s a very useful depth piece.

It’s harder, though, to understand what the answers are at right back. Last season’s first choice option, Kieran Trippier, had his defensive limitations. And yet, much like a certain political issue, I am very much unconvinced that no right back is better than a bad right back. Kyle Walker-Peters seems to be the first choice, after starting all of four games last season. Whether he has done something to genuinely change Pochettino’s mind or it simply reflects a lack of real options is anyone’s guess, but my abiding memory of him so far this season is of Raheem Sterling going straight past him over and over again. Davinson Sánchez played the role in the North London derby and you probably already know how he did there. Looking at where Tottenham’s opponents have successfully managed to work the ball into the box (open play only), it’s hardly the only issue, but there’s certainly a strip where an excellent right back might be expected to clean things up a bit.

 

 

The biggest question for Tottenham is whether these issues are systemic or merely about personnel. I find it hard to believe that Pochettino’s tactical ideas suddenly stopped working after being so effective previously. There are noises that the dressing room isn’t quite as harmonious as it has been in the past, but this is the kind of speculation that can disappear with three wins. With the exception of right back, which the club inexplicably didn’t fix in the transfer market, easing up of injuries and more time for the new signings to integrate should improve things at Spurs significantly. Thus we should expect to see Tottenham’s form improve as the season goes on and likely they will retain their status as the third best team. Though this isn’t a certainty, and it might be worth checking in again later in the year, when we should have a better sense of how deep these problems really run.

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.