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.


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

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

Champions League Preview, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group F -  Hoffenheim, Lyon, Manchester City, Shakhtar

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

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

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

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

To go through: Manchester City, Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

To go through: Real Madrid, Roma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Header image courtesy of the Press Assciation

Champions League Preview, Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To go through: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund

Group B - Barcelona, Inter, PSV, Tottenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To go through: Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool

Group D - Galatasaray, Lokomotiv, Porto, Schalke

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

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

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

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

To go through: Schalke, Porto

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

Are Manchester United and Burnley Just Regressing to the Mean?

A lot of ink was spilled last season on why these two teams were breaking expected goals models. Between them, the two sides conceded a shade under 90 expected goals but just 63 non-penalty goals: about 1.4 times better than we’d expect.


We’ve had a lot of theories emerge about why this situation might have arisen. In United’s case, the thinking has mostly been around David de Gea, goalkeeping superhuman. As for Burnley, there has been some talk of the keeping exploits of Tom Heaton and Nick Pope, but the assumption for the most part is that their superior ability to get bodies behind the ball in a compact shape means that xG models are overrating the chances they concede.

Cut forward a few months and the two sides together have conceded 15 non-penalty goals from around 11.5 expected goals.


So what’s happening? Is this just regression to the mean after a year of surprising overperformance? Is everything actually fine, and this is just a weird small sample size? Has something actually changed at either club? Let’s take a closer look.

Manchester United

On the face of it, it’s hard to see what has changed for United. The manager is the same, the players are the same, save for Fred, who has been the side’s most aggressive presser off the ball without offering an awful lot on it. The system is still the same 4-3-3 that Mourinho adopted in the second half of last season, and it’s still producing around the same numbers it has been for all of this calendar year.

So, is anything different? It requires a touch of squinting, but there are some small differences that, if we’re being very generous, could have contributed. Even though the xG conceded per game is almost identical this year (1.10) to last (1.09), the xG per shot has risen from 0.09 to 0.12. The team are conceding about 2.4 shots fewer per game than last year, but those shots are a full third more likely to be scored. As to why that is, the early evidence suggests the side’s pressing profile has changed somewhat. United have completed 211 defensive actions per game, barely any different to last season’s 216, but the areas of the pitch where they choose to engage have shifted. In the final third, the team are now making around 43 defensive actions per game, a subtle increase on last year’s 40. In their own defensive third however, so far there has been a noticeable drop-off, going from close to 85 defensive actions last year to 68 now. This is a higher pressing United than last season. As such, it’s not a surprise to see a different profile of shots conceded, with high pressing systems generally associated with excellent shot suppression but the risk of giving away the odd very dangerous chance.

The other big question at Manchester United is around David de Gea. Consistently an above average keeper, albeit with an off the charts year last season that was surely unsustainable, De Gea has experienced some challenges in recent times. Following a World Cup with some high profile errors, De Gea has yet to find the groove of previous seasons. What might be notable here is that Spain were very much a high pressing side, one that conceded a low volume of shots per game (7.5) with a fairly middling xG per shot (0.10). It’s not that De Gea isn’t capable of performing well in a high pressing side. His excellent form under Louis van Gaal shows that he’s more than able to be a top goalkeeper in such a system. It is possible, though, and we’re definitely in straw clutching territory here, that a fairly sudden shift in the kind of shots he’s facing has caused disruption. He likely needs to take up starting points further off his line, and generally position himself differently to what his instincts might be. It’s also not inconceivable that a decrease in defensive pressure in United’s own third means that the shift in shot quality is actually greater than the model is indicating, and that the side were actually doing things that the numbers weren’t picking up on last season. The most likely scenario, though, remains simply that these are the early signs of a predictable regression, and we will need to see these trends continue for longer before making any bold claims.

Which brings us to another, slightly smaller, club in the North West…


You can’t talk about beating xG without talking about Burnley. Their significant overperformance last season wasn’t even particularly out of line for them, and for some time now there has been talk that “Sean Dyche is a warlock”, such is his team’s ability to defy the models. The received wisdom in football analytics has always been that the side get a greater number of bodies behind the ball than average, making them better able to block shots (which they do a lot of) or just make it more difficult for the attacker to place his shot properly. That StatsBomb’s expected goals model, which takes player locations when the shot took place, did not rate Burnley’s defence any higher suggested this was in doubt, but it certainly felt as though something was happening. Underlying numbers fluctuated throughout the season and yet, save for a lull around midseason, results kept coming for Burnley last year.


Currently, the side is on one point from four games, having scored three and conceded nine. The defensive magic that saw them invulnerable to xG has apparently dried up. Those of you who were sceptical that Burnley ever had anything sustainable in this regard will probably point to this again as the start of a simple regression, and you may have a point. The contingent who argued that Tom Heaton and Nick Pope were both simply goalkeepers who had fantastic seasons will look at Joe Hart’s less than stellar record and identify his arrival as the problem. Again, they may well have a case. But if there is an alternate reason, and it is a stretch to say that there is, it might be as follows. Burnley were an aggressive pressing side all over the pitch last year, but especially in their own half, as we can see from all the red on the defensive activity map:

Burnley on average made 220 defensive actions last season, while this season it is a small drop off to 198. What more, these actions in Burnley’s defensive third are down from 92 per game last year to 67 now. Burnley’s defending right in front of their own goal is a step less aggressive. We can see this elsewhere. Last season, Burnley managed to block 36% of the shots they faced, in what was a very important part of their defensive game. This year, that figure is 28%: not a dramatic fall, but still a less impressive figure. This may be just normal fluctuation from a sample size of just four games. It may be a fitness issue, with the Europa League fixtures causing trouble (a problem that will not recur, with the team failing to qualify for the group stages). It might be a deliberate stylistic shift. Again, we will have to wait for a larger sample in order to have any confidence.


It needs to be said that we’re four games into the season. This is nowhere near enough to make any grand, sweeping statements. Put it this way: we had a whole season of data last year and people still aren’t convinced what happened wasn’t a weird blip that would even itself out over time. Nonetheless, it was last season for both sides that was the outlier, and now we’re seeing something more in line with what we’d expect to happen on the defensive side.

There was always less of a sense that Manchester United were doing something that the xG models were genuinely missing than Burnley. While Dyche has a relatively long track record of this, Mourinho’s sides typically perform fairly close to expectations, so it was a surprise to see them suddenly concede very few goals from those chances. As such, a fall was always likely to be on the cards. Burnley are an altogether more questionable case, and this is perhaps one of the most interesting stories to track over the season. If they are able to turn this start around and get back to conceding improbably few goals, it will get harder to doubt Dyche’s warlock status. For now, though, questions remain, and any magic remains yet to be proven.

How Are Real Madrid Changing Without Ronaldo?

Losing Cristiano Ronaldo is like a new signing.

At least, that’s the kind of thing you have to tell yourself to be convinced that Real Madrid have a strong chance of winning La Liga this season. It’s a stretch, but it’s not entirely without reason. Since Real Madrid’s style under manager Zinedine Zidane for the past three seasons was so heavily built around leveraging the strengths and mitigating the weaknesses of the Portuguese forward.

Madrid Under Zidane - Ronaldo FC

Managers like to build their football teams in their own image. Pep Guardiola’s sides are meticulous perfectionists. Jurgen Klopp wants his football to be full of emotion and energy. Jose Mourinho’s teams will do anything to win, and don’t care if they make a few enemies along the way. Zidane’s Madrid, however, did not particularly resemble him, or the wonderful technician he showed himself to be as a player. It was a team in the style of Ronaldo. The side’s primary mode of attack was, as Ronaldo likes to, to bury the opposition in a wave of shots. Some of these would be from distance, but enough would end up at close range that it produced dividends. Real’s 18.58 shots per game last season was well ahead of any other La Liga side, even if the 2.07 expected goals per game was the smallest of margins below Barcelona’s. Ronaldo was unsurprisingly the key figure in this. His 180 shots were more than double the volume of any other player, and he managed that despite serving a five game suspension to start the season. It’s clear from the shot distribution chart just how much volume Real get across the board, and how much of it comes from Ronaldo.



The career arc of Ronaldo is fairly well known by now. As his body has aged, he has gradually become more and more of a pure striker, stripping away the parts of his game that took place outside the box. A full 7% of Ronaldo’s touches last season were shots, a figure that puts him far ahead of any other Real Madrid player, and more than double that of his eternal rival Lionel Messi’s 3%. And yet, despite this, he still ended up with the highest xGBuildup of any Real player. While Ronaldo didn’t take a lot of touches that were not shots, the ones he did take were extremely effective.

In terms of his work off the ball, it probably won’t shock anyone to learn that Ronaldo was not a defensive workhorse last year. Of everyone at the club who played at least 1200 minutes last season, nobody pressed less than Ronaldo.



With Ronaldo setting a somewhat lethargic tone off the ball in attack, the modern tactic of pressing high and defending from the front was not workable for Zidane’s Real Madrid. As such, the midfield would potentially have more defensive work than is typically required of a top side, requiring a purely defensive minded midfielder to start in the form of Casemiro. The Brazilian was a black hole in possession, managing less than half as many deep progressions per 90 as his midfield team mates Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, but this was a tradeoff they had to make in order to allow Ronaldo to do his thing without getting exposed. Perhaps Zidane’s biggest reason for success at Madrid was understanding that a side built around such a singular superstar would have to make sacrifices elsewhere, and finding the right balance (and persuading boss man Florentino Perez to accept that balance) was key. This also might be why he was so reluctant to integrate new players into the starting eleven, as he’d built a finely balanced side that could easily be tipped too far in one direction with only minor tweaks.

What Now?

In case you’ve been under a rock, Ronaldo has moved to Juventus. Zidane, having achieved everything he wanted to do at the Bernabeu, has resigned, and was succeeded by former Spain manager Julen Lopetegui. As of writing this, the only senior outfield signing has been second choice right back Álvaro Odriozola. If Madrid are to weather the storm of losing Ronaldo, it will be about getting more out of the players already at the club.

Save for an early start at Rayo Vallecano and an uninspiring season and a half at Porto, Lopetegui’s coaching career has been spent within the Spain national team setup, working at various youth levels before getting the big job in 2016. Spain are one of the only national sides in the world to play a genuine distinctive style, so the way he’s used to working is clear: a strong focus on possession and short passing combined with an aggressive high press. This is often seen as emulating the style of Pep Guardiola, but in truth there is a much greater focus on possession and “passing for the sake of passing”: genuine tiki taka, rather than the positional play of Guardiola’s Manchester City side. When it goes right, you get Spain’s World Cup win in 2010. When it goes wrong, you get the nation’s exit to Russia this summer (in a side prepared by Lopetegui, if not managed by him at the tournament itself). Or as I call it, the game that did this to the StatsBomb pass map:



That was a lot of passing in defence and midfield for 0.97 expected goals in normal time.

The good news is that this Real Madrid squad is perhaps more suited to a more possession focused approach than ever before. Ronaldo’s two biggest drawbacks were a lack of involvement in open play and pressure from the front, and he is no longer around to set the tone for the side. In the UEFA Super Cup loss to Atletico Madrid and the first two La Liga fixtures against Getafe and Girona, Lopetegui opted for a front three of Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Karim Benzema. All three averaged more passes and more pressures last season than Ronaldo, even if none can do what he does in front of goal. In midfield, Casemiro started against Atletico and Girona but missed the Getafe game, implying that the better defensive work in front of him will mean he no longer necessarily features at home to weaker sides (though he occasionally missed games previously, this was more down to a rotation policy than a tactical choice). Toni Kroos moved to a deeper lying role in his place with Isco and Dani Ceballos in front, creating a midfield three that now offers serious ball progression from all three of its members, especially as former number ten Isco now seems to be a permanent midfielder. This all combines to create a side that is much more front foot in its work without possession, and more comfortable retaining the ball when it is won back. Madrid are now stylistically much closer to what one would expect to see from a top tier European side, with an extra focus on possession giving them an extra Spanish touch.

As for what we’ve seen on the pitch so far, it’s fair to say things have been mixed. Real ran Atletico close in the Super Cup, dominating in terms of possession and shot volume but allowing their neighbours a few high quality shots that they were able to convert. A solid work in progress nonetheless. Things were slightly less promising in the La Liga game against Getafe, a match they won but really without anything like the shot domination we’re used to seeing from Real.



Madrid were in near total control of the ball for the vast majority of this game and generated a total of 0.7 expected goals. Granted, this was enough, but for a side that averaged 18.58 shots per game last year, starting off the new league season with just 10 in a home game is concerning. Making matters worse, the xG per shot of 0.07 was significantly down from last season’s average of 0.11, too. Comparatively speaking, Madrid created nothing against Getafe. The theoretically better ball retention and progression in midfield did absolutely zero to help the team create better chances. It was hard to view this kind of performance as anything other than last season’s Madrid minus Ronaldo.

Optimism was perhaps restored in this weekend’s 4-1 victory at Girona, as the side came back from conceding an early goal to totally dominate the game. The performance matched the scoreline, too, with Madrid having no issues generating chances this time.



Girona were fairly aggressive in their pressing against Madrid, which probably suited the away side. This was still a much more balanced performance, with the tiki taka notch turned down a touch compared to the Getafe win. Casemiro returned to the starting lineup and was unsurprisingly not involved in possession, providing only two deep progressions. This arguably helped Real, though, giving the team a more direct feel rather than moving the ball slowly through midfield. While it is obvious that Lopetegui has his own ideas, at times in the early going it might not be the worst idea for him to stick with elements of the tried and trusted style from the Zidane era.

If any one player seemed like he would be a beneficiary of Ronaldo’s departure, it was Gareth Bale. The Welshman who always seemed like he was cannibalising his own game for Ronaldo’s finally has the stage to himself, and boy is he shining on it. Interchanging in the wide roles of the 4-3-3 with Asensio, Bale has been inarguably Madrid’s key player so far, generating both the most xG in the squad for himself and assisting the most for others.



His fellow wide player Asensio hasn’t quite yet found his rhythm in the new side. Lopetegui’s system is asking for a direct wide forward who can cause problems running in behind, which is perfect for Bale, but it still isn’t clear whether Asensio’s best role is in this position or as more of a playmaker. The 22 year old remains a huge talent, but in order to become more than potential Lopetegui will have to figure out what his specific role in this side is.

Overall, it’s fair to call the post-Ronaldo Real Madrid a work in progress. Lopetegui is clearly looking to move away from Zidane’s finely balanced star studded side in favour of something more cohesive and possession based. Whether he will succeed in implementing this new style depends a lot on his ability as a coach, which is surprisingly still unclear for someone in such a high profile job. Just on pure player quality, though, it’s difficult to imagine the loss of Ronaldo not negatively affecting the team. Even if everything goes right for the new Madrid this year, second place might be something they have to accept.

Crystal Palace: 2018-19 Season Preview

They got there in the end.

After failing to get a single point on the board until October, and spending almost the entirety of the first half of the season in the bottom three, Palace were fairly comfortable by May. The team settled on an eleventh placed finish, a respectable eight points away from 18th place Swansea. Thus we had a clear narrative: new manager Frank de Boer’s absolutely disastrous reign came to an abrupt end with firefighter Roy Hodgson gradually taking the side from an unspeakably terrible embarrassment to a solidly respectable team capable of staying in the league. Right?

About that…

Palace may not have been entirely broken under De Boer. They weren’t great, exactly, but for a club transitioning to a completely different style of play under a new manager having done very little preparation for it in the transfer market, an expected goal difference per game (over a small sample size of five games) of -0.28 was entirely reasonable. The problem they had was some horrific finishing, which saw them score not a single goal from an xG of 4.77.


Shit can happen over 58 shots. There was not significant reason to think that this horrific finishing run was likely to continue, or that it was caused by bad coaching. We will never know what a full season of Palace under De Boer would look like, but the underlying numbers were solid, with a possibility that things would improve with greater coaching time. Nonetheless, bad results caused unrest both in the boardroom and the dressing room, with the decision makers at the club making the sudden move to bring in Roy Hodgson, a supposed safe pair of hands who plays a style more traditionally seen at smaller clubs in the Premier League. Though Palace were not in need of “fixing”, Hodgson did actually improve the side, and they were really quite good at times, putting up the best expected goal difference outside of the top 6.



Playing a low block system, ranking as the second deepest side in the league terms of where defensive actions took place, Palace were an effective unit in a fairly uninteresting way. Luka Milivojevic and one of either Yohan Cabaye or James McArthur in central midfield would sit in front of the back four. The wide midfielders, often Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andros Townsend, would take up very narrow roles on the opposite flank to their stronger footed sides. This narrow 4-4-2 is the approach Hodgson deployed to success at Fulham and West Brom (and to abject failure at Liverpool, but that’s an article for another day), and it made Palace reasonably solid here.

On the attacking side, things were somewhat less settled, though not bad. For much of the season, Christian Benteke led the line, and things got somewhat strange. Having been a reliable goalscorer in the Premier League throughout his senior career, he managed a total of 3 goals for the whole of 2017/18, one of which was a penalty. He didn’t have a problem getting chances either, picking up 8.76 expected goals. For whatever reason, be it bad luck or a genuine problem with his game, Benteke suddenly had a historically terrible finishing year.


The good news for Palace is that everything we know about finishing suggests this is extremely unlikely to happen again. The outcome one would expect is for Benteke to return to the goalscoring form of his first season at Selhurst Park and Aston Villa, and for it to be as though last year never happened. Hodgson, however, disagreed with this view, and took Benteke out of the side towards the end of the season, often favouring an unconventional strike partnership of Wilfried Zaha and Townsend. Though neither are as much of a goalscoring threat as Benteke, this led to a much more fluid and mobile attack. With Loftus-Cheek developing into an excellent ball carrier on the left, he was able to fashion numerous counter-attacking opportunities for Townsend (at this point a serviceable player for a non-top 6 side) and Zaha.


There is no doubting who the key player was, though. Having been moved from his traditional wide role to generally being part of some kind of strike partnership, Wilfried Zaha had the best season of his career. Only two players outside the top 6 were able to put up better expected goals and assists per 90 than the Ivorian, and of the top ten only Riyad Mahrez came anywhere close to replicating Zaha’s 2.89 dribbles per 90. That he’s added more in terms of shot involvement while still maintaining his dribble value is really impressive, and Palace now have a genuine star to build around.





In terms of the transfer market, things have been somewhat mixed for Palace. Loftus-Cheek has returned to his parent club Chelsea, taking his excellent value in progressing the ball with him. His reported direct replacement is Jordan Ayew, noted veteran of mediocre Premier League sides. Ayew is a hard working player, and his mobility should allow him to fit in fairly seamlessly with the fast, fluid attack of Zaha and Townsend. It’s hard to imagine him offering the creative work of Loftus-Cheek, though, and expectations should probably be of merely a solid contributor.



The other notable outgoing is Yohan Cabaye on a free transfer. Cabaye never came close to replicating his Newcastle form at Selhurst Park, but he still did some useful things. Despite his reputation from earlier in his career as more of a cultured deep lying playmaker, his main asset last season was as Palace’s most aggressive presser, with his 21.2 pressures per 90 the most of any player in the side. The most obvious replacement for him is Cheikhou Kouyaté from West Ham for £9.5m, the only real transfer fee Palace paid this summer. In his time at West Ham, it often seemed like Kouyaté’s main skill was finding himself out of position, so it’s not clear how he will help a Palace team in which Hodgson wants his midfielders to take up disciplined roles in front of the back four. And on purely statistical grounds, there doesn’t seem to be much that he does better than Cabaye. At age 28, this is very much a move for the here and now, and as such this doesn’t seem like an inspiring signing.



Perhaps the highest profile arrival, however, is Germany international Max Meyer on the now familiar free transfer from Schalke. Meyer spent his youth career being touted as one of the most prodigious talents in German football, so that he’s ended up moving to Crystal Palace instead of Bayern Munich suggests things haven’t quite panned out for him. Having often featured in more advanced roles without ever really settling on a defined position, Meyer finally seemed to settle as more of a defensive midfielder in his final year in the Bundesliga. As such, it’s not obvious what role Palace will play him in, or even what his main attributes are, but Hodgson has generally been good throughout his career at getting players to concentrate on their core strengths. At 22 years old, there’s still a chunk of development left for Meyer, so this is the one move that does look to have a higher upside.

In comparison to sides like Fulham and Brighton buying a number of high profile exciting talents from abroad, it’s hard to be too impressed by Palace’s window. It’s not clear who will step up and replicate Loftus-Cheek’s ball progression, making arguably a weaker first eleven than last season. That said, Palace were better than many thought last year, with the strange finishing issues most notably of Christian Benteke leading to them scoring 14.5 fewer goals than expected. In order for this side to push on and achieve more than last term’s 44 points, what probably needs to happen is for Hodgson to find a way to integrate Benteke’s target man role with the more fluid attacking moves of Zaha and Townsend. Whether that is doable remains to be seen, but Palace still have a solid side, and another midtable finish is probably a reasonable aim.

Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Brighton: 2018-19 Season Preview

So far, so good?

Brighton and Hove Albion’s first season of top flight football since the early 1980s went about as planned, hitting the mythical 40 point mark exactly and sitting fairly comfortably in fifteenth. The side followed the fairly well worn path for a newly promoted team of never being entirely out of the relegation fight, but never appearing hugely likely to go down either. They backed those results up with fairly agreeable numbers too. They had a respectable expected goal difference which ranked them as the thirteenth best side in the division. The defence was fairly stable in “better than relegation” territory throughout the season, while the attack gradually improved before a brutal run in when the side faced all of the top four in the space of the last five games which brought things down to Earth (as such, the dip at the end of the season should not ring too many alarms).

In terms of how they go about doing it, Brighton are best described as doing the basics really well. They play a compact 4-4-1-1 that often looked more like a 4-4-2 without the ball. They ran out a very consistent eleven, ranking as one of the sides that rotated the least across the season. On the attacking side, Glenn Murray did a serviceable job leading the line, though his widely praised goalscoring pursuits drop down to a less impressive 8 for the season when you strip out the penalties. José Izquierdo was a crucial outlet from left midfield, often making valuable runs without the ball that didn’t contribute much to goals and assists but helped the side get up the pitch. The keystone, though, was clearly Pascal Gross. Playing nominally as a number ten but often drifting into wide areas in possession, he was the most important creative force both from set pieces and open play, with his 8.97 expected goals assisted being nearly a third of Brighton’s total assisted xG. This compared favourably to the rest of the league, with only Riyad Mahrez putting up better xG assisted per 90 for a club outside the top six.


Gross was also arguably Brighton’s key player out of possession. Despite being more of an attacking midfielder by trade, his role in this system often asked him to push up alongside Glenn Murray as an additional striker without the ball, and it was the German who was the key pressing trigger in the side. Though they played a fairly conventional British style deep block system, it was this defensive work from the front primarily from Gross that often ensured that the defenders were not exposed.

No team in the Premier League defended deeper, with Brighton’s defensive actions coming 38.7 metres away from their own goal. They were certainly aggressive in these deep areas, though, being truly all action in their own half, as we can see with the amount of red on the left side of the defensive activity map.

A lot was made of how comfortable the centre back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy looked, and this was certainly true, though they benefited from the side’s compact shape at almost all times. That 37 year old Bruno was able to play regularly at right back without being embarrassed by some of the faster wide players in the league is a testament to this compact shape. There was an obvious trade off in attack, with central midfield pairing Dale Stephens and Davy Propper offering very little by way of forward emphasis. The pair combined couldn’t average even a single open play pass into the box per 90, leaving Gross to do most of the creative work himself. This lack of ball progression in central areas led to the team taking an awful lot of shots from outside the box, though for a promoted side with an emphasis on a compact shape this is perhaps more forgivable than it would be for “better” teams.

With the possible exception of Liverpool, no team in the Premier League has more visibly embraced analytics in the transfer market than Brighton. First among these would be Florin Andone from Deportivo La Coruña, and he very much fits the mould. There perhaps isn’t a more obvious move from a statistical standpoint than to sign a striker who significantly undershot his xG, having scored barely over half as many as one would expect him to last season, with a very strong xG per 90 of over half a goal a game, as well as a solid finishing record in previous years. It seems likely that he should be able to match the performances of the ageing Glenn Murray at least, with a potential upside of a much higher level that would see his value rise to several times the £5.4m Brighton paid for him. It’s hard to find anything of fault in this deal.

The £17.1m purchase of Alireza Jahanbakhsh from AZ Alkmaar was another who drew a lot of attention. Jahanbakhsh has been covered in great detail by Mohamed Mohamed for StatsBomb. I’d recommend reading the full article, but if you just want a flavour of what he can offer, here’s a snippet:

“There are things to like about what Jahanbakhsh could bring to the table for teams looking for wide players: dynamic passing skills, fludity with his dribbling to create shots for himself or others, but there are flaws to Jahanbakhsh’s game. Because of the heavy usage that he was entrusted with, his shot selection definitely emphasized quantity over quality… Despite the obvious grace that he has when at full bloom and the coordination he has on the ball, it’s still hard to call him an elite athlete, and that might be an issue against higher level competition if he does make a post World Cup summer move. It’s always difficult to tell exactly how much of his impressive numbers, should be chalked up to the massive talent disparity that exists in Holland between the top and bottom clubs along with the defensive frailties in the league.”


That his 21 goals last season came in the famously easy to score in Eredivisie makes it unlikely that he will replicate this in the Premier League, but he does have enough of a wide range of skills to suggest he can still be valuable. As Mohamed mentioned, his creative passing and chance creation is very good, which has generally been a more transferable skill from the Netherlands than goalscoring. Considering how much Brighton relied on Gross last season for creativity, Jahanbakhsh should diversify their options in this regard and help share the workload. At age 24, they’re getting him as he comes into his peak years and there’s the potential for a higher upside, but he should at least be a solid contributor.

Yves Bissouma is also an eye catching signing. The 21 year old central midfielder has arrived from Lille for £15.2m having so far only played one season of regular first team football in Ligue 1. In this time in France, Bissouma managed an impressive 5.7 tackles and interceptions per 90 combined with 2.2 dribbles per 90. Playing as a central midfielder, dribbling tends to be a more difficult skill than in the less congested wide areas, so this suggests he can offer much in terms of ball progression. The respected opinion of StatsBomb’s Mohamed sees him as someone who is “able to undergo defensive actions in different areas of the pitch, and immediately help the team transition the ball whether it be with his own dribbling or one of his teammates collect the ball”. Considering how little Brighton’s central midfielders were able to progress the ball last season, Bissouma should be able to offer more in this regard while still contributing defensively, though he may require a period of adaptation. At his young age, it also seems likely that he’ll see a performance boost at some point, so it’s another deal that looks wise on paper.

Elsewhere, left back Bernardo from RB Leipzig looks capable of replacing the ancient Bruno while offering additional depth at right back. Leon Balogun on a free transfer should give them more cover at centre back in an obviously low cost move. There’s really no way of knowing how Percy Tau might adapt from the South African Premier League, but at a £2.88m transfer fee and presumably low wages it seems a fair punt if the recruitment people think there’s something there. Really, all of this seems like a switched on recruitment process, looking in the right places for value players with potentially high upsides. There is a gradual improvement in the transfer work done by clubs, but in a league where teams still pay a huge premium for “Premier League proven” English players, it’s hard to fault Brighton for looking at more obscure leagues.

All this has taken place without losing any important players from last year. With the summer business in mind, it certainly feels like Brighton are in a stronger place now than twelve months ago. Within the club, survival will presumably be the target, and achieving that will generally be seen as a success to the outside world. With the recruitment that has been done to supplant the already solid foundations, though, one can be optimistic that more is possible. A midtable finish is not out of the realm of possibility this season, and this feels like a football club that could even build on that in the next few years.


Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Liverpool: 2018-19 Season Preview

It came so close to perfection.

But for a particularly tragic 90 minutes in which Mohamed Salah picked up an early injury and Loris Karius made some unfortunate, perhaps even concussion influenced, mistakes, Liverpool could have won the Champions League. One game could have made everything sunshine and rainbows, and the world would be talking about Jürgen Klopp’s side as a truly elite side perhaps even on par with Manchester City., Realistically speaking they aren’t that good though, so at least the defeat created some more realistic expectations. That said, Liverpool are really quite good, so the expectation bar for this season remains quite high.

Manchester City’s historic 100 point season had a distorting effect on the rest of the Premier League. They were so far ahead of the pack at just about everything that a distant second was the best anyone could hope for. Liverpool managed to be second in raw shots per game both for and against, second in expected goals conceded, third (behind Tottenham by a hair) in xG created, and second in xG difference. The strong defensive numbers are perhaps the most significant here, with an area of long term struggles slowly getting fixed over the course of the season. When looking at the trendlines, we can see how Liverpool gradually became more solid as the year went on.



Virgil van Dijk’s signing is easy to look to as a pivotal turning point here, and while he clearly had a positive impact, the improvement started before his arrival. In the first nine games of the season, culminating in the embarrassing 4-1 away defeat to Tottenham, Liverpool conceded 11.35 expected goals, or 1.26 xG per game. In the next 29 games , the side conceded 19.35 xG, a much more pleasing 0.67 per game. It’s possible that this is just random variance, and some bad performances just happened to come earlier in the season, but there’s a decent chance this reflects a genuine improvement.

On the attacking end, the numbers did take a hit, generating 2.01 xG per game for the first 19 games of the season but just 1.56 for the second half. Perhaps that this is just the trade-off for being more solid defensively, and since there was a net gain, it’s worth it. Alternatively, there is the elephant in the room of one Philippe Coutinho. When you sell a star attacking midfielder and buy an expensive centre back, the likeliest scenario is that of course your attack gets worse and your defence improves. The late season injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and consistent fitness problems of Adam Lallana probably also didn’t help in this sense, as it forced Klopp to play three of Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum, none of whom offer a lot in terms of attacking ball progression.

(It is worth noting here that Liverpool did put in some big attacking performances after the Coutinho sale in the Champions League knockout stages. The small sample size of knockout tournament football makes it difficult to accurately gauge the significance of this, but we can’t rule out the possibility that Liverpool’s best attacking games just happened to occur here and perhaps this season they will occur in the Premier League.)

Obviously Mohamed Salah fueled Liverpool’s attack, managing to hit the joint 38 game Premier League record of 31 goals including just one penalty. There was a touch of the finishing pixie about this, only managing to generate 20.55 expected goals, though we do have some evidence that he may be an above average finisher. Even if he does regress, though, around 20 goals would still be an excellent return for a wide forward who also offers a lot in terms of dribbling and link-up play, so there shouldn’t be an overreaction if his goalscoring comes down a touch (though of course there will be, because it’s the internet).



As for how Liverpool go about things, it’s well established that Klopp is an advocate for an aggressive counter press. Liverpool’s high press probably isn’t quite as complete as City’s (who seem to shut down everything in the final third of the pitch to the extent that they really don’t have a lot to do elsewhere), but it’s still impressive to look at.



Unsurprisingly Roberto Firmino was the most aggressive presser in the side. His 22.31 pressures per 90 is well ahead of any other striker at a top six Premier League side, and more than double the figures of Harry Kane (9.64) and Romelu Lukaku (10.47). Whether this makes up for his mediocre 9.26 expected goals all season is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s impossible to understate the work he does to trigger Liverpool’s pressing both as a defensive tactic and in order to launch fast attacks in transition.



Elsewhere, Andy Robertson finally showed that it is possible to be a specialist left back for Liverpool without constantly embarrassing yourself, while youngsters Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez both did solid work on the opposite side. The aforementioned Van Dijk quickly established himself as the side’s key centre back, though neither Dejan Lovren nor Joël Matip provided enough reasons to be the obvious partner to him. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury, which rules him out of the entirety of this season, is particularly unfortunate given how important he was in terms of the side’s pressing and ball progression last year. Sadio Mané remains a strong all-round wide forward.

Someone particularly of note from an analytics perspective might be Dominic Solanke. Despite just one goal and one assist last season, the 20 year old striker generated 3.59 expected goals and assisted another 2.6, contributing to the best xGChain per 90 in the Liverpool squad. It must be stressed that 7.3 90s is a very small sample size, but should the Law of Ibrahimovic hold, there’s a good chance this could be a breakout season for Solanke.



In terms of incomings, Naby Keïta is the standout name, finally arriving from RB Leipzig after the deal was agreed last summer. StatsBomb has been singing Keïta’s praises for a few years now, so we’ll keep it relatively short this time. Keïta’s ability to dribble through a congested midfield is among the best in the world, while he still manages to contribute in terms of goals and assists in the final third as well as working hard defensively. He’s great. With Liverpool’s midfield options generally being more functional than fun (an even greater problem with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury), the Guinean should bring a different midfield flavour to the side.

Elsewhere, Fabinho should be solid as an eased in replacement for the injury prone Jordan Henderson as well as an immediate successor to the departed Emre Can., One concern is that Fabinho’s skillset leaves midfield a little light on passing and  earlier links to Jorginho and Ruben Neves imply that perhaps Liverpool settled on him after failing to acquire a more nimble ball mover. With the side already having a plethora of hard working, busy midfielders, Fabinho is perhaps too similar to others already in the side. Nevertheless, he should be capable of putting in solid work and playing a lot of minutes without too much trouble.

The crown jewel of Liverpool’s summer business is Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker. While Karius’s Champions League final performance brought this position under the microscope, the irony is that the goalkeeper position finally looked to be fixing itself before his untimely horrorshow. Since Karius took over goalkeeping duties from Simon Mignolet midway through last season, Liverpool conceded 13 non-penalty goals from 11.24 expected goals, well within the range of normal variance. This is somewhat of a blip, though, and the data available on goalkeeping suggests that Liverpool have conceded more than they should have for a number of seasons now. Alisson has not yet played a huge amount of high level football, but what we have seen from him suggests he will be a significant upgrade. He also rates very well in terms of his distribution, an aspect of the game neither Mignolet (who preferred to be a more conventional shot stopper who would just kick it up the field) or Karius (more comfortable stepping out with the ball at his feet, but never especially good at it) ever impressed in. The pricetag of £66.8 million may well have been an overpay, but it is understandable why the deal was done, and he should prove a decent enhancement.

The £13.75m purchase of Xherdan Shaqiri came as a surprise to many, and as James Yorke has written for StatsBombthis looks to be a reasonable gamble:


“The first thing to note is that this is quite obviously a percentage play depth signing. The price of around £13.75 million is cheap by comparison to most in today’s market and for that you’re getting a vastly experienced international player who is amazingly still just 26 years old. ...More squad depth will do no harm, and the bottom line is that Liverpool are covering some areas that they are slightly lacking with Shaqiri. There’s quite a lot of player in there for your £13.75 million.”


Shaqiri seems like an obvious attempt to deal with the problem of losing Mohamed Salah half an hour into a Champions League final and having nobody similar to replace him with. Surprisingly, Shaqiri’s one preseason friendly appearance so far has come as the most advanced player in a midfield three, a position he has the raw tools to play, though he may be wanting in terms of work rate and general understanding of the role. It is promising, though, that he seems to have the versatility to do this, especially when the deal for Nabil Fekir, a specialist in that role, fell through.

The failure to get the Fekir deal over the line feels important considering it looks as though nobody else of his profile will be brought in. This is a strategy Liverpool have employed in the past, with the club opting to sign no centre back last summer and wait for Virgil van Dijk rather than bring in a lower priority target. It is possible that Fekir, or someone else not currently available, will be signed in the next twelve months and Liverpool’s patience in the market will pay off. For the time being, however, there are concerns over the lack of a clear attacking midfielder since the sale of Coutinho. The Brazilian's value in terms of creative passing are well known, and his 3.41 open play passes into the box per 90 remain totally unmatched by anyone in the current squad. Klopp’s belief in using the counter press as a playmaker is well known, but it would have been nice to have an actual human playmaker to complement the tactical one. Adam Lallana’s return to fitness does provide more of a passing option in midfield, but he’s not Coutinho, and it is unclear how reliable he’ll be post injury.



Concerns about creative passing aside, Liverpool are in the best position they’ve been for several years. Long term defensive issues are gradually being eased while the side increasingly has a squad capable of challenging in multiple tournaments. The scale of spending has been significant, attracting a lot of attention in both a positive and negative sense, and that it has been primarily on peak age players tells a story in itself. This is a squad increasingly coming into its prime, and expectations are higher than ever. It is very difficult to make a case that any team other than Manchester City should be favourites to win the league title, but of the chasing pack, Liverpool may be best placed to put pressure on Pep Guardiola’s side and even capitalise if things take an unexpected turn.

Thank you for reading. More information about StatsBomb, and the rest of our season previews can be found here.

Did Messi Fail Argentina, or Did Argentina Fail Messi?

Argentina are out of the World Cup, and all eyes are unsurprisingly on one man. The tournament is over, and now it’s time for the quadrennial tradition of arguing about whether it’s all Lionel Messi’s fault.

Messi generated the most expected goals of any Argentina player at the World Cup. He had the most open play passes into the box while still managing to get into the area for the second most touches in the box. He managed the most dribbles and the most shots of anyone in the squad. He had the most key passes and assisted the second most xG. All of this led to him reaching the joint highest total xGChain in the side. Yet, all it got him was a single goal, two assists, and an early flight home to a furious Argentine public.

To the shock of no one, there has been a strong reaction both in support of and critical of Messi. Inevitably this is heavily driven by club loyalties, with Real Madrid fans keen to attack him while Barcelona supporters desperately defend their man. But what exactly did Messi do in the World Cup? Were there choices he could’ve made to improve the side, or did his teammates simply fail him?

Game One - Unable to Break the Ice

Iceland had a plan for stopping Messi and Argentina, one that certainly seemed to frustrate him. The main man registered ten shots in the game, more than half of his attempts in the entire World Cup. None managed to pose a serious threat, however, and he produced a shot map that matched the colours of La Albiceleste’s home kit.

How Iceland managed to do this is not complicated, but it was still impressive in execution. Their low block 4-4-2 system was able to pack an abnormally large number of players behind the ball at any one time, not unreminiscent of Sean Dyche’s Burnley. When looking at a heatmap of Iceland’s pressure events, the gameplan becomes obvious: frustrate Argentina in deep positions around the edge of the box, making it extremely difficult to break through.

We can see this plan on the pitch too, with a full eight Iceland players behind the ball as Messi attempts one of his many shots from range. What’s even more notable is that this is at 0-0, long before a side would typically be settling for what they have.

While  Iceland played well, their style wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had seen them at Euro 2016, and it’s not clear what manager Jorge Sampaoli’s plan was to break them down. Messi was nominally playing as a number ten behind Sergio Aguero, but he would often be seen drifting to his familiar right sided role or into a deeper midfield position to compensate for the lack of progressive passing from central areas. Giving one of the best players in the history of football licence to roam isn’t in itself a bad idea, so long as there is a clear structure around him. As it was, Maxi Meza and Ángel Di María in the wide roles were themselves often coming inside. Had they held their positions on the flanks, this could have stretched Iceland’s compact block and created some space for Messi in central areas. But they didn’t, so the whole thing was without structure and this allowed Iceland to easily keep their compact shape.

Messi was extremely isolated in this game, a number ten standing between the lines alone, surrounded by two Icelandic banks of four. Argentina’s only thought to break down the deep block of Iceland was to give the ball to Messi and let him figure it out, which, yes, he was unable to do, but there really should’ve been another idea.

Game Two – Pressed by Croatia

Considering the structural problems in the first game, it wasn’t a huge shock to see Argentina change formation against Croatia. The new system was a 3-4-3 in possession (though it often looked more like a back four without the ball), seeing Messi and Meza both take up number ten roles behind Aguero. The idea behind this appeared to be an attempt to fix the structural problems against Iceland, with Marcos Acuña and Eduardo Salvio taking up wide positions as wing-backs to stretch the play and free up Messi.

There is one obvious problem with this approach, however. Croatia’s style could not be more different to Iceland’s. If Messi’s first game was best understood by shot quality, his second can be seen through the lens of volume. After ten shots against Iceland, he managed just one attempt against Croatia.

Yes, you read that right.


A fairly basic idea about defending in football is that a deep block will look to blunt the opposition’s shot quality, forcing them into attempts from range, while a more aggressive high pressing system will attempt to stop the problem at the source and limit the number of shots conceded. Looking at a heatmap of Croatia’s pressure events, it becomes obvious that they were much more interested in causing problems for Argentina in midfield than Iceland were, trying to prevent the ball from even reaching the final third.

Meanwhile, Argentina’s approach seemed to be to press Croatia most aggressively in wide areas and allow them to play through midfield. You know, the midfield with Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić.

Whether this was a deliberate strategy, or simply the result of Croatia’s midfield taking advantage of Argentina’s ageing legs is unclear, but either way it was obviously suboptimal. One of the central themes of the game was Croatia winning the ball in midfield and using Modrić and Rakitić’s excellent passing range to quickly get the ball to the attacking players. That Croatia’s front three effectively got to have a 3 vs 3 contest with Argentina’s back three was also not ideal.

The kindest thing to be said from an Argentine perspective is that expected goals saw it as a much closer contest, with StatsBomb’s model evaluating it at 1.74 to 1.35 in Croatia’s favour (though the game state must be noted here, with Argentina continually having to create new attacks while Croatia were in a comfortable position for most of the game). In fact, the two sides were neck and neck until Rakitic’s excellent 91st minute goal to make it 3-0. The other two goals were from a brilliant Luka Modric strike from range and a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Willy Caballero, hardly systemic issues. Messi himself had the highest xGChain of any player on the pitch, showing that he was involved in Argentina’s gameplay, even though he wasn’t able to make many decisive contributions. Even if there were unheralded positives from this game, the manner of defeat again led to Argentina throwing everything out and trying a completely different system.

Game Three – Just About Good Enough Against Nigeria

For the final game in the group stages, a match that Argentina absolutely had to win, the side switched to a 4-3-3 formation. Whether this was purely Sampaoli’s decision or it was heavily influenced by the players is something we’ll never know, but it had several effects on the team. Obviously this system gets an additional central midfielder into the side, which may have been another reaction to the problems in the previous game.

It also helped that said extra midfielder was Éver Banega, one of the best progressive passers in European club football. The other notable shift was that Messi himself now played on the right of a front three, a position he has played a lot for Barcelona. This allowed him some more space, and the new position along with Banega’s ability to find him let him take a very involved role in the proceedings. Looking at the passmap, it’s obvious how much of an emphasis there is on getting the ball to Messi down the right flank.

And so It followed, Messi scored his first goal of the tournament, Argentina got a 2-1 victory and made it into the knockout stages. It worked!

About that…

Argentina were able to generate very little against Nigeria, and when one includes the penalty they conceded, expected goals has them as a clear second best.

And the penalty itself was the crucial factor in the game. While the incident itself against Javier Mascherano was a debatable one, it allowed Nigeria to focus on defending in more of a deep block that Argentina would need to break down. And in switching to this, they limited Argentina to just 3 shots over 40 minutes, with a total xG of 0.10.

That Marcos Rojo happened to connect well with a cross should not cloud what a poor attacking performance this was. One of the most frequent images of the game was of Argentina players with no genuine passing options, thanks to the extremely poor structure of the side. This was just enough to get through the group stages, but it was obvious that any side of higher quality would put them at serious risk of elimination. Which brings us to…

Game Four – Beaten on the Counter by France

There was only a single tactical change for what proved to be Argentina’s final game in the competition, but it was a significant one. After looking fairly comfortable on the right of a front three against Nigeria, Lionel Messi started as the central striker against France. As anyone who watched Barcelona in the first half of this decade will remember, Messi interprets the striker role very much as a false nine, dropping deep and looking to play short passes with the central midfielders.

This is fine and can be a very effective tactic providing other players are making runs beyond the striker and into the box. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side exemplified this with wide players such as Pedro and David Villa positioned narrow in order to exploit the space Messi vacated. Sampaoli’s side, however, opted to have Ángel Di María and Cristian Pavón take up very wide positions on their natural sides, as is visible from the passmap.

Throughout the game, Messi would drift around the halfway line, looking to receive the ball, while Di María and Pavón would stay wide waiting to cross the ball to… no one. A further indictment from the passmap is that, despite often moving into midfield areas, Messi made almost no decent connections with Éver Banega, Enzo Perez and Javier Mascherano. Despite specialist passing midfielder Banega being in the side primarily to get the ball to Messi in dangerous areas, the strongest passing link Messi had was with right back Gabriel Mercado.

What lost this game for Argentina was an inability to deal with France’s pace on the counter. Much was written about how this match represented a changing of the guard, with Messi looking past his best and Kylian Mbappé rising as football’s new superstar. What the French side understood was that the most effective way to use Mbappé in this game was to have him running into space, with balls over the top putting him in a footrace against Argentina’s ageing defenders and midfielders. Argentina, however, had no real idea of the best way to use Messi in this game. It seemed as though he was playing the false nine role mostly because it’s a position where he has done well in the past, but the rest of the team seemed to be built as though a true striker such as Gonzalo Higuaín or Sergio Agüero would be playing there.


Argentina played four games at the World Cup and managed to pull out four entirely different systems. Astonishingly, none of these systems actually seemed set up to deal with the problems that the opposition of that day would cause, and it often just felt like the lineups were attempts to fix whatever the problem was in the last game. That they kept changing strategies without ever addressing one of the core issues of ageing legs in midfield is quite odd, though may speak to the dressing room dynamics rumoured to be at play in the squad.

Messi was central to everything Argentina did, but almost by default more than any systematic plan to get the most out of him. Having a star in your side with such a rich and varied skill set can often pose problems about how best to use him, but one can at least attempt to create familiarity with a coherent side. Messi failed to deliver the decisive moments his country needed to progress further in the World Cup, but it is almost impossible to argue that he was given the best platform to do it.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Do England Have a Problem in Open Play, and Does it Matter?

England are into a World Cup semi final for the first time in 28 years and got there on the back of one specific method of attacking.

Set pieces have been the order of the day, and have proven a very effective tool in getting England to the semifinals, scoring five goals over five games from this route (not including penalties). An expected goals value of 4.59 suggests that there’s a good deal of repeatability about this, too. Nonetheless, the strong work done in this aspect of the game is covering up the lack of firepower in open play. Across five games now, England have created a grand total of 1.83 expected goals in open play. That’s about 0.32 xG per 90 minutes.

Worse still, most of the better chances here are from open headers. This makes a degree of sense, since part of the routines worked on for set pieces probably also have some effectiveness in the rest of the game. Still, if we restrict the xG only to open play shots without headers, we’re left with this map of sadness.

The first thing to catch the eye here is the complete void of nothing in the centre of the box, right in front of the goalmouth. To add an extra dose of frustration, the highest value shot here is Harry Kane’s third goal against Panama, which was an entirely unintentional touch he knew nothing about. Take the 0.31 xG from that out and we’re left with 1.05 expected goals, or 0.18 xG per 90.

As in, on average StatsBomb’s model would expect to see England score a goal from feet in open play once every five games.

Clearly there are some questions to be asked about how this happened.

One problem is a lack of creative passing. Of the players to have started the majority of England’s games at this World Cup, Kieran Trippier has generally been seen as the most creative. This is backed up by him managing the most open play passes into the box per 90 minutes, at 1.57. Yet this is lower than the 2.12 passes into the box per 90 he averaged in the Premier League this season, despite playing with more dominant creative outlets at Spurs such as Christian Eriksen.

This is a trend throughout the England team. The first choice front six (Trippier, Ashley Young, Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Kane) generate a combined 8.45 open play passes into the box per 90. In the World Cup, this figure has fallen to 6.16. This is despite not having a dedicated playmaker such as Kevin de Bruyne or the aforementioned Eriksen at international level. In theory, these players should be playing the ball into the box more than in the Premier League, but that’s not taking place in reality.

And it’s not as though England are not active in dangerous areas of the pitch. When looking at a defensive activity map, the immediate thing one notices is how aggressive the side are in the opposition’s half. 

Teams that press a lot in high areas of the pitch usually tend to be very effective in generating shots in open play. “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation”, as Jürgen Klopp has been known to say. And yet England aren’t really attempting to do this at all. To understand this, it is important to consider different reasons for a side to press.

England are not attempting a Liverpool-esque counter press for the purpose of attacking a team quickly in their own half, while the opposition defence is in an awkward shape. That approach, advocated by German coaches such as Ralf Rangnick and Roger Schmidt, has not been adopted, perhaps because it has a high level of difficulty or the players are just unsuited. Instead what we’re seeing is pressing primarily for defensive purposes. The players are aggressive in forcing the opposition to make suboptimal choices, or to give away the ball completely, but then look to be more patient in possession themselves. If the aim of this press is to restrict good chances conceded, it’s hard to argue with the results too much.

4.18 expected goals conceded across five games so far, or just 0.73 xG against per 90. Any way one looks at it, that’s solid. Interestingly, a lot of these shots have been conceded while the team is in a winning position, perhaps owing to a dip in concentration or the opposition being more forceful in pushing for an equaliser. When looking at simply the chances conceded while the side is drawing, we get this:

Just 1.13 expected goals conceded when the games are level. England have so far played 248 minutes of football while drawing, so that comes out at 0.41 xG per 90 conceded at this game state. While there are still concerns to be had over mistakes when England are ahead,  it’s clear that it’s very hard to score against this team when on even footing.

This is much closer to the kind of pressing strategy deployed by Mauricio Pochettino than it is to Jürgen Klopp’s attack through defense. Pochettino’s Tottenham side tend to press aggressively as a defensive strategy, while the attacking side of things is about grinding the opposition down with a range of different shots. With Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Kieran Trippier all important cogs in the attacking side of that Spurs team, it makes sense that England would go for a similar approach.

Pochettino, however, has a greater range of tools in order to unlock a defence. Christian Eriksen can use his excellent creative passing, Mousa Dembélé can move the ball through midfield with his excellent dribbling, and even centre backs Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Davinson Sánchez can open up the game. England do not have the same kind of options. Jesse Lingard, like Alli, is primarily useful in terms of making runs into space without the ball. Jordan Henderson in defensive midfield is a slightly underrated passer, but still primarily valuable for his energy. The back three are all comfortable on the ball but not nearly as adept as the Tottenham trio. Really, only Raheem Sterling is someone who can easily offer significant ball progression in this side, and has done so a fair amount, but one man can’t do it all.

The obvious question to ask is why England manager Gareth Southgate decided to structure his side this way with obvious holes in terms of personnel. The most straightforward reason is that there are a number of players in the squad who already play for Tottenham, and several more who play in slightly but not dramatically different pressing systems at Manchester City and Liverpool. With the lack of time and coaching talent generally found at international level, if you can get a complex system half right you’re already ahead of the curve.

What’s more, as Rafa Benítez says, football is a “short blanket”. You cannot cover everything, and be effective in every aspect of play. Encourage Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard to take more advanced roles running into the box more frequently, and one risks exposing Jordan Henderson’s cover of the back three. This is all the more acute in international tournaments, where time is in short supply. If Southgate had opted to spend more of his coaching hours working on attacking patterns, some of the defensive work would have inevitably become less rehearsed and more disorganised.

All of this might be why England are so focused on set pieces as a tool to score goals. Aside from the delivery, this is less reliant on technique and creative passing. It is also likely easier to rehearse in a short space of time than some of the best attacking moves we see at club level, the type that make it seem as though the players have an almost telepathic understanding with each other.

What’s more, the requirements for knockout football are different than that of a 38 game league season. A World Cup winning side will play just seven games on their way to the trophy, and losing any one of the last four is obviously a guarantee of failure. As we saw with Portugal in Euro 2016, keeping things very low scoring in the knockout stages can be as effective a route as any, especially for a side not blessed with a number of great creative players. If England had any intention of a different approach, the time to use it would have been in the group stages.

It is entirely possible that this team will lose to Croatia primarily because of an inability to create chances in open play. Perhaps it won’t be, but then in the final against France, England will have a lot  possession with an inability to turn it into shots. It’s not obvious, though, that a more expansive approach that solves these problems would increase the chance of winning the World Cup. While it may have some flaws, England have probably given themselves the best platform to achieve their first title in this tournament in 52 years.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

Tracking Romelu Lukaku's Progress

A few years ago I sat in the stands at CenturyLink field in Seattle to watch a meaningless friendly between Seattle Sounders and Chelsea. These MLS friendlies against European teams on preseason tours amount to little more than exercises in marketing, and really, that game was no different. The Sounders got beaten 4-2 by a mix of Chelsea’s youth team players and big names trying not to pull any muscles. Every once in a while, though, there were glaring reminders of the gap in quality between the two sides. On that occasion, a lot of those reminders happened to come from Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku and his game both seemed larger than life as he bodied MLS starting center backs to the tune of two goals in 63 minutes and then left the field when it felt like he was just getting started. Obviously the stage of the performance warranted more than a grain of salt, but he gave the impression that he was something out of the ordinary. Fast forward to 2015, and Lukaku has strung together two consecutive 15 goal seasons in the Premier League, been to the World Cup, sold for 35 million Euro and is now leading the line for Everton. Though he's certainly hit some highs over the last two years, this year has gone less smoothly. With Everton struggling and Lukaku bearing a greater attacking burden, he has produced only 7 goals so far, down to 0.28 NPG90 from 0.53 last year. He's come under some considerable scrutiny for his play this year, and people are now praising Jose Mourinho’s genius for letting him leave Chelsea and banking the transfer fee. But before we label Everton’s record signing a flop less than a year on, it's worth wondering whether this criticism is warranted, and what is responsible for Lukaku's dip in form. Separate entirely from Lukaku's own performances, consider how much has changed around him at Everton. Last season, nearly 80% of Everton's midfield minutes were played by Ross Barkley, Gareth Barry, James McCarthy, Leon Osman, and Kevin Mirallas. This year, injuries have hampered Barkley, McCarthy, and Osman to varying extents. Osman has ceded minutes to the inconsistent Muhamed Besic and while Mirallas is still contributing, Everton have struggled to find a consistent option on the other wing, where Gerard Deulofeu caught on last year. This season has left Lukaku playing in front of a midfield in flux, whose performance isn’t matching the level it reached last year, and whose inconsistency has forced him to change roles depending on the circumstances. He also suffers from the same affliction as Mesut Ozil: a large price tag. Similar to Ozil, Lukaku’s performances have been colored by the expectations of supporters eager for constant brilliance now that their club has finally paid for a star. While Everton’s struggles as a team have contributed to Lukaku’s dip in performance, Lukaku has certainly dealt with his own drop in form. Last year, Lukaku’s conversion rate of 14.9% put him in the 83rd percentile among 178 forwards and midfielders who played at least 900 minutes. This year he’s converting only 8.6% percent of his shots, which would have put him squarely in the 50th percentile last year. On the other hand, his rate of shots on target has dropped by only four percentage points, suggesting that his conversion dropoff might be the result of some bad luck. We can examine this in a little more detail by mapping Lukaku’s shot locations. lukaku1314 lukaku1415     This is something that I and other writers on the site have used to break down in detail the shooting performance of a player or a team. In Lukaku’s case, it becomes abundantly clear that his goalscoring form from last year relied on shooting often and precisely from inside the box. Indeed, all 15 of his Premier League goals came from within the penalty area. This year, however, his shot volume is down from dangerous areas, and more of his shots come from the right side, where he’s more likely to be shooting on his weaker foot. His on target rate from these areas has also suffered. This seems to indicate that Lukaku’s struggles run a bit deeper than just bad luck in the form of regression to the mean. While this trend isn’t encouraging, it looks a little different in the context of Everton’s shooting as a team. everton1314 everton1415 Lukaku’s own shot charts mimic those of Everton, whose accuracy and volume from within the penalty area has dropped off this year. Viewed in this context, Lukaku seems to be suffering more from Everton’s attacking dysfunction as a team than an individual inability to generate and finish chances. Romelu Lukaku may not be on fire the way he was last season, but his teammates aren’t helping, and he may take some time to settle into a full-time role as the top striker at a Premier League club. Though some of Lukaku’s struggles are real, panicking about his development now seems very premature. He’s shown flashes where he looks impossible to stop, and his recent Europa League performance rightfully drew a comparison to Marshawn Lynch. It’s easy to forget in the midst of his third season seeing significant minutes in the league, but Lukaku only turns 22 in May. I’m confident that the best is yet to come.