Crystal Palace: Season Preview 2021/22

First let’s take a moment to salute Roy Hodgson.

From Palace youth player to retiring as Palace manager by way of a successful 45 year multi-continent managerial career, Hodgson has been a titan of the game and he will be missed, not least from the post-game interview circuit, on which he was ever good value. In truth, he leaves Palace at a good time for his legacy, as results have skewed ahead of expectation for a couple of seasons now and we can but speculate how much of a factor his veteran savvy was when placed next to landing on the right side of some statistical variance. What statistical variance would that be?

 

That’s the expected goals for Hodgson’s (nearly) four seasons in charge and here are the seasonal outcomes:

 

If I’m Roy Hodgson I’m pointing at the league table.

Last year I wrote that ahead of the season were Palace given the option to take 17th, they would be wise to accept. The trending in metrics season to season was bad enough that it was a valid suggestion. The team had just scored 31 goals total in a season and seen their expected numbers crater by nearly 20 goals. In reality, Palace were never really in danger of relegation–by early March they had 30+ points and were ten points clear of 18th place–while their metrics got worse, in particular further declining as they coasted in to port late on.

What was bad about 2020-21 Crystal Palace? Firstly, the defence conceded a lot of goals–66 was more than everyone bar Southampton and West Brom. Now that’s a top line red flag that doesn’t improve when peering beneath the surface, Vicente Guaita did have a less successful 2020-21 compared to 2019-20, but he basically kept goals out at expectation instead of buying his team an extra eight goals as he had done before. At the other end of the pitch, finally Christian Benteke scored ahead of xG (10 goals vs 8 xG) for the first time in a number of seasons and was backed up by ahead-of-xG finishing from Eberechi Eze (4 from 2) and Wilfred Zaha too (9 from 6). In attack, finally nobody bombed out. As we know, this kind of overperformance is nice to have, but impossible to rely on and technically, only Sheffield United’s attack was worse.

Enter Patrick Vieira, but which one?

The Patrick Vieira that managed New York City FC initially brought a possession game to the team before transitioning towards a high energy outfit stocked with younger talents, and was relatively successful, insofar as his team competed at the top of their Conference. Upon accepting the challenge to move to Nice in 2018, it could perhaps be presumed that Vieira might pursue a similar style, but what transpired wasn’t quite the same. Nice weren’t unsuccessful with Vieira at the helm but at least in his first season, 2018-19, goals were super hard to come by (they scored 30, one fewer than Palace in 2019-20) and finished seventh after a raft of low scoring games. At this point the style of play was somewhat disjointed, still prioritising a passing game from the back, but not necessarily very effective with it.

Nice were a young team though and pointed upwards the following year in finishing fifth, albeit with warning signs. A season long ballooning over their non-penalty expected goal difference, which remained a steady -0.18 per game across both seasons helped but they remained a possession heavy (58% in 2018-19, 55% in 2019-20) unit with no real commitment to any kind of press and with very little functional cutting edge. His eventual dismissal in December 2020 was the result of a succession of stepped-on rakes in the form of five straight defeats in all competitions, four of which were at home, but actually coincided with metrics finally pointing upwards:

 

There isn’t a ton to get excited about here, but sub-par metrics plus above par outcomes does speak quite loudly as to Hodgson’s last two seasons, albeit via a structurally different plan. Vieira is coming in here taking over a team that has struggled recently, and it does feel a risk if he looks to deploy a possession first outlook, mainly due to the transition that will be required in this Crystal Palace team.

In recent seasons, it has escaped nobody’s attention that Palace have been an aging team and their 2020 transfer window started address that with the signings of Eberechi Eze and Nathan Ferguson. Unfortunately Ferguson missed the entire season injured while a steady opening season from Eze was  suffixed by an achilles injury which is thought to see him likely to miss a good portion of 2021-22. Not part of the plan, we go again!

Weirdly my preview last season included a section on Conor Gallagher which detailed how his split season across Charlton and Swansea in 2019-20 saw different aspects of his play come to the fore, and was a useful instruction to factoring in team styles into player evaluation. He then rocked up at West Brom and found similar divergence playing first for Slaven Bilić and then for Big Sam Allardyce, each of which meant that his statistical profile once more varied:

 

It paints a mixed picture, but is pretty positive for a young player in their first season in the league on a relegated team. The guy who logged 83% pass completion for Bilić will fit in nicely to Vieira’s plans, the 75% guy who played for Allardyce perhaps less so.

Elsewhere, the proverbial chequebook has come out for some promising talent in Reading’s Michael Olise and Chelsea’s Marc Guéhi, who impressed on loan at Swansea last season and is likely ready for a step up in league. Both these signings look ideal, talented young players ready for the next step in their career, but the caution is in the entire squad profile. Palace’s rebuild appears to have come a little late, and as such the squad skews away from the age group it likely needs to–prime.

The one signing that sits bang on the line here is that of Joachim Anderson, another player who spent 2020-21 on loan at a relegated side (this time Fulham) while performing not without credit. He was linked with Tottenham earlier in the summer and can viably be considered a coup for Palace. Guéhi and Anderson likely slot right in at left and right centre back especially give that the 1-2-3 2020-21 depth at left centre back (Gary Cahill, Scott Dann and Mamadou Sakho) have all departed and right centre back was mainly manned by Cheikhou Kouyaté, who may be a centre back now but certainly wasn’t always.

 

A slew of contracts ended for Palace in the summer of 2021 and in particular, departures from long term veterans and regular performers such as Andros Townsend and Patrick van Aanholt mean the squad currently looks light overall, with a particular deficiency in midfield. Of course the transfer window is open a while yet so remedial action may be taken, but it appears likely that Palace will start the season without a strong bench. It’s possible that Palace are waiting for the music to stop elsewhere and planning to offer regular playing time to some of the top clubs less wanted stars, and that’s certainly a strategy that may bear fruit.

Projection

Squad turnover and thinness, a lack of prime age players, a new manager likely to change the style of play and long term sub-par metrics all point at risk factors ahead of 2021-22. Palace have rightly been praised for some of their moves in this window for addressing their long term future, but they still need to stay in this league in the present to benefit from those moves and that may prove tough. Last season’s projection was thus:

The trending is wrong and it will take distinct and real change to the team’s metrics to give them a chance of steering clear of a relegation battle. Hodgson has been in the game long enough to see the warning signs and in most Premier League seasons there are double the amount of teams that perform at a level to put themselves into the relegation mix, so he may like the chances of winning a coin flip. But planning and execution of strategy are what limit risks such as this, and having been reactive rather than proactive in turning over their squad it could well be tough for the club. Offered seventeenth today, you’d have to take it.

In truth very similar remarks apply now. The bookmakers have Palace, Brentford, Norwich, Watford, Burnley and Newcastle in the mix for sub-40 points at this juncture, meaning once more a likely six teams for three relegation spots, the same either/or dynamic as last season. This end of the table is a new challenge for Vieira and he will need all his man management skills to get the best from this squad, week in, week out and keep them competitive. Offered seventeenth today, they should take it.


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

If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com

We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course

Follow us on Twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Chelsea: Season Preview 2021/22

Where do you go from here? In 2012, Chelsea sacked their concept manager, Andre Villas-Boas, handed the reigns to a club legend, Roberto Di Matteo, finished miles off the pace with 64 points then promptly went out and won the Champions League. In 2021, Chelsea sacked their club legend manager, Frank Lampard, handed the reigns to a concept manager, Thomas Tuchel, finished miles off the pace with 67 points then promptly went out and won the Champions League. It took Tuchel 123 days to hit that high point and he did it by focusing first and foremost on defence. In 19 Premier League games under Tuchel, Chelsea gave up more than one expected goal twice: firstly against West Brom in the freakish 5-2 defeat and latterly against Manchester City, two games from the end of the season in a match they won regardless. The difference that Tuchel made to the team was as stark as it was swift and they were clear second best behind Manchester City in the back half of 2020-21. In their first ten game phase under Tuchel the team closed everything right down. The attack was yet to gel together but the defence  gave up a remarkable four xG and conceded just two goals. By season’s end Chelsea’s Tuchel era metrics were in hailing distance of Manchester City with a +1 xG difference per game across his reign (for the same period City were +1.2) with the impressive side still mainly defence (0.56 xG against) while at least in terms of process, the attack had perked up and landed at a decent 1.56 xG per game. Only two teams have put up metrics of this ilk in recent seasons: Liverpool and Manchester City. It may be a short spell, but the strong indicator here is that Tuchel has managed to organise Chelsea’s high quality, high potential squad into a shape that is capable of contending. Lampard had the makings but not the execution, Tuchel had both. So what did he do to harness the talent in this squad? First up the obvious switch from Lampard’s general 4-3-3 and variations towards a distinct 3-4-3. This had the instant benefit that if you were a centre back, then welcome aboard, you now had a great chance of getting good minutes regardless of what had been happening so far in the season (hello Antonio Rüdiger, Andreas Christensen), ditto anyone who had experience of playing wing-back, let’s say in a league winning side playing a similar formation (come on down Marcos Alonso) and anyone called Mason Mount, mainly because he’s literally the ideal player for any team playing any formation, something on which both Lampard and Tuchel agreed, more later. Here’s the minutes splits across the squad: Chelsea had a relatively injury-light 2020-21 (and the squad to survive it too) so the balance between the Lampardis and Tuchelistas is fairly reliable to spot. Each manager loved Mount, Edouard Mendy, Timo Werner and Reece James–these were a core four and come rain or shine, their managers picked them. More Lampard favoured were Ben Chilwell (a bit), N’Golo Kanté, Kurt Zouma and Tammy Abraham while Tuchel was big on César Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Rüdiger, Christensen and Alonso. Kanté and Chilwell get a pass here too really as once the business end of the Champions League kicked in they were solid picks in that tournament, as was Kai Havertz. The risk players for this squad are quite clear: Abraham was losing minutes to Olivier Giroud, who has now left and has likely seen his potential position gazumped entirely by Romelu Lukaku (a transfer for him seems imminent too). Hakim Ziyech struggled to see pitch time for either manager last season and at the moment looks like the big miss/square peg among the high class attackers purchased in summer 2020, despite quite good statistical contribution when on the pitch. Christian Pulisic saw more game time at the back end of the season, enough to think he’s likely to stick around and feature, while Callum Hudson-Odoi remains a statistical marvel but repeatedly flits in and out of favour whoever is in charge. Seriously, Hudson-Odoi is fascinating. Snooping around earlier in the summer I spied this and tweeted it: More than 1000 minutes, more than 2.4 OPEN PLAY key passes per 90? 3 qualifiers in the PL, De Bruyne, Grealish and… Hudson-Odoi Then when I was poking at our new OBV model numbers for this article, he leapt off the page again, albeit predominantly in the Lampard era where he was clocking 0.56 OBV/90. This was right around better players in the league, albeit in pretty small minutes, which cautions against excitement, especially when you have The Real Deal Mason Mount in the mix:

People sometimes like to argue about model outputs, but I’m not interested in that here, as Mason Mount is constantly selected and great. In ways he reminds me of Italian midfielders of the late 1990s, an Angelo Di Livio or Massimo Ambrosini or Alessio Tacchinardi, players that were surrounded by flair and technical brilliance yet absolute team soldiers and vital cogs. That possibly denigrates everyone I’m talking about here, particularly Mount, who can contribute well at the business end of the pitch too, yet it’s really not meant to, Mount himself has had to semi-justify his position in the Chelsea and England team for the best part of two years, but Lampard knew his worth, and perhaps saw something of himself in him, succeeding through will and graft where more naturally gifted rivals faltered. He started him in 49/57 league games for Chelsea and only missed pitch time in two. Tuchel is under no illusions either, in May saying “He is crucial for our game, he is an absolutely key player” and the fans voted him Chelsea Player of the Year last season. And he’s still just 22! Unfortunately fellow midfield man Jorginho took the Champions League / Euros double, to hit his own high note, but let’s move beyond that for now and celebrate Mount, who also successfully boosted all of his expected metrics moving from Lampard’s team to  Tuchel:   Sorry, a sideline. So what did Tuchel do? We established that the defence improved, and it did so in the most desirable way: they reduced the volume of shots they were giving up and the shots they did give up were harder to score than the ones they had been giving up before, magic! Check out the annotation, one shot! For the record a Christian Benteke header, you can maybe understand how the scout report may have missed on that as Benteke’s long game of undershooting xG for multiple seasons paid off with decent goal returns in 2020-21. Overall, reducing the volume and quantity of shots allowed came across all facets of the game. They halved the volume of “clear” (just the keeper to beat) shots they allowed, reduced opposition set piece effectiveness and gave up fewer counter attacking shots. Part of how they got there was that Chelsea upped their tempo out of possession. Under Lampard they were fairly active and ranked fourth to sixth for all of PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action), the average height of their defensive actions and their overall responsiveness to pressuring opposition ball receipts (our “aggression” metric). It took a little time under Tuchel–recall a handful of slower, possession heavy chance-lite fixtures in the early weeks–but during the second half of the season, they were second for PPDA (behind Leeds, of course), third for height of defensive actions (behind Man City and a resurgent Liverpool) and second for aggression (behind Leeds again), all notable moves in a more active direction. Just for raw pressure events and defensive actions, the workload went up, up, up before coming down, down, down just as they were all in on the Champions League, but we can see here more events, and a higher proportion of pressure events as Tuchel’s tenure settled in. They have the makings to play this way now and be effective with it: Some of the methodology also involved ball-hogging dominating possession: they played more passes than Manchester City in their 2-1 win and routinely outpassed weaker teams by large volumes. But they could win in other ways too, as a 1-0 victory over Liverpool showed. They played a fairly rigid and deep 3-4-[big gap]-3 and outworked their opponents while giving up next to nothing shot (7) or xG (0.28) wise. On the largest stage, the Champions League final was not dissimilar. How do you improve a Champions League winning team that has shown it can outwork, out pass, out shoot and out defend its opponents, seemingly at will? Chelsea are eternally in “win-now” mode and “win-now” mode means buying Serie A’s best striker for close to £100m to End Instantly debates around how you can man your front three, whether a false 9 will work best or if your very-good-but-to-my-mind-not-quite-good-enough-to-lead-a-Chelsea-front-line-perhaps-a-tier-lower-23-year-old-academy-graduate is the right choice. And why have they done this? Finishing. The divergence between Chelsea’s stellar Tuchel era metrics and the reality of clambering into the top four slots can be blamed on one thing: the attack fired well under expected values under Tuchel. Analytics 101 remains get the process right and let the variance work itself out. In truth this was a team effort. Thirteen Chelsea players took ten or more shots in the Premier League under Tuchel and of those thirteen, a meagre two of them exceeded their goal expectation: Kurt Zouma (one goal from 13 shots and 0.85 xG) and Marcos Alonso (two goals from 20 shots and 1.62 xG). This is frankly ridiculous, and not really a reflection of the quality of Chelsea’s players. Werner and Havertz may have had personally less impressive seasons than they may have hoped but they’re not obviously sub-par finishers, nor historically was Olivier Giroud. One specific aspect of play they did not get from their forward corps was as follows: Yes; a guy crashing the six yard box. It’s not that Lukaku is a noted plus finisher, more that he is a reliable scorer–he will take up the positions you need from your main striker and score goals. To this regard Lukaku does have the vibe of a missing piece and seven years on from departing for a decent fee is returning. It will be hoped that as a focal point, Lukaku can enable his equally talented colleagues to thrive around him, and regardless he’s surely as close to guaranteed as any Chelsea striker to chip in handily. More broadly on personnel, while clued up fans may bemoan the loss of Abraham and Fikayo Tomori, they’re getting very good fees for these players and the supply line from their youth teams to the first team is doing just great, with Mount, Christensen and James all hitting big recently. Projection There’s a disconnect between stellar Tuchel-era metrics and winning the Champions League contrasting with 2020-21 points accrual (76 point pace) and bookmaker expectations (around 76-78 points). This plants Chelsea firmly alongside Liverpool in a “best-of-the-rest” category, a couple of clips ahead of Manchester United yet trailing Manchester City. In real terms they will likely need to bounce forward another ten points on top of that and make a +20 points season jump to season to contend for the title. With a summer of planning for Tuchel, a stable squad that isn’t undergoing much remedial work and the natural belief of a successful team, it’s possibly easier imagining Chelsea steering upwards once more than not. With Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and now Tuchel in the Premier League mix, it would be thrilling to see these three teams battling hard on all fronts and this season is well set for these coaching titans to tee off. Evidently Tuchel has not found long term stability in his managerial career, but with this squad and the big prize already in his back pocket, he may be primed to stay a good while yet. The league is better for that.


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

Tottenham Hotspur: Season Preview 2021/22

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

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

With a team largely powered by a core of players remaining from Pochettino’s era, a season and a half of Jose Mourinho followed. Talks of rebuilding continued to surround the team but despite vigorous work in the 2020 transfer window, the innate core of the team remained similar to before, and results and metrics continued to plateau. When Mourinho himself was jettisoned in April 2021, it came as no real surprise. In particular, Tottenham waned against the better teams in the league, and a 4-3-9 WDL record against teams in the top half under Mourinho in 2020-21 simply didn’t cut it. When your entire schtick as a manager is that you’re a winner, you really need to win games at a faster clip than that. Now Mourinho certainly chose a reactive style of play but we can see here that he failed to fundamentally improve the team’s metrics to even the level of Pochettino’s declined 2018-19 outfit: With Mourinho’s departure entirely justifiable, an extended recruitment process eventually landed on Nuno Espírito Santo, fresh away from Wolves after a tough season saw them part ways. What Espírito Santo will bring to the team is somewhat open to interpretation; his Wolves teams often played with apparent caution in a 3-5-2 and he had a small squad. Tottenham also saw time with three centre backs during Mourinho’s time, and played in a similarly reactive style, but are awash with talented attackers, to the extent that it seems feasible that Espírito Santo may deploy a more offensively charged system, much as he has in former jobs. Indeed, pre-season has seen more of a 4-3-3. But who will form the core of the team? That question is harder to answer and the arrival of Juventus’ former Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici has accelerated early summer transfer activity both in and out of the club; one thing is for sure now: it is rebuild time. The good news is that two of the team’s main attacking stars appear likely to be retained for 2021-22 albeit under slightly different circumstances. Son Heung-Min had another great season and recently signed a new four year contract. His shot map shows quite clearly what Mourinho tried to get from him: open shots off throughballs, and he exceeded his expected goals by a decent margin for the fifth straight season: There’s an interesting question around Son’s new contract–he’s 29 years old, somewhat of a speed merchant and signed up until he’s 33. The next four years may not be his best four years, but his elite finishing ability may keep him as a significant net plus contributor ahead of what may normally be expected from a player with his style. Balancing these decisions is never easy–see Liverpool’s trio of late-peak forwards as a case in point–but at the very top of the sport, I suspect a player as an asset to the team persists longer than general age curve work suggests. Similar comments could apply to Harry Kane, who has never been a speed guy, but has always been a plus finisher. However, there’s enough noise in the room to suggest that Kane is more inclined to finish his footballing days outside of North London than within, albeit his contract situation (3 more years), likely asking price (a lot) and Manchester City already dumping £100m on Jack Grealish all look like reasons that may preclude his departure, at least this summer. That said, those of us who recall the departure of Gareth Bale back in 2013 will not be wagering on any specific outcome. The big analytics story on Kane is that in 2020-21, he was very much back and there will always be the suspicion that the enforced pandemic break was the best thing that could happen to him. Prior to that a series of injuries and quick returns had apparently derailed his overall effectiveness and seen his underlying metrics drop off, albeit without the goals ever really disappearing.   Mourinho certainly set up teams to get the best out of Kane, and 2020-21 saw his highest shots per 90 (3.6), xG per 90 (0.48) rates since 2017-18 and the added boost of high volume creation, in particular towards forward partner Son. From a metric perspective, it’s fascinating to note that essentially what Kane is doing on the pitch is broadly the same as before–apart from the key aspects of well, shooting and creating shots. Back when he declined from nearly five shots per game in 2017-18 to around half that in early 2019-20, I attempted to investigate what he was doing differently and found scant evidence outside the shot decline, his average touch was slightly deeper, but little more. It seems that Kane is resilient enough to endeavour to play a similar game to that which he has found great success with, but how or if a manager uses him as a focal point within the team may well define outcomes. Mourinho recognised that and built a team to get the best from Kane, and he got that. Did other players suffer by way of comparison? Perhaps? Either way, this season will be informative once more. The under-the-radar story for this team is the second departure of Gareth Bale. In a fitful season, when he was on the pitch (around one third of available minutes) he was lights out good. He scored eleven goals at around double his xG, added a couple of assists and was the only player in the league with above one goal contribution per 90. For shot contribution, only Kevin De Bruyne (6.7) and Bruno Fernandes (5.5) exceeded his 5.2 per 90. He also ranked second in the division behind Grealish in our OBV/90 metric. Any way you slice the Bale pie, it came up tasty. Sure he wasn’t a key starter and in the aggregate trailed Kane and Son, but having this kind of weapon as a bench option will be missed. Personnel So far the rebuild has been as follows: 1. New goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, initially on loan from Atalanta. This makes some sense, as Joe Hart was the back-up to Hugo Lloris and with Lloris entering the last year of his contract, a degree of succession would be logical, possibly Gollini represents that. 2. Left footed left winger 20 year old Bryan Gil swapped for a chunk of cash plus club legend Erik Lamela with Sevilla. Lamela at 29 was good to go, and this kind of one for one “past out, future in” equation is nice and tidy from a squad management perspective. Dissecting a stats case for Gil is curious as playing for a stylistically distinct and struggling Eibar team in 2020-21 wasn’t the passport to ballooning metrics as we can see here: Okay, so what’s the story here? Much of what we see here grades out at around league average, and the combination of team style and his age enables us to be perhaps more positive than may seem at first glance. If you’re 20 years old and clocking league average metrics, the prospect of what you can do down the line is pretty positive. People who watch football, which couldn’t be me, also appeared happy with this deal. 3. Probably Cristian Romero No Tottenham fan is likely to complain about defensive reinforcements and the departure of Toby Alderweireld makes that a pertinent detail. Given how readily media talk around moves has turned into reality this summer, it very much appears that the Argentinian international centre back Cristian Romero is likely to arrive shortly from Atalanta via Juventus. Fresh from being crowned Serie A Defender of the Year and a Copa America triumph with his national team, it’s easy to see why Romero is coveted and could attract a large fee. A twin effect jumps out from our metrics: during both his time at Atalanta and Genoa he has recorded extremely high pressure volumes and extremely high foul volumes. The centre back archetype in the modern Premier League is somewhat opposite to this, for example Virgil van Dijk pressures and fouls infrequently, and it’s a logical detail. If you enact pressure, you may well get beaten and leave space behind and be forced to foul. Atalanta routinely play high up the pitch and need robust and active defenders, Genoa in 2019-20 less so, but Romero was notably active in both teams. How Romero slots into Espírito Santo’s presumably more cautious set-ups and how active he is will be a story to follow, as the handful of Argentinian Copa America games are less conclusive here. What else occurs personnel wise is hard to know. At Juventus Paratici frequently oversaw large scale squad turnover on a season to season basis, and having already sold Alderweireld to Al-Duhail in Qatar (as a natural replacement for Mehdi Benatia who he sold there in 2018 from Juventus), it’s clear he is well capable of finding clubs where others may not. However should Romero follow Gil in though the door, that would be around £75m invested in the squad, and it’s hard to see the club allocating significantly more resources for player purchases without some balancing of the books. We shall see. Projection In 2016-17 Tottenham finished second, the following year they finished third, then fourth, then sixth and in 2020-21 seventh. With Leicester apparently well in the mix for top four places these days, the big six appear to have either shrunk to four (Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd) or extended out to seven (add in Arsenal). Either way, Tottenham’s desire is to be firmly in the mix with the smaller group, and the Mourinho experiment did not slow a decline that was straightforward to forecast via metrics even as they finished fourth in 2018-19. As such, bookmaker predictions have them in that second tier alongside Leicester and Arsenal and an estimation of around 60 points doesn’t deviate far from either of the last two season totals (59, 62). None of this is easy to counter in either direction. The squad remains fairly deep and talented while appearing to lack some of the cohesion and clear ethos that we see from the league’s best sides. Last season’s top four will be a hard nut to crack for all teams this year and a deal of hope has to surround further recruits and whether Espírito Santo can take a more talented squad than he had at Wolves (two seventh placed finishes) and land them higher up the table. Fifth to seventh remains by far the most likely outcome and anything over 65 points would represent a step in the right direction. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor just one transfer window.


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

West Ham United: Season Preview 2021/22

To move West Ham from 16th place in 2019-20 to 6th in 2020-21 has to rank alongside any of David Moyes’ career achievements. His return to the club 18 months after leaving in the summer of 2018 was not greeted with great positivity, and it appeared to take the enforced pandemic shutdown to get the ship steering in the right direction. However, few teams can be seen to have benefited so greatly from playing in the current climate, and the way the club has evolved and improved in Moyes’ tenure is a ringing endorsement towards the elusive attribute every manager would like–time. That 26 point season-on-season improvement ranks third behind Leicester 2015-16 and Chelsea 2016-17 across the Premier League era: It was no fluke either and is reflected in the shot metrics that powered the team:

  • non-penalty xG rose from 1.14 to 1.34 per game
  • non-penalty xG conceded declined from 1.49 to 1.17 per game
  • …causing xG to go from -0.35 per game to +0.17; half a goal gains are not to be undervalued, this team improved substantially
  • they took more clear shots (1.5 up to 1.9 per game)
  • they conceded fewer clear shots (2.6 down to 1.9 per game)
  • the chopped a load off their set piece shot concessions (down from 3.4 to 2.6 per game, xG here halved from 0.31 to 0.17 per game)

…while stylistic play features were clear too:

  • 32% of box entries were via a cross (most in league)
  • led the league for metrics relating to pace and directness
  • second lowest passes per defensive action
  • least counterpressures and resultant regains
  • closest shot distance (both non-penalty and open play)

This all paints a picture of an organised, somewhat reactive and patient team. They also knew which games represented their best chance of success. Eventual top four? A 0-1-7 WDL record. Rest of the league?  A stellar19-7-4 record. We discussed the role of long carries and shots and goals from defensive regains in last year’s preview and these features generally persisted. West Ham kept their shape and waited for opportunities to break forward. Once they did they created chances at a decent volume for their key contributors, once more Michail Antonio benefited but also a resurgent Jesse Lingard: The boost that Lingard brought to the back half of West Ham’s campaign was both large and perhaps unexpected. Lingard, a player who has been noted to steer under his expected goals values in the past, scored eight non-penalty goals from an xG of around four to force his way all the way back into the England squad.It appears likely that he will be staying in Manchester this season and for West Ham losing not just the player but one in the form of his life is a significant blow. As yet, the Hammers have been slow to enter the transfer market, with the main change from the start of last season the removal of their highly priced bench men. Sebastian Haller left for Ajax in the winter and Felipe Anderson was practically given away in a cheap deal to take him to Lazio. Neither convinced for West Ham in the aggregate and quickly fell down the pecking order under Moyes, but their removal, alongside that of Lingard, does leave something of a lack of depth in attacking positions. In general Moyes operated a small squad in 2020-21, and he talked about how he instilled an effective group ethos during difficult times in a column for the Times ahead of the Euros:

“At West Ham, during the club season, I made a conscious effort to make training more fun…to not keep it so heavy. I thought about the world the players were having to live in, there was no opportunity for them to leave the bubble (so) we had to make sure they came into work and felt they were with their friends. Footballers were challenged by lockdowns and the lack of “normal” life and found they were happy to get out of the house, pleased to be in training, and craved it from the point of view of structure and routine. So there was actually more training — but we made sure that many days there were lighter training loads.  (In general) unity and spirit helped “smaller” clubs navigate the difficult conditions and do well in many of the domestic leagues.”

What has been ahead of and during this summer done is limited; Craig Dawson’s loan was converted to a permanent deal back in April and Alphonse Areola recently arrived on loan from PSG after a solid season in London at Fulham: With Fabiański now 36 years old, it makes sense to start thinking about succession and we will see who Moyes puts his faith in from week one. Areola is a more active and “modern” goalkeeper than Fabiański, but the Polish veteran has done little wrong in his West Ham tenure and may well see the position still as his own. Warning Signs? One of the hallmarks of Moyes’ second spell has been his consistency in selection. In 2020-21, eight players played in more than 70% of the team’s minutes and the core group he has relied upon is small. When Antonio missed time in the autumn of 2020, Haller stepped in, but there are a further string of players who look core–perhaps Declan Rice, Aaron Cresswell, Tomáš Souček and Vladimír Coufal. The team avoided injury problems last season and that consistency in selection looked to work to West Ham’s benefit. The main selection choices week to week look likely to be in the attacking midfield band. Jarrod Bowen, Manuel Lanzini, Pablo Fornals are all in the mix but could Saïd Benrahma’s second season see better returns and omit the need to replace Lingard in the market? He saw a lot of bench time in Premier League season one, and the variation of his profile compared to his time at Brentford was stark. Gone was the shot-happy drifting left-sided attacker, replaced by a more shot-shy, creative player fitting in across the attacking band. He was in competition with Pablo Fornals for a left-sided slot then Lingard became the key man in the centre and Benrahma never quite nailed down the starting space. It would be no surprise if Moyes values positional discipline and Benrahma doesn’t quite offer exactly what he wants from his wide attackers, but he’s certainly talented enough to come forward and contribute more, if empowered. Setting realistic expectations for West Ham’s season means without further investment, a replication of anything approaching last season’s 65 points would represent the absolute best outcome this group could expect, and doing so, even from similarly small net positive metrics is fairly unlikely. There’s also a hidden drift in the end of season form to note: Throughout Moyes’ tenure, West Ham’s xG and goal differences have tracked fairly reliably. This is no given, and we can see divergence at the end of 2020-21, in which goal difference persisted significantly ahead of xG. Now, that was great to keep the results coming as the summer beckoned, but is less encouraging ahead of the new season; West Ham were at their worst in 2020-21 at season’s end. Where will West Ham end up? Bookmakers are currently projecting a firm mid-table finish and around 50 points and while that may seem slightly ungenerous, it’s not hard to toss around their metrics, quietness in the transfer market and risk profile towards squad depth versus key injuries and feel that is in range. The coming month and transfers could move the needle here though and I’d probably have them good for a couple more wins than that, particularly if they acquire a useful back-up or alternative to Antonio. 2020-21 was a season in which the unique circumstances of low pressing pandemic-ball and a stable first team helped Moyes extract the best from a group of players that played with a clear identity. With crowds back in stadiums, it’s hard to imagine that the slightly neutral aspect of 2020-21 will persist and some of the benefits accrued from a more passive strategic style may well decline. That does not mean that West Ham’s future prognosis is particularly worrying, just that a small detour down into mid-table is the most likely outcome. This would still represent a huge overall improvement on what Moyes inherited and justify his retention, with a view to continuing to build and sustain within the league comfortably. To move upwards or match 2020-21 will probably take both more time and significant investment, and having been bitten by high-priced flops such as Haller and Anderson, West Ham’s ownership may be content to swim in shallower transfer waters for now too. Last season I felt that transfer backing could be the difference between lower mid-table security and something slightly more than that, and the equation is probably similar. Again West Ham have a choice to make, but this time they are making it from a higher vantage point, that of safety.


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

Burnley: Season Preview 2020-21

Few managers last as long as Sean Dyche.

Closing in on eight years in the Burnley hotseat, the relegation of Eddie Howe and Bournemouth means that he is the longest serving manager in the division. This will be Burnley’s fifth consecutive season in the Premier League and their run to a tenth placed finish in 2019-20 was almost entirely unheralded. The seventh placed finish of 2017-18 clearly took the narrative gust out of this similarly impressive season. This time round they scored exactly the same amount of points (54) but actually won more games (15 to 14). They also did a good job of bouncing back from the lesser season in the middle by chipping a whopping 18 goals from their against total (50 down from 68).

After a run of 4 defeats around New Year, they lost just twice in sixteen games; firstly a 5-0 thumping from Man City, which is the kind of thing that can happen to anyone, and lastly a final day defeat to Brighton. Seven other games against top half teams yielded two wins, and five draws. In the main they were tough to beat in the extended back half of the season. Did the metrics like them too?

 

Well, yes and no?

For long swathes of the season, Burnley’s xG conceded exceeded that which they gained. This isn’t unusual though–it’s been the same in all their last four seasons–but in the aggregate, this was the best of the four seasons since promotion and it scoped out only a shade under par (-0.08xG per game). We can see how they cut out the bad games in comparison to 2018-19 if we look at their expected goals value by game here:

Average metrics, average league position, but a far from average method of getting the job done. Burnley remain unique and flagbearers for their specific and effective style of play. There are a few simple principles that persist season to season:

1. Don’t get sent off

Burnley have received three red cards in four seasons. That equates to around once every 50 games. It is a lower rate than any other team that has been in the league during that period. They receive a medium to high volume of yellow cards, but scarcely leave the pitch with less than eleven men.

2. Don’t worry about giving up shots

Conceptually, giving up shots is a bad idea. If your opponent doesn’t shoot, they can’t often score. Burnley don’t care so much about that, because although they always give up a ton of shots, the average value of these shots is frequently among the league’s lowest and therefore best:

 

The two good seasons Burnley have had recently–2017-18 and 2019-20–have seen them give up around 14 to 15 shots per game. Their lesser seasons–2016-17 and 2018-19 have seen this at a higher level closer to 17 or 18. However, when measured, thanks in some part to the defensive positioning we have in our model, we can see that the quality of those shots is still in the main low. During 2019-20 they had more defenders behind the ball than any other team and more defenders within a cone that defines the route to goal. Filter down to just inside the box and this still holds. What other impact could stationing more players between the shooter and the goal have?

3. An army of defenders can block shots

Guess what? Burnley consistently block a higher proportion of opponent shots than the rest of the league:

The argument between tactical choice and necessity can rage on elsewhere, but this is what Burnley do in their own box.

What do they do at the other end?

4. Bombard the box

Burnley take a lot of shots from close in. A bunch of these are headers (they rank highly there too as a percentage of all shots) and a bunch of these are set pieces, inswinging corners and the like. But at least in some regard, they get it. Burnley get that scoring is easier the closer you are to goal. This chart is filtered to 10 yards, but you can move that line around and the message is still the same:

5. Thou shalt not dribble

…unless you’re Dwight McNeil. Overall Burnley rank 20th/20 for each of the last four seasons for dribbles attempted and completed. There is some logic here when factored alongside the other stylistic tics. For example, if you’re trying to beat an opponent, you may fail to do so and give the ball away in a bad position and your defence maybe caught short. Best if this doesn’t happen at all?

NcNeil’s two successful dribbles per 90 ranks 41st in the Premier League for players with over 900 minutes. So it is not as if he is wantonly skipping past opposing right backs at will but he is the one player empowered to do so. Jeff Hendrick was the only other player recording more than one per 90 last season, and he now plays for another team.

McNeil is an outlier for other reasons too. There are very few out and out left footed left wingers in the league these days. Indeed, Leroy Sané’s departure to Bayern Munich shears the most prominent example of such a player away and even he may end up playing on the right. Left footed wingers tend to get inverted these days. McNeil is also, by a large margin, the only young player in Burnley’s squad to have seen any significant game time in any of the last four seasons and he’s only been getting significant minutes the last two.

6. If you can’t grow a full beard, you’re too young, unless you’re Dwight McNeil

Full beard or not, at 20 years old, McNeil is a full four years younger than the next youngest first teamer in the squad, January signing from Bristol City, Josh Brownhill.

Right now, this team isn’t too old. But it’s not far from a situation where too many of the squad are over 30. One can hope that the Brownhill signing is a clear recognition of this issue, but with the club quiet so far in this summer transfer window, there is precious little evidence to see what extra remedial work they’re going to do.

7. You better be able to play 90 minutes

Sean Dyche isn’t going to be voting for five substitutes any time soon. Pre-lockdown, Burnley averaged the fewest substitutions in the league at a solid two per game. Given free reign to run amok and make five substitutions amid a heavy schedule and summer temperatures, Dyche did nothing of the sort and made fewer substitutions. There are interesting angles that have been thrown up since the idea of five substitutes became reality. Do too many substitutions interrupt team cohesion? Can the mysterious momentum be halted by too many personnel changes? Regardless of the truth here, Burnley do it their way and are unlikely to change.

8. We will press you but only where we want to

Burnley’s 2019-20 pass-to-press chart was probably the most intriguing of any team in the division. When held up against their previous seasons, we can see that it’s actually a subtle but fairly long term trend:

Ahead of the half way line, Burnley will press opponents on the ball. In the rest of the pitch far less so. Our aggression metric, which measures how many opponent ball receipts are pressed within two seconds ranks Burnley in 19th position. And we can see both very high up the pitch and in defensive areas, Burnley will sit off. However, they record a higher percentage of their pressure events in the opposition half than any other teams bar Liverpool and Manchester City, and they are not idle with it, as the 77% of counter pressures (within five seconds of an opposition turnover) they record also ranks highly, fourth. This is a team that deploys specific and differing strategies towards the opposition depending where they are on the pitch.

Projection

While I appreciate that not every team can have a positive profile and point upwards this season, it appears to me that Sporting Index’s opening points projection for Burnley is on the low side at around 40. Outside of a legitimately horrific run of metrics in the first half of 2018-19, for the last three seasons, Burnley have shown themselves to be a fairly comfortable mid-table Premier League side. There are warnings to be heeded around the squad aging, and perhaps the squad size, but with Dyche apparently set to stay on–after some off season rumours that his time at the club was coming to an end–the club appears as set as it ever is to confound the naysayers and persist within the league. Whenever the day comes that Dyche does leave, the job of following him will no doubt be extremely difficult and that moment could well be a crux point for the team’s retained Premier League status, but we’re not there yet, and as such, Burnley in 2020-21 should be entirely fine.


If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com

We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course

Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

The StatsBomb Premier League Season Previews 2020-21

We hope you’ve enjoyed the StatsBomb Premier League season previews! Here’s a handy place to keep them all. Just click the links to read about each team. Thanks to Nick Dorrington, Oli Walker and Ted Knutson for writing and thanks from me to you for reading. If you enjoyed these articles do share widely! Arsenal Aston Villa Brighton and Hove Albion Burnley Chelsea Crystal Palace Everton Fulham Leeds United Leicester City Liverpool Manchester City Manchester United Newcastle United Sheffield United Southampton Tottenham Hotspur West Bromwich Albion West Ham United Wolverhampton Wanderers  


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

Leicester City: Season Preview 2020-21

It’s extremely uncharitable to take a look back at 2019-20 and declare it anything other than a success for Leicester. Yes, Champions League qualification looked likely for most of the season, and to miss out was ultimately a disappointment, but the trajectory and outcome were more than fine.

In Brendan Rodgers’ first full season in charge, Leicester built on a strong run at the back end of 2018-19 to finish fifth. Since their unexpected title win in 2015-16, the team has turned over managers at a rapid rate but also contrived to stabilise and grow. Finishes of twelfth, ninth and ninth have now been exceeded and in raw terms the team improved ten points season to season. This meant it was still their second most successful Premier League season and while not quite the 40 point year to year boost that made them champions, the original baseline they moved upwards from was higher and the likelihood of maintaining a good level surely is too.

In a season of two halves, Leicester ballooned over what were solid metrics pre-Christmas then found their run deflated despite continuing solid metrics from there on in. They scored 39 points in the first 19 games with a plus-22 non-penalty goal difference and plus-8 expected goal difference, then 23 points from the last 19 with plus-7 for non-penalty goals and plus-10 for xG. Wait a minute? Very similar expected numbers in both halves of the season? Yes, and that’s why sometimes, outcomes can be deceptive.

 

 

Overall, it’s impossible to take a negative stance on their metrics. Expected goal difference? Fourth. In attack? Fourth. Defence? Fifth. Leicester got the cusp of the top four not by some fluke but by playing football of a quality that merited their position.

What made Leicester good last season? To start, Brendan Rodgers got them working pretty hard off the ball:

 

 

That chart includes StatsBomb pressure events alongside other “traditional” defensive metrics (tackles and the like). It shows that in proportion to their opponent’s pass volumes, Leicester were either slightly or quite frequently above average in how they engaged in every zone of the pitch–a notable change from previous seasons. The old school pass per defensive action metric (not pressure, just high up the pitch) had Leicester logged as lowest (best) across 2019-20 and consistent over each half of the season. The proportion of opponent receipts that were pressed within two seconds,  had Leicester at 28% in the first half of the season (2nd) and 27% in the back half (1st). Outside of Manchester City, Liverpool and to a degree, Chelsea, the teams that enact a press that shows up well in data are Leicester and Southampton. This team puts in a shift.

Part of what enabled this is that the role and purpose of players in Rodgers’ line-ups were fairly consistent and clear. There is a sense of Liverpool in how Leicester partition their contributors into attackers than use possessions and defenders that don’t, not least insofar as the two full-backs, Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell fitted firmly into the attacking band. Alongside James Maddison, this trio finished the most Leicester possessions during 2019-20, and it’s easy to presume that missing these three in the run in was costly. Once Maddison was unable to feature, Rodgers seemed more inclined to work with three centre backs, pushing the full-backs ever higher, perhaps knowing he didn’t have another Maddison-type, as an attempt to further embellish the full back attacking contribution. Of course by now, Pereira’s loss to an ACL in March cut deep, for all that Justin did a solid job in covering, and Chilwell was later missed too with 19 year old Luke Thomas covering. Pre-lockdown, the team had been injury free and consistent with a version of 4-1-4-1 most commonly used. Barnes, Tielemans and Perez contributed a fairly democratic attack looking to power Vardy’s Indian summer, while Wilfried Ndidi sat in front of the centre backs and covered everything going the other way.

Personnel

It’s to Leicester’s credit that ever since their title win, they’ve sold a big ticket star every summer to a big six club, yet managed to build and maintain a fairly solid squad and compete well against exactly those teams. N’Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater and now Chilwell all went to Chelsea, Riyad Mahrez to Manchester City and Harry Maguire to Manchester United. This reliable income has been a useful counterbalance to necessary spending and has meant that they have made a bunch of mid-priced bets along the way. More recently they have quite often come out the right side of the deals. Youri Tielemans was the most expensive (at around £40m) but elsewhere Ndidi, Maddison, Caglar Söyüncü and Pereira have forged good careers at Leicester and were core parts of last season’s team. Even players that have not become core starters such as Kelechi Iheanacho, Dennis Praet or James Justin are now able to round out the squad and offer useful depth, while it’s always fun to find a Harvey Barnes or Hamza Choudhury lurking in your development squads.

None of these players are anywhere near being the wrong age and most of them are still on the cusp of their best years. The squad has a lot of pre-peak talent that has grown together. The veterans here are two title winners in keeper Kasper Schmeichel and Vardy and a still effective Jonny Evans. who has now spent five seasons post-Manchester United proving their decision to move him on to be not optimal. With this kind of age profile, there is no obvious reason why this team shouldn’t be as good if not better this coming season:

 

 

With Chilwell departing, a replacement was quickly sought. Signing a player from Atalanta does have a ring of “hipster’s choice” to it but Timothy Castagne represents another right age (24) mid-range fee (£21.5m) with a decent amount of experience in a good side. He has covered either flank as a full back; he’s spent time fairly equally on both sides across the last two seasons but with Pereira (if fit) and James Justin already ensconced on the right side it seems most likely that he’ll be stationed on the left. Remaining left full back Christian Fuchs is surely winding down at 34 so it’s not impossible they will strengthen again here, but Castagne’s profile is that of a player who is slightly more secure on the ball than Chilwell, while not contributing to the attack in the same way.

 

 

Castagne also doesn’t offer the ball carrying high up the pitch or as a general outlet that Chilwell did, so there may be tweaks afoot in the style Leicester play:

 

 

Elsewhere, Vardy remains somewhat immune to his age, and Rodgers has managed to extract his best goalscoring form in some seasons, by targeting shrewder movement and utilising his speed to get on the end of throughballs:

 

 

Vardy can be a streaky finisher, but in the aggregate he remains reliably over expectation. One day he will need replacing and there’s an argument that for team effectiveness in buildup he’s a net minus. Solving that is probably a decision for further down the line though, as his inevitable goal contribution will always be hard to replicate from elsewhere.

Projection

With the full backs contributing so heavily to Leicester’s success in 2019-20, then Chilwell leaving and Pereira suffering a serious injury, it may be hard to mimic the specific set-ups we saw from August to March. Finding the balance here may well be crucial to whether Leicester can get early results, with further issues around the time until Maddison returns to full fitness and Evans missing the start of the season through suspension. A trip to Manchester City aside (they offered next to nothing in both fixtures last season), Leicester’s early schedule is not unkind and they will hope that their injured stars can work their way back into contention once the schedule bites a little more. European football does focus consideration towards squad depth, and a couple more incoming players would help.

Results trending in the wrong direction (6-5-8 second half of the season, 2-3-4 post Covid break) have led to a divergent view of how good this team is and how well it can perform in 2020-21. The opening Sporting Index lines had them at around 56 points, behind all of the big six and Wolves, but the facts remain that in tied positions this team took close to 60% of all shots, for 60% of xG and scored over 60% of the goals. To ignore that entirely would negate the reality of Leicester’s achievement.

As a metrics loyalist, I feel obliged to come out on the positive side of predicting Leicester.  But for nagging doubts about key injuries i’d be confident that they could compete more than adequately against teams widely rated higher than them who have shown far less appeal in the numbers such as Arsenal and Tottenham. Their age profile is perfect for that of a team that can continue to progress, and this group of players is reminiscent of that which Mauricio Pochettino helmed for Tottenham at the start of their good run in the mid 2010s; a team which ironically found Leicester in their way perhaps a year or two before they hit their own peak. High praise? Sure, but there is talent throughout this team and there isn’t that much that needs to be done to compete for a top four slot again.


If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com

We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course

Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Aston Villa: Season Preview 2020-21

The last game of the season, West Ham versus Aston Villa. Six minutes from time, Jack Grealish scored to make it 1-0. The talisman of Villa’s season, the homegrown boy-come-good, had done it again. Villa were safe from relegation.

Within 90 seconds, Andriy Yarmolenko had contrived to equalise. A freak deflection caused the ball to loop over Pepe Reina and make it 1-1. Immediately, Villa’s entire season was back balancing precariously on a knife edge. Fortunately, little of note filled those remaining few, long minutes and Villa’s tenure in the Premier League was extended for another season. They hadn’t done it the easy way–eight points from their last four games were required–but they had done enough, just. For Bournemouth and Watford, this meant disaster, relegation and the acceptance that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

The transition back to the Premier League was at no point smooth for Villa. The squad arrived at the gates of the big house short-handed and significant investment was required to compete. Last summer, fees of around £130m were agreed to bring in twelve new players and a risky overhaul took place. Was 17th place a good enough return for that investment? Apparently not as large scale changes have now been made to the team involved in that spree. Johan Lange replaced Jesus Garcia Pitarch as Sporting Director and Rob Mackenzie has now arrived as Head of Recruitment. Each has some heritage in using data, with Lange telling Sky Sports in February that while at Copenhagen:

“At the identification phase, our process is very data-driven. We are trying to find players earlier in their career. That is difficult to predict but it is important to try. The partnership between myself, the manager and the scouts is crucial. We take time at the start of the process to establish exactly what we are looking for. Then we can set the parameters with the data. It is only after that stage that it becomes about live scouting.”

Mackenzie is well known in terms of data and recruitment having worked at Leicester, Tottenham, Derby and Leuven while also acting as a mentor for candidates in Opta’s Pro Forum. There have also been changes in the backroom staff with the arrival of Craig Shakespeare, fresh from a semi-successful short tenure with Nigel Pearson at Watford.

Villa’s 2019 recruitment appeared somewhat scattergun (with a curious interest in the Belgian league), while the club has tried and abandoned a data-led strategy before, albeit with Tim Sherwood in charge. Can this time be different? It certainly makes sense to add more accountability to the process and with another potential large scale investment ahead of this new season, the new mens’ moxie will be tested quickly. The fundamental contradiction to overcome here is to buy players for now and a more comfortable season in the Premier League while having half a mind on building for the long term future. It is not always straightforward to balance these two aims, but is paramount here.

The metrics were clear enough in 2019-20: Villa ranked 19th for expected goal difference. However, post lockdown, Villa’s defence was excellent with only Leicester and the two Manchester sides allowing a lower xG Against, and shots against dropping from a woeful 18 per game down to just 10.

 

It’s unwise to weigh expectation too heavily on the post-break games, but it appears possible to make a case here that Dean Smith and his coaching team were not idle during the enforced break. There is a degree of caution here though again, as typically Smith teams have been somewhat vulnerable to giving up shots, and the whole season line still reads “most shots against” and “most counter attacking shots against”.

If the defence is possibly on the right track, the fan view of recruitment comes into play and that is: “we need more attackers”. Jack Grealish was the star of Villa’s season, but the advanced left sided position he ended up playing came as much from necessity as suitability. Up front, Wesley was not contributing effectively (5 goals from around 1.6 shots per 90) before a New Year’s Day injury finished his season while his swiftly purchased replacement, Mbwana Samatta fared even worse (one goal from 1.5 shots per 90). Grealish top scored with eight while Trézéguet rescued an otherwise underwhelming season with some key goals down the stretch to get to six. A scorer was lacking and Grealish’s strengths alone aren’t enough to power an entire attack by himself:

Grealish spent the back half of the season being mercilessly trailed by a sign labelled “Has been fouled more than any other player in the Premier League” that leapt onto TV screens the moment he featured. That trait could be a double edged sword too. Frustratingly Grealish can often kill attacks by holding on too long and drawing the foul, but those fouls can be productive too. Villa’s thirteen goals from set pieces was enough to rank them joint fourth in the division and included five from indirect free kick situations. This was useful as the attack was limp in open play. In ranking in amongst the stragglers both before and after the pandemic break. Villa’s 17th place finish was everything they needed from the season, but from a performance standpoint, it was impossible to upgrade.

The noise on transfers is that some of the Championship’s best are being eyed, and the arrival of Matty Cash from Nottingham Forest has finally kicked off the summer’s recruitment round. There’s a deal of sense behind this move, as Frédéric Guilbert was the starting right back for the whole period in which Villa’s defence was awful and played little after the restart while Ahmed El Mohamady is 32 years old and was nominally back-up last season anyway, a role he can continue to play. As a converted wide man, perhaps the attacking instincts of Cash will allow some added contribution down that flank. There is an obvious upgrade with regard to passing, with Cash completing nearly 75% of his passes in or into the final third last season compared to Guilbert down at close to 50%. Cash is more able to carry the ball from deep and when he gets to the final third penetrate the penalty box or get deep, as we can see here:

These may sound like small aspects, but it’s important that Villa make these incremental improvements in every new player they sign. After Cash, there’s still a requirement to beef out goal scoring and goal creation, and it would be no surprise if Villa ended up depositing a large cheque at Brentford for one of their jewels. Ollie Watkins is the obvious play here after his 26 goal 2019-20, but his shot map shows us why alone, he or anyone with a similar shooting profile can’t be the last signing:

With 24 of 26 goals from within the space between the penalty spot and the goal, he will need providers to give him these chances. Grealish was Villa’s only regular starter to average good volume chance creation from open play (close to two per 90, El Mohamady 1.5, then John McGinn at 1.2). He can’t do it all.

Projection

So what’s the aim for 2020-21? Firstly it has to be 17th place once more. If Villa can replicate the features of the games they played post-lockdown, they have a great chance of pointing upwards, but we will need to see longer than a ten game stretch to have confidence that this can happen. And if the recruitment side of the organisation is empowered with cold, hard cash, it will be hard to suggest that Villa aren’t doing everything in their power to become a solid Premier league outfit. There also looks to be a good chance that their jewel, Grealish, will be retained. An uncertain Covid-19 world only pushes him deeper into the zone formerly occupied by Wilfried Zaha: too valuable to sell cheaply, too expensive to be a certain purchase for one of the giants.

The Sporting Index opening lines had Villa 18th but very much in the mix with West Brom, Palace, Fulham and Newcastle as the “below 40 points” brigade. It would be trivial of me to suggest all these teams should take a guaranteed 17th place today as I did for Palace, but it remains true enough. Extremely sub-par metrics and close relegation escapes aren’t naturally predictive of comfortable mid table finishes. The last few weeks of the transfer window may once more be decisive for Villa. They simply need to get stronger to ensure they can compete better this season and stay clear of trouble.


If you’re a club, media or gambling entity and want to know more about what StatsBomb can do for you, please contact us at Sales@StatsBomb.com

We also provide education in this area, so if this taste of football analytics sparked interest, check out our Introduction to Football Analytics course

Follow us on twitter in English and Spanish and also on LinkedIn

Jarrod Bowen’s Unique Skill

Jarrod Bowen has been hot for a while now. The Hull City man has scored 52 goals in the last three Championship seasons, of which only four have been penalties. His rate has accelerated too, with the 0.55 non-penalty goals per 90 he’s achieved in 2019-20 ahead of a rate closer to 0.4 for the previous two seasons.

With goals a desirable currency in football for some years now, it’s mildly surprising that the 23 year old Herefordshire-born attacker hasn’t been lured away from Hull before. That’s changed this deadline day with a reported switch to West Ham on the cards after interest from Newcastle and Crystal Palace, all teams for which his propensity for goals will surely assist. Bowen is a left footed attacker who generally plays from the right side but is fairly versatile as to positions he can inhabit across the attacking band. That main profile in itself already marks him as relatively scarce, as I discussed some years back.

Here’s his shot map for the last two seasons:

 

 

What can we learn from this?

-His frequent right sided starting position is reflected by a skew to that side for shot locations.

-His shot selection shows a relatively high volume of attempts from long range and difficult wide positions.

-He has shown an ability to score from range with five goals including one free-kick.

-He’s scored well from through-balls (represented by triangles), seven from seventeen attempts.

-Lots of goals from high value close, central locations, including deep into the six yard box.

-Few headers, only twelve in total and one goal, from very close range.

Okay so this is all pretty good and without even looking at any other aspects of his play, is an obvious hook for suitors. But it’s not the whole story in relation to his shooting. Bowen is actually a unicorn. One of the benefits of data is the ability to test ideas. How many lefties score lots of goals with their right foot? Riyad Mahrez? Romelu Lukaku? Sure, both score a few but usually from more central locations. How many lefties score often with their right foot from wide on the right? This is what makes Bowen, in this aspect of his game, unique. Look at the split here:

 

 

Finishing from wide is hard. It stands to reason: the goalkeeper fills more of the goal and the target gets small quickly. Nonetheless, players often overrate their ability to score from sharp angles, and with their stronger foot too. In contrast, Bowen both shoots and scores with his off foot from wide positions. If you watch how he takes his shots, he often shoots quickly and hard, catching keepers off guard. That he can do this with both feet and in tough zones with his off foot? That’s not a common skill. It also gives him an advantage against the defender, as there isn’t a sensible direction to shepherd him if he’s in possession in the box.

We’ve only explored one aspect of Bowen’s game here, albeit a crucial one, but it already makes him an interesting player to evaluate further. With a broad dataset of multiple leagues and industry-leading detail such as that available from StatsBomb, it is possible to understand how a player’s talents fit within the world of football, and when you find players that impress with the scarcity of their ability, it pays to sit up and take notice.

Bowen was a player we reported on as part of our consultancy services and within that we explored the rest of his game in detail too. Further information about the StatsBomb’s consultancy services is available from sales@statsbomb.com

One question remains though. Do Bowen’s suitors realise that he is a prolific goalscorer or a both a prolific and unique goalscorer?