StatsBomb sign partnership agreement with Vitesse Arnhem

Vitesse Arnhem has signed up for a partnership with StatsBomb to use their industry-leading football data.  The collaboration with the fast-growing company highlights the Eredivisie team’s commitment to innovation and will see Vitesse Arnhem reap the benefits of Statsbomb’s data and IQ software platforms to enhance talent identification, performance analysis and opposition scouting.  Vitesse Arnhem joins around 100 professional clubs and federations worldwide in using StatsBomb’s deep data, covering over 3,400 events per game. The data includes unique metrics such as Pressures by Player and Team, Pass Footedness, Pass Height, Freeze Frame for Shots and On-Ball Value – the company’s new possession value model.  Alexandre Taylor, Sales Executive, StatsBomb, said: “We are excited to start working with Vitesse Arnhem, a club at the forefront of football data innovation. We are looking forward to a successful partnership contributing to the club’s data-driven strategy, where our data will help inform critical decisions around recruitment and scouting.” Speaking about the partnership, Johannes Spors, Sporting Director, Vitesse, said: “At Vitesse, we are constantly looking for smart and inventive solutions. We welcome new ideas, embrace modern technologies and love different ways of thinking. For our scouting and analysis, the focus on video and data-driven elements is therefore becoming increasingly important. COVID-19 and its travel restrictions have made these tools even more valuable. The addition of StatsBomb as a data service fits seamlessly into our innovative approach and helps us to scout and develop high potential talents from Europe and make targeted match analyses.” About StatsBomb StatsBomb is the world’s fastest growing football data company. Founded by former analyst Ted Knutson, StatsBomb was formed to empower data analysis teams by ensuring they have access to the best football data set ever created. Having started as an analytics blog, StatsBomb initially progressed to consulting on data-driven recruitment and performance analysis for professional teams. In 2018, having become frustrated with limitations of the data available at the time, StatsBomb acquired ArqamFC, a data collection company based in Cairo, Egypt, and started to collect and supply its own data. The introduction of StatsBomb data was a turning point for the analysis of football as it introduced previously unavailable metrics such as pressures, the height of the ball at the point of shot impact, goalkeeper positioning, freeze frames for shots and the foot with which each pass is played. In 2021, StatsBomb improved this data even further with the launch of StatsBomb 360, adding a snapshot of all visible player locations to more than 3,400 on-the-ball events that are collected per match. Having gained rapid traction since its inception, StatsBomb is now servicing customers across the professional game, as well as betting and gaming operators, and is active in over 20 countries.

StatsBomb Conference 2021: Research Papers

It was a privilege to host such a high standard of presenters at the StatsBomb Conference 2021 in October.

On the Research Track stage, the winners of the research paper competition demonstrated their analysis in a clear and insightful way, showing a great level of innovation and some compelling findings from the original research they conducted on StatsBomb 360 Data. We’re delighted to be able to share with you the white papers from those talks, as well as remind you where you can watch the talks again. More than a dozen videos from the event are available to watch on our YouTube channel now, with a specific StatsBomb Conference 2021 playlist already set up for you to dive into. The research papers can be accessed by clicking the links below, which will take you to the respective pdf document.

Maaike van Roy, et al – Optimally Disrupting Opponent Build-ups

MaaikeVanRoy

Hadi Sotudeh – Potential Penetrative Pass (P3)

Juan Camilo Campos – Determining the phases of play using Graph Neural Network Embeddings

JuanCCampos

Javier M. Buldú and Borja Burriel – The quest for the right pass: Quantifying player’s decision making

Javier M Buldu

Soumyajit Bose and Manas Saraswat – Anatomy of Receiving and Turning with the Ball

–Enjoy!

Talks From The 2021 StatsBomb Conference Are Now Available On-Demand

After releasing the first batch of presentations last week, we have today released the remaining videos from the 2021 StatsBomb Conference. There are now more than a dozen talks from the event available to watch anytime. 13 of the 17 talks given on the day are available, including the entire speaker list from the Research Track stage, whose presentations featured the latest innovative research from the football analytics space and included some of the first publicly-available research performed on our brand new and novel dataset, StatsBomb 360. Watch the talks HERE The full list of available talks:

Talks from Ian Graham (Liverpool), Harry Moyal (Lyon), Vosse de Boode (AFC Ajax), and Daryl Morey (Philadelphia 76ers) will not be made available. It was strictly requested that the information shared in those presentations be kept exclusive for those in the room on the day (sometimes What Happens At The StatsBomb Conference, Stays At The StatsBomb Conference). But fear not! There is still a TON of practical value contained in the talks that we are able to share with you. With 13 to get through covering a wide range of topics and approaches, there are countless takeaways to be drawn from the available selection. Thanks again to all of the fantastic presenters who gave talks on the day, sharing applicable insight and exciting, novel research that is sure to provide the foundation for research performed inside clubs and in the public football analytics field over the course of the next year. Watch the talks HERE

What Happened At The 2021 StatsBomb Conference

The StatsBomb Conference made a long-awaited return to Stamford Bridge last week.  We welcomed various individuals from across the sports analytics sphere for a day of industry-leading talks, data-driven research and unique networking opportunities. In 2019, we couldn’t have imagined that it would have taken almost two years to get everyone back together, but we’re delighted with the turnout this year. Let’s look back at the key things that happened to give those who attended a chance to revisit their experience and those who missed it an opportunity to catch up on the day. Industry-Leading Talks Before the guest presenters took to the stage, StatsBomb CEO Ted Knutson kicked things off with an opening talk about the company’s progression since the last conference and our fast-approaching expansion into American Football. The day continued with Dr Ian Graham (Liverpool), Harry Moyal (Olympique Lyonnais), Devin Pleuler (Toronto FC), Vosse de Boode (AFC Ajax) and Mladen Sormaz (Leicester City) all delivering expert presentations on the Main Stage. Each speaker drew on key insights to discuss various topics within their organisations, from measuring playing styles in different competitions to implementing data-driven recruitment strategies. The Directors of Football Panel featured StatsBomb’s James Yorke in conversation with Victor Orta (Leeds United), James Cryne (Barnsley FC) and Will Kuntz (Los Angeles FC). The panellists spoke in-depth about successfully implementing data-driven methods around player recruitment, opposition analysis, and general strategy within their respective clubs. Ted Knutson and Daryl Morey (Philadelphia 76ers) closed the Main Stage and indeed the entire Conference in their fireside chat, with a collection of insightful stories from their respective sports and discussions around the role of data and analytics in basketball and football. Innovation in Football Analytics The Harris Suite featured a variety of hand-picked presenters giving attendees an exclusive window into the current state of play surrounding innovative research in football analytics.  The nature of the papers covered a variety of topics, including driving goalkeeper decisions, identifying high pressing styles and penetrative passes. These talks contained the first sets of publicly-available research performed on StatsBomb 360 data. Each researcher created their specific papers using StatsBomb data and tuned in from different locations across the globe to deliver their novel research to our attendees. It was a fascinating experience to see the different approaches taken by each speaker across each of their papers. We will release all of the research papers in the coming weeks, and you will be able to see the latest developments and research in the football analytics landscape. StatsBomb 2021 Conference: A Welcome Return One of the main pieces of feedback from the day was how great it was to get everyone from the industry back in a room again to connect and learn from each other. We hope you enjoyed the day surrounded by your friends and peers, learning from some of the best in the industry. Here are a few snapshots from conference attendees about their experiences last week.

You can see more of what attendees thought of our event by searching on the #StatsBombConference hashtag on your chosen social media platforms. What Next?  If you missed any of the talks at our 2021 Conference, keep an eye on our Twitter and LinkedIn in the coming weeks.  We will be releasing some of the talks, recorded presentations, and papers from the research track. In the meantime, you can check out Tom Worville’s key insights from the 2021 Conference or listen to his notable takeaways on The Athletic Football Tactics Podcast. Or you can check out David Álvarez writing for EL PAÍS with a selection of quotes from several talks. We look forward to seeing you all again at our StatsBomb Conference 2022, but until then, keep an eye out for other StatsBomb events next year!

Leicester City: Season Preview 2021/22

The introduction to last year’s Leicester season preview reads:

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.

So, I guess it appears as though Leicester are destined to live out the same season over and over again, in some weird Edge of Tomorrow like fashion. Champions League qualification looked likely, they were disappointed to miss out, but the trajectory and 5th place outcome were more than fine, AND they took home an FA Cup for their troubles this time around. It’s the trajectory that counts and Leicester are certainly on the right track. The Headline Numbers Whilst on the surface Leicester’s 5th place finish matched their 2019/20 placing, when you dig a little deeper there’s actually been quite a bit of change. Firstly, the underlying numbers have taken a hit from the lofty heights they set in 2019/20 when they finished 4th for expected goal (xG) difference. Last season only Sheffield United dropped off more in this regard. All of their overperformance came in attack. They conceded 46 goals from 46 xG, but up front scored 58 goals from 47 expected. Kelechi Iheanacho, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes ran especially hot, with Iheanacho’s emergence as a reliable goalscorer in particular really helping to propel the Foxes into European contention, notching 12 goals from seven xG. Iheanacho’s contribution was especially important given that Jamie Vardy had his first poor finishing season in four campaigns, flipping Iheanacho’s conversion rate by getting seven goals from 12 xG. Looking across the season as a whole, you can see the oh-so-difficult Christmas period that really hurt the underlying numbers, even if actual results around that period weren’t so bad. Something that many teams struggled with in a particularly intense fixture schedule in 2020/21. We get some interesting results when we break these xG numbers down further by looking at Leicester’s xG difference during each game state. Here you can see that Leicester are an exceptional team when they’re winning, which is perhaps no surprise given the attacking talents they have to play in transition and Brendan Rodgers’ track record of setting teams up to play efficiently on the break. The squad lends itself to this approach: Vardy is notoriously great in this phase of the game, Barnes is a fantastic ball carrier at pace, and then you have Maddison and Youri Tielemans who can play the high-value pass whilst having enough mobility to stay with the play. On the other hand, Leicester really struggle when losing. They don’t have trouble moving the ball into the final third – they ranked 6th for deep progressions – but keeping the ball in-and-around the box has not been a strength of theirs as they rank 13th for deep completions (successful passes within 20 meters of goal). A large factor in their struggles when behind is that their xG per shot drops from 0.13 to 0.08, meaning they either resort to lower-quality efforts on goal or they struggle to break down teams defending a lead. Their most common pass clusters tell a similar story of ball progression, but only up to the final third. They’re also quite lopsided in the opposition half – a lot of play goes through Tielemans and subsequently Iheanacho, who’s much more involved than his striker partner Vardy. Let’s dig deeper into whether those passes are providing value. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), rates the impact of each action on the pitch and estimates the positive or negative impact the action has on a team’s likelihood of scoring. The OBV Leicester generate across the pitch when they’re behind versus when they’re ahead is revealing: That right-sided bias is showing through again and it becomes more prominent when they’re chasing the game, but they still generate plenty of OBV in deeper areas down that right-hand side regardless of game state. In contrast, the left side is a bit of a black hole when Leicester are losing – hopefully Barnes can return to his best and resolve much of this – he clocked the 16th highest OBV per 90 last season after all, for players with >900 minutes played. Where Leicester found it difficult to create high-value chances against their opponents when behind, their opponents did not find it as difficult to create high-value chances against them. When Leicester were pushing for equalisers, their xG per shot conceded rocketed up to 0.21–their opponent’s shots in this game state had a 1-in-5 chance of being converted. The evidence suggests that Leicester struggled to manage the threat of the counter when they were pushing to get back in the game. The xG trendline also shows their xG conceded has been creeping upwards, so what’s going on at the back? One explanation might be Leicester’s pressing, which was down quite a bit last season. This is despite an ongoing uptick in defensive activity since Rodgers’ arrival, so it seems unlikely this was a deliberate change in approach. Leicester averaged 168 pressures per 90 in 2019-20 compared to just 135 last season. Now a lot of this will be down to the crowded schedule, and we saw pressures drop on the whole across most leagues, but Leicester appear to have suffered more than most. Here’s the defensive activity maps for both seasons: The Squad The Foxes have developed a reputation for being shrewd operators in the transfer market, showing great patience to build the squad up again since the title-winning season. It can be difficult when squad building to balance future potential versus immediate strength, and they’ve executed particularly well to maintain a challenge for top four while simultaneously getting themselves into a position to continue targeting Europe for the next few years. Key players like Wilfred Ndidi, Iheanacho, Tielemans and Maddison will begin to hit their peak over the next few seasons, while Barnes, Wesley Fofana and James Justin have years ahead of them. The squad was hit by some big injuries last season just as it was the season before, but it’s a sign that they’re operating from a solid internal process given they always have players ready to step in, whether from the academy or through recruitment. That the forward line hasn’t needed major regeneration for a number of years is testament to Jamie Vardy’s longevity but, at 34, the time is finally getting close for him to hand the reigns over. Leicester are confident they’ve found his replacement in RB Salzburg forward Patson Daka, the big question is: is he any good? Probably! Player evaluation can be tricky when they play for a team as dominant as Salzburg are in the Austrian Bundesliga, but his numbers certainly pop. That they still pop when he plays in the Champions League is an encouraging sign, albeit the sample size gets rough. One thing to note is that the 22-year-old shows real maturity – his shot locations are excellent and he seems to have a good understanding of his own game. Much like Vardy, he plays on the last man, is great in transition, and understands how to use his pace without the ball at his feet. It might take some time for him to find his feet, but given how Iheanacho just reminded us all that player development is rarely a smooth upward trajectory, Daka should receive plenty of slack. As for the other signings, it all looks very good – from the sensible in Ryan Bertrand and Jannik Vestergaard (assuming that deal gets over the line) to the downright exciting in Boubakary Soumaré. Parting Thoughts You might be inclined to read the headline underlying numbers above and think Leicester could be in for a difficult season if they produce similar numbers to those of last season. It’s a possible outcome, but given the quality of the squad and manager, and the general outlier than last season was as a whole, it seems more likely that Leicester revert to a process that should see them knocking on the door of the Champions League places once again. They’ve bolstered the squad with what look like top signings, and the return of Barnes should balance the attack better. As noted, we’ll need to watch out for how they perform when behind; if they continue to struggle, that could lead to dropped points that could cost them a place or two in the table. But, this team can play fantastic transition football and, with the current state of the modern game, you can go a loooong way playing great transition ball. All it takes is some better luck with injuries and one of last season’s top four to have issues, and Leicester are in business.


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

Newcastle United: Season Preview 2021/22

It was a season of two halves on Tyneside. In the early stages of 2021, the club lingered just three points above the drop zone and frustrations were swirling around the fanbase. But, tactical shifts and shrewd January signings saw Steve Bruce oversee a solid finish to the campaign and a 12th place finish. A repeat of that will be the aim in 2021/22. The football in the first half of the campaign was defensively reactive and blunt in attack. Things were objectively below-par at both ends of the pitch: Newcastle were consistently being out-created by their opponents and coming out on the wrong side of games. Tactically, they consistently started with either a 4-4-2 or dropped into a more reactive 3-5-2/3-4-3 (defaulting to 5 at the back when they are without the ball). Within that, it’s hard to define the football that Steve Bruce’s team were trying to play. In possession, Newcastle completed the 2nd-fewest passes within 20 metres of goal (2.7), completed just 1.5 passes inside the opponent’s box (both metrics per 90 minutes), and 37% of their passes into the penalty area came from wide crosses. This matches the eye test. When playing a back four, the central midfield pairing (usually two of Jonjo Shelvey, Isaac Hayden, or Jeff Hendrick) were outnumbered 3v2 against the majority of teams in the league, who mostly opt for three-man midfields (if you care about this sort of thing, 4-2-3-1 was the leading shape of choice in the Premier League last season). This lead to plenty of hopeful punts up the pitch into the channels for the centre forwards to chase and, with the back three often a back five, there was rarely much width offered by the wing backs; consequently they were unable to play much of a role in build-up play. Out of possession, Newcastle had the lowest PPDA in the league with 13.8; applied just 37% of their pressures in the opposition half; and conceded 15 shots per game. Essentially, Newcastle sat deep and looked to bend but not break to the opposition pressure. Regardless of formation, they sat very narrow and flooded the centre of the pitch to negate the opponent’s ability to play through them. Fine if you’re able to keep your rivals at arms length, but it presented issues in the attacking end with all their creativity parked behind the ball and in areas that made it difficult for them to perform. Looking at their On-Ball Value numbers – our new possession value model that rates every action performed on the pitch by how much it positively impacts the team’s likelihood of scoring in that possession – we can see that their biggest contributors were Matt Ritchie, who played wing-back, Ryan Fraser who was rarely on the pitch, and Jacob Murphy who played wing-back.

Player OBV per 90
Matt Ritchie 0.40
Ryan Fraser 0.34
Jacob Murphy 0.31
Joe Willock 0.31
Allain Saint-Maximin 0.26

In Newcastle’s style of play, their attackers had much more ground to cover in order to get to the final third and create danger on the ball. This isn’t necessarily an issue in itself – counter-attacking teams can thrive in the Premier League – but the approach requires a centre forward who can provide an outlet. Callum Wilson or Joelinton were often positioned so deep that the team simply couldn’t get a foothold in the opposition half when they regained the ball. This only allowed the pressure to build on their defence to keep repelling the swathe of opposition attacks. Raw possession numbers always require context, and with this information the 38% of the ball possession they had in 2020/21 makes a lot of sense. The Springtime Bounce A run of W2-D0-L8 at the start of 2021 was Newcastle’s worst spell of the season, but it was then followed by their best. From the start of February to the end of the season, Newcastle picked up 20 points, winning five of their last eight to power them up the league table. The team switched shape to either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-3-3 and were comparatively more front-footed than earlier in the season. The change seemed to coincide with the arrival of first-team coach Graeme Jones, who you may recognise as a member of Gareth Southgate’s coaching staff during the EURO 2020 tournament this summer. The changes provided Callum Wilson with support up front and allowed Miguel Almirón to have more of an influence on the game, getting on the ball in more central areas. More importantly, it allowed their wide players to thrive and be more direct. Allan Saint-Maximin returned from injury to finish the season up front, alongside Wilson but allowed to roam across the front and dribble or carry the ball over distance. This is apparent when comparing the plots of his carries: in Newcastle’s more reactive system he’d start his carries around the halfway line, thus with more players to beat and more distance to cover. After the system change, he started receiving possession in the channels in the opposition half and was isolating 1v1 vs his defender more often than previously. This is a beneficial situation for any player to work with, let alone an exciting wide player like Saint-Maximin. Besides tactical changes, the January loan signing of Joe Willock proved to be one of the most successful signings of the window across the entire league. Willock was simply a goalscoring machine, equalling a club record number of consecutive games scored in with some bloke named Alan Shearer. Outside of his hot streak in front of goal (and it was a hot streak – 8 goals from 3.5 xG), Willock’s ability to contribute on both sides of the ball fit perfectly in line with the tactical changes Bruce and Jones implemented. Willock was proactive and industrious without the ball and provided a threat making late runs into the opponent’s box. In making these changes, Newcastle’s metrics improved drastically towards the end of the season, taking more shots and creating chances of better quality. Though still anemic in some areas, moving their struggling attack from one of the league’s worst up into the middle ground of the league goes a long way to powering a push up the table and separating from the bottom of the pack. How Do Newcastle Recreate The Late Surge This Season? If Newcastle want to maintain the improvement we saw late in the season, how do they go about doing this? The primary point is to lean into the style of play that steadied the ship at the end of the season that saw them gain 20 of their 45 points from February 27th onwards. If they can sustain the improved attacking numbers over a whole season while keeping things relatively tight at the back, then it’s incredibly unlikely they’ll struggle as much as they did in the first half of last season.

Shots (all units per 90) 11.5 (14th)
xG 1.13 (13th)
xG Conceded 1.33 (11th)
1 v 1 Shots 2.0 (9th)
Shot Distance 16.3 metres (8th)

It was mostly their attacking metrics that improved. While they became more proactive without the ball than they had been previously, they still ranked as one of the lowest-block teams in the league. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are plenty of examples of teams (Wolves in 2019/20 for one) who have played counter-attacking football to great success. However, going on last season, it’s not clear that Newcastle have the capabilities to do that: allowing the opposition to monopolise the ball under little duress moves defenders deeper… and then you have the same issues we saw from August to January. Newcastle need to find ways to better taper off their periods of high pressure with lower block defending. No season preview would be complete without a transfer section, but there’s little action to speak of so far, only bringing in a couple of younger players on free transfers who’ll likely become part of their development squad. Looking at the squad they have now, their average age is only slightly above the league average, but a considerable volume of minutes are being contributed by players above the “peak” age bracket. The most exciting rumour is that of the permanent signing of Joe Willock, who had such a transformative effect on the Newcastle midfield, as we detailed earlier. His addition would be a major plus. Up front they still look short behind Wilson, with Joelinton struggling to make an impact and Dwight Gayle never quite managing to contribute in the top flight, which is a concern given there doesn’t appear to be many goals in other areas of the side. Some will point to Willock’s goalscoring streak but we shouldn’t expect that rate to continue, converting his eight goals from just 3.5 xG. They’ll need others to step up alongside Willock: with an attack that looks underpowered, they should be looking for goals by committee rather than relying on one or two individuals. Where Do They Stand? Fan discontent has been a common theme among Newcastle supporters for a number of years now, and last season as a whole won’t have served as much encouragement despite the stronger finish. All of this makes benchmarking them pretty tough. Are there likely to be at least three worse teams than them in the league? I believe so. But they still have some way to go to become more than the sum of their parts, and continuing to build upon the foundations laid at the back-end of last season should be the ambition. It’s a tough ask for them to improve beyond that without much investment in the squad.


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

Leeds United: Season Preview 2021/22

Heading into last season, it seemed that Marcelo Bielsa’s sense of goodwill amongst Leeds United fans couldn’t get any higher. A return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004, some incredible football in the Championship, and a sincere mutual appreciation with the fanbase. But after a top-half finish in 2020/21 and continued entertainment against some of the biggest teams in the country, it looks like Bielsa’s status has elevated even further. The storylines to look out for next season circle around their production at both ends of the pitch. How do they stabilise their attacking unit whilst improving their defensive metrics? Setting the Scene – Attacking Strength Looking at last season, the attacking metrics were exceptional: above the 75th percentile in the big 5 leagues for all of xG per 90; xG per shot; shots taken following a high press; attacking pace towards goal; and clear shots on goal (shots with just the goalkeeper between the shooter and the goal). Anyone who watched Bielsa’s team last season won’t be surprised by these benchmarks: Leeds carried over the high intensity, high tempo, adventurous attacking style which tore the EFL Championship apart in 2019/20. A style which has become his hallmark since moving to the Whites, although it has been consistent with his philosophy over the years: verticality in attacking, rotational interchanges, third man combinations etc, etc. In possession, Leeds are committed to building from the back, with goalkeeper Illan Meslier impressing last season with his ability to contribute in the first phase of buildup. They create space in this phase by positioning their advanced midfielders high up the pitch and creating width with their full backs, pinning the opposition deeper and therefore freeing Leeds to create and make the types of passes shown below: When it comes to playing into the attacking third and chance creation, Leeds are extremely vertical in their intentions, leading to quick attacking moves, few wasted passes in the final third, and lots of possession shifts.

Directness  88% (6th)
Pace Towards Goal 2.8 m/s (6th)
Deep Progressions per 90 43.7 (8th)
Possessions per 90 197.4 (1st)

The key players in this style are the wide players, who facilitate a lot of goalscoring opportunities. Whether it be running at a stretched defence or receiving in pockets in the final third against more settled blocks, it’s the wide players who fare best for Leeds in our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV). OBV rates every action on the pitch and estimates the extent to which each action improves a team’s expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Jack Harrison and Raphinha were clearly effective players by the eye test and in the OBV model, and it’s imperative they generate similar numbers if Leeds’ attack is to continue to impress in the new season. Patrick Bamford, long time analytics darling, didn’t have another frustrating season in terms of underperforming xG, and some of that can be attributed to how Leeds’ wide players took a load of him in terms of goal creation, not to discount his evident Premier League ability. The Double-Edged Sword – Leeds In Defence Where their defensive pressing style had been nearly impossible to play against in the Championship, it at times left them overexposed in the Premier League. Leeds really struggled to prevent the opposition from creating chances last season, and their defensive style is so unique that it’s worth investigating into the specifics of the tactics that could be the root cause of the issues. First, how they press and defend in the opposition’s half. Leeds employ a heavy, man-oriented pressing system – the most aggressive in the division. Their principles are generally ball-oriented in that they focus their position based on the ball position rather than the opposition players, but in how this manifests itself structurally, they are man-to-man: each player is tasked with an opponent to pick up, which makes their responsibilities very straightforward. Without getting too deep into the tactical weeds, this creates variations in how their forward players put pressure on an opponent’s buildup since they are -1 up front: 3v2 if they play a back three, and 3v4 if the opposition use a back four. Either way, this strategy of keeping opponents as far from goal as possible to stop them from getting into the Leeds half has been successful: they conceded the 5th-fewest deep progressions in the Premier League last season. The issues started to arise when the opponent broke the press or when Leeds had to defend in more traditional “blocks”. They conceded 1.48 xG per 90 (18th in the league), 14.5 shots against per 90 (17th), and were vulnerable to being pressed high and hurt in transition, conceding shots from those situations at similarly relegation-level rates. The same reasons they’re so effective in attack that were highlighted in the attacking section – pushing players ahead of the ball, stretching the defence wide, making adventurous rotations – are the same reasons they struggle defensively; they’re left overexposed. Combine that with a talent deficit, less of an issue in Leeds’ case but still an issue in newly promoted clubs, and you’re going to leave yourself open, something that Bielsa will surely be working on into next season. While it was an enforced change thanks to injuries in midfield, Stuart Dallas played a very good role in helping solidify the deeper areas directly ahead of defence compared to his peers. Set-pieces have been something of an achilles heel to Leeds ever since the Championship days, particularly corners. This is thanks (or no thanks!) to a combination of player profile and tactical setup. For one, Bielsa’s sides defend corners in an almost-exclusively man-to-man system. Only one player (usually Bamford across the near post) acts zonally and could be regarded as “free”. Similar to their defending in open play, this puts a lot of responsibility on the individual to win their 1v1 battle. That said, the advantage will always be with the attacking team on dead balls: concepts such as picks, blocks, and screens mean you can isolate players free of their markers and create clear-cut chances. Without many “fail safes” to defend against this (i.e zonal players), you’re leaving yourself prone to these manoeuvres and manipulations. Transfers As with most teams this summer, incomings have been slow at the time of writing. One of the positive bits of transfer business has been to convert Jack Harrison’s loan into a permanent contract after three seasons on loan from Manchester City. The winger was a significant contributor off the left last season: coming in with an OBV per 90 of 0.31, placing him in the 71st percentile for players in his position in the Premier League. At £11million, this was a no-brainer. Junior Firpo has come in from Barcelona to replace the outgoing Ezgjan Alioski at left back. Firpo found game time few and far between in La Liga, but his profile certainly fits the type of defender who should fit the Leeds system. Firpo is primarily a threat when attacking space from deep and arriving into the final third, and represents a tangible upgrade on Alioski in terms of buildup play, ranking favourably in xG Buildup throughout his career. Patience could be required defensively as any player faces a period of adaptation when they first join a Bielsa side, but he certainly fits the physical profile to make the jump successfully. Talking potential additions now: the Leeds support have been clamouring for an addition in the centre of midfield. We spoke earlier of Stuart Dallas’ move into the centre of the park that helped to solidify the defensive shortcomings Leeds were struggling with, but this doesn’t feel like a long-term solution. With Kalvin Phillips’ place in the XI under no doubt, Leeds will be looking to sign a player capable of providing pressing and ball-winning while also being able to play in pockets of space and higher up the pitch. Links with Huddersfield Town midfielder Lewis O’Brien have lingered all summer, and he certainly fits the profile of a player that could contribute those aspects. European Hopefuls? As a newly promoted side, Leeds had an exceptional 2020/21 season to finish 9th. Which makes projecting their placement next season tricky – it’s a challenging benchmark to repeat with teams above them in the table some of the biggest and most well-backed in the world. The blueprint for improvement is clear: maintain the attacking output while tightening up defensively. Achieve this, and they could well embark on a West Ham-esque challenge for the Europa League places. We know Bielsa won’t change his style, so the question is whether Leeds can bolster and strengthen their ranks enough before the transfer window closes. Either way – it’s going to be fun!  


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

Arsenal: Season Preview 2021/22

As we enter Year Three of Mikel Arteta’s reign as Arsenal manager, it feels like this season could be make or break for his tenure. This time around there’s no recent FA Cup win to point to as a sign of progress; it has to be evident out on the pitch. Can Arteta achieve that? One of the biggest issues facing Arteta when he joined was that Arsenal’s metrics had been not great for quite some time. Despite the clear positive of the style of play the Spaniard was attempting to implement, there was an alarming drop in performance at the start of the 2020/21 season: Thankfully, in December — a full year after his appointment — he seemingly stumbled upon a formula that worked. From that point on, whilst results have continued to be hit and miss, their metrics have been much improved in both attack and defence. But they still need to maintain that into the new season, a campaign where they won’t be beholden to midweek trips to the continent. How will the increase in training and preparation time manifest itself? Let’s take a look at what Arteta should be looking at if he wants to take the Gunners back into Europe. How do Arsenal improve? In last season’s StatsBomb preview, Ted highlighted three key areas that Arsenal needed to improve:  player recruitment, defensive style, and set pieces. The bad news? Player recruitment was a mixed bag. The good news? The latter two did show signs of improvement. Arsenal’s overall expected goal (xG) difference improved from -0.09 per game in 2019/20 to +0.18 per game in 2020/21. The graphic below highlights the general trend of improving performances: They shaved off 0.22 expected goals per game in defence, tightening up but still at the cost of some attacking output. Their open play xG per 90 was just 0.98 last season, compared with 1.42 per 90 in Arsene Wenger’s last season back in 2017/18. There’s still a long way to go to get back to that level. Since replacing Unai Emery, Arteta’s approach has been one of slowing the pace down and manipulating possession of the ball as much as possible. That was evident in Arsenal’s passing trends last season: lots of deep passes in build-up play and very few cohesive or common patterns in the final third. While metrics highlighted some territorial domination (Arsenal entered the final third 49.2 times per game compared with their opponents’ 42.4 entries), they struggled to translate that style into goals or a general threat. This must change if Arsenal are to break into Europe again. Without the ball, Arsenal opted for a deeper, more conservative defensive line and press — something they may look to move away from in 2021/22. They were among the least frequent pressers in the Premier League last season (18th for total pressures, 19th for pressure regains) but it’s possible Arteta employed this style as a short-term measure until the players were able to adjust to his longer term ideals. Arteta took a pragmatic approach, being more proactive when the team were favourites and more reactive when they were playing perceptibly stronger opponents. As mentioned, Arsenal did show some much-needed improvement in set-pieces. They dropped their set-piece xG conceded from 0.34 per game to 0.21 per game, which translated to conceding six fewer goals from set-pieces than they had done in 2019/20, a not-insignificant sum. They struggled in attack though, with just six goals scored from a paltry 0.18 set-piece xG per game, ranking 17th in the league in that metric. Things might move even further in the right direction this season as the club have signed set-piece coach and analyst Nicolas Jover from Manchester City in what should be a smart pickup given the impact he had on City’s set-pieces. And now to review last season’s transfer business. The two most notable signings were Thomas Partey and Gabriel. Partey emerged as a net-positive, but his lack of availability was a real cause for concern, whereas Gabriel started the season on fire before his performances dropped off as the matches piled up (not unsurprising for a younger player). He ended the season fluctuating between the bench and the starting XI. The less said about Willian the better, but Martin Ødegaard’s January arrival did appear to be a smart pickup. He contributed just under 2000 minutes to a thin Arsenal squad, but overall his effect on the pitch was hit and miss. The Current Crop One of the biggest reasons for the uptick in Arsenal’s performances was due to Arteta seemingly simplifying player roles within his game model, regardless of whether it was in his favoured 4-3-3 or the alternative 4-2-3-1 (his change to back three systems at the end of the season was mostly enforced). The complex system of positional shifts in and out of possession was gone, and players such as Emile Smith-Rowe, who could occupy space ahead of the ball and offer intelligent movement, were given chances. Boy genius Bukayo Saka was the biggest revelation of Arsenal’s season: his ability to simply find and manipulate space to his advantage was a big reason he became so important for the Gunners in 2020/21 and why he’ll be equally as important this coming season. Combine that with a versatility to play across the attacking band, in central midfield, or at full back/wing back and it’s clear that Hale End has provided us with a good one. Besides Saka, we can look at StatsBomb’s new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV) to identify other players who could be regarded as important contributors to this Arsenal side. The results very much match the general fan perception of who the key men are, but one player who’s perhaps a surprise inclusion towards the top of the list is Hector Bellerin, a player once adored by the fanbase but nowadays viewed as a weak spot in the starting XI. Without getting too deep into the woods, it’s likely he ranks favourably in OBV due to his dovetailing with the likes of Saka and Nicolas Pépé on the right flank, and while his final ball can be very hit-or-miss, his role in attacking moves which free up the wingers to create chances is still important.

Player (Minimum 1,500 Minutes Played) On-Ball Value Per 90 
Alexandre Lacazette 0.31
Kieran Tierney 0.30
Nicolas Pépé 0.26
Granit Xhaka 0.22
Hector Bellerin 0.22

Transfers The biggest arrival so far is that of Ben White from Brighton. His transfer could be key to replacing David Luiz’s significant contribution in build up, something that is required in Arteta’s dogmatic approach to playing out from the back. White looks a very promising and accomplished player as a ball progressor, capable of punching the ball between the lines and providing a general comfort in possession. Nuno Tavares, a young left back from Benfica, as been brought in to provide competition to Kieran Tierney. Left back was a bit of a problem area for the Gunners last season — not due to Tierney’s ability (as shown above in his OBV contribution), but his inability to keep fit. Arteta tried many atypical solutions to this problem, playing Cedric Soares and even Granit Xhaka on the left flank in Tierney’s absence. In a small sample from his time in Liga NOS, Tavares looks to be an energetic and aggressive front-foot defender. The only other signing thus far has been depth option Albert Sambi Lokonga from Anderlecht — a young central midfielder who is versatile enough to fill a variety of positions/roles in the centre of the park. Using our “Similar Players” feature in StatsBomb IQ, Lokonga’s profile matches those of other well-known midfielders such as Joan Jordán of Sevilla, new Leicester City signing Boubakary Soumaré, and… former Arsenal player Matteo Guendouzi. In preseason, Lokonga has looked a shrewd addition: always looking to play forward, good in tight areas and capable of dropping in and filling holes as teammates move forward. While he likely won’t be a first-choice option, and expectations must be tempered, I think he could surprise a few. What’s The Expectation This Season? As was the case with Emery before him, Arteta has had to juggle a number of difficult issues in order to put Arsenal back on track to where the fans expect them to be: in Europe. With this in mind, even the most die-hard of Arsenal fans would be optimistic to think that a return to the Premier League top four is a realistic possibility this season: their competitors are starting from a stronger base and simply have the upper hand right now. That being said, with clear progression in the underlying numbers as last season went on, one would expect results to be better this time around and for Arsenal to close the gap on those above them. The decreased demands of their schedule give Arteta an opportunity to really lay some groundwork towards his optimal style of play and this could prove to be a benefit in the long term. Metrics have been good for a while, now it’s time for Arteta to translate that into results.


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

What to expect from our StatsBomb Live launch event

StatsBomb is one week away from launching the next stage of our football analytics offering. Join us on Thursday 12th August for an exclusive glimpse into StatsBomb Live.  StatsBomb Live is our new live data product that brings you StatsBomb data in real-time. This free online event will delve into the engineering and design behind the latest StatsBomb product. We will showcase how our team has once again displayed the same commitment to accuracy and quality as displayed in StatsBomb data and IQ.  Attendees will receive a first-hand insight into the key features of StatsBomb Live and how it will benefit teams, betting organisations and media companies across the football industry.   What to expect:

  • Sneak peeks as to how StatsBomb Live clients will be able to access, analyse and visualise the live data in real-time
  • Exclusive insight into how StatsBomb Live was designed and created, keeping customer feedback central to decision-making processes
  • Meet the team who brought the StatsBomb Live product to life and hear about how they tackled the challenge of balancing speed with quality in a real-time environment

Charlotte Randall, StatsBomb’s Co-Founder and COO, will be hosting the event. You’ll hear from her and other key members of the Live team throughout the launch. We will also follow the event by responding to any questions you may have for the StatsBomb team or about our latest product. Key event details:

  • Date: Thursday 12th August 2021
  • Time: 2:00 p.m (BST)
  • Duration: 1 hour 
  • Cost: Free
  • Event registration: Open

Online registration If you want to see how StatsBomb Live will change the live data market, make sure you register for our event! You can secure your spot here. As part of your online registration, you’ll also have access to a recording of the webcast after the event.  Our event is open to everyone and is completely free to attend. Just fill in the online registration form, and then let your countdown to the launch event begin! With one week to go, the Live team is looking forward to welcoming you, but if you can’t wait to book in your free StatsBomb Live demo, please contact: sales@statsbomb.com. We can’t wait to meet you and unveil the next stage of the StatsBomb evolution.

Manchester United: Season Preview 2021/22

By post-Ferguson standards, Premier League runners-up and Europa League finalists amounted to a good season for Manchester United in 2020/21. Ultimately there were no trophies, but ‘progress’ has been the watchword for a few years now, and there have been signs of it both on and off the pitch. United’s trendline since the start of the 2018/19 season makes for pretty good viewing – attacking and defensive numbers have both been moving in the right direction for the most part. However, a fairly distant second to a brilliant Manchester City is perhaps less impressive given the problems faced by United’s top four bedmates – a Liverpool without their three top choices at centre back, and a Chelsea that only really hit their stride after Tuchel arrived and turned them into champions of Europe. We are starting next season with the top end of the league in a very different spot; that makes United’s prospects less enticing. Even with the problems endured by Chelsea and Liverpool, United were some way off the other Champions League qualifiers in terms of expected goal (xG) difference per game. Our numbers have them at +0.33 xGD per game to City’s +1.12, Liverpool’s +0.76, and Chelsea’s +0.70. Enough for fourth-best in the league, but still some way off the other three and you also have to factor in that United spent a good portion of the season chasing down 1-0 deficits, which could have inflated their underlying numbers slightly. All other things being equal, the gap between United and their top-four rivals could increase even more with their rivals starting in better spots than they were for much of last season. There is, however, the small issue of the transfer window. Much will depend on whether or not the new signings can solve some of the issues that have plagued United for some time now. The over-reliance on the left side in build-up seems to be one of the issues United are trying to solve in this window with the signing of Jadon Sancho and fairly loud noises about Kieran Trippier. Likewise, the issue of depth at centre-back, with Eric Bailly’s injury proneness and Axel Tuanzebe’s youth, has been addressed in the way that issues of depth should be – by strengthening the first team. The addition of Eric Ramsay as a first-team coach who’ll be in charge of set-plays will also serve as music to the ears of this article’s readership. The Goalkeeper Dilemma(?) One question United don’t appear to be trying to answer in the transfer window (despite Tom Heaton having a pretty stellar pre-season thus far) is: who is the first-choice keeper? United spent most of last season with two keepers in direct competition for the first-choice berth. As always, competition for places should really fall into the ‘nice problem to have’ category. It’s not something we often see when it comes to goalkeepers. From the outside, it seems that the most important factors in the decision are not things that can be measured directly: how comfortable the defenders are with the keeper, player morale, maintaining David de Gea’s value for a future sale, the extent to which having to oust de Gea motivates Dean Henderson — all of these human and managerial factors that football managers have to contend with and we don’t have to worry about. There is not much in it from a playing point of view, so it’s all about the best way to manage the handover as far as I’m concerned. Henderson was more aggressive in coming to get the ball, claiming the ball roughly 4% more than expected based on the crosses he faced. That is the only stark difference between Henderson and de Gea on these metrics — they both had excellent positioning (measured by their average distance from a typical keeper location), distributed the ball similarly in terms of pass length and in finding free men, and were more-or-less average in terms of shot-stopping relative to post-shot xG. The minor differences here are pretty paltry relative to season-to-season variability. Having the opportunity to bed Henderson in while also giving de Gea firm competition over the course of a season is a big luxury. The succession plan looked like it might be reaching completion towards the end of last season, so it will be interesting to see who is breathing down whose neck come the season’s start. Set-Pieces United have clearly identified set-pieces as an area that can be improved. Eric Ramsay joins from Chelsea U23s as a young coach with a very good reputation and has reportedly been tasked with overhauling United’s set-pieces. Their performance last season wasn’t terrible, but it was close to average, and set-pieces are an element of the game where focused work can pay real dividends in terms of goals and league standing. What sort of impact could Ramsay have? A realistic objective is to get close to the top teams’ set-piece efficiency of last season. Let’s say United improve their xG/Set Piece from 0.0062 to 0.0082, and xG/Set Piece Conceded from 0.0064 to 0.0044, putting them about halfway between Everton and Man City on the scatter plot below. That’s an improvement of 0.2% of a goal for each set-piece conceded and taken. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering that teams take about 35 set-pieces in every game and concede about the same, improvements at both ends of the pitch would add up over a season. That means United could (optimistically, but not fancifully) improve their xG difference per game by about 0.14 through set-pieces alone, a number that would make up about 38% of the gap between them and Chelsea. That kind of impact is really hard to achieve through player signings unless you’re spending big bucks on an upgrade to a current starter. This back-of-the-envelope calculation points towards a shrewd bit of business, as long as Ramsay can get United to somewhere near league-best. Jadon Sancho In signing Sancho, United have obtained one of the most exciting young prospects in world football, and in a position where they’ve been lacking for many years. According to StatsBomb’s player similarity tool, the most similar players to Sancho in the top 5 leagues last season were Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic, Leroy Sané, Samuel Chukwueze, and United’s own Marcus Rashford, who spent a good deal of time on the right last season. These are all quick, technically gifted wide players with an eye for goal. Where Sancho stands out from these players (barring Dembélé) is in his creative output. 0.22 xG assisted from open play last season puts Sancho 19th of wingers in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Having Erling Haaland to play those passes to is not a luxury Sancho will be afforded at United (unless…?) and, in their current incarnation, United are a bit less dominant in a typical league game than Dortmund. I’d expect his creative output to drop slightly, but he undoubtedly adds tremendous quality to an already exciting United attack. There is always a question about whether a player will gel with a new team, but some of the personal issues players can face when moving to the Premier League are not really there for Sancho. He speaks the language, grew up with the league, knows lots of United players already, and knows Manchester. There won’t be much time to settle, coming straight off the back of the Euros, but I don’t see that being a problem despite the inevitable overreactions (including from me!) in the early stages of the season, good or bad. Right now, this looks a fantastic piece of business. The left-hand side Pre-Sancho, United’s attack skewed towards the left-hand side. Here are their most over-represented pass clusters last season compared to the rest of the league: Notice how similar the top-four teams look in terms of their most over-represented clusters. They all favour one side, and they all favour short-ish passes in the opposition half. There is not much getting away from this as a dominant side in the Premier League, and United clearly favoured the left flank. This tendency is also borne out in United’s possession value. StatsBomb’s new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), estimates the extent to which an action improves a team’s expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Looking at the figure below, it’s clear that United were strongest down the left (relative to the other teams in the league). That over-represented zone was bearing fruit. The corresponding area on the right looks pretty barren by comparison, with United only producing at around league average from there. Sancho should help to turn some of those zones red, but that will, in turn, have an impact on usage – Bruno Fernandes will carry less of the creative burden, and the left side probably won’t be favoured quite so heavily. It’ll be interesting to see how this map has changed by the end of the new season. The midfield Another area of the pitch in which many fans and pundits believe United needs reinforcements is central midfield. The general rationale for this is that United’s attacking talent might be better suited to a system where both Paul Pogba and Fernandes play centrally in front of a single, more defensively minded midfielder. The typical concerns are that neither Scott McTominay nor Fred can cover for them on their own, Nemanja Matić is unable to play enough minutes, and Pogba’s defensive tendencies aren’t well-suited to playing in the midfield two in the current set-up. Finding this miracle player to unlock the ‘Silva & de Bruyne’ style of play that I think people are envisaging is not an easy task, so I expect we’ll see something somewhat similar to last season in terms of the composition of the midfield. Matic can still offer a lot in short spells, but it’ll be Fred, McTominay and Pogba who mostly share the two midfield berths. But what is the state of the ‘McFred double pivot’? Using Statsbomb 360 data, we can look at how often players break lines with their passing. We define a line-breaking pass as any pass that:

  • successfully progresses the ball at least 10% closer to goal…
  • …and either splits two opposition defenders or ends in the space behind them, provided that the defenders are less than 5m apart vertically.

We filter to passes that are completed and that break a line in the opposition half, then normalise per 90: the results make Matic’s lack of mobility and inability to accrue significant minutes all the more annoying. He ranked fourth in this metric among PL midfielders with >900 minutes last season, bettered only by Thiago, Mateo Kovačić, and Fernandinho. Fred was 13th of 73, McTominay 26th. These numbers are fine but probably not quite at the level United need. That said, Paul Pogba’s presumably increased minutes this season should help substantially with progression from midfield (provided he sticks around, of course). We can look at a simple model of pass availability to explore this a bit more. We start by drawing defensive cover shadows that look like this: Attacking players who are not in a cover shadow are classed as ‘available’. If they are located 10% closer to the opposition goal than the ball, they are classed as a ‘progressive option’. Then we can look at the percentage of the time a player takes a progressive option when it’s available to get some idea of passing aggression. This approach comes with many caveats, and a better way to do this would be with a 360-based possession value model combined with a 360-based expected pass model. However, we aren’t quite there yet, so for now, we’ll proxy expected passes with ‘availability’ and possession value with ‘progression’. Also, we’re only looking at the frame in which the pass was played, so it could be that players are turning down progressive passes before allowing the opposition to block lanes, which makes it look like the option was not there by the time the ball is released. All that said, we can see that some of the criticism levelled at McTominay’s progressive passing is perhaps unwarranted – movement ahead of him gives him a decent number of options to play progressive passes, and the data suggests he attempts to do so at a reasonable frequency. He is in the company of the more aggressive progressive passers in the league from deeper in midfield when it comes to attempting progressive passes. However, his technical ability and accuracy let him down, and he’s not massively proficient at completing line-breaking passes or progressing the ball overall. Parting thoughts United have been making steady progress in their underlying numbers for a few years and have strengthened substantially in attack and defence in this window. The bookies envisage the return of an established top four, with United the least-favoured of those sides, an assessment that seems about right. The new signings and appointments should make up some of the fairly substantial gap between United and their top four rivals from last season, but probably not to the extent that we’ll see them in title contention come the end of the campaign. Lastly, I can’t finish this article without mentioning the cultural impact that Marcus Rashford is having and at 23 years of age. Whatever happens this season, he is a beacon of light.


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

Wolverhampton Wanderers: Season Preview 2021/22

Wolverhampton Wanderers hit the ground running following their promotion to the Premier League in 2018, achieving consecutive seventh-place finishes in their first two seasons back in the top flight. But things didn’t go quite as smoothly for them last time around, and they come into the 2021-22 season seeking to reestablish themselves as a top-half side. After two seasons of positive goal differences and near-60-point hauls, Wolves finished down in 13th last season, with 45 points and a -16 goal difference. There was a pretty stark drop off in the underlying numbers, too, from expected goal (xG) differences of 10.84 and 11.51 in 2018-19 and 2019-20 respectively to a -2.86 difference in 2020-21. In 2019-20, their performances were extremely controlled; last season, things started to fray at the edges. Their worst four results and three of their worst four individual match xG differences across the last three seasons came in 2020-21. The downturn in their season-long xG difference was evenly distributed between attack and defence. They were roughly seven expected goals worse off at both ends. In attack, their set piece production remained stable, but Wolves really struggled to create good chances in open play. They took a comparable number of shots season on season, but their open play xG production nevertheless plummeted from 0.9 xG per match in 2019-20 down to 0.68 xG per match in 2020-21. Only Sheffield United, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace created less. The culprit: the quality of their chances. Wolves had the worst average shot quality from open play in the league at 0.08 xG per shot. Over the course of the season, they actually created a league-sixth-high number of shots within 20 seconds of regaining possession — the sort of transitional phases of play in which you’d expect them to be able to create better quality chances — but even in those situations they generated the lowest quality opportunities in the league, right in line with their overall xG per shot. It would be tempting to blame the sickening skull injury suffered by striker Raúl Jiménez away at Arsenal in late November and his subsequent absence for Wolves’ attacking issues. He was certainly a talismanic reference point at the centre of their attack that various experimentations with formations and personnel, including underwhelming January loan arrival Willian José, failed to adequately replace. Wolves were marginally better in terms of open play attacking output during the first nine matches of the season with him in the side, but not significantly enough so given the relatively small sample size to indicate his lack of availability from December onwards was the primary reason for their struggles. In defence, Wolves gave up pretty much the same average quality of open play shot as in 2019-20 but just did so more often, conceding 27 more shots, 3.01 more xG and two more goals over the course of the campaign. Opponents found it easier to complete passes in the final metres of the pitch and created a higher volume of chances. Wolves also also went from being one of the best teams in the league at defending set pieces in 2019-20 to a middle of the road outfit by the underlying numbers and one of the league’s worst in reality. Only five teams conceded more goals from set pieces than their total of 12. The downturn in pretty much all phases of play left coach Nuno Espirito Santo scrambling for solutions. The back three that had been the permanent setup in each of the club’s first two top-flight campaigns occasionally gave way to a back four. Those long diagonal balls out to the wing-backs that had been such an identifiable feature of Wolves’ play began to fade from view. By the end of the season, it was little surprise that Nuno’s four-year spell at the helm came to a close with a mutual parting of ways. What went wrong? Could it be that the players were tired with Nuno’s approach, tired with Nuno himself or maybe just… tired? A relatively small squad saw nine players take part in more than 75% of the available minutes — a league high alongside Burnley. Wolves were clearly not as good as they had been in 2019-20 but even still their goal difference and points haul weren’t fully representative of the quality of their displays. An underperformance of the underlying numbers at both ends of the pitch allied to a -3 difference on penalty goals (lurching from a +3 difference in 2019-20) saw a -2.86 xG difference turn into a -16 goal difference. It isn’t the worst situation for Nuno’s replacement Bruno Lage to walk into. His only previous experience as a head coach — he was assistant to Carlos Carvalhal at both Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea City — came at Benfica in his native Portugal, where in early January 2019, he stepped up from his role as B team coach to replace the sacked Rui Vitória. What followed was a remarkable second half of the campaign that saw the club romp to the title with 18 wins, one draw and zero defeats. Lage’s side scored an average of 3.79 goals per match along the way, and had comfortably the best goal and xG differences of any team. Benfica had played a 4-3-3 before Lage’s arrival but largely lined up in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation thereafter — depending on the positioning of João Félix relative to the primary striker Haris Seferović — something that continued into the 2019-20 season. Benfica again had the best xG difference in the league, but it was Porto who took the title by five points. Lage resigned five matches from the end of the campaign after a run of two wins, four draws and four defeats that had given Porto the upper hand. While there have been a couple of deviations, the evidence of pre-season suggests that Lage will use the same formation at Molineux. While it would be unrealistic to expect him to play quite such dominant attacking football with a side who are not one of the primary powers of the Premier League, Wolves are nevertheless likely to employ a more front-foot approach than they did under Nuno, when they were one of the deepest defensive teams in the league. Lage’s arrival aside, it has so far been a relatively quiet summer but one that has yielded what appear to be solid signings. Goalkeeper Rui Patrício departed to Roma to be replaced by another Portuguese custodian in José Sá, an over-performer of his post-shot xG numbers for Olympiakos in each of the last two Greek Super League seasons. Rayan Aït Nouri has made his loan move from Angers permanent, while Wolves have also brought in Yerson Mosquera from Atlético Nacional in Colombia, a tall and aggressive young centre back who also doesn’t look too shabby with the ball at his feet. But perhaps the most intriguing signing is that of wide forward Francisco Trincão, on loan from Barcelona. He burst onto the scene with Braga in Portugal during the second half of the 2019-20 season and was immediately snapped up by Barça in a €35 million deal. He received a smidgin over 1,200 minutes of action across all domestic and European competition last season but has been loaned out in search of a greater workload. The 21-year-old would seem to perfectly fit the profile of wide forward that Wolves currently have on their books. Last season, Wolves were more reliant on carries to advance the ball forward inside the attacking half than any other Premier League side — 35% of their distance advanced was achieved via carries — and both Adama Traoré and Pedro Neto ranked in the league’s top 10 in terms of longer carries (>=10 metres) that led to shots, assists and key passes, as well as to direct entries or passes into the penalty area. At Braga, Trincão ranked fourth in the Portuguese league in terms of longer carries that led to direct entries or passes into the penalty area and also produced 0.73 shots per 90 from longer carries — a higher figure that either Traoré or Neto managed last season. If he can get somewhere close to the overall figure of ~2.5 shots per 90 he posted at both Braga and Barcelona, he could prove an astute addition. It will be interesting to see how Lage chooses to align his various wide forwards given his seeming preference for a 4-4-2 formation. Traoré has more of the attributes of a winger so will likely occupy one of the wide midfield slots, but Neto, Trincão and Daniel Podence could all potentially be used as either wide midfielders or central forwards alongside one from Jiménez — in action once again after his long layoff — Fabio Silva or maybe even Patrick Cutrone, back from a pair of unsuccessful loans and scorer of the solitary goal in Wolves’ friendly win over Real Betis. Patricio aside, there have been no major outgoings to date, although Rúben Neves continues to be linked with a departure. We’ll have to wait and see how things shake out in the last month of the market, where Wolves will probably still add to their own defensive and midfield options. Much of how Wolves’ season will go would seem to hinge on how well the squad can adapt to a more attacking approach. While there can be a reasonable fear that last season represented the start of a downward curve that might see them in genuine relegation trouble if things don’t immediately click, it seems more likely that Wolves will enjoy a solid (and perhaps even entertaining) campaign that nudges them back towards the top half of the table.


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