Aston Villa: Season Preview 2021/22

Sorry to keep you waiting, Villa fans. There’s been a lot to evaluate. The club made big forward strides last season, strides so big that most people forgot all about the anxious last-day wait Villa had to endure just to maintain their Premier League status at the end of 2019/20. Now established in midtable, the club faces a new challenge. Before we get into the summer’s events and where that leaves Villa in the short and medium-term, let’s take a quick look back on the 2020/21 season as a whole. Surviving by a single point the season before, the Villains added a whopping 20 points to their tally to finish comfortable in 11th place, a full ten points ahead of Newcastle in 12th. This wasn’t just keeping relegation at arm’s length but shoving it out of sight and out of mind. An improvement in the on-pitch performances powered the leap up the table: Villa turned a near-league-worst expected goal difference, -0.62 xGD per game, into a comfortable midtable process, bang on +0 xGD per game over the whole season. They improved at both ends of the pitch, adding 0.28 xG per game onto the attack (~10 goals a season) and shaving -0.34 xG per game off the defence (~13 goals a season). At the back, they conceded fewer shots (15.8 – 14.1) that were of a worse quality measured by xG per shot (0.10 – 0.09). They were defending better as a collective, with goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez having a stellar season when the opposition did manage to create an attempt on goal. Digging into what they did to limit the opposition, it becomes clear that Villa started to protect the goal more effectively, defending their penalty box with more bodies and a greater emphasis on making it difficult for the opposition to score. The team became more balanced and more challenging to break down – they forced their opponents average shot distance back by more than a metre, 15.8m in 2019/20 versus 16.9m in 2020/21. A difference that sounds small, but their opposition shots were 6th-closest in the league before and 17th-closest after. Besides being more difficult to break down, they also effectively prevented the opposition from getting a clear sight of goal. Villa averaged the most defenders behind the ball when their opponents took a footed shot in the box, and the most defenders between ball and goal in the same circumstances. Naturally, they also had one of the best block rates of those same shots. You can’t concede goals if the ball doesn’t test the ‘keeper in the first place. As good as the improvement was, Villa struggled in the second half of the season. They closed the season with a 4-4-6 record to take just 16 points from 14 games, worth 43 points when extrapolated over the whole season, solid bottom-half form. It could be an indicator of what may come next season, with the run coinciding with the injury to *klaxon* Jack Grealish (I made it this far without saying his name), but even with signings brought in to replace him, there was still a worrying decline in the underlying numbers. Both defence and attack got worse. Right then, let’s hang around no longer. Time to address the big question that everyone’s asking. How will Villa cope without Jack Grealish? A look at Villa’s most common build-up patterns has the thick-calved Brummie’s footprints all over them. Nearly all of their play was filtered down the left-hand side where Grealish would situate and perform his best work, combining with Ollie Watkins and Matt Targett and laying on chances for his teammates. Grealish was on a different level to his teammates last season, and indeed most of the Premier League. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value, assigns a positive or negative value to each action performed on the pitch based on its impact on a team’s chances of scoring or conceding. Players such as Kevin De Bruyne, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Mohamed Salah all performed well by this measure. Guess who topped the league? Looking purely at chance creation output metrics, Grealish’s importance to Villa’s attacking play becomes apparent. He was responsible for an overwhelming portion of their chance creation – 23% of Villa’s assisted xG was created by Grealish – and he was also responsible for taking 9% of their xG himself, behind only Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traoré and Anwar El Ghazi. The scatterplot highlights the need for Villa to become less reliant on Grealish – of which they have no choice – and Ollie Watkins, with Watkins responsible for 29% of Villa’s xG. It’s not unusual for a team to have a focal point who finishes most of their chances, but it does leave them in a precarious position without a) adequate contributions from elsewhere in the team and b) quality backup should Watkins get injured. Upon Grealish’s nine-figure sale to Manchester City, Villa CEO Christian Purslow published a statement that specifically addressed the transfer. In the statement, he said:

“It was never our intention to replace Jack with one footballer. Our strategy was to analyse and break down Jack’s key attributes – his creativity, his assists, and his goals – and to find these qualities, and others, in three forward players.”

In come Danny Ings from Southampton, Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen, and Emi Buendía from Norwich. By bringing Buendía in, Villa have in many ways done to Norwich what Manchester City have done to them. Buendía was the creative hub at Norwich, a player that stood out above the rest, and was responsible for a very similar amount of Norwich’s output, with 22% of Norwich xG Assisted coming through the Argentine and 16% of their xG. It’s not just in the final third that Buendía can do it though. He was one of the most active defenders in the Championship last season, registering more possession-adjusted pressures than anyone else in the league. His overall contribution was key to Norwich’s play both in and out of possession, and Buendía was third in the Championship for On-Ball Value, taking into account all his actions on the pitch. Leon Bailey is an established top-tier player on the European circuit after four seasons in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen. Last season was arguably Bailey’s strongest since moving to Germany, contributing nine goals and seven assists as Leverkusen finished 6th to qualify for the Europa League. His experience as a high performer in a big five league and on the European stage, having played in the Champions League and the Europa League, makes him an exciting prospect to evaluate. Where Buendía may provide the guile, the incisive passing, and the chance creation, Bailey’s profile leans more towards that of a dribbler and zone-mover, who can contribute goals from inside the penalty box as well. Bailey completed 3.5 dribbles per 90 in 2020/21 (5th in the Bundesliga) and had an average carry length of 6.5 metres (9th). Bailey looks like the most likely candidate to replace Grealish’s elite ball-carrying ability. It’s also encouraging that he doesn’t seem prone to wasting possession with shots from range, his xG per shot of 0.11 is towards the higher end you’d expect from a wide forward – a trait that he appears to have had throughout his career. The third signing was that of Danny Ings, a transfer that came as a surprise to everyone except Danny Ings, Southampton, or Aston Villa. Ings is a known quantity in the Premier League so it’s obvious what he brings to the squad: work rate out of possession and a steady contribution to the Goals For column. As part of Operation Replace Jack, Ings is a less direct replacement, but should play a key role in easing the goalscoring burden placed on Ollie Watkins while also giving Dean Smith the option to play two up front. Age and injury record have been raised as possible red flags against the fee outlay, but he’s a player that you’d trust to contribute goals–as long as the new Villa setup creates chances. Projection So then, we await to see what happens when you take one of the best Premier League players out of a midtable side. The logic to Villa’s business is sound; they were overreliant on Grealish for several aspects of their play, and the three players should decentralise their build-up and make the team better as a whole, while also lessening the risk should injuries occur, a risk Villa are all too aware of after what happened at the end of last season. The points spreads predict a minor regression for the club, still in midtable but benchmarked at 49 points, a six-point drop-off from 2020/21. The impact of the new players is uncertain and there are valid concerns over the form Villa showed in the run-in, so this seems like a more than reasonable benchmark to aim for in season one of the regeneration. It’s important to remember that Villa spent multiple seasons in the Championship in recent history; back-to-back midtable finishes would be a sound return in establishing themselves in the Premier League once more.


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

Brentford: Season Preview 2021/22

There was a point in the last couple of seasons where Brentford’s eventual promotion to the Premier League upgraded from a strong possibility to a complete inevitability. Pedants will point to 4:55 pm on 29th May 2021, the moment Chris Kavanagh put the whistle to his lips to bring the curtain down on the play-off final victory over Swansea, but for many the realisation came months, if not years, earlier.

How many times have we seen Brentford lose a vital member of their squad over the last few seasons?

Players regarded as some of the best the Championship had to offer, let alone the Brentford XI, whose departures unquestionably weakened the squad? The names roll off the tongue: Gray, Tarkowski, Hogan, Woods, Colin, Jota, Egan, Mepham, Konsa, Maupay, Benrahma, Watkins. Each were sold for millions, sometimes tens of millions of pounds, and represented a substantial loss to a team with promotion ideas.

Or at least they would’ve meant a substantial loss to other, less smart teams. But this was all part of the process for Brentford. The consistency with which the Bees would simply get harder, better, faster*, stronger (not always faster, Scott Hogan had some meeps) after selling a high-quality footballer was as impressive as it was daunting for their competition.

The funny thing about it? Brentford more or less told everyone what they were doing, and executed anyway. It’s one thing to identify an edge or three, but to then give your rivals a big clue as to what you’re up to and how you’re going about it, before gesturing a friendly wave at them in the rearview mirror as you speed past, is another. The steely bullishness of the club initially drew scorn from some quarters who turned their nose up at it early on, but scorn was soon replaced by curiosity, and curiosity soon replaced with acclaim.

The evolution towards the team they have now was an interesting road that took many seasons, and lessons were clearly learned along the way. Under Dean Smith, the team was young and volatile; wild swings in form and turbulence in results were a common trend. As Thomas Frank came in, the recruitment strategy turned towards a more rounded blend of age and experience. In the 2020/21 promotion season, the squad saw an almost perfect allocation of minutes; a sprinkling of youthful exuberance, a heavy dose of peak-age ability, and a select few wise old heads to steer the on-pitch ship.

 

 

The makeup of the squad, and Thomas Frank’s tactical evolution of the side, started to steady what were previously unstable results. Brentford were prone to streaks of both positive and negative form under Dean Smith. They’d be playing great football and looking like one of the best sides in the league in one month, and the next be exposed repeatedly in defence with the team looking unbalanced towards attacking flair. Frank took a while to get his ideas across, but there’s no arguing with the process or the results in his two full seasons in charge.

 

 

Frank was a member of the coaching staff under Smith and took over the hotseat in October 2018 when Smith departed for boyhood club Aston Villa. It created an interesting dynamic: he clearly would’ve been involved in the implementation and drilling of the game model under Smith, but also must’ve been watching with some clear ideas of his own as to how the team could improve.

There were very subtle changes in the team’s attacking output; the team became more open to crossing the ball and attacked with slightly more pace, but process and outcomes more or less remained the same.

 

 

But it was on the defensive end where Frank made a huge difference and clearly demonstrated that he can coach a more effective defence than Smith, or at least the Smith that was at Brentford. Under Smith, the Bees earned a deserved reputation for playing free-flowing, attacking football in the Championship, a draw for the many talented attackers they recruited in the Matthew Benham era. But the factor that finally earned them promotion was developing a league-best defensive process. Only Leeds conceded fewer expected goals (xG) than Brentford in 2019/20–no one bettered them in 2020/21.

 

 

The thing about the promotion-winning Brentford side was that they were good at… well, everything. Pick a metric, Brentford were within touching distance of the top of it at both ends of the pitch. This was a team with many strengths and very few, quite honestly any, weaknesses.

 

Metric (per 90 minutes) For Against
Expected Goals 1.40 (2nd) 0.79 (1st)
Shots 13.2 (3rd) 8.4 (1st)
Counter Attacking Shots 1.1 (3rd) 0.6 (5th)
High Press Shots 2.2 (3rd) 1.3 (4th)
1 v 1 Shots* 2.4 (2nd) 1.3 (2nd)
Set-Piece Goals 0.27 (8th) 0.18 (5th)
Final Third Entries 38.1 (7th) 34.9 (5th)
Passes Inside The Box 3.2 (2nd) 1.6 (1st)

 

*Shots with just the goalkeeper between ball and goal

They could hurt you on the counterattack, but you couldn’t hurt them back. They could press you high and turn the ball over, but they’d just play through you if you tried to do the same. They regularly created clear chances on goal, but you always found an outstretched Ethan Pinnock leg in the way when you caught a rare glimpse of the net. They’d bully you from set-pieces, but David Raya was always there to punch yours away. They found it easy to pass their way through your defensive setup and reach dangerous territory, but you’d be doing well if you completed two passes in Brentford’s penalty area in a game.

The irony won’t be lost on anyone – least of all Benham and his staff – that Brentford were automatic promotion candidates in each of the last two seasons according to the expected goals “table of justice”, but fell short on both occasions to land in a play-off spot in the real-life-football-is-played-on-grass-not-spreadsheets table. Brentford had the 2nd best expected goal difference in 2019/20 – many observers felt they deserved to go up that year – but they fell short in the last half an hour of the season, losing in play-off final extra time to Fulham.

They must’ve feared a similar outcome this season when they were again 2nd-best in the expected goals table, this time just behind Norwich, and were again favourites in the play-off final, this time against Swansea. They needn’t have worried. The game could hardly have started any better to settle the nerves. An early Ivan Toney penalty ten minutes into the game, followed by a lightning-quick, smooth and slick counterattack to put them 2-0 up midway through the first half was enough to see off Swansea, who never really came within touching distance after that.

 

 

So what to expect in the Premier League? Gut instinct says that the same calm serenity that comes from the top of the club will remain, enabling Frank and his team to attack the division as they see fit, likely taking a pragmatic approach to each individual challenge; sometimes taking the game to the opponent, other times hoping to nick a draw or win with carefully selected counterattacking opportunities.

Two bits of their summer business, in particular, give strong clues as to the areas of the game they’ll be prioritising in their maiden Premier League outing. Frank Onyeka’s arrival from FC Midtjylland adds depth to the central midfield, particularly with news of Josh Dasilva’s struggles to get fit. When Dasilva broke down in February, it was clear that Brentford missed his ability to dribble the ball through the midfield, weaving through challenges as he carried the ball into the final third. Dasilva was second only to Mathias Jensen for the number of passes and carries made into the final third on a per 90 minute basis –  ball progression from the middle third was an area they needed to strengthen this summer and Onyeka’s profile is not dissimilar to that of Dasilva’s.

 

 

Judging by Onyeka’s profile, he’ll bring a similar ability on the ball and there are strong indicators that the 23-year-old will be able to cope with the intense pressure and physicality that comes in a Premier League midfield battle. Being able to retain the ball under pressure will be key if Brentford are to continue to play through the thirds and execute swift counterattacks. Onyeka won 2.7 fouls per 90 minutes last season (2nd amongst Danish Super Liga central midfielders) and turned the ball over just 1.3 times per game, bringing a press resistance and drive to the centre of Brentford’s midfield that’s lacking without Dasilva. It helps that Onyeka is a capable and regular contributor to the defensive side of the ball as well.

The second key signing is that of Yoane Wissa from Lorient. Wissa signs after a six-goal + four assists (not including penalties) season in Ligue 1 after establishing himself as one of Ligue 2’s best wide forwards in the two seasons prior. We all know how effective Brentford have been at shopping for the best attacking talents in Ligue 2 before – Neal Maupay and Saïd Benrahma were sold for nearly £50 million to Premier League clubs, and Bryan Mbeumo is regarded as every bit as talented as those two. Who’d bet against Wissa replicating that success, albeit at a higher level?

Wissa profiles like a goalscoring wide forward with an ability to get on the end of close-range chances in the box. His data profile is encouraging, contributing 0.40 xG & xG Assisted per 90 minutes for a side that finished 16th in the table, and in a league that has traditionally translated well to the Premier League.

 

 

The Congolese forward clearly favours shot quality over shot quantity with an xG per shot of 0.16, meaning we could expect a goal roughy every six shots from him. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him and 33-goal Ivan Toney battling to tap in the numerous loose balls that Brentford seem to so consistently generate around the six-yard box. Toney may not like it, but it can only be a good thing for Brentford.

What does Wissa’s profile have in common with Onyeka? Fouls won. Wissa drew 3.1 fouls per 90 last season, fourth in Ligue 1 for attacking midfielders and wingers. The prominence of both Onyeka and Wissa’s foul winning rates leads to a suspicion that this may be a deliberate ploy to draw more set-piece opportunities in a season where Brentford may have to lean on them for goalscoring chances… we will have to wait and see.

 

 

The other incoming to date is that of Kristoffer Ajer from Celtic, a move seen as something of a coup given the Norwegian has been linked with clubs much higher in the food chain than Brentford in recent seasons. After a season in which Celtic’s stock fell, Brentford took advantage to add a pacey and technical ball-playing centre back to their ranks and a player who looks like a great complement to the aerial and defensive skillsets of Pontus Jansson and Ethan Pinnock. Could Brentford’s plan A be the same 3-5-2 they deployed towards the end of last season?

Projection

Something that may surprise fans and Premier League observers is that the betting markets rate Brentford as the strongest of the three promoted sides. To those that keep an eye on these things, it’ll be less surprising—Brentford were consistently one of the promotion favourites in the Championship for several consecutive seasons before they actually got over the line. Their underlying numbers plus general reputation for being canny operators mean that the markets have a lot more confidence in them than you’d perhaps expect for a side playing top-tier football for the first time in 74 years.

The Bees will hope that there’ll be three sides worse off points-wise than them come May – their fellow promoted clubs plus Crystal Palace, Newcastle, and Burnley are seen as their main competition. Clubs that have perennially struggled at the bottom of the Premier League should be wary of the fact that Brentford now have a Premier League budget on which to execute what they’ve demonstrated time and time again is a highly effective blueprint. Even if they don’t quite pull it off, you can’t help but feel this is only the beginning of Brentford’s longer-term Premier League journey.

 


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

Everton: Season Preview 2021/22

Game over. Bad luck, try again. Press ‘OK’ to start a new game. Great! Now choose your character. You have selected Rafa Benítez. Last season, Everton gripped the joystick, ready for another attempt at surpassing level 8(th) of the Premier League. Carlo Ancelotti’s character was an eye-catching choice given his appearances at the boss level in previous editions of the game; he was chosen for his high marks in ‘reputation’, ‘trophies’ and ‘man management’ but fell short in other areas to crash out at level 10(th). Enough of the gaming. Everton hired Ancelotti in the middle of the 2019/20 season to try and calm the turbulence that swirled around the Marco Silva era, to bring in more steady and consistent success after the wild swings of the Portuguese coach. 2020/21 was Ancelotti’s first full campaign in charge, but the inconsistency continued: four wins and a draw in their opening five was immediately followed by four defeats and a win, which was immediately followed by four wins and a draw. You get the picture. Judging by performance levels towards the end of his tenure, Ancelotti’s voluntary exit could’ve saved Everton a hefty severance package. The good news is that Everton finished the season with 59 points, their highest tally since 2016/17. The bad news is that they were only able to finish 10th, an improvement on the 12th place the season prior but a 10th place finish all the same. But the other good news is that 59 points would’ve been good enough for 7th or 8th in eight of the nine seasons before 2020/21. So it’s not unfair to say Ancelotti finished right in the Everton zone, unable to smash through the glass ceiling to the 6th place paradise that those toffee-making hands so desperately want to get their sticky fingers on. Following a summer of investment, Ancelotti had a squad that was at minimum above the league average in depth and quality, but the metrics he and his players delivered did not meet that level. The league average for expected goals (xG) per game last season was 1.19 in both attack and defence. Everton’s attack came in just below the average at 1.14 xG per game, and the defence also just below at 1.29 xG conceded per game. League average shots were 12.0 per game: Everton took 10.4 per game and conceded 13.2 per game. This was not a stint that made the squad better than the sum of it’s parts. In terms of a tactical footprint, the Italian tried to implement a deeper defensive line than his predecessor, becoming less proactive off the ball and preferring to retract into a defensive shell when losing possession. PPDA rose, allowing the opposition more passes on the ball and causing less disruption to their possession chains, and the average distance from goal of their defensive actions dropped back from 44.0 metres at the end of Silva’s reign to 41.25 metres under Ancelotti. The Italian has not stuck around to take charge of the Toffees in this campaign, seeing the offer of a return to Real Madrid as an opportunity too good to turn down – probably a wise decision given the potential damage another season of midtable obscurity might have done to his reputation. You know who else tends to get his teams to defend in deeper areas of the pitch? Rafael Benítez. Ancelotti’s replacement comes in from left-field with an interesting profile, one that underground tactical hipsters have been observing closely during his time managing in the Chinese Super League. Billed as hot property in the Asian managerial market, Everton moved quickly to secure the services of a promising young manager that tactical analysts predict can transfer his game model implemented at Dalian Pro right to the very pinnacle of the game. Bad jokes aside, Benítez is very much a known quantity and safe pair of hands, and perhaps the right appointment for what Everton are looking to achieve in the next season or two: namely an adherence to Premier League financial fair play rules and regulations. The transition in playing styles should be reasonably smooth, with Benítez looking to embed similar principles but with arguably a better reputation than his predecessor for setting teams up effectively. Compare Everton’s defensive activity map from last season with Newcastle’s in 2018/19, the last time Benítez was seen in the Premier League. The other trait Benítez has a reputation for is never getting less from the sum of a team’s parts. Interestingly, Newcastle’s metrics under Benítez in 2018/19 were very similar to Everton’s metrics last season, both in expected outcome numbers and stylistic ones. The key difference here is that Everton’s squad is significantly stronger on paper than the players Benítez had at his disposal at Newcastle, perhaps a cause for optimism. Observers of Everton’s pre-season friendlies have noted three key themes: an organised defensive shape, quick attacking transitions, and crosses into the box. Everton were already pretty adept at crosses last season, looking to hit Dominic Calvert-Lewin early with the quality deliveries of Lucas Digne and generally finding him in uncrowded boxes. In broader terms, Benítez will have to work with more or less the same squad that was available last season, with very little outlay in the transfer market occurring this summer. They relied on 16 core players to get through 2020/21, with the 17th most-used player accounting for just 677 minutes. There will be some new faces. Jean-Philippe Gbamin surely takes the “like a new signing” award in the Premier League this summer – if he can stay fit. It’s been a rough start to his Everton career with just 160 league minutes since signing in 2019, but if or when he can return from injury, he’ll add much-needed energy and dynamism to the Everton midfield. The three transfers that have been made this summer reportedly amount to an outlay of just £1.7 million but do address needs in the squad according to Benítez’s game model, and all are known quantities to the Premier League. Asmir Begović signs as keeper cover, but analytics-favourite Andros Townsend and Demarai Gray should both contribute minutes in the wide positions and aid the shift towards a more transition-based style of play with their tendency for direct and pacey carries. The future of James Rodríguez seems to be causing less concern to the fanbase than you might expect. Rumours that the side’s predominant playmaker could be leaving the club would normally cause more distress, but with the fans not particularly enamoured with Rodríguez’s commitment and Benítez reportedly keen to save on his wages, it’s hard to imagine the Colombian being graced with a fond farewell. Should they keep him, they’d be retaining a player who contributed six goals and four assists in ~50% of league minutes, and who led the team for xG Assisted in open play per 90 minutes and passes or carries into the final third per 90 minutes. Regardless of how well the fanbase took to him, there’s no denying Rodríguez is an A1 talent in this squad and contributed when on the pitch. Our new possession value model, On-Ball Value (OBV), which rates every action on the pitch by how much it positively or negatively affects a team’s chances of scoring, rated Rodríguez very highly for his actions last season: among players with >900 minutes played, he ranked 5th in the Premier League for OBV contribution per 90 minutes, behind the likes of Jack Grealish and Kevin De Bruyne. In the Everton squad, it wasn’t particularly close. Meanwhile, Dominic Calvert-Lewin could be one of the main beneficiaries of Benítez’s appointment, not that he needs the help after a stellar 2020/21 campaign. Last season was the year that ‘DCL’ established himself as one of the Premier League’s leading marksmen and he should thrive if the team deliver the volume of crosses that Benítez desires. Calvert-Lewin is master of the danger zone between the penalty box and goal and, for players with >1200 minutes played and >40 shots, had the highest xG per shot in the league last season. Projection It’s been a good few seasons since expectations have been this low around Goodison Park. Frustrations at being unable to break back into the Premier League’s top seven, as well as a tightening of the purse strings this summer, has seen an apathy set in around the fanbase. Having failed to climb up the table following heavy investment before, it takes a creative imagination to envisage they might achieve it without the same spend. The points spreads have once again benchmarked them in the Everton zone; predicted to finish around 8th-9th place with a total of ~53 points, a total that reveals a belief that Benítez doesn’t really move the needle for the Toffees. In a top-half beginning to overflow with upwardly mobile teams, the levels only seem to get harder. Let’s see what the Spaniard can serve up.


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 2021/22

Burnley FC. Sean Dyche. Bastions of consistency and stability. A slap in the face for the notion that being predictable can only be a bad thing. You know what you’re going to get from Burnley, and still they remain in the Premier League. Because Burnley are good at being Burnley, and Burnley when being Burnley are hard to stop. Turf Moor will be hosting Premier League football for the sixth season in a row. The 17th placed finish in 2020/21 represented their lowest position and points tally since promotion five years ago, so it’s not unlikely that armchair pundits are to start speculating over Burnley’s Premier League future. There was some regression, sure. Their expected goal (xG) difference slid back from a Burnley-best-since-they-were-promoted of -0.08 per game in 2019/20, down to -0.47 in 2020/21: They lost 0.10 expected goals per game in attack equating to ~four goals a season, fairly negligible but still a knock, but the biggest concerns emerged at the back. You can see below that 2019/20 was a significant step forward on what came before for the team, mainly cutting out the games where they got tonked. The differences between that impressive season and last season in the graphic are not exactly apparent to the naked eye, but that in itself could perhaps be a larger red flag. Look closely. In 2019/20, the cluster of games to the right of the trendline represents games where Burnley edged out close games by xG, a valuable skill for a team trying to avoid danger. In 2020/21, a lot of games shifted both left (creating less) and up (conceding more). You can make excuses if it’s a handful of really bad games making the difference, but this seemed to be a collective shift down in their performance levels. Their defence was -0.29 expected goals per game worse off than the season prior and, with the -0.10 shaved off the attack, it worked out to a ~15 goal regression over the whole season. The sort of sum that forces a team down the table–and it did. However, there is some context that needs to be applied here. Dyche regards last season as his most challenging yet in their Premier League stint. They came into the season having spent just £1million on third-choice ‘keeper Will Norris and backup midfielder Dale Stephens. Then they had to contend with injuries in the opening sequence of games: the back four in their opening day 4-2 defeat to Leicester was (right-to-left) Phil Bardsley, Kevin Long, Jimmy Dunne, and Charlie Taylor. James Tarkowski returned in game three and Ben Mee followed in game seven, but the damage had already been done: Burnley had just two points from their opening seven fixtures. The season was bookended with poor form—a W0 D2 L5 run to start, a W2 D0 L7 run to finish. But, the middle two-thirds should serve as encouragement ahead of next season. A W8 D7 L7 record works out to 1.41 points-per-game: bang on the 54 points they got the season before when extrapolated over a whole season and considering they won’t have the off-field uncertainty surrounding the takeover, nor the condensed schedule to contend with, and maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about Burnley after all. Survival remains objective number one, and it was mission accomplished once again. They can’t learn from it if they don’t dig into what caused this decline on the pitch, so let’s wield our spades on their behalf. Given their approach and mentality, the defence is where we need to examine. xG conceded per game rose from 1.17 to 1.46–where did those additional 0.29 expected goals per game come from? The biggest factor in this change was in the quality of the chances they conceded – something Burnley have notoriously thrived at. Their xG per shot conceded was 0.08 in 2019/20, 2nd-best in the league, but increased to 0.10 xG per shot conceded last season, putting them at league average. Burnley have previously opted to soak up a lot of shots while suppressing the quality of them, but they struggled with the latter last campaign. The main cause of this was that the opposition were allowed to shoot from much closer to goal than previously. There were times in 2019/20 where Burnley’s low block was straight up impenetrable and their opponent’s resorted to launching missiles from range in an attempt to break them out of their shell. Their opponents shot distance from goal was 17.0 metres away on average, the furthest in the league that season. This dropped to 16.4 metres in 2020/21, a small but not-insignificant change that was a big cause of the bump in their xG per shot conceded. Closer shots equals better shots. Burnley were trying the same out of possession techniques – pressing high in the first phase but then dropping right off should the opposition begin to advance – but were unable to maintain the same intensity required when bunkering, largely due to the intense schedule. It always surprises people to learn that Burnley’s Defensive Distance – the average distance from their goal that they make defensive actions – has always been pretty high: behind only Manchester City and Liverpool in 2019/20, and the same pair plus Chelsea in 2020/21. They press the opposition from goal kicks and from turnovers in their attacking third, but soon sink into their defensive shape once the opposition starts to enter their half of the pitch. Simply, they just lacked the energy to disrupt the opposition in 2020/21. The percentage of opposition pass receipts that were pressured, tackled or fouled within two seconds dropped from 20% to 16%. Burnley have always been towards the lower end of these rankings in previous seasons, but the lost intensity clearly harmed their overall effectiveness in disrupting the opponent’s build-up and chance creation. Load up the trebuchet! In possession, Burnley continued to Burnley. Their top-five most commonly used pass clusters will be familiar to regular observers: Plenty of long, high passes into the opposition half and attacking third and, once they’re in there, plenty of crosses from the flank. We can see those patterns of play when examining the nine most over-represented pass clusters plotted individually:

  1. Cluster #3 represents the Nick Pope pump into the opposition half
  2. Clusters #1 and #2 represent the channel balls played down the flanks to put the wingers in a foot race with their full backs
  3. Clusters #7 and #8 are shorter versions to the wingers feet
  4. Clusters #5 and #9 are the crosses regularly seen played into the box

Cluster #6 is the only pass of any real range played from the middle third, and this can mostly be attributed to Ashley Westwood. Westwood’s become a steady, unheralded Premier League performer but his importance to Burnley shouldn’t go without saying. He made the most open play passes in the squad, played the ball into the final third most often, made the most passes into the penalty box in open play, AND made the most open play key passes. He clearly has the best passing range in the team, a vital attribute to the Clarets when they do need to play through the middle third, and completed by far the most switches of play of his Burnley teammates. What I’m about to say next may shock you*, so make sure you’re sitting down: Burnley played the most high-passes in the league, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of their total passes. Of their passes into the final third, 44% of them were high-passes – a league-high -, and the value of those passes are captured in our new possession value model, On-Ball Value, which estimates the extent to which an action improves a team’s expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Burnley accrued the most OBV from high-passes in the whole league. *just kidding And their danger from crosses remained. Unlike most teams in the modern era, they’re not as bothered about crossing from closer to the byline and the goal in general. Instead, Burnley look to get the ball into the mixer much faster, with Chris Wood, Ashley Barnes, and Matěj Vydra all well attuned to attacking the early balls into the box. Crossing from deep can be more difficult to execute, but it does have its upsides. Because Burnley get the ball forward so quickly (their Pace To Goal of 3.04 m/s was second only to West Ham), they’re often able to attack against unset defences, meaning their attackers can often have more space and less competition to attack the ball when it’s played into the box. Thanks to StatsBomb 360 data, we can now measure how many attackers versus how many defenders teams have in the box on crosses, and can see that Burnley attackers averaged the least competition in the box (measured by attackers in the box minus defenders in the box) in the whole league. Knowing Burnley as we do, we can expect the same again next season. Likewise, we can expect the same playing squad. Dyche’s squadron has been together for several seasons now, with very little surgery performed in the last few transfer windows. Cohesive, yes, but the squad’s age profile is starting to veer dangerously close to post-peak territory, where we can start to expect a simultaneous decline in performances from several key members of the squad. Some botox is required sooner rather than later. Dwight McNeil and Josh Brownhill were the only players below the league average age to play a significant number of minutes. You have to go all the way down to their 16th most-used player last season, Robbie Brady, to find one who has left the club this summer. This is no bad thing in a squad full of dependable performers, but the sense that some fresh blood is required is most certainly there. In transfer news, Wayne Hennessey’s signed as ‘keeper cover, but the main (and only other) signing has been that of Irish beanpole Nathan Collins from Stoke, a signing that does start to provide a solution to their age problem. A promising centre-half who’s impressed in significant Championship minutes, Collins represents an heir to the throne of Tarkowski and Mee, and will shadow them for minutes in the middle of the defence next season, but also at right back as he integrates into the squad. Projection In context, there’s no reason to think Burnley should perform any worse than they did last season, which was enough to stay up albeit not much more. With a more relaxed schedule and more stability off the field, they should be able to get back to what they do best, but question marks remain over whether an aging squad can implement Dyche’s gameplan with the required energy levels– something that cost them defensively last season, as described earlier in the piece. The betting markets have benchmarked them for a repeat of the 39 points accrued in 2020/21, 16th in the market and in the mix with the promoted sides plus Newcastle and Palace, and without any major (or even minor) investment in the squad, that feels fair. Survival is the aim, again.


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

The StatsBomb Premier League Season Previews 2021/22

Welcome back to another edition of the StatsBomb Premier League season previews!

Here’s a handy place to keep them all, we’ll update it as more previews go up on the site. Just click the links to read about each team.

Thanks to James Yorke, Nick Dorrington, Carl Carpenter, Will Thomson, Will Morgan, and Scott Johnson for writing and thanks from me to you for reading.

We hope you enjoy the articles. If you did, please share widely!

Arsenal

Aston Villa

Brentford

Brighton & Hove Albion

Burnley

Chelsea

Crystal Palace

Everton

Leeds United

Leicester City

Liverpool

Manchester City

Manchester United

Newcastle United

Norwich City

Southampton

Tottenham Hotspur

Watford

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

Watford: Season Preview 2021/22

Relegation in 2019/20 ended Watford’s five-year stay in the Premier League, but they yo-yoed at the first attempt to regain their place in the top tier, finishing Championship runners-up in 2020/21. They came into the new season with plenty of optimism. Vladimir Ivić was a somewhat left-field appointment to lead Operation Bounce Back, but he did have trophies from stints in Greece and Israel on his CV. He also had what some pundits believed to be the strongest squad in the Championship, having retained the likes of Will Hughes and Ismaïla Sarr to terrorise second-tier defences. Watford’s start to their promotion push was ~fine. Nothing more, nothing less. They won games – nine of their first 20 – and positioned themselves in the promotion pack heading into Christmas. But both board and fanbase were becoming increasingly twitchy with performances, and the sense that Ivić wasn’t getting the most out of the players available to him continued to grow with every grinding – and, frankly, boring – game. Just 1.9 goals per game were scored in Watford matches under Ivić. Approaching the halfway point in the season, the underlying numbers pegged them as the 7th best team in the league, and that was enough for the Watford senior management — not known for their patience with managers — to cut ties with the Serbian. Ivić was sacked after 20 games with the team 5th in the table. Their chosen replacement for Ivić was even further out of left-field. So far left that it could’ve been right. And so it came to be, eventually. Xisco Muñoz joined from Georgian powerhouses Dinamo Tbilisi — yes, Dinamo Tbilisi — after taking just 11 games as a manager — yes, just 11 games — to kickstart their stuttering promotion campaign. To the layman, it seemed a risky appointment with so much at stake, and initial performances didn’t encourage. Results remained ~fine, taking 14 points from their first eight under Muñoz, but short of the standard required to close the gap on the automatic promotion places. The eighth game of Muñoz’s tenure, a 0-0 draw away at Coventry City, was the catalyst for the run that eventually took them back up. A turgid performance lacking any invention prompted senior players, feeling their chances of an immediate return to the Premier League slipping away, to insist that the team took a more front-foot approach going forwards. The results were instant. Muñoz switched the team from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 shape, and Bristol City were put to the sword. They never looked back. Watford became a relentless winning machine, taking maximum points in 14 of their remaining 18 fixtures to seal promotion. Their defensive record was critical to the promotion, something that should stand them in good stead this season. Ivić laid the foundations, but Muñoz improved the team as a whole, taking the handbrake off and allowing the players to express themselves while retaining their defensive solidity, even improving in this aspect. From the time Muñoz was appointed, Watford conceded just 15 goals and ~20 expected goals, both league-best rates over the 26-game period in which the Spaniard was in charge. The main driver of their exemplary defensive record was their ability to shut down the quality of chances created against them. Watford conceded 10.6 shots per game under Muñoz – 9th-best in the league in his tenure – but their xG per shot conceded was just 0.07, far and away the stingiest in the league. It became very difficult to create good chances against this team. A lot of this can be attributed to their defensive organisation and determination to reduce the sight of goal available to the opposition forward. When the opposition created footed shots in the box, Watford had an average of 3.8 defenders positioned deeper than the shot location, suggesting they effectively slowed the opponent attacks down enough to set themselves in a good defensive position. Consequently, this meant that Watford could get a defender between the shooter and goal more often than not, averaging 1.1 defenders between the ball and goalkeeper – something that would greatly reduce the quality of the opening. Footed shots in the box are the holy grail of chance creation, but not if a defender is blocking your way. The broken finger suffered by goalkeeper Ben Foster, one of few players in credit after the opening half of the season, in January could’ve been a blow to their promotion push, but replacement Daniel Bachmann rose to the challenge to make it a seamless transition. The data over Bachmann’s time in goal reflects his solid performance as Foster’s replacement and the solid performance of the defense as a whole. As a benchmark, Foster faced 2.5 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.70 per game, whereas Bachmann faced 1.9 shots on target per game for a post-shot xG value of 0.43 per game. That is to say, the quality of shots on target that Watford’s opponents were generating were worth just ~4 goals every ten games once Bachmann took his place in net. Both keepers saved goals above expected based on the post-shot xG faced, but it’s clear that Bachmann’s time in goal was a freak outlier thanks to the protection afforded to him by the defence. Personnel & Transfers Retaining Ismaïla Sarr will be objective #1 for the Watford hierarchy this summer; to their relief there doesn’t seem to be any major interest in his services. Sarr’s contribution in the final third and penalty box was crucial to the Hornets’ promotion as he demonstrated that he was far too good for the Championship, predictably so, having been a more-than-capable Premier League performer in 2019/20. Sarr’s 17 goals + assists were five more than the next best in the Watford squad, and his ball carrying was a constant thorn in the opposition side. His quality in carrying the ball was evident in our possession value model — On-Ball Value (OBV) — numbers from last season. OBV estimates the extent to which an action improves a team’s expected goal difference over the next two possessions. Sarr’s OBV/90 was the sixth-highest of all Championship players with >1200 minutes played last season, and his OBV/90 from carries was fourth highest. There are some concerns over the future of midfielders Will Hughes (2,118 minutes) and Nathaniel Chalobah (2,816 minutes), with both entering the last years of their contracts and reportedly exploring options elsewhere before committing. But central midfield reinforcements are already in place: Imrân Louza joins after some steady Ligue 1 performances for Nantes over the last couple of seasons, while Jan Kucka comes in from Parma as an experienced Serie A campaigner. A third midfield signing will be most familiar to English audiences. Peter Etebo’s name may ring a bell after a short stint at Stoke City that never really got going due to several managerial changes in the season he arrived at the club. A loan spell at Galatasaray in 2020/21 showed glimpses of what Etebo can offer as a defensive midfield enforcer, but the Nigerian is also capable of filling in as a shuttling midfielder with the ability to contribute between both boxes. Wide-attacker Emmanuel Dennis could be another one that people have a faint recollection of, having scored twice in the Champions League against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in 2019 while with Club Brugge. Dennis has played at right wingback, right-wing, and striker over the last three seasons, so provides versatility, but he struggled in the Bundesliga while on loan at FC Köln in the second half of the campaign, making just nine appearances over 495 minutes as Köln narrowly avoided relegation. It remains to be seen whether Dennis will be an automatic starter or a squad option at Watford, but his data over previous seasons suggest a capable dribbler with a knack of getting in behind the defence and onto the end of throughballs, qualities that would be welcome if they can add some goals to Watford’s survival bid. Josh King and Danny Rose bring Premier League experience to the dressing room. Projection After stabilising in the Premier League, the quality of Watford’s playing squad gradually declined and was a large factor in their relegation. Being objective, the current roster does not appear much better than the one that went down in 2019/20, but if they can continue good defensive habits built under Vladimir Ivić and improved by Xisco Muñoz, perhaps the Hornets can grind matches enough to stay in contention, relying on the likes of Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro to provide the goals at the other end to give them a chance of staying up. Given they finished 2nd in the Championship, it’s noteworthy that the betting markets rate Watford as the side least likely to stay in the Premier League, benchmarking them for a ~34 point season and 20th place. It’s perhaps understandable given there are still question marks over Muñoz’s managerial ability despite promotion; he improved the side, yes, but it was a side that was underperforming given their talent level before he arrived. Muñoz simply raised them to their par. Has he got the quality to give them an edge in a season that their squad looks one of the weakest in the league? We’ll soon find out.


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