Everton 2017-18 Season Preview


MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! The 2016/17 Best-of-The-Rest Cup has returned to its rightful home in the Goodison trophy cabinet. Tarnished somewhat by having been downgraded from 5th to 7th place, it’s still a trophy, and we shouldn’t begrudge Ronald Koeman providing an immediate return on his £7m-a-year salary. From around February we are better than evens to finish 7th, no higher, no lower, and never faced a real challenge to our septpremacy from Southampton under-performing in front of goal, nor from Bournemouth getting their first taste of England’s top 10, nor even from West Brom, returning to the top half of the table for the first time since saying goodbye to one Romelu Lukaku (of whom more later, duh).

We also made progress on the stadium front, securing land at Bramley Moore Dock. I say ‘land’, obviously right now it’s all underwater. In fact, I say ‘securing’, obviously we haven’t raised the money to pay for any of it yet. But you wouldn’t bet against our cadre of Russian money men, would you? Mayor Joe Anderson’s inbox is probably already brimming with offers of dirt on his opponents for the 2020 elections.

We started the season with Lukaku still recuperating from that awkward holiday we’ve all had where your ex turns up to the same resort. Sources from within Belgium’s Chateau du Haillan training camp claim that Lukaku and Robert Martinez could be heard attempting to stoke each other’s jealousy well into the small hours of the morning, the former loudly praising Thierry Henry’s tactical prowess, the latter bouncing on the bed complimenting Michi Batshuayi’s finishing skill.

This meant that we started the season with a 3-4-3, the honed spearhead of Mirallas, Deulofeu and Barkley up top, James McCarthy on the right against Tottenham. In the first half, we took no shots after the 19th minute. In the second, we took none after the 79th. We won a point off a fluky Barkley free kick that found its way through to the far post. The 3-4-3 persisted against West Brom where we overturned an early set-piece goal to win 1-2. With Lukaku back in the team, and £25m man Yannick Bolasie a regular fixture, we mostly fielded a 4-2-3-1 with Barry and Gueye holding, Bolasie, Barkley and Mirallas ahead, or a 4-3-3 with Barry deepest and Gueye and Barkley in the headless chicken roles in the middle, Mirallas and Bolasie flanking Lukaku.  The 3-4-3 returned against Chelsea in early November. Antonio Conte had laughed off suggestions he was facing the sack in late September, and by the time Everton made their visit to Stamford Bridge he was already 4 wins into the 13-game winning streak that would all but secure them the title. We took a single shot that day, and Conte would continue laughing for quite some time afterward.

At the half-way point of the season, the top 6 were already 9 points ahead of 7th, and while Everton had picked up a couple of creditable wins against Arsenal and away to Leicester, and grabbed a point off each Manchester side, it was only really a run of four wins against fairly easy opposition in August and September that was propping the season up. The football wasn’t much to look at, we defended a bit better, showed a bit more energy when pressing, but it didn’t feel as if we had any plan or systematic advantages in attack. We crossed a bit, and Lukaku found ways to score.

The fundamental issue we seem to have under Koeman is the disconnect between our build up and our attack. There’s not a great deal of movement and interplay in the centre, so we’re reliant on longer balls (especially out wide) to progress towards the goal. Gareth Barry (offered a new contract at 36, and apparently a target for Tony Pulis) has generally been the only midfielder who reliably can progress the ball in this way. The stat that stands out to me is this: Everton’s passes into the final third were the 6th longest on average in the Premier League last season. Only Watford, Burnley, Palace, West Brom and Sunderland relied on longer passes to get the ball forward. I wouldn’t mind this – gaining lots of ground quickly is great – but we’re bottom half of the table for completing these passes. I haven’t seen much in pre-season to show we’ve addressed these issues: I certainly like Ademola Lookman’s movement more than most of our other attackers, and Klaassen has decent first touch, so perhaps we’ll see this completion rate go up even if the plan doesn’t change.

A minor tactical turning point in our season came in December when Bolasie suffered a long-term knee injury. Deulofeu was unable to replace him, and all that could be done for the poor lamb was to ship him off to Milan to assist more xG per 90 than any player 23-and-under in the big leagues, before forcing him to make a humiliating return to Barcelona. This meant the team, outside the reliable Baines and Coleman, had slightly less width to exploit. Morgan Schneiderlin arrived in January, by which time Tom Davies had broken into the team looking like a Viking chieftan’s daughter disguised in a fake beard after her father forbade her from joining the raiding party, intent on proving her valour.

This is an entirely aesthetic metric, but you can see the change in our play by looking at the ratio of crosses to through balls. Before the New Year, we took around 27 crosses for every through ball we made, the 6th highest ratio (Arsenal take 4 crosses for every through ball, Swansea and Palace 60+, just for some context). After the New Year, though, we had the 6th lowest ratio: 14 crosses per through ball. In this period we still oscillated between the 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 but I actually quite liked some of our play, harrying opponents’ midfielders, occasionally producing nice combinations in the centre, and securing some memorable wins, not least the 4-0 against Man City. What we didn’t manage to do was bring that final third entry pass length stat down. Tom Davies added a lot of energy and some penetrative passing to the team, Schneiderlin has some of Barry’s long ball game, and finished the season with the highest xGBuildup per 90 of anyone in the team. But without Lukaku’s 24 non-penalty goals from ~17xG on the end of all this, I’m unconvinced we systematically create enough danger to really compete at the top level of the EPL.

Let’s talk Lukaku: he was better than we deserved when he arrived on loan, and he’s been better than we deserved every season since. If he were on a great Everton team, he’d be rivaling Gary Lineker’s numbers, but as it is we got to see an Everton player finish with 25 league goals in a season for the first time in more than 30 years. He stayed for promises of Champions League football, gave Koeman a chance, and leaves us with a profit of nearly £50m. His capture was possibly Roberto Martinez’s singular achievement, both in convincing the player and the board to make it happen.



Strikers often struggle with perceptions. I always remember Lukaku’s goal against Chelsea in the FA Cup, he points where he wants Barkley to put the ball, makes the run, looks up, looks up again, beats two players, shrugs off a foul, beats another two players with the tiniest of touches, and side-foots it past Courtois inside the far post. The commentators inevitably described him as “like a man-mountain there”. It was a lovely goal, and it’s true: his strength kept him on his feet despite one defender grabbing his shoulder and trying to haul him down. But I don’t think Lukaku gets much credit for his vision and intelligence, and the amount of work he puts into his technical game off the field.

That all plays into the narrative that he’s clumsy and has terrible first touch. We can investigate if this perception is actually fair with some simple stats: strikers receive passes in the final third, and we look at whether their next non-shot action is successful or not. So, they get the ball, and maybe pass, or dribble past a defender, whatever. Which strikers have a better or worse success rate with these actions? Looking at the last four seasons and limiting to players that have received a total of more than 500 passes in that time, Lukaku ranks 10th out of 26. He’s above Diego Costa, Harry Kane, Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez, Olivier Giroud and plenty of others. He ranks worse for the eventual xGChain of those possessions, so perhaps he’s not creating a ton of a danger in his hold-up play, but at the same time Everton rely so much on him to be on the end of moves that you’d expect less xG from possessions involving him in the buildup. Either way, I don’t think he’s as bad as people think, and besides, it’s not our problem now. Go with love, Big Rom.



Everything turns upon this simple equation:

Position2017 = 7th – Lukaku – European Campaign + The Genius of Steve Walsh

Are we a seventher team than last season? Are we more than seventh? Or without Lukaku’s goals, and facing attrition from Europa League games, might we actually find ourselves south of Southampton this year? Our Summer business was ambitious in quantity, if not in quality. But even if we land Gylfi Sigurðsson for the price of 0.25 Neymars, I don’t think we’ve made a single signing in the same league as the outgoing Lukaku (or the top 6’s incoming Salah, Morata, Lacazette, Mendy etc etc). Maybe you’d stack our signings up against Tottenham’s big pile of nothing, but over 24 months they seem like as good a team as any in the EPL and don’t seem to expend any fucks on European competitions.

I haven’t accounted for one additional factor in the complex scientific equation above: Charlie Reeves, a data analyst poached from Forest Green Rovers, indicating at the very least that Walshie wanted an up-to-date spreadsheet to start sorting. My only concern is that in this window, the flashing red light attached to his veto button has clearly malfunctioned. If there’s budget for a replacement, future windows might make more sense to me.

The biggest story of our Summer is of course the return of always a blue Wayne Rooney. He brings with him such a weight of narrative I don’t know where to begin. When he left Everton, we immediately finished in the top 4. Now he’s returned, does symmetry demand that we or Man Utd return to the top 4? The boy Rooney ended Arsenal’s famous 49 match unbeaten run, could the man put us ahead of Arsenal, and end Wenger’s tenure entirely? Storylines aside, Rooney is still a perfectly cromulent Premier League player, but he’s more of a replacement for Ross Barkley than Romelu Lukaku. I don’t believe that Rooney plus Sandro Ramirez (plus Sheffield lad Dominic Calvert-Lewin) equals anything approaching one Lukaku, but then again I don’t really understand what Koeman’s hoping for in attack.



Elsewhere, Davy Klaassen joins our midfield, though I’m slightly suspicious of attackers coming from Eredivisie with anything but bonkers stats, which he does not possess. He certainly has tidy feet and quicker passing than we’re used to, but I’ve seen little evidence of enough intelligent movement around him to really take advantage.

Since Neville Southall, it’s never felt like Everton have had a truly generational keeper. Nigel Martyn’s swan song and Tim Howard’s often-unfairly maligned tenure brought some solidity, but could Jordan Pickford be Everton’s number 1 in 5 or 10 years? I’ll admit I didn’t see him much last year, it was hard to watch Moyes’s Sunderland, a bit like your dad going through a bad divorce and trying to get all his uni mates back together to for one last year-long binge. But his shot stopping numbers look fine from the small sample we have. As long as he doesn’t fall out of his loft or get injured warming up he certainly seems like he has a better shot than most, if only because of the expectations of his price tag.

Michael Keane shaves some necessary years off our defence’s average age. He’s joining a very different back line to Burnley’s, his numbers last year show very little pro-active play in terms of tackles and interceptions, but his aerials and blocks per shot were good. Our passing model quite likes him, and already in pre-season I’ve seen him sprint 40 yards through the middle of the pitch with the ball so it’ll be a wild ride at the very least.

There’s also the possibility that Ross Barkley leaves. I genuinely think he’s progressed and taken up more responsibility, but there are always the suspicions that the gaps in his game are all things that can’t be taught: decision making most of all. I’d always hoped that if we cashed him in, it’d be for John Stones money, but barring a bidding war those days are gone, as his contract winds down and his manager constantly criticises him in the press. If he moves, I hope he’s turns out to be more Rooney than Rodwell – he always put in the effort, and came back from some horrible injuries early in his career. Who knows, maybe he’ll make a dream return as our number 10 for the 2025/26 season.

Anyway, I’ve cranked all that through the supercomputer and it reckons… 7th.



So what’s the long-term plan? We’re behind the rest of the class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are? Are we to sit poised in 7th, waiting for the Mad King Arsene Wenger to self-immolate? Hoping Mourinho and/or Chelsea have another 2015/16, that Pep truly is a fraud, that Pochettino’s head is turned by a more generous sugar daddy and his Tottenham project is picked apart, that Raymond Verheijen will jump out with a police baton and assail the knees of the entire Liverpool squad?

We’ve spent, upped our wage bill, and signed solid players to accommodate Europe. I feel grumpy saying this, but it’s all probably fine. It’s entirely possible that Koeman’s targets from the board do ultimately include the top 4, maybe he even thinks we have a shot this season. Our last mad dash for the Champions League was Martinez’s series of loan gambles, and hell, we had a bunch of luck and very nearly got there, before it then immediately fell to pieces. But I see no hope of replicating that in the next couple of years. It wasn’t so long ago that you’d interpret any sort of £50m bid as a sign of ambition, but in Premier League terms who knows what it now represents, especially taking into account our new and deeper pockets.

I’m not a huge fan of what’s happening on the field, and I don’t think we’re getting value in the transfer market. But look at the next 5 years as a slow, iterative process: secure 7th, not a bad spot in such a competitive league. Try to become a fixture in the later stages of the Europa League. Between that and the stadium, slowly increase our reputation and make us more attractive to transfer targets and commercial partners. Build out the back office, chuck in a few analytics people. Keep developing and playing the youth, who are already a big part of their respective England setups.

There are worse ways to run a club, and let’s face it, we’ve witnessed most of them in the last 30 years. Nil satis nisi septimum.

Everton 2016-17 Season Preview

The Past

Once Everton has touched you, nothing will be the same. Nothing, of course, except the reliable engine of hope and disappointment that has driven us backwards, forwards, sideways, and finally backwards again since the 80s. I should be more excited about this season: Roberto Martinez is gone! His style of football flew too close to the sun, and his wings (phenomenal, world-class wings) turned out to be held together by mere bullshit. We have our billionaire! No more mortgaging our future, selling our stars, lowering our ambitions…

I miss Moyes. I was brought up in the post-Kendall era of relegation battles and dodgy loans – I miss being the best of the rest. We’re in a league now in which at least one of Guardiola, Conte, Mourinho, Wenger, Klopp or Pochettino have the fight of their lives to scrape anything better than 6th. When Moyes left on his three-year mission to flush his reputation far enough down the toilet that it could stick to Aston Villa or Sunderland, we had options. Ralf Rangnick was right there, in the room, being interviewed. No manager available to us at that time could have better embodied the school of soccer science, and given us a tactical head start in a post Tiki-Taka world. Instead we hired the guy that got relegated but twatted us in the cup. For a brief time memories of Moyes kept our defence from collapsing, before we faded into a bottom-half team, a patchy, wilting Christmas tree with some inexplicably shiny baubles.

How ambitious we were to reject £40m for Stones! Only twelve months before, we had missed the Champions League by a whisker! It’s time to end the hubris. We never matched Moyes’ on-pitch solidity with a reliable, long-term, financially secure plan off it. Now our billionaire has arrived, it seems too late to really differentiate ourselves, in a world with vast TV money and so many competitive teams. But I’m reassured by the fact that we haven’t immediately had a Robinho moment – it implies we’re willing to actually put in the proper work.

The Management

And so it is that we welcome Ronald Koeman to the helm. The Dutch Moyes is probably exactly what we need. At the very least, his appearances in post-friendly interviews have been hugely refreshing – a spade is once more a spade, and not a phenomenal, world-class ground-penetrating system. Two things mystify me, though: one that he was our first and only managerial target (if you take that claim at face value) and two that we have thrown enormous amounts of money at him between his contract and the compensation to Southampton. If we were willing to throw money around, why not a more ambitious choice? Why not offer someone like Roger Schmidt silly money?

Elsewhere in the org chart, the arrival of Steve Walsh as Director of Football may signal a more long-term approach to recruitment. Whether or not he was the man who single-handedly sniffed out Riyad Mahrez, or who personally sorted the spreadsheet by tackles per game to find N’Golo Kanté, he’s at least another grown-up in the room if a manager ever embarks on another passion project like Oumar Niasse. Previous Leicester target Idrissa Gueye has since arrived to patch the holes in our midfield, so that at least implies Walsh has smuggled out a USB drive with the “TOP SECRET ANALYTICS.xlsx” file that won Leicester the title last season.

When Martinez arrived, much was made of his attempts to remodel the club from top to bottom, to ensure the same style of play was being taught at every level (which presumably means nobody has practiced a set piece at the club for three years). You have to then wonder just how much disruption is caused by an outgoing manager with such a singular vision. Despite the fancy DoF title, Walsh’s background is as a scout, it seems unlikely that he is directing our football or training ground operations to any great degree. Given that he’s probably not giving the club much continuity above and beyond our current manager, why not just call him Head Scout?

The Money

Never before has it been so easy to call yourself a billionaire in the EPL. The TV money can basically pay for everything now, and if not, we’re probably clearing £100m for Stones and Lukaku. If Farhad Moshiri, deep in his heart, never intends to give Everton any more money than his initial investment, it will be a very long time before anyone notices. So I would suggest we don’t get ahead of ourselves and make any assumptions about our new status. Maybe the stadium talks will move forward, and maybe future windows will feature splashier forays into the market, but I’d much rather the club quietly upgrade our infrastructure (perhaps buying some of it back from the council would be a start) and plan for the future. Either way, in Moshiri we appear to have a sensible, unemotional driver at the wheel (or at least taking up 49.9% of the car and telling the driver where to go, you know how metaphors work), and billions or not, he seems to want his money spent sensibly. It’s entirely possible that 21st Club’s involvement during the takeover will result in better, more objective decision making throughout the club at some point in the future.

The Squad

Everton have huge problems in the middle. Our defence has been bad, and has had no protection from central midfield. Gareth Barry moved the ball forwards nicely enough, but the weight of his enormous contract on those aging legs made him a liability going the other way. James McCarthy doesn’t have much more defensive output than Barry, and very little of his passing. Idrissa Gueye comes into the team having made as many interceptions per 90 (possession adjusted) as McCarthy and Barry combined (3.32 versus 1.76 + 1.60), but will he single-handedly stop the succession of high-quality shots making it through to our goal?



With Stones likely to leave close to the opening day of the season (with the possibility of the error-prone Ashley Williams replacing him), and no rumours of a true goalkeeping upgrade, the entire pipeline from our midfield to our goal seems shaky, and even if you lay all of the blame with Martinez’s system (which you should not), there hasn’t been a huge amount of time to drill the team. Pre-season games haven’t played out so differently from the Martinez-era – exciting attacking football, but too easy to penetrate at the other end, and still utter chaos when the ball is in the air.

In the game of ‘Whose Knees Give Way First?’ it appears that Mo Besic has been outlasted by Darron Gibson. It’s shame that it looks like we’ll never get a full season out of the Bosnian try-hard, he adds a slightly different, more direct dimension to our passing which certainly felt missing in monotonic system of the past couple of seasons. The same is true of Gibson’s style, somehow earning him a two-year contract extension despite spending part of last year shoeless, on the sauce, and mowing down cyclists in his Nissan Skyline. It certainly seems that we have no long-term succession plan for Gareth Barry. Look at the average gain towards to opposition goal that our players made last year:


Player Average Gain
Joel Robles 22.15
Tim Howard 20.28
Jonjoe Kenny 8.92
Callum Connolly 6.0
John Stones 5.76
Phil Jagielka 4.97
Matthew Pennington 4.8
Ramiro Funes Mori 4.65
Seamus Coleman 3.86
Gerard Deulofeu 3.65
Leighton Baines 3.18
Bryan Oviedo 2.97
Gareth Barry 2.85
Kieran Dowell 2.16
Darron Gibson 1.75
Tyias Browning 1.63
Steven Pienaar 0.75
Aaron Lennon 0.58
Brendan Galloway 0.43
Muhamed Besic 0.37
Tony Hibbert -0.04
James McCarthy -0.55
Tom Cleverley -0.65
Tom Davies -1.0
Ross Barkley -1.06
Kevin Mirallas -1.79
Oumar Niasse -1.88
Arouna Koné -2.12
Steven Naismith -2.66
Romelu Lukaku -3.22
Leon Osman -3.33


Compare Barry to McCarthy and Barkley to Deulofeu – outside of build up from the back, we don’t have too many adventurous players, and Besic and Gibson only just manage to average a positive score. It’s not all bad news going forward though. While we awaited Romelu Lukaku’s return from the Euros, Koeman opted for Deulofeu through the middle in pre-season, and he looked bright and dangerous. Here’s how he looked last year:


I do not know what physical or psychological flaws the boy has that cause him to be benched by Christmas each year, but I genuinely believe he’s the only truly magical player that we have. As much as Aaron Lennon proved productive last year, his main achievement was to steal minutes from the player who perhaps needed them most. While his shot numbers as a winger last year weren’t great (basically a shot every other game), his assists per 90 were second only to Özil: 0.42 to the German platter-server’s 0.45, albeit from radically different xA numbers. Deulofeu struck gold from his 0.33 xA per 90, Arsenal’s conversion rate almost halved Özil’s expected assist total of 0.7 per 90. That’s worth keeping an eye on, but either way his overall scoring therefore adds up to basically the same as Lukaku’s (0.55 to 0.58). Obviously that’s a testament to the partnership as much as anything, but Deulofeu has combined well with Mirallas up front in pre-season. I hope we see much more of him this season, wherever on the pitch he ends up. It would be a tragedy if he suffered the same fate as Dusan Tadic at Southampton, who Koeman often seemed reluctant to field despite his talent.

If Lukaku’s rumoured return to Chelsea goes ahead, we’ll be losing the most reliable goal-scorer Everton have seen for decades. I don’t truly know what style of football would suit the still-young Belgian, but it never felt we were particularly built around him, if only because it might have occurred to another team to stop making him look so clumsy with his back to goal. If he leaves we’ll certainly miss his raw output, but I don’t believe he’s tactically irreplaceable, especially in an attack built around Deulofeu, if such a thing is possible.

And finally we have Ross Barkley. Did he make The Leap, or did he stumble again? Certainly, the same old habits held firm: the runs that went nowhere; the complete lack of recovery running; the terrible decisions. But he began to show some sings of actual output last season, ending with 0.33 NPGA90. I would accept anything approaching Stones-level money for him in a heartbeat, but it’s entirely possible that slowly but surely he could one day, with the right training, stop being the most infuriating player on the team.


The Future

As grumpy as all this undoubtedly sounds, Everton are today in the best shape they’ve been since my family moved to Winsford in 1987 and I looked at the nearest clubs in the league table, pointed, and said ‘that one’. Koeman isn’t the most exciting possible appointment, but he’s fine. We haven’t gone out and made a statement in the transfer market, but too often that statement just ends up being “we’re idiots with no sense and lots of money” anyway. It is hard to accept that there is no short term plan to transform this squad into a Top 4 one, but right now we just need to prove that it’s a top half one, and build a future from there.

Of course if by the first day of the season we’ve spent £200m and all this is rubbish, then I’m well up for that too.   ___________________

Enjoy this? find out other season previews here

3’781 ways to score a goal

Is every goal unique? The instinct says yes, but one needs only to remember Steven Gerrard to realise that it is possible to make a fine career out of scoring the same three goals over and over. The truth sits somewhere in the boring middle, but it’s undeniable that many goals share similarities, including how they are created. It is this similarity that I set out to explore here. My analysis rest on the notion of possession chains. For every on-the-ball event — such as a goal — it is possible to find the unbroken, ordered sequence of previous events leading to it. This is the idea on which Colin Trainor based his recent article about players’ attacking contributions. My definition of a chain is likely different from his, and too technical to give it in full here, but the broad outline is as follows:

  • I only look at chains terminating in a goal,
  • The events in the chain are strictly consecutive (ie. no intermediate events are excluded),
  • Only actions by the scoring team belong in a chain,
  • A set piece can only be the first event in the chain (ie. we never look past a set piece),
  • Ditto possession regain events (tackle, interception, recovery).

The numerous minor choices I had to make on top of these may mean that the overall definition is so arbitrary that I am unsure how much of what follows is insightful (never mind useful), and how much is just having unwholesome fun with the data. Caveat emptor. The data I looked at was kindly provided by Opta and comprises all games from 2010/11 to 2013/14 in the top divisions of England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany. For every goal I derived the possession chain and grouped identical chains. It turns out that the 50 most common goals look like this:50ways[Yep, that’s a screenshot.] As you can see, by far the most common goal is scored with the team’s first touch in the chain. I think this is partly a testament to the randomness of the game itself, but also to the strictness of the definition of the chain: if a defender manages to get a touch just before an intricate move is about to be crowned with a goal, none of the move will count in the chain. A penalty and a header from a corner complete the top 3. Another summary of the results is provided in the figure below. Apologies for the terse, but hopefully still unambiguous codes for individual events. Note that listed event can occur anywhere in the chain for the goal to be counted, so for example the “head” bar comprises not only the headed goals, but also any goals where there was a headed pass in the move. barsIt turns out that only 64.5% of goals have a completed pass in the buildup (again, under my restrictive definition of buildup). I was delighted to discover that this agrees nicely with the classic analysis of Reep and Benjamin (“Skill and Chance in Association Football” J. R. Stat. Soc. 134(4):623-9, 1968, cited here after The Numbers Game), whose number is 60.6%. A quarter of goals involve a cross (but not necessarily as an assist), and about 1 in 19 see a shot saved before the ball goes into the net. Own goals are 3% of the total. Finally, for the theory minded, here is the distribution of frequencies of individual chains on a log-log scale. It’s tempting to drop some names here (cough Zipf cough), but in truth so many things look linear-ish on a log-log plot that it’s best not to. Perhaps if and when the definition of the chain is made more robust, the distribution plot will be more interesting.distro All data provided by Opta_200px

How low can you go: Assorted thoughts about crosses

Click any graphic to enlarge There is a pass that David Silva and Mesut Ozil, Premier League’s outstanding playmakers, are very fond of. Standing just inside the opposition penalty area close to a corner, with options inside and outside the box, they slip the ball instead to the overlapping fullback who crosses it in. Why do they do this if, as the common wisdom has it, crossing is low percentage play? The obvious answer is that not all crosses are equal, and with good setup play a cross is a dangerous weapon. I think it is particularly true of short, low crosses, precisely the kind Ozil and Silva encourage. I set out to investigate this hypothesis, only to realise that I don’t have a clean way of separating low and high crosses in my database. What follows are two simple analyses trying to work around this problem.

Completion and conversion

Two definitions: I consider a cross completed if the next on-the-ball action is performed by the player from the crossing team. A cross is converted if the crossing team scores within 5 seconds of the cross. This is an arbitrary window, but it should catch all the goals (including own goals) which are “due” to the cross in significant degree. This will include own goals, rebounds and goals from brief goal-line scrambles. Note that conversion and completion are independent in this formulation: a completed cross may be converted or not, and a converted cross needn’t have been completed. I looked at the last four full seasons of the five big European leagues and only considered locations where I have more than 1000 attempted crosses. Unless indicated otherwise, only open-play crosses were considered. conversion completion As expected, the premium crossing area is on the edge of the penalty and inside it (shall we call it the Zabaleta Zone?), where around 5% of crosses are converted. If this sounds low, then consider that the average cross conversion rate is just 1.76%. What was a bit of surprise to me is that it seems to be easier to complete a cross from the wide areas, farther away from the box. I suspect this is due to the fact that with a short cross the area is on average more crowded and who takes the next touch becomes more random. Average completion across all areas is 23.58%.

Crossing and success

There is a weak positive relationship between success (measured in points per game) and the proportion of cross-assisted shots that aren’t headers. (Here assist is taken in the strict sense and not in the sense of conversion defined above.) The correlation coefficient for the attached graphic is 0.43, which drops to 0.32 when Manchester City, the ultimate low-crossing team, are removed. Interestingly, this relationship doesn’t exist in the Bundesliga and Ligue 1. epl_crosses epl_low I don’t want to speculate on the nature of this relationship beyond what Devin Pleuler said on Twitter on Monday: https://twitter.com/devinpleuler/status/519196963129294850 https://twitter.com/devinpleuler/status/519197095887380481 That is, a preference for low crossing will come naturally to better teams. Success and reliance on crosses are inversely related: the higher proportion of a team’s shots come from crosses, the lower points-per-game. The strength of this relationship is similar to the previous, and, once again the effect is not found in Germany or France.


There can be no firm conclusions until I find a way of separating low crosses from the rest. However, it does appear that not all crosses are equal, and that a team that relies heavily on crosses for chance creation should make sure they know what they’re doing.   Data provided by Opta.

Picking the optimal Colombian XI for the World Cup

This article is part of the Goalimpact World Cup series. The Colombian XI was picked by Bobby Gardiner. Bobby regularly writes about a variety of football topics on his own blog and other outlets. To read more from him, follow him on twitter at @BobbyGardiner or have a look at www.falseix.com. The eminently skippable subjective introduction to player ratings and Goalimpact is by Marek Kwiatkowski (@statlurker).   Player analysis is a big deal given the sums spent in transfer fees and player wages. Accurate measurement of players’ actions is now possible in a number of areas thanks to the detailed data collected by companies like Prozone, Opta and Infostrada. But individual output is at best a proxy for performance, and the same has to be true of any player rating built on top of individual action counts. Often there will be players with excellent output who are clearly less valuable than some of their peers with lower output. You could call this effect the Podolski Paradox, only it is anything but a paradox: it is a logical, mundane consequence of the fact that at the low level, football is not bean counting but a complex, non-linear and, above all, densely interlinked dynamical system, where individual events take place in a rich context. Consider for a moment the steps necessary to turn actions into a rating: a single-number performance score for individual players. First, you need to select the relevant actions, and these will be different for different player positions. Incidentally, “position” is not a very well defined concept at all, but we plough on. Now you need to weigh the actions: how many tackles is a key pass worth for a full-back? How about for a forward? Hmmmm. But let’s go on; say we scored all actions separately. Now we need to normalise these scores for various factors such as time spend on the pitch (easy-peasy), quality of opposition (feasible) and opportunity to perform every kind of action (errrrrr). But say we’ve managed to do that, so now it’s time to combine the scores into a single rating. Is it a straight sum, or at least a linear combination? No it isn’t, and so on. The multi-dimensionality and complexity of the game bites you in the ass as soon as you begin and doesn’t give up until you do. In other words, what we need before we can build a robust player rating system based on individual actions is nothing less than a complete theory of football: a set of axioms that would allow us to put a precise value on every action in every context. We often — always — proceed as if such theory were not a prerequisite for bottom-up player evaluation, and as long as we do ad-hoc comparisons and the signal is strong we can get away with it, too; whatever that elusive ultimate theory is, it contains rules like “more goals is better” and “give-aways are bad”. But a comprehensive player rating system developed on such a flimsy basis is guaranteed to be bad — witness the WhoScored ratings, whose chuckle:insight ratio is somewhere in high single digits. Lastly, even if we ever arrived at an apparently robust action-based rating and tied it to real-world outcomes such as wages, chances are it would be gamed by players before you could say “Hang on, Mr Mendes”. But once we free ourselves from thinking in terms of individual actions, a new perspective opens.  Football is a team sport, as the cliché goes, so how about giving equal credit for every goal scored (and equal blame for every goal conceded) to all players on the team, regardless of who scored it, who assisted it, who intercepted the ball for the move and who made the decoy run? This simple, elegant and fair approach is the basis of top-down player ratings, chief among them the Goalimpact, developed by Jörg Seidel. Goalimpact has its weaknesses, but in my opinion is still miles ahead of any other systematic, public player rating scheme. To give you a flavour of Goalimpact, the most recent update (February 2014), has Ronaldo, Lahm, Fabregas, Schweinsteiger and Messi, in that order, as the five best players in the world. I wouldn’t be a lapsing academic if I didn’t use this list as a starting point for a quick overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the model. Ronaldo makes perfect sense and provides basic validation of the model. Lahm is a fantastic pick, highlighting the core strength of top-down ratings: independence from individual output, the scoring of which is as a rule more difficult (or at least less settled) for defenders. By way of strengthening this point: Lahm is not in the top 50 players according to WhoScored, who instead have Wolfsburg’s attacking left-back Ricardo Rodriguez as the 5th best player in the world (good player; no further comment). Messi in 5th seems low, but perhaps it’s a sign that his otherworldly performances over the years should be also credited to his excellent Barcelona teammates? Schweinsteiger on the other hand looks too high, but maybe he is responsible for Bayern’s runaway success — or maybe his position is a signal of an unindentified (by me, as yet) bias in the GI formula. That leaves Fabregas, who can be a poster boy for Goalimpact’s major weakness: a standout player who remains at a level lower than that to which he belongs will be overvalued. This refers to Fabregas’ time at Arsenal, and we also found similar issue with the Goalimpact of the Colombians who made it to the big European leagues being often lower than that of the best players in the Colombian league. Over to Bobby. * * *

Thanks to Jörg Seidel of GoalImpact for the data. If you’re wondering what GoalImpact is/entails, check it out here – http://www.goalimpact.com/p/blog-page.html (or, indeed, scroll up –ed).

After a sixteen year wait, Colombia are returning to the World Cup Finals. Inspired by a ‘golden generation’, Los Cafeteros have risen to 5th in Fifa’s World Rankings and given their notoriously passionate fan-base cause for genuine hope. Their first obstacle is escaping unscathed from what is possibly the most even of Rio’s groups – Greece, Côte D’Ivoire and Japan join them in C.

The XI crafted from GoalImpact scores alone:


This particular set up is quite far off a likely XI, probably due to a combination of old defenders (Perea, Yepes and Mosquera are all in their 30s and in Pekerman’s squad) and a lot of players in the Colombian League. That isn’t to criticise GoalImpact as a measurement, though, as we all know that players aren’t always picked or not picked based on ability and/or output alone (ask Samir Nasri or Carlos Tevez). Context is needed, and so I’ll somewhat systematically rifle through each area of the team:


In between the posts, David Ospina of Nice is likely to start. His GI of 92.6 is quite noticeably lower than the 123.67 of Faryd Mondragon, but he is 17 years younger and fast establishing himself as Colombia’s first choice keeper. They’ll be joined in the squad by the uncapped Camilo Vargas (102.78).

Oscar Murillo (110.46) and Alejandro Bernal (110.78), both of Atletico Nacional in Colombia, failed to make Pekerman’s initial 30 man squad and so are out of contention.

Pablo Armero (116.39), recently on loan at West Ham, is likely to start at LB while PSV’s Santiago Arias (94.5) should take up the other full back spot. The young right back may have been capped just 4 times by his country but he is only 22 and has been linked with the likes of Manchester United recently.

I’m not sure what the oldest centre back pairing at a WC is, but if Luis Perea (93.92) and Mario Yepes (40.97) start together as they did in Colombia’s most recent friendly against Tunisia, their combined 72 years may just break that record. Although their GIs (especially Yepes’) are very low, their peak GoalImpact scores are 123.67 and 138.33 respectively and so an experience vs current output trade-off may be Pekerman’s thinking here. I would personally start AC Milan’s Cristian Zapata (102.17) over Yepes. At 27, he’s not far off his peak but still possesses the necessary experience for the occasion.


The general rule of thumb with the Columbian team is the more you push into the attack, the higher the quality of the players. Sadly, Diego Arias (110.86) will not play a part in Rio – like his aforementioned Atletico Nacional teammates, he failed to make the provisional squad.

If you didn’t know who Fredy Guarin (115.04) is, you probably did come January after a frankly confusing transfer fiasco with his club Internazionale and a whole host of English and Italian clubs. In the end the talented all-rounder stayed and he is extremely likely to start in Rio. One of Abel Aguilar of Toulouse (94.08), Elche’s Carlos Sanchez (92.35) or Monarcas’ Aldo Ramirez (93.6) will probably start next to him at centre-mid. I’d go with Aguilar myself. In terms of GI, there’s almost no difference between the three, but the first two are a tad more defensively minded than Ramirez while Aguilar edges it over Sanchez because of his ability to (albeit occasionally) score.

James (pronounced Ha-Mez) Rodriguez (122.87) is one of my favourite players in the world. At 22, he is quickly becoming the perfect combination of dangerous pace and brilliant creativity; managing an extremely healthy NPGA90 of 0.65 this season at Monaco. A lot of attention directed towards the Columbian team will focus on his Monaco teammate, but keep an eye on the man likely to start as a winger but equally adept in a 10 role. On the opposite flank, Juan Cuadrado (106.87) is my choice. An extremely important part of Fiorentina’s attack this season, the skilful winger has improved tremendously in terms of efficiency with a NPGA90 of 0.52. If Pekerman wants a more central attacking midfielder, Macnelly Torres (116.13) is almost a certainty for the squad. Although now plying his trade at Al-Shabab in Qatar, the quirkily named creator is renowned and feared in South America for his trickery.


To be honest, the shape of Columbia’s attack is entirely dependent upon the fitness of one man – Radamel Falcao, whose GoalImpact score is the highest of any of the squad at 131.46. Any ‘golden generation’ comments or ‘dark horse’ bets are almost entirely focused on him. Seen by many as one of the best strikers in the world, his race to fitness has encouraged Pekerman enough to include him in the provisional squad and we all hope that he makes it.

The thing is…it might not be THAT big of a deal if he doesn’t. Before I’m thrown into some kind of metaphorical football taboo dungeon, let’s have a look at Columbia’s other striker options. Jackson Martinez of Porto (119.5), soon-to-be Dortmund’s Adrian Ramos (109.4), Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca (112.46), Luis Muriel of Udinese (105.08) and Cagliari’s Victor Ibarbo (99.52) have all made the provisional squad. That’s an incredible amount of good quality strikers, and Ramos and Bacca especially are coming off the back of very strong seasons with their club sides. As for which of those start if Falcao is out, I’d go with Martinez and/or Ramos depending on the formation. Both are adept target men, but deceptively good with their feet and I think they’d provide the best outlet to James.

My XI, combining context and GI scores:


Formation wise, it’s quite difficult to predict what Pekerman will do. A 4222 type set up helped him through the qualifiers but he was equally reliant on a more defensive 4231 away from home. Against the offensive prowess of Cote D’Ivoire and Japan, the latter might be the better option.

Muriel has been regularly used by club and country as a winger and putting him there allows James to unleash his creativity more centrally. Obviously, if Falcao is fit, he starts either over Martinez or alongside him (or any other one of their billion strikers) in a 4222. The average GoalImpact score of this particular team is 107.60 which is pretty low, but a lot of these players are either young and having their first few good seasons (Muriel, James, Cuadrado) or old and likely to bow out after the World Cup.

‘16’ is an important number for Los Cafeteros in another sense – the furthest they’ve been in a World Cup was the round of 16 in 1990. Maybe, with or without Falcao, Pekerman’s men will be able to better that this summer.

From Awesome to Average to Awful: Goalscoring Stat Distributions

Thanks to Ted Knutson’s work, we know the players with the best attacking output between 2008/09 and 2012/13. (For all the usual reasons I hesitate to say the “best attacking players”.) But his litany of superstars (a few surprise names notwithstanding) says nothing about how we should evaluate the performance of more ordinary players. We know Olivier Giroud isn’t as good as Messi, but can we quantify that gap? And how does he compare to the rest of the field? In short, we need to see how the basic performance metrics are distributed across all players in the game. This is what I’m setting out to do, in what will hopefully be a series of articles. Today, I focus on attacking production, ie. goals and assists. I use two simple metrics that you probably have seen before: non-penalty goals scored per 90 minutes spent on the pitch (NPG90), and non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 minutes (NPG+A90). Ted has already written about the need of discounting penalty goals from analyses and the importance of normalisation by time in the article linked above, so I don’t have to. Naturally, normalisation for other factors, most notably team and opponent strength, would be nice, but I don’t do it since there is no canonical method of doing so. Caveat emptor. The dataset I used consists of players from the five big European leagues, and spans almost five full seasons (full 2008/09 to 2012/13 and 2013/14 until last weekend). For this article I restricted it to the players who can reasonably be termed “attackers”, because I didn’t want the low attacking output of defenders and deeper midfielders to overwhelm the distributions. The actual algorithm used to determine whether a player should be counted is rather complex, and I will not describe it here, except to say that it did not rely on the goal and assist numbers and so didn’t introduce bias. I wouldn’t expect it to be 100% accurate, but the collection of players considered here should contain most forwards, wingers and purely attacking midfielders from my dataset. Playing 900 minutes or more over the course of a season was also required for inclusion in this study. The histograms of NPG90 and NPG+A90 are shown below: hist (NPG90 mean: 0.28, std dev: 0.18; NPG+A90 mean: 0.44, std dev: 0.23) Now, I am not a statistician, but to my eye both distributions resemble the normal distribution, but with the left side thinned out and the left tail chopped off by the boundary. This makes sense intuitively: with the multitude of factors contributing to player’s performance we’d expect it to be normally distributed; and the missing players in the left half are simply those who are not good enough for a team in Europe’s big 5 leagues, and ply their trade elsewhere. Another, and perhaps better way of visualising this data is the cumulative distribution plot: cdf Here we can see for example that to be in the top 20% of attackers in Europe, a player should score at least at the rate of 0.42 goals per 90 minutes, and have a “goal involvement rate” of 0.59 per90 (NB. For a top-class #9, these numbers are not enough — they are biased downwards by all the midfielders in the dataset). We can also see why Arsenal believed in Gervinho, and that Miroslav Klose is not doing badly for a 35 year old. With thanks to Ted Knutson for discussions on this subject. Data collected by Opta-Logo-Final-Cyan.