Copa Libertadores 2021 Final Preview: Flamengo vs. Palmeiras

Flamengo and Palmeiras are the last two winners of the Copa Libertadores, and one of them will again get their hands on the trophy when they meet in the final of the 2021 edition in Montevideo on Saturday. It is the second consecutive all-Brazilian final and one that features representatives from each of its two primary cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Both teams are on course to finish in the top three domestically this season -- although only Flamengo still have a chance of overhauling champions elect Atlético Mineiro -- and while Flamengo have been the better team in terms of both results and the underlying numbers over the course of the campaign, the difference isn’t so great as to think the result of the final is a foregone conclusion. Flamengo are a much more possession-orientated team, building up short from the back and into midfield and dominating the ball in their matches. They hold a 60% share of possession on average -- four percentage points clear of the next team. Palmeiras hover much closer to the 50% mark and are more direct in their approach, with one of the longest average pass lengths in the league. This difference in approach is evident if we look at the zones from which the two teams create most danger. With the help of On-Ball Value (OBV), our new model that values every on-ball action in terms of its positive or negative impact on a team’s likelihood of scoring / not conceding, we can visualise the areas of the pitch from which they generate most value in comparison to the league average. Flamengo are a lot more active through the centre of the pitch and particularly in the interior channels of the attacking midfield line, from where they create the majority of their chances. From the left, the value is added by Giorgian de Arrascaeta's incisive passing and Michael's aggressive carries; from the right, primarily by the passing of striker Gabriel Barbosa. Barbosa, scorer of the two late goals that gave Flamengo their dramatic win over River Plate in the 2019 final, plays as the lone striker in Renato Gaucho's habitual 4-2-3-1 formation and is the club's top scorer in the Libertadores, but he is far from their only goal threat. Flamengo have the best top-line and underlying attacking numbers in Brazil, in addition to averaging 2.75 goals per match in the Libertadores, and Bruno Henrique and Michael have also reached double figures in league play. In terms of advancing the ball into attacking areas, it is the contribution of ex-Atlético Madrid and Chelsea left-back Filipe Luís that stands out. He is much more active in infield areas than the average Serie A full-back -- on the other side of the pitch either Mauricio Isla or the promising Matheuzinho generally play much higher and wider -- and leads both his team and the league in deep progressions (passes or carries into the final third), distance advanced towards goal in the attacking half and once all actions directly related to shots have been stripped out, OBV. At 36, he's still going strong. Ball progression is more evenly split between the two sides of the pitch at Palmeiras, with a mix of carries and passes from Dudu on the left -- second to Filipe Luis in the league in terms of distance advanced towards goal in the attacking half -- allied to the regular forward movements of right-back Marcos Rocha (or his deputy Gabriel Menino). Further back, Luan is among the Serie A central defenders who add most value with their passing according to OBV. The right is, though, undoubtedly their most productive side in terms of chance creation, with the dark red colouration inside the area there on the OBV chart above primarily representing the excursions of Rocha, forward Rony and attacking-midfield drifter Gustavo Scarpa. Scarpa has been Palmeiras' most profile shooter and chance creator in the league this season, with three non-penalty goals and 11 assists to his credit and the league's highest OBV contribution per 90 amongst all players with at least 900 minutes of playing time. But he has seen comparatively few minutes in the Libertadores and is most likely to start the final from the bench. With Luiz Adriano expected to miss out through injury, coach Abel Ferreira is likely to start Rony as the main striker in a formation that could vary between a 4-3-2-1 and 3-4-2-1 depending on the positioning of Felipe Melo, still going at 38. In the league, Rony has spent more time out wide than he did last season, with a consequent effect on his shot volume and goal output, but he is the team's top scorer in the Libertadores, with six goals to his credit -- 0.78 per 90. At the other end of the pitch, there is an even starker difference in approach between the two sides. Flamengo not only defend further away from their own goal than any other Serie A side, but they are also one of the league's most aggressive teams in closing down opponents, particularly so directly after losing possession. Palmeiras, meanwhile, defend marginally deeper than the league average, and are clearly less active defensively in the opposition half. Interestingly, though, both appear equally proficient in converting opposition turnovers into efforts on goal, figuring amongst the Serie A teams who most often shoot and score within 20 seconds of regaining possession. Flamengo and Palmeiras have already met twice in the league this season, with Flamengo emerging victorious on both occasions. They won 1-0 with a dominant performance on the opening day of the season and then 3-1 away from home a couple of months back in what was actually a closer match in terms of chance quantity and quality. Flamengo are again the most probable victors on Saturday, but Palmeiras have already seen off two other Brazilian teams to make it this far, and the reigning champions certainly shouldn't be discounted. The stage is set for an entertaining final.

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Norwich City: Championship Champions in 2020/21

Norwich City are back, promoted as Champions of the Championship for the second time in three seasons to return to the Premier League for the 2021/22 season. Talk of ‘trusting the process’ has been heard numerous times in recent weeks – The Canaries stuck with the same formula that had already earned them promotion in 2018/19; same manager, same principles, same players (mostly).

The dual pursuit of success and self-sufficiency instilled by Sporting Director Stuart Webber came at a sporting cost last season in their Premier League relegation, but having sent Daniel Farke “to war without a gun” in 2019/20 – the highest figure Norwich spent in the summer of 2019 was £750,000 - Farke certainly had the benefit of a full range of weapons in 2020/21. The squad had been refreshed with depth and quality but, more importantly, Norwich retained their best performers from the previous two seasons to lead the charge back to the top flight.

Of the eleven most-used players this season, four were in the eleven most-used in 18/19 (Emiliano Buendía, Tim Krul, Teemu Pukki, Max Aarons) and only three were summer signings: Oli Skipp, Ben Gibson and Jakob Lungi Sørensen. Grant Hanley, Todd Cantwell, Kenny McLean and Mario Vrančić were all less-prominent parts of the 18/19 group but were this time around well ingrained in Farke’s playing style and much more prominent members of the squad.

There’s little doubt that Norwich have been better this time than when they won the league two years ago. The 2020/21 iteration felt more complete as a side, almost entirely down to performing much better defensively than in 2018/19. They scored 18 fewer goals in this campaign, but they conceded 21 fewer across the 46 games as well, nearly half-a-goal-a-game drop-off on their last Championship season.

The improvement at the back can be put down to a few different factors, most of them more refined performances from individuals in executing the gameplan as the underlying numbers remained similar: in 2018/19 Norwich conceded 53 (non-penalty) goals from 47.2 expected goals, in 2020/21 it was 33 conceded from 45.7 expected goals.

But there was more balance to the side now. Kenny McLean and Oli Skipp anchored the midfield and kept the middle of the park on lock to allow the attacking talents to dovetail in advanced areas of the pitch without fear of being hit in transition. Skipp had a particularly stellar season on loan from Spurs, receiving immense credit for his positional sense and tidiness in the midfield and often covering for Max Aarons’ raids down the right wing by preventing the opposition from transitioning down that flank if possession was lost.

If the ball did reach dangerous areas, Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson were almost always there to clean up – Hanley made the most interceptions and the most clearances (both adjusted for possession) of all centre backs in the Championship - and Tim Krul also had a much better season in goal too. After conceding 52 goals from 49 post-shot expected goals in 2018/19, which takes into account the placement of the shot to judge the probability of the goalkeeper making a save, he fared far better in 2020/21 to save Norwich roughly seven goals, conceding 22 goals from 29.2 post-shot expected goals. His Shot Stopping % of 7% - the measure of goals saved above average, as a percentage of shots faced by the goalkeeper – ranked the highest of all Championship goalkeepers this season.

Norwich finished the season with the second-best defensive record and the second-best attacking record, combining for the best goal difference overall. Their attacking game and approach in possession drew the most attention and praise, in-part because of the ease on the eye and in-part because of the elite talent, especially so at Championship level, they had executing it.

The Canaries had more of the ball than any other side in the second tier this season but also moved it into the areas that matter more than anyone else: entering the final third more than any other team, completing the most passes within 20m of goal (Deep Completions), and completing the most passes within the opposition penalty area.

Their short passing and combination play resulted in some wonderful football being played at times, Cantwell and Buendía in particular regularly producing technical quality way above Championship level when tucking into central areas from the left and right flank respectively.

That technique and invention compounded with the intelligent movement of Teemu Pukki resulted in a regular supply line of through balls splitting the opponents' defence. Rarely did a game go by without Norwich getting in behind the opposition, completing 105 through balls for an average of 2.3 per game. For context, the teams with the third and fourth-most through balls in the Championship, Brentford and Bournemouth, completed 108 defence-splitting passes combined.

Of the players to complete the most through balls in the league, three were from Norwich, with Buendía and Vrančić making the top two and Cantwell rounding out the top five just below Harvey Elliott and Callum O’Hare.

Buendía's starting position on the right flank is on teamsheet only. In reality, it's Aarons who'll keep the width when Norwich are in the attacking phase with Buendía tucking into central areas - where he can cause more damage with a greater sight of goal. It's clearly observable when looking at his through balls, only two of which were played from an area wide of the penalty area, the rest coming from a more narrow starting position.

It's also notable how many of those threaded passes were played from deeper areas. These were not typically passes that broke the opposition's deep block, often they were quick and laser-like passes in transition where Buendía and particularly Pukki’s skillsets thrived. After winning the ball in their defensive third, if Norwich could get the ball to Buendía lurking intently in the space between the opposition midfield and defence then it would spell trouble for their opponents, with Pukki playing on the shoulder and poised to make a perfectly timed run in behind.

Buendía’s influence on this Norwich team and the Championship itself was so great that there have been discussions in recent weeks as to whether this has been the greatest individual season ever witnessed in England’s second tier. The quality shown in the final third has been closer to that seen in the Champions League than the Championship, with the Argentine finishing the season on 14 non-penalty goals and 14 assists, backed up by accruing the most xG assisted in the league (13.2) from the most key passes (120).

His influence in the final third bears out in how often Norwich were able to get him on the ball in those areas, with Buendía completing 760 final third passes across the season (19.4 per 90 minutes) and 82 open-play passes into the penalty area (2.1 per 90 minutes). Both were league best numbers, as was the fact that just 8% of his passes in the final third went backwards, a league-best figure amongst Championship attacking midfielders and wingers and a number that illustrates his ability to keep the attack moving towards goal.

That he’s one of the league’s most active defenders is just the cherry on top. The truth is, Buendía very likely would’ve won the Player Of The Season award for his attacking play alone, but his contribution on the defensive end only adds to the mesmeric nature of his performances.

His determination and work rate has landed him disciplinary trouble at times, picking up 2nd yellows for a red card on two occasions this season, but his discipline out-of-possession has been a key part of Norwich’s success, providing support to Oli Skipp and Max Aarons in defending the right flank. Adjusted for possession, given Norwich had more of the ball than any other side this season, Buendía recorded the most pressures of any player in the Championship in 2020/21.

Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without another exemplary season leading the line from Teemu Pukki, playing the role of 20+ goal striker yet again. Pukki’s role in the team remained the same as it always has – lead the press and provide a nuisance when the team's out of possession, make devilish runs and finish lethally when the team's in possession. Following on from earlier, 1-in-5 of Pukki’s shots came after a through ball.

One of the most archetypal forwards in the league, both in role and in attributes, Pukki was behind only Adam Armstrong for the percentage of total touches that are a shot, with 5% of his touches being a shot on goal. The Fin eventually finished third in the goalscoring charts, both with & without penalties, but his expected numbers were ahead of Ivan Toney and Armstrong – Pukki finished with 27.3 expected goals + expected goals assisted, the most in the Championship this season. Deserved champions, the common consensus is that Norwich are much better prepared than last time to attempt Premier League survival next season. A period of uncertainty around whether they can keep their best stars in yet another transfer window will surely ensue, but one thing we can be certain of – the process will remain the same.

Bayern Munich emerge as a true Champions League contender

Let’s talk about the elephant in the Bundesliga title chase room. Bayern München have been good lately. Very, very good. With every first-leg fixture of the Champions League in the books, Der Rekordmeister look like one of the favorites to win the whole darn tournament. How has Bayern — who, mind you, fired their manager in November — transformed into not only the clear Bundesliga title favorite but a Champions League contender as well? Diving into the Statsbomb data shows five significant developments.

Flick has brought back the all-out press

First things first. Let’s remind ourselves that Bayern weren’t bad under the guidance of former manager Niko Kovač. Just… not as good as they've been since Hansi Flick took over.

Comparing the defensive radar of Bayern-with-Kovač in 2019–20 to that of Bayern-with-Flick, there's a clear difference: Bayern have become a much more proactive squad on the defensive side of the ball.

In fact, Flick’s well-oiled press is now downright spectacular. This is the defensive activity map of an active team. The front five in Flick’s 4-1-4-1 formation when out of possession hounds the opposing build-up from the back.

Neuer now seems… fine?

You know what helps, when you opt for an out-and-out hard-pressing defending style? Having an athletic, dependable sweeper-keeper. What helps even more? When said sweeper-keeper regains his world-class form after a horrid, injury-riddled spell that lasted well over a year.

Bayern’s ‘new’ backline under Flick is quite good at forcing the opposition into sub-optimal shots, and Neuer has kept his end of the deal since early November.

Build-up experts spend more time on the ball since their position shifts

The best news for Bayern ever since Flick arrived? That midfield magician Thiago Alcántara has not picked up yet another injury. The Spanish passing specialist has played excellently in recent weeks. Thiago’s splendid form has something to do with his new partner on the defensive side of midfield. Flick’s decision to turn Joshua Kimmich from a full-back — one in a class by himself (with perhaps some room for Trent Alexander-Arnold) — into a full-time sechser (defensive midfielder) was a stupendous choice. Kimmich’s positional awareness, versatility on the ball and tireless work rate gel really well with Thiago’s specific world-class abilities as a silky-smooth ball carrier and passing metronome. 

Bayern’s makeshift backline has also played well of late. David Alaba is now forced to play in a central role, with Niklas Süle out for the season and record summer signing Lucas Hernández slowly recovering from injury. The Austrian is not a Süle-like physical presence, but uses his agility and A-plus closing speed to compensate for his lack of size and brute strength. More importantly, Alaba is class in the build-up. The Austrian all-arounder’s passing ability and ball control give Bayern’s build-up play a truly trustworthy and creative outlet.

Alaba's new role frees up space for sensational full-back prospect

And when things start going your way, they sometimes really go your way. Like, semi-accidentally finding out that an attacking-talent-turned-emergency-defender turns out to be a downright sensational full-back.

Phonzie not only has an amazing backstory (excellently profiled by Joshua Kloke and Raphael Honigstein for the Athletic in December), but also wows with his overall skillset. The Canadian teenager has the dribbling skills that you’d expect from a Bayern winger, the iron lungs of a modern-day wing-back and truly impressive tactical and positional awareness for someone his age.

Lewandowski’s excellent right-hand man

Bayern’s only valid complaint right now is the absence of striker Robert Lewandowski. The Polish striker, the world’s best pure nine for quite some time now, is having the best season of his career, but will be sidelined for a few weeks. I wrote about Lewandowski’s (temporary) succession in last week’s Bundesliga Digest, which you can read here.

But even without Lewandowski, and in addition to the excellent form Thomas Müller has displayed ever since Flick took over, Bayern still have another world-class attacker. Because if we zoom out a little bit, we’d see 2019–20 as the season where Serge Gnabry took the jump from ‘very good player’ to ‘legit star’.

Gnabry breaking out means Bayern won't be lacking for goals as they wait for their superstar centre forward to return. And when he does, they're poised not only to pull away at the top of the Bundesliga, but to challenge deep in the Champions League as well.

StatsBomb Champions League Primer: Lyon vs Juventus and Real Madrid vs Manchester City

Why yes, you can have a little more Champions League as a treat.

Lyon vs Juventus

There are questions about exactly how good Juventus are this season, but they won’t get answered in their Round of 16 match against Lyon. The French side are comfortably the worst team remaining in the tournament and sit in seventh place in Ligue 1. It’s true that their position slightly underrates their underlying numbers, which are the fourth-best in France, but only slightly. There’s nothing wrong with being a pretty good team in Ligue 1 having a slightly down season, but it’s not going to do much for you in the Champions League knockout stages. And it’s not only that they’re not all that good, it’s also that they aren’t all that interesting. For a team that until this year had been tremendous fun, the outgoing transfers are taking their toll. Tanguy Ndombele is no longer running the midfield. Ferland Mendy has been replaced at left back, and Nabil Fekir is gone in attack. There’s only so much attacking talent a team can lose before they start to look like, well, like this. Defensively the side is stable and dependable. They concede only 0.88 expected goals per match, the third-best in the league. They’re admittedly very tough to break down, and they remain steady in a fairly unique way. They counterpress high when they lose the ball deep in enemy territory, and otherwise defend very deep, leaving the entire middle of the field to their opponent's control. Overall there’s nothing precisely wrong with this team, it’s just that there’s nothing about them that suggests they’re going to be difficult for a team like Juventus to handle. Specifically, a team that cedes the midfield is going to be music to Maurizio Sarri’s very Italian ears. Juventus is perfectly happy to simply keep the ball. They have the highest pass percentage in Serie A at 87% and they virtually never play long; only Napoli play the ball shorter on average than Juventus’s average keeper pass length of 30.28. But, despite the fact that they're comfortable keeping the ball, they aren’t particularly aggressive at moving it into the penalty area. Six teams in Serie A play more passes into the box per match than Juventus, and Atalanta, Roma and Lazio all complete more passes per match within 20 yards of their opponent’s goal as well. There are reasons to question whether Juventus’s approach of keeping the ball forever, taking lots of shots (their 17.36 per match is third in the league) but being relatively conservative when it comes to moving the ball into the penalty area is a solid approach against better teams. It leaves them somewhat prone to bombing away from distance with mediocre shots, and their 0.09 xG per shot in Serie A is a decidedly average eighth. But, against Lyon, who won’t bother to contest midfield or try to keep the ball, or do much of anything besides kick it long and drop back and defend, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Real Madrid vs Manchester City

Real Madrid are good. It’s a testament to the turmoil of the last year that this is surprising. Following last season when they sold Cristiano Ronaldo and didn’t replace him, and also tried to replace Zinedine Zidane as manager and failed at that, it seemed like Madrid were going firmly in the wrong direction. But two managers and two-thirds of a season later, Zidane returned and lifted the team back to the top tier of European football. Interestingly, however, that’s not because they’ve replaced Ronaldo’s attacking production. High priced acquisitions Eden Hazard and Luka Jović have failed to make much of an impact this season. Rather Zidane has artfully mixed and matched from a deep pool of attacking wingers while featuring Karim Benzema at striker. But the real master strike from Zidane was compensating for the ageing duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić by easing the latter into a more limited role and featuring the younger and much more active Fede Valverde instead. Valverde’s inclusion in the squad means that, alongside Casemiro, there are now two more rugged midfielders in the side at any given time. This has turned Madrid into the best defensive team in La Liga with only 0.70 xG conceded per match. The question, however, is whether that defense can hold against a Manchester City side that is legitimately one of the best in the world. Lost in the historic nature of Liverpool’s season is the fact that City’s underlying numbers are actually better than the runaway presumed champions. They are an absurd attacking team. The side’s non-penalty xG of 2.21 is testing the outer limits of the possible and is almost an entire half goal better than their closes attacking competitor, Liverpool. This isn’t to say City are perfect. They aren’t quite a vintage Guardiola team, and are vulnerable to the counterattack in a way that the best sides Guardiola has coached over the years have not been. Their defense is still very good; they simply have the ball so much, and are so aggressive at winning it back when they lose it that they concede very few shots. But when counterattacks do happen, they can be exposed. The main question of this match then is how much will Madrid cede possession. City are so high powered that going toe to toe with them is probably a losing proposition, even for a team like Madrid. But, a cagier approach, one which relies on withstanding some degree of pressure before punching back hard, well, that could conceivably work.

StatsBomb Champions League Primer: Napoli vs Barcelona and Chelsea vs Bayern Munich

Two more Champions League games to play today, so let’s get right to it.

Napoli vs Barcelona

Not all struggles are created equal. Barcelona are having a difficult season. They’ve changed managers, their major attacking signing, Antoine Griezmann, has failed to settle, their attacking play looks staid and boring. Things just aren’t going nearly as well as they could be at Camp Nou. Yet they’re also leading La Liga with 55 points, two ahead of Real Madrid. They’ve got the best expected goal total per match in Spain at 1.68 and the third-best xG conceded total at 0.79. So, like, there’s bad for Barcelona, and there’s actual bad, and this season clearly falls into the first category, not the second. Barcelona are the ultimate rates and levels team. The level of their play has been so high for so long, because Lionel Messi is a supernatural artifact bestowed upon us by technologically advanced soccer-loving aliens, that any drop in form seems like the end of the world. But really, they’re still a very very good team. New manager Quique Setien has helped steady the ship. And while he’s brought a somewhat unadventurous possession style to the team, the side's attacking play immediately improved, without much in the way of increased defensive problems. Barcelona’s main issue is still that everything runs through Messi. Five years ago their main problem was that everything ran through Messi, and the situation has only gotten more extreme since then. With Luis Suárez out, his combined goals and assists per 90 minutes are almost double anybody else’s on the team. You’d be tempted to say it’s unsustainable, but, well, it’s Messi. Napoli’s situation is a little more complicated. On the one hand, they’re in sixth place with a goal difference of exactly four. That’s quite the drop for a team that spent years trailing only Juventus in Serie A. On the other hand, their xG difference of 0.55 is the fourth-best in the league and paints them in a considerably better light than their record and place in the table does. Put it all together and you have a Napoli team that is definitely worsening in comparison to seasons past, but not nearly as quickly as their drop down the table suggests. Specifically, from last year to this year the defense has eroded and they've gained little attacking input to compensate. Nothing much has changed under new management. Carlo Ancelotti and his flexible 4-4-2 might have departed for Everton and been replaced by Gennaro Gattuso and a more traditional 4-3-3, but the basic contours of the problem remain exactly the same. Napoli are a pretty good side, but they aren’t as good as they used to be, and they certainly aren’t getting any better. Despite their struggles Barcelona are a significantly better side. When you’re a team that’s getting slowly worse it sure helps to have Lionel Messi.

Chelsea v Bayern Munich

Two months ago a matchup between Chelsea and Bayern Munich might have looked like an opportunity for the English side to pull off a surprising upset. Bayern were in the midst of firing their manager while Chelsea were flying high off surprisingly strong performances from the youth movement who'd finally been given a chance. Then injuries hit Chelsea, Bayern righted the ship and now the task looks monumental for Frank Lampard’s men. Chelsea’s attack has tapered off dramatically. With Christian Pulisic out injured and Tammy Abraham injured, but not quite out, the side’s xG has really come back to earth since the turn of the year. But, despite the attacking struggles, it’s really defensively where the Blues are likely to get exposed against Bayern. Chelsea are a very aggressive defensive side. They don’t know how to sit back and instead want to press from the front and defend in their opponent’s half. At their best they create opportunities for their attacking trio by winning the ball high up the pitch. At their worst they end up playing destabilized football, exposing themselves to opponents who are disciplined enough to hold the ball against them. Bayern are clearly disciplined enough. The side's high-powered midfield often features Joshua Kimmich at the base, and he’s simply a machine at moving the ball up the field without losing possession. The same is true of Thiago, who both advances the ball from deep and moves forward to help orchestrate the attack. It’s possible that a disciplined underdog might cause Bayern problems. Their attacking front line is great, and Robert Lewandowski continues to have an all-timer of a season, smashing goals from the best spots in the world. But, maybe under the right circumstances, with a little bit of luck and a lot of deep defending an underdog could hold them and exploit the German giants on the counterattack. Chelsea under Lampard simply don’t have that club in their bag. In order to win they’re going to need Bayern’s midfield to crack under the pressure they apply. That seems exceedingly unlikely to happen.

Inter's got a shot at the title, but risk it slipping away again

The arrival of Antonio Conte and Romelu Lukaku instantly turned Inter into a contender for the Scudetto. They dropped only 5 points in the first 14 games of the season, then began declining significantly in performance in December. Sunday's loss against Lazio is only their second defeat in the league — they lost to Juventus in October — but 5 draws in the last 10 games cost Antonio Conte's team first place in the standings. Looking at the season as a whole, Inter are 2nd in Serie A for non-penalty expected goals (1.59), far from Atalanta (2.21, 1st), but just slightly above Napoli (1.59, 3rd), Juventus (1.58, 4th) and Lazio (1.55, 5th). They are also strong defensively, with the 3rd best defense according to non-penalty goals conceded (0.99), only behind Atalanta (0.96, 2nd) and Juventus (0.85, 1st). Despite the latest results, nothing is absolutely lost, as Juventus only have a three-point advantage and Lazio two points, but while there are still 14 games left to play, the trend is not positive for the Nerazzurri. Inter probably benefited from variance, despite Romelu Lukaku’s and Lautaro Martínez’s observed numbers matching those expected. As a team, their non-penalty goal difference of 0.96 is 1.6 times greater than their non-penalty xG difference of 0.60. The gap between the two values has been growing since December; Inter managed to maintain a strong goal difference but their non-penalty goal difference collapsed. Excluding penalties, in the last 10 games, they averaged a goal difference of 0.80 but an xG of 0.30.  Over the first 14 games, Inter maintained an average non-penalty xG of 1.75 and non-penalty xG conceded of 0.93. In the last 10 games played, offensive production dropped to 1.34 xG, while the defense declined to an average of 1.07 xG conceded. The non-penalty xG difference has therefore dropped by 64% (from 0.82 to 0.30). With their performances now 7th best in the league, it's no wonder they've lost the lead. Inter are also now having difficulty creating chances, as their opponents have found useful strategies to limit them. Inter's offensive game is not highly sophisticated, based on recurring passing patterns and the ability to create chances for its two extraordinary attackers. To give you a concrete example, in an interesting interview with El País' Diego Torres, Atalanta's Papu Gomez explained how they faced Inter: 

Inter had only one move: they played out from the back moving the ball from the center-back to the wing-back, who played a first touch pass to the forwards, Lukaku and Lautaro. One of them was used as a target man, while the other one dropped back to collect the ball, defend it and make his team advance. We man-marked their strikers with our center-backs: we were aware that it was risky, but we also knew that in that way we were able to limit them and create opportunities every time we recovered the ball.

Of their defensive metrics, their aggression coefficient (which measures the proportion of an opponent's passes that are aggressively pressed) dropped from 74th to the 7th percentile) and their passes per defensive action dropped from the 95th to the 34th percentile.  Since December, the decline has been dramatic and Inter, who were among the best teams in the league with a PPDA value of around 7.5, can no longer suppress the opponent's plays as effectively as in the first part of the season. In the last 10 games, their average PPDA was 10.89, a value similar to that of teams struggling not to get relegated, like SPAL and Sampdoria. It's also near that of Lazio, but they have a different style of play, often deliberately trying to leave the ball to their opponents to open up spaces to attack in transition. It's not easy to say whether this trend is caused by a different strategic attitude implemented by Conte, considering how many times he's stressed the importance of balancing a roster that in his opinion lacks depth. It could simply the drop of form the manager feared, as 12 players have played about 75% of the total minutes available. The decrease in intensity is easy to see by looking at the last few matches, in which Inter have neither managed to create chances consistently nor to limit their opponents (especially against Lazio), which contrast sharply with their form at the beginning of the season. What matters is that the significant PPDA decline coincides with an equally steep decline in performance as measured once again by non-penalty xG difference. The decline of Marcelo Brozović, who previously looked like an elite performer, is emblematic. The Croatian is no longer able to provide the creativity he offered earlier, nor is he reliable playing as a holding midfielder in front of the defense, as evidenced from the wildly different output in terms of possession adjusted interceptions and tackles. Inter have no alternative but to hope that Brozović will return to his original level of performance and again provide creativity to a stagnating side. Conte is in a tough situation. In addition to going without Samir Handanović at least for one more match, it's likely the team's drop in intensity in the defensive phase is due to the players’ fitness. And there's little chance of recovering, not least because the team is still competing in the Europa League and faces Napoli in the second leg of the semifinals of the Coppa Italia. On the offensive side, much will depend on the incorporation of Christian Eriksen in the starting XI. In Thursday's Europa League game against Ludogorets, playing as number 8, he positively shone, scoring a goal and causing the penalty converted by Lukaku. Stefano Sensi was the best Nerazzurri player at the beginning of the season, and had the highest values in xG buildup (0.96) and xG chain (1.04); however, he's been out with injury. Eriksen, an elite Premier League playmaker during his years at Tottenham, could be an upgrade over Sensi, but he must immediately step into his new role in the league as well as Europe. Together with Lazio, Inter are in a position that hardly any teams have enjoyed in the recent seasons of Juventus' domination. They have a shot at the title and must keep fighting for it until the last match of the season. But to keep fighting they need to improve. And to improve quickly.

La Liga roundup: Villarreal's ups and downs, Suso at Sevilla, Barcelona's unique goal kicks and more

Villarreal’s topsy-turvy season, Suso at Sevilla, Barcelona’s unique short goal kicks, and Messi’s scoreless streak. It’s all here in this week’s roundup of the action in La Liga.

Villarreal’s inconsistent campaign

Villarreal are having a strange season. They’ve had top-six underlying numbers since the early running but only as of this week held a position inside the top six. With penalties removed from the equation, their goal and expected goal differences match up almost exactly, but the relationship between them has been far from linear.


Villarreal La Liga Trendlines (2)


Javi Calleja’s side are in the midst of their best run of form of the season. Saturday’s 2–1 win over Levante was their sixth in their last eight matches. But this is actually their second-worst eight-match streak in terms of xG difference. Their best, between matchdays two and nine, yielded six fewer points. They seem to be getting results on the board despite worsening, yet still good, underlying numbers.

They’ve also made some fairly dramatic changes to their approach as the campaign has gone on. As these comparison radars between their first and second 12 matches show, they’ve become more direct in the way in which they get the ball forward, are entering the box via crosses more often than before and have upped their shot count at the expense of overall quality, albeit while creating a greater number of clear shots (through one-on-ones with the goalkeeper).


Villarreal-La Liga-


On the defensive side, they’ve become demonstrably more aggressive, pushing their back line up, more regularly contesting possession and becoming less easy to get off shots against in transition. Lower shot volume is offset by increased quality.


Villarreal-La Liga- (1)


Villarreal are slightly worse off at both ends of the pitch compared to their first 12 matches, but maybe there is something in this adjusted style that is more conducive to getting results on a match-by-match basis? Or maybe they are just enjoying a bit of good fortune?

Yet the distribution of penalties for and against has played a fairly significant role. During the first couple of months of the campaign, they twice dominated away matches only to come away pointless after conceding two penalties on each occasion in defeats to Levante and Mallorca. Their current eight-match run has included three penalties scored and none conceded.

It's unclear how this will ultimately shake out. Villarreal could finish anywhere between third and eighth and any of those outcomes wouldn't feel particularly surprising. Sunday’s match away to Atlético Madrid might just go a fair way toward calibrating their possibilities.

Can Suso reignite stuttering Sevilla?

The race for the top four has tightened considerably over the course of the last 10 matches, with Getafe in third and Real Sociedad in eighth separated by just five points. Sevilla are one of the losers. After taking 1.93 points per match from their first 14 fixtures, they're at just 1.3 per match thereafter, the ninth-best record in the league for that time. Two weeks ago, they lost the top four place they’d held since mid-November.

This despite the fact there's been no material difference in their performances. Their average goal and xG differences remain fairly steady. It’s just that the distribution of those goals now more often results in draws and defeats.

It is the sort of thing likely to right itself. Sevilla are, after all, running about five goals behind expectation. But with their advantage eroded, and other comparably good teams now surrounding them, they can’t afford to just sit around and wait.

Sevilla have suffered from a relative lack of firepower all season. Julen Lopetegui has often been quick to make changes to shore things up once they have the advantage, aware that further goals might not necessarily arrive.

This is the situation the club sought to rectify in January. They first added a quick and direct threat to their attack with the €20 million signing of Youssef En-Nesyri from Leganés. Then, at the end of the window, they committed a further €20 million to the eventual purchase of Suso at the end of his 18-month loan from Milan.

Suso made his second start in Sunday’s 2–2 draw at home to Espanyol and showed off the skills he brings to the side. Swift and creative, he looks a player capable of returning some of the spark Sevilla lost when Pablo Sarabia left for Paris Saint-Germain last summer.

By his own standards, the 26-year-old wasn’t having the best of seasons at Milan.


Suso-Serie A-2019_2020


But he still comfortably led Serie A in open play passes into the box. That ability to find teammates in advantageous positions was on clear display on Sunday. Suso provided the assist for the first goal, headed home by Lucas Ocampos, and slipped two nice passes into the area for En-Nesyri to get off shots. All in all, he successfully moved the ball into the area on six occasions.


IQTactics_Events_Suso_Sevilla__2020-02-16 - 2020-02-16


And just as Sevilla seemed likely to come away with nothing, Suso produced his trademark strike, stepping it off the right onto his favoured left foot and firing a low effort into the corner from the edge of the area.

No side in La Liga have been as reliant on crosses as a means of creating shots as Sevilla are this season, and Suso provides a pair of headline attributes that will help vary that. He also gives a more natural and symmetrical shape to their attack, with both him and Ocampos (now on the left) moving infield onto their favoured side to get off shots and provide space for the two full-backs, so important as attacking outlets in Lopetegui’s system, to advance outside.

But will it be enough to get Sevilla back into the Champions League places?

Barcelona’s short goal kicks, and Messi’s goal drought

Two minutes into Barcelona’s 2–1 win at home to Getafe on Saturday, central defender Samuel Umtiti pushed the ball into place before playing a short goal kick to his goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen. He, in turn, took four touches forward before pinging a low pass through the centre of the pitch to Antoine Griezmann.

It was the first of six goal kicks taken that way, from central defender to goalkeeper, during the match — three by Umtiti, three by Gerard Piqué.


IQTactics_Sequence_Barcelona_For__2020-02-15 - 2020-02-15


It was a strange sight, a reversal of the usual order. But when your goalkeeper is as good a passer as ter Stegen, perhaps the play makes sense. It removes a pass from the normal pattern of goalkeeper to defender, defender back to goalkeeper, followed by the goalkeeper’s pass forward, and gives him more time to receive and assess his options before opposition pressure arrives.

It wasn’t the first time Barcelona have performed that routine since Quique Setién took charge. They also did so five times against Levante. It is, though, something unique to them. Across the top five European leagues this season, 49 goal kicks have been taken by outfield players; only Barcelona’s have had a goalkeeper as the recipient.

Elsewhere at the Camp Nou, Lionel Messi is on a four-match scoreless streak in the league — his longest in over six years. It’s probably nothing to worry about — he’s provided six assists in that time and is still getting himself into scoring positions on a regular basis.


Lionel Messi La Liga 2019_2020 (2)


It just looks like one of those runs every player goes through from time to time. Even Messi.

Header image courtesy of the Press Association

StatsBomb Champions League Primer: Tottenham Hotspur vs RB Leipzig and Atalanta vs Valencia

The Champions League rolls on and so do our previews.

Tottenham Hotspur vs RB Leipzig

Spurs are running desperately low on shots. It’s not just Harry Kane, now Son Heung-min is also sidelined. Although José Mourinho might have some tricks up his sleeve, to us mortals his sleeve seems to hold only Lucas Moura, Dele Alli, Erik Lamela and Steven Bergwijn as natural front four players, though Ryan Sessegnon, Giovani Lo Celso or Tanguy Ndombele could theoretically be pushed up the field. Regardless, none of those players are particularly prolific shooters. Lamela and Moura are both at the top of the list, though Lamela’s 2.21 shots per 90 minutes are from extremely limited minutes while Moura’s are simply not an impressive return for a player who has spent significant minutes functioning as a striker. Bergwijn hasn’t yet played 600 minutes for Spurs, so he doesn’t make the chart, but he was at 2.19 per 90 in the easier Eredivisie with PSV Eindhovern. It’s possible that Spurs will be ably to get by simply by spreading all the shots around, but that’s a pretty big ask against a very good RB Leipzig team. Of course, Mourinho has experience scuttling more talented teams in the Champions League. Perhaps the most relevant place to look for inspiration is the first year of his second stint with Chelsea. He reached the semifinals of the Champions League despite the fact that the only two true strikers at his disposal were a mostly washed out Samuel Eto’o and a mostly injured Fernando Torres. So, Spurs fans can take heart that stranger things have, in fact, happened. If Mourinho’s history is any guide, he will attempt to muddy up the game and nip a goal on the counter, first and foremost denying control of the midfield to Leipzig. If that fails, he'll hope his side will be able to absorb sustained pressure. For Leipzig this likely means they’ll have to find alternate avenues to get into dangerous positions. Luckily for them, they have Timo Werner. It’s not just his obvious goal-scoring ability, but the fact that he’s equally superb at providing an outlet on the wings to receive the ball and turn and run in space. Here are all the successful passes played from Leipzig’s own half that Werner's received in the opposition half. Don’t be surprised if Spurs work hard to take away Leipzig’s ability to combine in midfield, forcing the German side to turn toward springing Werner over the top and in behind Spurs right back Serge Aurier. It’s nice when you can rely on a player who is both an expert goal scorer and an elite ball mover on the wing.

Atalanta v Valencia

Valencia has a longer Champions League pedigree than Atalanta; they’ve been in the competition five times in the last decade (though they've only made it to the knockout rounds twice, and never past the first round). Meanwhile, this is Atalanta’s first trip down this long and treacherous road. That, however, fundamentally masks the nature of this matchup. This Atalanta team is simply much better than this Valencia side. In Serie A this season Atalanta sit comfortably in fourth. They might be significantly behind the top three, 12 points off first place Juventus and 9 behind third-place Inter Milan, but the side’s stats suggest they are good enough that in other years they’d be in contention for the Scudetto. In fact, Atalanta has by far the best non-penalty xG difference in Serie A. Most impressively, Atalanta have added a strong defense to the attacking juggernaut that carried them to the upper reaches of the table over the past few seasons. Only Juventus have a stingier record when it comes to xG conceded. This isn’t the profile of a team that is just be happy to be here. Rather, Atalanta look prepared to dispatch a much weaker opponent as they gear up for stiffer challenges deeper in the tournament. In part, that’s because Valencia are simply not a good side at the moment. They sit seventh in La Liga, tied with Villarreal on 38 points, but the stats suggest that position strongly flatters them. They have one of the worst non-penalty xG differences in the league. The side’s attack is average, but on defense they are simply absolutely terrible, the second-worst team in La Liga in xG conceded. This is, uh, not a sustainable defensive approach. Valencia take dropping deep and defending their own penalty area to extremes. They manage to not give up many truly dangerous shots, holding opponents to below 0.10 xG per shot on average. However, they simply give up one too many attempts — even if those attempts are mediocre — conceding almost 15 shots a game on average, the second-most in La Liga. Giving an elite attacking side like Atalanta carte blanche to attack the penalty area is not likely going to end well for this Valencia team. Sports are awesome and unsure and no result is guaranteed, but what is overwhelmingly likely is that Atalanta are going to take the game to Valencia, and Valencia will have to hold on for dear life and hope for an unlikely chance to steal some points against the run of play.

StatsBomb Champions League Primer: Atlético Madrid vs Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund vs Paris Saint-Germain

The Champions League is back. With four games on the slate this week, let’s take a quick around a few salient statistical things likely to be happening on the pitch.

Atlético Madrid v Liverpool

Atléti hasn’t struggled as much this season as the narrative surrounding them might suggest. And while Liverpool are one of the favorites to win the Champions League (again) their performances also haven’t quite lived up to their otherworldly return (though, really, could any team in history have ever gone on such an extreme winning run as Liverpool without a nice heaping dollop of luck scooped on top of a truly great team?). In theory, this match should be a closer one than it might seem on paper. Digging into the stats, however, shows two teams whose numbers line up in a curious way. One of the mysteries of Liverpool’s season has been just how good they’ve been at set pieces. From direct and indirect free kicks, as well as throw-ins and corner kicks, they've scored 12 goals from 7.04 expected goals. Again, in theory, it's true that tight execution and well-conceived set-piece design can let a team run a bit ahead of expectation on set pieces, but figuring out exactly how much of Liverpool’s achievement is an accurate reflection of execution versus a sprinkling of good fortune is devilishly difficult Similarly, even if we attribute a slice of those goals to being excellent at what they do, historically speaking, it's just a matter of time before defenses adjust and Liverpool’s edge will have to be generated anew from different strategies. Most years, you’d expect this Liverpool strength to be countered by Atlético Madrid’s own strength. After all, a big rugged defense and strong set-piece defending are Diego Simeone's calling card. However, that's not been the case this season. In fact, Atléti have conceded nine times from set pieces this season. On the one hand, that number isn’t quite as bad as it seems. They’ve only conceded 6.86 xG, so there’s some bad luck hovering above them (though even that 6.86 figure is a disappointing total for a Simeone side). On the other hand, a whole heck of a lot of that bad luck seems to fall directly at the hands (and feet, and incredibly long arms) of superstar keeper Jan Oblak. Despite his formidable track record, Oblak is having a relatively poor season — he's allowed two more goals than an average keeper would given the shots on goal he’s faced. Break out the set pieces and something even more surprising jumps out. Oblak is his usual stellar self during open play, but he’s conceded a whopping 4.29 goals more from set pieces more than expected from an average keeper. How much of that is a true reflection of his poor play and how much is a knock-on effect from a team struggling to defend is up for debate. Either way, it’s an eye-popping number Ultimately a match with two strong defensive sides means this tie could well come down to set pieces. And, if so, Liverpool will likely have the edge.

Borussia Dortmund v Paris Saint-Germain

These two teams are excruciatingly difficult to analyze in the proper context. Stats rely on aggregates and there are reasons to believe the aggregate totals of both PSG and Dortmund are not necessarily an accurate reflection of where they are in the current moment. Dortmund have recently undergone a tactical evolution. More than ever they’re playing like a prototypical Lucien Favre side, mixing conservative possession with moments of quick attack into space. It also helps that they have the best two teenagers in the world in Jaden Sancho and Erling Håland, both of whom are playing with the amp turned up to 11. Since returning from the midseason break, Dortmund have yet to score fewer than three goals in a match, though they’ve also faced relatively easy opponents. Their only match against a side in the top half of the table was a 4–3 loss away to Bayer Leverkusen. The question is whether  Dortmund will be able to maintain their improved attacking statistics against top-level competition or whether the numbers of the last six weeks can be attributed to a weak schedule. If they can exploit the openings PSG will likely leave them, then occasionally they'll manage to hang with the favored side. PSG, on the other hand, face the same problem season in and season out. They are simply so much better than other Ligue 1 teams that it is impossible to get a true impression of how they will fare against stronger competition. Dortmund are at least the second-best team PSG have played this season (depending on how you interpret Dortmund’s form now and Madrid’s form at the beginning of the year, arguably they’re the best). On the other hand, as always, PSG has Kylian Mbappé putting up these numbers, And Neymar putting up these numbers. Thomas Tuchel runs a team that wants the ball, needs the ball and uses the ball in midfield to create great chances for the side’s superstars in the box. They aren’t obsessed with taking a lot of shots, but they are obsessed with taking the best ones. If things go wrong it will be because Dortmund manage to thwart that plan by counterattacking into the space that PSG’s extensive and highly aggressive possession leaves available. If PSG’s domestic season is any indication they will be just fine. This attacking radar simply outweighs any concerns. The problem is that it's simply been so long since PSG has faced competition the caliber of Dortmund that it's hard to weigh how meaningful that awesome radar is. While PSG's numbers suggest Dortmund shouldn't beat them, it's quite possible those numbers aren't reliable.

Are the Foxes at risk of getting caught? 

After a scintillating start to the season Leicester City have hit a rough patch in the race for the top four. And as results have worsened, so have the team's metrics. Back in August, when some felt Leicester might rip apart the top six, nobody could have imagined it would be this easy. Even Wolves and Sheffield United have kept up with Manchester United and Tottenham, while keeping Arsenal in the rearview mirror, and Leicester have long set their sights higher than just stalking the Champions League spots. Earlier, a spot in the top four did seem to be almost a formality. But that is no longer the case. Having started out with draws against Wolves and Chelsea, Leicester went on a run of 12 wins in 14 league games to storm into second place. By the second week of December, their only defeats had been at Manchester United (1–0) and Liverpool (2–1). They were on a run of eight wins in a row. They had shipped 10 goals, the fewest in the division. The Foxes were 14 points clear of United in fifth. Anyone who kept half an eye on the stats knew Leicester were exceeding the metrics, but had no idea when they would begin to slow down, or, when they did, how badly would they struggle. But the Great Leicester Run stopped on 14 December with a 1–1 draw at home to Norwich, and the team now have just three wins in nine. Their efficiency and their underlying metrics have both declined. During the first 16 games Leicester had a goal difference of 1.81 per game with an expected goal difference of 0.81. To exceed that metric by a goal per game over such a long period is unusual. Since then they have had a goal difference of -0.11 with an xG difference of -0.24. Even in hard times, Leicester have managed to outperform their metrics. Yet the falloff spells trouble. Any analysis of why Leicester are wobbling must begin with Jamie Vardy. The striker had a hot streak in autumn, scoring 13 goals from an xG of 8.48 (penalties excluded). That kind of efficiency is hard to maintain for anyone not named Lionel Messi (and usually for people named Lionel Messi, too), and Vardy has since lost his sharpness, scoring once from an xG of 1.50. Just in case anyone doubted whether his fortunes really had changed, Vardy missed a penalty at Burnley just before the Clarets struck the winner. And Vardy is not only missing chances, he's getting fewer of them. The same goes for Leicester as a team. While they produced few big chances in their first games, they did face strong teams during that spell and still managed to exceed their metrics. When the schedule got easier, they took off. Since then two things have happened. First, they've stopped playing way ahead of their xG. Second, the underlying metrics have themselves nosedived. What happened? Given what we know about Vardy, it feels natural to begin this exploration by examining the attack. Brendan Rodgers made only minor changes to his set-up, benching the odd out-of-form player and alternating between a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond. They've had no major injuries; while Vardy has missed two games, Leicester have won them both. Neither personnel nor tactics offer any clear answer as to why the attack has worsened in almost every aspect. The standout metric here is the shots after counter-attacks. You would think teams would've have wised up to Vardy’s runs in behind the defence. Yet in a spell where Leicester spends less time in the lead, it would make sense if opponents defend deeper to protect their leads. In any case, the attack is not been the biggest problem for Leicester. Before the Norwich draw they had conceded two goals in seven league games. They've now shipped 16 goals in 9 games. And as for the defensive metrics, well… Where to start? The fixtures offer some consolation: during this spell Leicester have played City at the Etihad, plus Liverpool, Chelsea and a galvanised Southampton. Yet two matches against West Ham and a rout of 10-man Newcastle should have provided some balance. There have been no significant injuries in defence, although midfielder Wilfred Ndidi was sidelined in January due to a knee operation and has started none of the last five league games. His absence has surely played a part, given his defensive output. Still, a collective decline of this scale cannot be down to one player. Going back to the radar of horror, two metrics have declined more than others. One is set-piece xG conceded, which has jumped from 0.17 to 0.38 per game. Leicester have conceded four set-piece goals in their last nine games, based on an xG of 3.64 and 27 shots. Not good. The other metric is xG per shot conceded, which has increased from 0.09 to 0.13. If we look at the shots Leicester allowed from close range during their golden autumn, hardly any took place inside the six-yard box. Such was their aerial dominance and ability to stop crosses that they did not have to block a single shot inside this area. Since then, however, Leicester have given up a slew of shots from within six yards. Time will tell whether Leicester will halt this wobbly spell. In any case, it looks unlikely to derail their season given they're 10 points clear of fifth place. After upcoming games against Wolves and City, they have four matches they're expected to win. None of their top-four rivals are showing signs of putting together a decent run, and should one of them suddenly get it together, Chelsea would surely be the first team to get caught. Rodgers will surely be thankful that, in this particular season, stable form is not the norm but the exception.

Serie A's busy January transfer window is not just about Zlatan

According to Transfermarkt, Serie A clubs spent €214.35 million during the January transfer window, a record that blew apart the €153.90 million spent just a year ago. Four clubs alone (Napoli, Inter, Fiorentina, and Juventus, who only bought Parma’s sensation Dejan Kulusevski) invested about 70% of that amount. But let's take a look at the teams that have made moves that should be relevant to the outcome of this season and, perhaps never as much as before, to future ones.

AC Milan

AC Milan’s January market campaign marked an important transition; they sold two of the most important players in the squad, Krzysztof Piątek and Suso, and continued with the cost reduction policy they adopted last summer. To make a long story short: five first-team players left and five less expensive and/or more suitable players arrived. The club made a €24 million profit. To replace the Polish forward, who left for Herta Berlin for a fee of €27 million, came none other than superstar free agent Zlatan Ibrahimović. At 38, his return is definitely considered a short-term boost, but one that has had an extremely positive effect on AC Milan's season; they collected 11 points in the first 5 games after his return, before losing to Inter in the Milan Derby. The club adopted a completely different strategy to replace Suso, who went to Sevilla on loan with an obligation to buy on the fulfillment of certain conditions that have not been officially disclosed. 20-year-old Alexis Saelemaekers came in on loan from Anderlecht with a right of purchase after this season. Like Suso, he is a right-winger, but compared to the Spaniard he is equally skilled with both feet, and can also play as a fullback.  He was one of the best dribblers in the Belgian first division, and despite not being a household name like Ibra, he's a good prospect that can potentially be a strong alternative to both Ante Rebić and Andrea Conti.  Chief football officer Zvonimir Boban and technical director Paulo Maldini offloaded Ricardo Rodríguez and Pepe Reina and replaced them by bringing in Asmir Begović on loan and calling back Diego Laxalt from Torino. Finally, after a series of injuries that compromised his career at AC Milan, Mattia Caldara returned to Bergamo where he had done so well, while Simon Kjaer, barely played by Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini, took the opposite route.


Napoli's Serie A season is now seriously compromised, if not already over, and Aurelio De Laurentiis' club's winter campaign is just the preamble to an upcoming revolution that will be carried out in the summer. Carlo Ancelotti, who preferred a fluid 4-4-2, was replaced by his former player Gennaro Gattuso. The former AC Milan coach immediately shifted to 4-3-3, but with only four midfielders on the roster, he requested the arrival of two reinforcements. Sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli brought in both Diego Demme and Stanislav Lobotka. Demme, named after Napoli legend Diego Maradona, contributed immediately, offering stability to his new team’s build-up play. Albeit from a very small sample (2.7 90s), he is the Napoli player with the highest xG build-up.  He also immediately put his engine to work to help the team's defense, offering Gattuso another midfielder with ball-winning potential besides Allan, who has played a minor role this season and could leave in July, as could Fabián Ruiz. Considering they paid just €12 million (plus bonuses), Demme is a great purchase for a Napoli team desperate for a midfielder of his kind. On the other hand, the signing of Lobotka, for which they paid a starting fee of €20M, plus €4 million in potential bonuses — pretty much double the price of Demme — isn't as impressive. During the last two seasons at Celta Vigo, Lobotka clearly has not developed into a better player, nor does he represent an upgrade on the rest of their midfielders. If Napoli were looking for a number 8 able to consolidate possession, Lobotka fits the profile, but for that amount of money, they could have found better alternatives next summer. Napoli also signed Inter’s Matteo Politano for €25 million. The Italian winger is potentially a replacement for both José Callejón and Dries Mertens, who at this point seem sure to leave, but in reality, his profile is more that of a lite Lorenzo Insigne. If we look at his 2018–19 output (Conte barely used him this season), he's just about average at dribbling, tends to shoot the ball often (you can decide if this is a positive for a winger) and is quite good at creating chances for his teammates. His spell at Inter was not particularly positive and it remains to be seen if playing on the opposite side of Insigne will enhance or hinder his play. As the icing on the cake, Napoli also purchased Hellas Verona centre back Amir Rahmani and SPAL striker Andrea Petagna for a combined fee of €31 million, but despite being potentially useful to the struggling side, they were both loaned back to their former teams until next season.


From September onwards Antonio Conte has not missed an opportunity to stress how weak he believes the depth of his roster was, ensuring those higher up knew of his displeasure. He was basically looking forward to new players coming in the January window. Considering the limited resources available due to FFP, CEO Giuseppe Marotta and technical director Piero Ausilio did their utmost, bringing in Ashley Young, Victor Moses and, most importantly, Christian Eriksen. Commenting on the arrivals of the two Brits, Conte said 'They are certainly not two Real Madrid starters', but their transition to Italian football should be quick, considering that wingback is the easiest role to play in his 3-5-2 (a clear blow to Valentino Lazaro, who was supposed to be the first choice in the role, but was loaned to Newcastle after six difficult months). Thus far they fit quite well, with one assist each already.  Compared to the €23 million paid for Lazaro, both are low-risk investments: Young signed a six-month contract after leaving Manchester United on a free, while Moses was brought in from Chelsea on a six-month loan deal with an option to buy. And then there's Eriksen, the most exciting transfer of the window, whom they financed by selling Politano to Napoli. Surely one could argue whether paying €20 million in January for a player available for free in June is a smart move, but it's certain that Inter brought in a high-profile midfielder outmaneuvering potential competitors. Although he doesn't have an obvious role in Conte's 3-5-2 and he played as attacking midfielder in the only game he started in Serie A so far, he could be the high-level creative number 8 that Inter desperately need so the forwards don't need to rely on their own ability to create a high volume of shots. Given the gap in points with Juventus is now closed, Eriksen is a weapon who could now help close the gap in quality, paving the way for Inter to truly have a shot at the scudetto.


Fiorentina, who had a startingly good run of form at the beginning of the season, was the most active team this winter, buying 6 players and splashing €70 million. They rolled the dice on these players, who could very well bring either future profit or add years of strength to their new team. La Viola's first coup was the return to Italy of Patrick Cutrone, who left Wolverhampton after just six months. He played few minutes in the Premier League, although his numbers in a very small sample are excellent. After going strikerless under Vincenzo Montella, newly appointed coach Beppe Iachini favored a more traditional approach, which shaped their market moves. After Cutrone, another striker, Christian Kouamé, joined from Genoa, although due to a serious knee injury, his debut won’t come that soon. The 22-year-old is not a forward who shoots a lot, but he is strong in aerial duels and also very fast and able to run into space. He might, therefore, be suitable to play alongside a pure striker such as Cutrone or Dušan Vlahović, or near a less conventional attack partner like Federico Chiesa. Owner Rocco Commisso also splashed out for Alfred Duncan, in the hope, he will offer more consistency in midfield than the evanescent Marco Benassi, and Igor Julio, a fast and technical centreback from SPAL, one of the few players who shone for the bottom-table team. Fiorentina also beat out Napoli for Sofyan Amrabat's signature, although having played with Club Brugge and Hellas Verona this season, he'll be unable to play in this campaign, But the best transfer may be that of Kevin Agudelo. The loanee from Genoa is a versatile and dynamic midfielder who can play practically all midfield roles and on the right flank as well and could develop into an aggressive zone mover.

Two transfers to watch

This could end with a discussion on Verona's choice to sell two of its best players in January while keeping them until June, or a look at Genoa's Back to the Future transfer plan (they brought in, almost exclusively, only players who had already played with them), but I thought instead I'd leave you with two transfers to keep an eye on instead. Musa Barrow is not new to the league, moving to Bologna from Atalanta to function as a starter for the Rossoblu. In his first three seasons as a professional, he has been an outlier in pretty much every relevant metric for a striker. Playing as a substitute and playing for Atalanta are surely two big reasons why, but his own traits shape the numbers, too. His time at Bologna already looks promising — in his first start he scored two goals against Roma — and has the potential to be one of the best strikers in the league. Bologna's sporting director, that old dog Walter Sabatini, snapped him up for €13 million. Meanwhile, Cagliari brought in Gastón Pereiro from PSV. The Uruguayan trequartista almost never saw the pitch this season due to a collarbone injury and a contract renewal that never came through. However, he had very good offensive production last season. Elite numbers in the Eredivise are not necessarily a guarantee of success in a top league, but the Sardinian club paid him just €2 million. It seems well worth the risk.   Header image courtesy of the Press Association

How Borussia Dortmund's high-speed attack works

Borussia Dortmund is an increasingly baffling case. Their squad contains plenty of top-class talent, but they are not always able to transfer that quality to the pitch. Nevertheless, their attack delivers one spectacular performance after another. What's the secret behind their game?

Since Lucien Favre's switch to a 3-4-3 formation at the end of November, Dortmund's attacking game has shifted more and more noticeably toward pouncing on their opponents in transition or on the break with high-speed attacks. Measured build-up play is not one of their strengths. Although they often manage to shut out their opponents when they choose not to press aggressively, their build-up from the back doesn't yield enough output. The three centre-backs often get into trouble when they are closed down aggressively because they lack the requisite mobility to effectively resist this pressure. Consequently, they and the two wing-backs are often forced to make passes that lead to turnovers in possession further down the line.

Recently, this has been exacerbated by the fact that Manuel Akanji, a right-footed player, had to play at left-back because Dan-Axel Zagadou was injured. This made it even more difficult to integrate Akanji, who has been in poor form anyway, into the team's build-up play. Meanwhile, the aging right-back Łukasz Pisczezk does not exude the same degree of reliability as he once did. Nevertheless, he is usually more involved in Dortmund's build-up play, which in the absence of Zagadou has significantly shifted to the right side. In addition to Piszczek, their build-up down the right flank usually involves playmaker Julian Brandt, wing-back Achraf Hakimi, and one of the two wingers, Jadon Sancho or Thorgan Hazard. Marco Reus also occasionally shifts out to the right to join in, either by dropping back in the style of a false nine or by taking up a slightly deeper and wider forward position behind Erling Haaland.

In theory, Dortmund has no shortage of class in this area of the pitch. Yet it is notoriously difficult for this team, with its careful, slow passing game, to play through their opponent's defensive lines and gain substantial space going forward. In comparison to the other Bundesliga teams, Dortmund have one of the least direct playing styles; they move the ball the most metres relative to the vertical distance to the goal before a goal is scored. This indicates Dortmund use lateral passes and back passes more than most teams, likely because there are no passing options higher up the field or because they have to break up their build-up when they cannot find a promising shooting position. This certainly has something to do with the strategy of head coach Lucien Favre, but still poses a problem because ball possession and offensive output are not ideally balanced. After the tactical adjustment in November, Dortmund have been able to play a bit more directly, but they are still a team that takes a long time to carry the ball forward.

Directness is defined as a ratio of the distance toward the goal from the start of a possession that ended in a shot, divided by the total distance traveled in the buildup to the shot.

Occasionally, Dortmund take a higher risk by not circulating the ball around in the first or second third too long during the buildup, but instead opt for more direct passes and quick lay-offs. The diagram below shows an example of this from the match against Cologne. In particular, players moving in opposite directions have proven a useful tool for breaking the opponent's cover, and they are also a good fit for Hakimi's style of play. But Dortmund’s possession still needs to improve in order to be successful against teams that defend with more sophistication than the likes of Cologne and Union Berlin.

The transition game powerhouse

Leaving aside their own build-up play, Dortmund are most successful when they have the opportunity to hit their opponents on the break in transition immediately after winning the ball. It's not especially important where on the pitch exactly they win the ball; the resulting confusion in the opponent's defence is much more crucial for their success. It is precisely this confusion that Dortmund sometimes exploit mercilessly—for example, when a defender pushes up and leaves behind a gap in the backline at the time of the turnover. Although since their tactical switch Dortmund have the second-highest share of possession in the Bundesliga, just behind Bayern Munich, they are also one of the most successful counter-attacking teams in the league.

With 2.13 counter-attack shots and 4.38 high press shots per game, they are at the top of the Bundesliga. Considering their often high ball possession rate as well as the way many opponents play against Dortmund, these are impressive figures. Their 3.75 clear shots per game put Dortmund in the 94th percentile of the Bundesliga in this important statistic. ("Clear shots" are shots when only the goalkeeper is in between the shot-taker and goal.)

In the last eight matchdays alone, Dortmund have taken eleven shots within 25 seconds after winning the ball or initiating a new play, nine of which started in their own half. With a player like Haaland, Dortmund will have even more options on the break in the future, as the 19-year-old has a good sense of whether to stay in the centre and get into positions for lay-off passes to Reus and others, or to lure his marker out of position by shifting out to the wings. Haaland, despite his slight technical shortcomings, is an almost perfect option for the final pass from his attacking teammates behind and beside him after they carry the ball forward into the critical areas at high speed.

One of the main reasons for Dortmund's successful transitional play is their increasing strength in counter-pressing. More than any other team in the Bundesliga, they force counter-pressing situations and are able to pick up speed and break out of their compact shape after winning the ball. Of course, it helps that they have such fast-paced players as Hakimi, Sancho and Hazard to initiate and propel the counter-attack forward. Successful counter-pressing often leads to a lot of open space for attacks, which are by nature much easier to conclude with a successful finish. It is not for no reason that Dortmund has the most completed passes in the opponent's penalty area.


Attacks in transition or on the break depend on the individual quality of each player and their intuitive understanding of each other. Every situation after winning the ball is different, not repeating what came before. Borussia Dortmund have several fast players and now also a target man in attack. Moreover, with Julian Brandt and Axel Witsel, they also have powerful centre midfield in front of the defence. It therefore seems almost logical that Dortmund feel so comfortable acting at high speed.