Tag Archives: Europe

Can Extreme Possession be Detrimental to Success?

Pep and Mourinho

First lets rewind to the 28th of May 2011. Barcalona have just swept aside Manchester United 3-1 to win the Uefa Champions League. It’s domination. 68% ball possession, to go with 22 shots to United’s 4. Xavi completed almost double the amount of passes all of United’s central midfielders did combined and the quartet of he, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi out passed the entire United team themselves. It’s Barcelona’s second Champions League crown in three years, to go with Spain’s World Cup triumph in 2010, and people from all places are once again praising the success of heavy possession football.

Forward the clock 11 months and Barcelona are in the Champions League semi final, their fourth out of four under Pep Guardiola. This time their dominance on the ball is even greater, obtaining the obscene figures of 79% possession in the first leg and 82% in the second leg. Only this time the result is not an emphatic victory. Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate to go to Munich where they would win their first ever Champions League. A month later Guardiola would manage his last game for the club. Barca’s period as the standout best club in the world is effectively over.

The result was seen as a huge shock but we’ve seen an increasing number of instances since where sides with huge chunks of the ball have effectively been shut down by sides sitting deep and often ripped apart by fast breaks during the rare moments they don’t have the ball. First we had Bayern Munich’s destruction of Barcelona in the 2013 Champions League semi finals where despite a having much less of the ball they were the dominant force. The following April a changed Bayern under Guardiola were destroyed in a similar manner by Real Madrid in both legs, and in between Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea brought Liverpool’s 11 game winning streak to an abrupt end despite having less than a quarter of the possession. And in the World Cup Lois Van Gaal’s Netherlands, without the injured Kevin Strootman and with a back line that lacked the pedigree of some other teams, found solace in a counter attacking system led by the speed of Arjen Robben. The Netherlands’ three best performances in Brazil where the three times their possession was lowest.

But are such occurrences just infrequent results that will always come up when hundreds of matches are played per season? Where they just acts of chance in a sport where upsets occur far more frequently than most at almost 50% of the time? Or are they all examples of a recent trend of possession, an in particular extreme levels of possession, actually being detrimental to a sides chance of success?

Well, possession is certainly not a hindrance in a simple sense. In the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga over the last three seasons there is still a reasonably strong correlation between amount of possession and the number of points a team gets in a single season. Bar Atletico Madrid twice, no team has got more than 65 points with under 50% possession, though Atletico did win the title in the second of those instances with 90 points.

Possession-points correlation

However, can we confidently say that sides are having success because of possession? Or could it just be the case that better sides naturally achieve higher possession figures? Certainly you’d expect sides at the top of the table playing sides at the bottom of the table to dominate the ball. The better sides tend to have players who are naturally better at retaining possession due to superior use of space, ball control and passing. On top of this better sides usually have higher aspirations and need for a win, meaning they need to be constantly pushing forward with the ball. Whereas on the other hand, lower sides may be happy playing for a point, therefore willing to concede possession, with concentration on defence with the hope of the occasional break.

This is even true at the elite level, albeit it at a lesser extent. In the last three Champions League knockout rounds, sides winning have averaged 52.3% of the ball compared to 47.7 for the sides suffering a defeat. However, it is when we start to look at extreme levels of possession, where we see that possession can actually be detrimental to success, and that sides are becoming increasingly equipped at conceding possession and generating success.

Extreme possession at the elite level

As someone who has watched the champions league the last three seasons and developed into something of a possession sceptic, I wanted to divulge into whether possession superiority was beneficial or in fact detrimental. Specifically I wanted to look at whether possession can be a hindrance in extreme cases against opposition of a similar level. I didn’t want to look at marginal cases of possession superiority, as I don’t think small cases are either relevant to the pattens of the game or show any proof to which team is better at ball retention. And I wanted to compare sides of similar pedigree in order to eliminate the cases where possession superiority is the result of a large quality gap, or where a tactical decision to surrender possession is extremely unlikely to come off, due mainly to the talent gap on the field.

As my want to look into the matter has mainly developed from watching the Champions League in recent season, that seemed the obvious place to start. I decided to cull the group stages just because you still get large mismatches in the preliminary stages. (No offence intended to Viktoria Pizen, but their destruction at the Alianz Arena last season isn’t really that relevant as to whether extreme possession is a positive or negative for Bayern against Dortmund, Madrid or Chelsea.) I also set the parameters for extreme possession to be any instance a side achieved 65% or more.

From the 2012 Champions League semi finals onwards (where Chelsea beat Barcelona) there have been 18 instances where a side has achieved > 65% possession. In that time 5 have been won, 6 drawn and 7 lost.

To see if this was a trend that was consistent I decided to look at more matches so broadened the boundaries to any clash between top four sides in Europe’s to five leagues from the 2012/13 season onwards as well. For the current season I used matches between last seasons’s top four. I found 21 instances of extreme possession in league football, with 5 draws and 8 wins either way. Interestingly the results in different leagues are revealing. In the Premier League, Serie A and Ligue 1 there were only five instances, 3 of which were won by teams who’d severely surrendered possession. In the Bundesliga there had been 8 cases, we’ll call it the Bayern effect, with the > 65% team achieving 4 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. La Liga also had 8 games, we’ll call it the Barca effect, but the arguable superior opposition (apologies to Jens Keller) caused 3 wins and 3 losses.

In total this left 39 games where there was a huge case of possession superiority, 11 of which were drawn, 13 won by the side with superior possession, and 15 won by the side without. So while the results don’t absolutely show that possession is a clear hindrance, they do show it’s not necessarily a positive either. We’ll have to divulge deeper.

Analysing shot data

Anyone familiar with football analytics will know that shot data is regarded as the best indicator of performance. Quantity of shots are one of the most repeatable statistics in the sport and, along with other factors such as the location of shots, are currently seen as the best indicator of future goals. As a result the number of shots a team takes, where they’re from and whether or not they’re on target are a great indicator of how many goals they’re going to score and the same applies for shots they concede being a measure of potential goals against.

In the 39 games were a team had > 65% possession the side who had dominated possession heavily outshot those who didn’t and in total had 645 shots at an average of 16.54 per game. Conversely they suffered only 335 at 8.82 per game. In other words, the side who dominated possession had a total shot ratio, the ratio of their shots to the total of shots in the game, (TSR) of 0.65, compared to a TSR of 0.35 for the sides that surrendered possession. To put things into perspective, Man City won the premier league last year with a TSR of 0.65 and Cardiff finished bottom with a TSR of 0.38. This is severe disparity. Yet the huge gap in shot quantity isn’t represented to the same extent when it comes to goals. The side with superior possession outscored the one which surrendered by a total of 67-50, which while significant, isn’t to the same extent that the gap in shot quantity was. A total goals ratio calculated the same way TSR is gives the superior possession side a ratio of 0.57 and the team which surrendered the ball a ratio of 0.43.

This can usually either be because of two things. First, the sides with the ball could simply have been unlucky. Or, their shot quality could be significantly poorer. We have to look more specifically at the respective shots that were taken. For all the 39 games I did my own shot location data recording, based somewhat on the excellent work of Colin Trainor and Michael Caley. I created three zones, primary locations, secondary locations and marginal locations. Primary would be all shots inline with the six yard box and inside the area, secondary shots would be shots in the box from wide positions and inline with the six yard box from deeper positions. Marginal shots would be all others, from deeper positions and poorer angles. It wasn’t particularly detailed, but would give a decent indication of where sides were taking their shots.

Somewhat surprisingly for me, the teams with less possession weren’t shooting from significantly better positions. My theory was that teams without the ball sitting deep would mean the side having the ball not being able to penetrate the edge of the box as much, therefore not being able to shoot as regularly from prime positions and requiring more hopeful shots from range. The sides with 35% or less averaged 38.81% of their shots from prime zones, compared to 35.19% for teams whoch had at least 65%. Possession sides had a slightly larger proportion of secondary shots but also had a similarly larger proportion of marginal shots. Sides with less possession shot from reasonably better positions, but the locations themselves were likely not significant enough to warrant such a contrast in the efficiency of the different extremes shots.

A deep wall of defenders, however, doesn’t only prevent a team getting into the box, it also tends to make shot quality from the same position worse. So far data relating to the location of defenders relative to on the ball actions hasn’t come about, so having lots of men behind the ball doesn’t effect ExpGoal calculations and the like, but the presence of nearby defenders and ones in line with the shot and goal are obviously going to make shot quality worse. Shots are more likely to be blocked and shots are more likely to be put off target due to less of a clear sight at goal the chance of a defender potentially intervening if a shot isn’t take quickly.

In the 39 games, the teams with greater position had 34.73% of their shots blocked, compared to just 21.79% for the teams which mostly played without the ball. The scatter graph below shows there is a correlation, albeit it quite a weak one, between amount of possession and the proportion of shots which are blocked.

Possession-blocked shots

Of course, a greater proportion of shots being blocked also means a smaller proportion of shots being on target. There is a inverse trend between amount of possession and the proportion of shots on target. The average proportion of shots on target of 30.54 in instances of extreme possession rises to 41.11 for the sides who have had less than 35% of the ball.

Possession-SoT

Indeed the TSR of 0.65 for the team with superior possession falls to 0.58 as a total shots on target ratio (TSoR) and vice-versa a change of TSR from 0.35 to a TSoR of 0.42 for the sides with less possession, which very closely matches the total goals ratios of 0.57 and 0.43 respectively. When you bare in mind that the teams which conceded possession where marginally shooting from better positions then it suddenly shows that they’re not being more clinical with their on target shots, or benefiting from a lucky PDO (the addition of a teams scoring percentage and save percentage) in a similar way, but are instead simply able to get a greater degree of their shots on goal due to the benefits of less crowded opposition thirds, which in itself derives from having less of the ball than the opposition.

The final thing I wanted to look at with regards to shots is the effect speed of attack has on the likelihood of a shot being converted. Colin Trainor discovered that speed of attack is very important when it comes to shot conversion rates and could potentially be even more important than shot locations. He discovered that the quickest attacks had the best conversion rates despite not having the highest proportion of shots in prime locations. While I don’t have speed of attack data at hand, it’s somewhat safe to assume that the side who spent considerably less time with the ball will have had faster attacks. Possession superiority usually leads to territorial superiority, meaning the side without the ball tend to shoot a lot more from counter attacks. In his research Colin also discovered that there is a strong negative correlation between speed of attacks and the average number of touches prior to a shot.

What all this tells us is that despite possession usually helping raw shot generation it doesn’t have the same help in scoring goals. This could be just a random trend, but looking at matches over the last 30 months, and nearly 1,000 shots in total it wouldn’t seem so, especially when there are legitimate explanations for such a trend, such as the location of shots, the number of defenders in close proximity and the speed of attacks. Indeed, when we only look at shots on target, there is almost no disparity between conversion rates.

Conclusions

With Bayern Munich and Barcelona sitting comfortably atop of arguably two of the three best leagues in the world at the moment it would be ridiculous to suggest possession football is dead. In most cases superior teams will dominate the ball and as a result the most successful sides will usually be among the sides who have the best possession figures. However what we can argue is that at the elite level extreme figures of possession have shown minimum signs of being a benefit and that certain factors have shown it to in fact be detrimental.

Higher levels of possession can help you shoot more, that we’ve seen, but it’s also much harder to get said shots on target. Arguably a high possession figure means a side has to do more in terms of overall shot generation than their opponent to counter act the better quality of shooting they concede due to suffering faster attacks, with less men behind the ball from slightly better positions.

Possession football may not be dead but equally conceding possession has never been more alive. Ever since Chelsea spent the best part of an hour with ten men, one proper centre back and just three defenders against the best side of this generation; conceded just once and scored twice with a fifth of the possession of their opponents, the world has seen that it’s not only possible to win doggedly despite rarely seeing the ball but also that it’s possible to destroy opponents with fast counters the way Bayern, Real Madrid and Holland have in the last couple of years. Top sides are more willing to concede the ball and hit sides on the break. People who use the term park the bus in a disparaging manner could be in for a painful few years as world football evolves and more and more sides become happy to use the tactic to their advantage.

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The Remarkable Feats of David Alaba

The converted fullback turned converted centre back turned converted midfielder is flourishing in his unique role as a box-to-box centre back. 

David Alaba

A few weeks ago Bayern Munich where playing their opening Champions League game of the season against Manchester City. Bayern started simply enough in something of a 3-4-3/3-5-2, with a back three of Mehdi Benatia, Jerome Boateng and David Alaba. But around the 30 minute mark there seemed to be a seamless switch towards a 4-3-3, with the wing backs Bernat and Rafinha becoming genuine fullbacks and Alaba moving up into a midfield three with Xabi Alonso and Philip Lahm. Alaba, who had been coping fine at centre back, suddenly occupied the number 10 role, and before the half was over Alaba had already had two shots and created arguably Bayern’s best chance with an exquisite through ball to Robert Leandowksi from the inside left position. You wouldn’t have thought twice if it was David Silva at the other end.

Alaba cb first halfAlaba 10 first half Click on graphics/images to enlarge 

It’s something of common practice among football circles to mention David Alaba, his age, and gush over how remarkable it is that the figure is so low for a player who has achieved so much. Indeed, his career has already been glittered with two Bundesliga wins, two DFB Pokal trophies, a Champions League win, German and European Supercup victories and the Club World Cup title before he turned 22 last June. But perhaps most remarkable is that his career progression and development is already one that would be expected of a player in his early thirties, not twenties. For Alaba has not been a bit part player in a Champion team, his role has constantly changed and developed in order for both his club team Bayern Munich and his country of birth Austria to fully utilise his remarkable range of skills.

Right now Alaba can be considered a midfielder turned converted fullback, turned converted centre back, turned something merging all three. In Bayern’s trip to CSKA Moscow last week, Alaba showed that he can not only perform both the duties of a central defender in a three man defence and the role of an attacking or central midfielder; but that he can actually do both at the same time. Bayern spent the game constantly changing between a back three and a back four (more like a back two with Bayern’s dominance on the ball) and Alaba was the man equipped with transitioning the in game shifts in formation. For a man who a year ago was perceived by many as the best left back in the world, it’s remarkable.

As shown in the image below in the early stages of possession Bayern would tend to occupy something resembling a regular 3-4-3 or 3-5-2, with the back line marked out and the wing backs circled.

3-4-3 edit

But unlike the other two centre backs, Alaba was clearly inclined to push up in possession and contribute in attacks.

Ahead of other CBs 1 Ahead of other CBs 2 edit

This formation in attack doesn’t differ too much from a 4-3-3, even if the fullbacks are particularly high, even for modern day European football. It does, remarkably, however, lead to something resembling a 2-3-5 formation. Jonathan Wilson has talked about the inversion of the formation pyramid but it seems Pep has taken it a step further by re-inverting it!

Where it does differ from most modern day football formations is that instead of the standard back four becoming a back three in possession, with the defensive midfielder dropping alongside the centre backs, it goes from a back three in defence to a back four/two in attack, with the 3rd centre back coming up into the midfield instead. In defence Alaba is forced to go back into the back three, as shown below.

Back 3 in defence edit

This role is not something Alaba has performed exclusively in that game, it’s something he has done regularly in the Bundesliga. Last Saturday against Hannover was another example, where Alaba played as the third centre back and contributed as an extra midfielder. The average positions from the game shows Alaba’s position (27) bridged between the rest of the defence and midfield, showcasing the shifts in the formation from a clear 3-4-3, to a 2-5-3 (or 2-3-5 again if the wing backs were to really advance up the pitch), and his player dashboard shows contributions the whole length of the pitch.

Alaba position hannoverAlaba dashboard Hannover

It is not uncommon for modern day centre backs to be good on the ball, and all of Pep Guardiola’s options in his back three are capable of building up play from the back. But Alaba notably gets more advanced than any of his other centre backs and plays a much more significant role in the sides attacking play. His role is seemingly unique and must be extremely difficult to pull off. Having to chose when to push up in attacking play but still make sure you’re not potentially exposing a two man defence requires immense tactical knowhow when it comes to reading the game. Add the wide range of technical and physical skills needed to pull off the multiple functions needed in the role and it highlights how hard a role it is to perform.

That Alaba has been chosen for the role underlines both his mental qualities and his vast range of technical abilities. Sterner tests than CSKA Moscow and Hannover 96 await, and it will be interesting to see Pep’s approach against sides with more notable attacking prowess; but at the age of 22 it shows that not only is Alaba one of the world’s leading young footballers, but also on course to be perhaps the most versatile player in the world.

* Player dashboards courtesy of FourFourTwo Statszone, average position graphics courtesy of Whoscored and screenshots courtesy of football origin.

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Yaya Toure – Last Season and Expectations Going Forward.

KNEE SLIDE

Yaya Toure is an immense footballer. I don’t think I’ve seen a player in my watching lifetime be as physically imposing – with his physical size and strength he’s a human bulldozer and he’s deceptively quick – but also have such technical ability to be able to act as a playmaker and dribbler. His qualities are pretty unique and he’s been a major asset for Manchester City since he signed for them.

However, I do have severe doubts about whether he is quite as good as the vast majority seem to think, and seriously suspect he will fail to meet many of the staggeringly high expectations set upon him after his fantastic 2013/14 campaign.

What is his role? 

Everyone knows and accepts Toure’s role has changed since the move from Barcelona to Manchester City in 2010. The man who scored 20 Premier League goals is a far cry away from the man who played centre back for Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. But the way some talk you’d think the new found abilities going forward were just added to his already great qualities as a defensive midfielder, making him the ultimate central midfielder. After all, you still here the occasional person referring to him as a defensive midfielder and the common assumption is that he now plays as a box-to-box central midfielder. In reality, he has sacrificed a lot of his defensive qualities to become the player he is now.

Yaya 09/10 Yaya 13/14
Tackles per 90

2.36

1.67

Interceptions per 90

2.54

0.74

Dribbled past per 90

0.42

1.35

The 2009/10 season was an immense defensive profile, with Yaya tackling relatively frequently, intercepting like crazy and almost never getting dribbled past. The fall by 2013/14 is drastic. But the 13/14 version still probably compares well with average premier league players though, right? Not quite.

I decided to look at all the central midfielders who had scored at least 5 non penalty goals last season in the premier league. Allowing penalties would make for unfair comparisons as players could carry no goal threat during open play (allowing them to work more defensively) and still qualify. All these players I thought you could reasonably say were midfielders who carried a goal threat, like Yaya, last season and would probably be expected to play a similar role and share a similar defensive workload. In all there were 10 of them, and I compared their defensive stats per 90 last season.

In terms of tackles per 90 only Jonjo Shelvey completed less than Yaya last season. The likes of Aaron Ramsey, Steve Sidwell and Yaya’s partner in crime Fernandinho made twice as many tackles.

Tackles

But lots of tackling isn’t always a sign of better defensive work. Tackling is often something of a risk, particularly in deeper positions. Players such as Xabi Alonso believe tackling is a last resort and something only to be done at a time of desperation. Measures such as interceptions can be better at showing how people are reading the game defensively and working hard in the shadows. Well Toure wasn’t exactly getting a lot of interceptions last season, in fact the trend gets worse when we look at them.

Interceptions

A combined tackles and interceptions graph shows how far Yaya falls behind some of his counterparts. While Fernandinho got a lot of praise for his unheralded work last season it is really easy to bypass how important he was generating twice the numbers of Toure and still contributing five goals. Special mentions to Aaron Ramsey who was the most prolific goalscorer among the central midfielders while still generating huge defensive numbers, and Yohan Cabaye, who fell 3rd on the list, marginally behind Toure, while being truly prolific defensively. Newcastle really did have a special player.

Combined Tackles + Interceptions

But using positive defensive metrics (i.e. occurrences) is debated as the best way to analyse defending. Maybe Toure doesn’t tackle or intercept because he doesn’t need to? A decent way to analyse this is to look at the dribbled past stats. Maybe people are getting past Toure less than the others?

While the trend improves for Toure, it’s still not brilliant, with Toure being a bit average. Remember, getting dribbled past, is bad, so the lower you are on the graph, the better.

Dribbled past

Baring in mind that there is an inverse relationship with tackling and getting dribbled past – every tackle is a an opportunity to get dribbled – Toure’s ratio of tackles to getting dribbled past is actually rather poor, even compared to those who get dribbled past more. When you also bare in mind that you could never attempt to win the ball or stop the attacker and not ever get dribbled past it starts to undermine the stat in the case of Yaya.

Overall I actually think there’s a case to be made that he should play as the 10 in a 4-2-3-1, in between Silva and Nasri, with both Fernandinho and Fernando playing behind him. At least in the big games and Champions League. It will be interesting to see how Man City set-up tomorrow against Arsenal.

Analyzing Yaya’s 20 goal season

So Yaya doesn’t do as much defending as he probably should and people think he does. But he still scored 20 goals last season which is more than enough to cover the fact he’s a bit lazy when his team doesn’t have the ball, right? Well in isolation I agree, which is why I’m in no denial about his fantastic season last year. But going forward his lack of defensive work worries me because I have little to no confidence of him scoring 20 goals in a season again. For a start 6 of his goals were penalties. Whether or not penalties should count towards goal rates and top scorer tallies is debated, but one thing for sure is penalties being won is not a consistent matter and Toure was granted the luxury for the first time in his City career last season, so you’d expect him to have an additional goal boost compared to his previous seasons and most other midfielders in the league.

But even him repeating his 14 non penalty goals next season is something I have high doubts about. Why, because last year Toure didn’t shoot more, he just converted a much higher proportion of his shots as goals. In fact, looking back over the last four seasons of Yaya in the premier league his shot generation was actually down marginally, 64 shots all season, compared to 68 and 65 the previous two years respectively, where he scored six goals each. In his time in the Premier League Yaya has shown decent repeatability with his shot generation, bar to an extent, his first season in England in 2010/11. But his 2013/14 goals tally is something he’s never shown a capability of before.

Why is this relevant? Well, because shot generation is actually a better indicator of future goalscoring than goals themselves.  Alex Olshansky and Ben Pugsley reveal this brilliantly and show that, bar a few elite exceptions, goals, and assists for that matter, are, a bit random*. Sometimes players can shoot the same amount, from the same places, and just score a lot more.

Yaya’s conversion rate last season was an absurd 31.25%, easily the highest among any prolific goalscorer in the Premier League last season. It’s extremely unlikely to be repeatable in the long run. Granted, it’s unfair to hold Yaya’s penalty snatching against his overall tally and then let it contribute to his high conversion rate, so we have to exempt shots and goals that came from penalties. But that still leaves a conversion rate of 24.13, which is both higher than anything he’s achieved before, greater than other high class central midfielders across Europe have ever achieved since records began.

Yaya shooting to goals

Below is a scatter graph of Toure, Vidal, Kroos and Modric for each of the last five seasons (since records began) bar Yaya in 2009/10 where his role at Barca was different. Each plot is a season by a player. It shows the number of non penalty shots and the number of non penalty goals against each other.*

SHOTS TO GOALS COMP

The overall trend is strong, with an average conversion rate of 8.63% for 17 of the seasons, bar a couple of outliers. The first is Luka Modric’s last season at Tottenham, where he managed to take 83 shots but only scored four times, and the second, even greater outlier, is Yaya’s 58 shots, 14 goals season last year.

Could the dramatic shift in conversion rate be explained by means other than chance? Could it be that he was taking many long shots previously and is now using his great build and dribbling skills to enter the prime zones more? Could he just have dramatically improved his finishing along with his new found penalty and free kick ability? Quite possibly. I don’t have shot location data, meaning it’s hard to say if he’s shooting from better locations. But Yaya isn’t dribbling more than he used to or other’s do, so unless he’s suddenly dribbling in much more dangerous areas it’s unlikely to be a factor.

As for the finishing, I decided to compare him with some of the world’s best strikers. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamal Falcao all strike me as people who are renowned for being fantastic finishers and clinical goal scorers so I looked at their conversion rates for each of the last four seasons, except for Falcao’s 10/11 season, as I didn’t have data for the Portuguese league from back then. In total this gave us 19 different seasons, 4 of which where Yaya’s. Bare in mind these players all play as forwards, they are in an around the box more, meaning they tend to shoot from better areas, and their shot is almost always their main weapon, which is why they have much better conversion rates than Vidal, Kroos and Modric.

Rank Player – Season Conversion rate Rank Player – Season Conversion rate

1

Messi – 12/13

26.42

11

Aguero 10/11

15.32

2

Yaya – 13/14

24.13

12

Messi – 13/14

14.29

3

Messi – 11/12

20.83

13

Falcao – 13/14

14.00

4

Aguero – 13/14

19.77

14

Ibra 11/12

13.74

5

Messi – 10/11

18.49

15

Ibra – 13/14

12.5

6

Falcao – 12/13

17.39

16

Aguero 12/13

11.63

7

Ibra – 12/13

16.56

17

Ibra – 10/11

9.73

8

Yaya – 10/11

16.32

18

Yaya – 11/12

9.23

9

Falcao 11/12

15.83

19

Yaya – 12/13

8.82

10

Aguero 11/12

15.75

Only Lionel Messi’s greatest season ever manages to beat Yaya last year, with none of the other seasons getting particularly close either. Conclusions? Yaya either had a bit of a lucky season with his conversion rate and won’t be able to repeat it, or he suddenly turned into the best finisher we’ve seen in recent time in one highly productive off season. Given he’s the wrong side of 30 and hadn’t shown any signs of a potential improvement in his trend, I’m much more inclined to go with the former.

A more clinical creator than Özil and Silva?

A similar pattern can be found with Yaya’s assists and key passes last year. His key pass rate was again down on the previous two seasons, but his assist tally more than doubled. Toure completed nine assists last season, the same number as David Silva and Mesut Özil, but he only created half as many chances overall – 40 compared to 86 and 76 respectively. This can mean either two things. Toure’s chances created could just be much more clearcut than Silva and Özil’s or, due to factors beyond his and the other two’s control, people just finished his chances better. Assuming the former, realistically, relies upon us believing Yaya is a better playmaker than two of the best chance creators Europe has seen since records began, who is only creating less chances because he is playing deeper. I’m skeptical, and like with his conversion rates, he’d previously shown no similar trends. Indeed, his key pass to assist conversion rate more than doubled anything he’d ever done before. 22.5% last season compared to 8.89%, 5.56% and 10.81% the previous three seasons.

I also compared his key pass to assist plot with Vidal, Kroos and Modric again, and just like with his finishing he stuck out as the most clinical claimer of assists seen recently among players seen as the elite midfielders.

KEY PASSES TO ASSISTS

Whether or not a key pass leads to an assist is pretty random. You can quite easily create a clearcut one on one chance for a striker that they can miss, and equally you can play a two yard sideways pass to someone who dribbles past three players and smashes it into the top corner. It’s random and highly unlikely that Toure was anything more than lucky with his chance creation last year.

Conclusions? 

I’m not really trying to detract from Yaya’s last season. He probably got a bit lucky yes, but that kind of thing evens out and he was probably unfortunate with conversions in an earlier seasons. But looking towards the future it is highly unlikely Yaya will be able to keep such conversion rates up, so unless his shot generation and chance creation suddenly shoots up, something it hasn’t shown a potential trend of yet, then expect his goal and assist tally to fall, potentially quite dramatically. He’s currently viewed among the very top of central midfielders and the world’s best footballers overall, but I’m wary that people’s expectations of him are unrealistic. If he gets 10 non pen goals and 5 assists this season he’ll have had another great year, and, rather than having a post birthdaygate strop, will have just regressed to the mean. He’s also 31. If anything you’d expect his shot generation and chance creation to fall off, not rise.

Three games into this season he’s had 9 shots and 1 key pass. By last season’s levels, you’d expect him to have at least two goals by now. But it’s simply impossible to keep such levels up. Add in that he’s probably not as well rounded as people like to think and you realise he’s perhaps, contrary to his own opinion, actually overrated, not underrated. Like I said earlier, still a phenomenal players, just not quite as good as the masses think.

* * *

1) Colin Trainor does great stuff on this type of thing, and he’s done loads of stuff that talks further about shot locations and expected goals if you haven’t come across this before and want to read more: http://statsbomb.com/2013/09/where-have-all-the-goals-gone/ http://statsbomb.com/2014/01/why-suarez-cant-keep-up-his-scoring-rate/ http://statsbomb.com/2014/05/liverpool-an-analytical-look-at-201314-a-missed-opportunity/ 

2)This does work on the flawed assumption that all penalties are scored. I only have data for penalties scored, not penalties missed, and it’s too much work to go through every match individually looking for missed penalties. The difference would only be one or two shots less for a single season maximum though, so it’s almost negligible. 

All stats are sourced from whoscored, except for minutes played and penalty goals, which come from transfermarket. Picture © BBC

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2013 signings could hold key for Dortmund in 14/15.

Despite the signings of Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos, Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might be the men who will step up for Borussia Dortmund this season. 
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Despite the occasional murmur otherwise one of the major positives for Borussia Dortmund last season was the performances of the new signings. The exuberantly named (and comically if you’re Alan Shearer) Sokratis Papastathopolous was immense in the absence of Neven Subotic and at times Mats Hummels and was one of the standout players for Dortmund and in the Bundesliga as a whole. Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit nine goals and ten assists en route to a successful first season with the black and yellows. And Pierre-Emerick scored 13 times and assisted four in the league.

But the feeling in Dortmund is that they can do more, particularly the latter two more advanced players. Mkhitaryan had an impressive late season revival but at times struggled in the autumn and winter. He often lacked composure in front of goal, which was disappointing given he arrived as someone who had netted 25 times in just 29 games the previous season in Ukraine. The general feeling was that at times he struggled mentally with the added pressure of playing at a level as high as the Bundesliga for a club like Dortmund, but after an overall fine first season this isn’t something that should continue. Despite a few flurries of goals, Aubameyang struggled to hit top form at Dortmund, failing to really integrate into their system successfully and benefiting from a high number of tap ins to booster the goal tally. Towards the end of the season he almost got phased out as Borussia moved towards something of a wingless 4-1-3-1-1 formation, as Dortmund re-strategised after the January loss of Jakub Blaszczykowski to the dreaded ACL tear.

New acquisitions in the form of Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos and the returning Shinji Kagawa have been made, and there is both excitement and expectations for them given the departure of Robert Lewandowski and recent injury to Marco Reus that will leave the attacking midfielder out for approximately a month.  But for the former two in their first seasons it would be unreasonable to expect them to be able to replicate Lewandowski’s performances and goals and Kagawa will take time to readjust and find his form which made his so coveted in his former stint with the club. Instead, the increased contribution the team will have to supply to make up for the loss of the pole and temporary absence of Reus could rest in the hands of the Armenian and Gabon internationals. A season of experience, successful pre seasons, and a new set-up where they finally seem to have found a home are reasons enough to believe they may start to deliver on their immense potential. 

Mkhitaryan has all the assets needed to be one of the world’s very best midfielders. He has a fantastic burst of pace, which combined with his dribbling ability allows him to beat players. He has a great passing range which, although not at it’s best at times last season, appears improved after a shift deeper in the latter parts of the season. He works very hard defensively for someone who has played mostly as a 10 in the last two seasons and is a major force of Dortmund’s pressing unit. He’s also blessed with a long range shooting ability, and improved finishing, which appeared to be happening throughout last season, could see his goal tally shoot up. 

With his pace and proven goalscoring record Aubameyang is a natural fit for Dortmund’s philosophy and attacking systems. In his first season he was unable to play through the middle but it seems likely that he will be given a chance in the second striker role this season. Assuming Dortmund lineup like they have for preseason most of the early parts of this season, with something of a 4-1-2-1-2 it seems likely that Aubameyang will play as one of the two strikers and Mkhitaryan as one of the midfield two with Marco Reus as the number 10 (Shinji Kagawa will likely occupy the role while he is injured), like he played for much of the second half of last season.

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A potential Dortmund lineup for the coming weeks. Injured players to return in bold.

Both players had promising preseasons and appear ready to step up. Aubameyang has had a flurry of goals and performed admirably in the lone striker role at Ausburg in match day two. Klopp seemed hesitant to ever use Aubameyang as the main striker last season – though with Lewandowski around why would you? – and when he did play their, such as in Madrid for the first leg of the Champions League quarter final, he struggled so it was encouraging. The potential two up top in a diamond formation seems perfect for him, as it allows him to drift wide and exploit his pace, without burdening him by forcing him to play a disciplined role out wide, while also not restricting him to a hold up role that would be associated with a lone front man. 

Since his move to central midfield Mkhitaryan has been a revelation and has undoubtably been the biggest beneficiary from Klopp’s move away from the 4-2-3-1 last March. From deeper he’s been better able to showcase his lightening fast Messi dribbling and his goal tally has shot up. As Dortmund’s most expensive ever player there is pressure for Mkhitaryan to prove he is one of the world’s finest footballers. If he continues his progression curve since at Dortmund this season they’ll be no more doubters. Already the greatest Armenian footballer that’s lived (who are you to doubt Jonathan Wilson) Mkhitaryan has achieved a lot in his career. But there is a suspicion that, this season, he’ll go one step further. 

 

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Toni Kroos could suit Madrid better than Pep’s Bayern

The potentially Real bound Bavarian might find greater influence in a faster, less possession based side, similarly to how he did in Belo Horizonte. 

Miroslav Klose Toni Kroos Sami Khedira Germany

I’ll admit something, I haven’t always been a massive fan of Toni Kroos. He’s obviously an incredibly talented and skilful player. His passing range is fantastic, as are his long shots. He can tackle, is physically strong, reads the game well and is equally adept off both feet. But I’ve often had doubts about just how much he’s able to influence this game. It’s not something I’ve always had the confidence to express publicly as it’s the sort of thing people will get upset about and create accusations of not understanding the game properly, but his season for Bayern this year consisted of minimal goals, just a few assists and not a lot of ball winning, though the latter was slightly to do with Bayern’s absurd possession (more on that later). With Manchester United rumoured to be offering him £260k a week for his services I thought they’d jumped a bullet when they stopped pursuing him as it was surely an excessive amount for someone who struggled to really dominant games playing in the deeper role he’d surely have occupied at United.

But over the last couple of months I’ve kind of been turned on his work. First of all he dominated the DFB Pokal final in mid May as Bayern clinched the double. A strong World Cup, with the highlight being the way he rocked Brazil in the opening half an hour in their World Cup semi final has further enhanced his reputation. He’s shown energy, won tackles, made goals and scored them himself. But are his improvements also as much to do with team tactics and dynamics as much as any personal differences?

There’s a bit of a stereotype, perhaps due to the existence of Xavi, that fantastic deep lying passers are better off in possession based sides such as Barcelona, Spain and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. While more possession naturally means more touches of the ball and more chances to showcase a players passing ability, the detracts of a possession based nature, particularly a slow one, mean defences can get many men behind the ball. This really limits a player’s ability to play incisive passes and often restricts them to sideways passing, unable to breakthrough the wall of opposition defences.

Over the last few years many sides have very successfully defended against possession sides in this manner. One of the better examples this season was Manchester United at home to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their quarter final clash, where Bayern had 74% possession but could only muster three shots on target. Kroos played as the number 10 in that game and was therefore designated with being the chief playmaker.  Here’s his passing radar for the game.

Kroos passing United all

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His overall passing immediately bring up reminders of the infamous Tom Cleverly passing radar against Stoke, which led to immense criticism for only being able to “pass the ball sideways”.  Kroos’ is similar, with very little substantial final third penetration. No passes successfully arrive into the box and any forward pass is usually from deep or a very short one. His passing stats for the game? 92 passes at a completion rate of 96% and 12 accurate long balls, but no through balls or key passes at all. This isn’t really Kroos’ fault, but more to do with the detracts of working in a heavy possession based side playing against side happy to shut up shop.

Another example would be Bayern’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the next round.  Perhaps as a response to the Manchester United game, Bastian Schweinstiger occupied the number 10 roll in the game, with Kroos sitting slightly deeper in the number 8 role. But the result was similar, with Bayern having 72% but just four shots on target and Kroos’ passing map was reminiscent of Old Trafford.

Kroos passing Madrid all

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So if possession can stifle a passer what can less of the ball and a system suited greater towards counter attacking do for a deep lying playmaker? Luka Modric is arguably one of, if not the, finest deep lying playmaker today and it’s notable how his passing radar from the same game differs to Kroos’. Obviously there are less passes, but of those that are there, they are of a very different nature. There are far more straight or diagonal balls, many of which would’ve helped to unleash fast breaks.

Modrid passing all

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Obviously Germany are still a heavy possession side, but not to the same extreme effects that Pep’s Bayern are (59% average possession this World Cup, down from 71.2% for Bayern in the Bundesliga). Kroos’ passing radar in the 4-0 demolition of Portugal, where Germany had just 57% of the ball saw a greater proportion of forward passes and aggressive balls out to the flanks.

Kroos passing Portugal

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But without a doubt his best performance was on Tuesday night against Brazil, where his outstanding contribution in the first half an hour rendered the final hour redundant. His far post corner set up Müller for the opener, his forward ball in between Dante and Luiz set through Müller in the lead up to Klose’s goal, he finished brilliantly for the third goal and disposed Fernandinho before exchanging passes with Khedira on the edge of the box for an open goal finish. He played a major hand in the first four goals and the game was finished in a flash.

Kroos v Brazil

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The dispossession of Fernandinho (green cross 30 yards from goal) is particularly relevant. Kroos has shown in the last couple of months he can do more than just coast through games and makes the case he can work in a pressing system. The way he and Khedira pressed for the fourth goal in particular could be a sign of things to come at Real Madrid – there are major links with Kroos and Real at the moment, some saying it’s already done – with Kroos and Khedira in a high energy midfield either side of a deeper Luka Modric (though there are reports linking Khedira away from Madrid).

Some have suggested Kroos would be better suited at Barcelona, but it’s arguable that Real’s style presents a far better chance for Kroos’ to showcase a wider range of his skills.  From incisive passing, to tackling, pressing and shooting. Whatever happens, if he leaves someone will get a great addition and Bayern will miss him.

 

– Radars courtesy of FourFourTwo stats zone.  Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA.  Possession stats courtesy of whoscored.com. 

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How David Moyes altered expectations at Manchester United

It says a lot that David Moyes’ greatest achievement was making his apologists think 7th was ok for title defending Manchester United

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When news broke yesterday afternoon that the sacking of Manchester United boss David Moyes was imminent, it was remarkable to see some people still jump to his defence on twitter that very day.  Not even the biggest sceptics could have predicted the season would turn out this badly for United.  Moyes’ almost unthinkable level of ineptitude has actually managed to shift perceptions of how hard the job was and has thus released the scrutiny on him which should have escalated to his sacking weeks if not months ago.

Lets first of all set the scene.  Moyes inherited a squad that had strolled the league by eleven points last season.  The previous year they’d only lost the league to City on goal difference and had comfortably won the league the year before that.  As a result the club should’ve been aiming to win the league again this season, as no one had accumulated more points than them in a season since Chelsea got one more in the 2009/10 season.  What more, he got loads of money to spend to boost a squad that had already proved to be the best and most robust in the country.  This was all topped off with backing from the fans and media, who were willing to give him a chance if things went sour and in some sections even sticking by him taking them to 7th into late April.

Yet, you actually get people making it out to be a tough job. The squad is ageing? Really? It aged so much in the three month off season that it went from best in the league to worse than Tottenham and Everton?  Moyes’ recent comments about how the squad is ‘rebuilding’ epitomises the tragedy of it all.  Why is a side having to rebuild and face the reality of years outside of Europe just months after their peak?  Attempting to imply Ferguson would’ve struggled with this same squad is pretty much like covering your ears, shutting your eyes and screaming, pretending last season never happened.  Another issue is how it’s hard to win when replacing a legend like Ferguson and that it’ll always be hard for Moyes as he’ll be compared to the greatest.  Yet everything bad he’s done has been defended from all corners.  How can you constantly say expectations are too great while defending him against those expectations? Surely that means expectations are lower?

Lets not forget, Moyes wasn’t the only high profile managerial shift last season.  City, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and PSG all changed managers, and despite a few teething issues, all have done brilliantly in comparison to United.  Pep Guardiola, like Moyes, inherited a title winning side last season.  Judgement on his first season is still to come despite wrapping up the league in record time last month. Similarly Laurent Blanc could be the victim of PSG’s Champions League quarter final exit, despite defending Paris’ Ligue 1 title in his first season in charge.

Imagine for a moment, if either of those two had taken their sides to 7th this season.  Seventh.  The likewise defences would probably look something like this.  It was always going to be difficult to replicate the success of Heynckes.  Guardiola is bringing a new style to Bayern and it will take time to be integrated.  The core of Ribery, Robben, Schweinstiger and Lahm is getting older and the Bundesliga is a growing competitive league.  It’s therefore, little surprise that Bayern have fallen behind the likes of Mainz in the race for the Europa League places and have done well to starve off competition from Ausburg. Similarly, Paris had become too complacent following their recent success.  The players are mostly to blame for their decline from nearly knocking Barcalona out of the Champions League to trailing Bordeaux.  Only a further €200 million in the summer will be enough to get them back competing for the Europa League places next season. 

You may argue that the Premier League is a more competitive league. But remember we’re not talking about simply Chelsea and Manchester City, two rich, high quality sides leapfrogging United. We’re also talking about Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham.  While finishing third would’ve been a disappointing first season for Moyes, it would’ve been understandable given it was his first season.  Finishing fourth would’ve been a really poor seaoson, but would probably not be too deteriorating in the long run.  Finishing outside the top four with the squad they had was never something which should’ve been acceptable and given it’s been obvious it won’t happen for some months, its remarkable he’s still their manager.

Andre Vilas-Boas had to cope with the loss of the leagues best player last season, limited funds in net value and was sacked for taking Tottenham to seventh in November after weeks of being destroyed by the tabloids.  Many Arsenal fans want Arsene Wenger to leave at the end of this year despite the possibility of winning the FA Cup and taking a Champions League place.  Niether of these sides realistically expected to do better than United this season yet their managers have received just as much, if not more criticism and scrutiny.  It highlights the ridiculousness off Moyes’ defenders.

If Moyes were a manager with lots of success at the highest level behind him sticking with him might just about be justifiable.  If he was bringing an exciting new attacking style to the club people may be inclined to think things will work out eventually.  Moyes has done neither of those things.  The style he’s brought is outdated, boring and negative, and not something which would be wanted in the long rung and has only got previous sides so far.  At the moment the damage of his rein is brief and reparable.  Giving him long term power and supplying him with millions in the summer just can’t be done.

A tough job is inheriting a thin squad, with limited talent and resources to go with it, while having to deal with inpatient fans and unrealistic expectations.  Getting the best squad in the league, immense financial backing and people defending you no matter what, isn’t one.  Don’t let how comically bad Moyes has been shift what you expect from a new manager.  Spending over £70 million and taking Manchester United, the season after they’d won the title, to seventh is disgraceful, whichever way you look at it.

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Arsenal, Man City and a word on squad depth

I guess it was predictable in the end. After dominating in the Autumn injuries, nerves and, ultimately, a lack of squad depth meant that in the late winter and early spring they crashed out of cup competitions and saw their title push breaking at the seams. This is a sentence one would usually associate with Arsenal, but has surprisingly become relevant to Manchester City after their draw at Sunderland left their league hopes in serious jepody. It followed what has been a disappointing two months for the club, where they’ve been knocked out of the Champions League, FA cup and gone from title favourites to outsiders.  A League Cup win featured in between, however, it’s fair to say at the start of February their ambitions were greater.
 
There’s been a lot of talk about squad depth this season.  With Arsenal’s season collapsing under the strain of injuries and fatigue and Liverpool arguably profiting from less games outside the league as the season has gone on, it’s become incredibly relevant towards who’s going to win the Premier League this season.  But the recent struggles of rich City, who’s depth has been praised all season, presents an interesting conclusion to the whole debate.  They’ve shown, that for all the theoretical depth in the world, competing on four fronts all year round is still incredibly tough and that injuries to star players will hinder everyone.  
 
Injuries to Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and recently Yaya Toure have impacted heavily on City at different times this season and it may ultimately be the difference between success and failure.  Edin Dzeko and Javi Garcia are very good footballers, but Aguero and Toure are unique in their ability and style, and can’t be replaced.  Similarly, constant reshuffling, which City have had to do at the back this season, disrupts rhythm and stability.
 
Arsenal’s inability to keep up their form after the injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and, to an extent, Mesut Özil, has been heavily criticised, but it shouldn’t be put down to a lack of squad depth.  Ramsey was the best midfielder in the league for the first half of the season, Walcott has been one of the most potent goal threats in the country in the last couple of seasons and Özil is one of the best number 10’s on the planet.  No team can account for that with the squad players at their disposal bar perhaps Bayern Munich.  Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla are fine replacements for Arsenal’s injured trio, but they’re not as good and the team will inevitably not do as well without them.  It’s the same way Barcelona struggle without Messi, Liverpool would struggle without Gerrard, Sturridge and Sterling, Chelsea without Cahil, Oscar and Hazzard, etc.  
 
This isn’t to say certain sides should be exempt of criticism.  There’s a reason some sides are more injury prone than others and many such injuries are preventable.  But it’s far too simplistic to say an injury ravaged sides struggles are down to a lack of squad depth.  When any teams best players are out, they won’t do as well.  It’s simple and rarely to do with whether their bench was assembled with superstars or not.

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