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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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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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