Web traffic records are rewritten every four years for one event and one event only: the World Cup. Russia 2018 will be no different. Over a billion people watched the 2014 final, and the month-long event reached an audience of 3.2 billion over 98,087 hours of broadcast. We’ve waited four long years for the event to return. We’ve waited far longer for the proper objective storytelling tools to numerically express what happens on the pitch. Clubs and countries have been in on it since the start. It’s media’s turn.
Ederson and Alisson are said to be transforming goalkeeping, often without even handling the ball. Here we assess the distribution of the Brazilian duo with STATS Playing Styles, Ball Movement Points and Tier 6+ data, which might lead us to question which of the two is doing more to ambitiously deliver the ball to their teammates’ feet. It also might lead us to consider a lesser-known name or two in their own leagues.
Ederson says he could play midfield if Manchester City lose any more players to injury. Alisson was recently referred to as the Messi of goalkeepers.
Both are known for, among other traits, their distributive quality, and much of that appreciation is heaped upon the Manchester City man after Pep Guardiola paid a substantial fee to pry him from Portugal. But how can we measure this beyond the eye test of Ederson lofting a precise ball over an opposing player in a high position to Leroy Sané’s boots? How do we do so meaningfully in a way that goes beyond successful passes? How can we reward ambition? And if we can do that, how do we do it objectively and in ways clubs like Roma can use to properly valuate Alisson as demand rises? And, conversely, how can clubs rumoured to be interested, such as Liverpool, use it to properly go about player recruitment?
In STATS Playing Styles, we have our ways. Is Ederson really reinventing the position? Or is he drawing more attention than a compatriot who does his job similarly but without quite as much flair?
We’ll start by saying, yes, Ederson is an exceptional distributor, and we’ll show you the proof in a moment. World-class keepers such as David De Gea and Jan Oblak aren’t going to match the specific passing accuracy and ambition you’re about to see that validates what Guardiola saw in the former Benfica man.
But he might not be one of a kind on the level he’s often talked about. In fact, he might not even be Brazil’s best distributing keeper. Few will bother contending Ederson is of Alisson’s quality in the traditional sense between the sticks, and we’re going to see here that Alisson might also hold certain advantages with his feet.
We’ll start with the basics, where Ederson shows some slight advantages.
You see here that Ederson completes a higher percentage of his overall and forward passes, but as we go up the pitch, that’ll change. That said, both of these guys are exceptional with their feet. For a little context, no other starting Premier League keeper completes more than 66.9 percent of forward passes (Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris). No other Serie A keeper tops 73.6 (Inter’s Samir Handanovic).
Checking in on other world-class keepers, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer has been injured this season but came in at 70.5 percent last season. Atlético Madrid’s Jan Oblak is only completing 31 percent of forward passes this season, down from 44.4 in 2016/17, but he tends not to play short balls, which transitions us into a new level of specificity with our two main subjects.
At least some of Ederson’s success, it turns out, probably has something to do with the distance he attempts.
We see here that, despite Ederson attempting more passes into the final third, Alisson distinguishes himself notably more up the pitch. He attempts more long passes (beyond 34 metres) and is considerably more successful with them. For context, Oblak has attempted 340 long passes but only connected on 34.1 percent with 49 toward the final third at 14.3 percent. In the Premier League, De Gea frequently sends the ball long (435 attempts) but more often than not misses (40.5 percent success), and there’s a similar trend with him going toward the final third (98 attempts, 20.4 percent). AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma, the emerging benchmark for the next generation of Italian goalkeeping, attempts fewer long passes (281) and completes 51.2 percent while connecting on 27.3 percent of 22 attempts to the final third.
So the Brazilians in question tend to be judicious with distribution, and they convert a higher rate of long passes – often far higher. We’ll see below how this results in a higher net oBMP, a key category in STATS Ball Movement Points.
BMP considers ball movement made by an individual player from a start zone to an end zone and assigns value based on past results from massive amounts of league data. These scores accumulate during a match or across a season to indicate the value of a player’s ball distribution. BMP considers every involvement a player has to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.
We’ll get back to BMP momentarily. First, one last chart to get us there.
Let’s start at the end with team points earned, where each is contributing at a higher rate than is expected. But if we look into straight goalkeeping for a moment, Alisson distinguishes himself as the clear-cut No. 1 for Brazil heading into that important tournament they’ve got in Russia this summer. Both keepers have been in goal for all of their club’s league goals and faced all of their club’s league shots this season. Ederson has allowed 20 goals with Man City’s expected goals against coming in at 19.9, so with him in goal, they’re right at what’s expected of a league average. Alisson has Roma conceding far fewer than expected, which corroborates the traditional keeper value he’s perceived to hold over Ederson.
As for the subtle things both keepers do very well, the counter attack is interesting to consider when properly contextualised. Only Jordan Pickford (1,374.8 metres) leads Ederson in the Premier League in counter distance passed. He leads by a significant margin, which initially seems interesting from Pickford’s perspective because STATS Playing Styles shows us Everton counter considerably less (minus-9 percent of the league average) than City (plus-23 percent). But Pickford goes long with the ball 70.9 percent of the time, and not very effectively. He’s attempted 619 long passes at a 35.4 percent success rate.
Alisson leads Serie A keepers in counter distance passed while only one other keeper has reached the 600-metre mark, which probably speaks to the differences between the varieties of football typically played in Italy and England. But this shared ability of Ederson and Alisson to get a counter started means they’re frequently sparking transition play, which in Playing Styles is differentiated from direct play with various distinctions.
Another interesting keeper to consider here is Kasper Schmeichel, who leads us back into BMP. At first glance, his 46.9 percent forward-pass success seems horrible. But his long balls (642 attempts) account for 71.7 percent of his passes, and he’s been better at it (42.1 percent success) than Pickford and De Gea. That contributes to the Premier League’s third-best oBMP for a keeper (0.39). It’s still not at the level of Alisson and Ederson, who are among the most dangerous keepers in the world in terms of creative threat.
Schmeichel also leads the top-five European leagues with a 1.29 dBMP, and by no small margin, meaning he’s disrupting attacks more than any keeper.
With Ederson second in the Premier League in oBMP, who’s first?
Burnley’s Nick Pope (0.53).
It’ll make sense after addressing the numbers all the way though. He completes only 42.9 percent of his passes, but he goes long 82.1 percent of the time (633 attempts). He completes those long balls at a rate of just 34 percent, but he’s sent 329 toward the final third at a rate of 33.1. In other words, his success rate entering that area of attack is on Ederson’s level with roughly nine times the attempts. He’s connecting ambitious passes in dangerous areas on the pitch. That’s resulted in four first assists to shots – three more than Ederson and Alisson combined – and two second assists to shots.
He leads Europe’s top five leagues in oBMP as one of three keepers with marks ahead of Alisson. Compared to Alisson and Ederson, he may take a different route to getting involved in the attack, but he has a considerably different 10 outfield players in front of him, so it’s often the only way for him to contribute as a forward-thinking keeper.
Any club considering Pope will also want to know how he fares with short and medium passes. He’s completed 116 of 123 inside that range, and he plays for a team that’s consistently under more pressure in those defensive areas than clubs such as Manchester City and Roma. That’s 94.3 percent, which puts him ahead of Pickford (93.8), a well-respected keeper Everton paid plenty for over the summer. It makes you wonder what kind of distributor Pope would be if he had the luxury Ederson has of being judicious with his long balls.
Pope’s also been strong between the sticks in the traditional sense. Burnley have conceded 24 goals, which is a Premier League-leading -24.2 of expected. Everton? -4.2. In terms of expected goals, Burnley with Pope in goal are, this season anyway, above even Manchester United’s level this season with De Gea (-20.0).
This is all supported by player points, where Pope (3.9) ranks just ahead of Ederson and only behind De Gea (4.1) in the Premier League.
So from a recruitment perspective, a club like Liverpool may well be set on the emerging greatness of Alisson as an all-around keeper. But so might a number of other clubs, especially if he has a strong showing on the world’s stage come June. The great thing about deep data when assessing a deal is it allows a club to walk away or in a different direction rather than getting carried away.
Ederson’s been strong, both with that subjective eye test he frequently passes and the objective data we’ve considered here. Alisson might be even better. But those clubs this summer looking to follow the emerging trend and attack from the back might save a few pounds by digging even deeper.
Pep Guardiola’s bid for an undefeated Premier League campaign ended Sunday at Anfield, and the football world sounded off with opinions on what worked, who the key individuals were, and why Jürgen Klopp has succeeded against Manchester City in ways others haven’t. STATS Playing Styles and Tier 6+ data take it beyond unquantified analysis to substantiate and challenge those claims while giving credit to Liverpool players less obvious than Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. The main takeaway? Press on.
It’s something of a cycle. When Liverpool win, Jurgen Klopp’s system is lauded. There’s of course been plenty of that lately. When the Reds relinquish a lead or implode in their own half, the same system tends to fall under defensive scrutiny. The commentary is often reactionary and oversimplified, and it’s occasionally unsubstantiated. For better or worse, the term gegenpressing follows the Liverpool boss like a role follows a typecast actor even if he’s capable of much more.
Whichever side you’re on from week to week, you have to accept one simple fact: After Sunday’s 4-3 victory, in four Premier League matches, Klopp has seven points against Guardiola and Guardiola has four against Klopp. Something is working. Rather, somethings are working. At the centre of those somethings lies efficacy in individual player possessions and how that fluctuates based on pitch position. No football eye, as keen as it may be, can track that on its own. With STATS Playing Styles, we’re going to show what actually went down at Anfield as Liverpool stretched their Premier League unbeaten streak to 14 while ending City’s at 30 dating to last season.
Let’s first address the match’s stylistic deviation for each club in comparison to their season form, and we’ll work into more complex and individualised touch data as we go. The Playing Styles webs below give us some surface-level insight for this specific match and how each team compared to their 2017-18 season selves:
What this tells us isn’t in itself groundbreaking: City were disrupted in possession-based attacking styles such as build up, sustained threat and fast tempo. These are styles they display more frequently than any club in the Premier League. Liverpool, meanwhile, employed more counter attack, high press and direct play than they typically do. This also isn’t a radical consideration given the expectations football minds have for this specific fixture.
As much as we’d like to compare Liverpool’s win to City’s 5-0 victory at the Etihad back in September, it’s illogical to do so because Sadio Mane was sent off in the 37th minute, so Liverpool played down a man for the majority of the match. Instead, we’ll start by comparing the teams to their season norms in a few key categories.
Liverpool had 10 possessions on which their high-press membership accounted for 50 percent or more of the possession’s value, which ranks third among their 23 matches behind a 4-0 win at Bournemouth on Dec. 17 (15) and that frenetic 3-3 draw with Arsenal on Dec. 22 (13).
What we should notice first about City is an incredible dip in build-up play, which is defined as periods of play in which a team is looking for opportunities to attack between midfield and the edge of the 18. Manchester City operate at 136 percent above Premier League average in build up. Last weekend at Anfield, they were at +6 percent. And because build-up play can feed sustained threat and fast tempo, those percentages fell off as well. City’s season average for sustained threat is +71 percent. It fell to -14 at the weekend. City’s average for fast tempo is +192 percent of the Premier League average. It fell to -70 against Liverpool.
These are all league-leading season marks, as is their +52 percent maintenance, which rose to +106 against Liverpool. City had the ball plenty, but it didn’t nearly as often progress beyond maintenance, which captures possessions in which a team looks to maintain and secure possession within their defensive area. At Anfield, they had 55 maintenance possessions for their highest total of the season. This begins to hint at the position of City’s possessions or possibly an inability to progress the ball into more dangerous attacking areas.
Let’s now look into where they lost the ball and how frequently. Given Liverpool’s success Sunday, it might follow that we should expect Klopp’s side to have dispossessed City more frequently higher up the pitch than other sides have.
City, one way or another, were dispossessed 36 times in positions spanning from their own goal line to five metres beyond midfield – the zone STATS Playing Styles defines for an opposition’s high press opportunity. But that’s actually rather average for City. They lost the ball in this zone on average 37.8 times per game in their other 22 matches, so what made the widely lauded Liverpool press effective?
Here’s where those analysing the match might not be finishing the job. It wasn’t necessarily that City were being dispossessed at some incredible rate by Liverpool. It’s that they were being displaced. The Reds’ success almost certainly had something to do with pushing City deeper than they typically play. With Tier 6+ event data, we can average the XY positions of each player on his touches. The initial insight here lies in the average position of each City player up the pitch. City’s possession leaders were defenders, not midfielders, but that’s not an oddity in itself, particularly in a match such as this when so much of City’s possession was in maintenance.
Nicolas Otamendi led City with 111 possessions, and his average touch was 16.8 metres behind midfield. His season average? 10.0 metres into his own half. Fellow centre back John Stones only had a variation of -2.4 metres, but that dropped him back to an average touch point of 18.6 metres behind the centre line for the deepest position of any outfield player in the match other than Dejan Lovren (-21.1). To the right, Kyle Walker fell off from 3.2 metres in front of midfield to 3.7 behind.
Granted, these distances can be made up with the right passes, but there’s something to be said for the psychological impact of consistently possessing deeper in one’s end, and that’s compounded when you’ve got burners like Mane and Mohamed Salah running at you. Possibly the most striking deviation for City was that of Danilo, who came on at 31 minutes for Fabian Delph. Danilo’s season average touch happens 3.5 metres into the attacking half. Against Liverpool, it occurred 11.7 metres behind half, and few will be reluctant to give Salah some credit for that.
It clearly happened in the attack, too. Raheem Sterling’s typical touch occurs a remarkably advanced 21.7 metres beyond midfield. It fell back to 13.7 against Liverpool.
This may sound interesting enough on its own, but none of it means much if we can’t assign efficacy to what occurs in a given position. Let’s go to the middle of the pitch, where value has traditionally been difficult to measure for players who don’t score much but also aren’t the last line of defence.
Fernandinho is considered a more-than-capable holding midfielder, and for good reason. There’s just a limit to how deep that comfort – and value – goes. He’s not used to consistently possessing closer to his own penalty area, and it showed against Liverpool. His average touch occurred 5.9 metres behind half. His season average is 3.9 metres advanced from that. Fernandinho had 93 possessions against Liverpool, so that amounts to considerable ground for one player to compensate for in one match.
Here’s where STATS Ball Movement Points comes in. We’ve used BMP quite a bit in past posts, but here’s the rundown: BMP considers ball movement made by an individual player from a start zone to an end zone and assigns value based on past results from massive amounts of league data. These scores accumulate during a match or across a season to indicate the value of a player’s ball distribution. BMP considers every involvement a player has to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.
For the season, Fernandinho’s 3.93 net oBMP ranks seventh with a truly elite group of Premier League midfielders, and that’s particularly impressive because it’s among players who have far more offensive opportunity and responsibility than he. But his oBMP for the Liverpool loss was 0.08. You know what’s coming: Among the 21 matches in which he possessed the ball at least 60 times, it was his lowest mark. His dBMP- – measuring a player’s liability in possession for giving the ball away in dangerous areas – of minus-0.11 is his third-worst mark of the season behind City’s Nov. 5 match with Arsenal and Dec. 10 match with Manchester United.
It wasn’t just Pep Guardiola’s go-to holding man falling short. It was also his potential player of the year. You can see above that Kevin De Bruyne wasn’t nearly as withdrawn as some of his teammates, but his 0.06 oBMP was his second-worst mark of the season, ranking narrowly ahead of an outlier against Swansea last month. City had a 3-0 lead on 52 minutes, so there wasn’t exactly a need to get ambitious for much of the game. And he made up for any creative deficiency in that match by finishing a chance himself.
That list goes on for City’s players. It’s time to assign direct credit to the Reds. We’ll start on the team level and work down to individuals.
We already discussed the Reds’ high press. Liverpool also achieved their second-most possessions with a counter-attacking membership of at least 50 percent. Those 12 trail only the 13 they had in that December match with Arsenal. When their counter and high press overlapped, good things happened, particularly in the 62nd minute. Salah’s press of Otamendi and regain turned into transition and a beautiful finish from Mane that gave the Reds a 3-1 lead. Without it, we’d potentially be talking about another Liverpool defensive collapse rather than City’s first loss.
While City players fall in across the board against Liverpool, the Reds’ blazers played more of their game against City. Salah’s average position per touch for the season is 20.4 metres beyond half. Against City, it was 17.7. Mane: 15.4 for the season and 12.6 against City. Roberto Firmino fell in from 16.4 to 14.0, but it’s far from the deviation for City’s front.
So what exactly pushed City into those deeper positions, and who else accounted for the regains? We don’t need high-level event data to tell us it wasn’t Philippe Coutinho. We do need STATS Playing Styles and Tier 6+ to quantify the value of a Liverpool midfield that’s often overlooked in favour of the flair provided by Salah and Mane.
Yet if we look at Liverpool’s team-wide deviation against City, it’s considerable. In two matches, Liverpool fell in 3.7 metres behind half against City, and interestingly enough, it was more drastic with 11 men (-4.5) than at the beginning of the season with 10 (-2.9) for the majority of the match. For the season against all opponents, their average touch position is 1.3 metres advanced of half.
So if Mane, Firmino and Salah aren’t accounting for much of that dip, it follows the farther we go back in the 4-3-3 formation, the more ground Liverpool cede against City. Emre Can, one of the most centralised players in the Premier League (X: 0.0, Y: -0.7) is getting plenty of love for his central presence in the match, but is anyone providing empirical evidence as to why? Where Fernandinho might have faltered, we can objectively state Can flourished. His average touch’s position went from -0.2 last time out against City to -10.0 on Sunday, yet his oBMP actually increased. That’s difficult to do, particularly so against a Manchester City side that holds the ball as much as they do. And Can’s dBMP- was his fourth-best single-match total of the season, despite playing in easily his most withdrawn position of the season. If Juventus are as interested in Can as certain reports suggest, Liverpool would be wise to show tape of his efforts against City – and STATS Playing Styles can objectively support it.
Onto Can’s midfield teammates. Arsenal and Newcastle fans, it’s time to look away. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum played substantial roles in putting City in those uncomfortable scenarios, and it goes well beyond Oxlade-Chamberlain’s ninth-minute goal or 59th-minute assist to Firmino.
The £40 million man contributed four counter attack regains, a high-press regain and a truly impressive 192.7 metres of counter-attack distance covered (126.2 passed and 66.5 carried) for the seventh-highest single-match total in the Premier League this season.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s counter distance accounts for 25.1 percent of his season total (766.8 metres), so this might have been an outlier of a performance. Or, as some in the media have suggested, it could be an indication of an emerging role he’ll take on with Coutinho gone. But that’s an odd suggestion even if you went no further into it than watching the match. And it’s certainly not supported by his average position on the pitch against City, particularly the east-west axis. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s season average touch occurs 13.1 metres beyond midfield and 2.7 right of centre. Against City, his touches occurred on average 9.3 metres beyond midfield and 6.1 right of centre. Coutinho’s average horizontal position with Liverpool was 13.0 metres forward and 7.9 left, so well across the pitch from where Oxlade-Chamberlain operated. It seems someone else was slotting in behind Mane on the left.
That someone, at least for one thrilling match, was Wijnaldum, who’s average position changed from his season marks of 3.6 metres beyond midfield and 2.9 left of centre to 0.3 forward and 10.0 left. The result was three counter regains and a substantial 120.1 metres of counter distance (37.2 carried and 82.8 passed).
In all, Liverpool’s counter attack covered an impressive 642.1 metres for their second-highest single-game mark this season behind only the Arsenal match. City, Arsenal and Watford have each topped that mark once this season while many Premier League clubs would need multiple matches to get up to that kind of total.
Of course, not all of this distance covered contributed to scoring or even to shots. But it changed the way City went about their match. It changed the positions of their players on the ball. It took them out of the comfort zone that, though 22 matches, it seemed they could patent.
Liverpool had their deepest average starting point of any match this season at 4.5 metres short of midfield, and their 527 possessions rank ahead of only that 10-man match at the Etihad, yet they found a way to get City flustered – all the way back to surefooted distributing goalkeeper Ederson for the fourth goal. That comfort zone typically means Guardiola’s side on average touches 3.3 metres into the attacking half. City’s average touch came 2.8 metres behind midfield against Liverpool, which for the season is ahead of only that first match with Klopp’s side (-2.9). Leicester City is the only other club to knock City’s average back into the defensive half, and they did it by a mere 0.2 metres.
Liverpool aren’t doing this to everyone, and it’s not the only way they succeed. Leicester back on Sept. 23 began their possessions 4.8 metres beyond midfield against Liverpool, which resulted in a 3-2 win for Klopp’s side. They are quite frequently a possession-based attacking side, so it’s probably oversimplifying to pin that gegenpressing term to him so dutifully.
But against City over two seasons, it’s resulted in two wins, a draw and a loss. The next meeting should be even more interesting. A phrase that of course follows Guardiola around is total football. That means he knows how to press back.
Wolves are leading the Championship by no small margin, and with that kind of team performance comes plenty of attention from outside clubs directed toward the talent responsible for such an ascent. STATS Playing Styles explores methods to address the inevitable valuation and recruitment questions facing Wolves and clubs interested in their players.
Wolverhampton Wanderers shelled out a Championship-record £15.8 million to bring in Rúben Neves over the summer, and the rewards have been considerable as the 20-year-old joined forces with fellow Portuguese youngsters to open up a considerable gap at the top of the table.
With promotion to the Premier League looking likely, the central question now becomes one of how Wolves reconcile whether to keep him for a top-flight campaign should bigger clubs come calling with enticing money. And not just him. Given the level of success the club has had this season, potential buyers taking note and assessing the team’s talent is a matter of when not if. So how do Wolves determine whether to sell? How do clubs in pursuit determine whether a given player is appropriate?
Predicting how one player fits in another system surrounded by entirely different players is difficult, and particularly so when the players in question are climbing a division. Those decisions are no longer exclusively left up to the unquantifiable, fallible nature of opinion, and the goal is to fuse expert opinion with stronger empirical evidence. STATS Playing Styles isn’t setting out to replace the professional eye, only augment it with contextualised data.
Playing Styles uses Tier 6+ data, STATS’ highest level of event data, to establish a more objective framework to evaluate what takes place on the pitch from team and individual perspectives. Possessions and involvements are broken down into direct play, counter attack, crossing, high press, maintenance, build up, sustained threat and fast tempo.
The tool can be used by the world class and working class alike. We used Playing Styles to assess a potential Philippe Coutinho move to Barcelona this fall, and we used it to show how Huddersfield Town recruited practical players for a particular playing style in their move to the top flight after success under narrow margins in last season’s Championship.
Wolves are a different case. They opened their pocketbook this summer in record fashion, and they may have considered the Neves decision a safe move because they were acquiring a player who had 59 senior appearances under his belt with Portugal’s top club.
But they also likely invested in the Porto product with the long game in mind – that being the possibility of selling him at a considerable profit. Clubs might not come out and say this directly because it’s understandably in poor taste to refer to players as stock, but it is an indisputable part of football at all levels and a vital means for smaller clubs to do good business.
Before getting to the individual assessment, let’s first look at how Neves and teammates such as 21-year-old fellow Porto product and Atlético Madrid loanee Diogo Jota have collectively transformed Wolves’ styles from one season to the next. Wolves finished 15th on 58 points in 2016-17, and it showed with very middling Playing Styles numbers when considered against league averages. The only area in which they distinguished themselves positively in the slightest was high press, where they operated 13 percent above Championship norm:
This season, Wolves have become a more ball-dominant attacking club, and their 3-0 win over Brentford to begin the new year pushed them 12 points clear of second-place Derby County and three points ahead of last season’s 46-match point total in just 26 games. Most importantly, there’s a 14-point gap between Wolves and those presently in playoff position to contend for the third promotion spot.
The manifestation of the summer changes is the most up-tempo attacking club in the Championship, posting a plus-30 goal difference that eclipses the next two clubs on the table combined:
Fast tempo is of course the style that stands out, but Wolves have also spiked in maintenance and build up after operating below league averages a season ago.
Neves is unsurprisingly a substantial part of it. His 1,739 overall possessions rank eighth in the league and third on the team behind midfield partner Romain Saïss (1,865) and Matt Doherty (1,829). His 148 fast-tempo involvements rank tied for fifth in the league. His 392 in build up are 12th. He’s even contributing in areas where Wolves have fallen off a bit. Neves’ 16 high-press regains are tied for 10th in the Championship, despite doing that for a side that’s outside of the top half in high press (+2 percent, which ranks 13th). And, on a more basic level, he’s scored three goals with his expected goals at 2.2, which means he’s finished slightly better than expected given the opportunities he’s had.
Possession counts are one thing. Assigning efficacy is another. Playing Styles does so with STATS Ball Movement Points, which complicates the assessment of Neves.
We’ve used BMP quite a bit in past posts, but here’s the quick rundown: BMP considers ball movement made by an individual player from a start zone to an end zone and assigns value. These scores accumulate during a match or across a season to indicate the value of a player’s ball distribution. BMP considers every involvement a player has in a possession to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.
Given what’s been established with Neves’ categorised involvements, it might follow that his oBMP could be considerable. He’s possessing the ball a great deal, it seems he’s possessing it in consequential areas on the pitch, and he’s regaining it in a high position more often than others. However, his oBMP is 2.35, which ranks 22nd in the Championship and third on the team behind Doherty (2.70) and Saïss (2.55).
It’s a bit odd considering the amount of credit he’s given within the club’s midfield. A contextual example, granted up a tier, is Kevin De Bruyne’s Premier League season that many figure will win him some individual silverware. Now seems like a good time to iterate that we’re not comparing the players; rather, we’re comparing their involvements and efficacy in their respective divisions. That seems fair given Neves is being lauded as one of the best Championship players in years. KDB is fourth in Premier League possessions (2,027) and has a league-leading 6.15 oBMP, which, to digress, means he’s putting together a Premier League campaign rivaled in recent seasons only by the distributive talents of Mesut Özil.
The obvious place to check first is whether Neves’ oBMP- is dragging his net value down. In other words, is he being wasteful? Neves’ -0.60 oBMP- is one of the best on club and is considerably better than other top-level Championship players such as Ryan Sessegnon (-1.72) and James Maddison (-1.76). He is objectively not a wasteful player.
So what should we make of this? Some of the answer for the Neves oBMP discrepancy might lie in breaking down another style of play: sustained threat.
Wolves sustained threat is minimal at +1 percent of the league average – though it should be stated they’re effective with 16 goals on which the style is present while percentage leaders Fulham (+39) have scored only one more. Even when the style is present for Wolves, it often runs through other players. Doherty (315), Ivan Cavaleiro (255) and Jota (247) lead the club in sustained-threat involvements. Neves’ 154 such involvements rank 96th in the division. This matters because Ball Movement Points are weighted based on where the player’s possession occurs – not all passes are created equal, nor are all positions on the pitch from which they materialise or end up – and sustained threat possessions occur in the attacking third, where passes are more highly contested and of higher attacking consequence. De Bruyne is first in sustained-threat involvements (508), which gives him great opportunity to succeed or fail with oBMP.
That’s not to say Neves is incapable if he had the ball more in those situations, but it hints he might be unproven or unpracticed in that specific attacking role. Or, for whatever reason, he’s just comparatively absent in the system that’s working for Wolves. This is where we’ll reiterate that Playing Styles is meant to supplement the expert’s eye. Data such as this can alert an analyst – whether it’s one at Wolves or a club studying Neves from a valuation standpoint – and they can then go to the video to determine what to make of it. Without contextualised data, that may go unnoticed.
Neves may very well be deserving of the hype. He clearly does a lot for Nuno Espirito Santo, and at 20 is for good reason going to be attractive to bigger clubs after showing he could adapt to the particularly unforgiving style and intense schedule the Championship throws at a young player.
But others within Nuno’s system are also thriving, and without the hysteria referring to them as once-in-a-decade Championship players. So when other clubs consider how they can be smart with their money and look to what’s driving results for a club such as Wolves, they might be able to target players who have contributed to Wolves success and find value elsewhere should a bidding war develop for the biggest name.
There are any number of personnel decisions facing Wolves in the coming months. Will they try to keep loanee Jota? How do they determine his value when negotiating with parent club Atlético? Should a Premier League club notice Doherty’s evolution as a player, Wolves could be prepared with data to show how he’s maximised his own talent by being surrounded by more of it.
Empirically speaking, Playing Styles has plenty to say about those players as well.
A meaningful data revolution in football probably wasn’t possible in 2002 as Billy Beane’s methodology later labeled Moneyball changed baseball’s talent evaluation, player recruitment and valuation efficiencies forever by going against conventional wisdom. The complexity and fluidity of football held the sport back in that regard while other segmented sports adapted the model. But 15 years on, technology has drastically advanced the possibilities, and data science is tackling the world’s game like never before.
The Numbers Game: How Data is Changing Football, a documentary released Friday by FourFourTwo Films, features the Oakland Athletics executive vice president of baseball operations and subject of author Michael Lewis’ bestselling 2003 book. It addresses the growing influence of data-driven analytics in football – a sport that’s not exactly foreign to Beane.
“It’s a very dynamic sport,” said Beane, part of the conglomerate that purchased Championship side Barnsley at the end of 2017. “Baseball is very stop-start and it lends itself to measurement, but on the flip side there are a lot more events going on during a football match than there are in a baseball game – and anybody who is well versed in modelling, whether from a computer science background or a mathematics background, will tell you the more data you have, the better you are able to put the models together.”
That’s something another of the film’s subjects knows something about. FourFourTwo turns to STATS director of data science Patrick Lucey to weigh in on the future of big data and deep learning in football.
“Football has actually been collecting the most data for the longest time,” Lucey said. “But football is the most complex sport. It’s low-scoring, it’s continuous, it’s time-varying. It’s very strategic. It’s very subjective.
“So, just say you and I were analysing the game. We could come up with different opinions. When you compare it to other sports like basketball – high-scoring. Tennis and American football, they’re segmented. Baseball, it’s segmented. It’s very easy to do the analysis. You have a lot of data points.
“So the key for football is actually to come up with the right language and ask the right question for specific things. How was our formation? How did we press? How were we on set pieces? Did we attack via the counter attack? All these different things, we have to learn directly from data.”
That’s particularly true for clubs without the luxury of bulging pocketbooks. The film explores the use of data by clubs such as Forest Green Rovers, a STATS partner playing in English Football League Two, and acknowledges that the high-stakes nature of promotion and relegation in football makes things that much more consequential.
“The recruitment side for a small club is really, really key,” Forest Green manager Mark Cooper said. “It’s important that we’re different. In January, every club will be after the same players, and probably we can’t compete for those players that everyone’s after, so we have to find other types of players. We have a different way of playing, and we have to find players that can fit into that. And we have to use the data for that.”
Looking forward, what’s already been achieved is just the beginning with ever-advancing methods of predictive analytics and player assessment in the works.
“There’s lots of cool stuff that people haven’t thought about,” Lucey said. “The idea of ghosting – being able to simulate plays that you haven’t seen before.
“You could have an example of a play and you can say, ‘Well, how does this team defend in that situation? What happens if I switch that player with another player? How does the outcome change? In terms of just body shape – where’s the player facing? Are they making the right decisions? In terms of injury analytics, player load, fatigue, how’s their technique changing over time.’ Now, using deep neural networks, we can actually simulate these things.”
It amounts to the world’s most popular sport finally being able to fine-tune the problem solving Beane took on nearly two decades ago.
“The goal gets paid for in today’s world. Which, shouldn’t the guy who created all those things?” Beane said. “Measuring those things is really the challenge. Giving proper credit to player performance is what we’re all trying to achieve, not just in baseball but in every sport.”
STATS Playing Styles can quantitatively break down the counter attack that helped transform a last-place club into an MLS semifinalist under a first-year coach. And while Houston won’t be an underdog in 2018, playing like one still makes sense.
Calling the Houston Dynamo a playoff mainstay for their first eight seasons after moving from San Jose might be underselling their initial accomplishments. Half of those campaigns resulted in MLS Cup final appearances, and half of those ended in celebration. That changed in 2014, but after a three-year absence, the Dynamo returned to the postseason in 2017 under first-year coach Wilmer Cabrera.
It was an impressive turnaround for a club that posted a franchise-worst one point per match just a season before. The forgettable nature of 2016 went beyond results. It was also unmemorable in terms of style. There wasn’t anything distinguishing the Dynamo from the league, while in 2017 they excelled at 44 percent above the league average in the ever-dangerous area of counter attacking. The only other club in that neighborhood was Portland (plus-32), while New England (+17) and Salt Lake (+17) were the only other sides higher than +10 percent.
Before analyzing the good, let’s rewind for a moment and consider post-All-Star break 2016, a 14-match stretch two months removed from the club’s midseason coaching change to interim boss Wade Barrett on May 28. Houston gathered 15 points with a minus-3 goal difference in that span:
The Dynamo were slightly above league averages in possession-based styles such as build up and sustained threat, but they were far from a ball-dominant side. They didn’t make up for that anywhere else – they didn’t employ a high press or have a particular proficiency with crossing, and their counter was middling.
It resulted in 71 possessions on which counter attacking accounted for more than 50 percent of the value, 23 shots and three goals – or 5.1 possessions, 1.6 shots and 0.2 goals per game.
Under Cabrera, Houston scored 18 more goals than 2016. Its 57 goals for trailed only Portland in the Western Conference, while it conceded exactly the same as 2016 (45).
This scoring, seemingly counterintuitively, coincided with the departure of Will Bruin, who went on to star with MLS runner-up Seattle. But it had less to do with one individual than an impressive collective counter attack. To name a few, Alex’s midfield influence changed, Erick Torres and Mauro Manotas took on larger roles, and Alberth Elis was brought in.
We’ll get back to individuals. First, the more basic team deviations.
Notice the changes in style for the entirety of the 2017 campaign from their 2-1 home win against Seattle on March 4 through the Western Conference finals:
This translates to 278 counter-attack possessions, 90 shots and 11 goals – or 7.1, 2.3 and 0.3 per match.
Houston’s 11 goals scored off the counter matched Real Salt Lake for second and trailed only New England (14). These goals led to success with the Dynamo going 7-1-2 when scoring on at least one counter attack. In matches with more than three counter-attack shots, they were 8-0-3.
But what might be even more fascinating to consider is that, for the Dynamo, it wasn’t all about counter-attack chances and goals. Their results came when the style itself was at least present. When generating fewer than seven counter-attack possessions, Houston was 3-10-4 (0.76 team points per match). With seven or more, it was 12-2-8 (2.0 points per match).
Let’s now highlight an individual role that helped implement this style under Cabrera.
Begin with traditional individual statistics for carryover players from Houston’s 2016 side, and you’ll see Alex finished 2017 with 11 assists. That tied for 12th in MLS, but it came after managing a total of four in his previous six MLS seasons. Something was up, and part of that something was transitional responsibility in the midfield.
Dig deeper into counter-attack distances covered, and you’ll see Alex’s highest levels of offensive contribution came in the counter. Broken down to consider only the team’s play when Alex was on the field, he accounted for 20 percent of Houston’s counter distance passed, which ranked highest in output among Dynamo regulars. He was also at 20 percent in counter distance dribbled, which trailed only Elis (34) and Romell Quioto (22). Remember, these are on-pitch contributions, so Elis did not account for 34 percent of the club’s counter dribbling for the entire season but rather 34 percent of that distance covered during his 2,036 minutes played.
Now consider Alex’s 2016 numbers. He accounted for 19 percent of the counter dribble, so there was actually very little proportional deviation. But his counter passing on-pitch contribution was a mere six percent in 2016, and that was for a club that countered as a whole far less. At 20 percent in 2017 for a side that countered far more, we begin to see a specific style of play in which opportunity for a drastic increase in assists opened up for the midfielder.
This is the style and individual play that got the Dynamo back into the postseason, and it’s the style that allowed them to progress to the conference finals. Consider their playing styles for their first three playoff matches against Kansas City and Portland:
The Dynamo played an even more compact style than they did in the regular season, and it resulted in an even higher propensity to counter. On the counter in those three matches: 32 possessions, seven shots and a goal. Not just any goal – a rather important one that got Houston past Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in the knockout round after a Juan Cabezas defensive-half regain and outlet pass to Vicente Sanchez on the right side. He carried the ball to the end line and crossed to Elis for the extra-time winner.
But what was almost ubiquitous in the regular season was ephemeral in the postseason. That style wasn’t present once a trip to the MLS Cup was on the line. Consider Houston’s styles for its last-four tie with Seattle, which ended in a 5-0 aggregate defeat:
The Dynamo held the ball more in their own half, and nothing came from it. On the counter: four possessions, one shot, no goals.
This came after two regular-season matches against the Sounders in which Houston played its compact game and broke out when it saw opportunity – +27 of league average in the counter, +20 in direct play and +6 high press with little possession to speak of in maintenance (-39), build up (-57), sustained threat (-30) or fast tempo (-55). The West foes split six points at a 2-2 aggregate.
When Houston opens the 2018 season on March 3 against Atlanta, it’s no longer going to have the underdog label it did entering last season – a label that often goes along with a compact, counter-attacking style. Cabrera recognizes this:
“There are players and teams that like not being the favorites and when they become the favorites, they falter,” he told the club’s official website earlier this month. “We need to measure ourselves because if they’re going to call us favorites, we have to prepare ourselves to deal with that pressure and with the weight of what it means to be the favorite in a match.”
Labels don’t mean much on their own, but we all know a favorite typically displays ball-dominant tactics. Stylistically, the Dynamo might want to take a counterintuitive approach.
It’s always been a conversation starter. Conversation has a tendency to escalate to debate. Debate at times gives way to argument.
And it goes 98 footballers deeper than that never-ending question: Messi or Ronaldo? In the FourFourTwo UK office, a friendship occasionally cools off for a day or two when compiling the 100 Best Players in the World.
The same thing happens across the Atlantic in the STATS headquarters as the list is revealed, so 2017 brings a fitting union of expert opinion and reliable data. FourFourTwo enlisted STATS this year to provide the leading football publication with analytical support for their much-anticipated annual list.
The 2017 version marks its 11th year, but it’s the first with STATS augmenting the collective opinion of FourFourTwo’s extensive worldwide staff of journalists. The list is being revealed from No. 100 to No. 1 over the course of the week, and it’s the culmination of a comprehensive global effort to provide an objective take on the calendar year’s performances.
“I would always say that it’s a starting point for conversation,” said FourFourTwo Global Digital Editor Gary Parkinson. “It’s a collective opinion. It’s a snapshot of the moment in time. There are a lot of moving parts to the 100 because it’s not just about the year that’s gone. There’s also an element of form is temporary; class is permanent.
“There are a lot of different ways to look at this, but it is certainly an entertaining and involving and engaging way to look at the year gone by, and it’s fascinating to look back through the history as well to look at years past. Hopefully we’re doing our job in analysing and educating, and STATS is now a part of it.”
This year, it began with a 19-year-old American at No. 100:
It’s the latest step for a partnership in which STATS has provided FourFourTwo with live data-driven insights during Premier League matches for the 2017/18 campaign.
“It’s very impressive – the level of service that STATS provides,” Parkinson said. “It easily meets the level of information we need to back up our judgement. It’s not purely a data-driven list, but we can use the data that STATS provides to make our case for why this guy should be No. 37 whereas the other is No. 38.”
Those numbers were revealed midweek with an Italian playing in Paris narrowly missing the top 30:
The value of the list doesn’t end at the fan engagement level. FourFourTwo isn’t shy about pointing out the occasional miss, but over a decade of the list shows there’s plenty to be gained from it in terms of forecasting football trends. At the list’s 10-year mark, FourFourTwo analysed itself, finding the 100 in recent seasons reflects the concentration of top talent moving more and more each year to top clubs. Or, from an international perspective, the list can help foretell how one nation might be about to experience an upturn in form while another is headed for a drought.
Evolving football trends or not, the list’s objective remains unchanged as it enters its second decade. Where certain awards in sport may heavily consider a given player’s collection of trophies, FourFourTwo tries to value the individual.
“It’s about the players within the teams,” Parkinson said. “Football is a team game, but this is an individual award that recognises that the player can be performing better than their team. So it’s not just about medals and even necessarily victories.
“A goalkeeper that’s playing really well on a struggling team might not win the most games, but he could be impressing. It’s about evaluating the players individually, and it’s not necessarily about the results of his team in the calendar year.”
Let the debates begin.
There hasn’t been much lacking from the Seattle-Toronto MLS Cup rematch in terms of promotable storylines – except for true quantitative analysis to help contextualize them and show how the 2017 version could be more entertaining than 2016
MLS got it right this season when it elected to schedule playoff matches for midweek, and the structure conveniently delivered an opportune conclusion. It culminates in the favorable narrative of an MLS Cup rematch between Canada’s largest market and one of the league’s most popular clubs, and both sides arrive rich with subplot.
The historical storylines of this final go well beyond Seattle-Toronto Part II: It’s a dream matchup of the club striving for the first domestic treble in MLS history – Toronto – versus the club plenty anticipated might accomplish the feat a few years back. Seattle never reached that level of success with what many would consider its most talented rosters, but here it is trying to at once deny another club of that feat while itself becoming the third repeat champion in MLS history.
Not bad in terms of avenues on which to hype the Dec. 9 matinée in Toronto.
But there remains the question of how North American media can better engage soccer fans in a market that’s still relatively new to the sport and a sport that’s still conspicuously devoid of the kind of statistical tools to make that job easier. Moving MLS out of the weekend competition it faced with American football gave MLS more of an audience to work with, but how does the league keep that audience’s attention?
U.S. sports fans are used to quantitative analysis to augment or fuel the above storylines, and that’s an area where soccer has historically lagged.
STATS Playing Styles can help.
First, it’s of note to acknowledge the league’s recent gains thanks at least in part to its shift in viewership tactic. It’s been an autumn of headlines pointing out rating declines in the NFL, yet according to Sports Business Journal, regular-season MLS viewership across all networks was up four percent from 2016 and 41 percent from 2014. In Canada, TSN/CTV and TVA were up eight percent from 2016. Heading into its telecast of the weekend’s final, ESPN reported a 38 percent increase for its playoff audience. This coincides with MLS selling out advertising inventory for all of its U.S. network affiliations for the regular season, playoffs and MLS Cup.
No one’s getting burned, so it follows it might be time to double down and enrich media coverage to make the most of fan engagement.
It of course helps that the rematch of last year’s MLS Cup worked out as it did, but regardless of matchup or audience, the fluid nature of soccer has always been difficult to objectively analyze with relevant metrics on levels fans of other U.S. sports expect. STATS can now do just that.
For Seattle and Toronto, the on-pitch storyline painted by Playing Styles pits the league’s two most up-tempo teams.
Toronto has been one of the most dominant regular-season clubs in MLS history, and a win puts it in the discussion for the best MLS team of all-time. Let’s first glance at what that looks like in terms of style for the club that won the Supporters’ Shield – with a league-record point total, tied for the most wins (Seattle 2014) and tied for the second-most goals in league history – and the Canadian Championship (the U.S. Open Cup is typically associated with the treble, but being a Canadian club, Toronto doesn’t participate). Here are Toronto’s 2017 regular-season styles measured against league averages:
Playing Styles shows Toronto might not differentiate itself from the league average quite as much as one might expect given the level of dominance shown on the traditional table with team goals and points. However, notice its fast-tempo style is 58 percent above MLS average, which led the league. Fast tempo is defined as a possession in which the player releases the ball to a teammate in less than two seconds or the player dribbles at a high tempo, which is all objectively measurable thanks to STATS’ plentiful Tier 6 data.
The Reds’ MLS Cup counterpart followed in second for fast tempo:
Seattle wasn’t quite as much of a fast-tempo side as Toronto, but it differentiated itself from the league in other ways – most notably build up (plus-30 percent) and sustained threat (+25), which combined with fast tempo, make up the typical profile of a dominant possession-based attacking side.
This is just the foundation of what Playing Styles is capable of displaying. It provides match-by-match breakdowns of team and individual possessions with their associated styles, which styles were present on shots and goals, how each player affects each style with offensive and defensive contributions, and much more. In short, it’s a tool that can complement an analyst’s keen eye and help get the point across with objective data rather than simply trusting otherwise unsubstantiated opinion.
As for the 2017 MLS Cup, an interesting consideration is how the above styles have carried over – or not carried over – into the postseason. Toronto scored three goals in four playoff matches, advancing to the final on a 3-2 aggregate spanning four matches against New York and Columbus, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the most dominant club in the regular season played conservatively in the Eastern Conference semifinals and finals:
The Reds sat in more, relying on counter attack and direct play with increased frequency. Compared to the regular season, they displayed increases of 11 percent in counter attack and 22 percent in direct play.
The Sounders, conversely, went at playoff teams with far more dynamism. Their direct play dropped off, while the previously discussed possession-based styles flourished:
It cost them nothing on the back end as they cruised through four games with Vancouver and Houston on a 7-0 aggregate. So much of what’s been said about them in recent weeks has had to do with not giving anything up, and while the back line and goalkeeping deserve plenty of credit for compiling the longest shutout streak in MLS playoff history, Playing Styles gives more complex context to the success. It shows the Sounders’ midfield and attacking players certainly deserve some credit for the impressive run of clean sheets. They’ve made things quite a bit easier on their defense with that possession-based success, not to mention a high press that’s increased its presence by 28 percent from the regular season.
That’s how each club’s regular season compares to their postseason runs. Let’s now move onto the specifics of these teams actually playing and how we can reach deeper levels of matchup insight using Playing Styles.
It’s one thing for media to point out how Seattle hasn’t defeated Toronto from the run of play over the past two seasons. They played to a 1-1 draw in their 2016 regular-season meeting in Toronto, went goalless before Seattle won in penalty kicks in last year’s final, and Toronto won 1-0 in Seattle on May 6 this year as Jozy Altidore converted a 23rd-minute spot kick. This gives us some surface-level historical context. Take it for whatever it’s worth. It adds another level of analysis and insight to consider a match in detail.
Looking into the playing styles for each club in last year’s final, it’s easy to see that neither club asserted itself beyond the 8-0 discrepancy in shots on goal, which makes it seem like the Reds might have flat out dominated the match. Toronto, despite that advantage, was at -21 percent of the league average for sustained threat. Seattle, meanwhile, was -70 percent of the league average for fast tempo in that match, which works out to 200 percent less than its playoff run from this season.
With neither team asserting itself in possession-based styles, one might think counter attack and direct play came into play. Not so. Toronto was at -34 percent for counter and -30 for direct play. Seattle was -41 and -27. It was a very conservative match that fit the profile of a tight final.
We could spend all day analyzing the specifics of why the 2016 final played out as it did. We’ll pick one and run with it in Playing Styles to show how things may open up this year. The tool allows us to dig down to individual roles, of which there are plenty of interesting ones to choose from on both of these teams.
Let’s consider the value of Clint Dempsey, who wasn’t around for last year’s playoffs but has three of Seattle’s seven 2017 playoff goals. It’s well known that Seattle won last year’s title despite not putting a shot on target in 90 minutes of regulation or 30 minutes of extra time. It wasn’t just the final. Without Dempsey, that’s just how Seattle played last postseason.
We already noted above how that’s been anything but the case this postseason and Seattle has exerted its dominance over the past four games, three of which Dempsey has played in. Dempsey’s offensive contribution percentage to the team output when on the pitch is 22 percent this season. Significant to say the least. It’s the second-highest rate among regulars on either Seattle or Toronto, sandwiched between Altidore (23) and Sebastian Giovinco (21). In the playoffs, Dempsey has upped that to 27 percent, which is greater than the two prolific Toronto attackers combined (25).
Dempsey missed the playoff opener in Vancouver, a scoreless draw in which the Sounders put one shot on frame with six total attempts. In their last three playoff matches without him, they managed a total of 15 shots. With him over the last three matches, Seattle has 40. And 13 have come from possessions characterized as crossing style, resulting in four goals. Dempsey scored two of those. It’s a style that was, like others, absent without Dempsey: The last three playoff matches without him furnished just three such shots off crosses.
This might be another away final for the Sounders, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to mirror the conservative style they showed in the previous one. From a media perspective, in this case, STATS Playing Styles offers a way to objectively show a U.S. audience how a soccer match might have more action.
Seems like something those with an interest in ratings could get behind.
How STATS Playing Styles Foretells Viable Continuity for One and the Potential of a Defensive Letdown for the Other
More than a third of the way through the Premier League season, the table’s top six come as a surprise to few. The same cannot be said for the clubs situated in seventh and eighth entering the midweek 14th round of fixtures.
Six months after finishing just above the drop and separated only on goal difference with 40 points each, Burnley and Watford find themselves in the top half of the table and at the heels of a few clubs that will be playing Champions League football into the knockout phase.
The Hornets have done it with a new manager, an identifiable change in style, and an influx of fresh talent into key roles. The Clarets have been patient. Sean Dyche was retained, and they trusted the players and style that made for a touch-and-go 2016-17 campaign would come around. Both have thus far worked out with eighth-place Watford five points clear of ninth-place Brighton & Hove Albion, so let’s make sense of their respective climbs and the contrasting methods with which they’ve earned results to determine which club has staying power in the top half.
Marco Silva arrived at Watford this summer with a bit of a mess on his hands after Walter Mazzarri lost 20 matches and posted a minus-28 goal difference that in most seasons would signal relegation. STATS Playing Styles reaffirms a lack of identity:
Just over three months into this season, Silva has been heavily tied to the Everton position, and it’s not difficult to see why given the makeover that’s taken place at Vicarage Road. Consider Watford’s 2017-18 styles through 13 matches. Note that they’ve become more of a possession-based attacking team with noteworthy gains in build up, sustained threat and fast tempo, but pay specific attention to the club’s counter attack:
A season after being 20 percent below the league average, Watford’s counter-attacking style ranks second behind only Manchester City (plus-36 percent) and ahead of Arsenal (+21), Liverpool (+16), Tottenham (+11) and Manchester United (+9). But that’s only part of the story. Now consider the efficiency of their transition game. Watford have had 70 possessions on which counter attack accounts for at least 50 percent of the possession’s value, and they’ve led to seven goals. That’s after managing four all of last season on 135 such possessions.
That’s what a new manager and the right players to carry out a plan can do. Those right players have been the 20-year-old Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucouré. The duo has accounted for nine of the club’s 22 goals, but their value goes deeper than that in Watford’s style. For example, STATS Playing Styles Player Focus shows Richarlison’s individual influence on the counter attack has been massive, accounting for 41 percent of the club’s counter-attack distance dribbled when he’s on the pitch. That adds up to 469.1 metres, which trails only Mohamed Salah (532.2) and Kevin De Bruyne (506.4) in the Premier League. In 2016-17, Watford didn’t have anyone in the top 30.
Here’s where sustainability comes in. The Hornets’ 22 goals for come in just above their 21.7 expected goals for (xF), which means they’re not getting lucky or scoring in unlikely situations. Their scoring has been reasonable when weighed against historical league averages, meaning they’re creating opportunities that should allow them to sustain that level of scoring, which is considerably higher than last season’s rate of 39 goals for in 38 matches with an xF of 45.6.
It’s been chaotic at times – Watford were a defensive rollercoaster for nearly two months with 18 goals conceded in seven matches – but that’s also part of what makes their season sustainable. Their 21 goals against are by no means pretty and are more than anyone presently higher than 15th on the table, but again, it’s not an unrealistic or unsustainable departure from what’s expected. Their 23.7 expected goals against (xA) signals they’ve allowed fewer goals than the chances they’ve allowed would foretell, but it’s not the kind of disparity that throws up warning signs beyond the kind of defensive problems they’re already well aware of with those 21 actual goals conceded.
And that’s where bad news might come in for their fellow Premier League climbers.
First, the good. Consider Burnley’s 2016-17 styles, and it’s clear this was a compact team that attacked directly:
Now consider this season through 13 matches, and little has changed – very, very little to the point that at first glance, it might look like the same web:
While Watford made changes, Burnley are showing there might be something to be said for sticking with a system that may be on the verge of working. Patience doesn’t often win out in football when results aren’t coming, but the Clarets stuck with Dyche, and Dyche stuck with many of his guys. Burnley lost Michael Keane to Everton, but they’ve settled on a deep-lying back four of Steven Ward, Ben Mee, James Tarkowski and Matthew Lowton, who have started all 13 matches together and been lauded as a disciplined and organised unit. Nick Pope has been strong in goal after Tom Heaton went down, posting five clean sheets in nine starts.
Burnley are seeing results, but it’d be irresponsible not to look deeper into where those results are coming from given their style is nearly identical to last season. The truth is they’re living more dangerously than the traditional table shows. The Clarets have managed to turn 12 goals for into 22 points in 13 matches, putting them a point back of sixth-place Liverpool. Those 12 goals are in line with their expected 12.9, so it’s not as if they’ve been unlucky and are creating chances they can count on developing into a higher rate of scoring as the sample size grows. In short, offensively, this is who they’re supposed to be, which doesn’t leave much room for error at the back.
What’s worse is they’re actually still giving up chances considered of higher quality than their 10 goals against imply. Their 23.0 xA signifies their defensive successes have more to do with keeping legitimate chances out of the back of the net than they do with keeping the opposition from generating chances in the first place. That should act as a major warning sign going forward in terms of sustaining that surface-level defensive success.
Recall that things started to fall off for Burnley around this time last season with five losses in six matches and 13 goals conceded. It may very well play out again this campaign.
That doesn’t mean Burnley aren’t the well-managed club making the most of comparatively meager resources that they’ve often portrayed as. They absolutely are, and they nearly turned that into another point at the weekend until a stoppage-time penalty allowed Arsenal to escape Turf Moor with three points.
It just means sustaining their top-half presence is going to take something particularly special, whereas Watford could be better suited for nipping at the big clubs’ heels.
STATS Playing Styles and Ball Movement Points Dispel the Myth that Barcelona’s Signature Form has Greatly Suffered Under Ernesto Valverde and Show How Philippe Coutinho Fits as a January Addition
A mid-August Spanish Super Cup defeat seemed likely to foreshadow Barcelona spending another campaign looking up at Real Madrid. It’s been anything but, yet even an unexpected eight-point lead over the European title holders hasn’t shielded the Blaugrana from criticism centered around the waning of their dominant possession-based attacking style. First-year manager Ernesto Valverde has said he won’t apologise for style when winning. The numbers show he might be right not to, and his detractors may want to take a look at the objective data before firing more arrows.
To say the Catalans are still at their best would be irresponsible because their best was another level of greatness. Even an undefeated La Liga run into November can’t hide that. Sergio Busquets, one of the holdovers from the club’s peak seasons, acknowledges they’re not playing with that same elegance he grew used to. Luis Suárez probably isn’t made for the left side the way Neymar was. Ousmane Dembélé is injured. Andrés Iniesta is still a midfield genius, but one with 33-year-old legs. Lionel Messi’s role has become more central and withdrawn under Valverde after we grew used to seeing him work into the middle from the right side in the MSN years under Luis Enrique.
Given Barcelona’s staunch summer pursuit of Philippe Coutinho, it seems they might have seen much of it coming and tried to bring in a talented player that’d fit Valverde’s system. And while STATS Playing Styles shows how Liverpool’s attacking midfielder might be the right guy to return to that style, it also shows Busquets might not be giving his team quite enough credit in his assessment of their early-season form as it compares to their results.
Busquets is on record saying the Blaugrana haven’t played “brilliantly,” which is difficult to define. It may look different, but the results in terms of objective style haven’t changed quite as much after Neymar’s departure as the critics may indicate.
First consider Barcelona’s style from 2016-17 when Neymar played 30 league matches:
Now consider this season below. Barcelona have actually played slightly more fast-tempo football without Neymar when measured against La Liga averages. Busquets might be noticing the difference in particular areas, which makes sense given the pitch perspective he’s working with: As a holding midfielder, he’s responsible for plenty of build up. That, along with Barcelona’s sustained threat – two styles indicative of possession-based dominance – have dropped off. Their build-up style is down from +125 percent of league average last season to +103 this campaign. Their sustained threat is down from +88 to +62. They’re still working the ball forward through build up at La Liga-best rates, though it might not be the level of dominance Busquets grew used to:
STATS Playing Styles also throws into question the assumption that Valverde has transformed the team as a whole back into the ball-recovery style of old under Pep Guardiola. They’re a top-six team in high press among La Liga teams this season, but that style wasn’t as absent last season under Luis Enrique as many have thought. It’s actually dropped some from +19 percent of league average to +15 under Valverde.
There are even deeper shifts that have come from the personnel changes of the summer, and some have been rather positive. We’ve used STATS Ball Movement Points in the past to show the now-quantifiable value of playmakers such as Kevin De Bruyne, and we’ll use it here to show how Valverde is getting the most out of two players who fell off some in Enrique’s last season.
BMP considers every involvement a player has in a possession to credit or discredit decisions with the ball and reward creativity. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play, and assigning a value between zero and one. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.
oBMP also applies to defenders, and it’s particularly useful with wing backs. Jordi Alba has experienced something of a rejuvenation this season, stating himself that he feels he’s been opened up on the left side to attack more with Neymar gone. Alba ranked 24th in La Liga oBMP last season (3.41). This campaign, his 1.31 mark through just nine matches is up to 12th and on the level of players such as Busquets, Marco Asensio and Luka Modrić.
One player he’s not ahead of is Ivan Rakitić, whose midfield play hasn’t advanced just because of Messi’s positional changes. It’s also been augmented with Nélson Semedo at right back as Barcelona’s long-sought replacement for Dani Alves. Midfielder Sergi Roberto had the job last season, which resulted in playing with three at the back much of the time.
Rakitić ranks fifth in La Liga oBMP (1.68) behind just Messi, Isco, Jonathan Viera and Toni Kroos. The initial reaction to that might be one of surprise since Rakitić isn’t scoring – he had eight goals last season and has none so far this campaign – but Barcelona have enough scorers. They pay the Croatian for his midfield process, and that’s what oBMP calculates. It’s been measurably better after he ranked 27th in oBMP last season at 3.19. He’s over half way to that mark in 11 games, and that’s supported in Playing Styles with Rakitić’s percentage of on-pitch contributions for his club.
First, 2016-17. The number at the base of each style indicates his rank on the Barcelona squad based on his percent contribution to a given style when he’s on the pitch:
Notice he accounted for nine percent of Barcelona’s oBMP+, and his player rankings among his own club in possession-based styles of maintenance, build up, sustained threat and fast tempo are lacking. Compare it to this season, and he’s clearly got a more involved role in the midfield’s attack with an increased oBMP+ contribution:
He now ranks second in on-pitch build-up involvement percentage behind only Iniesta a season after trailing 10 Barcelona players. He now ranks third in fast-tempo involvement behind Dembélé’s small sample size and Alba a season after trailing nine teammates.
But Rakitić’s offensive involvement only tells part of the story. Semedo isn’t mirroring Alba on the other side of the pitch as Alves did and Roberto did at times. Rather, he’s playing in a truer defensive role, leaving Rakitić responsible for more of the right-side attacking distribution and less of the defending. The result? The midfielder ranks 52rd in La Liga defensive Ball Movement Points (dBMP) this season (0.25) after placing 205th last campaign (0.23). Barcelona are leaning on someone else to break up attacks in important situations, and Rakitić is probably in more suitable surroundings to avoid giving the ball away in dangerous circumstances.
Do a player-focused comparison in Playing Styles, and that’s supported by a Semedo’s 10 percent on-pitch defensive contribution versus Roberto’s seven percent mark last season.
Let’s now look ahead to the transfer window. We’ve used Playing Styles here to show team form and deep-level individual production. Let’s combine the two to show how a player might be of use in a different system.
It’s easy to say Coutinho is a fit for Barcelona for surface-level reasons. He’s a player who can slot into that left-side attacking role, possibly freeing up Suárez to work more centrally, or Coutinho can fall into more of a midfield role to replace Iniesta’s still-busy but worn legs. However, especially in today’s transfer market with fees reaching incredible levels for players of Coutinho’s quality, clubs might need a bit more empirical evidence. That exists with Coutinho, and it goes beyond relying on the assumption that a move from a gegenpressing Jürgen Klopp system to Valverde’s is in some ways a lateral move.
Coutinho has only played in five of Liverpool’s 11 league matches this season, so we have nearly equal sample sizes of the Reds’ style with and without him. Consider first Liverpool’s matches without him:
The five matches he’s played have all been starts in which he’s played 90 minutes twice and 79 minutes three times. Consider the Reds’ style here, noting the massive increase in sustained threat and fast tempo, and also the dip in direct play – all of which suit Barcelona:
Ronaldinho has gone out of his way to state Coutinho would be a perfect fit for the 2005 Ballon d’Or winner’s former club, and the data shows he’s probably right about his fellow Brazilian No. 10. Coutinho can play at fast tempo and won’t be overwhelmed by a Barcelona attacking style often dictated by the likes of fleet-footed Messi or the overlapping Alba. What’s more is he might be the right player to retrieve what Barcelona have lost in terms of style this season because he’s clearly familiar with operating in tight spaces of sustained attacking threat like Iniesta. Notice even the ever-so-slight increase in Liverpool’s high press when Coutinho plays. That’s a system both Liverpool in recent seasons and the current Barcelona boss value.
It’s all supported by Coutinho’s involvements for Liverpool. He’s contributing 18 percent of their build up, which is higher than even Iniesta (15). He’s contributing 17 percent of their sustained threat, which at Barcelona trails only Messi (19). And he’s contributing 15 percent of their fast tempo, which would lead the Spanish giants. How effective has he been in doing so? His 17 percent oBMP+ contribution leads Liverpool, meaning he’s their most ambitious creator. That mark is bettered by one man on either club: Messi.
That’s a style that may suit Valverde. And Busquets might even call it brilliant.