Foles 2017: Eagles Won’t Get Foles ’13 or Wentz ’17, but Keenum ’17 Could Suffice

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Philadelphia Eagles fans have been in better moods than they are this week. Carson Wentz’s season and MVP campaign came to a sudden halt just as he did when he dove for the end zone against the Los Angeles Rams, tearing his ACL and throwing a wrench into the Eagles’ Super Bowl aspirations, just after he stood on that blown up knee and threw one last touchdown before leaving the team to backup Nick Foles.

Foles has certainly had success in Philadelphia, albeit four years ago with a roster that has turned over considerably since. His 27-2 touchdown-interception ratio was the second-best in NFL history, and he led the Eagles to the NFC East title. It’s relevant to point out that he started that season as a backup to Michael Vick, as well. Since then, Foles has made stops in St. Louis and Kansas City, and was unspectacular in both places.

Foles won’t match Wentz’s production this season, and no one expects him to do that. Wentz leads the league in touchdown passes and has an almost unmatched ability to escape pressure. Philadelphia is still built to win, however. The defense is ranked fourth in yards in the NFL through Week 14, is first in the league in total defensive pressures, and it ranks fourth in STATS X-Info’s successful plays allowed. Successful plays allowed is defined as anytime the offense gains 40 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down on first down, 50 percent of the yardage necessary for a first down on second down, or gains a first down on third or fourth down.

And there are still plenty of playmakers on the offensive side, too.

The question to ask with the Eagles now is not whether Foles can be Wentz-like the rest of the season; rather, it’s whether he can become a quarterback that he himself is particularly familiar with – Case Keenum.

Keenum was a backup to start the season in Minnesota, but people around the league have long since stopped bringing that up when talking about the Vikings’ Super Bowl chances. That is because Mike Zimmer and the rest of the Vikings coaching staff have laid out a blueprint of success for Keenum that Doug Pederson and the Eagles should try to emulate for Foles.

It was only two years ago in St. Louis that the Rams coaching staff deemed Foles better than Keenum, starting the former over the latter for the first 13 weeks of the 2015 season. So it isn’t far-fetched to think Foles can give the Eagles similar production to what Keenum has given the Vikings.

What the Vikings have done well this season is allow Keenum to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers quickly and let them do the damage. Sixty-nine percent of Keenum’s throws have been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 90 percent of his throws have come within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage.

For comparison’s sake, Foles threw 73 percent of his passes in 2015 within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 88 percent of his throws were 20 yards or less.

Those numbers are very similar to Keenum’s. Where the similarities end and swing to Keenum’s advantage is when you look at the receivers targeted on those passes. Adam Thielen has emerged as one of the best receivers in the NFL in 2017, and if Keenum gets a big contract after this season, Thielen better get a thank you card. Consider how far above average Thielen has been in both the short (0-10 yards) and intermediate (11-20 yards) passing game:

Short: 40 catches for 377 yards (league average: 23.6 catches for 210.7 yards).

Intermediate: 29 catches for 584 yards (league average: 10.8 catches for 193.2 yards).

On top of that, Thielen has been good at making guys miss, with 395 of his 1,161 yards coming after the catch. He is the main reason Keenum has been well above average in completion percentage on both short (71 percent) and intermediate (61 percent) passes.

Foles didn’t have anybody like Thielen in St. Louis. He did in 2013 with Philadelphia when he was throwing the ball to LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson (Foles completed 64 percent of his passes that year), and he will again now with Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz. Compare Ertz’s work in the short passing game and Jeffery’s in the intermediate to Thielen:

Ertz in short passing game: 43 catches for 364 yards.

Jeffery in the intermediate passing game: 25 catches for 421 yards.

Those numbers are pretty similar. And when you add in the rushing attack from both teams (Philadelphia is second in the NFL in rushing, Minnesota is eighth) and defenses (Philadelphia is fifth in scoring defense, Minnesota is third), both Foles and Keenum have a very similar – very strong –supporting cast surrounding them.

What Keenum does a lot better than Foles is make plays outside of the passing game. He has picked up 11 first downs with his feet, and has eluded pressure to the tune of only 15 sacks this season. Foles only ran for four first downs in 2015, though when he was forced to use his legs more in 2013 in Chip Kelly’s offense, he ran for 15 first downs.

Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach that season just happened to be Doug Pederson, so the Eagles head coach had a front row seat to Foles’ historic 2013 season. Will Foles be able to repeat that? Probably not. Those numbers are pretty steep: 119.2 QB rating, 9.1 yards per attempt, and that 27-2 TD-INT ratio.

But if he can get the ball out of his hands quickly to let Ertz, Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and the stable of running backs continue making plays, he can put up numbers similar to Keenum’s: 96.2 rating, 7.4 yards/attempt, 2.6 TD-INT ratio. If Foles does that, we could still see an Eagles-Vikings matchup in the NFC Championship game.

The Angels’ No-Risk, Unknown-Reward Gamble on Shohei Ohtani

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Analyzing Ohtani’s career in Japan on the mound and in the batter’s box using STATS’ advanced TVL data and video

Shohei Ohtani’s story elicits natural intrigue among Major League Baseball obsessives who have grown comfortable with a version of the game known for pitchers performing terribly at the plate. Those with a gift to make hitters look foolish appear so themselves a majority of the time when stepping in the batter’s box.

It’s why Ohtani’s credentials seem almost fabricated. A 23-year-old Japanese ballplayer who throws a 100 mph fastball right-handed and bashes 400-foot homers left-handed while batting cleanup in the same game he’s the starting pitcher? C’mon.

Embellished seems more appropriate, though. That made-for-Hollywood scouting report doesn’t include stretches of control problems on the mound, a roughly 30 percent career strikeout rate at the dish and a recent injury history that could hinder an immediate rise to MLB stardom.

But the Los Angeles Angels are buying the script with the happy ending prior to the tear-down edits – and rightfully so. Paying roughly $24 million – when counting the $20 million posting fee to the Nippon Ham Fighters, $2.5 million signing bonus to Ohtani and his $545,000 salary over the next two years – for what amounts to a prospect with seemingly no ceiling is a no-brainer. And that’s without mentioning Ohtani will still be under the Angels’ control when he becomes arbitration-eligible prior to his third MLB season.

It’s a no-risk, unknown-reward gamble the Angels had to take despite knowing about Ohtani’s right ankle surgery Oct. 12 and his sprained right ulnar collateral ligament – the one operated on during Tommy John surgery. The latter injury doesn’t appear to be all that serious, but even so, Ohtani’s potential both on the mound and at the plate warrant setting aside any immediate concerns.

The fact still is that Ohtani is a uniquely gifted player. That’s even more evident when jumping into the analytics and having a look at video from his five seasons in Japan. It’s the kind of video analysis available in STATS Video Solution, which we’ve used to make sense of other relevant offseason storylines along with TVL data.

STATS TVL data tracks pitch type (T), velocity (V) and location (L) for both pitchers and the hitters facing them. It records the data into categories such as usage percentage of a specific pitch, strike percentage of those pitches and opponents’ swing rate, among others. Here’s a look at Ohtani’s pitch selection and corresponding numbers:

Ohtani’s basic pitching numbers are dominant from 2014-16. He went 36-13 with a 2.25 ERA in 66 starts and one relief appearance, 549 strikeouts and a .196 batting average against. He made only five starts last season while battling the ankle injury, but in his last Oct. 4 he tossed a 124-pitch, two-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts – a masterpiece during which he also went 1 for 4 in the No. 4 slot in the batting order.

A couple things jump out in the above TVL stats. Ohtani threw his splitter out of the strike zone 69.1 percent of the time, yet he still had a 63.4 percent strike rate on the pitch. That’s because the deceptive movement helped fool hitters into a 57 percent swing rate on a pitch that far more often than not landed out of the strike zone.

Watch how Ohtani finishes a strikeout with a nasty splitter July 12. First, notice he pitches out of the stretch with no runners on – something he does from his first pitch of every game to his last. Then, continue watching through the replay to see in slow motion how the splitter suddenly drops off the table.

Ohtani ended an at-bat 404 times with a split-finger in his career in Japan, and 51.2 percent of those at-bats resulted in a strikeout. Opponents had a .161 average in those situations with only 13 extra-base hits.

His slider is nearly as devastating. Ohtani ended an at-bat 353 times with that pitch, recording a strikeout on 49.3 percent. Opponents had a .144 average when seeing a slider for their last pitch with only 12 extra-base hits. Have a look at him setting up a hitter before wiping him out with that slider during his Oct. 4 gem. With his breaking pitches working, Ohtani had enough left to hit 96 mph with his 115th pitch of the game.

A pitch with that movement away from the right-handed hitter in that location is virtually unhittable and nearly impossible to lay off – and Ohtani knew exactly where it was going. But there’s also the case of him walking 19 in 25 1/3 innings this past season and the control issues that have plagued him at times throughout his career. Ohtani has walked 200 over 85 appearances and issued at least three free passes in 35 of his 82 starts.

TVL data tracked that of the six pitches he’s thrown in his career – including very limited use of a cut fastball and changeup – he threw five out of the strike zone at a rate of 54.8 percent or greater. His fastball was the outlier, traveling out of the zone 46.3 percent of the time.

Here’s an example of when Ohtani’s issues bit him. Notice the catcher sets up low and away while the pitch sails up and in.

Ohtani is still young, and mistakes like that have caused him to show some frustration on the mound. And he knows a bit about taking advantage of pitching miscues.

The 2016 season was Ohtani’s best overall, winning league MVP honors posting a 1.88 ERA in 20 starts on mound while hitting .322 with 22 homers in 90 games at the plate. He followed that up with a .332 average and eight homers in 61 games in his injury-shortened 2017 campaign.

The following graphic shows how Ohtani fared in his last pitch of each at-bat in his career in Japan and the type of pitch he faced.

It’s fair to say if Ohtani faced himself, he wouldn’t be able to hit his own splitter very well. It’s also a wonder how Ohtani ever sees a fastball in the zone given that remarkable .353 average with four more homers than every other pitch combined despite finishing 219 fewer at-bats against it. Here’s an example of him working the count and getting his fastball.

Ohtani’s stance is nearly statuesque with just some minimal movement of the bat prior to the pitch. His arms remain up, and at 6-foot-4 he’s able to drive through the ball even when extending out over the plate like in this video.

Ohtani can be just as dangerous with that power swing when facing an inside curve. Watch as he turns on the pitch with a quick bat and sails one off the right-field fair pole. This bomb is later in the same game as the previous example.

Yes, the power that helped make Ohtani a known name across the world and had multiple teams vying for his commitment exists, although there’s no real way to quantify the numbers in relation to MLB. Hideki Matsui joined the Yankees in 2003 as a three-time Japanese home run champion who hit 50 in one year, then only hit the 30-homer mark once in 10 MLB seasons.

Ohtani does hit for average as well, despite his power stroke and high strikeout rate, by often hitting the gaps. That also doesn’t mean he’ll be Ichiro, who carried his style of hitting line drives and keeping the ball on the ground directly over from Japan to help him win the AL MVP in his first MLB season.

What Ohtani possesses is enough pop in that left-handed bat and a solid eye – he walked 78 times over his last 151 games – to warrant a regular spot in the Angels’ lineup. Manager Mike Scioscia has said he plans to use Ohtani as a DH in a lineup that includes Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, sometimes Albert Pujols and the newly acquired Ian Kinsler. It’s just a matter of where Scioscia wants to slot him and how often.

That timing will depend on Ohtani’s pitching duties, and it appears the Angels will move to a six-man rotation to accommodate him. It’s custom for Japanese hurlers to pitch once every seven days compared to MLB norm of once in five. That’s another reason why quantifying Ohtani’s numbers in Japan remains difficult.

Pitchers making the jump in recent years haven’t fared nearly as well as they did in Japan. Think Boston’s gamble in 2007 on Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was out of MLB by 2014 and was released from a Japanese team last month. Masahiro Tanaka has been better with the Yankees since coming over in 2014, but he had a 4.74 ERA in 30 starts this past season.

Although the Red Sox and Yankees spent a great deal of cash to bring them over, neither had the amount of hype that’s following Ohtani to Los Angeles. And he’ll be watched and scrutinized by curious onlookers wondering if he’ll live up to it.

STATS’ Data Supports FourFourTwo’s 100 Best Footballers of 2017

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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:

(Graphics by Olivier Maurel)

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.”

FourFourTwo will announce its 2017 top 10 on Friday. Let the debates begin.

Phased In: How McVay’s Rams Became Relevant with Improvement in All Facets

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College football is into the “blind résumé.” It’s meant for shock value, to stir the pot a little bit. “Team A has 11 wins, including four against top-50 teams, and a strength of schedule of 13. Team B has 12 wins, including five against top-50 teams, and a strength of schedule of 38.” And then they reveal the two teams. You know the drill. One is typically a blue blood, like an Alabama or USC or Notre Dame. But you’re surprised to find out the other team with a comparable résumé is someone like UCF or Boise State.

Blind résumés are fun. Let’s try one in the NFL.

Team A has four wins, with the worst scoring offense and the No. 17 scoring defense. Team B has nine wins with the No. 4 scoring offense and the No. 10 scoring defense.

Guesses? Team A is the 2016 Los Angeles Rams. Team B is the 2017 Los Angeles Rams. Okay, so that was a bit of a trick question. It gets the point across, though. The Rams have had one of the best two-year turnarounds in some time. Their nine wins are the most the franchise has had in a season since 2003, and they’ve still got four to play.

From quarterback-wide receiver directional relationships to Wade Phillips’ impact on their toxic differential, the Rams’ turnaround this season is not unexplainable. Here’s a list of reasons why the Rams are doing a whole lot of winning in 2017.

NFL teams start and end with their quarterback – Hello, Jared Goff

The Rams got their guy at the top of the 2016 draft, and he was less than impressive in seven starts in his rookie year. Goff completed 112 of 205 passes (54.6 percent) for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Los Angeles went 0-7 in his starts. His 63.6 passer rating, had it qualified, would have been dead last in the league. Yes, Brock Osweiler was better. So was Blake Bortles.

However, he has been better in just about every way in 2017. Goff has completed 244 of 392 passes (62.2 percent) for 3,184 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions. His passer rating – 98.4 – is ninth-best in the NFL.

He’s kept the offense on track, completing over 61 percent of his passes on first and second down (56 in 2016) and tossing 12 touchdowns against only four interceptions on the early downs. Goff has also been one of the best quarterbacks in the league on third down in 2017 after being one of the worst in 2016. In Year 2, he has completed 76 of 118 passes on third down (64.4 percent) for 858 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. His 2016 line – 38 of 65/361 yards/2 TDs/2 INTs.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with the new targets he gets to throw to this year, which leads us to the next item on the list of improvements.

Much of the groundwork was laid before the season started with key additions to the roster

Three of the Rams’ top four receivers are new to the roster. That’s a lot of new toys for Goff.

Robert Woods was acquired in free agency after spending his first four years in Buffalo. Woods has become the Rams’ leading receiver with 703 yards and four touchdowns. Cooper Kupp was selected by Los Angeles in the third round of the 2017 draft and has caught 51 passes for 665 yards and three touchdowns. Sammy Watkins, acquired in an offseason trade with Buffalo, has racked up 31 catches for 528 yards and six touchdowns. Those three receivers have combined with the rest of the Rams’ pass-catching unit to become one of the most dependable in football — Rams receivers have dropped only 3.4 percent of catchable balls this season (fourth in NFL), compared to 6.6 percent last year, which ranked 27th.

(Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

Woods, Kupp and Watkins have filled some of the holes in Goff’s passing game, as well. Using STATS X-Info data to look at Goff’s 2016 directional passing, we see he struggled throwing to the right slot (42.4 QB rating, four interceptions on 42 throws) and the left sideline (41 percent completions). His 2017 numbers are much improved to the right slot (115.6 QB rating, 4 TDs, 0 INTs) and the left sideline (59 percent completions). Much of the improvement has to do with Woods in the right slot (18 catches on 22 targets, 2 TDs) and Kupp on the left sideline (15 catches on 22 targets, 1 TD).

Los Angeles Rams 2017 receiving leaders through Week 13.

It’s not just Goff’s receivers. Consider Andrew Whitworth, a veteran offensive tackle who replaced 2014 No. 2 overall pick Greg Robinson this season. Whitworth, one of the best left tackles in football for the better part of his 11-plus years in the league, has been instrumental to the Rams. In 2016, Robinson allowed seven sacks, 14 hurries and was flagged 15 times. Whitworth has allowed four sacks this season, while being flagged only three times.

That’s just on offense. Los Angeles also added defensive end Connor Barwin, who has accumulated 15 hurries and four sacks this season, and Kayvon Webster, who has been a contributor in the secondary.

And that’s just on the field. Rams general manager Les Snead also inked a new head coach this offseason, which leads us to the next item on our list.

Head coach Sean McVay has unlocked the Los Angeles offense

The immediate impact the 31-year-old McVay has had on the revamped Los Angeles offense cannot be understated. McVay’s offense has been part of a new wave of next-generation offenses in the NFL.

After a down year in 2016, McVay has made star running back Todd Gurley into even more of a focal point than what he was in Jeff Fisher’s offense. Gurley will always get a lot of carries (he’s second in the league in that category), but he’s been very involved in McVay’s passing game. Running backs have caught 21.7 percent of Goff’s completed passes this season, most of them to Gurley, which is a complete 180 from last season. In seven games with Goff under center in 2016, Gurley collected 17 catches for 125 yards and zero touchdowns. This season, he has 48 catches for 563 yards and three scores.

Todd Gurley’s receiving numbers through Week 13.

McVay has also found a comfortable role in his offense for Tavon Austin, a talented player who has to this point been an awkward fit in the Rams’ schemes. As we wrote earlier this season, Austin has been used as a runner much more this year than as a pass catcher with McVay implementing jet motion into the Rams’ offense.

Perhaps the most impactful move McVay has made for the Rams came before he was even named head coach. It came in the form of a phone call, and it resulted in the next item on our list.

Wade Phillips becomes Los Angeles’ new defensive coordinator

As the Los Angeles Times reported, McVay gave Phillips a call after he had interviewed with the Rams asking if he would come along as his defensive coordinator if he got the job. Phillips’ answer was basically, “Sure, kiddo, if you get a head coaching job, I’ll join.”

Well, here we are, with Phillips leading one of the best and most opportunistic defenses in the NFL. Last season the Rams forced 18 turnovers, and the team flipped those turnovers into 42 points. On the other side of the ball, the Rams’ 29 giveaways led to 126 points allowed. That’s minus-11 in turnovers and minus-84 in scoring.

Under Phillips in 2017, the Rams have already forced 21 turnovers (fourth in the NFL), leading to 97 points off those turnovers (third). The offense has been better, giving the ball away just 15 times. And to Phillips’ credit, the defense has allowed just 18 points off those 15 turnovers. That’s a 163-point swing on turnovers from one year to the next.

2017 numbers through Week 13.

The swing in toxic differential is just as drastic between this year and last. Toxic differential combines a team’s turnover differential and explosive play differential, with explosive plays being defined as 25-plus yard gains. The 2016 Rams gave up 53 explosive plays to their 38, for a minus-15 total. Combined with their minus-11 turnover differential, it adds up to a minus-26 toxic differential. That was 29th in the league.

This year has been different. The Rams’ 44 explosive plays are one better than the total they have given up, and combined with their plus-six turnover differential, have a toxic differential of plus-7. That’s good enough for 10th in the NFL.

The Rams have experienced no bigger swing than what they have seen week to week from their special teams units however, the last item on our list.

The Rams dominate in every aspect of special teams play

Pick a category, and the Rams are a top-five unit on special teams.

Pharoh Cooper, a second-year return man out of South Carolina, leads the NFL in kick return average (28.7 yards) with a touchdown and is third in punt return average (12.6).

Kicker Greg Zuerlein has made seven more field goals than any other kicker in the NFL and has been extremely accurate all season. Zuerlein is 36 of 38, with one of those misses being a 63-yard attempt at the end of the first half versus New Orleans in Week 12.

Next is punter Johnny Hekker, who is a three-time All-Pro selection. Hekker’s 44.5-yard net average is second-best in the NFL this season, and the Rams’ punt coverage team has allowed just 5.3 yards per return.

When a team can excel in all three phases of football, success will follow. The Rams were proficient on special teams in 2016 but could hardly say the same on offense or defense.

Toxic differential tends to separate playoff teams and teams that get an early jump on the offseason. Since 2010, only 15 playoff teams have had a negative toxic differential, only three have gone on to a conference championship game, and none have made the Super Bowl. Speaking of the Super Bowl, teams to make it there have averaged a plus-27.5 toxic differential since 2010. No team since 2010 has made the playoffs with a minus-26 differential like the Rams had last year (although Seattle came close with a minus-23 in 2010, when it made the playoffs with a 7-9 record).

The plus-33 jump the Rams have made this season is a testament to each of the items on the list above— Goff, McVay, Phillips, the front office, and everyone in between. All signs point up for Los Angeles, as it moves forward with its first-year head coach and franchise quarterback.

2017-18 TOP 14 Midpoint Review

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With the TOP 14 taking a break until Christmas, let’s take a look at the highlights observed through 12 weeks of competition.

It should be noted that the TOP 14 is becoming more and more attractive for fans with increased action. There have been more tries, more points and more time spent playing this season compared to last. Points and tries have been constantly increasing since the 2014-2015 season, the year STATS became the official statistics provider of the TOP 14 for the LNR. Back then, an average of 3.9 tries and 43.8 points were scored per game, while this season those numbers have increased to 5.2 and 48.8.

TOP 14 is also showcasing more drama with many more teams in the race for winning the Bouclier de Brennus. Surprises have come from Lyon OU and Castres Olympique, who played extremely well and will be serious challengers this season. Stade Rochelais are also keeping their standards from last year when they topped the league during the regular season before losing the semi-final to RC Toulonnais. They are currently first in the league after they defeated former leader Montpellier Hérault Rugby on Saturday 2nd December. These two teams have been very impressive so far while displaying incredible skills in attack. They’ve both scored 35 points and averaged more than three tries per game.

Let’s not forget about Stade Toulousain and RC Toulonnais, despite many changes in their coaching staffs during the mid-season. They’ll have their say with the likes of Thomas Ramos (Stade Toulousain, TOP 14 No. 2 points scorer) and Chris Ashton (RC Toulonnais, TOP 14 tries leader with 13 scored).  Racing 92, the 2016 champions, will also be close to the playoff with their galaxy of top players – Dan Carter, Pat Lambie, Leone Nakarawa (the league’s second best carrier and leader for offloads).

Surprisingly enough, many of TOP 14’s top players so far are playing for teams that had a difficult start. Ben Botica (US Oyonnax) is the leader in points scored (134), while Willem Alberts (Stade Français) leads in tackles (already 200 made). The suspense will be intense even at the lower half of the league table as teams will fight very hard to maintain their position in the TOP 14 and not go down to PRO D2. US Oyonnax and SU Agen are currently closing the ladder, but they upset several big TOP 14 teams recently and could close the gap separating them from upper teams in the coming weeks.

TOP 14 returns on 22nd December for the last two rounds of 2017.

STATS Playing Styles Offers Growing MLS Market Opportunity for Richer Media Analysis

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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:

Toronto’s 2017 regular-season playing styles measured against MLS averages (0%). (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

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’s 2017 regular-season playing styles measured against MLS averages (0%).

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:

Toronto’s 2017 playoff playing styles measured against league averages (0%).

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:

Seattle’s 2017 playoff playing styles measured against league averages (0%).

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.

Burnley or Watford: Which Premier League Climber’s Impressive Start is More Sustainable?

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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:

Watford’s 2016-17 playing styles measured against Premier League averages (0%). (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

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:

Watford’s 2017-18 playing styles through 13 matches measured against Premier League averages (0%).

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:

Burnley’s 2016-17 playing styles measured against Premier League averages (0%).

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:

Burnley’s 2017-18 playing styles through 13 matches measured against Premier League averages (0%).

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.

Valverde’s Barcelona: Stylish No More? Think Again

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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:

Barcelona’s 2016-17 playing styles measured against La Liga averages (0%). (Graphics by Stephan van Niekerk)

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:

Barcelona’s 2017-18 playing styles through 11 matches measured against La Liga averages (0%).

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:

Ivan Rakitić’s 2016-17 contributions to Barcelona’s playing styles. 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:

Ivan Rakitić’s 2017-18 contributions to Barcelona’s playing styles through 11 matches. 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.

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:

Liverpool’s 2017-18 playing styles without Coutinho measured against Premier League averages (0%).

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:

Liverpool’s 2017-18 playing styles with Coutinho measured against Premier League averages (0%).

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.

We Thought We Might Find You Here

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Revisiting STATS’ Preseason Premier League Predictions by Using the Most Telling Metric in Football – Expected Goal Value – to Forecast Results

Arsenal head to the Etihad in an attempt to disrupt the Premier League leaders. Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge trying to further distance themselves from the English holders. Tottenham try to avoid a slipup against the division stragglers.

It’s going to be a big Sunday at the top of the Premier League table, and 10 matches in, it’s about time to revisit the predictive analytics that hinted we’d be sitting exactly here. The top five is surprising to few as the calendar switches to November, but we didn’t settle for a simple opinion piece when crafting a narrative for why this would happen. STATS gave the data-driven specifics of why that would be the case way back at the beginning of August.

First, a glance at the top of the table with traditional goals and points versus expected goals and points. We’ll explain plenty of this as we go.

Sortable 2017-18 Premier League Table

(Top Five Through 10 Matches)
TeamGoals ForExpected Goals For (xF)F-xF (+/-)Goals AgainstExpected Goals Against (xA)A-xA (+/-)Goal Diff.Expected Goal Diff. (xGD)GD-xGDPtsExpected Pts (xPts)Pts-xPts (+/-)
Manchester City3528.16.966.6-0.62921.57.52821.96.1
Manchester United2322.90.1410.9-6.91912.07.02318.05.0
Tottenham Hotspur1922.6-3.679.6-2.61213.1-1.12019.70.3
Chelsea1812.95.11013.1-3.18-0.28.21913.25.8
Arsenal1920.2-1.21310.32.769.9-3.91917.71.3

Manchester City

We’re starting at the top, but we’ll bury the lede some by beginning with City’s seldom-tested last line of defence and work our way forward.

We noted in August that City’s goalkeeping last year was part of the reason they finished so far back of Chelsea, and Pep Guardiola did something about it by adding Ederson. The Benfica import has been doing his job in the way last season’s keeping duo didn’t, even if he’s only been faced with 18 shots on target in 10 league matches. Ederson’s save plus-minus (calculated by subtracting expected saves from actual saves) is plus-0.5, which means he’s operating just above league averages. It’s not exactly on the level of Lukasz Fabianski (+6.4), Nick Pope (+5.1) David De Gea (+5.0) and Fraser Forster (+4.7), but he hasn’t been a leaky liability that’s canceling out the attractive work of City’s attack.

That was one of many moves City made this summer, and the spending spree turned plenty of people off to the idea of Guardiola’s supposed genius. It doesn’t take a football mastermind to hand out millions. But that’s a lazy way of looking at things. It doesn’t have as much to do with big spending as one might think. Rather, it has to do with some of the players who have been around performing to high standards, and for that Guardiola deserves at least partial credit.

We spoke in detail a few weeks ago about the once-hidden, now-quantifiable value Kevin De Bruyne brings as a creative force. But back in August, we pointed out that the Sergio Aguero of last season wasn’t exactly the Sergio Aguero we’re used to, despite reaching 20 goals in 31 league matches. He had a -4.1 scoring plus-minus (G-xG), meaning he should have scored four more goals than he did given the opportunities he had. Sure, we can say he was productive with those 20 goals, but it’s hard to say he was efficient. As was expected based on performance of past seasons, that efficiency returned, and he’s back to converting his chances at more impressive rate with a +1.2 mark in just seven matches.

He’s not the only one. In terms of goal plus-minus, Leroy Sane (+3.6) leads the Premier League, and Raheem Sterling (+2.6) is third a season after a -1.8 mark, the latter being one of the players we noted could be in for a turnaround back in August.

We also noted Manchester United’s finishing wasn’t going to be suppressed as it was in the second half of last season, and the Red Devils provided results right from the start.

Manchester United

If anyone tells you the Premier League has already been decided, at least make them expand on their argument beyond eye test and a five-point lead. Yes, City have looked like legitimate Champions League contenders, and yes, United have cooled in recent matches after petrifying back lines and keepers out of the gate.

It certainly doesn’t look good for anyone other than City, but what’s interesting to consider here is there may be more potential for Jose Mourinho’s side to close the gap than for Guardiola’s to expand it, and that logic goes beyond the obvious surface-level arguments such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s looming return.

We could talk about how Romelu Lukaku has scored seven goals in 10 matches for United yet still has a -1.1 plus-minus a season after being incredibly efficient at +9.9, but let’s skip right to the bigger picture of complete team performance. Their No. 9’s nice goal total with rather average finishing is a microcosm of the whole. United have a +0.1 goal plus-minus, meaning they’re right at their expected scoring for the season.

Their goals against plus-minus (A-xA), however, is at -6.9, meaning they’ve allowed far fewer goals than anticipated, thanks mostly to stellar work from De Gea. It works out to a goal difference discrepancy (GD-xGD) of seven goals – their actual goal difference is 19 while their expected is 12.0. That means they’re overachieving, so where’s the potential to close the gap?

City are actually overachieving a bit more. Their goal difference of 29 is 7.5 higher than expected. What it amounts to is a small amount of intrigue on the table. City’s 28 points are a considerable inflation from their 21.9 expected points. United’s are as well – 23 and 18.0 – but that would suggest the potential for at least a slight closing of the gap as the season goes on.

Here’s where we’ll go out on a limb with an intriguing deviation and state United’s defensive productivity might be sustainable because the sample size is greater than 10 matches. Mourinho’s side did this last season, allowing a league-low 29 goals with a 39.3 xA. Mourinho’s keeper did this last season, posting a +7.1 save plus-minus. Oh, he also did it in 2015-16 at +5.8. And 2014-15: +6.8. That’s a sample size to rely on. De Gea is not lucky. He is objectively better than most keepers, so United will continue to allow fewer goals than expected.

And then they went and added a central presence that Chelsea really could have used during this run of matches without N’Golo Kante. Nemanja Matić has further stabilized things for United, and that’s measurable with STATS Ball Movement Points, which we’ve used and explained in detail in a number of recent posts. Matić ranks 11th in offensive ball movement points (oBMP) among Premier League midfielder and 17th in defensive ball movement points (dBMP). He’s one of four midfielders to rank in the top 20 of each category.

For the sake of this point, the defensive number is the one to pay attention to – it means Matić makes responsible decisions with the ball in his own half – and that only helps the back line and standout keeper.

Bring in the surface-level changes possible such as a healthy Ibra working with Lukaku, and there’s at least some intrigue. But as we said in August, it’s going to take something special to deny Guardiola his first Premier League title.

It follows that it’ll take something truly exceptional for any London club to legitimately contend.

Tottenham

The love Harry Kane has received this season has spread well beyond the UK. It’s been immense on an international level with the 24-year-old being thrust into the Messi-Ronaldo discussion as a truly elite-level finisher. On the surface, that might be warranted given the sustained scoring run he’s been on. But you can read about that elsewhere while we focus on the predictive end.

Kane leads the Premier League with eight goals in nine matches, but the true performance numbers show he’s not necessarily distinguishing himself as the efficient finisher as he did last season. He finished the season with a +13.3 plus-minus, which led Europe’s top-five leagues. This season, he’s at -0.2.

This was the concern we noted entering the season for Spurs, and it’s played out on a team level. Sure, Kane has remained productive, but it’s hard to say the same for the team as a whole. In terms of scoring productivity, Tottenham has returned to Earth a season after scoring a league-best 86 goals. That happened because they were notably efficient at 17.6 goals above expectation.

That’s not all on Kane. As we pointed out before the season started, Heung-Min Son went wild last season with a +6.2 plus-minus, meaning his 14 goals were nearly twice that of what was realistic measured by league averages. Dele Alli was at +5.3. It simply wasn’t sustainable on a team level, and that’s played out with the two combining for four goals and a -1.9 differential in a collective 19 league matches.

As a team, their 19 goals are tied for fourth and their 22.6 expected goals for rank third. That means there’s room for improvement this season, which carries across to expected points and makes Spurs London’s best hope for title contention. Consider Spurs 19.7 expected points are ahead of United and 2.2 behind City, and the Manchester clubs may still feel occasional pressure from a side that wasn’t able to end its title drought with a statistical dream season last campaign.

Come spring, Tottenham may again have to settle for topping their North London rivals, though that’s far from guaranteed to happen.

Arsenal

The thrust of our warning for Arsenal in August was that strong goalkeeping could be as much a sign of weakness at one position as a show of strength at another. The Gunners’ +11.7 save plus-minus last season lead the Premier League, and this term they’ve shown how unsustainable that was.

That’s not to say Petr Cech hasn’t been bad this season. His -0.4 save plus-minus implies he’s made the saves expected of him, and less than one save separates him from Ederson, whom we spoke of favourably above. They just haven’t quite figured things out defensively, as is evident by those 13 goals against that put them behind Burnley, Newcastle, Southampton, Brighton & Hove and Swansea, while no one else in the top five has allowed more than 10.

But there’s a positive here. Notice above we said they haven’t quite figured it out. Last season, Arsenal conceded 44 times with a 55.1 xA. That works out to 1.45 expected goals against per game. This year, through 10 matches, their expected goals against is 10.3. Slide the decimal for your per-match average, which over the course of the season is a substantial improvement.

That signals that they’re at least not giving as many high-percentage scoring chances as they were last season. And for what it’s worth, it’s better than the title holders.

Chelsea

We began our Chelsea section in August by stating the following: “The Blues conceded 33 goals last season, which was third to Manchester United and Tottenham. That number matters because it was consistent with the club’s expected goals against (31.8). They didn’t have a keeper constantly bailing them out. Their system worked.”

What also matters is having the players on the pitch who make that happen, which hasn’t been the case and is evident by the fact that Antonio Conte has used different starting XIs in the club’s last 13 matches.

Kante hasn’t played since September, and Chelsea have conceded 11 times in the six matches across all competitions he’s missed after allowing five in their previous nine. Again, it certainly doesn’t help that Matić unfortunately now plays for the club they’re facing this weekend.

Add in backline red card suspensions and inconsistency with new faces, and the lack of stability results in a 13.1 xA – 41.2 percent of the way to last season’s xA through just 26.3 percent of their fixtures. It signals they might be lucky to have only conceded 10 times in league play.

The Blues’ expected goals for – which you can see and sort in the table above – is an even more alarming indicator, but don’t forget last season. Recall Conte made in-season changes that were a major part of Chelsea’s title run. But given the strength at the top and the aptitude the Manchester clubs are displaying, it’s going to take something incredible to swing the kind of comeback necessary for a third Chelsea title in four years.

We ended that season preview by saying three terms – productivity, stability and efficiency – are telling, and they’re more measurable than ever. Given how this has played out, we’ll add that they’re more predictive than ever, too.

2017 Currie Cup: Western Province Brings the Trophy Home in Matchup of STATS Clients

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Western Province claimed their 34th Currie Cup Trophy on 28 October when they beat their coastal rivals, the Cell C Sharks, 21 – 33 at Growthpoint Kings Park Durban.

On what was a sunny Saturday with three finals played in Durban, we saw the junior teams go head to head as the Free State Cheetahs U19 faced off against the Golden Lions U19, and the Blue Bulls U21 went toe to toe with Western Province U21. Those preceded the massive clash between the Cell C Sharks and Western Province in the Premier Final.

The final had all the drama one could wish for. The in-form team, the Cell C Sharks, who had an impressive 10-match winning streak ended by Western Province on the last round stage of the competition, were still the favourites with home-ground advantage. Along with that, it was built as a ‘family affair’ with the Sharks head coach, Robert du Preez, selecting his twin sons in the starting 15 facing his other son, also Robert du Preez, who played No. 10 for Western Province. Three sons and a father as the head coach – one Robert would lift the trophy in the end.

The match itself proved to be quite a humdinger in the first half. Both teams went pound for pound as the Sharks seemed to have the upper hand after the first 40 minutes. Western Province had other ideas as they came out firing in the second half and kept the Cell C Sharks scoreless for the rest of the match, scoring 18 unanswered points. Building on their strong set-piece, WP out-muscled the Sharks at scrum time to build the foundation for attack as they played to their strengths to bring home another title.

For the second straight year, both finalists used STATS as their official data provider, and three of the four semifinalists use STATS data, STATS GameLens and STATS Rugby Portal.

STATS would like to congratulate the Cell C Sharks on making the final and Western Province for claiming their record-breaking 34th Currie Cup Trophy.