Using STATS Playing Styles and Advanced Metrics to Show How Marcelino’s Valencia are Employing an Effective Counter Attack to Return to Spanish Relevance
Marcelino couldn’t contain his excitement and pulled up short with a hamstring problem after Simone Zaza scored a late winner against Real Sociedad in late September. The injury was of little concern to his club for at least a triad of reasons.
- Marcelino, 52, is Valencia’s manager, and no part of a professional football match has hinged on the performance of his legs since 1994.
- It was overshadowed by the fact that it gave Valencia yet another result to sway detractors amassed over the past two seasons back in their favour.
- This was hardly an exceptional occurrence. Marcelino, as a manager, once injured himself taking a seat for a presser.
It’s unsurprising to see Marcelino competing for the celebratory spotlight with his players in his first season with the club, though he’s said he recognises the need to tone down his touchline merriment. Given the past two campaigns, it’s of greater note that Valencia have had so many such opportunities through their first eight matches with the excitable man in their coach’s box.
Using STATS advanced metrics, we can show his players might need to reciprocate and go crazy for their new manager once in a while, even if he’s being particularly unpredictable when determining whether he’ll include each of them in his starting XI. Eight different lineups in as many fixtures might seem as erratic as the manager’s touchline fervor, but there appears to be something of a method behind it. We’ll get back to that in great detail on team and individual levels.
First, a bit on why Valencia’s strong start matters.
It wasn’t as long ago as it may seem that clubs outside of Madrid and Barcelona won the Spanish top flight. The last were Valencia in 2003-04 and ’01-02, and before that Deportivo La Coruña in 1999-2000. Modest success hasn’t eluded Valencia since. European football had been an expected part of the gig at Mestalla until recently. But there’s no arguing the past two campaigns in which supporters have endured successive 12th-place finishes – their first in the bottom half since 1987-88.
Los Che now find themselves second in the table as one of three unbeatens in what’s arguably Europe’s top league. The other two – Barcelona and Atlético Madrid – have reached at least the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the past four years.
So how do Valencia find themselves back up in the early-season mix for direct Champions League qualification? It’s not for a lack of competition. Quite the opposite, in fact, and it could be argued Valencia’s early-season fixtures have been as demanding as any Spanish club. Four of their eight league matches have come against clubs playing European football. That injury-inducing match came away to Sociedad a week before the same 3-2 scoreline played out in less-exciting fashion at home against Athletic Bilbao, Sociedad’s Europa League contemporary. But those victories bury the lede of quality draws in Marcelino’s second and third matches with the club.
Valencia left the Bernabau with a 2-2 result against the reigning European and Spanish champions after holding a lead into the 83rd minute, then followed the first international break with a scoreless home draw with Atlético.
Most recently was Los Che’s chaotic 6-3 win Sunday at Real Betis, who remain in the top half of the table.
So what’s changed from a season ago? A bit of everything. The manager, of course. Players. Players’ efficiency. Method – and that’s where we’ll begin by calling upon STATS Playing Styles before going more granular with advanced individual metrics.
Last season, Valencia went through four different managerial periods and three different bosses – Pako Ayestarán until Sept. 20, club ambassador and longtime centre back Voro González for the next eight days, Cesare Prandelli from Sept. 28-Dec. 30, and the ever-present stopgap Voro again until the end of the season. In terms of style, that unsurprisingly amounted to very little differentiating from La Liga averages:
They played more of a fast-tempo game than much of the league, but they didn’t sustain threat when doing so and were rather blasé in all other areas. What followed was a minus-9 goal difference for their worst mark since ’07-08 (-14) when Los Che finished 10th.
Through eight matches this term, there’s still not some overhaul of telling possession-based attacking styles that typically signify a dominant club – they rank 16th in possession at 45.3 percent, which is lower than last season (48.3 percent). It’s unsurprisingly a drastic departure from other top teams in the table. Barcelona are first (61.2 percent) and Real Madrid are second (60.6). But there is order to how Valencia score goals. It’s frequently about transition:
That plus-55 percent counter attacking style against the league average leads La Liga – yes, ahead of even counter masters Real Madrid (+37 in second). Among the top-five European leagues, only Benevento in Italy are countering at a higher percentage against their league average. Anyone familiar with the Italian table then jumps to a logical question: Why are Valencia succeeding and Benevento the clear-cut worst side in Serie A with eight losses and a minus-17 goal difference?
The answer is probably that counters ending with a striker tripping over the ball don’t mean much. The Serie A newcomers have had 59 possessions with a counter attacking value of at least 50 percent, and it’s amounted to two goals. And they spend far more time defending, as is evident by their overall style, so they’re not exactly creating chances in other tactically sound ways:
Valencia, meanwhile, are effective in their counter – more effective even than Real Madrid. Among Los Blancos 48 possessions on which their counter attacking style is of a value of at least 50 percent, they’ve scored once. Valencia have 53 such possessions and four goals after scoring eight goals off the counter all of last season.
All of this must originate somewhere, and that’s where counter attack regains come in. Last season, Valencia were 13th in La Liga in regains to begin a counter attack (154). That trailed leaders Real Madrid by 70, so nearly two per match. Their counter attack distance covered (8,705 metres) – made up of the total of counter attack distance carried and counter attack distance passed – ranked 14th. This season, they’re first in regains (53) and distance (3,171 metres) – more than a third of the way to reaching last season’s marks.
There are more reasons transition works for one club and doesn’t for another. To measure the efficacy of the correlating defensive and midfield play, we’ve got to get beyond simple sums. We showed last week how Kevin De Bruyne has been one of Europe’s most dominant offensive players, despite having a comparatively limited direct involvement with goals and assists. We did this with STATS’ ball movement points. BMP is a metric that 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 quantify. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes and weighs 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’s generated passes to lead to – or defend – one shot.
Yeah, that’s ambitious. So how is this done? The process is measured and assigned objective value using machine learning and massive amounts of historical league data to express 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 with net values telling the more conclusive story.
There’s dBMP+, which measures how many created chances a defender prevents – breaking up attacks in important situations. There’s dBMP-, which measures liabilities in possession – giving the ball away in dangerous areas. Combine that for net dBMP. While Benevento sit in the bottom half of Italy with a 0.13 dBMP rating, Valencia (0.27) lead Spain. So we’d previously established with playing styles that Benevento are spending a lot of time defending, and dBMP helps us show that they’re not making great decisions with the ball when doing so. Valencia might not be the most attack-minded club in Spain, but they’re at least effective in their own half. That might not matter quite as much for ball-dominant clubs such as Barcelona. It absolutely does for sides that have to pick their attacking moments judiciously.
So on the pitch, who specifically is to reward for executing the system Marcelino seems to be implementing?
We’ll start with the sexy goal-scoring numbers from a striker mired in that special brand of Italian sorrow this time last year for his happenings with club and country.
Zaza scored six goals in 20 matches in his time with Valencia last season and has passed that already this season with seven and three winners. With six goals in his last four matches, he seems a healthy distance from his Euro 2016 penalty miss for Italy and his disappointing spell with West Ham United. The numbers back that up with the 26-year-old ranking in the top five in Europe’s top-five leagues in finishing with an expected goal differential of plus-3.5 among a pretty elite group a season after posting a minus-1.9 xGD. Notice than in Spain, he jumped this past weekend ahead of even a guy named Messi:
As we noted before with ball movement points, midfield play has a lot to do with Valencia’s success, and that’s true on an individual level as well. Bringing in on-loan Geoffrey Kondogbia from Inter Milan as a central presence might have displaced 20-year-old Carlos Soler some after the latter became a mainstay in the middle last season, but it seems to be working out for Marcelino. Kondogbia, who’s attracting attention from top Premier League clubs, ranks second among all midfielders in Europe’s top-five leagues in dBMP, and he’s one of three to really distinguish himself from the pack:
Valencia don’t quite make the same use of the corresponding playmaker guiding a dangerous attack at the other end. Their top-ranked player in oBMP among the top-five leagues is Dani Parejo tied for 29th, but when filtering that down to only La Liga, it’s good enough for fifth among a star-studded top 10. It’s rather impressive when considering the opportunities and surrounding creatives much of the rest of this list has to work off of:
Bored yet? OK, let’s talk goals again. We can’t forget about Rodrigo, who scored five goals in 19 La Liga matches last season and was an objectively mediocre finisher with a -0.6 xGD. He was with Spain as they wrapped up qualifying last week for reasons that go beyond David Villa nearing 36 years old. Rodrigo has scored in five straight matches for the club and also got one in his start against Albania on Oct. 6. Although none for Valencia have been match-winners, he has compiled early-season efficiency (+1.6 xGD) to show he’s not exactly feasting on scraps.
Finally, goalkeeping. Neto, who spent the past few seasons behind Gianluigi Buffon at Juventus, has a +2.1 expected save differential, which is calculated by subtracting expected saves from saves to show how a keeper is performing against league averages. That mark ranks sixth in the division and, you guessed it, is better than his former mentor Gigi (+0.7). It’s not quite the level of Pau López (+6.2), Jan Oblak (+6.0) and Guaita (+5.3), but the Valencia keeper is still going above and beyond from time to time. It’s also important here to consider that Valencia aren’t leaning on him to continually bail them out in an unsustainable way.
So Valencia have a manager pushing for some consistency in style, and he has players making it happen at various levels that we’re now equipped to properly measure. That’s what it takes to earn 18 points in Spain through eight matches, three of which have been draws and another three being one-goal victories. But this is La Liga, home to the two most dominant clubs in the world in recent years. Recall Real Madrid’s Spanish-record unbeaten run of 40 in all competitions ending in January. Barcelona notched 39 in 2015-16. Is it right for a club that’s won domestic titles of its own to make much of this just yet?
Given the circumstances of the past two seasons, it somehow feels right for Marcelino to stick with those celebrations.