Let’s Go With Yardage Gained

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Why don’t WhoScored/Sky/every major soccer provider give us a simple “yardage gained” number with every player. Yardage gained is simply (passing yardage forward + carry yardage forward + dribble yardage forward), if you’d like you could conceivably add in receiving yardage for certain types of players/passes but let’s stick with the basics for now. Backwards passes count as 0. Closer to goal, so passes to wings but “forward” don’t mess things up.

I’d be fascinated to see that. It’s not a perfect number but as a sort of baseline box score number, it is pretty fascinating. If you’ve been reading lately, you’ve noticed I’ve used yards/minute a lot (Here, Here, and Here for example) to try and isolate interesting players. Could you gain your team a lot of yards and not be a helpful player? Yes, of course. But why not know how your team is moving the ball up the field? In American football, the yard is the base of analysis (more specifically the yard per play which is roughly the equivalent of yard per ball loss in my opinion) because while you can score on long bombs, the closer to the end zone or goal the better for your team. You can have the best strikers in the world but without moving the ball forward you can’t win.

“Progressions” like those used at StatsBomb or Caley’s stuff are nice, but only get counted if you break into the Final Third, which I think is not the best cutoff and ignores most plays. I like looking at Zone Entries but again it gets a bit arbitrary.

The ubiquitous Zones

These “Events” are good stats for certain types of players and moves but we should shift more towards looking at yardage-gained based stats overall instead of progressions which happen just a handful of times per game. Of course tying it together with average field position is crucial, who cares if you are gaining more yards if you are starting 70 yards away from goal as a midfielder. Field position stats are also massively under-utilized currently (“midfielders” often lumped together for example). To tie this together some indication of how often a player loses the ball per pass or touch would round things off well (to round it off perfectly we’d add in a Danger Zone progression and shot rate).

Anyway, this is mainly a call to move toward a simpler yardage-gained metric instead of our current Final Third entries or 10 yard passes or Zone 4 entries. Those all have their place but Yardage Gained is a good basic stat we can all use.

Now to avoid a post being completely hypothetical, I will slap on a couple of yardage gained team-wide stats here (from a while ago so not updated.)

You can see how big of outliers Man City are in how often they carry the ball while Dortmund prefer passing.

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Scouring the European Group Stages To Find 4 Hidden Gems

Great players come from small leagues all the time, what better time to get a sneak peek or a look at these players than the European stage where they often play bigger teams in big matches? Let’s look at a few players who popped out that aren’t in the normal purview of analytical bloggers.

Also a good chance to keep honing and looking at a few tools I’ve been loving recently: yardage gained (simply carries+dribbles+passing positive yardage), and Danger Zone progressions (same thing but inside Danger Zone, final 20 yards in front of goal).

Kostas Fortounis, Olympiacos, 26 year old attacking midfielder

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Players who gained more yards than Fortounis’s 2.9 yards per minute and had more Danger Zone Progressions + Shots than him: Ribery, Iwobi, Thauvin, Chukwueze, Suso, Pedro, Willian, Neymar, Messi and Hudson-Odoi. All play on a lot better teams than Olympiakos and will cost a pretty big fee to bring over. Fortounis played for Kaiserslautern for a while and was even in the reserves for Olympiakos a few years ago but has seemingly had a career resurgence recently. I’ve seen enough video of him to confirm he’s not the balding and slow Greek player you have as a stereotype in your mind.

A 2 game highlight reel from this year with a unique 21 Pilots audio experience if you listen with headphones

Mislav Orsic, Dinamo Zagreb, 26 year old left winger

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He rarely gets on the ball (31 passes per 90 in Zagreb’s undefeated Europa League campaign) and played much more like an attacking wing back (average touch more than 50 yards from goal when true “wingers” are often in the 45-ish range) but his shot output was excellent. No player in the European group stage had more shots + Danger Zone progressions from this deeper position than Orsic, putting up yardage/shot contribution numbers that looked a lot like what Mane/Aubemayang/Fekir/Havertz put up on the same stage. Zagreb played Fenerbahce, Anderlecht, and Spartak Trnava.

A bonus for Orsic is he seems defensively willing, at least in the Group he racked up 3.5 tackles + interceptions per 90.

Together here can basically be ignored, it’s Danger Zone progressions (carries+dribbles+passes) plus a shot rate but it doesn’t make sense in this form…model is passing model 1 is “average”, average of start is average touch distance from goal and TTS is % of touches in shot buildup (within 10 seconds). Yards/minute should be self-explanatory: yardage gained via carry, dribble or pass per minute. Negative yardage doesn’t count.

He has a fantastic transfermarkt page:

and a compilation of goals and assists against preposterously open Korean defenses that you have to listen to with the volume up to hear the Korean announcers

Orsic and Fortounis should be targets I’d guess for lower-level Bundesliga type teams.

Kevin Mbabu, Young Boys, 23, Right Back

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Not sure how hidden he is as I’ve vaguely noticed his name in future in FM saves and popping up on twitter occasionally. 5th in the Champions League in most tackles per 90, Mbabu’s strength was still somehow on the attacking side. He was a very smooth passer and when he touched the ball, shots came quickly.

Young Boys played Manchester United, Valencia, and Juventus. His age, stats with the opposition played puts him much higher on any list than the previous two and I assume he will cost a good bit of money.

Mauricio Pereyra, Krasnodar, 28, Attacking Midfielder

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His contract is up in the summer at Krasnodar where he has been since 2013 and there are worse targets to look at. He’s been right at about 2 open-play key passes per 90 over his past 3 seasons while he packs a defensive punch as you’d expect any Uruguayan to: over 3 tackles + interceptions per 90 over his career.

almost made it…

Ruslan Malinovsky, Gent, 25, defensive midfielder. He’s a great passer (yardage gained alongside Banega and Marcelo) but doesn’t seem to do much actual defending so he missed the list.

Amdaou Haidara, but he’s already gone to Leipzig.

All Bundesliga First Team

If you missed it…

Third Team And Just-Missed

Second Team And Too-Few Minutes

To the first team…

Central Defenders

Niklas Süle and Dan-Axel Zagadou

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Tough to beat in the air (top handful in duels won and %), good with the ball at their feet (top 6 in yards gained, rarely lose the ball), and leading two of the toughest to create on teams and central defensive areas in the league. It’s hard to find really anything wrong with how either of these guys have played this season.

Midfielders

Thiago, Kerem Demirbay, Kevin Kampl

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The top 5 midfielders as far as % of passes involved directly in shot buildup:

Demirbay, Koo, Haraguchi, Sabitzer, Hoffman

Top 5 midfielders as far as progressing the ball into the danger zone:

Demirbay, Sabitzer, Neuhaus, Kampl, Kimmich.

Top player in the Bundesliga as far as xA?

Kerem Demirbay.

Same name at the top of all 3 lists…he goes into my first team. Demirbay isn’t a Spanish-style offense-only player either, his 4 tackles+interceptions per 90 indicate a hard-worker without the ball as well and he’s not only hanging out waiting to play the final pass: only Kimmich and Thiago gain more yardage per minute for their teams than Demirbay does among “midfielders”. He even adds in a goal threat for good measure.

Right behind Demirbay on that list of yardage gained comes Kevin Kampl. Earlier in this series I mentioned Kampl as an all-over-the-pitch midfielder, I’ll explain that a bit here. He does progress the ball into the danger zone a lot: 20th in the league at 6.9 times per game. However, he also progresses the ball further back as well. He’s 37th and 38th in most progressions into Zone 3 and into Zone 4, joining a quite elite club as far as players who progress often into Zone 4, Zone 3 and the Danger Zones (2,1 and 0).

Only Kimmich and Hakimi are in the top 40 in all 3 categories with him, Kampl the only midfielder to do it. While he doesn’t light up the scoreboard with his tackles and interceptions he contributes there as well and is part of the ferocious Leipzig midfield that I wrote about in the Demme section here. Kampl moves the ball all over the field from his left midfield spot and trails only Witsel by a hair in my passing model among midfielders, the dynamism gives him the nod over Axel on the first team.

The massively different passing profiles of the 3 midfielders in the mix for the final 2 spots

Fullbacks

Joshua Kimmich and Achraf Hakimi

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The two ball-progressing kings of the Bundesliga. Getting it out of defense, through the middle of the pitch, or into the Danger Zone, these “fullbacks” can do it all. While this has come at the expense of a little bit of defense, neither of these teams has huge problems defending the Kimmich or Hakimi flank. Hakimi is respectively 36th, 23rd, 5th, and 31st entering Zones 5, 4, 3, and the Danger Zones.

Kimmich is 51st, 28th, 35th, and 27th. The top two players in yards/gained per minute outside of center backs and goalies? Kimmich and Hakimi. These two are pretty easy picks.

Attackers

Marco Reus, Jadon Sancho, Arjen Robben, Robert Lewandowski

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Two attackers each from the league’s top two teams at the break. It was very close between Lewandowski and Werner as for some reason I put just 1 out and out striker on each of these first two teams. Werner is a bit more involved in play (.34 vs .23 passes per minute), only Lewa, Alessane Plea Werner among the heavy good shot guys also chip in with dangerous ball progression as well, where Werner just nudges Lewandowski out there. But you can’t go wrong picking a guy at 1.2 xG/90.

Lewa also leads the league in completion % on passes entering the danger zone, right behind him are the two Dortmund guys along with 2 of the midfield players in Kampl and Demirbay. Robben would be close by.

I’m picking efficient, high-volume attackers who can pass, carry and shoot. These guys lead deadly team attacks: Reus an

The Reus-Sancho combo is Dortmund’s pathway to lightning quick attacks (with a dash of Hakimi mixed in).

No other heavy xG guy in the Bundesliga is a yard-gainer like Robben is. And it’s not close, the beauty of Arjen, shooting like a striker but gaining you yardage like a true winger.

There you have it your Bundesliga First Team. To recap the top 3 teams

Center Backs

First:   Niklas Süle (Bayern) and Dan-Axel Zagadou (Dortmund)

Second: Dayot Upamecano (Leipzig), Matthias Ginter (Gladbach), and John Brooks (Wolfsburg)

Third:  Jerome Boateng (Bayern), Manuel Akanji (Dortmund), and Ermin Bicakcic (Hoffenheim)

Fullbacks

First: Joshua Kimmich (Bayern) and Achraf Hakimi (Dortmund)

Second: Pavel Kaderabek (Hoffenheim) and Marcel Halstenberg (Leipzig)

Third: Nico Schulz (Hoffenheim) and Mitchell Weiser (Leverkusen)

Midfield

First: Thiago (Bayern), Kerem Demirbay (Hoffenheim), and Kevin Kampl (Leipzig)

Second: Axel Witsel (Dortmund), Kevin Stöger (Düsseldorf), and Kai Havertz (Leverkusen)

Third: Marcel Sabitzer and Diego Demme (Leipzig)

Attackers

First: Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben (Bayern), Marco Reus and Jadon Sancho (Dortmund)

Second: Timo Werner (Leipzig), Andrej Kramaric (Hoffenheim), Ante Rebic (Frankfurt), and Alessane Plea (Gladbach)

Third: Franck Ribéry (Bayern), Thorgan Hazard (Gladbach), Luka Jovic (Frankfurt), and Alfred Finnbogason (Augsburg)

All-Bundesliga Second Team

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Ralf wondering if we will get to managers at any point

In case you missed it: All-Bundesliga Third Team.

That explains many of the metrics I’m using to evaluate the entire Bundesliga and coming up with the science behind the scenes to guarantee you are only reading about the truly best. If anyone has any knowledge about whether players wear gloves in the cold or not, please send photos/videos and I will add it into the log and update the teams.

Now we move onto part 2 of this 3-part review of the players of the Hinrunde.

We start with the players who didn’t reach the minute limit but produced at a level that would have put them on or close to one of these teams.

Players Who Definitely Would Have Made It Had They Kept Up Their Production Over More Minutes

Milot Rashica, Raffael, Emil Forsberg, James, Bellarabi, Jetro Willems

Among players with 100 minutes, only Ante Rebic advances ball into danger zones more often per touch than Bremen’s Milot Rashica. Essentially every metric bar shot rate I track he excels at, lots of yards per minute, many more completions than expected, shots come quickly after he touches ball and he actually touches ball a good bit. Thorgan Hazard is only Bundesliga player with big minutes and both 0.4 xg and xa per 90 but two players hovering around 250 minutes crack that, Milot Rashica and my guy Raffael. The only players advancing ball into danger zone more often than Rashica are Bellarabi, Ribery, Gnabry and Sancho.

Color equals percent of passes played in shot buildup. So Rashica’s dark blue means ~20% of his passes come within 15 seconds of a shot while the blood orange of Marius Wolf means something like ~5%. Size of dot equals yardage gained per minute

Raffael is on this list as well and probably has been one of the most underrated players in European soccer for many many years. He’s been an elite passer forever now and probably would have massively raised Brazil’s floor and ceiling for about 3 cycles. A criminal mismanagement to overlook him time and time again. He’s old and hurt now, but still great.

Emil Forsberg, James Rodriguez and Karim Bellarabi are star-level players who miss the minute cut-off. Forsberg is the closest thing to Reus you will find in the league.

Jetro Willems has been fantastic but hasn’t played that much. The only other players who play as far forward as he does and gain more yardage per minute are Hakimi, Kimmich and Halstenberg. None come close to Jetro in terms of how often they progress the ball into the danger zone. He does lose the ball a lot but for a high-octane, low-possession team like Frankfurt he seems a great fit. But he isn’t playing that much. I think he should. Filip Kostic is a worse fit than Jetro for this Frankfurt side.

Players Who Might Would Have Made It Had They Kept Up Their Production Over More Minutes

Weydandt, Nelson, Guerreiro, Sallai

Hendrik Weydandt rarely touches the ball but has done tremendous damage at Hannover in his 500 minutes.

Everyone who is on twitter knows what Reiss Nelson has done, he’s a passing model standout and deep progresser as well as his goal-scoring exploits.

We’ve all seen the damage Raphael Guerreiro has done in the Champions League, but he hasn’t played too many minutes in the league. He and Gnabry are similar in that not a particularly high % of their passes come in the buildup to an attack. Good rates of dangerous progression and decent shooting rates but something is just a bit off from pushing them to the Automatic category.

An injury curtalied Roland Sallai’s great start. One to watch when he returns for Freiburg.

All-Bundesliga Second Team

Central Defenders

Matthias Ginter, John Brooks and Dayot Upamecano

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Wolfsburg, Gladbach and Leipzig are all top 5 in toughest to complete passes against in center back range and the lowest share of passes that enter this range that wind up as shot build-up. This is especially impressive for Leipzig and Wolfsburg with the high press that they run. Teams that run such an aggressive, forward defending style can be opened up at the back often. These two aren’t and credit goes to Upamecano and Brooks in large part for shoring that up. Brooks and Ginter have provided the best threat on set pieces among center backs and also have been passing threats as well. Ginter ranks 2nd among non-BVB or Bayern center backs in yardage gained (only Moisander of course who tops the entire league) and Brooks has been safe and neat with the ball this year as well.

I can already smell the counter narratives being drawn up “John Brooks Is The United States Best Player” as the Pulisic hype continues to rise and rise. That probably doesn’t need to be a counter-narrative, it’s true now.

Fullbacks

Pavel Kaderabek and Marcel Halstenberg

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Using a tool I often look at and struggle to explain, if you look at the how often passes are part of shot buildup in areas of the pitch, two of the three toughest to pass through “fullback” areas are Hoffenheim’s right and Leipzig’s left. To try and explain this again, if 50 passes have come into an area and 9 have been involved in shot buildup (within 12 seconds of a shot being taken), that is a score of 0.18 (18% of passes are involved in shot buildup).

Kaderabek only gets part of the credit here because Hoffenheim often play 3 at the back but it is is true the rest of the defense is often leaky, especially through the middle and the left. He’s not really lagging Nico Schulz by too much on the offensive side either, both just crack 0.4 xG+A combined. Kaderabek has done it by adding a hint of goal-scoring threat (0.13 xG last two seasons).

Halstenberg couples that defensive tidbit with being one of only 4 players who gain more than 5 yards per minute for their team: Thiago, Kimmich and Hakimi will feature later in this series. Marcel is the 4th. He’s a fantastic fullback, not sure how you define world class but if I was Jogi Löw and my left-back situation seems to be crying out for giving Halstenberg a shot. He defends, he passes, he keeps the ball. He’s great.

Midfielders

Axel Witsel, Kevin Stöger, and Kai Havertz

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Among the players with the 50 most successful Zone 4 entries, here are the leaders in completion% on entry attempts:

  1. Axel Witsel-90%
  2. Joshua Kimmich-88%
  3. Ermin Bicakcic-87%
  4. Nico Elvedi-87%
  5. Thiago-85%
  6. Manuel Akanji-86%
  7. Tony Jantschke-84%
  8. Niklas Sule-83%
  9. Dan-Axel Zagadou-79%
  10. Kevin Kampl-78%

Same thing with Zone 3

  1. Teddy Gebre Selassie-86%
  2. Axel Witsel-85%
  3. Arne Maier-83%
  4. Thiago-81%
  5. Achraf Hakimi-81%
  6. Ermin Bicakcic-81%
  7. Joshua Kimmich-79%
  8. Matthais Ginter-78%
  9. Niklas Sule-78%
  10. Dan-Axel Zagadou-76%

and finally with Zone 2 and above

  1. Arne Maier-84%
  2. Axel Witsel-82%
  3. Jadon Sancho-73%
  4. Achraf Hakimi-72%
  5. Nico Schulz-72%
  6. Kai Havertz-70%
  7. Marco Reus-69%
  8. Thiago-67%
  9. Max Kruse-67%
  10. Joshua Kimmich-66%

Who jumps out at the top of the page? Yes, that afroed man. He is at the top of the list for both despite being a central midfielder, with a few less options to pass forward to compared to a defender. He has a very strong case to be on the first team but just barely lost out. He doesn’t have the dynamism to push a team forward without much help, he’s a great fit in a functioning machine but that tiny little bit is what pushed him just into the second unit.

You see Kai Havertz pop up on that final list, he is also the advanced player (<50 yards from goal on average touch) with the highest passing model score in the league. 3% above average, topping Ribery, Sancho and the gang.

Among non-attacking midfielders (50 or more yards from goal on average) Stöger is 7th in passing model, 7th in Danger Zone progressions, 7th in yards/minute and unfortunately 8th in share of passes contributing to total buildup. All this for a team near the bottom in attacking stats in Fortuna Düsseldorf. He actually does real midfielder defensive work also, at 3.6 tackles+interceptions

Attackers

Timo Werner, Andrej Kramaric, Ante Rebic, and Alessane Plea

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Image result for andrej kramaric hoffenheim
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Color is what % of their touches come in shot buildup and size is how many yards/minute they gain their team

Many of the reasons for why I picked these 4 guys are on this chart. Despite his total wastefulness with the ball which usually gets on my nerves to no end, I’ve gotten over than hangup and picked Ante Rebic for my second-team squad. Props to me for doing that and being the bigger man. Rebic also cost me money with some dreadful performances in the World Cup on DraftKings so props to me for forgiving him of that $6 debt (though he did score once vs Argentina after completing 4 passes, giving the ball away 10 times and fouling 5 times in the first half to ease my financial pain). I’ve overcome all that and allowed his truly stunning Danger Zone progression stats to overwhelm his 57% completion rate. This is a unique player, like an even more wasteful Dembele, and that sort of limits how you play, so any transfers will have to be quite well-researched. But there is no doubt he makes things happen.

Timo Werner would have been on the first team if it could fit one more player and I still regret it. He’s about as good as Lewandowski is now with a bright future ahead of him. I don’t quite understand why he thinks he has to go to Bayern to stay in Germany as the league would be much more interesting if the league’s best young talent stayed at Leipzig, but it doesn’t sound as if it will happen.

La Liga First Team

Lionel Messi Barcelona Deportivo Alaves Copa del Rey 27052017

A quick break from the Bundesliga lineup to run through La Liga.

The obvious player of the season is of course Lionel Messi. He plays more passes per minute than Casemiro, advances the ball into the Danger Zone more than Iago Aspas and Karim Benzema combined, has 4 more goals than the 2nd placed guy, and of course leads attacking players by a country mile in yardage gained per minute:

Messi…Messi

Other Attackers: Wissam Ben Yedder (Sevilla), Pablo Sarabia (Sevilla), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico)

Just Missed: Andre Silva (Sevilla), Borja Iglesias (Espanyol), Roger (Levante)

Sevilla have had an electrifying attack that has run almost completely through Ben Yedder-Sarabia-Silva. Ben Yedder and Silva look almost identical when you look at their underlying stats:

Ben Yedder gets the nod by a hair while Sarabia is the man making it all happen. Players with at least 0.4 xG and 0.4 xA per 90 in Big 4 leagues: Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard, Thorgan Hazard, and Pablo Sarabia. Good company. He’s a yardage gainer in dangerous positions, one of the rarer player types out there.

Griezmann is all alone up top for Atletico way too often. The second leading player in xG/90 among regulars is center back Diego Godin, in xA it’s Juanfran and Angel Correa, way back. Thomas Lemar cost a ton of money but he plays deeper offensively than Luka Modric and is 155th at progressing the ball into danger areas, behind such luminaries as Carlos Akapo and Jorge Miraman. Lemar hasn’t fit at all into Atleti’s offense, he seems like a luxury piece that keeps a forward tilting attack moving smoothly, not whatever this Atleti teams thinks their attack is.

Diego Costa no longer shoots: he took 1 shot in the box per 90 before officially going down with the injury. With partners like these in attack, what Griezmann is doing is impressive: he gets involved a lot by passing every third minute and is in the top 10 percent in both Danger Zone progressions and shot rate on an atrocious Atleti attack.

Where are all the Real Madrid players? It’s very odd not seeing any popping up for attacking stats really, and reflective of serious problems. Karim Benzema (10th) is only Real Madrid player in the top 20 in xG and they don’t have any player in the top 20 in xA.

Midfield

Toni Kroos, Dani Parejo (Valencia), Ivan Rakitic, Rodrigo (Atletico)

Dani Parejo vs Ever Banega is an interesting debate because they have both racked up rather impressive passing numbers outside one of the big two teams. Now, Sevilla as a whole have super-charged passing numbers across the board which makes Parejo stand out a bit more there. Parejo also progresses the ball better than Banega has from a more advanced position (Banega as deep as Rodrigo from Atleti) but the big tie-breaker was the defensive numbers. Only cellar-dwellers Levante allow a higher proportion of central midfield passes to lead to shots within 12 seconds than Sevilla do. Valencia on the other hand trail only Atletico on the other end of that table. Playing such a prominent role in such a porous midfield sees Banega seriously docked and Parejo on the team of the first half.

Kroos as always tops basically every passing metric I’ve ever seen. Rodrigo leads the as previously mentioned shutdown midfield and is probably the best tackler in the league. Ivan Rakitic leads the league in interceptions for a midfielder and is right up there in the Fearsome Foursome as far as yardage gobbled by midfielders. Really it’s more of Kroos and then a Terror-Causing Trio of Parejo, Banega and Rakitic.

Just Missed: Coutinho, Modric, Granero (Espanyol), Fornals (Villarreal), Joan Jordan (Eibar), Beñat Extebarria (Athletic Bilbao)

Fullbacks

Filipe Luis, Jordi Alba

Just Missed: Marcelo, Ruben Pena (Eibar), Alex Moreno (Rayo), Jesus Navas (Sevilla)

Which fullback gains their team the most yards per minute this season? The obvious afroed answer in Marcelo, right? Well yes the obvious afroed answer is Marcelo but he is not the right answer to the question, that is Ruben Pena of Eibar. He loses the ball a ton though and while his right side has been shot-suppressing well, Eibar’s problem is never shot-suppression but extremely high quality shots allowed, which is tougher to evaluate over a short period of time. Marcelo and Navas put the ball into danger areas more than almost all attacking players, but their sides are so porous I can’t quite put them on the first team.

Center Backs

Juanpe (Girona), Ezequiel Garay (Valencia)

Just Missed: Aissa Mandi (Betis), Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Leandro Cabera (Getafe), Dimitrios Siovas (Leganes)

Barcelona and Real Madrid are giving up too much to recognize their center backs on the team of the season. Center back is so hard to evaluate, I went with strong passers and progressors who play well in the air on teams who aren’t allowing much when the ball gets central.

Cabrera is a specimen, one of the most dominant players in the air I’ve seen. He’s winning 82% of his nearly 6 duels per game, the best % of any high volume dueler in a Big 4 league. He also leads all center backs in yards per pass because he just boots it long every time he gets it and completes barely 50% of his passes. A good, old-fashioned defender.

All-Bundesliga Third Team, Hinrunde Edition

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Lucien Favre watches on with interest as the blog where he first burst into mainstream Soccer Stats Twitter acceptance as a great manager returns to the Bundesliga

The winter break is nearly upon us so it’s time to dig in and find the best players from the first half of the season. We start at the third team and work our way to the top. The ground rules:

-No goalies. I don’t know how to judge goalies, as they don’t show repeatable skills over such a small period of time as far as saving shots (see here) so it’s kind of pointless, you can probably sort by xG2 somewhere and see the goalie who has saved his team the most goals so far. I do wonder if goalie positioning can actually lead to fewer shots on target, but that’s another topic for another day. 

-11 players on each team, with a few (edit: more than a few) honorable mentions who got invited to the tryout but got mercilessly cut.

-Focus is not on goals or assists but trying to find who actually performed the best, so if you were replaying this first half of the season with all players in the same situations, these players would be the favorites for best performers again. Sorry Paco Alcacer and a surprising name or two.

-There are a few new stats I’ve been looking at to evaluate performances, kind of non-rigorous of me to introduce new and non-tested-for-stickiness stats right after writing off goalies but I’ve always been a use and feel guy, use something enough and you can feel the stickiness (note: not mathematically sound). I’ll be looking at carry yardage, Danger Zone progressions, defensive zone time to shot, yardage per minute, and deep shots compared to team and team deep completions over this 3-part series in addition to the normal zonal progression, deep completion, shot rate, etc.

-There are 33 players on these three teams:

7 Bayern, 6 Dortmund, 6 Leipzig, 5 Hoffenheim, 3 Gladbach, 2 Leverkusen, 2 Frankfurt, 1 Augsburg, and 1 from Düsseldorf

So 29 of the 33 players come from the top 6 in the league, is this too many? No, when we put pen to paper and our reputation on the line here at Saturday’s On Couch, we back winners. And I think this indicates that truly many of the teams in the Bundesliga are not playing at a high level. The money is just not there for lower table teams to spend 20-30 million on players, only 3 players went for more than 10 million euros outside of those 6 teams above. In England, Leicester alone crossed that barrier six times and teams outside the Big 6 did it 34 times. That kind of financial gap is tough to overcome.

-These teams will be released in three parts: one part for the just-missed and third-team which you are currently reading, one part for the too-few-minutes and the second-team and then one part focusing just on our first team. Starting now with the just-missed’s…these guys have played well and showed up with high hopes but it’s time for the easiest part of every coaches job. Time to cut some players and end their high hopes about getting into the Saturday On Couch team.

Just-Missed

Sebastian Haller (Frankfurt)-A player with enormous counting stats (9 goals and 8 assists) who will be a controversial leave out. I don’t buy that he’s a true offense creator with his passing, he’s 57th in deep completions and on per pass metrics, he doesn’t sparkle. He does shoot, and shoot a lot from good positions, but not quite enough to force his way into one of these teams: 11th best quality shot-rate is behind Yussuf Poulsen, Ibisevic, Belfodil and Szalai for example. The fact the 2 other members of Frankfurt’s attack have graded out better this year causes him to just miss out.

Josip Brekalo (Wolfsburg)

Julian Brandt (Leverkusen)-Both very similar to Thorgan Hazard really, who you will see later in this article. It’s a wonder why Brandt hasn’t quite kicked on to greater things yet. Seems better than what he’s produced, there are good players around him you’d think…?

Lucas Alario (Leverkusen)

Max Kruse (Werder Bremen)

Gian-Luca Waldschmidt (Freiburg)-Dinged a bit for not being involved too much (~.3 pass per minute rate on a very low possession team), but has some very impressive indicators that hint at true difference-making potential on a better side.

Marco Richter (Augsburg)-Playing all over the Augsburg attack, his passing numbers are fantastic. Tries extremely difficult passes and completes more than you’d think: top 15 at progressing ball into Danger Zone.

Michael Gregoritsch (Augsburg)

Nicolas Gonzalez (Stuttgart)

Dodi Lukebakio (Düsseldorf)-3 shot monsters, Lukebakio and Gonzalez add in a bit more elsewhere.

Niklas Moisander (Werder Bremen)-Maybe the best passer at center back in the entire league, but Bremen’s defensive softness in the center and his struggles in the air drop him off the list.

Aaron Martin (Mainz)

Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin)-If you put these two together with Martin’s offense and Plattenhardt’s defense then you’d have one hell of a left-back. Right now they are each half of one.

Nordi Mukiele (Leipzig)-Mukiele’s offensive numbers are better than almost every other fullback in the league and I desperately wanted to put him in, only letting Ralf’s thoughts sway me. If he doesn’t start him, I can’t quite pull the trigger but it was oh so close.

Lukas Klostermann (Leipzig)

Jonas Hoffman (Gladbach)

Amine Harit (Schalke)

Arne Maier (Hertha Berlin)-There are 4 players who are in the top 10 of completion % when advancing their team into zones 2 and 3 (the busiest attacking zones). Axel Witsel, Thiago, Achraf Hakimi and…Arne Maier. 19 years old. 

Pierre Kunde (Mainz)-Mainz’s atrocious defensive numbers in the middle of the park and his rare defensive interventions tip him solidly away from the team.

Maximilian Eggestein (Werder Bremen)-Defense again…

Jonathan de Guzman (Frankfurt)

Ondrej Petrak (Nuernberg)-Raw numbers aren’t that great but he stands out among the Nuernberg generally dreck-ish numbers. Their defensive midfield has been strong as far.

John Brooks (Wolfsburg)

To the official squad, and every member is eligible for an official Saturday On Couch “I Was Named All-Bundesliga Hinrunde And All I Got Was This T-Shirt” with this classic Homer on it. So if you know Alfred Finnbogason and think he needs one of these shirts, just tell him to get in touch with me.

Attackers

Luka Jovic, Alfred Finnbogason, Thorgan Hazard and Franck Ribéry

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Finnbogason leads all players in Big 4 leagues with his 0.98 xG/90. Some of it’s from penalties but a solid 0.8 xG/90 and while he’s not the most graceful passer, he’s not totally useless like a Szalai or an Ibisevic, he can pass the ball into good areas competently as well…not quite as well as his fellow attack Luka Jovic. Jovic has a good case to be on an even higher team as he’s now put up back to back 900 minute seasons with ~.75 xG/90 on each. Finnbogason and Jovic are the two top shot-getters in the league so far. The only reason I relegated Jovic to the third team is I still want to make him prove to me he can do it in sustained possession. Just 28% of his passes came late in a possession (4th pass and on in a possession chain, league average of 40%). I know this is how Frankfurt play, but I have stricter standards, the counters might not always be flowing and his numbers might prove to be slightly hollower than expected. Haller’s reliance on the counter is another reason for his controversial miss.

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Ribéry will be a controversial choice as he has almost zero goal production and is alongside and ahead of players with 10, 15, or even 17 goal involvements. I can hear the parents and agents yelling “Seb scored 9 and set up 8 or Thorgy put in 9 as well”…to tell those parents and agents off I will print this graph off:

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Ribéry still brings the ball into dangerous areas at just obscene rates. I think his low assist and xA rate is a bit of bad luck, he has 1 assist over his past 2000 minutes which is ridiculous, he’s played like a 7 or 8 assist man. There are worrying signs against Ribéry: his shot rate has never been great, he’s losing the ball a lot more, and shots don’t come that quickly after he gets the ball, but then I come back to that danger zone progression rate and plug him in. He’s the weakest link on this team and deep down I wonder if there is some truth to the cutting criticism that I’m playing favorites with Frank and keeping Seb out of the team, but then I point to the graph and ask “Where is Seb on here huh?”

Hazard might be likely to be a bit controversial that he’s “just” on my third team due to his 9 goals and 6 assists so I figured it’s worth a little explanation. Where he falls a little short relative to other elite attackers is his shot production, only 2 of his shots this year have come within 10 yards of goal (and one of those came this last game after I did a lot of the leg work, would it have been enough to push him higher? Probably not). He was at .16 xG/90 before this weekend’s Big Chance pushed him up to around .2 xG/90 on the season. That’s basically average but it’s his assist and passing work that has won him the most plaudits this year and there I just don’t buy that it’s truly elite. He is progressing the ball into danger areas at a good rate per pass: top 25 in league, for someone who plays on average ~48 yards from goal, that is quite good. It’s still behind players like Sancho, Frantz, Dilrosun, Schulz, and Gregoritsch though. Hazard does generally pick up good yardage per touch and per minute though, but loses the ball a little too often to be called a truly great ball progressor. So you wind up with a good passer, good danger zone progressor, and a bit above average open field zone progressor who doesn’t add that much from shooting. A very good player but just third team.

Midfield

Marcel Sabitzer, Diego Demme

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No midfield player plays more passes per minute on a non-Bayern/Dortmund team than Demme, he’s 7th in the league in tackles from midfield and patrols an area that team attacks go to die against.

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Defending goal on left.

Not only do attacks die there, but the attacks generated for Leipzig from the death of the opposition possession are dangerous: no team converts early possession to shots better than Leipzig do from this area. And unsurprisingly, Demme leads the way for Leipzig in this category. No player in the league has more midfield passes in early possession leading up to a shot than Demme’s 26. So he patrols this area, makes it a dead zone for opponents and then turns that death into Leipzig life.

Sabitzer doesn’t really “patrol” this area like Demme, more keeps an eye on it every now and then but has been a great attacking force. Among players who play this deep, only Kerem Demirbay progresses ball into danger zone more often than Sabitzer and he chips in with a good amount of shots as well. He doesn’t quite have the field range of the third Leipzig midfielder, who we will get to later, but he’s a fantastic passer up front. Leipzig’s midfield control games and two get rewarded here.

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Center Backs

Jerome Boateng, Ermin Bicakcic, and Manuel Akanji

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What I looked mainly at here was first off centerbacks from teams that dealt with passes into the danger zone well. So a low percentage get turned into shots. I figured howlers and high% shots are too low appearing to factor into this analysis but of course you are free to do so if you want. It’s a debatable position. I of course looked at how good of passers these center backs are, mainly looking at how often they can progress the ball forward without losing it. Being a good defender and just hoofing the ball aimlessly forward may have it’s uses but not on my teams, get it and play it safely forward. I also looked a duel win rate, I’ve come around to view that having a CB who can be picked on in the air is a big weakness, not sure I totally ruled anyone out due to it, just shuffled a bit around.

Akanji gets the nod over Diallo due to a slight edge in passing progression and slight edge in duels won. This is the last category I feel confident in because I don’t feel very strongly about my process to find defensive quality, which is mainly see what teams defend well and then pick their players with a lot of defensive actions/duel success. I’ve worked on PATCH-type system but haven’t got kinks out yet.

Boateng is one of only two defenders to progress 7 yards a minute (Moisander from Bremen the other) and he does it from a much more advanced position than Süle or Hummels (average position 61 yards from goal compared to 66 for his mates). Boateng has completed 53 passes into the final 3 zones, Hummels has 14, Süle 18. His fellow center backs at Dortmund are all at 13 or under and even Niklas himself at Werder Bremen is just at 41.

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Fullbacks

Nico Schulz and Mitchell Weiser

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Schulz plays as a wing-back so gets dinged a bit for that and for his general lack of defense (Hoffenheim’s left side gets worked pretty good when they are defending and he’s not too active) but his action as an attacker is too strong to get cut from this squad. If you look back at the graph I had laminated to explain to the rest of the teams agents and parents why Franck is in the squad you can see why Elvedi is in: the top 5 players in the league at progressing the ball into the Danger Zone were Ribéry, Gnabry, Sancho, Robben, and…Nico Schulz. After Schulz we get Demirbay, Brandt, Reus, Rebic, Sabitzer and a few more and then we get to the next fullback-type player: Mitchell Weiser, in 13th place. Weiser couples that with being a bit of a yardage-guzzler: 7th in the league in yardage-gained per minute that doesn’t play GK/CB. His passes are often involved in shots as well, but a quick look at his defensive numbers indicates why he barely made the 3rd team. I was this close to yanking him for Mukiele, but Mukiele losing his job pushed the balance just barely to Weiser. With these type of fullbacks, you can see why we go with 3 at the back.

Alright, that’s Team Three done…two more on their way. Team Two will also see the low-minute miss outs get their due.

All In On Samuel Chukwueze

The 19 year old Nigerian from Villareal has surged onto the European scene over the last couple months, earning a national team call-up, injecting a bit of life into a poor league campaign for Villareal and dominating his short stretch in the Europa League. I would not be surprised to see some enterprising team with a big budget make a move quickly for Chukwueze as he’s shown all kinds of promising indicators. Among players in the group stages at the Champions and Europa League, Chukwueze was:

-5th in Danger Zone progressions (passes or carries into the final 21 yard radius around goal). Ahead of him were a pair of Chelsea players in Hudson-Odoi and Willian, Iwobi and Messi. Chelsea and Arsenal destroyed their groups of unrecognizable Eastern European tackling dummies so their stats generally aren’t too impressive to me, though Hudson-Odoi might warrant a bit of an exception. A few players just behind him on this list: Ousmane Dembele, Leroy Sane, Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery, Pedro, Riyad Mahrez, Isco, Suso, Raheem Sterling and Neymar. All in the top 25 but behind Samuel Chukwueze of Villarreal. 

-9th in share of passes leading to shots. Almost 20% of his passes came within 10 seconds of a shot. This stat is generally dominated by strikers on the periphery of the passing attack who generally are only involved when they are looking for a shot, players with sub .25 passes per minute who are extremely advanced like Breel Embolo, Fredy Montero and Ishak Belfodil. The players at the top of this list who also contribute by passing the ball or carrying it for a pass or shot into dangerous areas are Mbappe, Dembele, Ronaldo, Messi, Salah and…Chukwueze. Hannes Wolf also makes it if you expand the list just a bit and a bit more gets you Fekir, Depay, and Vlasic from CSKA (another guy I really love). That’s quite the list isn’t it? Probably should end the article here but I just have to keep going. 

-4th in yards progressed per touch (carry and pass combined). This is among non-goalies and deep central defenders who just hoof long balls. Over 8 yards per touch is a big number, you often see this from fullbacks tasked with lining balls forward. Attacking players who are actually involved in the offense (more than .3 passes per minute) you get Yann Karomoh, Chukwueze, Neymar, Brahimi, and Carlos Soler (another player I absolutely love, love, love, but one who presumably has a $50 million price tag). 

-4th in completions above average (behind Kroos/Cazorla). This uses a model to predict passing completion% and compares actual completion % to that. He hasn’t made too many passes but it’s generally a stable number, if one that needs to be contextualized (which it has in this case). 

So all that to say is he’s moving the ball into dangerous areas a ton, completing a lot more passes than you’d expect, progressing forward in leaps and bounds each time he touches it, and shots come quickly after he’s involved. 

Now he just played 203 minutes against Spartak Moscow, Rapid Vienna, and Rangers but those 203 minutes were about as good as you could possibly ask for. As far as old school counting numbers: he racked up 8 key passes and 3 in-box shots, so this isn’t a Jordan Ibe-type hoping for box production to come from solid open-play metrics, there is serious shot production already.

In his 500+ La Liga minutes he is popping over 2 in-box shots per 90 coming from the right side. Villarreal’s 3 strikers are all just barely over 2 from the center forward position and no one else on the team is at 2. He hasn’t racked up the key passes in the league like he has in Europe, but 1.3 is still decent production. His current numbers would be enough to be a star over an entire season: his KP+in-box shot production tops Lacazette, Sane, and Martial for example. These 700 minutes have provided a glimpse of a future star. He’s just 19 years old  on a team battling relegation and he’s putting these numbers up. I’m all in on Samuel Chukwueze.

One note of caution to end the article; it doesn’t look like he’s quite ready to lead a line. He played up front vs Celta Vigo and basically did nothing in 55 minutes before being subbed off. When he’s come from the right, he’s just destroyed Huesca and Spartak. If Bayern are going to pay $60 million for Pulisic, there’s a very strong case you might be better off and save a ton more money by spending on Chukwueze.