Weekly Notables From The Couch, including Davies-Alli and Jesús Navas The Creator

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A hopefully weekly column looking back on some details I found interesting from the weekend that can help illuminate this complex game we are all glimpsing through the dark. And an All-Passer Team I will be bringing in every week. Enough intro, onto the notables…

Jesús Navas, Attacking Creator

Navas has found a new role as kind of a defensive winger or wing-back for Sevilla. Normal, fine you say. But then I tell you that he just piled up the second most deep completions from any player in a game this season this weekend against Espanyol.

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He’s now up to 4th on the season in the top 4 leagues, only behind Messi, Hazard, and David Silva in deep completions. This is mainly because he gets the most “bonus” completions within 10 yards of goal, his 16 completions inside the deepest Danger Area (Danger Danger Danger Zone to distinguish it from Danger Zone and Danger Danger Zone?) lead the top 4 leagues by far. These are all crosses of course, but no other player has more than 11. 40 different teams have 16 or fewer total this entire season including some big-time teams like Atletico, Liverpool, AC Milan, and Gladbach.

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Now he only has 4 assists on the season, so the value as far as goals from all these completions hasn’t been enormous, but it’s quite an interesting development. If you are a powerful striker with a great header, you should be clamoring to play for Sevilla and they should maybe have one of those types, even if it’s just as a plan B. Christian Benteke…? Emmanuel Boateng? Youssef El-Nesyri? Micheal Olunga? Guido Carrillo? Niclas Füllkrug? Just throwing out options, these crosses are just asking for a player like that.

Lazio’s Layback, Italian Way

Lazio’s defense vs Sassuolo this weekend was remarkable for how they didn’t hassle Sassuolo in zone 5 and especially zone 6 at all. Sassuolo moved forward from Zone 6 on 47% of their passes, more than any other team in action (average of 31%). This will be a boring video, I’m warning you now:

 

If you look at a top 10 of teams who allow the most zone progression from zones 5 and 6 this year you get this:

  1. Parma
  2. Nürnberg
  3. Frosinone
  4. Celta Vigo
  5. Bologna
  6. Genoa
  7. Lazio
  8. West Ham
  9. Valladolid
  10. Manchester United

Besides the presence of United, what stands out is half the list are Italian teams. This is something that stands out immediately whenever you turn on a random Italian game, the pace and energy of game in midfield has often been funneled into something else entirely. I wonder if every Italian team had full, energized stadiums if the league would still have this cultural quirk?

For Lazio themselves, the strategy seems to be working in a way: they are the 5th-toughest team to move forward from Zone 3 against, which surely is something you must be if you play this soft high up the pitch. Bayern, Chelsea, Arsenal and Juventus are other teams in top 10 so it sounds great but Frosinone and Huddersfield are on here also, which might represent Lazio’s style a little more than Bayern or Chelsea. They are allowing 13 shots per game.

Tottenham’s Progressive Ticket: Davies-Alli

When looking over a list of most common passing combos from the weekend, you don’t see many surprises: the top 4 combos are both the forward and reverse of Luiz-Rüdiger and Moisander-Sahin

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Excitement! But when you look a bit deeper you find Spurs progressive ticket, and it doesn’t involve Kieran Trippier. With their struggles in midfield this year, Trippier has won a lot of acclaim at rightback but it’s Ben Davies and Dele Alli that might actually be Spurs best way of moving the ball up the field. No other combo connected more in advanced areas than Davies-Alli and their 17 completions this weekend against Crystal Palace. When you look back at all the minutes they have played together, you find a rich vein of ball progression. It’s the 8th most common Spurs pass this year, which is notable as these two have only played ~4 90s together. The average distance Alli is from goal after receiving the ball from Davies is 41 yards from goal, no other ticket in Spurs most common 25 passing combos is closer than that. The only contender is really Trippier-Eriksen and the Davies-Alli combo connects almost 60% more often per 90 when on the pitch. Snip20181113_82

 

 

It’s not a pass that led to much except continuing possession in final third this weekend but it seems to be a very effective way to generate that. That’s worth something.
Atleti’s Awful Buildup
Athletic Bilbao have not been pressing monsters this season, they’ve allowed progress through the midfield zones at almost perfectly league average rates so far this year. So for Atletico Madrid, hosting Athletic was not a game where you’d expect to see numbers like this:
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They were the very worst team at progressing out of this zone this weekend, and they were chasing the game the entire time. You’d expect those numbers to be inflated by game state in this situation. So what happened? Well, Saul Niguez and Francisco Montero happened. Niguez was playing all over the pitch in a match Atleti were scrambling for
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1 successful progression and 6 ball losses from 15 passes in this zone is just brutally bad for defenders. The overall average for all players on 15 passes would be ~5 progressions and ~2 losses, when you are defenders on a better team than your opponent in a chasing game state, those should tick up even more. Not this. Montero was making his first start and was yanked after 56 minutes. You can’t say it was anything but a poor on-ball performance. There were several “hopeful” forward balls

 

 

 

 

 

but that wasn’t mixed in with the bread and butter of a defender: the move the ball forward 8 yards pass that you should be able to do for a Champions League team.

The Weekly All-Passer Team
No single formula here, I looked at a bunch of different stuff: how quickly their passes turned into shots, how many progressions they made, how many completions above expected, how often they lost ball, and deep completions to get this list. Very well could have missed a couple, if I did let me know, but for now this is the official list.
Honorable Mention
Seko Fofana, Udinese
Rachid Ghezzal, Leicester
Luis Advincula, Rayo Vallecano
Makoto Hasebe, Eintracht Frankfurt
Aymeric Laporte, Man City
Manu Trigueros, Villarreal
The Official From The Couch All-Passer Team For The Week
Roberto Firmino, Liverpool
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Alejandro Gomez, Remo Freuler, and Josip Ilicic, Atalanta
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Ja-Cheol Koo, Augsburg
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Éver Banega and the aforementioned Jesús Navas, Sevilla
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Lionel Messi, Barcelona
Eden Hazard, Chelsea
Kerem Demirbay, Hoffenheim
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Kevin Stöger and Jean Zimmer, Fortuna Düsseldorf
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The One Question Weekend Preview: Dortmund vs Bayern

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Bayern come into this game as solid favorites, but not overwhelming ones. Their shaky start and Dortmund’s hot start sees Bayern’s win odds dip below 50%, to something like 44%. The stakes are obviously enormous, if Dortmund can win at home, the Bundesliga lead stretches to seven points over Bayern and the race is fully on.

 

The One Question: Can Dortmund supply their difference makers with the ball in advanced positions?

 

  • Difference makers here are Reus, Sancho, Hakimi in advanced positions, and Götze.
  • The team who has the longest possessions this year? Borussia Dortmund.
  • The team who allows the shortest possessions against? Bayern.
  • This will be the most fascinating battle of the day, can Dortmund impose the part of their attack that is the structured, patient, build-up style to fashion a few chances against the smothering defense of Bayern who allow just 7.5 shots per game, lower than everyone short of the Man City Machine. Or will they just create through transition and chaos, which they can do as well.

How Do Dortmund’s Difference Makers Generally Receive The Ball?

 

Chaos

  • This is where Jaden Sancho and Marco Reus shine.
  • In his preview of the match, Raphael Honigstein said Dortmund are “playing with a admirable blend of structure and creative chaos”, this is the chaos.
  • Sancho has received 7 passes inside 20 meters early in possessions (first two passes) 4 of those have come from Reus.
  • Marco Reus has received 8 passes somewhat early in possessions inside 20 meters, 4 have come from Jaden Sancho.
  • When Dortmund hit you quick, they hit you with these two combining.

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  • This right-sided lightning might play well for Dortmund, look at Bayern’s obverse map:

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  • Their left-hand half-space-ish side has been much more available for opponents. David Alaba has seemingly lost a bit of his fastball this year, struggling out of the gate, while Kimmich’s level on the right has been strong from opening day. If you are Bayern, do you put your best center back at stopping counters over on the left? I assume that’s Nicolas Süle but that’s not anything I’ve got any data on.
  • Who gets the ball to Sancho/Reus? If you’ve read much of me or watched much of Dortmund, there will be no surprise that it is Achraf Hakimi.

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Established Possession

  • This is the structure that Honigstein was talking about. And here is where Hakimi gets more involved, both Reus and Sancho’s most common feeder of the ball is Hakimi in more established possession (5th or later pass in a sequence)
  • Here are Hakimi’s passes in this phase with time to shot as color and then receiver as color

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  • The blue vs orange combos in that second chart can partially explain why Jaden Sancho was listed as a difference maker and Christian Pulisic was not (yet?).
  • Bayern typically don’t allow opponents to set up shop in attacking areas deep into possessions

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  • I don’t expect this to be a big part of the game really. First off, Dortmund don’t even try to enter dangerous areas that often, partially because of the second part of their Double 6 formation:

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  • Zone 5 is about 45-55 yards away from goal (click to see all the zones).
  • Thomas Delaney gets the ball a lot in this zone, only 5 players have played more passes from this area.
  • All of them advance the ball at least twice as often, Delaney completes pass “forward” under 10% of the time.
  • I just don’t see a way Delaney getting involved in possessions will help Dortmund get forward. Each time he passes, it mostly just adds a pass to the possession time.
  • I don’t have him graded as a anything special as “safe” passer even really, often times players who essentially only pass backwards come out well in my passer rating, but Delaney does not.
  • If Dortmund could trade one player out for a similiar-ish level player to help themselves against such a ball-hunting, possession-killing defense like Bayern, I suspect they’d be well-off trading Delaney for a midfielder like say a Florian Grillitsch.
  • Delaney’s two most common pass targets by far this year? Center-backs Akanji and Zagadou.
  • Witsel->Hakimi will have to do a lot of the work in buildup, that combo is Witsel’s most common pass by almost 30.

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  • Witsel and Hakimi have been fantastic lately, but they will be facing their most pressure by far tomorrow.

 

  • Especially if Götze doesn’t start, slow build-up attacks might not be Dortmund’s best avenue to score. Quick attacks through Hakimi to Sancho and Reus targeting Alaba and Bayern’s left side could be enough to craft a couple chances and focus almost then become able to almost completely focus on playing defense with their slow possession.

 

It’s the biggest game in Europe so far this season. An unexpected title race, a team soaring out of the gates under a new manager, the narrative juiciness of everything Bayern, recent rivals, and the best crowd in the world roaring along make this basically a must watch from your couch game for the cultured sports fan. Hopefully you are now more prepared to watch, I know I am.

Stat-Scouting South America: Building a Shortlist Of Players

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Inspired by a quality (as always) post over at Played Off The Park looking through smaller leagues for transfer, I decided to pack my supercomputer (old Macbook Air with a shaky battery/charger situation) on my trusty wooden galleon and head toward the deep green unknown of South America looking for gems to make my name. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more statistical content about players from Brazil/Argentina seeing as those countries provide an enormous amount of the best players in the world. Just in the last year, we’ve had the following transfers directly from these two leagues:

  • Arthur directly to Barcelona for 27 million and instantly has become one of their key players on a top 5 team in the world
  • Vinicius Junior to Real Madrid for 54 million
  • Rodrygo to Real Madrid for 54 million euros
  • Lucas Paqueta to AC Milan for 32 million
  • Paulinho to Leverkusen for 17 million
  • Lautaro Martinez to Inter for 13 million
  • Marcelo Saracchi to RB Leipzig for 11 million
  • Santiago Caseres to Villarreal for 9 million

Torino, Udinese, West Ham, Shakhtar, Krasnodar, Dynamo Kyiv, Porto, Stuttgart, Atlanta United, Genoa, Benfica, and a host of Mexican and Arab teams have spent a million or more Euros on a player from Brazil or Argentina basically just in the past few months for the most part. The talent vein is rich, we should see more statistical analysis of these players. And we will, now, as soon as this intro is out of the way.

Now most of these are young players, but Arthur is 22 and several are mid-20s. If you’ve ever listened to the excellent World Football Phone-In on BBC with Brazilian football expert Tim Vickery, you know the leagues over there move at a much slower pace than top-level European soccer, so identifying if the player can play quickly and under pressure is important. We can sort of scout for the first, but the second we don’t have pressure data yet to analyze so we will of course put more of that burden on our eyeball scouts. This is not a bid-after-reading type article, film study should follow, but has not preceded it. I’m diving in blind and scouting from the comfort of my couch, even though it’s not Saturday. Is there a chance that numbers in these leagues turn out to be less-than-reliable given the game tempo and environment? It’s very possible, but again that’s something that should be verifiable using film.

 

One note: Brazil and to a lesser extent Argentina are leagues full of ancient players. 33, 35, and even 37 year olds often stand out as the best players in the league. Guys like 37-year old Andres D’Alessandro who made his European move to Wolfsburg in 2003 often pop out as superstars. Leo Moura I thought looked a good right-sided attacker and he’s 40! 40 and playing fullback! We won’t be discussing those types of guys here, because even though they deserve recognition and credit for what they are doing in their athletic career, the likelihood is very few European teams will be moving for a 30+ year old from the Brazilian league.

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Leo congratulating his son on reaching college. Seriously, I respect the hell out of Leo Moura now just from seeing his age and his numbers. He moved to Belgium during the Clinton administration and had returned to Brazil from Europe before 9/11.

 

 

What am I looking for?

When I look for attacking creators I am of course looking at the basics of shots and key passes, but we aren’t looking only for pure strikers here, we are mainly looking for players who can contribute to your passing attack in dangerous areas as well. I’m looking at deep completions per 90, deep completion %, passer rating (completions above expected) and how often his passes turn into shots within 15 seconds. A deep completion is a pass completed within a ~30 yard radius of goal, with more weight given to the completion the closer it is to goal.

I’m also looking at how good these players are at moving through the zones. I compare how often they progress their team to how often they lose the ball in the zones they are most active in. So if you successfully advance your team forward a zone 40% of time you have ball in zone 5, you get a score of 1.71 because that is 71% more than the normal player does. Same thing goes for losing the ball, if you lose 25% of the time in this zone you get a score of 1.4 because that’s 50% more than the average. Did I need to compare them to league average first? No. Did I need to write this sentence pointing that out? Also no.I look at these ratios and factor in if they are surrounded by other players doing similar things on their team. Gremio, for example, progress the ball fantastically well, but not every player is probably a standout if that makes sense.

For pure strikers, I’m looking at how often they turn deep receptions into shots along with how often their deep touches turn into shots in general, not necessarily just for them.

For defensive purposes, I’m not going as deep. I’m looking at if opponents push the ball into that area often and if they are successful. I’m not breaking it down minute-by-minute however, so they could be getting credited or debited for what happens when not on pitch. I’m looking at interceptions and tackles also.

The Shortlist

Attackers

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Giorgian de Arrascaeta, 24, Cruzeiro. Attacking mid or winger. Just by basic old-school counting numbers this guy leaps off the chart: 3 key passes per 90, 2.5 from open play, 2.6 shots in the box per 90. He leads the league in both categories. Unsurprisingly he completes a lot of deep completions and is involved in moves that lead to shots (97th percentile in both). He’s good, not great, as far as his efficiency, but this guys numbers just scream off the page. I’m sure teams all over Europe are all over Giorgian. Adds in 2.3 tackles for good measure. Newcastle and Celtic are apparently in on him with Monaco and Wolves sniffing, but big teams should absolutely be looking to buy him, the rumored 18 million seems to be a great deal at least for PL teams with the money.

 

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I need to explain this cutting edge gauge chart, sometimes the analytics just hits so hard it can overpower some readers, I know.

  • DC Volume is simply deep completions per 90, turned to a percentile. So Giorgian is in the 99th percentile there.
  • DC efficiency is simply completion% on deep attempts.
  • shot product is how often a shot happens within 15 seconds of a touch
  • passer rating is completions above expected
  • shot hunter is how often he turns his deep receptions into shots
  • and key zone progression is how good he is at moving ball forward compared to how often he loses it in the zones where he pops up most often.
  • All of these are percentiles to their current league, as Argentina is a different passing environment than Brazil.

 

 

 

 

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Alexis Mac Allister, 19, Argentinos Juniors. Attacking midfield. First noticed among stat guys as far as I can tell by Ashwin Raman back in August. There are *three* brothers Mac Allister playing for Argentinos Juniors: Francis, Kevin, and Alexis in descending order of age and ascending order in talent. The story you’d get is a pretty good reason to sign all three, but Alexis is the one that has the shot to be a star. I saw a profile saying Mac Allister was kind of a Toni Kroos type, but that’s not how he’s playing at all really. There’s nothing he’s not doing well right now, but he’s not really a pure zone-mover like Kroos. He’s a serious threat to get ball to the danger zone and shoot or create. His shot selection has improved this year: 1.7 in-box shots is scary, while his key passes have skyrocketed up to 3.4 from an already good 2. He’s a big goal threat.

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Róger Guedes, 22, Atletico MG, now Shandong Luneng. Attacking mid/forward. 2.5 in-box shots with truly elite efficiency and deep completion numbers should have leapt off the page to clubs across the world. He’s moved for 9 million to the 3rd place team in the Super League in China already though so could be hard to pry him away. He turns service into good shots at an incredible rate and chips in basically everywhere else also, a forward who fits an abundance of styles.

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Everton, 22, Gremio. A very advanced wide forward who does it all, attacking wise. 8.3 adjusted deep completions per 90 (93rd percentile), at a very efficient rate (83rd percentile) and is involved in moves that often lead to shot in the 88th percentile. He takes 2.3 in-box shots per 90 (what Lukaku and Lacazette are taking right now). This guy has it all, he’s destroying Brazil and deserves a big-money move to Europe. Supposedly Man City are sniffing around.

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Lucas Janson, 24, Tigre, now Toronto FC.

Just a loan to Toronto, so he’s still available really. Not sure how much I’m cheating by including players already in China and Toronto but to clear myself I’m indicating that I think they are ready for bigger leagues. You look at his Toronto stats and you might think he’s just a shot monster, his 2.8 shots per 90 trail just 6 players in MLS but playing as the tip of the spear is not Janson’s best quality. He’s an incredible distributor, as efficient and dangerous as they come in Argentina, where he certainly didn’t look to shoot first when receiving the ball in advanced positions for Tigre. As a secondary shooter of an already solid attack, Janson should slot in absolutely perfectly. I don’t know how teams calculate their offers but 10 million for this guy seems like a very easy gamble for Premier League teams without currently full elite attacks.

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Fullbacks

 

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Alexis Soto, 25, Racing Club, right back. No fancy dials for the fullbacks so verbal statistical description will have to sate your visual needs. Soto is a brilliant zone-mover on a team that isn’t full of them, he’s a fantastic passer, shown by being 92nd percentile at progressing the ball. Soto is no one-way guy either, he racks up defensive actions (6 tackles+INTs per 90 while being very rarely dribbled past) and his area on a pretty fierce Racing Club defense is a step beyond their normal standards. He can do it both ways, and is worth adding to any club scouting for fullback options on a budget.

 

 

 

 

 

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Renê, 26, Flamengo

If you don’t think Alexis Soto will provide the passing you want from a fullback, Renê from Flamengo might be your man. His 98th percentile in progressing the ball without losing it was up there right next to Arthur, the Barcelona man. Rare air. Defensively, he does rack up actions (5.2 tackles and interceptions) but opponents pass into his zone at a pretty standard rate so a few peripheral signs of a shutdown fullback that you’d like to see aren’t quite there. Offensively though, his resume is the best in South America for a fullback: no one progresses the ball better and no one has more open play key passes than Renê. Now Flamengo aren’t quite Gremio, who are so good they seem to inflate everyone on their teams passing stats, but they are probably next closest thing to them, so there might be a bit of team effects here where a slow-tempo league and a good team combine to give him eons of time on the ball. A bit of video review could solve that but you don’t come to Saturday On Couch for the video reviews, that goes to our scouts.

 

Centerback/Defensive Midfield

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Rodrigo Caio, 25, Sao Paulo. One of the sweetest progressers of the ball in my data set, a quick google finds AC Milan and Lazio all over him which indicates there is something there. There might be even more there, Sao Paulo are one of the toughest to pass against in central areas, hinting at some sort of defensive standard. Caio is probably the real deal, as his Brazil appearance indicates. Probably not exactly under the radar. Has played out wide and in midfield in the past as well. Champions League caliber?

 

 

 

 

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Esteban Pavez, 28, Colo Colo via Atletico PR. I generally stay away from centerbacks, they do the most stuff that stats generally don’t pick up, but I need to make one exception here . Esteban Pavez, a Chilean who played for Atletico PR for 500 minutes this summer has passing numbers so good I thought there must be a glitch. From Zone 6 (see the zones here), Pavez advanced the ball 40 times from his 113 passes and lost the ball 7 times. That’s a 35% advancement rate and a 6% loss rate, league averages are 23% and 19%. His ratio of 4.6 is 3rd in the universe of 1715 players I have from Argentina and Brazil. Think that’s impressive? Yes it is, but we are still shy of the ultimate Esteban Pavez fun fact, and if you read the phrase Estaban Pavez fun fact knowing passing zone stats are coming and don’t quit reading, well you are in the right place: in Zone 5 Pavez advanced the ball 35 times from 96 passes and lost it twice, those are rates of 36% and 2% compared to league averages of 23% and 18%. His ratio is nearly 14x above league average, second place is 7x. Of course, he’s first among the 1715 players from zone 5. From zone 4? 14th. Booooo! Anyway, he’s off back in Chile now and played just 5 games so maybe there were some odd circumstances or maybe he’s one of the best passers in the world. Maybe he can’t defend at all but if he’s just passable, there seems like there’s a club out there somewhere looking for a DC/DMC maybe who is literally better than Toni Kroos at passing (literally not used literally here).

 

 

 

 

Others That Just Missed

Raniel, 23, Cruziero. A shot monster striker, he’s a player I’d pick if you told me “I want someone similar to Vinicius Junior.” Both turn their touches into good shots at rates about as good as it gets in Brazil, and neither really shows a deft touch elsewhere. I’m not sure I would have paid so much for Vinicius Junior but he’s obviously a valuable player. Raniel is doing it for a bang-average Cruziero side whose other strikers aren’t reaching 2 in-box shots per 90, in fact another of Cruzeiro’s strikers is near the bottom converting passes to shots. I’d like to watch him alongside de Arrascaeta.

Emanuel Reynoso, Boca Juniors

Juan Quintero, River Plate. The numbers are without a doubt enough to put him on the shortlist but the lack of 90 minute efforts suggest he might not be fully fit. As he essentially squandered his previous move with a lack of dedication, focus and fitness, that’s enough to move him out of the recommended signings.

I almost put Nikão from Atletico PR on this list but when I looked up his picture, he looked…a little too portly. He’s out.

Daniel Guedes, a 24 year old Santos right back has fantastic numbers but plays as a reserve at his club. I don’t think coaches are generally geniuses but being benched this much is enough for me to take him off the list.

Sidcley, a 25-year old who played with Corinthians as a left back, would have been right near the top of this list. He progressed the ball at elite levels but Dynamo Kiev jumped the line for 4.5 million.

Santiago Giordana is a 23 year old striker who played for a truly terrible team in Temperley (25th in a 28-team league) and he’s now playing in the 2nd division in Argentina. Why is he here? He turned very little service into 3 in-box shots per 90. One player in Argentina took more shots than that: Lautaro Martinez from top side Racing Club who made a 12.6 million euro move to Inter. Now our man Santiago doesn’t seem to do anything else, but he was the best striker in South America at converting touches into good shots. The lack of anything else and fact he’s now in second division puts him here.

There are so many old players who are putting up big numbers here, Maicon from Gremio deserves a shoutout here in just how thoroughly he tops almost every passing category.

 

There you have it, the guy from his couch using his computer to scout leagues he’s never seen. These leagues often produce huge-money moves and future stars though, so I think us couch-sitting computer guys should pay a little more attention to what’s going on way down there. The list again:

 

Giorgian de Arrascaeta

Everton

Alexis Mac Allister

Róger Guedes

Lucas Janson

Sidcley

Renê

Alexis Soto

Rodrigo Caio

Esteban Pavez

and one after the fact addition brought to my attention by the knowledgable Jan Riha on twitter, in a fullback Fabricio Bustos of Independiente. The 22 year old gets forward a ton, his 7.2 deep completions are in the 90th percentile. He’s moves the ball through the zones at nearly that 90th percentile and he doesn’t turn the ball over at all. 4.5 tackles, 0.5 dribbled past, and Independiente being brutally tough to pass down his side means he checks off every single thing on the list. I’d make him my #1 fullback target above both Renê and Alexis Soto.

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Let me hear it, you guys who have your own lists or who have seen players from down there.

 

 

One Question Weekend Preview: Arsenal v Liverpool

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We will start with a few pass maps. If you haven’t been following along (shame on you first), I create these maps with 50 different pass types created through a clustering algorithm. This cleans up pass maps and makes them easier to analyze and visualize. A single team pass map looks like this:

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That shows just the passes Arsenal allow relatively often or relatively less often than normal team. What I am doing for this game is combining the offense and defense maps of Arsenal and Liverpool and seeing where the game might be funneled. First, when Arsenal have the ball:

  • If previous tendencies continue on we might see a lot of passes back and forth between Bellerin/Lichtsteiner and Mustafi with occasional balls to the middle for Torreira.

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  • When we look at types of passes where completion% might be above average we don’t see much down Arsenal’s left-hand side where presumably two-way ace Trent Alexander-Arnold will be patrolling.

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  • When Liverpool have the ball, expect the field to be tilted much further forward. Camping in midfield, with a leftward lean.

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  • Arsenal are oddly terrible in a small sample size defending that right to left own-half pass you can see in bright blue in the completion% map below. Opponents have completed every single one of their 49 attempts (not surprising it’s an easy pass) and 7 times have taken a shot within 15 seconds of that pass. No other team in a top 4 league has allowed more than 5 and the average is 2.

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From these maps and a general perusal of the shot tables (Liverpool are taking 15 and Arsenal conceding 14), it’s pretty clear that we should expect a Liverpool bombardment on Arsenal’s goal. Our one question is Can Arsenal generate goal threat through sustained attack?

The bookies love the odds of goals, putting the over under at a non Man-City league-leading 3, 3.5, with Liverpool’s clean sheet odds at roughly 26-27%. I’m not sure I see a way for Arsenal to keep up with Liverpool in the shot volume game. Look at the maps above, Arsenal will face a lot of heat trying to bring the ball through the middle of the pitch.

Arsenal this year have had a bit of a problem in generating truly great supply, in past years you could basically count on Mesut Ozil to be at the top of any sort of Danger Zone (within 30 yard radius of goal) or Key Pass list and while he is still good, there are signs of slippage. The last two years he has 2.7 and 3.1 open play key passes, this year he is well down at 1.5. He is still 7th in Danger Zone completions per 90, but that’s not the truly elite numbers he’s previously been at.

The more worrying this is they don’t have the depth of creators in completing passes into the Danger Zone: Aaron Ramsey is 23rd per 90, Lacazette 37th, Iwobi 47th, Bellerin 61st, and Mkhi 62nd. Liverpool for example have 5 players in the top 30 (Salah, Firmino, Shaqiri, Keita, and Milner) vs Arsenal’s 2. Man City have 9 and Chelsea have 5.

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The old days of Arsenal just completely dominating territory in front of goal and playing for one of those “Arsenal goals” as they pass up a handful of solid shots looking for a tap-in are sliding away. They are still around goal a lot but they don’t dominate like they used to.

 

They could be in extra trouble without fullback Hector Bellerin, who has joined Ozil as a key ball progressor. Bellerin might miss out through injury, if he does it raises questions as to just how Ozil will get service. Bellerin and Xhaka have provided the majority of his service in advanced areas and if Xhaka is at left back and Bellerin out, there are serious questions as to if their replacements can get the ball to Ozil. With a shaky pipeline to feed him and the ball likely stuck at the back right a lot anyway, it becomes a fair question to wonder if Ozil might not be the best option from the start for Arsenal. Should Arsenal get more speed on the pitch and get someone who might do more defensive work (Ozil 1.2 tackles+INT per 90)? I think so.

 

The answer to the question above is I don’t think Arsenal will be able to build up sustained attacks deep into Liverpool territory often, so electric shot generators could be more dangerous up front. Guendouzi’s suspension definitely hurts this plan, he’s a player who likes a longer ball and is good at it.

The One Question Weekend Preview: Hertha Berlin v RB Leipzig

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Going to try something new here, if you’ve been a loyal reader the last couple weeks you know I have introduced many different pass maps, like the following:

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There are 50 Pass Types I used a k-means cluster algorithm to determine and every pass goes into one of those, the above just shows the type Barcelona plays either 1 standard deviation more often or less often than the average team. Now we will combine them for the preview to try and find the One Question. We start with RB Leipzig-Hertha Berlin before we get to the big one in the PL after this. Both teams come into the game on 16 points, tied for 5th, 5 behind Dortmund in first, 3 behind Bayern in 2nd and 1 point outside the CL places and Gladbach and Werder Bremen. It’s a big game.

 

  • Where Leipzig allow passes and where Hertha play passes give you kind of a hint of what kind of game it would be if the two teams play to their tendencies. Blue means more. Hertha stuck in their own half and then hitting long, hopeful balls might be what you’d expect.

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  • The attacking half not only looks to be rarely reached but it looks like a fire pit as far as trying to complete any passes.

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  • The few that are completed have a chance of turning into shots, crosses in particular seem to be an area where Leipzig is gettable. Playing balls out to the left and then crossing from that area is an area to focus on for Hertha. Arne Maier is one of the highest-potential young German players, but he is not an aggressive passer, he loves to go sideways and backwards (without taking many touches) but in this game playing forward Plattenhardt should be first in his mind and not keeping soft, limpid possession where Leipzig want you to have it or trying to jump through the fire in the midfield. Plattenhardt should be looking forward to another player to play a cross or to play a cross himself as Leipzig destroy intricate wing horizontal passing.

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  • And where Leipzig are likely to play the ball a lot if both their attack and Hertha’s defense play to tendencies. Presumably the coaches know this and are taking it into account in their gameplans.

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So, that was a lot of leadup and not the usual economy of words I like for the One Question Previews but I had to explain the new maps. My one question is Will Leipzig be able to create down their left?

Assuming these tendencies play out, Leipzig will likely shut down Hertha’s attack. They did so last week vs Schalke and couldn’t quite create a goal, so it’s time to look a little closer at who will create for them against what

The players most commonly involved in this left-sided environment will be, in order whoever starts at left-back Marcel Halstenberg or Marcelo Sarrachi, Kevin Kampl, and Timo Werner. Kampl has come off the bench in 2 of RB Leipzig’s last 3 BuLi matches, but I’d recommend that not become 3/4. Kampl has been the #1 supplier of Timo Werner this year.

 

So Kampl should be in, which left-back should play? Let’s look at all the exclusive attacking info we have at our disposal:

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Zones, Illustrated

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  • The offensive argument for Halstenberg is simple, he progresses the ball much better than Saracchi and shots have come from his passes more often than Saracchi, with the ball at his feet, Leipzig have gotten better results.
  • The argument for Saracchi is he actually gets further up the pitch, in a game where you are counting on creating from the left, maybe you want the guy who has attempts 6.3 passes per 90 from the Danger Zone (final 30 yards in front of goal) compared to Halstenberg’s 3.2.
  • I think Leipzig will totally shut down Hertha but not to the extent that the only consideration is left-back getting forward, I think Halstenberg’s passing is what they should start with. Either way, they come into this game heavy favorites and I think an interesting look at 3.4 to get a clean sheet.

 

7 Passes Allowed I Love And Hate

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This follows my look at the other side of the ball from yesterday. As I usually explain here: each pass is grouped using an algorithm into one of 50 Pass Types to make analysis easier here. Then we have “crosses”, “long vertical balls through the middle”, etc, etc in handy groups instead of having to filter everytime a new pass type pops into mind. Anyway, onto the pass types.

1 and 2. Love In Different Ways: Leipzig Shutting Down Intricate Wing Play and Atletico Making Sure It Goes Nowhere

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In the StatsBomb article about Leipzig, you could see they really pressure a lot down the wings:

RB-Leipzig-Defensive-Activity-Heatmap-1.-Bundesliga-2018_2019

 

Now you can see how that translates into stopping the oppositions intricate passing. Looking at the 4 pass types above, here is completion% allowed this year

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They are a cut above. If you try intricate wing play like this, you are going to lose the ball at rates much higher than against any other team in the leagues.

 

Now, look all the way on the other end there: Atletico Madrid. Wait, what? Particularly on their left side, the difference is shocking when you compare these two teams with great defensive reputations. Atletico have faced 212 of these passes down the left, they have forced 16 incompletions. Leipzig have faced 82 of these passes and forced 30 incompletions. So what is Atletico doing on a love list?

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Well these passes generally don’t lead to anything of note for the opposition. So if I had kids, which I don’t, and I was comparing them to Attacking Short Horizontal Wing Passes (ASHWP for short, catchy naming and acronyms is really the strength of our site here at Saturdays On Couch or SOC) then I’d love the aggressive, strong, linebacker son that is the Leipzig wing defense and the patient, studious, chess-playing Atletico son almost equally, almost.

 

3. Hate: Chelsea’s against the “Barcelona” Pass

I talked about the “Barcelona pass” here, it’s this blue pass that Barcelona play massively more than anyone else. Coutinho and Messi are the top 2 purveyors of this ball.

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The reason it’s blue? No team has allowed their opponents to complete a higher % of these passes than Chelsea so far this season. Now Chelsea totally dominate the ball and territory, so opponents have only played 35 of them, but have misplaced just 4. It’s not an Atletico situation either where these passes aren’t doing damage, they concede shots off of them more than all but 8 teams. Those 8 teams include Eibar, Burnley, Fulham, Hannover, Celta Vigo, etc, not defensive powerhouses. The other teams allowing over 80% on these passes: Levante, Newcastle, Leganes, Brighton. Chelsea are at 89%.

 

What’s interesting about comparing Chelsea to those other teams alongside them in the dregs of this category is how often those teams are allowing these passes late in possessions, often as the 5th, 6th, or 7th pass in a chain. Chelsea though allow these the 4th-earliest in their possession against, often as the 2nd or 3rd pass.

 

Now only 5 teams have allowed fewer of these passes (Bayern, Liverpool, Man City, Barcelona, and of course Eibar) so it’s not a devastating weakness but if you get ball vs Chelsea and move it quickly into the attacking midfield, they are soft.

4. Love: Chelsea Against The “Poor Man’s Midway Line Barcelona Pass”

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This is the red one you might have been pondering “Why has he highlighted this pass?” and were waiting on pins and needles to find out. Well remove those pins and get ready: Chelsea allow the lowest % in the big 4 leagues on this pass. It’s sort of gegenpressing to a T, coming very early in opposition possessions (only Eibar and Tottenham earlier) they force a 65% completion rate compared to a league average of 88%. Chelsea’s pushed so far forward, they have the numbers to take it from you here, they don’t want you to get past them here, but if you do you have green, green grass ahead of you.

 

5. Hate: Fulham’s Right Hand Side

Not going to write too much here, as I’ve written so much about Fulham already, including their right-back (Fosu-Mensah especially) problem, but they deserved to be mentioned here:

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And lots of shots given up (7th most often passes are turned into shots).

6. Hate: Sevilla Weakness Up The Middle

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Sevilla have been a great story so far this season, employing a supercharged attack to storm to third in La Liga. However, their defense is pretty awful. They are allowing 15.1 shots per game, 3rd worst in the league. These bisecting vertical passes are not a main driver of shots allowed, but definitely show how soft and easy to attack Sevilla are. No team in any league has allowed a higher completion% against on these types of passes than Sevilla have at 49%. And it wasn’t Real Madrid or Barcelona racking these passes up: each of them completed just one against Sevilla.

Real Betis were 6/10

Levante 7/10

Villarreal 5/9

Rayo Vallecano 4/7

are some of the big numbers they’ve allowed right through here. Sevilla are a very fun team but the defense has way too many weaknesses to be taken seriously as an elite side yet.

7. Love: Wolves Crossing Defense

Wolves entire defensive setup deserves a whole article but we will deal with crossing for now.

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Wolves allow the lowest completion% on crosses in any of the top leagues at 18.5% and of course, following that is shots come rarely from these passes. They’ve played a back 3 and those 3 of Coady/Bennett/Boly seem to deserve a lot of credit. The entire setup is obviously working extremely well, they don’t actually face a lot of crosses (fewer than Chelsea for example) and have allowed just 10.9 shots per game.

7 Passes I Love And Hate

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Using my trusty Pass Type tool, I’ve found a couple passes I love and a couple I hate. A reminder: I used a k-means clustering algorithm to assign every open-play pass into one of 50 types.

1. Love: Dortmund’s crossing

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This fits so many of the check boxes for an effective pass.

  • It happens rarely, very rarely. Crosses are not a great way of attacking, they are actually terrible. Dortmund have attempted the second-fewest of these types of crosses in the league (only Sampdoria have fewer). As a % basis, Dortmund attempt these fewer than any team in the league.
  • But when they do try them, they have the highest completion % of any team at 48%.
  • The ones they attempt lead to shots more often than all but 3 teams.
  • There is no one player who hits them often, no one has completed more than 4 (team has 29) and not really one target man. But they work together to make their crosses both rare and extremely effective.

2. Hate: Schalke’s Attacking Midfield Pullback From The Right

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In a sea of red passes (showing lower than average completion%) one stands out as the reddest. I’ve written about Schalke’s attack a lot, and they basically gave up on even trying to string together passes this weekend. This is why.

 

The average team completed 84% of this seemingly standard pass. The worst team in the Premier League at this pass is Newcastle: 68%. Schalke are at 56%. Lowest in the top 4 leagues. The pass further infield that looks similar, same story: if you combine the two, they are still at 56%, lowest in the leagues.

 

You can blame Salif Sane and Daniel Caligiuri a little bit, they are the ones making most of these passes, but Schalke don’t have anyone on the pitch looking to or capable of getting open in these areas. The entire plan is for the ball to not stall here, Caligiuri is basically supposed to be hitting crosses from here (see the blue line above and his Leipzig pass map):

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3. Hate: Watford’s Own Half Horizontal Balls From Right To Left

These have just been atrocious, no one has misfired more than Watford (missing on 14.2% of these simple balls) and only Huddersfield has converted fewer of these passes into shots within 15 seconds (Watford has done so once this year).

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Basically, if you have Craig Cathcart, don’t entrust him to pass the ball sideways. Probably don’t trust him to do much passing at all. He missed on 5 of these sideways passes, and has the lowest progression/ball loss ratio in the entire Premier League among defenders.

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4. Love: Juventus’s Pass After The Previous Group of Passes

Nothing much happens at all during a sideways pass around the halfway line usually but what happens after is interesting here. Juventus complete 98% of the sideways passes we talked about with Watford, which is where the very best teams generally are (and Schalke for some odd reason). But the next step is quite forward

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These types are the most common forward balls after receiving the right to left balls previously and no one plays more forward passes in these situations than Juventus. They’ve played 141 of these pass chains successfully, compared to 120 for second place Barcelona. Chiellini is often the one playing the passes, showing how far Juve has pushed up and continues to progress against the slower paced, or more disciplined or beaten down, Italian defenses.

 

5 and 6. Love: Juventus and Southampton’s Centering Progression From The Right On the Attack

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That’s Real Madrid’s color scheme on the pass types (shows they complete all these pass types above average, no surprise there.) With this type of pass they are brutally efficient, 92% on a pass type many good teams struggle with: Liverpool, Tottenham, and Man Utd are about 70%. Toni Kroos and especially Dani Ceballos have proven themselves great recipients of these passes. Ceballos certainly looks like a player who should be a starter from many of the numbers I’ve been looking at.

 

Southampton aren’t on here for any special completion % but for the astounding fact that this type of pass has led to a shot within 15 seconds 44% of the time, compared to a league average of 17%. Why is this? I have no idea, it very well could be a statistical oddity. Nothing they do before or after looks different at all and it’s a hodgepodge of Ings, Redmond, Hojbjerg, Stephens, Vestergaard and more in the mix with these passes that eventually lead to shots. The one thing that sort of stands out if you squint is if they are moving quickly and the previous pass is a short pass up from midfield, Saints roll onto a shot, but that’s just a hint of a clue, at most.

 

7. Hate: Bournemouth spraying the ball out wide left

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Bournemouth generally never try long, crossfield passes at all. Of these 4 types below:

 

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Bournemouth play just 2.6% of the time, 2nd lowest in the top 4 leagues. League average is 4.2%. So possibly they know they aren’t set-up for this and so are terrible at it and smart avoid it, but this specific pass out to the left-wing is truly incredible how bad they’ve been. The league average completion% on it is 73%, Bournemouth in their 32 attempts are under half of that: they have completed 11/32 for 34%. Only 1 other team is under 50%, at that’s Hannover just barely under at 46%. Jarring how terrible this is. It’s Steve Cook and Dan Gosling trying these passes with a hat tip to Jefferson Lerma and Lewis Cook (honestly did not know Steve Cook and Lewis Cook were different people), those 4 are 7/25. It’s really odd as Ryan Fraser often whips in crosses from the left, he just doesn’t receive the ball this way at all. This attempt often comes after just a little sideways, handoff pass that Bournemouth also rarely attempt:

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This little red “hand-off” is what leads to the long ball to the left way more often for Bournemouth than for other teams, but they also play the little handoff pass less than any team except Real Madrid. This little combo: handoff to long searching ball down the left is almost an automatism as the Germans would say, only Torino pull off this combo at a higher %, but it’s a terrible one that Eddie Howe needs to un-automize, Bournemouth are just passing the ball to the opposition.

 

Also, isn’t it odd just how bland Bournemouth’s names are:

Adam Smith

David Brooks

Lewis Cook

Steve Cook

Ryan Fraser

Joshua King

Charlie Daniels

Simon Francis

 

They are the wheat bagel of player names.

Hope you enjoyed, will look into defensive passes to see if I can find anything and then get to a One Question Preview, where I’m excited to combine pass maps of attacking and defending teams to see what we can learn. German young stars postponed indefinitely.