How Philippe Coutinho Drove Liverpool’s Turnaround

ESPN: Freeing Coutinho in the 3-4-2-1 turned Liverpool’s season

The engine of this return to form has been Philippe Coutinho. When Rodgers first instituted the 3-4-2-1, the headline change was the use of Raheem Sterling in a lone striker position. Yet it has become clear that Coutinho’s role is the indispensable one. The Brazilian playmaker has typically been joined by a goal scorer (usually Adam Lallana) in the duo behind the striker, meaning that Rodgers’ trust is on Coutinho to carry the creative load.

We can see the extent of the Brazilian’s contributions by looking at the passes he has attempted and completed into dangerous areas. When a pass is completed into a region that includes the center of the penalty area and extends a little past the top, there is a chance of at least 1 in 3 that this pass will lead to a shot attempt. The map shows the likelihood of a shot resulting from an attacking move following a completed pass to any location on the pitch. The red zone in the center of the box is clearly distinguishable.

How Luis Suarez Made Barcelona’s Attack Unbeatable

ESPN: How Barcelona integrated Luis Suarez into their attack

As usual, Barcelona fill the center of the penalty area with good chances. No other club in Europe has as many shot attempts from the danger zone in league play. Barcelona have attempted 216 DZ shots; England’s Manchester City have the second-most (194) but City have played two more matches than Barcelona.

The key to Barcelona’s dominance in attack is simple. Their front line of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez has no equal in world football on paper, but what is impressive here is how Suárez has been integrated into the attack without taking opportunities away from either Messi or Neymar. In fact, he seems to have made them both better. It was to be expected that Suárez (3.1 per 90) would attempt and assist more danger zone shots on a per-minute basis than his predecessor, Alexis Sánchez (2.4 per 90). But strikingly Messi and Neymar have also picked up in chance production at the same time.

Danger Zone Passing

ESPN: The Value of Danger Zone Passing

These complaints arise every time an attack sputters out near the penalty area with a difficult pass that doesn’t quite reach its target. Clubs that focus on intricate passing attacks through the center of the pitch, most famously Barcelona and Arsenal, regularly field such complaints from fans and pundits alike. And yet, statistical analysis can demonstrate the value of attempting that one extra pass within the penalty box.

The statistic here is something I call “danger zone passes.” The “danger zone” is the region in the center of the 18-yard box from which most goals are scored. DZ passes refer to passes which are played from within a few yards of this central area.

In general, if you get the ball at your feet in this region, you typically have at least a five or 10 percent chance of scoring with a reasonably taken shot. Choosing to pass essentially means letting that opportunity go by, but there are great benefits to passing if you can connect with a teammate in a better position.

The Value of a Corner Kick (Part 2)

Washington Post: The Value of a Corner Kick

There is, then possible attacking value from a corner kick conceded. The more players a team commits forward to playing the corner, the more vulnerable they are to a quick counterattack up the gut.

From the roughly 13,000 corner kicks which did not result in a shot, about 1,800 lead to a counterattack that reached the opposition final third. There were 526 shots from counterattacks off corners and 72 of them were scored. That is a scoring rate about 40 percent better than average. This means that when a team concedes a chance from a counterattack, it is often a high quality chance like McCarthy’s.

How to Scout the Stats

Published at ESPN.

How to Use Stats to Find the Next Bargain Transfer:

Furthermore, Tadic was heavily involved in Twente’s attack beyond just attempting shots. I built a statistic for involvement in build-up play which measures how often a player contributes to the open-play attacking move that led to a quality chance. If he completes a pass or a cross, or wins the ball with a tackle or interception in the build-up to a shot, he gets credit for being involved. Tadic led the Eredivisie in expected goals chance involvement by a significant margin.

When Southampton purchased their Tadic they were not only buying a player with impressive goal and assist numbers, but a player whose underlying stats reflected his consistent contributions to his team’s attack. When scouting for bargains, this sort of well-rounded contribution to the attack is precisely what you want to look for.

The Premier League’s Mid-Table and Why It May Be Here to Stay

Published at SB Nation.

Why West Ham and Southampton Can Stay in the Race:

This year, the expected goals table shows these non-traditional powers in strong positions. So far, the underlying statistics are more impressed with Southampton, West Ham, Newcastle and Stoke than with Spurs, Liverpool, Everton or even United. West Ham have attempted 96 shots from the danger zone this season, the fourth best in the league, while Southampton are second with 99. These numbers lap those of the traditional clubs they’ve displaced. Only Manchester United is within 20 danger zone shot attempts of West Ham (they have 77) while the other sit below 70. In multiple key statistical measures, these unlikely teams have been outplaying their moneyed competitors.

This change affects the competitive ecology of the Premier League. It has been common for the league to have a glut of below average sides making up a desultory mid-table. These teams have no meaningful chance of contending for European qualification, but they should stay in the top division by taking enough lucky points off the top seven and beating up the bottom five. These sides would typically put up expected goals ratios between 0.450 and 0.500. They were below average but not so bad that they became interesting.

Why Manchester United’s Win Streak Won’t Last

Published at the Washington Post.

Manchester United Is Winning, But That Won’t Last:

In fact, over these six matches, Manchester United has conceded overall better quality chances than it has created. There was a run of time between the Southampton and Liverpool matches when United had scored four of its last five shot on target. The following graphic shows the chances created and conceded by United. Black boxes mark goals. The array of quality chances (six from inside the six-yard box) which United’s opponents have failed to put away is spectacular.

The Bundesliga Is the World’s Most Exciting League

Published at SB Nation.

How the Bundesliga Became the World’s Most Exciting League:

So what is going on here? The Bundesliga features more goal-scoring, more shooting, and much more attacking at speed than any of the four other largest leagues in Europe. It seems unlikely this should just be random chance.

Indeed, there is one man most responsible for the Bundesliga’s speed explosion. Jürgen Klopp. The Borussia Dortmund manager introduced his version of the high press to Germany years ago, and his ideas have spread.

Hoffenheim, Wolfsburg and Werder Bremen are all playing aggressive, high-pressing styles, while Roger Schmidt at Bayer Leverkusen has introduced a shockingly fast new style which appears to have turned Klopp’s gegenpressing up to eleven.

Wage Bills in the English Premier League

Published at the Washington Post.

How Wage Bills Predict Outcomes and Who Does Best with their Money:

But even within a stratified system, better- and worse-run clubs stand out. I did a quick regression based on points and inflation-adjusted payroll to find the expected points for a club based on its total payroll. This does not include transfer spending, but for most clubs transfer spending tracks with wage bill reasonably well. The results can be seen at the end of the article. A few top clubs stand out. In the scatter plot below, I have marked a few clubs in particular. At the top end, you can see the impressive numbers of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and David Moyes’s Everton teams. At the bottom end, Newcastle United shows up as a consistent underperformer regardless of who has been in charge.