The importance of wages in the EPL

Article at ESPN:

The other lesson is that the side with the next-largest budget after the top four should not lose hope. Arsenal just needed Liverpool to underplay their wage bill for a few years while Wenger steered his side to 70-point seasons, which was enough to maintain the Gunners’ position in the Champions League. Last year, Liverpool didn’t need the good fortune of Manchester United having perhaps the worst points-to-wage-bill season on record, but they could have made the Champions League with a merely good season as well.

For teams on the lower end, the lift is much more strenuous. The following graph of inflation-adjusted wage bills shows just how difficult it is to build a 70-point squad without elite resources.

The Problems in the High Press at Spurs and United

SB Nation: Pressing problems in the Premier League

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with not being Bayer Leverkusen (he said, grudgingly). The counter-press need not be an attacking strategy. It can stop opposition attacks before they begin and enable a slower possession-based game. That is precisely how van Gaal’s press works. It is debatable whether this is the best way to use a press and whether Manchester United’s attack is working at full capacity. But the numbers and my observation both suggest the reason United are not replicating the exciting gegenpressing style is because they just don’t want to.

By contrast, Tottenham Hotspur look like a club that is trying but failing. Under Mauricio Pochettino, a manager who learned these tactics playing for Marcelo Bielsa in Argentina, Spurs have created a good number of attacks at speed (32) and stand third in the league with 89 shots attempted early in possession. These are not world-beating numbers, but they reflect a club trying to speed up the tempo of the match with their press.

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.

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.

On Payroll and Depth during the Holiday Fixtures

Published at ESPN.

How Payroll Predicts Holiday Outcomes in the EPL:

Clubs with wage bills among the top four in the league tend to do very well no matter the circumstance, but particularly at the New Year. They average about 2.0 points per match over most of the season; during the holidays, that rate jumps 10 percent to 2.2 points per match. This means that every festive period, one of the four richest clubs wins a match they otherwise would have drawn or lost. Given that the title and fourth place races are often decided by a point or two, those extra points at the holiday can make all the difference.

At the same time, not every high-payroll club sees the benefits of depth every year. If a high-payroll club like Manchester United or Arsenal goes on a run through the winter fixtures, it should not be surprising, but such a run is in no way guaranteed.

Team Trends in Chance Quality

Published at SB Nation.

Shot Matrix IV: Team Trends in Chance Quality:

Now, one of the peculiarities of shot quality is that there are lots of ways, tactically, to take good shots. Arsenal are the classic example, they pass and pass, looking especially for through-balls into dangerous areas, and eventually look to “pass it into the net.” The traditional passing game is our primary model of high-quality shot-taking, but in fact it’s not the only one.

The exact opposite tactical method, the “go 4-4-2 and put crosses in” strategy, also produces high-quality shots. If your primary strategy around the box is to get the ball wide and try to play crosses into dangerous areas, you’re going to be taking relatively few low-value speculative long balls. And even though shots off crosses from close areas have lower expectation than normal shots from these areas, they’re still a lot better than shooting from outside the box or from wide areas in the 18-yard box. A bunch of those dots in the top right are Arsene Wenger’s clubs, but another good portion are Tony Pulis.

The Entirely Predictable Newcastle Turnaround

Published at SB Nation.

Newcastle’s 2014 Comeback Was Predicted By the Stats:

So Newcastle’s turnaround is not unusual. Clubs that massively underperform their expected goals early in the season typically click back into form and start winning matches at a respectable rate. These teams started out the season with only about four points on average, but they averaged about 41 points over the remainder of the season. So if Newcastle follow the averages, they should end up easily safe with a mid-40s points haul.

Comparisons Between European Leagues

Published at SB Nation.

Shot Matrix International I: The Differences Between the European Leagues

The primary driver of England’s shot total, compared to the other largest continental leagues, is shots taken from the danger zone. That’s the old English directness right there.

If we look at shots from a wide angle inside the box, we see a very different picture. Despite the larger number of shots taken overall in the EPL, there’s no meaningful difference in total shots taken from wide areas inside the box. And when we narrow down just to shots from a difficult angle inside the box, the numbers really jump out. There are far more shots taken from those difficult angles in Spain and Italy than in England and Germany.

Shot Matrix International II: Shot and Pass Type

The zone-by-zone breakdown doesn’t teach us much. But the broader point here is that shots assisted by through-balls are attempted at massively differing rates. These tend to be extremely high-quality shots, converted at rates double or more regular shots from the same area. A successful through-ball by definition splits the defense and leaves an attacking player in space. We should expect higher rates of shot conversion in leagues where these sorts of attempts are more prevalent.

Player Shooting Skill Studies

Published at SB Nation.

Shot Matrix V: Identifying Player Finishing Skill

I could only identify an effect with samples of minimum 100 shots, and even then the effect is not overwhelming. (See Nerdery section below for more.) If a player has taken 20 or 30 shots but converted either a lot more or a lot fewer than you’d expect, you’re still best referring to the studies showing no y-to-y correlation in shot conversion. Probably it’s been a fluke. There’s a possibility that it isn’t, but the only good way to identify that statistically is with several seasons of data. So we need to be very careful about concluding that a player really has a significant shooting skill.

Player Finishing Skill is Real

When you aggregate data and collect groups of similar players, there emerges a clear tendency of higher-volume shooters and more advanced players to finish their chances more efficiently. I think this is a selection effect. Football managers recognize which of their players have the best striking skills and arrange tactics to get those players the most chances.

The Value of the Through-Ball

Published at SB Nation.

Shot Matrix III: The Incredible Through-Ball:

The average shot taken in the English Premier League from 2009-2013 has an expected goals value on 8.7%. Arsenal’s shots have an expected goals value of 10.1%. Over a sample of 2693 shots, that is a difference highly unlikely to occur by chance. To put a number of it, there is less than a 1% chance of a club averaging a shot quality that far above league average, on that many shots, by pure random variation. It’s a real tactical effect.