How Atletico Madrid Shocked the Football World

Published at the Washington Post.

The Secrets of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid:

In a mirror image of its defense, Atlético’s attack focuses on creating chances in the danger zone, spurning lower-expectation opportunities. As Rene Maric describes, when its defense springs into action, it presses decisively to win the ball and drive forward for high-quality shots.  Atlético is third in La Liga in shots attempted from the danger zone, behind only Barca and Real. However, in shots attempted from outside the box, Atlético stands 20th, having taken the fewest shots from distance in the league.

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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.

How Expected Goals Predicted Liverpool’s Title Run

Published at SB Nation.

The Statistics that Predicted Liverpool’s Title Run:

It isn’t precisely true that no one expected Liverpool to be title contenders. A number of statistical models viewed Liverpool as one of the best sides in the EPL last year. My expected goals ratio, a ratio of expected goals scored to expected goals allowed based on chance quality, rated Liverpool as the league’s best side last season.

The method behind expected goals, which you can read about in the “Shot Matrix” articles linked above or at the EPL Advanced Stats page, is pretty simple. For each chance, I estimate the average probability of a goal being scored, based on location on the pitch, whether the shot is taken with the head or the foot, whether it is a free kick or from open play, and the type of pass that assisted the shot. Over time, these estimates of chance quality are a better metric of team quality than raw goals scored or simple shot totals. And in the case of Liverpool, based on their expected goals in 2012-2013, the underlying stats expected this club to be among the best in the Premier League.

Tottenham Hotspur 2013-2014 Season Review

Published at SB Nation.

How Tim Sherwood and Andre Villas-Boas Failed Tottenham:

What could have led a manager to look at Spurs on December 16th and decide that they should maintain the same, obviously failed defensive tactics of the previous month? Did Tim Sherwood think a disorganized press and a shifting block were the path to success? Perhaps, instead, the players just kept playing defense the same way because they weren’t instructed to change in the first place. Sherwood’s comments to the media after the Chelsea loss suggest a real failure to understand that his tactics had not been working previous to that defeat. So whether out of simple incompetence or a more complex misunderstanding of his club’s performance, Sherwood left Tottenham running a tactical set-up that was entirely doomed to fail.

On Winning and Losing Close Matches

Published at SB Nation.

Part 1: On Winning Close Matches (In Which I Predicted Cardiff City’s relegation):

How well a club does in close matches in the first half of the season does not usefully predict how well the club will perform in close matches in the second half.

I’m not saying that winning close matches is “luck.” In general, I think that winning clubs have usually played better than losing clubs. But whatever it is that leads to good performances in close matches, usually it doesn’t carry over as the season progresses. We shouldn’t use points taken from close matches as a good predictor of future points.

Part 2: On Losing Close Matches:

Even these clubs don’t  usually do better than 3-2-1 in close matches, and they average more like 2-2-1. Spurs’ 8-4-2 record so far i close matches would be among the best on this table, which is populated mostly by title contenders. I’d guess here that anything over 1.8 or so points per match in games decided by under two goals is probably unsustainable. Even Mourinho’s 2004-2005 Chelsea only took 2.1 points per match in this subset of the season.

Testing Expected Goals

Published at SB Nation.

Part 1: What stats best predict goals scored and conceded?

The concept is pretty simple. For every shot, you assign an “expected goals” value based on characteristics like the location on the pitch, whether the shot is taken with the foot or the head, whether the shot is assisted by a cross or through-ball, and so on. This is in no way a comprehensive list of the characteristics of each shot, but it provides a reasonable estimate when dealing with larger samples. A club’s expected goals, then, is the sum of all their expected goals values for all their shots.

Part 2: What stats best predict wins and losses?

The relationship between goals and points is humongously complex. As Howard Hamilton showed in his work on the “soccer pythagorean”, having three unequal possible match results creates a weird, non-linear relationship. So instead of dealing with the math, I’m just simulating the games and comparing projected points to real points. There we should expect a simple linear relationship if the projections are good.

The Value of the High Press

Published at the Washington Post.

How the high press creates attacking opportunities:

What does it mean that pressing is a form of playmaking? A great pass creates a new attacking formation. It breaks up the other team’s defensive organization and forces them to respond to a new threat at a new angle. That moment where defensive organization has broken down is the moment when an attack is most dangerous. What Klopp suggests is that while a great passer can create such moments, a high press does the same. By winning the ball back in a dangerous area while the other team is still in its attacking shape, a high pressing team can start its attack with the opposition just as out of sync as they would after being cut open by a perfect pass from Luka Modric.