This Week So Far: We All Expect Goals In The Big Games
Welcome to The Analysis, our rolling football blog where we try and make sense of everything that just happened.
April 8, 2021
Shooting Practice on the Biggest Stage
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel correctly raised expected goals as a way of explaining his team’s incredibly surprising defeat to West Bromwich Albion last weekend. For some coaches this would have been a prickly and inadvisable way of trying to excuse their team, and by extension themselves, from criticism. This is not the case with Tuchel, a man you feel would be just as happy highlighting metrics that showed his team had been fortunate to win. Of course, attempting to quantify luck and/or bad finishing is not for everyone. Sometimes it just feels nicer to smile inwardly and say “well, football is a funny old game.” There’s no right or wrong way to enjoy the sport.
That said, sometimes football throws up games that are so enthralling, and so sequentially unsettling that you simply need derived numbers to explain them. Everyone who enjoys football was looking forward to the Bayern v PSG game. A repeat of last season’s final, but with the defending champions considerably less secure at the back and the eternal French hopefuls now under the hopeful management of Mauricio Pochettino, the match, conducted in the sort of snowstorm normally found in a December group game in Moscow or Kiev, instantly revealed itself to be a classic. PSG have Neymar, and PSG have Kylian Mbappe. So PSG can take chances even if they come along relatively rarely. At half-time the visitors had taken two shots and had scored two goals. Bayern had pulled one back, through Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, but they had needed 15 shots to do so. It looked like we had a classic luck/decisiveness mismatch and the events of the second half only confirmed it.
Bayern added 16 more shots after the break, PSG only four. They both added one more goal to their total. There were world class players on display all across the sleet-soaked turf but the absence of another, Robert Lewandowski, loomed over the game. Injured on international duty for Poland last month, Lewandowski would surely have converted at least one, or maybe seven, of the 29 Bayern shots that didn’t end up in the back of the net. It was a dominant display from the defending European champions but no matter, they go to Paris next week a goal behind.
Bayern’s xG of 3.76 is the most recorded by a losing team in a Champions League knockout game in the last five seasons. The previous high was the 3.52 Liverpool recorded in their home defeat to Atletico 13 months ago. That was also a 3-2 home defeat for the reigning Champions League winners but in Liverpool’s case it was a L16 second leg and terminal. It was also the last major game in England played in front of a full crowd before the pandemic shut the sport down for nearly three months. Back then we wondered how and when the game would return. Could football behind closed doors work? Could it be exciting? Well now we know, and no team in the past year has shown the way more than Bayern. Fans fully returning to stadia remains an unknown but we can pretty much guarantee the second leg of this tie will pick up where Wednesday’s match left off. The only question is whether Bayern, 8-2 winners against Barcelona in last year’s quarter-final, remember how to be clinical again.
April 7, 2021
The Road Is Long
Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat away at Real Madrid in the first leg of this season’s Champions League quarter-final felt somehow inevitable and yet slightly surprising at the same time. This campaign has seen the Reds stage mini-revivals in the face of a seemingly endless series of calamities and it now appears Saturday’s joyous win at Arsenal, rather than being a confirmed reboot after a three-week period without a game is, instead, just more of the same. At half-time in Madrid, Liverpool were 2-0 down and reeling. Jurgen Klopp’s team had conjured up precisely zero shots in 45 minutes, against a Madrid side that had been largely dismissed in England in the build-up to the game. Even on expected goals, the dominance of the home team was clear.
Mohamed Salah’s goal early in the second half gave brief hope of some sort of traditional Liverpool European comeback, but in truth Klopp’s team rarely looked like troubling the side that had so comprehensively dealt with Salah in the 2018 final. Liverpool’s final total of one shot on target/one goal is efficient, but it probably says more about your creativity than it does your decisiveness. A second strike for Vinícius Júnior gave Madrid a 3-1 win and the raw history tells us that Real have progressed from Champions League ties in 15 of the last 16 instances where they’ve won the first leg.
But this is Liverpool. They know how to deal with this situation. Or do they? In reality this is only the fourth time in the club’s European Cup history that they’ve lost the first leg of a European Cup quarter-final, and this is how they’ve gone on to do:
March 1977: lose 1-0 away to St Etienne. Outcome: progress in the second leg with a result and a night that is one of Anfield’s great moments. David Fairclough making the difference, then and for eternity.
March 1983: lose 2-0 away to Widzew Lódz. Outcome: no comeback this time after a 3-2 home win, although newspapers were legitimately able to use ‘Lodz Cause’ as a headline. And they did.
April 2009: lose 3-1 at home to Chelsea. Outcome: nearly edged it at Stamford Bridge before drawing 4-4 and going out 7-5 on aggregate in a game that made up for all those 0-0s between the sides earlier in the decade.
Conclusion: losing the first leg of a quarter-final isn’t ideal. It’s especially not ideal against Real Madrid. It’s even more not ideal if you can’t have any home fans in your stadium when most of your heroic European performances have been based on the atmosphere you can generate there. And it’s going to be played at a stadium where you have scored the grand total of one goal all year.
Difficulty rating: extreme.
April 6, 2021
Hammering Home the Points
Last night’s 3-2 victory at Wolves means West Ham have now won half of their 30 league matches in 2020-21. Their record tally of 16 wins in a Premier League season looks likely to be smashed and it’s not inconceivable that they could double their tally of victories from last season (10).
If you’d have told any Hammers fan that with only eight games to go in the season that they would have won more league games than Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal then they’d have certainly laughed you out of the zoom room. But here we are: it’s happened and the incredible chance of playing Champions League football for the first time ever is absolutely on.
Last night’s win over Wolves saw the Hammers show off their counter-attacking ability at it’s best. Only Leeds United (6) have scored more goals from fast breaks than David Moyes’ side this season (5), with two of those coming in last night’s win at Molineux.
Using our start distance metric – the average distance (metres) from their own goal that a team’s open play sequences start, West Ham’s in 2020-21 is 38.9m – the deepest that any team have started their open play sequences in the competition this season.
West Ham also have the second-highest PPDA value in the competition in 2020-21 (17.8). PPDA (opposition passes per defensive action) is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team’s own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third. Essentially, this shows this West Ham team are the antithesis of Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds – let your opponents pass it around until they enter your defensive third, be organised and then break at speed. Central to this since tactic since joining the club is Jesse Lingard.
The re-emergence of Lingard is one of the feel-good stories of the 2020-21 season. Lingard is playing football with a smile on his face again after a difficult couple of years at Manchester United, with limited playing time and having to cope with constant social media sniping from all angles. True, he didn’t score or assist a single Premier League goal for United over a period of 33 matches over 18 months, but he became an unnecessarily easy target.
Lingard – who was one of England’s key players at the 2018 World Cup – needed to escape Old Trafford to get playing time and get confidence to show off his undoubted talents. He’s done just that under the tutorage of David Moyes and has already repaid the Scotsman with interest.
Since his Premier League debut for West Ham on Feb. 2, 2021 Lingard has been involved in nine goals in eight matches (six goals, three assists). The only player that has been able to match that is Harry Kane. The timing has been perfect for the 28-year-old, as he’s worked his way back in the Gareth Southgate’s England squad ahead of Euro 2020 this summer and could steer West Ham to a top four finish.
Last night’s goal was his third in eight games following a ball carry, but easily the most impressive of the trio – carrying the ball from his own half, sprinting clear of Leander Dendoncker and leaving Romain Saïss for dead before stroking the ball home. 32 minutes later, Lingard assisted Jarrod Bowen’s goal following another carry.
It’s now seven away wins in the Premier League for the Hammers this season – win once more in their remaining four matches on the road (surely possible against Newcastle, Brighton, West Brom or Burnley) then it’ll mean they’ll have won the most away games in a top-flight season since 1985-86 (9), when they finished third in the old first division, until now their highest league finish…
Whilst our predictor only gives them a 21% chance of finishing in the top four come the end of the season, West Ham and David Moyes have been proving everyone wrong all season, so why can’t they do it again?
April 5, 2021
Following their 2-2 draw at relegation-threatened Newcastle United on Sunday, BBC Sport journalist Juliette Ferrington was in discussion with Spurs’ boss José Mourinho.
“In the past, holding on to a lead is what you’ve been so good at doing,” she posited, to which Mourinho could only respond “Same coach, different players.” A damning reply.
True, in his first spell as a Premier League manager, his ability to hold on to a lead was one of the main reasons for his success at Chelsea. Spurs have already dropped more points from winning positions in the league this season (15) than Mourinho’s Chelsea did in his entire 120-game spell in the competition between June 2004 and September 2007 (14).
It’s not uncommon for Mourinho-led sides to suffer lapses of concentration when winning. True, he’s never seen a team of his drop more points from winning positions in a single league season than Spurs have this campaign, but some of his most-successful sides have also had this issue.
His title-winning Chelsea side in 2014-15 dropped the same number of points from leading positions (15), while he saw Internazionale give up 11 points from a lead in both 2008-09 and 2009-10 on the way to back-to-back Serie A titles.
If Spurs were able to produce second-half performances as good as they have managed in the opening 45 minutes of matches, then Mourinho would most likely have a much better record at the club.
Tottenham have now failed to win a league-high six games after having a half-time lead in 2020-21 – more than any other side. In fact, if matches ended at half-time this season then his Spurs side would be in second place in the Premier League table.
Yesterday was one of the most alarming performances under Mourinho so far. Of 410 Premier League games that we have expected goals data on for Tottenham since 2010-11, Newcastle United’s 4.03 xG is the highest total that they have ever faced in the competition. All this against a team that averaged the fourth-lowest quality chances from non-penalty shots in the Premier League this season coming into this weekend (0.84).
Newcastle had a total of 4.03 xG from their 22 shots at an average of 0.18 xG per shot – suggesting that the quality of these chances would see a team convert each chance 18% of the time on average. Their quality of chances in this match alone was higher than they created in their last four Premier League games combined (3.76).
It’s interesting that compatriot André Villas-Boas – not remembered fondly by Spurs fans – managed two Premier League games fewer at the club than Mourinho (54 v 56), but the former Portuguese boss still won more points in the competition at the club (99) than the current coach has collected (94). In fact, at just 1.68 points per game with Spurs, this is comfortably Mourinho’s worst-ever spell as a league manager. Same coach, different players.
A Weak Arsenal for the Gunners
Three shots. Just three shots in ninety-seven minutes and eight seconds of action for Arsenal in their defeat to Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday night.
Those three shots meant that the Gunners posted an expected goals figure of just 0.12 in the match – the lowest that we have on record for them in a Premier League game (since 2010-11) and the third lowest by a team in a match so far in the competition during 2020-21.
Neither Alexandre Lacazette nor Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang fired in a single shot during the loss. This is only the second time in a Premier League game that both have played at least 45 minutes and failed to attempt a shot, with the first being a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in February 2019.
Both players had 38 touches on Saturday, making 22 touches in their own half and just 16 in the opposition half. When you have your two most likely avenues for a goal making 58% of their touches in their own half of the pitch, it’s hardly a mystery why Arsenal’s attacking output was so feeble.
Liverpool looked much more familiar to the side that we’ve seen become so successful under Jürgen Klopp.
The Reds won 16 high turnovers in this game – their third-highest tally in a Premier League match in 2020-21. They forced four shots following these turnovers, including the third goal of the night after Gabriel Magalhães’ lazily-lofted pass was intercepted by a rampant Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Both of Liverpool’s Premier League matches against Arsenal have seen them successfully turnover the ball within 40 meters of the Gunners’ goal on 16 occasions this season. Eight of these 32 have led to shots, but not until this 82nd minute strike at the weekend were Arsenal punished for their sloppiness.