Spurs in ‘doldrums’, Man United so, so passive: Key stats

Date published: Friday 14th September 2018 7:44

We have already offered a look at meaningful early stats for Premier League sides from Arsenal to Huddersfield. Let’s finish off the alphabet…


It was a surprise when Claude Puel was kept on this year—and if the owners know anything about analytics, they might be changing their minds. While the Foxes are in eighth place, about par, their underlying attacking numbers look poor.

The two biggest problems are total shots and shots from outside the penalty area. Leicester are 17th in total shots, ahead of only Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield. What’s worse, a ridiculous 64.1% of their shots have come from outside the area. That’ll decrease, but they’ll have to work to make it happen. At the moment the attack just isn’t getting enough good shots.

Since football is a results business, at the moment Puel’s hanging in. But it’s also an entertainment business, and that’s not his speciality. Penalties excluded, Leicester’s matches have contained the fewest expected goals in the league, and it’s not close. At least that means the defence is fairly sound, having allowed the sixth fewest shots.


Liverpool’s defence has improved, says everyone, and the numbers say so too. Last season they had an xGA of 0.82 per match; this year it’s 0.54. That’s even though they’re actually allowing slightly more shots/match this year. (There’s a pun in there somewhere on van Dijk and dykes holding back the sea, but I can’t come up with it.) To top it off, Alisson ranks as the league’s best shot-stopper.

It might surprise you to find out that Mo Salah is not only first in individual xG, he’s also first in individual xA, Expected Assists. In other words, he’s created the best set of scoring opportunities of anyone in the league so far. He gets a slight bump by taking a few corners, but it’s mostly from open play. So for Reds fans worried that he’s below par, he’s doing fine. He was never likely to match last year’s numbers anyway, and the end product should pick up.


We’re inclined to think of City as the ultimate passing team, who deliver dazzling sequences that end with someone carelessly rolling the ball into an open goal. But last year they also led the league in goals scored from outside the area. They’re off to a very fast start in that category, with four already. No other team has more than two, and more than half the sides have zero. In fact, City have scored 25% of the entire league’s output from outside the box.

Just about all the other City stats are normal for them, i. e., outrageous. The one that jumps out is shots per game, which is at 22.8, way ahead of Chelsea at 19. Last year City finished at 17.5, with Liverpool only slightly behind at 16.8. I suspect this year’s numbers will drop before too long, although with Pep you never know.

One negative is that with Nicolas Otamendi out of the line-up, the side’s aerial duel percentage has dropped dramatically, from a very good 55.1% to a pretty poor 44.2%. Let’s see if as a result, they become more vulnerable at set-pieces; last year they allowed only three set-piece goals, best in the league.


As we’ve mentioned in stats pieces before, one of Jose Mourinho’s hallmarks at Chelsea and Real Madrid was passive defence, yielding few tackles and interceptions. When he arrived at Manchester United, he turned over a new leaf. His first year, the team was 5th in tackles and 2nd in interceptions. The next year he moved halfway back, 17th in tackles and 5th in interceptions. This year he’s back all the way, 18th in tackles and 16th in interceptions. A lack of confidence in the squad, or just doing what he knows best?

Either way, it’s not working so well. Having played only an average schedule (Leicester, Brighton, Tottenham, Burnley), United are only 12th best in xGA, compared to fifth last season. Although they should improve, right now it’s far below expectations.

Sadly, one stat – and I’ve been banging on about this for years – matches expectations perfectly. In each of Mourinho’s first two seasons, the side finished 16th in shots from set-pieces. Right now they’re tied for 14th. I’m not saying they should hire a throw-in coach, but they’re giving their rivals a significant edge. Come on José, you can do this!


Like Huddersfield, Newcastle’s numbers have been distorted by the fixture list (and a red card against Cardiff, too!). You can’t read much from bus-parks against Chelsea and Man City, and the strong performance against Spurs can’t be compared with last year’s fixture, because last year the Magpies were 10 v 11 most of the second half. Comparing the Cardiff performance to Huddersfield’s suggests the sides are on the same level, but that’s not much to go on.

So let’s look at a few individual numbers. Joselu is doing well as part-time starter, part-time sub: not only has he scored twice, his shots/90 are up nicely from 2.5 to 3.2. Ciaran Clark (he’s only 28?!) is posting his best ever aerial duel percentage, a super 78.3%. And get this: Clark and Jamaal Lascelles combined are a perfect 14 for 14 in tackle attempts. On the downside, Kenedy has yet to create a chance in 234 minutes of play. But Jonjo Shelvey’s chances created/90 are the highest of his career.


The Saints have become notorious for failing to convert opportunities, which is what happens when you don’t have a striker. The last couple of years they’ve significantly underperformed their xG. Well, it’s happening again. Right now they’re an amazing fourth in the league in total shots, ahead of such luminaries as Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal. But they’re 10th in shots on target and tied for 13th in goals, and lead the league in under-performing their xG. It’s up to Danny Ings now.

One Southampton number to watch is possession percentage. Under Claude Puel they were super-possessive, at 53.1%. Last year they finished at 51.0%, but Mark Hughes was in charge for eight matches, breaking 50% only once – when West Ham were three up at halftime and then sat back. This year under Hughes they’re at 48.1%, ranking 12th in the league, having faced mostly mid-table sides. That’s likely to drop further when the heavy hitters show up.

Besides Ings, the good news is Alex McCarthy. He’s saved four shots from inside the six-yard box, most in the league, and is fourth in overall shot-stopping. Could he move past Jack Butland and Nick Pope into the second England spot?


The big surprise so far is the poor defence. Spurs are only tenth best in shots allowed, ninth best in xGA. Last year they were third and fourth respectively. What makes it stranger is that their press (see below) is by one measure the most effective in the league.

Their basic attacking numbers are somewhat better, but still below par. They’re tied for sixth in total shots, three places below last year. Possession is at 54.5%, vs. last season’s 58.8%. Pass completion percentage has dropped from 83.8% to 80.5%. Despite the win at Old Trafford (where they were poor in the first half), it all points to a team that’s in the doldrums.

With the advent of Lucas Moura, Harry Kane is being used in more of a support role. Even so, you’d never ever have guessed that Kane would rank 34th in shots/90 so far this season. And Moura, who looks the business, has scored his three goals from only six shots, and that conversion rate isn’t going to continue. In fact, he’s well below Kane in shots/90, all the way down at 68th. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not Christian Eriksen.


A couple of weeks ago we looked at the numbers showing Watford’s defence had become more aggressive. There’s a fancy stat called Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA) which measures how well you press: it takes the average number of passes your opponents complete before a tackle, interception or foul. The lower the number, the better the press. Right now Watford are at an excellent 9.55, sixth in the league behind Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton and Man City. Another measure of aggressive defence is crosses blocked: last year Watford were 18th, this year tied for first.

Another big positive for the Hornets has been set-pieces. The left foot of José Holebas has led to three goals in that department, tied for most in the league. The side is also top in percentage of accurate corner deliveries (and accurate crosses too).

But the Hornets’ early success has masked attacking deficiencies. They continue to over-perform their xG more than any other side. They complete only 69.5 percent of their passes, ranking them 18th, partly because they rely a lot on the long ball. A fairly high 21.4% of their passes have been long, fourth highest in the league. That’s particularly odd given that their press has been so effective. A good press should produce more short passes. They’ve got enough technical players in the side, and shorter passing might mean a more effective attack.


Let’s look on the bright side, shall we? West Ham’s ball control stats (which measure poor touches and times dispossessed), are third best in the league, behind only Burnley and Cardiff, who use more long balls and thus have fewer touches. The Hammers are also third best in dribbles, and that stat usually correlates well with where you finish in the table.

That’s about it, though. Although the side are only seventh-worst in shots allowed, they’re dead last in xGA, and are even under-performing that number. The attack, which figured to be a strength, is at 15th in total shots and 17th in xG. You can cut them a little slack for having played at Anfield, but at home to Bournemouth and Wolves they should be doing better. Their overall numbers aren’t much above what’s normal for a last-place team.


The most remarkable thing about Wolves is that there’s very little remarkable. They rank between 7th and 14th in (hold your breath) shots, shots on target, shots allowed, possession, pass completion, total passes, dribbles, aerials won, tackles, interceptions, fouls committed, clearances, shots blocked, and crosses blocked. That’s a side absolutely ready to finish mid-table.

There’s one place where improvement might help, though. They’re last in the league on shots from set-pieces. Only two of their 21 corners have found a teammate. (João Moutinho has taken 20 of the 21.) In a related stat, they haven’t been getting chances close to goal, with only one shot coming from inside the six-yard box. But to end on a more positive note, they have only three yellow cards, fewest in the league.


Peter Goldstein

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