The Data Day No. 9: Our Rolling Football Blog
Welcome to The Data Day, our rolling football stats blog for 2021-22, where we try and make sense of what just happened.
The Patience League
France are the second winners of the UEFA Nations League after beating Spain 2-1 in Milan on Sunday. After roaring back from 2-0 down to beat Belgium in the semi-finals, Didier Deschamps side recovered from briefly trailing 1-0 against Spain to join Portugal two years ago as winners of this newest of continental honours.
With five World Cups and European Championships between them this century, this was a proper, heavyweight final but also one between teams who have ongoing issues to deal with. Spain are in the midst of transitioning from a golden generation to a nu-generation, and as such named both Sergio Busquets (born 1988) and Gavi (born 2004) in their midfield. France meanwhile, were looking for official redemption after fluffing their lines at Euro 2020, held earlier this year. This was the actual final that was supposed to take place in 2021 and they were victorious. Job done. Sort of.
That said, the first hour of the game was a grind, with neither team able to create much. Then: a canny advantage played by Premier League referee Anthony Taylor in the 64th minute saw Theo Hernández rattle the bar (it clearly didn’t cross the line but that hasn’t stopped such shots deciding major international finals before). 34 seconds later Spain were in the lead through the excellent Mikel Oyarzabal, only to be immediately (+1m 47s) countered by an absolute videogame finish from Karim Benzema from the left edge of the box.
After that both teams went “yeah fine this is a final but not one we need to worry too much about losing so let’s have some fun”. The winning goal came with 10 minutes to go, Kylian Mbappe was slipped through when he was beyond the last defender and thus had ample time to think and stepover a delightful finish past Unai Simon. Technically he wasn’t offside, and he finished the chance technically, so it was a perfect moment for fans of technical football. Mbappe deserved the limelight, though, having provided the bulk of the game’s xG, and more by himself than Spain managed in total. In some ways the Nations League finals is the perfect mini-competition as it provides solid international action without some of the stressful elements that occur during tournaments with longer histories. A lot of people may have forgotten this game by the time the 2023 final rolls around but we’ll all remember to tune in nonetheless.
Another Throw of the Dice
Well, at least Xisco Muñoz lasted longer than the last Watford manager who’d won promotion from the Championship. Slaviša Jokanović didn’t even get offered a new contract in the summer of 2015 following his success, while Xisco got seven games to prove his worth before getting the axe.
Xisco was one of the most popular Watford managers in recent times. His friendly smile and personality were what the Hornets needed to bond an exceptionally talented squad for a second-tier league and get them back up to the Premier League at the first time of asking. His affable nature was never questioned, but many had doubts about his ability to lead a side in the top-flight with such little experience. After all, his previous top-flight experience equated to just 11 matches in the Georgian Erovnuli Liga at Dinamo Tbilisi.
Experience can’t be questioned with their latest appointment – their 14th in nine years under the Pozzo family rule. Claudio Ranieri is about as experienced they come, with 861 top-flight matches under his belt across England, Spain, Italy and France.
English football fans will fondly remember Ranieri’s Leicester City side of 2015-16 – arguably the most remarkable title-winners in English top-flight history.
We won’t go into detail about that here, as we’ve already told that story through the data. However, Watford fans could be buoyed by his ability to work with a small squad of players that had little experience of being involved in a top-flight title race.
Labelled ‘The Tinkerman’ in his years as Chelsea coach, he did anything but during his title-winning campaign with the Foxes. Leicester used 23 different players on the way to winning the title in 2015-16 – the fewest of any side in the Premier League that season – while he used the exact same starting XI in 13 of their 38 games (34%). Watford have a small squad this season, and they were only able to name 23 players in their 25-man senior squad for the Premier League – he’ll need a same ethos this time around.
Dare we say it, but Watford have players who could benefit from a style similar to that of Leicester City in 2015-16. The pace of players like Ismaïla Sarr, Emmanuel Dennis, Kiko Femenía and Ken Sema certainly suit a counter-attacking setup, one which worked so well for the Premier League champions of five years ago.
He could have asked for an easier start as Watford manager, with a home game in front of the TV cameras against Liverpool his debut in the Hornets’ dugout. On the day of that game, Ranieri will be just four days shy of his 70th birthday, making him the fifth oldest manager in the history of the Premier League.
This task might just age him more than any of his previous jobs. We’ll watch with interest.
What Did You Learn From Premier League MD7?
The seventh matchday of the 2021-22 Premier League season is now over, and with it we reach the second international break of the campaign. Bruno Fernandes reached 50 Premier League goal involvements, Harry Kane failed to score in the competition yet again and we’ve seen our first managerial casualty of the season – but what did you learn from the action this weekend? It’s time to find out!
High Quality Association Football
In the same way that Manchester United against Arsenal fixtures used to be the technical highlight of each Premier League season, Liverpool and Manchester City now provide the same service. Matches between them are a twice-season State of the Premier League Nation update and today at Anfield we were given confirmation that these two are still the leading stylists of English football. Last season Liverpool were too far off the pace, while City suffered similarly in the previous campaign, but so far 2021-22 looks a bit like 2018-19 when the two could barely be separated all year.
City played well for 90 minutes today, Liverpool only for the second half, but that second period will go down as one of the most enjoyable passages of play most people, whether they support one of these clubs or not, will have witnessed for some time. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah scored in the same Liverpool game for the 39th time, a record only Ian St John and Roger Hunt, celebrated and remembered before kick-off, can better.
Mane’s opener took him to 99 Premier League goals and he scored it right in the Sadio Mane zone, as the shot map below demonstrates. He was played in by Mohamed Salah who had clearly decided at half-time to demonstrate why he is one of the greatest players to ever feature in the Premier League. Salah’s goal to make it 2-1 will be replayed for decades, an instant classic, and scored with his weaker foot. Some weakness. Salah has either scored (9) or assisted (3) in eight of his nine games in all competitions for Liverpool this season, having a direct hand in more goals so far in 2021-22 than any other Premier League player (12).
But if that was the stunning contribution from Liverpool’s main men, City had their own heroes, Phil Foden chief among them. After tormenting Liverpool in this fixture last season, Foden stepped up again, making it 1-1 with an incredibly drilled finish, and then playing the key role in the build-up to the Kevin De Bruyne goal that made it 2-2. Foden, who already seems like very much a big game player, has more goals and more xG against Liverpool than any other Premier League team. Phil is no flat track bully and it was instructive that he remained on the pitch for the whole game. Jack Grealish, in contrast, lasted only 66 minutes and failed to create any goalscoring chances in his time on the Anfield grass.
Pep Guardiola will be rightly and permanently outraged that James Milner somehow escaped a second yellow card after flipping Bernardo Silva in the air like a pancake. In one of those curiosities of sport, yellow cards cannot be reviewed by VAR. We have all the replays in the world but with incidents like today’s it is just voyeurism.. That said, all classic Premier League games need a furious incident like this to seal their reputation and make no mistake, this was a classic Premier League game. Chelsea are top of the division as it stands, and the draw was the ideal outcome for Thomas Tuchel’s team, but the European champions will have sat up and taken note of the sheer intensity on display at Anfield.
All that remains are the five worst words in football: here comes the international break.
No Dreams at the Theatre Today
This was another disappointing afternoon for Manchester United fans in 2021-22. The opportunity to move to the top of the table – albeit only for a few hours – was missed, as the Red Devils gave away a half-time lead at Old Trafford to draw 1-1 with an Everton side missing key players.
United haven’t lost a home match in league competition that they’ve led at half-time since May 1984, losing 2-1 to Ipswich Town at Old Trafford. They very nearly ended that run – lasting 37 years and 148 days – in this game, as they were saved by VAR in the closing minutes following the decision to disallow Yerry Mina’s close-range finish.
Since taking over as United boss in December 2018, Ole Gunnar Solskjær has averaged just 1.81 points per game in Premier League matches at Old Trafford, with a 51% win rate. Of all five permanent United managers in the competition, only David Moyes (you guessed it) has a worse record in home games.
There’s been a fair bit of finger-pointing by United fans at certain players this season, and one of those targeted was big summer signing Jadon Sancho.
Sancho’s now failed to score or assist in all nine competitive appearances for the club since joining from Borussia Dortmund, and it’s safe to say the move hasn’t worked out how either party planned so far. Even complete unknown Bebe scored twice in his seven competitive appearances for the club in 2010-11, so Sancho’s form has been slightly alarming. Today saw him pulled off after 57 minutes, having made little impact, while in nine appearances to date for the club he’s averaged just 0.17 expected goals per 90 and an even lower expected assists per 90 average (0.12).
His – and United’s – form will need to improve if they are to launch a title challenge this season.
Timo Werner thought he’d ended his six-month wait for a Premier League goal in the first half, before being cruelly denied by VAR for offside. He needn’t have worried, though – his strike in the second half ended a run of 22 shots without scoring in the English top flight.
The German forward still has some work to do in order to catch up to his expected goals total, however.
His tally of seven goals is just under half what our xG model would have expected from him in his Premier League career, with his deficit of minus-6.2 the biggest of any top-flight player in England since the start of 2020-21.
16 and Out.
Norwich fans and Daniel Farke will be having a celebratory drink tonight, with a 0-0 draw on the road at Burnley finally ending their horrendous 16-game losing streak in the Premier League.
It wasn’t pretty, with this match seeing chances worth just a combined 1.38 xG – only two games have seen lower in 2021-22 – but the Canaries won’t care, as it finally gives them a platform to build upon this season in the top flight.
None of the previous 43 meetings between Burnley and Norwich City in all competitions had finished 0-0 – the most either side has ever faced an opponent without having a single goalless draw in their respective histories. But all good things have to come to an end.
Sunderland supporters won’t be so pleased, as their monumental 20-game losing streak across two different Premier League seasons between January 2003 and September 2005 remains top.
Predicting the Premier League: MD7
The Premier League reaches Matchday 7 of the 2021-22 season, and with it the final weekend of action before the October international break.
The results on Matchday 6 defied our predictor more than any previous batch of games across the new season, as the model only hit with 30% accuracy. The previous five weekends saw our predictor successfully pick out the correct result for 56% of matches – pretty good considering there are three possible outcomes in each game. Our 31 successful predictions are also higher than that from Mark Lawrenson’s brain over on the BBC (29), which we must celebrate.
So, what of Matchday 7?
The game of the weekend undoubtedly comes last, with Manchester City’s trip to Anfield to face Liverpool on Sunday afternoon expected to have ramifications in who wins the title – even if the game comes in the third month of the season.
The last four Premier League seasons have been won by one of these clubs, with Pep Guardiola’s reigning Champions tipped to win this match by our predictor (39.2%).
City defeated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in convincing fashion last weekend, and won this exact fixture 4-1 last season, ending a run of 17 away league games without a win at Liverpool (D5 L12). The Citizens haven’t won consecutive league games at Anfield since January 1953.
Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool side are currently on the longest unbeaten league run in England’s top four tiers (16 games), but the predictor ultimately thinks that the battle between the Premier League’s best attack – Liverpool, with 16 goals – and the best defence – Man City have only conceded once – will be won by Guardiola’s side.
Chelsea are being given the best chance of a win this weekend in the predictions (60.1%), with the Blues facing Southampton at Stamford Bridge. But don’t rule out the 39.9% chance of a draw or Southampton win, here. Remember MD5 when Southampton travelled to Man City – they were given just a 5.1% chance to win and only 12.8% to draw but secured a 0-0 result, and probably deserved all three points.
Southampton are one of five teams without a win so far in the Premier League this season – only twice in their top-flight history have they failed to win any of their first seven games to a campaign, doing so in 1996-97 and 1998-99.
Thomas Tuchel’s team have lost their last two games without scoring – both 1-0 defeats, one in the Premier League to Man City and the other a Champions League loss away at Juventus in midweek. Surely it won’t be three in a row here…will it?
Can Spurs end their dreadful three-game run of losing with only one goal scored in those 270 minutes? Our predictor thinks so.
They enjoyed a 5-1 victory on Thursday night against NS Mura in the UEFA Europa Conference League, which should give them some confidence for this meeting with Aston Villa on Sunday – in particular Harry Kane.
The England captain scored a hat-trick in this match to take his seasonal goal tally to six goals, but only one of those has come in 468 Premier League minutes.
Harry Kane 2021-22 in domestic vs. European competition.
It turns out that Spurs need to play more Premier League games on a Thursday night (and yes, Kane is the highest scoring player in PL history on Thursdays – 8 goals in 8 games). pic.twitter.com/T0r27rBsAd— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) October 1, 2021
Spurs haven’t lost four Premier League games in a row since November 2004, but our predictor thinks there is only a 21.6% chance of this happening at the weekend, despite Villa’s great 1-0 win at Old Trafford against Manchester United last Saturday.
Leeds United are still winless in their six Premier League matches in 2021-22, but the predictor thinks an Elland Road crowd will spur them on to victory in their clash with Watford on Saturday (53.1%).
Watford have won more points (7 v 3), scored more goals (7 v 6) and conceded less often (9 v 14) than Leeds, but surely this poor run of form for Marcelo Bielsa’s side can’t stretch to a seventh successive matchday? If it does, they’ll set a new club record, as they’ve never failed to win any of their first seven league games in any of their previous 94 campaigns in their history.
Let the games commence.