Bannan, Freeman and Grealish- Comparing three of the EFL Championship’s creative attacking midfielders.

Barry Bannan imageJack Grealish Imageluke-freeman-image.jpg

Recruitment in midfield

In the summer of this year it looked as though Jack Grealish would be on his way to North London to be part of Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pocchetino’s young squad. Aston Villa fans, myself included, feared the worst and come August the 9th our worst fears were realised and Spurs bid £25 million. With Villa under huge financial pressure it looked as though Grealish was off but Spurs were told in no uncertain terms that he was not for sale, at any price. Had Daniel Levy and Co acted earlier they would have got their man or so Steve Bruce had claimed however Grealish eventually signed a new five year deal effectively doubling his wages but of course the pessimist in me says it is more than possible this is to merely increase his value for next year, I hope i’m wrong.

So to the point of this article. I have heard whispers on social media and seen a few snippets in the written media around the possible return to Villa Park of Sheffield Wednesday’s Barry Bannan.

This made me wonder that if ever that rumor ever became a possible reality would Bannan add anything to the squad? I think the answer would be well probably not. Of course there are a few others i could have analyzed and stuck in this article Duffy at Sheffield United amongst others.

Another player I coveted in the summer, and who I put forward for a move to Aston Villa, and also who I have admired for a long time now is QPR’s Luke Freeman.  Third last season in overall assists with 12 and with an xA of 13.01 (Bannan and Grealish didn’t even make the top 30 in xA last season)

Luke freeman 2
QPR’s Luke Freeman

I have wrote about and analyzed Freeman for a few years now right back to his Stevenage days in 2011 and believe it or not he is still only 26.

Freeman, in the 17/18 season, produced his best numbers to date with 12 assists and 5 goals (16/17 season- 5 assist 4 goals and in 15/16 6 assists and 1 goal) so is Freeman getting better with age? Well, yeah. It still puzzles me as to why he doesn’t seem to get a better gig than QPR (no offence meant).

So lets compare the three players mentioned above and stick em all in a wonky table for ease of reading.

Numbers wise we can see for Jack Grealish the season of 2015-16 in the EPL and Villa’s first season in the Championship following their relegation doesnt make for great reading. Injuries played a part of course but as he reached the season of 17-18 Grealish picked up albeit gradually with 4 assists. His numbers still werent as we would have expected from a talent such as his though.

Bannan produced and followed a similar path to Grealish the past three seasons with some low numbers assist wise bar a half decent return in the 16/17 Championship season with 7 assists and beating an xA of 6.07 in which he played 44 games but his goal return has been consistently poor. The season of 15/16 saw Bannan give a return of 2 goals and 2 assists in 38 games backing up that point.

Former Bristol City man Luke Freeman had a good season last year with a huge return of 12 assists from an xA of 13.01 showing there was probabaly more to come from him especially given he also had an xG of 8.41 and scored just the 5 goals. Freeman played just the 26 games for QPR and Bristol City in the 16/17 season and still produced 5 assists again with an xA of 7.5 and scoring 8 goals exceeding his xG of 3.95 massively. The changing of clubs in the season shouldnt be underestimated of course if you think these numbers are a tad low.

The present day

Given some teams have only played 16 or 17 games in the Championship this season there is a relatively small sample size to go from but be that as it may it will give us a peak into a window of what these three attacking midfielders can offer longer term now we have looked a bit at a small part of some of the numbers they have produced in the past few seasons.

I feel, as im sure most scouts and recruitment analysts will do also, that being able to receive and carry the ball into the final third and the danger areas in and around the box is a vital asset for an attacking midfielder to have. Its a big part of their play especially when playing as part of an attacking midfield three in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 shape as we have seen with Dean Smith’s Aston Villa at points at the start of his tenure.

So i wanted to look at the successful dribble rates of the three players i talked about above and where they tend to pick the ball up from and their ability to create opportunities from these dribbles.

First up Luke Freeman.

Luke Freeman Successful Dribbles 18/19

QPR usually play in a familar 4-2-3-1 formation with Freeman operating on the left of the midfield three and looking at the graphic above that i have produced that seems pretty clear. A success rate of 81% is well up there that much is clear and with a Total Non Penalty xG of 1.76 (he’s scored 2 goals) and an Total xA of 1.95 and 1 assist Freeman is on the right path again in a performance wise mixed season under a Steve McClaren led QPR side.

In regards to a few other measures I use in a simple, straight up AM template I’ve stuck them in a radar with per 90 unit samples and it would be interesting to stick these numbers in a AM/Winger template to see how they stack up for variance.

Luke Freeman radar 18/19

Just to be clear I REALLY LIKE LUKE FREEMAN! And if he turned up at Aston Villa I wouldnt be disappointed as he can play anywhere across a midfield three and on the left or right of a front three cutting inside or taking defenders on down the flanks and he can take set pieces so whats not to like? The fact that he is a VERY similar player to Grealish is the only issue but good players can always be accommodated in a team no matter what anybody tells you.

Anyway enough of the Luke Freeman love in lets see how Barry Bannan stacks up.

Barry Bannan Successful dribbles 18/19

To put it nicely, he doesnt. Stack up that is. Bannan, as i mentioned at the start of this article, has earned plaudits from some fans and EFL television pundits alike but I just dont see it personally. Admittedly Bannan’s Wednesday team are scoring goals with a current NPG total of 20 and an xG of 19.84 (my last count on xG and xGA is about a week out forgive me) it seems Bannan’slack of contribution may not be being missed after all but Wednesday have also conceded 26 goals and with an xGA of 22.6 (only Preston have a worse record) could this explain Bannan’s issues going forward as he is maybe having to fulfill a lot more defensive duties? Possibly but maybe we are clutching at straws on the Scotsmans behalf. His success rate when dribbling with the ball is low but as we can see he doesnt seem to attempt that many anyway. C’est la vie as they say.

Barry Bannan radar 18/19

When we compare Bannan’s stats on the radar with Freeman’s and Jack Grealish’s he is down on pretty much every measure. Although he is still a decent midfielder I think Bannan had his time at Villa Park and there is no need to go back from his or from Villa’s point of view if indeed, which I doubt, has ever been the case.

Super Jack Grealish

Maybe its age, maybe its just that he is that good but Grealish is starting to again find the form of last season playing in a struggling Steve Bruce side.

The sheer amount of dribbles attempted let alone the successful ones that are documented in the graphic above is enough to rival that of an above average Premier league AM let alone a fellow Championship one like Freeman or Bannan.

Unlike Freeman this season Grealish has usually been deployed in the Aston Villa team behind a central centre forward, usually Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham, in a 4-4-1-1 formation and not on the left of a 4-3-3 however Grealish does tend to drift out more to the left hand side and cut back inside on to his favored right foot. He also has the highest success rate of all the three players mentioned with 84%.

Grealish’s assist numbers havent quite hit the numbers he or Villa would like as yet but as the season progresses they probably will and we can see from the first table that his numbers in the areas detailed have improved year on year and progression in a player is what drives recruitment.

Jack Grealish radar 18/19

I guess my overall point is that if Villa end

up losing Grealish and if they were to look

to recruit from the Championship and if

they dont get promoted and if… well

they could do a lot worse than taking

a good look at Luke Freeman.

Gareth Cooper

GC Analytics

Part 2: Using Expected Points & Goal Difference to predict a league table

In my previous post on Expected Points I discussed the differing metrics I can use in roughly trying to predict the outcome of a league season in the format of a final league table. Due to the length of part one on the EPL I decided it would be easier to do a second post rather than bore everyone to tears on the first post but thanks for a massive response all the same! For the explanations of the parameters and metrics used in compiling these tables I suggest you refer back to the first post which can be found here https://wp.me/p8dqLB-8l

EFL Championship and SkyBet Leagues 1 and 2

Having been involved in differing capacities with clubs below the EPL, alongside supporting the best team in the midlands, Aston Villa (don’t @ me!), I have not only a vested interest in the Championship and League’s 1 and 2 (I will leave the National League out of these posts for now for post length reasons) but I also compile and collect these 3 league’s data throughout the season and find that they are very interesting when it comes to using various measures when producing data work.

Although there is some work published I believe that there is nowhere near enough detailed data and stat work around given the availability of various data sources however publicly available data is few and far between in all fairness. These three leagues are all well supported of course and fans maybe don’t get enough stat work done, or publicly published anyway, on their clubs but especially fans from clubs in Leagues 1 and 2. I should say that the data I used is up until and including the 6th of October’s fixtures in all three leagues.

More on Leagues 1 and 2 later but I will start with the Championship and alongside the tables I will sum up little about what I found and then see what possibilities could end up taking place come the end of the season.

EFL Championship

Champ xGD
EFL Championship goal difference table

As I mentioned in the first post on this subject I had my doubts about using expected goal difference as a valid measure of a team’s final league position but in the process of exploring the data and using the metrics went along it kind of grew on me a little.

Dean smith
Will Dean Smith’s departure for Aston Villa radically effect Brentford’s promotion hopes?

Brentford fans will be pleased as punch to see their side at the top of the goal difference table but they might want to hold off due to the fact manager Dean Smith has now left the club to join Aston Villa and this of course will most probably have a huge impact on where their season goes from here. A +22 goal difference would have earned you a final league position of 5th or 6th position if we go, as we have done in our parameter, by last season’s final league table. Wolves won the league with a +43 GD with the nearest being another promoted club Cardiff City with +30 GD and of course it’s still possible to achieve Cardiff’s GD but unlikely anyone will touch Wolves’ 17/18 season total surely.

My doubts creep back in again when I see the high pressing Marco Bielsa’s Leeds team finishing the season with a GD of +14 when they already have a +13 GD at the time of writing but there is a long way to go of course and goal differences will sway, some considerably,  as the season progresses. Sheffield United have started very well but xG doesn’t always match up with the reality but in theory a playoff spot, if not more, is easily attainable for Chris Wilder’s men.

Sheff wed
Sheffield Wednesday bottom of a table? I have my doubts

So who should be worried? Well Hull and Ipswich (yes really) could be in trouble as most certainly will relegation favorites Rotherham United but the surprise (okay MASSIVE surprise!) is seeing Sheffield Wednesday at the bottom of this table. This is just not going to happen Wednesday are currently 6th in the table with a GD of +1 so how is it feasible they could finish bottom? They have conceded 15 goals with an xGA of 18.1 (9th highest in the Championship) so still conceding 3.1 less than predicted, a small margin granted. And they are exceeding there xG by 4.3 goals (xG is 11.7 and actual goals scored is 15) again this isn’t a great number but it is still 8th highest in the league, not bad (I am planning on publishing all leagues current xG numbers when I get a chance). The issue is essentially conceding 18 goals and scoring 19 isn’t sustainable over a 46 game season and if this continues they will find themselves slipping down the table somewhat however not to the extent that the table above shows. Wigan, Bristol City, Stoke, Villa in 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th respectively all have similar records so the although the final table is skewed somewhat it’s easy to see how, given the four teams positions noted above, Wednesday could end up much lower down the league come May next year.

Anyway let’s move on to the final expected points table to see if we can correlate anything the goal difference table tells us.

Champ xP
EFL Championship expected points table

Now this is more like it. For me this passes the eye test quite well. The top 6 sits quite well with me and the fight for the title, I expect, will be just as close as the table suggests although Sheffield United winning the title may be a stretch for me.

Sheff utd
Some numbers suggest otherwise but I think Sheffield United should be taken seriously this season

 

 

Brentford as we have discussed may have issues now Smith has departed. In general the top five are the same give or take (yes I know there are is no such thing as 77.04 points but you can see what we are trying to achieve here) 7th-18th is again very familiar and also the bottom 4. Sheffield Wednesday have managed to get out of the bottom four and finish 20th,  probably more believable but I still have my doubts they will finish that low we shall see.

Summary

The two tables do correlate in general but with complications for teams in regards to managerial changes, injuries and schedules etc there can always be a massive swing either way on how things can change especially with two or three big wins changing goal differences up and down the table. I like the expected points tables in general and although being massively swayed by the teams xG numbers these are consistently more reliable than using current points per game. I would expect Leeds and Middlesborough to better their positions in my table but I’m interested to see how Brentford, Sheffield United and Derby progress and also how the Dean Smith effect at Aston Villa pans out.

SkyBet League 1

SkyBet L1 xP
SkyBet League 1 goal difference and expected points tables

Four out of the last five seasons have seen the League 1 title won by a team with a points total of 90 or more and Barnsley look on course, even at this early stage, to achieve this, well maybe.

Image result for barnsley fc v luton town
Barnsley earned another 3 points against Luton on Saturday

With the lowest xGA conceded (12.5 actual conceded is 9) and the highest xG at 23.1 (they exceed this by 2.9 with 26 goals scored) and scoring at 2.1 goals per game the numbers are looking really good for the Oakwell outfit so far who are in 3rd.  Portsmouth and Peterborough lead the way currently and both of those sides are looking good and with the latter’s expected goal difference of -5 in my final table this again questions my thinking but 19 goals conceded with an xGA of 21.2 kind of skews the table given that Posh have currently scored 30 goals and exceed their xG by a whopping 8.8 this then answers the question of my table somewhat in terms of goal differences but again slightly questions the sustainability of Steve Evans’ teams goal scoring and goal conceding ratios over the course of a season.

Luton Town are another side that has real potential in at least achieving a playoff spot. In their first season back in League 1 and in both the goal difference tables and the expected points table the Hatters are predicted to end up in the higher echelons. With a predicted GD of +17 (last season this would get you 4th-5th position and the predicted 77 points would get you the same position wise) Nathan Jones has a real team spirit and huge work ethic ingrained into his side which I believe will all help in them in achieving a somewhat surprising top 5 finish.

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Luton Town manager Nathan Jones

Sunderland,  Southend and a resurgent Blackpool all look to have decent chances of a playoff berth each come the end of the season. At the other end of the table Plymouth, who finished 7th last season but currently sit bottom of the table this season, already look worryingly frail at the back with a rather large 2.18 xGA per match (actually conceding 1.83) and with a huge total xGA of 26.3 after 12 games played they have been very lucky to concede just the 19 goals maybe they have a kind of alright defensive policy after all? Or does it say more about the shooting ability of the teams they have faced? You can decide (Hint: it’s not the first one) anyway it doesn’t make for optimistic reading and I predict them to finish bottom, and some way short of 23rd, in both of my predictive tables.

These results and metrics used are probably shoved to the back of any clubs data driven stat work at this level of football and is probably paid no attention to at all when in reality this could be massively important and relevant in a clubs performance now and in a predictive nature.

SkyBet League 2

SkyBet L2 xP
SkyBet League 2 goal difference and expected points tables

So to the last league being covered in this article SkyBet League 2 and one of the most competitive with a standard being very similar throughout the league. There are some interesting outcomes here but let’s start at the top as it stands.

cowley brothers
Nick (left) and Danny Cowley have got Lincoln firing again

One thing is for sure so far this season. The Cowley brothers and Lincoln City side have found their promotion winning form when winning the National League two years ago. Finishing 7th last season, The Imps already have just over half the points they achieved in the whole of last season. With an xG total of 14.3 this season Lincoln have scored 20 goals at the time of writing (games inc. 6th of October remember) a plus of 5.7 xG means they sit pretty at the top of League 2 and also predicted to keep that top spot come the end of the season with a points total of 83.68 (or 84 if you like your numbers rounded up) a points total that last year would have got your team a 4th place finish stretching to 3rd (Wycombe finished in 4th with 84 points last season).

I can’t quite get my head around a +18 GD when winning a title in this league but this is what MK Dons are predicted to achieve in my goal difference table and its odd I agree especially given Lincoln already have +17 currently but in achieving fourth last season Wycombe did finish with the same goal difference so again although doubt creeps in it is still feasible, maybe. Speaking of MK Dons I have them coming very close in the expected points table with a predicted total of 78 points which last season would see you end up in either 5th or 4th position so comparing my table with last season’s it won’t be far off.

Looking up and down there isn’t much that sticks out between the two tables in terms of positioning and GD is pretty good as well with Grimsby predicting to have a -18 GD (23rd and 24th ended with -13 and -15 respectively last season) and could Mansfield end up with the same amount of points as last year (72) as predicted in my table? Can Notts County recover from a disastrous start to the season and end up escaping to 20th position with 51 points by the end of the season? in any instance it is more likely than them achieving 77 points as they did last year.

In the last two seasons 46 points or above would see you safe from relegation but using my measures 50-52 will be the probable cut off this year and the likes of Macclesfield (currently on 4 points), Cambridge (8), Cheltenham (9) and the aforementioned Notts County (12) will not be wanting to hear that I’m sure.

So there we have it I hope I have cleared up a few things and maybe reaffirmed some peoples thinking and hopes for the season ahead or maybe I have opened a few eyes to what is possible when using these metrics alongside the parameters I have used when compiling these tables.

Probably worth putting a few quid on anyway, maybe.

Gareth Cooper

GC Analytics

If there are any queries or questions in regards to the past two articles on this subject or others involving xG, xA or any predictive measures you have seen and if you think they may help when scouting teams or players or even if you think I could help your club or department in any of these areas feel free to get in touch.

 

xG and xA: Some (really) early numbers

Oh not this again, isnt it to early for this??!

The critics of xG (expected goals) and xA (expected assists) will be so annoyed that I have brought this up so early on in the season. In fact some of the main supporters of the two metrics will probably frown upon it as well.

Personally, I like to start as early as possible in collecting the data and also to publish some early tables, I have my reasons and they are the following.

  • Have last seasons top players according to these metrics started the season as they left off in 17/18?
  • Are there any new players that have started the season well?
  • Given relegations and promotions are they any players who have performed well with their clubs?
    Transfers. Have any new signings started well with their new clubs?

The EPL

This is one reason why I like to get a look in early on.

Mo Salah has indeed it seems carried on his form from last season in to this one. Okay i hear you, and I cant push it any further than what it is and of course xG is a minor factor in performance statistics but Salah looks to have returned from an unsettling time with Egypt at the World Cup with confidence and his performances so far have backed that up. His xA numbers arent quite their but they will be, we all know it.

Another Liverpool man Andy Robertson has provided an assist so far and a question to be asked is does Jurgen Klopp want more of this type of attacking threat from the Scotsman this year?

Sergio Aguero is already exceeding his xG numbers and still looking like a world class striker season after season. It should be noted the xG stat is probably irrelevant at this stage (no player will get near .90 per 90 mins all season).

When we talk about assists in the EPL we tend to think of De Bruyne, Salah and Hazard and with KDB out for a few months it will be up to Salah and Hazard (I also expect David Silva, Lucus Moura and James Maddison to have decent numbers xA wise) to have excellent seasons in providing assists for their respective clubs.

SkyBet Championship

According to the pundits and a lot of professional people within English football, this is probably the toughest of the four leagues to get promoted from that I have written about in this piece.

Dean Smith’s Brentford side impressed many people last year and they have began this season well again. With his preferred 4-3-3 shape, with Josh McEacharan in the heart of the midfield, Brentford play a quick, free flowing brand of attacking football and with Neal Maupay at centre forward and having scored 5 goals in as many games and 3 assists to boot Brentford have a striker in form and after his 17 goal haul last term Bees fans will hope it continues.

One of the reasons I gave earlier for wanting to look at some xG numbers this early was to see if some goalscorers would adapt to their leagues after relegation. Step forward West Brom’s Jay Rodriguez. Injury hit Rodriguez looks to have come into some early form and the Championship is suited to him theres no doubt.

Former Villa and Derby striker Andy Weimann is also playing well after his transfer to Bristol City with 5 goals exceeding his xG by 2 goals.

Can Norwich get a good return out of the much travelled Jordan Rhodes? Can Marco Bielsa do the same with the strikers he has at Leeds United until he can get new faces in in January? Both cases are in the balance in my opinion.

Sheffield Wednesday’s Barry Bannan is player who has the ability to change a game in the Championship but needs to improve on his assist tally from last year (3 assists) and would do well to repeat the 8 he achieved in the 16/17 season.

Another of Bielsa’s charges at Leeds, Pablo Hernandez, is another man who is very good on the ball and has 2 assists to his name already contributing to Leeds top of the table form.

I expect Leeds United’s Samu Saiz, QPR’ s Luke Freeman and Derby County’s Tom Lawrence to top the assist and xA tables come the end of the year especially Freeman who is more than capable of beating his 12 assists from last year.

SkyBet League 1

Walsall’s Andy Cook has had some very good chances to have at least 3 more goals than the two he has so far. His xG total of 5 suggests the former Carlisle man isnt finishing as well as he should do.

On loan Nottingham Forest hitman Jason Cummings has the opposite issue he cant stop scoring. Having scored 6 goals and with an xG of 3.93 the Scotsman hasn’t had any trouble in finding the net and in doing so propelling Posh up up the table.

Shaun Whalley’s delivery from set pieces doesnt come as a surprise to some of us hence him always having pretty decent numbers when it comes to asssits and he will pick up as the season progresses.

Sunderland’s Liam Gooch looks to be finally finding some form and long may it continue. Gooch has 3 assists already this season and with an xA of 1.95 the signs are looking good for him if he can stay injury free.

SkyBet League 2

In the table above are two reasons why I like to do these tables early.

MK Dons were relegated from League 1 last year but have began the season in League 2 unbeaten but they lack serious potentcy upfront. Kieron Agard has had some very good clear cut chances to add to his 2 goals, trust me ive seen it with my own eyes, hence his xG of 5.3. But his finishing needs a lot to desired and Paul Tisdale will need to think about this area of his squad if the Dons are to mount a serious promotion push.

On the flip side newly promoted Tranmere have a promising goalscorer in James Norwood who has scored 5 times this season and exceeding his xG of 4.07.

Assist wise bottom of League 1 Notts County have Dutch winger Enzio Boldewijn. The former Utrecht and Crawley Town man looks impressive early on and although mangerless after the sacking of Kevin Nolan, County shouldn’t be in the current situation come the end of the season given the squad they have to compete in League 2.

In summary

As I have said a great deal in this article it is still very early days in the season but I hope I have given you some insight as to what you can expect from your team in the coming season.

xG and xA numbers are always open for criticism for different reasons but they are a good marker when looking at taking goalscoring chances and also the creation of chances by the main players who try to provide those opportunities.

Gareth Cooper

GC Analytics