World Cup 2018, Day 1 Review: Russia thrash sorry Saudis

The World Cup is finally here! We’ll be posting daily articles rounding up the action, as well as detailed analyses from expert writers from the countries involved, and don’t forget we have an explanatory video on how to follow your team’s progress during the World Cup too. With the action getting underway today, who among us was not drooling with anticipation at the thought of Russia vs Saudi Arabia?

Okay, perhaps not. Even the fans of those two countries won’t have been expecting too much entertainment from the opening game of the 2018 World Cup finals. However, while it wasn’t the highest quality game you’ll ever see, it was not short on brilliant moments.
Read More

England 2-1 Nigeria: Match Review

England began their World Cup preparations with a 2-1 win over Nigeria at Wembley. But the visitors are off to Russia shortly too, so the match was just as important to them, and both sides will have taken some important learning points from the encounter.

Gary Cahill was the official man of the match, and the BBC agreed, but far more important than either of those is the Twelve award. Fortunately for the Chelsea man, he came out on top in our rankings too.

With 1,000 points awarded for a goal, it’s no surprise to see the game’s three scorers taking the top three slots here, as that can often happen. However, you can see from the blue bars in the chart that if we were to exclude goals out of interest, Cahill was still the second best performer in the match, and only a shade behind Kieran Trippier.

The Spurs’ wing back had a good match, assisting the opening goal from a corner. This played a huge part in Trippier amassing the most attacking points of any player.

This illustrates how Twelve rates players on more than chances created when it comes to their attacking output. While Trippier created two chances, his Spurs teammate Dele Alli set up four, but the latter was only fifth in the attacking rankings for this match. The quality of a chance created is usually far more important than the total number of them.

The same appears to be true when it comes to tackles in the defensive stats. Jesse Lingard was on the field for 66 minutes, and in that time he made a remarkable seven tackles. Time for a little context: the most consistently frequent tacklers tend to average around four for every 90 minutes they play. Extrapolate Lingard’s figures to a full match, and you get to 9.5 tackles. He’d struggle to make half a tackle, but you take the point.

But this was also a game in which his side dominated the ball, to the tune of having 59% of the possession. Factor that in to the equation, and it implies the Manchester United man would’ve made 13 tackles in a full match if the possession split was even. Such numberwanging is all hypothetical of course, but it shows the work Lingard was putting in, and England will need that sort of endeavour in Russia if they are to succeed.

However, with tackles carrying a light weighting in the Twelve system, Lingard only ranked 13th for defensive points. The real star in this category was Brighton’s new signing, Leon Balogun. He only played the first half, and as his side were 2-0 down at the break, you may wonder how he amassed the second most defensive points in the match (behind Cahill) and the most on a points per minute basis. But he did.

Balogun’s key contribution was a clearance in the 30th minute, which was worth 138 points. That tally alone would’ve been enough for eighth place in the defensive rankings.

A word also for Francis Uzoho, the young Nigerian goalkeeper. He may have been at fault for Harry Kane’s goal, and was penalised with a defensive error by Opta in their stats, but his overall performance on Twelve’s ratings was strong. The highlight was saving an (Opta-defined) clear-cut chance from Lingard in the 29th minute, which was worth a stunning 745 points.

It may seem odd to end with a negative note on Harry Kane, as he ultimately scored the winning goal, but it was his only shot of the match. Gareth Southgate’s England side have scored 14 goals in matches featuring Kane, and the Tottenham talisman has scored eight of them and assisted another.

The Three Lions understandably rely on him, but his shot numbers have been lower since he last returned from injury. If England are to make a serious impact in Russia, they will need more from their main man.

Real Madrid vs Liverpool: The story of the Champions League final

Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 in Kiev to win their fourth Champions League title in the last five seasons. It’s a remarkable achievement, but did they deserve to win? And who were the best players on the night?

UEFA gave their man of the match award to Gareth Bale, and he topped the Twelve ratings too. As he scored two goals he was always likely to, but there will rarely have been a match where the key player had such little involvement overall.

Even so, Bale’s first goal was one of the finest seen in any final, and certainly worthy of winning any match. Of course, with Twelve utilising an algorithm there are no points for artistic merit, but if there were then you’d probably assign at least 1,990 of his 2,000 goal points from the match to the overhead kick. It’s certainly worth viewing again, and it’s not a goal anyone, aside from Liverpool fans, will ever tire of seeing.

In total, five of the top six performers on the night were wearing white. This probably illustrates Madrid deserved to win, even if they benefitted hugely from two goalkeeping howlers in order to claim the trophy.

Ah yes, the goalkeeping errors. Poor old Loris Karius. It won’t count for a thing now, but at the half way point in the match he had been Liverpool’s third best performer, behind Andy Robertson and Virgil van Dijk. It won’t surprise you to hear he finished the match dead last of all 27 players who took to the field, but what was unusual was that the German goalkeeper earned more attacking points than Roberto Firmino.

Former Premier League goalkeeper Shaka Hislop indirectly made a point regarding this in a video for ESPN. “I am convinced that Jürgen Klopp says to Liverpool do everything quickly,” Hislop said, and while this speed of thought helps Karius contribute to the attack at times, it proved his undoing for the goals.

Unfortunately for Liverpool, it wasn’t a great night for their number nine either, and that was doubly disappointing in that they needed him to step up once Salah was forced to leave the field. Firmino wasn’t even able to chip in with his usually superb off ball work, which was a feature of his fine campaign in the Premier League, and he didn’t pick up a single point in that category.

The Reds’ best player on the night according to the Twelve ratings, thanks hugely to his goal, was Sadio Mané. However, it was the Reds’ defenders who probably deserve the most plaudits. The defence chart was the only one where a Liverpool player performed best, in the form of van Dijk, but it’s perhaps Andy Robertson who arguably deserves the most praise here.

The young Scot denied Cristiano Ronaldo what would’ve been an almost certain goal by sliding into block his shot in the 73rd minute. That block was worth 103 points, and on it’s own would’ve put Robertson 12th in the defence standings.

Speaking of Ronaldo, he had a very quiet night by his standards, and was only rated 13th in the total scores for the final. He had just three shots, and Real’s #7 has only had fewer in a Champions League or La Liga match once all season. His surprisingly strong defensive work was highlighted prior to the final, but it was still a surprise to see it contribute so much to his score for the game.

Ronaldo picked up 219 points for shots, and 182 for attack, but 176 for defence. There won’t have been many matches where his dashboard shows more important actions at the back rather than up front, but this game is one such example.

But when all is said and done, it was the errors by Karius which defined this match. It’s one he won’t want to watch again in a hurry.

Real Madrid vs Liverpool: Who have been their best players in Europe?

In my last article I took a look at who Liverpool’s player of the year has been when it comes to the stats in the Premier League. With the Champions League final coming up on Saturday, it’s now time to take a look at how the players of Liverpool and Real Madrid have fared in Europe in 2017/18.

It won’t surprise anyone to see Cristiano Ronaldo lead the way from Liverpool’s fabulous front three, as those four players are the top four scorers in the competition this season. However, it will probably confound people to see Dejan Lovren sneak into the top five, just as he did when looking for the Reds’ top players in domestic football.

While the top four have clearly relied a lot on shots and goals (the blue bar) to reach their high scores, Liverpool’s Croatian centreback has understandably relied upon his defensive (red) points. But his off ball bar (yellow) is relevant too, and in fact Lovren leads the way on this particular attribute, either in total or on a points per minute basis.

Jürgen Klopp appears to value Lovren’s brand of front foot defending, even if it has Liverpool supporters tearing their hair out at times. Twelve value his contribution here too, as we can see on his map.

However, if anything is more surprising than Lovren’s inclusion in the top five players, it’s the fact Ronaldo has racked up far more defensive points than any of Liverpool’s front three, as that feels counter-intuitive when the Reds love to defend from the front.

The Portuguese legend is a useful asset when defending set plays though, thanks to his aerial prowess. Ronaldo has made one more clearance than the Reds’ attacking trident have between them, and here’s his defensive chart.

In terms of actual defenders, both Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos have amassed more points for defending than Lovren has, and in fewer minutes on the pitch too. So how have Liverpool conceded two fewer goals in the competition this season?

An easier batch of opponents has obviously helped, but any Kopite will utter three words when asked why the Reds’ defence has improved recently: Virgil van Dijk. Sure enough, the Dutchman is top of the defensive pile when the scores are sorted on a points per minute basis.

That’s impressive work from the former Southampton man, and let’s not forget he has only featured in the knockout stages as he joined Liverpool in January. Van Dijk’s figures have not been boosted by facing lesser sides in the group stage.

Will his impact help in the final though? After all, Ronaldo is more inclined to drift to the left anyway (as his attack map testifies), and that is where the weaker side of Liverpool’s defence resides too. Then again, van Dijk should prove to be useful in marking Ronaldo on set pieces, even if they don’t face up too often in open play.

In the attack stats, it would be natural to assume James Milner would lead the way, as he has clocked up eight assists in the 2017/18 Champions League, yet he only takes the silver medal.

The fact the winner in this category has set up a single goal in the competition illustrates the random nature of assists nicely. Toni Kroos has created 24 goal scoring opportunities in the Champions League this season, so perhaps should’ve assisted more goals. Mohamed Salah is the only player on either side to create more chances, and he is behind Kroos on a per 90 minutes basis.

The German international has boosted his creativity figures with set plays, but he clearly contributes plenty to Madrid’s attack. While Liverpool will need to be wary of Kroos in Kiev, there’s clearly players on both sides who can cause damage. That makes the match both a mouthwatering prospect but also incredibly difficult to call. Don’t be surprised if one of the top four players in the Twelve rankings makes the key difference in the final.

Salah, Firmino & Mane all make Twelve’s top 5 Liverpool players, but should Lovren and Matip be there too?

Using algorithms and points to assess the performance of footballers is nothing new. But how do Twelve shape up against the likes of WhoScored and Squakwa? I’ve taken a look at Twelve’s stats for Liverpool’s players to see if their ranking for the Reds’ player of the year matches what Kopites would believe.

However cynical you might be about football statistics, and whether you don’t really care about how many goals and assists he’s racked up, you’re going to say that Mohamed Salah is Liverpool’s player of the season, right?

It’s a relief for all concerned to see Salah atop this chart. The runner up aligns with public perception too; I ran a quick Twitter poll to see who Liverpool’s non-Egyptian player of the year is, and Roberto Firmino was the runaway winner with over 90 percent of the vote.

Few Reds fans would disagree with the notion that Sadio Mané would be in the top five either, but Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip? Careful now, Twelve, this is how football stats pick up a bad reputation.

They have an advantage over some of their colleagues in that they are ranked sixth and eighth respectively for minutes played in the Premier League, but amending the chart to ‘Points Per Minute’ does not dislodge them from the top five.

Defensive contribution is highlighted in red, so of course the players in third to fifth here would perform well as it’s what they’re paid to do. But do they really contribute to attack (which is the green bar, and excludes shots) more frequently than Salah? And not just them either; there are 15 players who contributed more points per minute to attack than the newly crowned Golden Boot winner.

It seems Twelve rates contribution from further back on the field more highly, as the likes of Firmino, Ings, Solanke and Sturridge are all outside the top fifteen too. While my scepticism surrounding these figures remains, I am at least heartened by seeing Jordan Henderson at the summit of the attack rankings.

The skipper is a very divisive figure among Liverpool fans. I’m of the opinion the Reds have looked better with him in the side, and while it’s easy to quibble over Twelve’s scoring system, it’s clear that Henderson is definitely contributing to the attack and not just playing safe, sideways passes as his detractors will tell you.

When it comes to off ball work, my player of the season for Liverpool was undoubtedly Roberto Firmino. What he provides when the Reds don’t have the ball is a sight to behold, so why is he so low down in the Twelve rankings?

As with the attack figures, it seems the system rates these actions more highly at the back end of the pitch. Jürgen Klopp would beg to differ though, as he famously stated that “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter pressing situation”, and it’s for this reason that Bobby Firmino will always be one of the first names on his team sheet.

Even if Twelve doesn’t value Firmino as highly as Klopp does, the level of off ball work done by the Brazilian is abundantly clear from their interactive widget. It will initially appear blank, so make sure you select the ‘Only important actions’ button.

Look at how many actions there are, and note how they’re across the whole width of the pitch, even with the final third excluded. Click on any of those bubbles, and it will say ‘Pressure on Pass’, illustrating how the former Hoffenheim man is a master of closing down opponents with the aim of springing Liverpool into attack.

There aren’t any surprises with regards to the top points scorers for shots or errors, only to add that the latter emphasises why Klopp was right to abandon Simon Mignolet and opt for Loris Karius between the sticks for the run in.

No model will ever be perfect, and Twelve don’t claim that theirs is. While I don’t agree with their scoring system entirely, with Salah and Firmino in first and second place for Liverpool’s player of the season, Twelve are on the right track here in many ways.