World Cup 2018, Day 2 Review: The Cristiano Ronaldo Show

The 2018 World Cup began with Russia’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia (which we reviewed here), but Friday was when the action really got going with three matches, and a clash of two of the big guns.

The day began with a battle of Liverpool heroes present and past, as Mohamed Salah’s Egypt took on Luis Suárez’ Uruguay. Or at least it would have, had Salah been fit enough to take part. As it was, he spent the entire game on the bench.

After a fairly even start, it was Suárez who had the first clear-cut chance of the match. It came from a corner, which wouldn’t have surprised anyone who saw Uruguay in qualifying.

But Suárez put the chance wide of the post, and he also missed the first big opportunity of the second half too. The Barcelona forward was only the eighth best player in the match overall.
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Belgium and Spain are strongest sides as World Cup starts

With the World Cup underway, and the first really big clash between Spain and Portugal taking place this evening, I thought I’d run a player ranking over all International friendlies leading up to the World Cup. Which players and teams do we expect to light up Russia?

The answer, it seems is Belgium and Spain. With the notable exception of Lionel Messi (of course) most of the highest per minute point players come from these two nations. Lukaku tops the chart due to his goal-scoring spree in the run up to the tournament.


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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.
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Using Twelve to follow your team’s progress during the World Cup

During the World Cup we are making our analysis tool available, so you can better understand how your team is playing. Andrew will be doing a daily round-up of the action using Twelve and we will have guest writers from various nations blogging about their teams.

I made a short video explaining how to use Twelve ‘player ranking’ analytics, taking England as an example.

We want you to play about and learn things yourself. And this video should give you everything you need to know. Start using the player evaluation system today and get sharing on Facebook, Twitter and maybe in a blog post.

If you find out something interesting using the analytics tool and would like to share it on the Twelve blog, the person to contact is Andrew (andrew@twelve.football). Tell him your idea, link to your previous writing and he’ll tell you if it works for us. We pay all our blog writers, because we think it is fair to reward to reward the fans who take the time to help us develop.

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Statistics support Swedish fans’ scepticism about Lindelöf

Last week, Noa Bachner wrote that, when it comes to the Swedish national team, the second hottest issue in his mailbag is Victor Nilsson Lindelöf. Many Swedes, it seems, don’t think the Manchester United defender lives up to the hype.

Knowing Swedes as I do (having lived here 11 years) I have come to see that this sentiment is an inevitable part of their national characteristic. The €35 million that took him to Manchester United marks him out as someone who might be getting too big for his boots. With the strange exception awarded to Zlatan (who always has first place in Noa’s inbox), Swedes don’t like it when someone is made out to be exceptional without a really exceptional explanation. And this, to many, is what has happened in Lindelöf’s case.

Noa argues, rather convincingly, that these Swedes are too hard on their star defender. But I decided to run the stats. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t look good for him. Here is his defending.

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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.

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Introducing our World Cup editor: Andrew Beasley

Andrew Beasley was a big part of getting me in to the online world of football analytics. I first joined Twitter shortly after I finished writing Soccermatics, in September 2015, and I soon found Andrew’s account. I am a Liverpool fan and Andrew was doing some great Liverpool stat stuff. I followed him and was very pleased when he followed me back. He was also the first ‘big’ Twitter personality to retweet one of my Tweets: a heat map comparing Rodgers and Klopp’s press.

Twitter and other social media allow us to share our observations, ideas and opinions with each other. When we designed Twelve, we saw sharing and talking about football as the key. We have created tools that allow you to share every pass, shot, block and header your favourite players have made during a match and discuss them with friends. Our idea is that the fans should drive the discussion around the numbers.

 

So it is with great pleasure that I can announce that Andrew will be Twelve’s World Cup editor. He will be writing about the matches for the blog, editing contributions by guest writers and interacting with other fans on Twitter and Facebook. Feel free to ask him anything stat related, and he’ll do his best to answer.

I caught up with Andrew and asked him a few questions before he gets going.

David: How did you get in to football stats?

Andrew: I’ve always had an interest in football trivia, and I’m numerically minded, so when early stats started to come in around 2010 I took an interest. Noticing in the summer of 2011 that Liverpool were signing all the players who topped the chance creation table for the previous season started connecting dots in my mind.

David: What matches in the World Cup are you most looking forward to?

Andrew: The obvious group stage ones are Portugal vs Spain, and England vs Belgium. It will also be interesting to see how Iceland fare against Lionel Messi et al.

David: Who are the players to look out for that we don’t usually talk about and why?

Andrew: I wouldn’t say we don’t usually talk about him, but I think Leroy Sané could light up this World Cup given the chance. I’m also interested to see how Kelechi Iheanacho gets on – he has 8 goals in 15 caps, and Nigeria could get through their group.

(I ran a comparison of these two in Twelve over the last six matches of the premier league. They are both on great form.)

David: Do you think England have any chance at all of winning? And who do you think will win?

Andrew: No – they’re seventh in the betting, which feels about right. They have talented players, but not much experience at this level. I’m afraid I’m not as passionate about the national team as I once was, but I still want them to do well.

In terms of who will win, European teams usually win it when it’s held in Europe, and I like the look of France. If only England had that much quality!

Andrew is a stats expert, but more than anything he is a massive football fan. And it is that quality that we hope will characterise Twelve going forwards: we are doing sophisticated player evaluations, but we are doing them for the fans.

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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.

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Manchester United’s Top Six Players

David de Gea
Without question, Manchester United’s best performing player of the 2017-18 season was David de Gea. He finished the season without any medals but claimed a couple of personal accolades. De Gea won the Golden Glove after picking up 18 clean sheets over the course of the season. He was also voted in the PFA Team of the Year and was named the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Season by the fans for a record-breaking fourth time.

He made 115 saves over the course of the season with an 80% success rate with the shots he faced. He made zero errors that lead to goals, compared to the 24 made by Petr Cech, 15 by Hugo Loris and three by Thibaut Courtois.

There are a few games that stand out, with his excellent saves winning United games and enabling them to finish second in the league, but none more so than the 3-1 over Arsenal at the Emirates.

 

De Gea doesn’t make it in to the top five using Twelve Football’s scoring system though, limited by his position in goal making it unlikely for him to gain any points for off ball action or shots. But he was head and shoulders above every player at the club this season.

Romelu Lukaku
The Belgian striker ended his first season at United as the club’s top scorer with 27 goals in all competitions.

When you consider that United created 70 fewer chances than any other top six team, Lukaku’s goal return is pretty impressive.

The striker wasn’t just a scorer though, but a creator of goals too, with Paul Pogba the only United player to assist more than him. Lukaku claimed more assists than the likes of Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and Eden Hazard.

Having been criticised for failing to impress against the teams at the top, Lukaku was in fine form as United beat his former club Chelsea at Old Trafford. Having gone a goal down, Lukaku scored the equaliser before assisting Jesse Lingard’s winner. United will be left to rue his absence from the starting line-up in the FA Cup final against the same team through injury.

 

Lukaku is ranked the third best player by Twelve Football with over half his points coming from his contribution with shots, which should come as no surprise, given he’s largely been the only player Mourinho has used as a centre-forward this season.

Paul Pogba
The Frenchman has been strongly criticised this season, from pundits, the media and his own manager alike. That likely has more to do with how short of his potential he is currently performing, rather than his general contribution. For the most part, he did OK for United this season, with the odd poor performance.

When he plays well, United tend to follow suit, such is his influence on the team. Despite going off the boil for chunks of the season, only four players have more assists than him in the league this season, and all four of them had more playing time than him.

When played on the left of a midfield three against Everton at Goodison Park he stole the show. His stand out performance was against Manchester City at the Etihad, when he denied United’s hated rivals from being the team to win the Premier League after the fewest number of games.

After a disappointing first half, he came back in the second looking like a totally different player, scoring twice to draw the game level before Chris Smalling bagged the winner.


Per minute, Pogba is ranked the best player of the season by Twelve Football, with his influence on the attack his greatest strength. But he is still a long way from playing the way on a consistent basis the supporters believe he is capable of.

Jesse Lingard
Having joined the club as a seven-year-old, Lingard has plenty of United supporters who have been willing for him to do well. Before this season, he had claimed crucial goals in two Wembley cup finals, but had failed to play consistently well over the course of a season.

Under Jose Mourinho, Lingard has performed well, with the manager a clear fan of the forward. He claimed 13 goals and 5 assists in all competitions, a return of a goal or assist every 119 minutes he was on the pitch.

However, his most memorable performance of the season was in the aforementioned game against Arsenal when he scored two goals in United’s 3-1 win and Milly Rocked in celebration.

 

Lingard is ranked the 12th best player for United, with his attacking scores his best asset. Yet what comes as a surprise is how low his score is for off the ball action, given this is widely regarded as one of his greatest strengths. His pace and ability to run behind the defence drags players out of position and creates space for his teammates but this isn’t recognised by his off the ball score, where he is deemed less effective than the likes of Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones.

Nemanja Matic
The Serbian midfielder was reunited with his former manager Mourinho at United this season, after Chelsea made the mistake of letting him leave with the hopeless Tiémoué Bakayoko his replacement.

Matic started the season exceptionally well but went through periods where his lack of mobility was exposed and he failed to have the impact he made at the start of the season.

His campaign will be best remembered for his 91st minute winner against Crystal Palace after United had gone 2-0 down, where he blasted the ball in to the net from outside the box.

The best performance of the season from him came against Chelsea though when he totally bossed the midfield.

 

The midfielder was ranked United’s best player of the season by Twelve Football, with, surprisingly, his contribution to the attack his biggest strength.

Ashley Young
Some United fans can hardly believe that Ashley Young is still at the club but he can owe his lengthier stay to his ability to reinvent himself as a full-back, having played most of his career on the wing.

While his defensive game does have flaws, with pacey and tricky wingers his downfall, he is always ready to put in a crunching tackle and crosses the ball better than anyone at the club (which, admittedly, doesn’t mean an awful lot).

Young claimed four assists this season, which is as many as Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas and Alexandre Lacazette, and more than Gabriel Jesus, Marcos Alonso and Harry Kane.

His best performance came against former club Watford when he scored two brilliant goals in United’s 4-2 win.

 

Young’s greatest strength, according to Twelve Football, is his work in attack, which paints an accurate picture. He is ranked third behind Matic and Paul Pogba.

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Nick Pope – A revelation for Burnley (and for England?)

10.09.2017 – Matchday Four of the 2017/18 Premier League season

Burnley v Crystal Palace (at Turf Moor)

3.36pm: Burnley’s captain and talisman, Tom Heaton, came to claim a cross, before falling awkwardly to the ground in the penalty area. Following a lengthy stoppage in play, the Clarets’ stopper was helped off the pitch in obvious discomfort, with what appeared to be a very serious shoulder injury.

Embed from Getty Images

To many of those watching, including several of Burnley’s own supporters, there was concern that this might have marked an end to the Clarets season, or at the very least, the start of a much more difficult survival battle.

But from the bench came the relatively unknown Nick Pope. Here was another goalkeeper who, like Heaton, had been plucked by Burnley from League One, following his team’s relegation from the Championship at the end of the previous season.

What happened for the remaining 54 minutes of the Crystal Palace match, and then for the other 34 matches of the Premier League season was remarkable. Firstly, a hard earned 1-0 victory for Burnley, and a clean sheet for Pope, even though official statistics do not credit it as such, as he did not play the entire ninety minutes.

There then followed a series of performances in goal that belied Nick Pope’s previous lack of top flight experience. It doesn’t necessarily require in-depth data analysis to know that Pope’s contribution to Burnley’s season was a vital one, but it can help to provide some important context.

A plethora of statistics, from various sources, suggests that Pope had become a vital replacement cog in Burnley’s defensive system – goals conceded, clean sheets, xG improvement, number of saves, number of high claims, all of which were impressive in their own right.

However, the data available from Twelve, which I have used and posted at various stages through the season, shows something else, in addition to information from elsewhere. Points are awarded for actions throughout each match, and although for goalkeepers there may otherwise be a tendency to focus on the activity in the penalty area, the system also credits other contributions, most notably in terms of attack.

Nick Pope topped the Twelve leaderboard when it came to attack, with the plot below highlighting his most important contributions.

Nick Pope went on to win all but two of the thirteen individual Player of the Year awards at Burnley FC’s supporters’ groups awards evening, and also earned the overall Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the season awards too. The subjective consensus was most definitely in Nick Pope’s favour, but it can also be helpful to consider other methods of classifying performance.

In fact, there are several other Burnley players who could also stake a claim to the overall Player of the Year award. Based on the Twelve data model, the table below shows the players who rank more highly, using points per minute (excluding Dwight McNeil, who only came on for the last few minutes of the final match):

 

Of the other highest scoring Burnley players, the three at the back who have shared central defensive duties, James Tarkowski, Kevin Long and Ben Mee, lead the pack. They are followed by two more offensive players, striker Chris Wood and midfielder Robbie Brady, who each only played less than half of the season. Each player displays their own particular strengths in each area to which points are allocated.

It helps to have data to support decision-making processes, rather than to use data blindly, but few would argue with Nick Pope’s status as Burnley’s Player of the Season. More recently, his call-up to the England squad for the World Cup in Russia is a well deserved reward for a very successful first season in the Premier League.

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