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New Year, New Takes
Come and get them while they’re hot!
So we’re into the new year and, well, I didn’t have a clear subject to tackle this time around to be honest. So here’s more of a tasting menu of some thoughts I had. Let’s just get straight into it, shall we?
Stats are from Football Reference with data from StatsBomb, except for shot totals, which is from WhoScored
1. Timo Werner will be just fine. Let’s keep this in context here. In the league we’re looking at eight goals and assists in 1267 minutes, or 0.57 per 90. It’s not outstanding, but it’s more than enough for an attacker finding his feet in a different league and different system. As I’m sure you’re aware, he’s been missing some chances recently, though his assist total is a touch fortunate, so I’m not sure it makes a huge production difference. Either way, it’s a decent total, if not a spectacular one. He’s been good, not great.
The position question is a more interesting one. He’s been mostly playing on the left recently, which seems to frustrate people a bit. He’s receiving the ball in areas deeper and wider than he’d like, having to make mazy dribbles that aren’t quite his game the way they are for someone like Christian Pulisic. If he is to continue on the left, Frank Lampard needs to find a way to have Ben Chilwell overlap more frequently, so Werner doesn’t have to worry about coming wide and can concentrate on attacking the left halfspace. When Liverpool were interested in signing him, it seems Werner was viewed as a long term replacement for Sadio Mane, so that’s an obvious model to follow.
The public consensus seems to be that he should play as a striker, but I think it’s a little more complicated than this. He wants to receive the ball on the half-turn and run into space. If he’s playing as a lone centre-forward, he’d be getting it with his back to goal a lot more frequently, and wouldn’t have much space to run into so often. He could adapt into more of a poacher-style forward, but I think this would take away a lot from his game. Chelsea could move to more of a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 shape Werner thrived in at RB Leipzig, where he’d have a more conventional striker as a partner, but I’m not sure their non-N’Golo Kante midfielders can do enough running to cover in that shape. Personally, I’d stick with using him on the left of a 4-3-3, but with a greater emphasis on keeping him narrow with and without the ball. You don’t ever want him getting chalk on his boots.
2. Kai Havertz will be fine. Probably. Maybe. Unlike his compatriot, it’s really hard to make a stats case that Havertz has been at all good this season. He’s taken 9 shots and assisted another 10 in the Premier League this season. His 0.22 expected goals and assists per 90 ranks last among Chelsea players we could loosely describe as “attackers”. He doesn’t really show up well in the creative passing or ball carrying numbers. He’s just kind of there. If Chelsea fans feel underwhelmed, they’re pretty justified in that.
I’m not sure anyone at the club yet knows what Havertz is. A classic number ten? A Lampard-esque midfielder making runs into the box? A false nine? A quasi-winger? I don’t know. The other factor is whether getting Covid has impacted his performance, and that’s one where I just have to hold my hands up and admit I have no idea. What I am sure of is that he was very, very good last season. 0.53 expected goals and assists per 90 for a 21 year old who isn’t really a striker is nothing to sniff at. Havertz has an unusual skillset that makes him hard to just drop into a side, but he’s so good that I have to believe his ability will show at Chelsea sooner or later.
3. Liverpool’s centre backs are a deceptively big problem. In all competitions, Liverpool have conceded 10 goals in 17 games post-Virgil van Dijk’s injury. That’s... outstanding?
Not so fast.
For starters, that’s 10 goals from 19.6 xG. It works out at an ok 1.15 xG conceded per game, which is at that point where you can interpret it however you want. The centre backs have become a complicated issue. Joel Matip really is good at this point, and has improved significantly since his early years in the Premier League, but the injuries keep coming. Rhys Williams is interesting, but he’s going to have to become much more adept positionally before you’d really trust him. Nat Phillips just hasn’t looked good enough for this level, and according to someone I spoke to who scouted him in the past, that’s not really a huge shock.Fabinho, though, has been outstanding. He doesn’t quite have the Dutchman’s presence in the box, but otherwise he’s been as good a Van Dijk stand-in as you could ask for.
It’s a workable compromise, but it means the composition of the midfield changes. Last season you had Fabinho as the lone pivot behind Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum. More typically this season, Henderson has moved back and Curtis Jones has come into the side. Henderson has become a shockingly adept deep lying passer, but at age 30 he’s lost some of his trademark energy and gives the midfield a more passive feel. Jones in addition is much more of a technician than the workhorses previously defining Klopp’s midfield, so we’re talking about something very different. This has really changed the amount of protection they can give to the centre backs, and the whole side has to change. The full backs have been more conservative, which isn’t really what you want them doing. Liverpool have a lot of great pieces, but the balance just isn’t quite right as it was last year.
4. Brighton would be the best side ever to go down. At least the best I can remember. They’re putting up huge numbers, sixth best by xG difference, but it’s more impressive than that. This team lacks an outstanding individual. Graham Potter is getting the absolute maximum of a middling squad. They press and possess a fair amount, but do so mainly to gain control over the game rather than a more end to end exciting approach. They’re just a good team front to back. Every time I watch them, they show a level of maturity in their performances that gets them absolutely nothing. It sucks.
5. Andrea Pirlo might actually be good at this? I know, I know, Juventus are all over the place results-wise. A pitiful 3-0 defeat to Fiorentina ended what’s been a flat, flat year for the Bianconeri. But their numbers are good. Best in the league good. Pfft, you’re thinking. Juventus have the best xG difference in Serie A. Tell me something new.
But I am.
Football Reference has Serie A advanced data going back to 2017/18. In case you’ve forgotten, that was the year Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli were top for almost the whole season, playing exquisite football, before Juve pipped them to the title. Napoli were clearly the best side in the data that season, putting up an xG difference per 90 of +1.08 to Juve’s +0.81.
The following year it got really weird. A CR7-powered Juventus had things mostly wrapped up early, then just kind of stopped playing football. It averaged out at +0.58, merely fourth best, but it was a deeply strange midseason split.
Last season you had Sarri come in and try to get them playing again. It sort of worked. They weren’t Atalanta or Inter dominant, but an xG difference of +0.71 was an uptick. They won the league anyway, but you knew that. It’s been perhaps underappreciated outside of Italy how threadbare these more recent title wins have been. There are plenty of other worlds where they don’t win in any of the past three seasons.
The narrative as such seems to be that Andrea Pirlo isn’t hitting these standards, but the numbers are very good! It might still go wrong, but even if they don’t win the league, there’s enough here not to throw it out and start over.
6. Bayern are kind of shaky. Look, they have some mitigating factors here. Thiago Alcantara wasn’t replaced by someone of his calibre, and then Joshua Kimmich picks up an injury (which hopefully shouldn’t keep him out for too much longer. When you’re playing Jamal Musiala in midfield at times, who really is very talented but extremely rash, well, you know. But the problems are real. Bayern’s defensive numbers are just kind of middling. They press a ton, as per, but no longer quite seem to have the control to cut out those bad chances. They’re conceding about a shot and a half extra per game this season. It’s just not the same.
7. I have no idea how Covid is going to affect the rest of the season. I just don’t know. Nor does anyone else who writes about football for a living. Stay safe, everyone.