Bournemouth and Watford’s different approaches yield the same results

When Bournemouth and Watford were promoted to the Premier League last May, many listed them among the favourites to be relegated. The reasons for doing so were numerous, ranging from lack of Premier League experience to insufficient infrastructure around the clubs.

However, with almost two months of the season still to play both are all but safe from the drop. How have these clubs achieved this feat despite utilising such different playing styles? And does either of them provide a blueprint for teams coming up to the Premier League next season?

Let’s start trying to answer these questions by taking a look at their basic tactical approaches.

Bournemouth are heralded as a possession-based side who pass their way forward and try to break teams down by playing on the front foot. The statistics do justice to their approach, with just seven teams seeing more of the ball over 90 minutes on average.

Watford often prefer a more cautious style, with focus on being hard to break down and countering with direct play up to their two exceptional strikers. They have very rarely been the dominant side with the ball and actually sit in the bottom five of possession statistics over the season:

Bournemouth Watford1

Despite their differing styles the two teams sit remarkably close to one another in the table, with Bournemouth just one point ahead of Watford having played a game more. Can it therefore be argued that there is no specific tactical approach that can ensure Premier League survival? Indeed, you need only look at Leicester to see a prime example of a team not needing to dominate the ball to get results.

One interesting similarity between Bournemouth and Watford is how effective they are in the final third of the pitch. Despite all of their possession, Bournemouth only average three more attacking third entries than Watford per game. They are marginally more effective in terms of chance creation thanks to this, making an average of 9.7 chances per game compared to Watford’s 8.6. Both teams also have fairly similar Great Chance conversion rates:

Bournemouth Watford2.png

It could be said that because Watford don’t create or convert as much, they need to be better organised defensively, while Bournemouth can afford to give away a little more as they are a greater threat going forward themselves.

Defensively the numbers do unsurprisingly favour Watford, with their defence giving away fewer chances over a game than Bournemouth. One major difference between the two teams is how goals are scored against them, though. Watford’s opponents convert Great Chances just 32% of the time, the third lowest total in the league. On the other hand, Bournemouth’s more open style leaves them more exposed at the back, with opponents scoring 53% of their Great Chances. This number is second only to Crystal Palace and could also point at frailties in goal for Eddie Howe’s side:

Bournemouth Watford3.png

Seeing this statistic, it’s easy to see why Watford have conceded 18 goals less than Bournemouth over the course of the season so far, with their more organised approach making it much harder for opponents to create truly “great” opportunities.

One major thing that Watford have managed to avoid this season is injuries to key players, particularly in attack. Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney have scored over 75% of the club’s league goals, with both being involved in every single game played.

This number could be so high because of their rigid tactical approach, with the midfielders rarely making runs beyond the ball and often leaving the forward line to fashion chances for themselves (Ighalo is particularly adept at this). Should either striker get injured or suffer a dip in form in the remainder of the season, Watford’s goals will surely dry up further. This is especially likely because only five other players have found the net this season, none of them scoring more than once.

On the other hand, Bournemouth have had to contend without their top goal scorer for much of the season and as a result their spread of goals is far more evenly distributed. Callum Wilson has been out of action since September and still remains their top scorer with five. The fact they’ve kept scoring is a testament to their bolder approach going forward, with 11 players having scored two or more league goals. The fullbacks and midfielders all willingly contribute to attacking phases of play, while the centrebacks are dangerous from set pieces.

When the teams met each other in the league there was little to separate them again. Indeed, both matches ended in draws, further indicating that there really is little difference in how effective each approach can be.

With Watford short on goals game management has become a big factor for them and each of their ten wins has come after they took the lead. As they are a side who primarily look to be defensively sound they can struggle to open up and attack teams, which is a big reason why they have won just two points from losing positions. Alternatively, while Bournemouth are often involved in more volatile games they themselves have only come from behind to win once, with their other nine victories coming after they struck first:

Bournemouth Watford4.png

Overall there is plenty of evidence to suggest that both Bournemouth and Watford’s playing styles do work and that each team are good at what they do. Watford rely more on a tight defence to keep them in games and their matches average the fewest goals in the entire league as a result. Bournemouth’s more fluid style unsurprisingly yields more goals per game.

In terms of results gained there is virtually nothing to separate the sides and the lesson here may simply be to stick to your overarching tactical principles regardless of opposition. This rigid stylistic approach has served both Quique Sanchez Flores and Eddie Howe well, as another season in the top flight of English football awaits.

Perhaps next year’s promoted teams should also stay true to themselves if they wish to survive in a similarly emphatic manner.

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

Investigating goals and corners in knockout competitions

In my most recent blog I failed to find any evidence of seasonality in corners, despite previously finding a link between seasonality and goals. I also looked at the direct relationship between goals and corners and found a correlation to exist in some instances.

In this piece I will look at goal and corner rate production in first legs versus second legs of knockout competitions, more specifically in the UEFA Champions League.

When previously finding that a relationship between goals and corners existed in some leagues, I drew the conclusion that as goals and corners are results of attacks, then offensive teams were likely to produce high numbers of both goals and corners (and defensive teams the opposite).

In each league around the world, we would expect the best teams to be the most offensive ones: PSG in France, Bayern Munich/Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Barcelona/Real Madrid in Spain. It is a fair assumption to make that teams who dominate their domestic league will score the most goals and produce the most corners. This is due to them building more attacks than the other teams.

Thinking more generally, though, what else forces teams to attack during games and can make them more likely to score goals or win corner kicks?

One answer could be when a team is chasing a game having gone behind.

If a team goes 1-0 down they are more likely to push men forward in the hope of scoring an equaliser. This should be true for all teams, so even a defensive side who set out to initially play for a draw will be spurred into action to try and get back into the match when falling behind. By attacking more themselves, they will leave more space for the opposition to play into and this should generate more attacking play overall, leading to goals and/or corners.

This idea of attacking more when trailing in a match is strongly related to the knockout stages of cup competitions. If a team is behind from the first leg in a tie, then it’s the equivalent of being behind in a normal match, only with 90 minutes still to play. We can expect the trailing team to be more offensive minded than normal in the second leg and attack from an earlier point in the contest.

In the recent Europa League Round of 32 fixture involving Manchester United and Midtjylland, United were trailing 2-1 going into the second leg at Old Trafford. Despite being badly affected by injury problems, the home side set out to attack from the first whistle. They produced four corners before Midtjylland took a surprise lead in the 27th minute. This then forced United into an even more attacking stance and they managed to produce a further 10 corners – along with 5 goals – to advance to the next round with an aggregate score of 6-3.

A commonly held view in betting circles is that goals increase the chances of further goals. This is to say that the first goal in a game is a catalyst for more attacking play and ultimately more goals. We could substitute “corners” for “goals” in the last sentence too, though only if we agree that corners and goals are just outcomes of a single attack.

To see if this view was correct I looked at the first and second leg goal and corner rates from the Round of 16, Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals of the UEFA Champions League for the past 10 seasons, excluding this season so far:

Knockout Goals avgKnockout corners

From the graphs above, we can see that goals and corners generally do increase in the second legs of knockout competitions. In fact, in the instances where there were more goals or corners in the first legs it was typically not by much. In the other instances there is overwhelming evidence of more action occurring in the second legs.

Each game, season and tie must be looked at on an individual basis, however, despite the evidence suggesting an overall trend. This season in the Round of 16, not many of the tie favourites were behind going into the second legs, and it would be no surprise if we did not see this behaviour in such circumstances.

In the first group of second leg matches played recently in the UCL, only Zenit were pre-match favourites to qualify and were trailing going into the second leg. They managed to produce seven corners before scoring a goal in the 69th minute and levelling the tie. Unfortunately for them they couldn’t build on this equalising goal and conceded twice late on to lose 3-1 on aggregate.

Zenit weren’t particularly strong favourites in any case, being given only an implied 55.56% chance of progressing by the market (4/5), so maybe shouldn’t have been expected to turn around a 1-0 first leg defeat, or to be fully dominant in the second leg.

Just like in a normal match, when favourites go behind in a game they are then expected to attack more frequently in order to retrieve the situation. I believe this will be the case in second legs of ties when the pre-match favourites are trailing, just like in the Manchester United versus Midtjylland example.

Although there weren’t any examples of this in the second group of second legs in the Round of 16 played this week, it is well worth monitoring the draw for the Quarter-Final, where an opportunity to back goals and corners could present itself.

Mark McAfee (@Avonbets)

Are there goalkeeping problems in the City of Discovery?

I recently wrote a blog about how Celtic had been performing this season and a small part of it focused on Craig Gordon. It turned out that the Hoops goalkeeper had the third highest save percentage in the division at the time of writing, behind only Aberdeen’s Scott Brown/Danny Ward combination and Neil Alexander of Hearts:

celtic7

A throwaway sentence within that piece sparked a Twitter exchange that found its way to Dundee goalkeeper Scott Bain, a comment he has since deleted. He was understandably unhappy at being called out for having the second lowest save percentage in the league.

Funnily enough Bain has just been called up to the Scotland squad for the friendly with Czech Republic thanks to his performances this season. He could even make his debut this time, having not featured when last involved with the squad in May 2015.

I should start by saying that I think goalkeeper is one of the hardest positions to analyse. Using statistics to judge players is still in its relative infancy and it can be difficult to know which statistics are useful and which aren’t. Indeed, goalkeepers often have so few interactions that their individual data sets are quite small.

Key elements of being a goalkeeper such as organising the defence, commanding the box, sweeping behind the back line and judgement when catching or punching crosses are hard things to rate. The analytics community often decries this, but at times these so-called intangibles can be just as important as the performance elements that can be measured more easily.

I cannot deny that Scott Bain looks impressive when you watch him play. He has produced a number of spectacular saves for a team that has only been unable to carve out a comfortable top half position due to inconsistency. One really memorable stop came in the 93rd minute of the first Dundee derby of the season. With his side 2-1 down he tipped a close range effort onto the underside of the bar, quite brilliantly in fact. Less than a minute later Dundee went up the other end and snatched a last minute equaliser. In this instance Bain preserved local pride and played a huge role in earning an all-important point for his club.

While it’s often easy to remember spectacular saves like this one, or the more glaring mistakes that a goalkeeper makes, statistics can be used to help with the more routine aspects of performance that can often escape our memory.

It is important to state here, once again, that I believe using shots on target in any metric is flawed. At Stratagem we collect deeper information using our trained analysts and rate chances using our own definitions of Great, Good and Attempt. This information can give us a much better understanding of which goalkeepers are saving shots that they would be expected to, or not, as the case may be:

Scottish Goalkeepers

There are a few points to note from this table. While some goalkeepers, such as Jamie MacDonald of Kilmarnock, have had to face a lot of great and good chances, others have not. Craig Gordon has only had 41 great or good chances on target to deal with in the 26 games he has played. This naturally increases the variance and means that his numbers could shift quite considerably in the space of a match or two. However, it is still a good starting point and a much more accurate reflection than just using shots on target.

When looking more closely at Scott Bain, it is apparent that his figures still do not stand up too well, with a save rate of just 48.78%. This roughly means that for every great or good chance on target Dundee concede, every other one is going in. When the average conversion rate of great chances alone is around 40%, this is concerning. To look at a couple of goalkeepers who are similar in terms of numbers, Alan Mannus has only conceded 34 from an almost identical amount of great/good chances and Conor Ripley has let in just 31.

However, it is key to state that from both of these comparisons Dundee have conceded a much higher number of great chances, ones we would naturally expect the opposition to score more often:

Scottish Goalkeepers 2

The Dundee defence does appear to get breached with more regularity than that of St. Johnstone and Motherwell. In fact they are giving up great chances at a rate of 1.5 and 2 times more than these close divisional rivals, respectively. So while Bain’s save percentage may look less impressive in direct comparison, it is nowhere near as bad as it seems. Indeed, it’s the Dundee defenders that should be taking the majority of criticism for exposing their goalkeeper more than other teams of a similar level do.

What should also be highlighted from the above table is that attempts have been removed completely. These types of chance are much less likely to lead to goals because they include events such as speculative 30-yard shots on target that goalkeepers usually deal with quite comfortably.

Bain has an outstanding record in this regard, conceding only twice from 133 attempts faced. In short, it seems that if Dundee can force their opponents to shoot from range or poorer positions then Bain would be in his element. When adding context and again comparing his numbers to those of Mannus and Ripley, who have conceded 10/155 and 11/175 attempts respectively, we begin to see a different picture emerging.

Dundee United’s problems have been well publicised and many people have pointed to the goalkeeping situation as one of the main reasons they are rooted to the bottom of the league. But have things improved for them since Kawashima came in?

The figures say “no”, to put it bluntly.

Kawashima and Szromnik sit at the bottom of the above table, though it must be said that as both have only played eight games the number of great and good chances they have faced is very low. Zwick has a better record from 12 games, but is far from stellar himself:

Scottish Goalkeepers 3

Again, looking at the deeper metrics begins to show that Kawashima has been more exposed on the great chances he has faced. He has performed better when facing good chances than Szromnik and again this defence look like they are allowing great chances too regularly. Interestingly though, Dundee United have had to deal with less great chances on target than Dundee (33 vs. 42), but have conceded them at a much higher rate. This is slightly surprising given their respective positions in the table.

So in conclusion, it is probably fair to say that there are no significant goalkeeping problems at either Dundee club. This should make Scott Bain happy, at least!

I feel comfortable asserting as much because of my belief in great/good chances being a much more useful metric to consider than shots on target when measuring goalkeeping ability.

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Dave Willoughby (@donceno)