What pulled Sunderland to safety in the end?

Sunderland secured Premier League safety with one match to go courtesy of their 3-0 win over Everton in the final round of midweek games. They survived by hitting a good patch of form at the right time, winning three times in a five game unbeaten stretch that condemned both Newcastle United and Norwich City to the Championship next season.

But how did they hit form at just the right moment to pull away from danger yet again? I took a closer look at the overall relegation battle to see if there were any defining moments that separated them from the teams who ended up finishing in the drop zone.

Please note that this article was written when Sunderland’s safety was confirmed, after gameweek 37.

One thing that is immediately clear from looking at the past five games is the change in mentality from Sunderland.

Going into their crucial relegation match with Norwich, Sam Allardyce made it abundantly clear ahead of kick off that his priority was to keep a clean sheet rather than actively pursue a win. While this did not result in an overly negative approach, they provided themselves with a solid platform to build on going forward and were able to comfortably win 3-0 in the end.

This mentality served them well in the run in, with the team conceding just three times in their last five and keeping three clean sheets. This was a remarkable feat given that they had only kept four more throughout the entire season. Conversely, Norwich failed to keep a clean sheet during this time. Newcastle under Rafa Benitez also kept three clean sheets, but their attacking output was far worse, making it harder to turn them into wins:

Sunderland 1-01

It may be a fairly simplistic way of viewing things, but it is easy to argue that a conscious effort to tighten up and focus on defending was a major factor in Sunderland’s late rally.

It is all well and good having a drilled defence, but if you’re not effective in the final third it will still count for little. The one big edge Sunderland always had over Newcastle and Norwich was a natural goal scorer. Jermain Defoe bagged 15 league goals this season, a total bettered by only five players in the entire league.

Newcastle’s top goal scorer after 37 games was midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum with nine, but the Dutch international’s output dried up completely from January. Norwich fared even worse in the goals scored column with Dieumerci Mbokani leading the way for them with seven, though his tally was boosted by a brace in their futile 4-2 win over Watford last time out:

Sunderland 2

What made Defoe’s contribution even more significant was the fact that Sunderland only lost twice all season when he has found the net. His goals alone have directly earned Sunderland 15 points, a staggering amount in a relegation fight. It would be wrong to say that it was a one-man show on Wearside, however, as the platform provided by the defence gave Defoe the opportunity to be more decisive in matches.

As a team in general, Sunderland were more clinical in the final third, converting 46.5% of all Great Chances created. Newcastle found the net with 41.7% of theirs, while only Aston Villa converted with less regularity than Norwich’s 36.7%. One notable piece of data is that Sunderland were less reliant on Great Chances for their goals. Just 43.5% of all of them came from a Great Chance, whereas over half of Newcastle’s were scored from the same sort of opportunity. Norwich sat between the two on 46.2%, but it once again gives more weight to the importance of a forward who was able to find the net without having a really clear opportunity:

Sunderland 3-01

Another factor that made Sunderland’s run to freedom a little more notable is the strength of the opposition faced in the last five decisive games. They played three teams in the top half, taking five points in those matches; while against sides in the bottom half they secured two important wins. However, it could be argued that Stoke, Chelsea and Everton had much less to play for, with Sunderland’s greater desire and need for points being a crucial factor.

On paper they actually had a slightly tougher run of things however, with both Newcastle and Norwich facing just two teams from the top half. Norwich failed to beat either, while Newcastle could only manage a pair of draws, making Sunderland’s comeback win over Chelsea all the more significant.

How did they fare against each other at the foot of the table, though? In games that can be so important Sunderland managed to take 7 points from their matches with Newcastle and Norwich, whereas Norwich claimed 6 and Newcastle just 4.

The final and perhaps most important point that can be made in Sunderland’s favour was their decision to change manager, and to do so early enough in the season to have a lasting positive effect. Allardyce took over in October, with the club sitting without a win from their first eight games and at 19th in the table, below Aston Villa. He was given time and resources to amend the squad in January and came with a proven track record of having never been relegated before. His record of nine wins, eight draws and 12 defeats saw him steady the ship enough to climb out of the bottom three at the perfect moment, having spent most of the season in it.

On the other hand Norwich stuck loyally by Alex Neil, the man who guided them to promotion from the Championship in the previous campaign. Though admirable in the modern culture of sacking managers, Neil had never been in a relegation fight in his short managerial career and the step up to Premier League management has been tough, with the Scotsman overseeing 21 losses.

Of course Newcastle also made a managerial change and it too appeared to have had a very positive impact. However, it simply came too late in the season, with Benitez being given only 10 games to turn the fortunes of the club around and having no chance to amend his playing squad. As a manager he is normally associated with competing at the sharp end of the table, with this representing his first relegation battle in English football. In the end he took 10 points from 9 games and improved the team, but the decision to replace Steve McClaren so late in the campaign proved to be another costly one from Mike Ashley and Co.

Overall it was a culmination of factors that saw the relegation race end with a game to spare, but it cannot be argued that Sunderland came out on top in most key metrics and picked up points at vital stages in the season. As such it is completely understandable that they are the side who are preparing for another season in the Premier League. Their fans will surely hope that this time they have something other than a relegation battle to look forward to, though.

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

Which players should Southampton target this summer?

Over the past few seasons, Southampton have comfortably established themselves as a top half team in the English Premier League. A large part of the club’s success has been thanks to their recruitment policy, which has often unearthed hidden gems and been able to seamlessly replace proven stars who have been sold on for large profit.

At the end of the 2013/14 season they sold key men Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren and Luke Shaw. Argentinian manager Mauricio Pochettino also departed for Tottenham and it was expected that the team would struggle in the following campaign.

With Ronald Koeman installed as the new manager, a measured transfer policy was adopted. The aim was to sign key players from teams in small leagues, or to attract undervalued players from bigger leagues. Although Southampton had employed the same strategy under Pochettino (to some extent), with the likes of Victor Wanyama arriving from Celtic there was a very definite shift in that almost every signing fell into this bracket.

Looking at the purchases made over the past two seasons, there is a high ratio of players who became regulars over time. I would suggest that Southampton display a higher success rate than most other clubs in the league in this regard:

Permanent Transfers IN -01

So if we presume that Southampton will continue with their highly successful recruitment model this summer, which players might they target?

In my last article I looked at the most creative players in Europe by investigating chance creation and expected assists using StrataData. Using the same data set from August 2015 to April 2016, I am going to investigate some standout players that could attract Southampton’s interest.

There are two brackets I want to look at:

1) The best players playing in smaller leagues
2) The best players playing at smaller clubs within the top six leagues

It is important to note that this data primarily looks at attacking and creative players. I will use “expected assists per 90” to evaluate attacking midfielders and “all involved per 90” to rate strikers. “All involved” simple means all of the Great Chances, Good Chances and Goals that a player has either assisted or attempted.

Firstly I will consider the “smaller” leagues, namely Austrian Bundesliga, Dutch Eredivisie, English Championship, German Bundesliga 2, Scottish Premiership, and Swiss Super League:

a

Florian Kainz of Rapid Wien
Kainz has had a fantastic season for Rapid in the Austrian Bundesliga, establishing himself as one of their key players and also breaking into the Austrian national squad. At just 23 years of age and with five years of playing experience in the Bundesliga, the left-winger should be a target for teams in bigger leagues this summer. His contract expires in 2017, so he should be available at good value, and he has plenty of potential to improve.

Naby Keita of Salzburg
Keita has been another top performer in the Austrian Bundesliga this term. The Guinean international plays in central midfield and has been key to Salzburg’s title charge. Not only has he weighed in with 0.87 xAssists per 90, he has also scored 12 goals to date. Keita recently signed a contract extension with Salzburg, so would command a higher transfer fee, but there’s every chance he could replicate the impact of Sadio Mane in a bigger league in the near future.

2

Andre Gray of Burnley
Having signed from Brentford last summer for a reported £6m fee, Gray finished as top scorer with 25 goals as Burnley won the Championship and were promoted to the English Premier League. Although now very likely to command a price greater than £10m, he will no doubt attract interest from other Premier League clubs and is a clear candidate for a club like Southampton to be interested in.

Vincent Janssen of AZ
Like Gray, Janssen finished top scorer in his debut season for AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie. At only 21 years of age and having recently broken into the Dutch national side, Janssen is understandably being touted for a big money move to one of Europe’s top leagues this summer. Arsenal are believed to have watched the striker, though maybe an intermediary move to a club like Southampton would benefit him more in the short-term.

Now I will take a look at players who play for smaller teams in the bigger leagues, though I have excluded the traditional “big clubs” due to the fact that Southampton would not be able to sign top players from them. The top six leagues as ranked by UEFA are Spanish Primera Division, German Bundesliga 1, English Premier League, Italian Serie A, Portuguese Primeira Liga and French Ligue 1:

b

It is almost impossible to imagine Southampton signing Riyad Mahrez, Dimitri Payet or Real Madrid youth Marco Asensio who has had an excellent season on loan at Espanyol, so I will consider a few less well-known names who could be on the move this summer instead.

Sofiane Boufal of Lille
Attacking midfielder Boufal has performed exceptionally well in Ligue 1 this season for Lille, also breaking into the Morocco national team. Having signed from Angers in January 2015, Boufal still has 3 years left on his contract and so would command a relatively high transfer fee. However, at the tender age of 22 and with such a solid season under his belt, he looks like a prime candidate to step up to a higher level sooner rather than later.

Hiroshi Kiyotake of Hannover
Playmaker Kiyotake could be on the lookout for a new club this summer, with his current team Hannover suffering relegation from the German Bundesliga. The Japan international has chipped in with 0.86 xAssists p90, along with five goals from midfield, in what has been a really poor Hannover side. Could he join compatriot and friend Maya Yoshida at St. Mary’s this summer?

Involved goals + Chances P90 BIG LEAGUES-01

Again, I would consider it impossible for Southampton to sign Jamie Vardy or Romelu Lukaku this summer, so will move onto other candidates.

Wahbi Khazri appears on both these lists with his data from his time at Bordeaux. Khazri was signed by Sunderland in January 2016 as they looked to escape relegation from the English Premier League. Despite being a regular starter for Sam Allardyce’s side, Khazri’s numbers haven’t been as impressive as the first half of the season with Bordeaux, with his involved per 90 dropping from 3.23 to 1.695, and his xAssists per 90 dropping from 0.84 to 0.4. This can in part be explained by Sunderland being a poorer team in their league than Bordeaux are in theirs, so it may be better judging Khazri after a full season with his new club.

Ousmane Dembele of Rennes
The 18-year-old Dembele has burst onto the scene in Ligue 1 this year, having scored 12 goals since his debut on 22nd November 2015. Dembele has been touted as a future international, with calls for him to make the upcoming France European Championships squad even starting to emerge. It is no surprise that Dembele has been linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs and he is sure to attract interest this summer. Southampton may well be interested, but the player and his entourage could have their sights set a little higher.

*Dembele has joined German giants Borussia Dortmund since the submission of this article.

Ciro Immobile of Torino (Loaned from Borussia Dortmund)
Immobile’s career has somewhat stalled since he moved to Dortmund from Torino in the summer of 2014. Having failed to make a breakthrough in the Bundesliga, the Italian striker endured a frustrating loan spell at Sevilla at the start of this season, which was marred by serious injury. He looked to be back to his best having returned to Torino on loan in January 2016, but again his progress has been curtailed by injury. Provided he can stay clear of any further fitness problems Immobile could be a gamble worth taking for a mid-range club like Southampton, or he could even be given another chance to fulfil his potential with Dortmund.

It will be interesting to look back come the 1st September 2016 and see how many of the listed players moved on to bigger and better things. Hopefully at least one of them will pitch up at St. Mary’s in time for next season, but the main thing for Southampton is simply continuing with their excellent recruitment policy. I dare say their technical scouting department have more than eight names on their “potentials” list!

Mark McAfee (@AvonBets)

Is it better to be patient or to take long shots?

Watching a lot of Celtic games recently got me thinking about how they play, why Ronny Deila has come under so much pressure and why they are different to many of the other sides who dominate their respective leagues.

The answer struck me when watching Barcelona versus Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League Quarter-Final.

Despite facing ten men and with Atletico sitting very deep Barcelona kept the ball and continued to try and work positions for Great and Good Chances, which have a significantly higher conversion rate than Attempts.

While I am in no way comparing Celtic to Barcelona in terms of quality, they do face similar problems when playing domestically. Opponents tend to sit deep and be very compact against them, allowing them to control the ball 30 or 40 yards out and restricting the space in behind. However, in contrast to Barcelona I had observed that Celtic are very happy to have lots of Attempts, sacrificing the possibility of creating better chances by keeping the ball.

This led to further thoughts about how Attempts might affect the Total Goals Line in games. Given the conversion rates for Great and Good Chances it means that leagues with more of these should have higher starting lines. Indeed, I would expect to see a trend where games with low lines have a higher proportion of Attempts than Great or Good Chances.

The graphic below shows the difference in the most common total goals line across 15 competitions covered by StrataBet. These competitions are generally taken from the start of the 2015/16 season to date, though Japan J League and Norway Eliteserien look at the entire 2015 season:

Patience or Long Shots Chart 1-01

From this table it is easy to see that Norway has a much higher goal line than the English Championship, meaning that more goals would be expected to be scored in their games.

If more goals are expected, then the proportion of Great and Good Chances should also be higher to account for this.

Using StrataData I investigated this theory and there does appear to be some correlation. Of the leagues with low goal lines, three of the four lowest (those with 2.25 as the common line) also appear as three of the four lowest in terms of the number of Attempts per Great Chance created:

Patience or Long Shots Chart 2-01

The outlier here is France Ligue 1, where Great Chances are created but the goal lines are low and the fewest goals per game are scored of the big five leagues.

The English Premier League and Championship also fall into this category, but in the Premier League 32% of games had a goal line of 2.25. The difference between that and the most frequent of 2.5 (37%) is a relatively small amount, making this understandable.

Austria, Switzerland and Germany Bundesliga appear to be the polar opposite of this, with fewer Attempts taken and more Great Chances created. This fits well in Switzerland, with 64% of games having a starting goal line of >2.5 and 49% of German Bundesliga games having the same.

The graphic below shows this in more detail, so that we can see the leagues where more goals are expected on a regular basis:

Patience or Long Shots Chart 3-01

Germany and Switzerland are only behind Netherlands and Norway in terms of the number of games where over 2.5 goals would be expected.

So how does this relate back to Celtic?

Looking at teams who dominate their league we can see if they typically play like Barcelona in terms of keeping the ball and waiting for better chances, or if they simply shoot often and from wherever possible.

For this I have chosen teams from the top three of all the leagues mentioned who are at least 15 points clear of the team in fourth and the table below brings up some interesting points to note:

patience or longshots table 4-01

As suspected, Celtic lead this table by quite a distance from the rest. For every Great Chance they create they have ~3.5 Attempts, which is significantly more than Barcelona, Dortmund and PSG, who have ~1.5 Attempts per Great Chance.

This does not necessarily mean what Celtic are doing is wrong, but the question would be is this repeatable? We would expect the number of Attempts Celtic have had to result in ~6 goals, though they have actually scored 14. This says that they are either lucky and doing better than we’d expect or that they are confident the quality of strike they can produce from poor positions can beat the quality of goalkeeper the opposition has.

Ultimately there is no singular proven way of playing successful football regardless of personnel. Surprisingly it is Juventus who lead this list of teams if you include the number of Attempts taken compared to both Great AND Good Chances created, despite being a fantastic side. However, what it does show is the style that teams like to play in:

patience or longshots tabke 5-01

The teams at the lower end are more content to wait for better chances to come, knowing that they have the quality to keep creating rather than taking longer shots. The teams at the higher end are apparently confident in their ability to shoot from range, which can be a useful tactic in many situations. It can keep opponents guessing and also opens up opportunities for strikers to get on the end of rebounds and to win more corners.

What should be noted here is that almost all the teams in these tables are at the top end of creating Great and Good Chances in each of their respective leagues. As such, even though they may be registering a lot of Attempts they are still creating better quality chances on a regular basis than most other teams in their league.

Of course Attempts are not always a bad thing but teams that favour these over Great and Good Chances may struggle when the standard of opposition increases, such as in European competition when chances can often be at a premium. Celtic are the prime example of this as they dominate the Scottish Premiership but have failed to make much of a dent during their recent Champions League and Europa League campaigns.

It will be interesting to see how much Ronny Deila’s successor changes their style of play and attitude towards chance creation and if this improves their fortunes on the grander stage.

Dave Willoughby (@donceno)