Weekend Preview – 30/09/2016

Highlights

English Premier League
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City (Sunday 2.15pm)
The headline game comes from the Premier League, where leaders Man City meet second-placed Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Both come into this on the back of travel in the Champions League, but City had much less of a journey to Glasgow than Spurs did to Moscow. However, coming away with a win probably made the flight back to London much easier on Mauricio Pochettino’s men, who have an extra day of recovery, while Pep Guardiola’s squad were left disappointed after a thrilling 3-3 draw at Parkhead.

The market currently has City as quarter-goal favourites on the Asian Handicap, which seems a little punchy despite their perfect league record. Although they have only conceded 0.83 goals per game to date, they have looked unconvincing when up against quick-breaking sides. There are not many better in transition than Spurs, so the hosts should get some joy here, especially with Rose set to return and Dier available to shield the defence. Ultimately DNB looks a fairer line, and it would be no surprise to see the money moving that way by morning.

Bettors overestimated Kane’s absence last week at Middlesbrough when considering that goal line and it would be a surprise if both teams did not score again here. City will adopt their usual fluid, attacking approach; meaning the 2.75 total looks very achievable in a contest where neither side will be happy to settle for a draw. On paper this looks superb, so let’s hope it lives up to the billing.

Italian Serie A
Roma vs. Internazionale (Sunday 7.45pm)
Sunday is also the day of our second highlight of the weekend, with third-placed Internazionale visiting fourth-placed Roma in a contest that will have bearing on the race for Champions League, even so early in the season. Both were in Europa League action on Thursday, but Roma had the benefit of a 4-0 stroll at home to Astra while Internazionale were losing 3-1 in Prague. Each rotated their squads, which may be why the market is leaning in Roma’s direction with line currently set at -0.5. Inter are in better form and have great team news, however.

With the visitors our lean on the handicap, a combination with a pick of Under on the 2.75 goal line seems to be the most bold trade to make here. Although Roma have been over the line 5/6 times this season, Inter have beaten it on just 2/6 occasions, home to Juventus and away to Pescara. They are only conceding an average of 1 a game so far and will undoubtedly seek to make this tight, especially in the early going. Starting on the underdog and unders gives the advantage of both markets moving your way, making for some attractive early exit opportunities.

German Bundesliga 1
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Borussia Dortmund (Saturday 5.30pm)
We head to Germany next, this time on Saturday, where two teams firmly in the mix for Champions League finishes meet. Leverkusen are hosting Dortmund after a patchy start to the season that has only seen them collect 7 points from 5 games, though our Analyst Fair Score has them sitting on 11. Borussia have taken 12/15 to date, which is exactly in line with the AFS.

As a result it is no huge shock to see the visitors half-goal favourites on the handicap, with the total goals line set at 3 due to the goal averages of both teams combined this season being an enormous 3.5. Each are missing a key player in Bellarabi and Reus, respectively, meaning there is little to split them outside of form. It should probably be a quarter tighter than -0.5, but it would take a brave man to bet against a Dortmund win.

French Ligue 1
Olympique Lyonnais vs. Saint-Etienne (Sunday 7.45pm)
Both of these teams have huge injury problems, which makes for an extremely interesting derby clash in France. Lyon are without three automatic starters, including key striker Lacazette, plus a number of squad men, while Saint-Etienne are absolutely ravaged. At last count they had 11 players sidelined, including club captain Perrin, which throws a lot of instability into this outcome. As a result a handicap of -0.75 in favour of the hosts looks too big, while the goal line of 2.5 also seems to be set too high despite the absence of so many defenders. This fixture looks like a big opportunity, but a look at the late team news is crucial, just in case anybody crucial passes fit that was expected to be absent.

Spanish Primera Division
Valencia vs. Atletico Madrid (Sunday 11am)
Once upon a time this would have been a marquee event and a “best of the rest” game in Spain, but Valencia are a pale shadow of their former selves. They come in with two wins in two, albeit against promoted sides, which does mean confidence will not be as low as before. Godin being out for Atletico is always very noteworthy, with the Uruguayan hugely valuable at both ends of the pitch. Simeone’s side being half goal favourites looks about right, but the goal line of 2.5 seems high with the visitors undoubtedly tired and seeking a customary 0-1.

English Championship
Sheffield Wednesday vs. Brighton & Hove Albion (Saturday 3pm)
These remain two of the best sides in the Championship and both have started the season well, with Wednesday showing a particular uptick in form of late. At Hillsborough they remain tough to beat and so probably deserve the narrow favourites tag, while the goals line of 2.25 is pitched exactly where one might expect given the two sides’ averages. Brighton and unders look the safest starting point, but this may be one to avoid.

Ones to Watch

Japanese J1 League
Urawa Reds vs. Gamba Osaka (Saturday 6.05am)
Top meets third in the J1 second stage, with the market surprisingly confident in Urawa and at least 3 goals.

Netherlands Eredivisie
Heerenveen vs. PSV (Saturday 6.45pm)
This looks a banana skin for PSV despite their -1 handicap; with Heerenveen seeking a fifth successive win.

United States MLS
Dallas vs. LA Galaxy (Sunday 2am)
Top meets third in the West, but both are struggling for consistency and Dallas at -0.75 looks too wide.

Austrian Bundesliga
Salzburg vs. Sturm Graz (Sunday 3.30pm)
Second host first in a mouthwatering contest, with things leveled somewhat due to Salzburg’s Europa trip on Thursday.

Swedish Allsvenskan
AIK vs. Norrkoping (Sunday 4.30pm)
The team news is stacked against the second-placed visitors, with third-placed AIK understandable favourites here.

Greek Super League
Olympiakos Piraeus vs. AEK Athens (Sunday 6.30pm)
If AEK can play smart then they could make the -0.75 starting handicap look a wide one, but Mandalos would be a big miss.

Are key entries important?

I do not disagree with my colleague Dave Willoughby about many things, but for a few years now we have had very different thoughts about the value of asking our analysts to collect “key entries”. With this in mind and with a deadline for a first blog submission of the season rapidly approaching, I turned to our new football data scientist Sagar Jilka to help me prove Dave wrong once and for all.

In pursuit of this noble end I will use this piece to investigate just how well average key entries per team per game compare with other key performance indicators, such as chances and goals. I will also look into whether key entries have value when used alone, or if they need to be paired with other metrics in order to give any real insight into team performance.

However, let’s just begin with some background on how we have collected key entries to date.

Before November of last year Stratagem’s version of a key entry was an instance where an attacking team achieved possession of the ball in the final third of the pitch. This was tracked only once at the first point of contact with the ball in the final third, with “right”, “centre”, “left” locations and “pass”, “run”, “turnover” methods attached. For all intents and purposes “right” and “left” simply captured the spaces outside of the width of the 18-yard box, while the methods of entry explained how the ball crossed the imaginary “line” of the final third in the first place.

It is important to note here that we would not track the ball crossing back and forth over this imaginary line if a team was in the build-up phase, in order to avoid multiple entries during one period of sustained possession. Our belief was that capturing it this way would further inflate the figures of already strong possession-based teams like Arsenal and Barcelona, which would in turn cause our analysts and models to overrate them.

After a concession to Dave over the value of these final third entries, since November 2015 we now determine a key entry as an instance where the attacking team achieves possession of the ball in the last 18 yards of the pitch. The main reason for this move was to reduce the time burden on our data collection analysts, but we also felt that it would reduce a significant amount of “noise” around the metric, as ultimately you do not want to reward a team for just getting the ball into the final third time and time again.

The 18-yard entries function in much the same way as the final third entries did before them, with locations collected in the same way but now labelled as right/box/left and the pass/run/turnover methods retained. However, we were forced to add “shot” as an entry method in order to cover off situations where a player had an attempt from further than 18 yards that was recovered by a teammate on a rebound, or deflected out for a corner or throw-in.

Naturally, the average numbers of key entries collected across the board dropped significantly after this change but we felt that the data set we ended up would still be a lot more useful than the one we had before it. I could begrudgingly see Dave’s point on the old entries, which was that they were not useful enough versus the classic total possession statistic to justify the amount of time spent collecting them (at times you could get a game with over 150 individual entries).

So now that you are fully up to speed on the background, it is time to find out whether the move to 18-yard entries has been as successful as hoped.

To start with a decent benchmark, I investigated data from the 2015/16 English Premier League season to see how the league table would have ended up if the teams had been ranked on goal difference instead of points:

1-goal-difference-vs-total-points-01

As you would expect, the correlation of goal difference and total points is strong and there are just 15 total positional differences when the whole league is taken into account. Stoke City are responsible for the biggest variance in outcome based on goal difference and points, finishing six places worse off when measured against how many they score and let in.

At the high end of the table things look pretty good, with the winners, top four and top eight all being intact and showing relatively little variance, while at the low end the bottom two stay exactly as they are. In this scenario Bournemouth would have been relegated instead of Newcastle, which would have made me a very happy man indeed.

To go deeper, I looked at data from the same season to see how the table would have finished if the teams had been ranked on great chance difference instead of points. As a reminder, in 2015/16 our great chances had an average conversion rate of 45% across the board and represented situations where the attacking player would have been expected to score:

2-great-chance-difference-vs-total-points-01

As one might expect, the overall correlation begins to weaken a little when we use this metric, with 21 total positional differences now present. Still, great chances prove to be a very good measure of team performance, with only a quartet of significant outliers. Crystal Palace would have benefitted greatly from this sort of ranking by jumping six positions, but Manchester United (-5), Stoke City (-5) and Swansea City (-6) in particular would have been much worse off.

Stoke appearing in both lists is quite telling, especially when their performance at the beginning of this season is taken into account, because it seems they ended up significantly better off in the table than their performance metrics should have allowed. If you followed our articles last season you may remember one on Jack Butland’s amazing great chance stopping abilities, which we believed was largely responsible for the overachievement of Mark Hughes’ side in the actual table.

Away from the outliers things look generally stable across the board, with perfect placement of the top three and bottom two being a notable thing to highlight. Interestingly, Southampton would have been worthy of a Champions League berth if rated on their chance differential, while this time Swansea would have been for the drop instead of Newcastle. I’m beginning to think we were hard done by…

Finally, it was time to look at how key entry differential would have made the final league table look (again using data from the 2015/16 English Premier League):

3-key-entry-vs-total-points-01

The first obvious thing to note is a further weakening of the correlation, with a total of 39 positional differences now present, versus 21 for great chances and 15 for goals previously. The second is that we have gone from having three teams perfectly placed with goals, to five teams perfectly placed with great chances, to just one team (Everton) being perfectly placed when key entry differential is compared to points.

There is one club that sticks out like a sore thumb here, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody that club is Leicester City. The 2015/16 English Premier League Champions would have finished an enormous 12 places worse off if they were evaluated on their key entry differential instead of points won. After all of the type dedicated to Leicester in the analytics field over the last twelve months I would assume that by now you understand why this is the case, but for safety’s sake I will attempt a quick explanation:

For much of last season Leicester were able to deploy a reactionary, counter-attacking approach that relied heavily upon inviting territorial pressure and limiting their opponents’ quality chance creation. This was combined with a supreme ability to burst forward on breaks that led to a large number of high quality goalscoring opportunities and ultimately made them a very difficult proposition. Even when teams began to modify the way they approached Claudio Ranieri’s men after Christmas, the defensive element of their success continued and they began to add some crucial 1-0 wins to their repertoire.

Due to their “different” way of achieving results, Leicester were something of a puzzle for people reliant upon expected goals models last season and thankfully it also took the betting market a long time to adjust to their quality. In addition to that it seemed that a lot of people simply had a hard time accepting the fact that a team could post exceptional numbers for an entire season, especially when failing to take into account Ranieri’s ability to field an incredibly stable starting eleven over a significant period of time. The old “reversion to mean” argument was trotted out plenty and some may be pointing to Leicester’s start to this season as proof of that, ignoring elements such as Kante departing for Chelsea, his replacement Mendy succumbing to injury almost immediately, a general “after the Lord Mayor’s show” impact on overall motivation/psychology and the burden of extra football due to their Champions League participation (where they seem to be doing alright, funnily enough).

We will return to Leicester shortly, though, as there is still more to discuss in the latest table.

Bournemouth would have benefitted more than anybody else from the key entry differential method of evaluation, climbing nine places to a Europa League spot in seventh. Chelsea, Norwich and our old friends Stoke also raise some eyebrows, with the former pair jumping seven places apiece – Chelsea finishing in third and Norwich well clear of relegation. Stoke are seven positions worse off, however, falling dangerously close to the relegation spots. At this stage of the article I begin to wonder whether we missed a trick in not laying Stoke for top ten before the start of the season…

Other interesting quirks of the key entries table see Manchester City crowned as champions, Manchester United finishing runners-up and Liverpool rounding off the top four. Arsenal surprisingly finished outside of the top four AND ended up behind Tottenham, while the woeful Aston Villa survived at the expense of Watford and Sunderland. Finally, Newcastle were rock bottom by a considerable distance, so maybe we weren’t hard done by after all…

Based on these simple comparisons of goals and points, great chances and points and key entries and points it is quite clear to me that key entries have some value as a metric to independently measure team performance. However, it is also abundantly clear that they are much less valuable than goals and great chances when used alone.

Although this is no great surprise, it is not going to do me many favours in my argument with Dave and so I am not satisfied to leave things there. My next step was to see if key entries could be combined with those two other metrics to create something more powerful. I was specifically keen to try and “solve” the Leicester problem that arose in the last table, which got me thinking about “efficiency”.

This was a concept that came up in a few of my posts last season, as it became quite obvious early on that there were some metrics that showed why Leicester were far and away the best side in the division. So at Stratagem we now utilise “attacking efficiency” and “defensive efficiency” metrics to see how effective a team is at both ends of the field. The simple calculation we came up with is to take key entries (for) and divide them by goals (for) or great chances (for) when considering the attack. If thinking about the defence it is just a case of taking key entries (against) and dividing them by goals (against) or great chances (against).

Let’s start with a look at attacking and defensive efficiency using goals:

4-attacking-defensive-efficiency-goals-vs-total-points-01

Unsurprisingly Leicester rank first in both the attacking and defensive categories, as they needed just 20 key entries for every goal scored and their opponents needed 43 key entries for every goal scored. The defensive number in particular is quite remarkable, being 5 key entries per goal more than it took teams to score against both Arsenal and Tottenham.

The presence of a number of lesser lights in the upper echelons of the attacking efficiency table is no great shock, with West Ham known for having “high shot numbers” last season and Sunderland possessing the evergreen Jermain Defoe. Everton’s attacking unit has so much quality that it still made the most of good situations more often than not, with Roberto Martinez’ issues typically being at the other end of the pitch and through the middle. There is a glut of generally strong performing teams immediately below the top four places, but one of the bigger sides worth highlighting is Manchester United. Louis Van Gaal’s love of possession above all else meant that United were the third most inefficient team when attacking last season, taking almost twice as many key entries as Leicester to score a goal.

On the other side of the coin Van Gaal did make United fairly organised and difficult to score against, however, and they only trailed the actual top three in terms of their defensive efficiency. Southampton were again good across the board, making the excellent Ronald Koeman’s move to Everton all the harder to stomach for Saints fans. West Brom were able to make up for their inefficiency in attack by being hard to score against, which is no great surprise under the leadership of Tony Pulis. Finally, Bournemouth being inefficient at both ends of the pitch is easily explainable when looking back at the original three tables posted, as they scored infrequently, conceded frequently and had many more key entries for than against.

In order to make some sense of using attacking and defensive numbers in a non-combined form, it seemed easiest to take an average of a team’s positions in both categories and make a ranking to compare against the actual league table from 2015/16. For instance, as Leicester were ranked first in attacking efficiency and first in defensive efficiency this is simply a case of doing the following calculation:

1 + 1 / 2 = 1

This puts Leicester at the top of the pile, with Aston Villa again at the bottom due to being ranked 20 in the attacking category and 19 in the defensive category for an overall average of 19.5 (the lowest average score of all 20 teams).

The interesting thing from the combined table is that it shows better overall correlation than key entry differential, with a total of 33 positional differences present. There are three teams judged to be in exactly the “right” positions, with the biggest outlier being Sunderland sitting nine places above where they actually finished. Their efficiency in attack in particular is what kept them up, as they attacked infrequently but could rely on scoring thanks to Defoe’s superior finishing. There is a lot of variance in the middle of the table, as tends to be the way, but the bottom two and top three remain intact.

Ultimately this method of evaluating teams shows an improvement over using key entries alone to judge performance, plus it also gives a great indication of why certain teams were able to confound expected goals models over a sustained period of time.

To round off, let’s see how attacking and defensive efficiency looks when using great chances:

5-attacking-defensive-efficiency-vs-total-points-01

The methodology used here is exactly the same, and while the total number of positional differences is identical to what it was using key entry differential (39), I am happier with how the extreme parts of the table look in this iteration.

There are still some huge moves visible, with strong teams like Manchester City (-11) and Manchester United (-12) being punished for having a lot of territorial pressure without converting it into incredibly regular chances to score. At the other end of the spectrum Crystal Palace (+10) make a huge charge based on their great chance efficiency numbers, while Newcastle (+8) again manage to avoid the drop, this time finishing in an improbable tenth!

As we have gone further down the rabbit hole it has become clearer and clearer that there is currently no “catch-all” metric to explain every element of team performance in football. I would contest that key entries maintain huge value when used in conjunction with other key performance indicators, but will accept that alone they do not provide enough information to be of a high value.

Essentially, a combination of the most proven measures of performance like goals scored and conceded, chances created and allowed plus territorial information like key entries or possession looks the best recipe to get an accurate read on an entire league. In my opinion it all comes down to the fact that some teams will be good at some things and other teams will be good at other things. Scoring and preventing goals is still the be-all/end-all, so we need to utilise every metric at our disposal to predict a team’s capacity at both ends of the pitch.

Rich Huggan (@AnalysisRich)

NB: I would be keen to know your opinions on the value of key entries as a standalone metric and/or as something to be combined with other performance indicators. Do you agree with me, or do you think Dave is right? Could we be using key entries in a better way? Should we get rid of them altogether? Could we replace them with something else? Let me know on my Twitter account (posted above) or at rich@stratagem.co.

Finally, I would like to send an alert to any budding data scientists out there who are frustrated with a lack of football data access. We are looking to expand upon the partnerships we have with @AnalyticsFC and @zorba138 in order to expose more people to our unique StrataData offering. We offer full API access in return for regular written content using elements of the data itself, which can be posted on external websites or any form of social media.

If you would be interested in working with us, then please get in touch via one of the suggested methods above.

Are West Ham too reliant on Dimitri Payet?

West Ham United have had a contrasting start to this Premier League season compared to the last, having lost four of their opening five games in an arguably softer run of fixtures.

Though results have been poor, the club could point to external factors as the main reason for their stumbling start. Things such as injuries, the oft-awkward transition to a new stadium and the additional burden of European football early in the season might be blamed. However, the latter can be ruled out as a genuine cause, as the club faced a similar schedule in the previous campaign and burst out of the blocks with some very impressive league performances.

Of these, the factor that I am most interested in is the impact of injuries on the squad. I am particularly interested in key man Dimitri Payet, who has very much been a bit part player up until now and has only started the last two games, where he has made an instant impact. Ignoring the club’s current defensive limitations, which are another story completely, I wanted to take a look at just how much Payet’s involvement means to West Ham from an attacking point of view. I will be using StrataData to reinforce the points made.

To look at things simply, West Ham have started three games without Payet this season and without him on the pitch they have managed to score just two goals. In the two games he has started, he has either directly or indirectly created every goal for, with three genuine assists for Michail Antonio, as well as winning the penalty for Manuel Lanzini against West Bromwich Albion. Amazingly, his sheer presence on the pitch nearly doubles their attacking output in terms of chance creation. For reference I am including every chance that has been registered during our data collection process, which will be broken down further in the piece:

payet-blog-impact-on-chances-and-goals

Even though the club have actually lost both games that he’s been involved in this season (against Watford and West Brom), their much-improved attacking threat with him in the side does not seem to be a coincidence.

There have, of course, been injuries to other attacking players at the start of this season and it is undoubtedly the zone where they have been hit hardest. This in itself is somewhat troubling, given their recent generosity to opponents in terms of allowing chances against. However, none of the other missing players have left such a notable hole as Payet. Andre Ayew broke down half an hour into his debut, whilst Andy Carroll only started the first game of the season before succumbing to yet another injury. Ultimately, neither have featured enough to make any significant impact on the team, though their absences are felt both with and without Payet in the team.

So could Payet’s influence on the side merely be seen as one player enjoying an enormously positive run of form at the start of the season? The answer here is a clear and resounding “no”, and to give clarity we need to briefly look back to last season.

Payet got injured early in November, missing the rest of that month in addition to the whole of December. During that stretch he missed seven league games in all and in those matches the club scored just five goals, drawing a blank three times and winning only once. Over the course of the rest of the campaign with Payet on the pitch, the team were averaging just shy of two goals a game. This correlates nicely with what has already been seen so early this season too:

payet-blog-impact-on-goals99-01

Almost all teams will have one player that they consider to be their “star”, but it appears that there is a growing and unyielding reliance from West Ham on Payet to deliver more than ever. Scoring over a goal a game more when he is on the pitch is testament to just how important he is to them, but also to how much worse off they would be without him.

This data is key when considering a trade on West Ham in the Total Goals Market, as it effectively shows that without Payet in the starting eleven, the expected goals figure for them is more than halved. Slaven Bilic was understandably cagey about rushing his key player back after his summer exploits at Euro 2016 and they are now seeing the rewards for this. Still, the defensive side of the team is not pulling its weight to translate the team’s improved attacking output into points.

However, more interesting than the number of chances created with and without Payet is the quality of those chances:

payet-graph-01

As the table above shows, the frequency of chances does go up when he is on the pitch, but surprisingly the quality of chances remains fairly similar. In total there are just five in the Very Good-Superb categories with him and three without him.

The fact that the number of Poor Chances created increases by over three times is quite interesting, though, and the probable cause of this is the desire to allow Payet opportunities to shoot from range or to take on direct free kicks, from which we know he can be incredibly potent. Without him the team has to be more patient and measured in its approach, placing less emphasis on taking shots of lower quality. This could be due to the other players feeling that with Payet on the pitch another chance will likely come along sooner rather than later, whereas they feel they need to make every play count when he is not present.

Ultimately Bilic’s side seem to be playing something of a numbers game in assuming that the more shots they take the more likely they are to score, which of course does have value. However, what this also shows is that when Payet is present the team are spending more time on the front foot to get into these shooting positions in the first place.

Indeed, it is only in games where Payet hasn’t featured that West Ham have not been the dominant side in terms of possession. However, given that their opponents here were Bournemouth, Chelsea and Manchester City, all of whom are possession based teams, this is not a big surprise. The two games that Payet has started have seen West Ham enjoying an average of 62% of the ball, though in contrast to the sides mentioned above, neither Watford nor West Brom are exactly known for their ball retention. This could perhaps be disregarded somewhat in that case, but it is another small indication that they have a better handle on games when Payet plays.

Obviously, football is a team sport and it takes much more than the actions of one influential attacking player to get consistent results, but having to depend so heavily on one man is a massive risk to West Ham’s prospects this term. Should he get injured, or suffer a drop in form, the above trends in terms of chances and goals should be hugely concerning for the club. The mercurial talent that is Dimitri Payet is a blessing to Bilic, but he can also be a curse when considering just how much the manager leans on him. To say West Ham’s fortunes this season hinge on Payet alone may be a little steep overall, but ultimately it may not be too far from the truth.

If the manager improves the defensive issues that have dogged his team so far this season there should be little concern about a rise up the table for West Ham, provided that Payet remains fit and on form. It seems that they could be involved in a few more high scoring games until then, while they simply look to out-shoot opponents in an attempt to pick up quick wins.

Alec Payne (@payney3)

Can Huddersfield maintain their good start at the top of the Championship?

Huddersfield sit proudly on top of the Championship table. Even before the difficult midweek trip to Brighton, who are one of the sides tipped to earn promotion this season, they had stretched their lead to 4 points by winning 5 of their opening 6 games and earning manager David Wagner the August Manager of the Month award. Though they ultimately suffered a defeat midweek, which is a minor setback, they remain a point clear of Newcastle and other surprise package Barnsley going into the weekend’s fixtures.

However, the question being posed is: Do they have the longevity to stay at the top? They seem to have come from nowhere and some pundits even had them pegged as relegation candidates (Notably Chris Iwelumo on Channel 5’s Football League Tonight show). Many statistical models were not strong on them after a poor ending to the 2015-16 season saw them take only one win from their final eight games, whilst the odds on them being promoted at the start of the season were around 9.00 – not significantly large but long enough to be considered outsiders.

Using Ben Mayhew’s (@experimental361) format to determine the “strength of schedule,” it cannot be said that Huddersfield have had an easy start.

huddersfield-schedule-blog-strength-of-scedule2-01

Of their first three fixtures, two were away games against sides relegated from the Premier League last season, Newcastle United and Aston Villa. There is conjecture that the best time to play these sides is early on before they get settled (Between both sides they signed an additional 8 players after these games were played), but taking 4 points from these difficult matches was an excellent – and somewhat unexpected – return.

Another point of note should be that their game in Round 6 was against Leeds United, fierce local rivals which adds an extra element of difficulty and Round 4, seemingly the easiest on the list, was against another local rival in Barnsley who currently sit 3rd in the table having also made a great start.

Huddersfield have made some very prudent signings over the summer to better-fit Wagner’s playing style. Coming from a career coaching in Germany he is big on pressing quickly to win the ball back, which is in stark contrast to Huddersfield’s previous managers, who all liked to get bodies behind the ball and focus on defensive stability first.

Naturally the transition takes time and it has taken the summer to really get to grips with this style of play, especially with an influx of 13 new first team players arriving signalling a big overhaul in the playing squad.

Of these, only one has any significant experience of playing in the Championship before; (winger Rajiv van La Parra), and the new signings have an average age of just 23. Recent work done by Omar Chaudhuri for 21st Club (@21stClub) shows there is a misconception that previous Championship experience leads to more promotions (http://www.21stclub.com/2016/08/18/the-overrated-factor/) and Huddersfield will certainly be classed as having one of the squads with the least amount of Championship experience. When the games start coming twice a week it will be interesting to see if Huddersfield have the depth of squad to be able to cope with these demands. Nine of their players started at least five of the opening six games, hinting that Wagner either prefers not to rotate or doesn’t trust the depth of his squad.

The age of the squad shows that Huddersfield may be building a team of players ready to reach their peak age. Several analysts have done work in the area of peak age, notably, work from Tom Worville (@Worville) and Simon Gleave (@SimonGleave) indicates that players reach their peak age between the ages of 24 and 29 and Huddersfield have the majority of their squad within this bracket (13 of 24 first team players), with only three players older than 29 – one of whom is 3rd choice goalkeeper Murphy. This may be a good indicator that they will be able to keep the majority of the side together throughout the season if they can avoid injuries and suspensions, though fatigue will inevitably become an issue if rotation is kept to a minimum, as has been the case up until now.

huddersfield-schedule-blog-peak-players-by-age-01

Looking at the chances Huddersfield have created in their games so far does tell a slightly different story. Using StrataData we can estimate their expected goals for and against from their seven games played so far this season.

huddersfield-schedule-blog-xg-data-01

While the number of goals scored in home matches is close to what we would expect, they have massively outperformed the number of goals scored away from home. It is still early in the season and sample sizes play a part in this, but overall we would actually expect a negative goal difference rather than the +4 they currently have. In all four away games thus far they have actually created very little – in the games against Aston Villa, Leeds and Brighton they failed to create any Superb, Great, Very Good or Good Chances. This could be a worry as they seem to be riding a lot of form at the minute and it’s unlikely this will be sustainable.

Huddersfield in fact find themselves 18th in the table of expected Goal Difference – again it must be made clear that it is early in the season but this still perhaps is a worry for a team who may have ambitions for promotion.

Huddersfield Schedule blog - expected goal difference-01.png

The analyst reviewing each game for Stratagem also assigns what they believe a Fair Score would be for the match. These are more subjective and take into account the overall flow of the game rather than just expected goals – however things do not look any better in this regard for Huddersfield. In this hypothetical Fair Score table Huddersfield would have just 9 points rather than the 16 they currently sit on. While they shouldn’t be penalised for doing better than expected, it again rings some rather large alarm bells when looking at their future prospects.

Their average Key Entries per game also tell a story. While this data is more about a team’s style of play and game state can have a big impact on it, we see Huddersfield right in the middle with an average of 22 key entries per game. We would expect teams with more key entries to be more attacking – however, this is not always the case with Newcastle being very efficient with the amount of entries they have per game compared to goals.  They often score and are then content to sit back and control the tempo of the game rather than pushing for more and more goals, though their 6-0 win against QPR proves to be the exception to the rule.

huddersfield-schedule-blog-average-key-entries-01

This shows Huddersfield as perhaps what they truly are – a good mid table team. Their excellent start to the season has raised expectations massively amongst supporters and has perhaps naturally piqued interest in the media, but they seem to currently be riding the crest of a wave, with momentum playing a big part, meaning it will be interesting to see how they react to their first defeat of the season.

If they do suffer injuries or a loss of form then it may be very difficult for them to come back and press for a top 6 place. There are some very good and well-funded teams in the Championship, but the West Yorkshire side are already a good way towards a tally that would see them avoid relegation, which has been their primary aim in the past few seasons.

The smart money is that they will fade away and ultimately not make the play offs, therefore the odds of 1.73 on them to Finish Outside the Top 6 (the 4th highest odds for this market) seem quite generous. However in the short term at least, the fans will enjoy the ride, with memories of Leicester City’s memorable run to the Premier League title last year giving genuine cause to believe this early season run can continue.

Dave Willoughby (@donceno)