Weekend Review – 31/10/16


Italian Serie A
Juventus 2-1 Napoli (Saturday 7.45pm)
The biggest game of the weekend was the one that we also had the best early read on, with our suggestion of a back of over 2.25 goals and Juventus -0.5 paying out handsomely. It always looked like a contest that would be decided by the odd goal and it was hard to have too much faith in a Napoli team without the on fire Milik, even though Juventus’ performances had been significantly below-par in recent weeks. Interestingly enough, however, our analyst fair score pegged this as a 1-1 and so perhaps we got away with it a little bit!

Of course it would be Higuain to get the winner after Jose Callejon had cancelled out Bonucci’s opener just four minutes after the defender found the net, with the Argentinian striker ensuring he took all of the headlines against his former employers. His goal came in the 70th minute and Juventus shut things down quite brilliantly from there, never allowing their visitors anything more than a poor chance (around 2% conversion) before the end. Ultimately they probably just about deserved to edge it thanks to this and they are already beginning to look unassailable at the top of Serie A.

English Premier League
Tottenham Hotspur 1-1 Leicester City (Saturday 3pm)
This looked much more like the Leicester of old, with Ranieri’s side seemingly in big trouble after Tottenham got the first goal but regrouping well at half time to come back and take a deserved draw. Conceding first has been a death knell for the champions in this campaign, but the fact that the goal came just before the break proved to be a blessing. The absolute key here was the return of Leicester’s defensive efficiency, with Spurs having plenty of possession and key entries but only being allowed one very good chance.

Last year’s title win was built upon this sort of resolute gameplan, though there were some elements of luck involved in this result as Vertonghen hit the bar late and Spurs had another penalty appeal wrongly ignored. On another day the over 2.5 goals recommendation could have come in quite easily, while we feel that leaving the handicap well alone was still the correct call in the circumstances. Leicester still need a few more of these days metrics-wise before we’ll be convinced!

English Premier League
Southampton 0-2 Chelsea (Sunday 4pm)
Chelsea produced their most complete performance of the season to date in earning this deserved win over in-form Southampton, ensuring that the hosts lost against the Asian Handicap for the first time in six matches. This was also a fourth clean sheet in a row for Conte’s side, with the Italian visibly delighted with the attitude and effort displayed by his players throughout the game.

It certainly seems like all of the big names have bought into his approach now, which is a little bit surprising given his disagreement with Diego Costa just last weekend. The under 2.5 line had jumped off the page at us pre-game, though we were somewhat perturbed by the fact that the Blues had regularly been shipping and scoring with more frequency than expected. However, it does now seem that their performances will now return to the sort of consistency levels displayed under peak Mourinho.

German Bundesliga 1
Hoffenheim 1-0 Hertha BSC (Sunday 2.30pm)
Hoffenheim were unfortunate not to win this game by more, having created a total of 23 chances to 5 over the course of the ninety minutes. For whatever reason third-placed Hertha just did not turn up, with the visitors thankful to their goalkeeper Jarstein for keeping them within touching distance. The first goal proved to be the key, with Hoffenheim visibly growing in confidence and continuing to pile on the pressure as Hertha wilted. That moment meant that our over 2.5 goals suggestion looked relatively sensible, but also that our lean towards the visitors on the handicap was ill judged. Ultimately this was a home win on the Asian line and an unders game, but Hertha could not have felt aggrieved by a 3-0 loss.

French Ligue 1
Saint-Etienne 1-1 Monaco (Saturday 7pm)
With the score 1-1 after 18 minutes we looked to be flying to a win on our recommendation of over 2.25, but Saint-Etienne’s equaliser took the sting out of things by resetting the game state to 0. From then on there was too much possession-based play and patience on show, with just one great chance to show between the sides by the end. Prior to this one Monaco had been over the natural goals line in 9/10 fixtures, but coming up against stubborn opposition who were happy with a point at home made for a half loss on the overs.

Ones to Watch

Dutch Eredivisie
Feyenoord 2-2 Heerenveen (Sunday 3.30pm)
Both teams kept their unbeaten run going, but after five great chances Feyenoord will be wondering how they didn’t win.

English Championship
Brighton & Hove Albion 5-0 Norwich City (Saturday 3pm)
Brighton were deserved favourites, though it was nowhere near being as close as we had expected and 5-0 flattered somewhat.

Scottish Premiership
Aberdeen 0-1 Celtic (Saturday 12pm)
The league leaders overcame very difficult opposition in professional style, withstanding a lot of late pressure and deserving the 0-1.

Swiss Super League
Grasshopper 0-2 Basel (Saturday 7pm)
Even with numerous players back available this looked a big ask for Grasshopper, and so it proved as Basel cruised.

Austrian Bundesliga
Austria Wien 2-0 Sturm Graz (Sunday 3.30pm)
The hosts displayed a greater cutting edge in the last third, winning their fourth in a row against the leaders.

Weekend Preview – 28/10/16


Italian Serie A
Juventus vs. Napoli (Saturday 7.45pm)
The biggest game of the weekend comes from Italy this time, where champions Juventus face the team that were expected to challenge them most closely this season, even after they lost Higuain to the “Old Lady” this summer. Juve may have not been firing on all cylinders lately, losing one of last week’s highlighted games in Milan, but they face a Napoli side missing both Milik and Gabbiadini here. The visitors are expected to use Mertens as a false nine, though it must be mentioned that Dybala is also absent for Juve.

The Higuain subplot will be the main focus of the media, but naturally our interest is in the betting lines. Currently Juventus are -0.75, while total goals is pitched at a rather conservative 2.25. Given the fact that the hosts have been over 60% of natural goal lines and the visitors over 40%, it looks like a fair bet to take this on, but there will be a need for an early goal. Both teams have performed similarly against the Asian Handicap and with a one-goal home win looking a likely outcome, we could also be tempted by the -0.5 @ 1.87 ahead of the -0.75 @ 2.12.

English Premier League
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Leicester City (Saturday 3pm)
The two sides with the best metrics from 2015/16 meet on Saturday, with the big surprise being that the contest isn’t televised. Spurs are still missing Alderweireld and Kane, so are below-strength and both ends of the pitch, while Sissoko has joined them on the sidelines due to suspension. Leicester have no new issues in terms of fitness, but Ranieri has suggested that he will need to use his squad intelligently with another big Champions League night on the horizon.

Pochettino also has a huge European game with Leverkusen to consider too, though, meaning that the -1 handicap on his side does look large. It is well documented that Leicester have struggled against the bigger teams so far this season, and while they beat Crystal Palace last weekend there were still some vulnerabilities at the back. As a result of this our lean is more towards over 2.5 goals @ 1.90, because both sides tend to go for the win and Leicester have been over the natural goal line in 67% of games this season.

English Premier League
Southampton vs. Chelsea (Sunday 4pm)
By this point of the season it’s probably safe to say that Southampton are back to being “good” again, with their impressive 1-1 draw at Man City last weekend pretty much confirming the fact. Chelsea are on a high after their demolition of Man Utd and have now kept three clean sheets in a row, which means they should be unchanged. Bertrand could be available for Puel, but the French coach must also be tempted to keep the same eleven.

It’s the under 2.5 line that jumps off the page given both sides’ defensive efficiency in recent weeks, but surprisingly just 11% of Chelsea’s league games have been under the natural line this season. As a result of this our eyes turn towards the Asian Handicap market, where backing the hosts at 0.25 seems sound enough given the fact that they have now beaten their handicap in five successive rounds.

German Bundesliga 1
Hoffenheim vs. Hertha BSC (Sunday 2.30pm)
This game sees fourth hosting third, somewhat surprisingly even at this stage, and hosts Hoffenheim are pegged as slight favourites in the market. This is no great shock on the surface, because while they had a punishing 120 minute cup loss against Köln in midweek, Hertha are missing key left-back Plattenhardt due to injury. Taking everything into account we have a slight lean towards the visitors on the 0.25 handicap due to their effectiveness on the counter, but given the fact that 38% of each side’s games have been over the natural goal line taking the 2.5 @ 1.85 looks a safer bet. Both sides will believe they can win and Hoffenheim have seen over 2.5 goals in four of their last five league games.

French Ligue 1
Saint-Etienne vs. Monaco (Saturday 7pm)
A big crowd is expected for one of the few big games left in France, with both clubs hoping to finish in the Champions League spots come the end of the season. At first glance the DNB line looks generous to Saint-Etienne, who have not been at all convincing this season, but Monaco have been volatile away from home and perhaps cannot be trusted. This means that more comfort could be found in the goals, with the 2.25 mark seemingly ignoring the fact that Monaco have been over the total goal handicap in an enormous 90% of games this season.

Ones to Watch

Dutch Eredivisie
Feyenoord vs. Heerenveen (Sunday 3.30pm)
Top host third in a clash that should have a few goals; neither have lost in the last seven rounds.

English Championship
Brighton & Hove Albion vs. Norwich City (Saturday 3pm)
Brighton are deserved favourites at home to Norwich based on form and latest team news, but it should be close.

Scottish Premiership
Aberdeen vs. Celtic (Saturday 12pm)
This game has less spice now that Rangers are back, but Pittodrie ahead of Champions League looks tricky for Celtic.

Swiss Super League
Grasshopper vs. Basel (Saturday 7pm)
The cavalry has arrived in time for Basel’s visit, but a Grasshopper win would still be an enormous surprise here.

Austrian Bundesliga
Austria Wien vs. Sturm Graz (Sunday 3.30pm)
Graz didn’t deserve to drop points last weekend and are still top, but this is a test of their credentials.

HOT TOPIC: How should you rate chances? Explaining our approach.

Last week there was a lot of Tweeting from members of the analytical community in relation to the mainstream media’s use of clichés when it comes to goalscoring chances. It started with Saturday’s Match of the Day broadcast, where Jermaine Jenas and Alan Shearer bemoaned Delle Alli’s finishing ability, using lines like “he’s got to score that” and “he needs to work on his finishing”.

This prompted an interesting back-and-forth started by Ted Knutson (@Mixedknuts) about what changes could be made to the format to make it more useful for the viewing audience, without going the whole way and employing expected goals graphics. Before going any further here, you should read his post on StatsBomb if you haven’t already, as it really is very good and I agree with a lot of what he says.

Of course, I do have some sympathy for the pundits in this instance, which isn’t often the case, as many are just not worth the studio space for the level of insight that they provide. It often just comes down to semantics when they are saying a player “should” score what appears to be a presentable chance. Fundamentally they’re probably right, because they SHOULD, but by looking at the data we know that they often don’t.

It all boils down to the fact that every individual scoring chance has a different conversion rate, and these are what many expected goals models are built on.

At Stratagem we capture data on every single chance across every single game of the 21 club competitions that we currently cover.

But what makes what we do really useful and arguably better than everybody else?

I believe that it’s because context is key in every chance we rate.

In Ted’s post he provides data to back up why Theo Walcott’s chance in the 56th minute against Swansea City should have been scored around 20% of the time, but this is where I start to disagree. He himself acknowledges that the data is limited, using information on kicked shots not assisted by crosses to back this up. Quite frankly this is great stuff and once again I agree that this is much better than what was available even just two years ago. However, the lack of tracking information for every player on the pitch means that chances like this one, where Walcott was completely unmarked seven yards out, are thrown in with others where the striker is under severe pressure or has several defenders crowding him, trying to block the shot.

At Stratagem we use data combined with context to rate every chance. Attackers taking shots under heavy pressure, or shooting after a pass or cross was played slightly behind them, will see the chance rating decreased, while the opposite is true if the player has the time to pick his spot unhindered by factors like these.

In this particular instance Walcott is under no defensive pressure, the ball drops perfectly for him and he even has a teammate almost directly in front of the keeper, clearly hampering Fabianski’s line of sight to the ball. Ultimately, the chance is missed due to poor shot quality, which is something we capture as a separate measure to our initial chance rating to better explain the outcome:


While I do see Ted’s points and believe he has broken the situation down very well, by taking all the factors into account we would rate this as a Great Chance. This means that it is a chance with a conversion rate of around 40%, which is around the mark that Ted started from.

Wait a minute… “Great Chance”… What does that mean?

At the beginning of the 2016/17 season we decided to move to using six chance categories instead of three to give us better resolution during data collection. These are classified as follows:

Superb Chance
This is a situation that a player would always be expected to score from, for example a relatively uncontested shot or a free header into an open goal.

Great Chance
This is a situation that a player would generally be expected to score from, for example a one-on-one with the goalkeeper or a free header that needs to beat the goalkeeper, attempted from 12 yards or less.

Very Good Chance
This is a situation that a player could score from, for example a one-on-one with the goalkeeper from a tight angle or a contested header that needs to beat the goalkeeper, attempted from 12 yards or less.

Good Chance
This is a situation that a player could score from but would not necessarily be expected to, for example a shot taken from a tight angle inside of the box or a heavily contested header that needs to beat the goalkeeper, attempted from 12 yards or less.

Fairly Good Chance
This is a situation that a player would not generally be expected to score from but could, for example a speculative long-range shot with a clear sight of goal or a contested header that needs to beat the goalkeeper, attempted from more than 12 yards.

Poor Chance
This is a situation that a player would not generally be expected to score from, for example a speculative long-range shot with a diminished sight of goal or a heavily contested header that needs to beat the goalkeeper, attempted from more than 12 yards.

While the names are arbitrary, each chance has a distinct conversion rate that remains linear across all of the competitions we cover. The names of each chance are distinctive and allow our analysts to easily discuss them without directly referring to their conversion rates.

Every goal scored in these competitions undergoes quality control by at least two other members of staff, while we constantly evaluate all chances to ensure that our analysts are consistent in how they see situations. We always ask the guys to be subjective when judging chances, but we always tell them we want them to be the same kind of subjective.

In addition to this we regularly provide clips and ask our analysts to give their views on a multitude of differing situations, before offering extensive feedback so that they can apply it to chances that appear in future games they are assigned to watch. Naturally, we appreciate that we live or die by the quality of our analysts and our subsequent checking measures, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

We now have around 15,000 games in our database with this sort of data attached, and so have the ability to drill down into different on-pitch scenarios to ensure that we keep improving our methods. For example, using Sagar Jilka’s recent data on free kicks we have upgraded the chance rating on direct free kicks in those locations that Sagar proved to be more likely to result in goals.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that all of this data is available by signing up to StrataBet, and that you can claim a free 15-day trial to gain access. However, the offer still stands for 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 offering. We can give full API access in return for regular written content using elements of the data itself, which can be posted on external websites or on any form of social media.

If you would be interested in working with us, then please get in touch with me on Twitter (username below).

In the meantime, thanks for reading!

Dave Willoughby (@donceno)

Weekend Review – 25/10/16


English Premier League
Chelsea 4-0 Manchester United (Sunday 4pm)
The hosts scoring inside of the first minute completely eradicated any preconceptions of this game, with our suggestion that the safest bet here was for Mourinho to repeat his trick from Anfield being blown out of the water immediately. As soon as United fell behind it looked like a huge ask for them to find a way back, especially with Chelsea buoyant and the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge driving the team on. Conte’s switch to 3-4-3 is paying huge dividends, with the Moses/Pedro combination again working to good effect and ensuring that Blind had a very long afternoon in West London.

Mourinho still ensured that the headlines would be about him instead of his team’s performance with a mid-handshake berating of his opposite number, but ultimately his side were shown up for the limited unit that they are when not able to deploy a rigid gameplan. Chelsea were clear and deserved winners, with great finishing meaning the scoreline flattered them a little, our analyst pegging a 3-1 as the more realistic outcome. Still, whichever way you slice it there was no way this was an under 2.25 game or an unfortunate loss on a +0.25 handicap for the away side.

Italian Serie A
Milan 1-0 Juventus (Saturday 7.45pm)
Thankfully things get better for us from here on out, with our lean towards Milan +0.75 and the under 2.5 line paying dividends in the big Serie A game of the weekend. A revitalised home side with Bacca returning always looked a tough proposition for a Juventus team currently grinding out results rather than winning with fluid football, and so it proved. Milan had more in their favour outside of these factors pre-match too, with a free week to prepare while Juve were labouring to a 0-1 Champions League victory in Lyon.

It took a goal from a low quality chance to snatch this one, with Locatelli’s unstoppable effort beating Buffon and going in off the underside of the crossbar, meaning a 0-0 would probably have been the true Fair Score. The only chance with an average conversion rate of ~25% or more in the entire game fell to the visitors, with Dybala striking tamely at Donnarumma early on, and outside of that it was a cagey affair with defences well and truly on top.

Spanish Primera Division
Sevilla 1-0 Atletico Madrid (Sunday 3.15pm)
Both teams did indeed name their best elevens and it was as close as we expected, with Sevilla snatching it but our Fair Score pegging it as a 1-1 draw by full-time. In reality our suggestion of going with the under 2.25 as the solitary bet garnered a full win, but we should have only taken a half on the actual balance of play. The under 2.5 was available for 1.84 on Friday night, though, which would have been our true preference.

In terms of the match itself, Sevilla had more of the play but the chances were split almost perfectly even, with the hosts having two great to the visitors’ one great and two very good. Koke’s late red card dampened the possibility of a comeback, though Godin did miss one of the aforementioned very good chances in the final act, with Sergio Rico saving right on the line.

Netherlands Eredivisie
Feyenoord 1-1 Ajax (Sunday 1.30pm)
A fascinating tactical battle between the two form teams in the Eredivisie unfolded in De Kuip, with Ajax just about doing enough to earn the point despite Feyenoord piling on the pressure after going behind in the second half. Before the match we said we would steer well clear of the -0.25 handicap on Feyenoord if the in-form Schöne passed fit for the visitors, and it probably proved a good decision to keep out of things altogether given that the actual score and Fair Score were both 1-1. There was nothing to separate the two, as expected, which meant that Feyenoord lost their perfect league record at the tenth time of asking and Ajax were undoubtedly the happier of the two sides with the result.

French Ligue 1
PSG 0-0 Olympique Marseille (Sunday 7.45pm)
PSG seem to live or die by Edinson Cavani’s finishing this season, with the Uruguayan’s profligacy in front of goal meaning that they drew 0-0 in a game where our Fair Score believed they should have won 2-0. Marseille had absolutely no chances at all, not even a poor one, and so it is impossible to make a case for them taking anything. Still, our pick of over 3 goals was off because we simply did not expect the visitors to be quite so defensive against their big rivals. However, we do have a bone to pick with old Edinson…

Ones to Watch

United States MLS
LA Galaxy 0-0 Dallas / Colorado Rapids 1-1 Houston Dynamo (Sunday 9pm)
Dallas’ deserved draw with Galaxy meant that Colorado needed a significant win to topple them in the Western Conference, but although the Rapids pushed very hard against Houston a one-goal victory was all our Fair Score could justify for them.

Norwegian Tippeligaen
Brann 2-1 Molde (Saturday 5pm)
Molde were unfortunate to leave empty-handed here, but a draw was the most that they deserved according to our analyst.

Austrian Bundesliga
Rapid Wien 0-2 Austria Wien (Sunday 3.30pm)
Something of a smash and grab from the away side, with Rapid having enough chances of quality to have drawn.

Greek Super League
Olympiakos Piraeus 2-1 PAOK (Sunday 6.30pm)
Fair Score believes PAOK should still be unbeaten this season, with Olympiakos needing 11 minutes of added time to win.

Swiss Super League
Lausanne Sport 0-2 Sion (Sunday 3pm)
Sion’s great form continued here, with Luzern second best throughout and not being helped by all of their significant absences.

Who are the most lethal free kick takers this season?

Firstly, many thanks for joining me for the third and final part of my free kick series (if you missed it, click here to go to part one). In this post I’m going to look across all of the data from a league, team and player perspective. I’m particularly interested to investigate the most lethal free kick takers across all of StrataBet’s competitions this season. I’ll also draw upon my right versus left foot findings to tie together all of the findings.

Given that we’ve had an additional round of games since the time of my last post, I’ve once again extended my search to cover direct free kicks, both scored and not scored, between the 10th of June and 17th of October 2016. This has increased the number of games in my sample to 1771, as well as giving me a total goals count of 152. (I appreciate this is still a small sample overall, but the intention is to revisit this during the season to see how things change).

I first wanted to find out which competition has the greatest free kick conversion rate, out of the 22 we cover in fine detail here at Stratagem. Some of you may find the result surprising, as the Swiss Super League came out on top, with 10 goals from total of 52 attempts, giving a standout conversion rate of 19%. Perhaps less surprisingly the UEFA Champions League was second with a conversion rate of 13% (7 goals from 52 shots), followed by the Norwegian Tippeligaen with 13% (14 goals from 110 shots). Here’s the full order:


I was surprised to find that the “big” leagues, most notably the English Premier League, German Bundesliga 1 and Spanish Primera Division had such a low conversion rate. This could warrant further exploration in a future piece, but for now I was particularly interested to see if there was a particular team that was driving this result.

To ensure that we are dealing with realistic conversion rates per team, I decided to set a minimum number of 10 free kicks taken per team as my cut-off point.

Interestingly, the team with the best free kick conversion rate was United States MLS outfit Colorado Rapids, who have scored 2 goals from 12 attempts for a conversion rate of 17%. Next up is Swedish Allsvenskan side Hammarby, who have converted 2 of their 14 attempts to give them a tidy 14% conversion. The best English side come in at 4th on the list, being none other than my colleague Rich Huggan’s beloved Newcastle United, who in fact have a better conversion rate than the great Barcelona (14% and 13% respectively!). See the graphic below for the full order:


So how about the players themselves? To make sure our sample contains a reasonable amount of free kicks, I set the cut-off of shots taken at 7. Top of the pile is Uruguayan Nicolás Lodeiro, who plays for MLS club Seattle Sounders. He has 2 goals from 8 shots, giving him a conversion rate of 25%. Gareth Bale and Shkëlzen Gashi follow him closely, with 2 goals from 9 shots that gives them both a conversion rate of 22%. It’s important to note here that Gashi’s team is Colorado Rapids, who you should recall top the list of team free kick conversion rates. Here’s the full list of players:


Now I’d just like to touch on the left versus right footed free kick issue again. The graphic below shows left footed goals (blue o’s) and attempts (blue x’s) as well as right footed goals (yellow o’s) and attempts (yellow x’s). It is relatively clear to see the inverse relation between side of pitch and foot discussed in my previous blogHowever, it’s more notable to highlight that amongst this group of lethal free kick takers, the left footed players have a generally better conversion rate than the right footed players, as you can see from this:


So what have we learnt? The smaller leagues seem to have a better conversion rate than the bigger leagues, whilst Shkëlzen Gashi’s strong conversion rate may be pulling Colorado Rapids up the team conversion table. Gareth Bale’s performance at Euro 2016 has certainly helped his ranking, as he overtakes his Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo in the player conversion rate table. Finally, of these lethal players it seems that left footed ones still have the better conversion rates.

Do you have any ideas why big teams have such low free kick conversion rates, particularly given that the world’s best players play in them? Could it be that the goalkeepers are better? Or perhaps that defensive walls are set up better to protect the goal? Could it even be something pressure related due to the size of the games played and the media attention on every aspect? Let me know your thoughts by tweeting and commenting…

Until next time!

Sagar Jilka (@DrSagarJilka)

P.S. I have to give a special shout out to the teams who have taken more than 10 free kicks and not scored… notably Borussia Dortmund and one from my hometown (Birmingham City), amongst others.

P.P.S. I also have to give a shout out to the players who have taken more than 6 shots and not scored yet… notably Zlatan Ibrahimović, who hasn’t converted any of his 7 attempts so far since June.

Weekend Preview – 21/10/16


English Premier League
Chelsea vs. Manchester United (Sunday 4pm)
Jose Mourinho is again the man in the spotlight this weekend, which is just how he likes it. The Portuguese takes his United team to Stamford Bridge for the first time and it will be interesting to see what kind of reaction he gets. It will be even more interesting to see how he sets his team up, as he may not wish to be predictable and name the exact same eleven as for Monday’s successful trip to Anfield. They should still adopt a similar approach against another high-level opponent who, like Liverpool, also play three in attack, but they are sweating on the fitness of Smalling and his absence could be significant.

Meanwhile Chelsea rightly brushed Leicester aside on Saturday, scoring early from a corner and then never looking back. Antonio Conte has found comfort in his favoured 3-4-3 formation, with the influence of Moses down the right being especially noticeable. He and Pedro terrorised Leicester, freeing up space for Costa and Hazard to do the damage in the first half. Ultimately, backing Mourinho to repeat his trick as a big game underdog seems sensible enough here, but real comfort could be found in the under 2.25 line.

Italian Serie A
Milan vs. Juventus (Saturday 7.45pm)
In years past this would have been an enormous fixture and undoubtedly top of our pile, but the shine has most certainly worn off in recent times. However, Milan are looking revitalised and can welcome star striker Bacca back from injury as they seek to leapfrog Roma into second with a surprise win. In addition to this the hosts have also had the benefit of a free week due to a rare season without European football, while Juventus were winning a tough match with Lyon in the Champions League on Tuesday night.

The visitors really aren’t producing their best performances in the league at the moment, but they keep getting results and are comfortably topping the table yet again. A trip to an in-form Milan will ensure the strongest line-up possible, which should mean returns for Alves, Bonucci, Khedira, Pjanic and Higuain. Despite this, the -0.75 Asian Handicap line in favour of Juventus looks punchy and there could be some merit in backing the home side at that level, with the under 2.5 also favoured.

Spanish Primera Division
Sevilla vs. Atletico Madrid (Sunday 3.15pm)
The big shame of this game is that it overlaps with Chelsea versus Man Utd, because it should be a fascinating watch. Both clubs have fully fit squads, meaning they could – and should – name their absolute best elevens, while both are coming into it on the back of significant travel in the Champions League during the week. Sevilla have the benefit of an extra day to prepare in addition to home advantage, but the hugely in-form Atletico are still favoured by the odds makers to the tune of a -0.5 handicap. There is absolutely no doubt that Atletico are the pedigree side in the contest, but it is hard to be truly confident in them at that mark. It may be cliché to say in a fixture involving Simeone’s team, but perhaps looking at the under 2.25 (or even 2.5 @ 1.84) is the way to go in these circumstances.

Netherlands Eredivisie
Feyenoord vs. Ajax (Sunday 1.30pm)
Much like the Sevilla match, what makes this one so exciting is that there appears to be so little to separate the teams. Feyenoord are top with a perfect record of 27 points, while their Europa game on Thursday night was at home. Ajax are not far behind their arch rivals in the standings (5 points), but had a punishing 2-2 draw at Celta Vigo and might be without the in-form Schöne here. This means that the -0.25 handicap awarded to Feyenoord looks fair – even slightly attractive – though they would probably take a draw if offered one. If Schöne passes fit then we would probably steer clear, but if he misses out then there could be some value in backing the hosts DNB.

French Ligue 1
PSG vs. Olympique Marseille (Sunday 7.45pm)
Once upon a time this would have been the marquee game of the French season, but Marseille are such a pale shadow of their former selves these days that anything but a PSG win would be a big surprise. The hosts are at full strength and should take the game seriously, while the visitors have been given a huge boost by the completion of their US takeover and Rudi Garcia being appointed as their new manager. In the circumstances we like the look of over 3 goals here, because neither side will lie down and both are better when attacking.

Ones to Watch

United States MLS
LA Galaxy vs. Dallas / Colorado Rapids vs. Houston Dynamo (Sunday 9pm)If Colorado achieve anything less than a win then Dallas will take the MLS Supporters’ Shield. They also need to rack up the goals in case Galaxy hold the Texans to a draw, which should make for a great spectacle.

Norwegian Tippeligaen
Brann vs. Molde (Saturday 5pm)
Molde are still in with a chance of third and finally building momentum, which could spell trouble for second-placed Brann.

Austrian Bundesliga
Rapid Wien vs. Austria Wien (Sunday 3.30pm)
Rapid won the first Vienna derby of the season 1-4 in enemy territory and are substantial favourites for this one.

Greek Super League
Olympiakos Piraeus vs. PAOK (Sunday 6.30pm)
PAOK have high hopes this season and are unbeaten, with our Fair Score system believing they should have a perfect record.

Swiss Super League
Lausanne Sport vs. Sion (Sunday 3pm)
Second host third, with Lausanne suffering from poor team news and Sion on a deserved unbeaten run in their last six.

Are Southampton in contention for a top six finish?

It’s nearly a quarter of the way through the season, Southampton have started to climb the Premier League table and have now assumed their almost default position inside of the top ten. Having seen some of their best players depart for the third year running, as well as losing popular manager Ronald Koeman to divisional rivals Everton, many (myself included, though maybe with a little bias as a Portsmouth fan) believed that this could be something of a transitional season under a new coach and with new players who would need time to settle in.

While their start has been steady, if unspectacular, they have shown remarkable resolve to cope with renewed summer departures and continued picking up results, despite having what could easily be perceived as a weaker group of players. Indeed, after eight league games they actually have a near identical record to last season, with the same number of wins, draws and losses, as well as even having the same goal difference as this time twelve months ago.

So are they a genuine dark horse for a top six finish this season?

The first area of interest is how they have replaced the players who have departed. Over the summer they lost Victor Wanyama, Sadio Mane and Graziano Pelle, all of whom could easily be considered key players in their line-up from 2015/16, though Pelle did fall somewhat out of favour in the latter part of the season due to an off-field disagreement with Koeman. These sales brought around £50m to the club, but also led to frustration from supporters that they were simply becoming a feeder team for bigger sides. Those sides are seemingly able to poach players every year at a price, preventing Southampton from really challenging and building a standout team.

Still, in their place they brought in highly rated midfielder Pierre Emil Hojbjerg from Bayern Munich, Nathan Redmond from relegated Norwich City and Sofiane Boufal from French Ligue 1 side Lille (for a club record fee). Incidentally, my colleague Mark McAfee raised Boufal as a potential transfer target for the Saints last season, and was no doubt delighted to see this prediction come to fruition!

In all, the trio cost around £38m, though the concerns over squad quality remained, with neither Hojbjerg nor Boufal having played in England before, whilst Redmond was impressive in brief flashes during Norwich’s doomed Premier League campaign. Boufal is yet to make his league debut for the club after arriving with an injury, and though both Hojbjerg and Redmond have featured regularly, they are hardly setting the league alight. Redmond has looked bright but has just two goals in eight starts, despite being shifted to play as a striker by new manager Claude Puel.

So if new transfers haven’t proven to be a catalyst for results, what other reasons are there for Southampton’s continued success?

One of the other notable changes made by Puel when he arrived was to the shape of his team. Last season, Koeman was fairly rigid in using a 4-2-3-1 formation, often playing Steven Davis a little wider on the right of the attacking midfield three. Now though, minus the threat of Mane in behind or on the flanks, Puel has not attempted to force the system on the players, instead moving to a shape that suits the options at his disposal. His choice has been the same narrow 4-1-2-1-2 diamond that he used at Nice, which focuses more on being compact and well organised defensively.

What this has done is enable the team to continue picking up results, even if they don’t hold the same genuine attacking threat as last season. That’s not to say they aren’t a creative force though, with the team sitting in the top five of the league in terms of chances created. A more fluid system along with playing two outright strikers has helped, but it’s their defensive work that’s really impressing at this early stage.

After eight games Southampton have the third best defence in the league in terms of goals against. Conceding seven times in eight matches might not seem spectacular, but taken with the fact that four of those seven goals have come from the penalty spot, the numbers become far more significant. They have done a brilliant job of being organised from open play, giving up just six chances with an average conversion rate of 25% of above in eight matches, which is unsurprisingly the best total in the league to date:


One reason for this huge success is the settled defensive core that Puel has put in place. The new manager had to piece together a squad that was down on numbers compared to last season, while also having the additional burden of Europa League football, something that wasn’t the case last year when they were knocked out before the group stage.Of course, if they can sustain this incredible ability to deny big goal scoring opportunities from being created, then it will almost certainly put them in contention for a loftier league position.

Indeed, the Frenchman has managed his resources superbly at the start of the season and though he has made a rotation policy clear, more often than not he resists the temptation of making wholesale changes in league games, with cup competitions seeing far more in the way of line-up changes.

It should go without saying that line-up consistency can be a big factor, and one need only look at Leicester’s continuity last season as firm evidence of that, so it’s worth noting that eight players have started at least seven of the eight league matches played. This consistency allows partnerships to be built, benefiting the team in the long run.

Amongst the eight players are Fraser Forster (GK), Virgil van Dijk (CB), Jose Fonte (CB) and Oriol Romeu (DM). They form the spine of the team and have allowed for a very sturdy structure to be built in place around them. Keeping things settled defensively naturally has big benefits for a team, with rotation in more advanced positions a little less risky and actually having the benefit of keeping their attacking threat unpredictable from game-to-game.

It’s worth noting that none of the four players mentioned were new signings at the club, with the manager not seeing fit to really invest in the defensive side of the team despite the sale of Wanyama. They have promoted from within and are reaping the benefits. This is something the club has a history of doing, and though the centre back pairing of van Dijk and Jose Fonte was already well established last season, with the former now having a year of Premier League football under his belt they are becoming a formidable partnership with all the needed attributes. As a combination they have enough pace, positioning, aerial ability and organisational ability between them, as well as having the additional benefit of being capable of playing out from the back.

One player who has been rejuvenated is Oriol Romeu, a man so often overlooked last season, (although it is worth noting he was almost always included in the starting eleven in games where Southampton were considered heavy underdogs). He has filled the void left by Wanyama in front of the defence with ease, flourishing with the increased game time to become an automatic starter in both league and European competition. Puel obviously saw what he could bring to the team and, without spending any money, has made his line up more defensively solid purely with a minor tactical change.

Line-up consistency in key areas and a slight tactical change have certainly helped cope with the loss of key players, but I appreciate that a lot of this could seem circumstantial and just evidence of a team going through a good patch of form. While I am not suggesting that Southampton are capable of winning the league, their seamless transition between managers, tactical approach and adaptation with new signings has been impressive, and will almost certainly lead them to another top ten finish. They also surely have an outside chance of the top six.

Of course, it would be easy to look at Southampton’s fixture list and say they have achieved little more than people would expect from them, suffering defeats at Man Utd and Arsenal, before going on a run of six consecutive clean sheets in all competitions. These clean sheets encompassed notable results away at both West Ham and Leicester, with the former in particular turning a few heads (albeit against a very out of sorts opponent).

In contrast there is Everton, who have impressed many already this season and are being tipped for Europe. A little ironically they are now managed by former Saints boss Koeman and have had a softer schedule, which goes a long way to explaining their strong defensive record as well. Of the two clubs, Southampton appear to have a better overall balance and have picked up points from a tougher set of fixtures to date.

From an overarching statistical standpoint, they are proving they can mix it with the big teams. They currently sit fourth in terms of average possession, giving themselves control over games and meaning that by avoiding careless turnovers they can reduce the opportunity for opponents to build up consistent pressure. Their approach isn’t at all conservative though, and with a tip of the hat to Rich Huggan and Dave Willoughby who have touched on the subject before, Southampton sit seventh in terms of average “key entries” per game, just behind the current top six teams in the table.

While I won’t weigh in with my own opinion on that subject, it does appear that Southampton are well placed to be the biggest challengers to the status quo this year, though not to the same extent as Leicester last season. They certainly combine a well-structured defence with a functional attack, but probably lack the potency and individual brilliance of Claudio Ranieri’s mercurial team.

They could surely be a good outside choice for a place in the top six at current odds of 5.50, though admittedly for this to happen quite a lot would have to go right. Avoiding injuries will be key, which is something they’ve managed to do for the most part so far, particularly down the spine of the team. There have been knocks to full backs Bertrand and Cedric Soares, but centrally they’ve been at full strength throughout the campaign.

There will surely be movement on their odds with a trip to Manchester City on Sunday followed by a visit to St. Mary’s from Chelsea the following weekend, before a journey to Hull and then yet another international break. Depending on your opinion of how much the Man City result will impact on the price (anything other than a huge defeat should not sway it too much), this still looks like a decent time to enter the market. For those wishing to wait until after the Etihad trip, getting in before a visit of Chelsea would still represent a bit of a gamble if they lose badly to City, but you could bank on another poor result before entering ahead of the Hull game, where the odds could be as wide as 10.00.

In summary, Southampton have shown that they know how to make a push for Europe over the last couple of seasons, and having seen them maintain the base of the spine of their team from last year they should be in the discussion once again. It took people a long time to realise that Leicester were the real deal last season, so is everyone just slow off the mark with Claude Puel’s team this time around? Their underlying numbers suggest so…

Alec Payne (@Payney3)

Weekend Review – 18/10/16


English Premier League
Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United (Monday 8pm)
Every time you bet against Jose Mourinho, he reminds you why he has been winning big matches at big clubs for years and years now. As soon as the team news was released last night it was clear what to expect from Man Utd, as the visiting manager gambled on a compact approach from open play and looked to try and do some damage from set pieces with his array of aerial weapons. He didn’t get the 0-1 that he was looking for, but in the end his side were good value for the point and the clean sheet.

The biggest surprise from the game was that United were able to equal Liverpool’s intensity, with Mourinho clearly having done a brilliant job of motivating his players pre-match. The hosts were left ruing the decision to use Lallana from the bench instead of from the start, though Klopp would probably have preferred to not use him at all. In the end this was another “big game” that gave ammunition to those who religiously back the draw in such circumstances, and it was clear as soon as an early goal didn’t go in that under 2.75 was the bet to be on.

English Premier League
Chelsea 3-0 Leicester City (Saturday 12.30pm)
The market was rightfully fearful of another Leicester collapse here, as they again conceded early from a corner and then failed to reorganise quickly enough to deal with Chelsea’s weapons from open play. The Champions have some serious problems this season and Kante’s imperious performance in the blue shirt of their hosts was a timely reminder of part of what they are missing. Amartey is nowhere near as aggressive or intelligent as the French international, while his replacement Mendy has picked up a fresh injury.

Ranieri showed where his priorities lie with the benching of Mahrez and Slimani ahead of an upcoming Champions League match, but he was let down by the performances of both Musa and Schlupp. We’ll hold our hands up and say we got this one wrong as well, with the -1 handicap being comfortably beaten, though on the balance of chances created this was more a 2-0 than a 3-0. Safe to say that’s the last time we’ll be recommending Leicester in a league game against quality opposition for a while…

Italian Serie A
Napoli 1-3 Roma (Saturday 2pm)
Roma deservedly came out on top in another clash against Champions League rivals after their recent win over Inter, temporarily fixing their problems at the back and deploying a plan that worked nicely against a relatively toothless Napoli. Milik did indeed prove to be a big miss for the hosts, who we thought looked a little too heavily favoured on a -0.5 Asian Handicap line.

This win earns Roma some trust from us after we were sceptical that they could wave a magic wand to stop leaking chances, because despite Milik’s absence this was a Napoli side with an imperious recent home record. We always liked the look of over 2.75 here, though expected that the best opening goal to help us on the way to that would be a Napoli one. Ultimately a 1-2 or 1-3 scoreline looked the fairest result on the balance of play and chance totals.

German Bundesliga 1
Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Hertha BSC (Friday 7.30pm)
Some media outlets criticised Thomas Tuchel for his rotation policy in the wake of this result, obviously not realising that Borussia Dortmund were ravaged by injury heading into Friday night. In truth the home side created enough to have edged this one 2-1 by the end, which would have made for a win on the Asian Handicap and a push on the Total Goals line. However, our suggestion was that the brave back was Hertha +1.5 and under 3 goals, which thankfully proved to be a huge success in the end. The visitors’ solid defence and ability on the counter always looked a nice bet against an understrength Dortmund, while it was clear the market had also underestimated their recent form and current league placing.

French Ligue 1
Nice 2-0 Olympique Lyonnais (Friday 7.45pm)
A rare Balotelli penalty miss lost us our recommendation on the over 2.5 goal line, but in truth the game was a 2-0 any day of the week. Nice continue to defy the odds to lead Ligue 1 and are still unbeaten, building on their Ben Arfa inspired campaign last time out in great style. Lacazette not making the pitch from the start proved fatal for Lyon and the overs, with the team a shadow of their early-season selves when both he and Cornet are absent. This one really showed the importance of getting the line-ups correct in the Preview.

Ones to Watch

Australian A-League
Melbourne Victory 1-4 Melbourne City (Saturday 9.50am)
Tim Cahill announced his return home with a scorcher and City ran riot from there. They’ll be tough to stop.

English Championship
Huddersfield Town 0-1 Sheffield Wednesday (Sunday 12pm)
Huddersfield failed their first big home test of the season; with Wednesday’s three Great Chances meaning 0-1 was very fair.

German Bundesliga 2
Union Berlin 2-1 Hannover 96 (Sunday 12.30pm)
Union shaded it, despite the absence of their star striker. Our lean towards Hannover at DNB proved to be misjudged.

Swedish Allsvenskan
Norrkoping 1-2 Malmo FF (Sunday 2pm)
Malmo were full value for this win, deploying a clever counter-attacking approach that worked wonders against their out-of-form title rivals.

United States MLS
Montreal Impact 2-2 Toronto (Sunday 8pm)
Montreal came into this in better form, but in the end Toronto were somewhat unfortunate to leave without a win.

Are left footed free kick takers better than right?

I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between left and right sided direct free kicks in addition to left and right footed free kicks. This was based on my previous finding that direct free kick conversation rates were not necessarily weighted equally across both sides of the pitch. To recap, this season so far shows that free kicks from the right are converted more than those from the left. So as promised, I have delved further into the data to explore.

For this analysis I extended my search to cover both direct free kicks scored and not scored, taken between the 10th of June and 3rd of October 2016, which gave me an extra 99 games and 6 goals in all.

Now to help understand left and right footed free kicks in the first instance, I split the pitch down the centre of the goal, to create a distinct left and right “side”. The first noticeable thing (perhaps somewhat expected) is the inverse relationship between pitch side and foot. For free kicks taken from the right side of the pitch, significantly more were scored with the left foot (72%) compared to the right (28%), whereas free kicks from the left side of the pitch were scored significantly more often with the right foot (85%) than the left (15%). Please see the graphic below:


This is further supported by the total attempts on goal, particularly from the right side. From the graphic below, we can see a relatively balanced proportion of left and right footed shots from the right side (44% and 56% respectively), but the conversion rate is greatest for shots with the left foot, as we can see from the figure above.


The natural curved trajectory that this inverse relationship creates may help explain this logic, but to really understand the relationship between left and right footed free kicks and conversion rates, we need to maximise the granularity of our StrataData. So let’s go back to our original pitch zones, which you may be familiar with from my first blog.

I used customised rectangles to find the number of shots that were taken in each zone, as well as the number of goals by both left and right foot. I then calculated left and right foot conversion rates for each zone, to find where on the pitch suits a right or left footed free kick taker. This is shown in the graphic below. In this image, I have subtracted the conversion rates to give the left/right foot difference, with the colour of the percentage value representing which foot had a greater conversion rate. So for instance, in zone F2, left foot conversion rate was 25%, whereas right foot conversion rate was 6%. Therefore, 25 minus 6 gives a 19% advantage for the left foot:


From the above graphic, it is clear that there are more blue than yellow percentage values, which essentially tells us that the left foot conversion rate is better than the right. Starting with zone 2 as a whole we see that in B2, left footed free kick conversion rates over right footed conversion rates is 18%. This follows the logic of the inverse relationship, but moving over to the equivalent left sided area (zone F2), we find the greatest conversion rate is still for left footed players (19% as left footed conversion rate is 25% versus just 6% for right footers).

This pattern follows suit across zone 2, with left footed free kicks converted more than right footed ones. The most prominent exception to this pattern is in zone F3, where once the direct free kick is moved slightly further away from goal, the right footed conversion rate is 9% greater than the left. To highlight the pattern of free kicks taken, scored and converted, I created a GIF, which should serve to highlight the potency of the left footer:

ezgif.com-gif-maker (9).gif

So what have we learnt? It seems that the left footed free kick taker is more lethal than the right, with greater left footed conversion rates spread across zones. Rectangle F3 on the left side of the pitch is the largest exception, as this seems to suit a right footed free kick taker more.

Do you have any ideas why the left foot conversion rate is better? Could it be that the angle for a left footed free kick makes it difficult to set up a wall? Are goalkeepers less used to positioning themselves against a left footed taker? Is there something going on with dominant hands? Or are left footed free kick takers just better? Please let me know your thoughts on Twitter and, once again, keep an eye out for my next post!

Until next time.

Sagar Jilka (@DrSagarJilka)

P.S. For those interested in the rest of the zones, here’s a table of left and right foot conversion rates across all the rectangles of the pitch:


Click here to read the final installment of this post.

Weekend Preview – 14/10/16


English Premier League
Liverpool vs. Manchester United (Monday 8pm)
Undoubtedly the biggest game of the weekend is the one we have to wait the longest to see, with Mourinho’s Man Utd visiting rivals Liverpool on Monday night. Klopp’s men are one of the form sides in the division at present, having taken 13 of the last 15 points available, though their 1-2 win at Swansea was not their most convincing. They are almost at full strength, but if Lallana is absent then he will be missed. His injury in Wales clearly affected the fluidity of Klopp’s attack, with the England man having been integral to their forward play this term.

Mourinho will have been preparing meticulously for this encounter and is boosted by having almost a full squad. Sloppy finishing cost his side dear against Stoke last time out, with a disappointing 1-1 draw largely coming because of Ibrahimovic and Pogba’s first half failings in front of goal. The visitors may play more direct than usual to beat the hosts’ high press, as Mourinho will know his pedestrian side are outmatched in terms of intensity here. Liverpool on the handicap and over 2.5 both look good to us, as we back this one to live up to the hype.

English Premier League
Chelsea vs. Leicester City (Saturday 12.30pm)
Despite the clash between Klopp and Mourinho taking centre stage, this could prove to be the most interesting game of the weekend, with a lot of questions to be answered. Last season’s big under-performers meet last season’s big over-performers, though crucially neither side have been too convincing in this campaign to date. Chelsea sit in seventh with Leicester down in twelfth, with both positions being justified because Conte’s men have shown a bit more than Ranieri’s overall.

Still, a -1 handicap on the hosts looks brash in the circumstances, with the 2.75 goal line also a bit on the punchy side. The market is obviously fearful after Leicester’s collapses against Liverpool and Man Utd, especially as there is no doubt that Chelsea have the firepower to inflict similar damage. The first goal will be paramount and we are going to gamble on the visitors getting it by backing them on the Asian Handicap, while also pushing an under 3 position at current odds. The Champions have burned us a few times already this year, though!

Italian Serie A
Napoli vs. Roma (Saturday 2pm)
This looks like a game that will have big implications for the runners-up spot, even so early in the season. Roma beat Inter in one of our highlighted games two weeks ago, but they have been so poor away from home this season and are hard to trust. If this was Napoli at full strength then the line of -0.5 would seem fair, but it’s tough to know just how much the hosts will miss Milik, who was injured on international duty with Poland.

That makes -0.25 seem more reasonable, but then Napoli have won 19/21 games in front of their own fans and have scored in 39/40. Roma have been giving up too many chances and with so many international players it is unlikely they will have been able to tighten up much during the break. This brings the over 2.75 into play, with an early Napoli goal desired.

German Bundesliga 1
Borussia Dortmund vs. Hertha BSC (Friday 7.30pm)
Third placed Dortmund host second placed Hertha on Friday night, with Tuchel’s side missing three starters and a handful of other squad players. This means that their -1.5 handicap looks big, though they have blown a few teams away already this season. They were unfortunate to lose 2-0 at Leverkusen last time out, with our Analyst Fair Score pitching that as a 1-1, but they might find it tough going against Hertha’s well-versed countering style. The visitors are relatively free of pressure and would be very happy to settle for a draw, given that they are missing a few starters themselves. The brave move is to oppose Dortmund on the handicap, with the really brave move being a combination with the under 3 goals line.

French Ligue 1
Nice vs. Olympique Lyonnais (Friday 7.45pm)
Friday evening brings another big game from the continent, with league leaders Nice welcoming the dangerous Lyon, who have top scorer Lacazette back after a month out. As expected, this game is now being pegged as a battle between Balotelli and Lacazette, and we do tend to agree that goals could be the market to operate in here. The DNB handicap line looks incredibly fair on form and team news, but given both sides are better at the front than the back then 2.75 does seem a bit short on the goals. You can even get 2.5 at decent odds.

Ones to Watch

Australian A-League
Melbourne Victory vs. Melbourne City (Saturday 9.50am)
The two title favourites meet in the first Melbourne Derby of the season, with the market struggling to separate them.

English Championship
Huddersfield Town vs. Sheffield Wednesday (Sunday 12pm)
The surprise leaders host genuine promotion contenders in a derby that’s their first big test at home this season.

German Bundesliga 2
Union Berlin vs. Hannover 96 (Sunday 12.30pm)
Two promotion contenders meet with the hosts sweating over the fitness of their star striker, making Hannover attractive at DNB.

Swedish Allsvenskan
Norrkoping vs. Malmo FF (Sunday 2pm)
Norrkoping’s wheels have fallen off recently, but they could make serious ground in the title race with a win here.

United States MLS
Montreal Impact vs. Toronto (Sunday 8pm)
Both Canadian teams are in questionable form, but Montreal look better placed to make up some ground in the East.