Friday, October 17, 2014

Adopt a Team: Arsenal stats

Even though we're still just seven weeks into the new season, we've already observed a number of interesting and somewhat strange happenings at the Emirates:
  • in terms of underlying data, the defense has been more impressive than the usually explosive attack
  • in terms of actual results though, the defense has struggled with just a single clean sheet to date
  • Wenger did bring in a relatively big name forward - who's looked great so far - yet there still seems to be a feeling that they need more - probably in part due to the success of Diego Costa on the other side of London
  • the team has quietly assembled the best depth they've enjoyed in recent memory yet they've suffered through so many injuries that the average bench has tended to be more Campbell and Coquelin than Giroud and Cazorla
  • Arsenal out shot Chelsea 10 to five and enjoyed more possesion at Stamford Bridge last time out, yet lost the game (their first of the season) and now find themselves nine points behind the league leaders after just seven games

The below chart attempts to quickly summarise the individual games played to date, using SiB +/- as a proxy for success (or failure).1

The good news is that, at least in terms of giving up shots inside the box, Arsenal's defense have performed very well this year with above average performances in every game except one (at Villa in GW5). Indeed, through seven gameweeks, their dSiB% rate of -33% leads the league, as does their suppression of chances created (-36% dCC%). As we saw in the lineup review, this success has come despite not being able to field their first choice back five once this season. With all but Debuchy now healthy (and Chambers filling in admirably for the Frenchman), it's not impossible that much of this defensive success continues and that would surely give rise to increased fantasy returns in the future. Perhaps their goals per shot on target rate will regress a touch - although at 38% it isn't vastly higher than the surprisingly high league rate of 36%. They will almost certainly benefit from a softer fixture list which sees them face Sunderland, Hull and Burnley in the next three gameweeks and no real marguee opponents until a GW17 trip to Liverpool.2

Player targets: Defense
As suggested in the lineup post, defensively it seems Chambers is the obvious play here, based on nothing more than his bargain price tag (he is unfortunately suspended for this week after picking up an incredible five yellow cards in six starts). Before we commit to that though, let's take a quick look at the attacking potential of the Arsenal players to date:

The chart shows absolute threat rather than that on a per game basis, so playing time needs to be kept in mind, but in short, no one here is really standing out and in fact, it's the bargain Chambers who's offered the best threat to date, thanks to his solid number of created chances.

Player targets: midfield and forwards
Despite professing an admiration for Arsenal and especially the work of Wenger, I haven't had the chance to see too many of their games this season so as I began this deeper dive into their season to date, I had some expectations that Ramsey would be a player I might need to highlight as not having the supporting stats to support his production. It's not that he isn't a good player, of course, but that centrally deployed role for a midfielder who doesn't take set pieces or penalties can sometimes lead to a lot of touches of the ball but ultimately not a great deal of production. That's not the case for Ramsey though, who has offered the best goal scoring threat in this team - by a distance - while giving as good as anyone in terms of generating assists. Sanchez and Ozil obviously get into those dangerous wide positions more often, racking up 28 and 27 crosses to date to Ramsey's nine, but considering the Welshman has matched them in terms of created chances suggests his potential may even be higher with his passes being more likely to be converted. With Ozil out for several months and Sanchez coming in at a 1.5m premium, Ramsey looks like a perfect candidate to buy back into when he's healthy, especially now that his injury has deflated his once sky high ownership.

Though he's further down the threat ratings to date, the reviews of Welbeck have been complimentary so far and at least per the highlights he seems to have hit the ground running. 13 shots, 10 SiB and five SoT is a reasonable return for four starts and a couple of brief cameos, making Welbeck and intriguing option at just 7.3m. He isn't likely to compete with the Aguero or Diego Costa class of forward, but in his price range he just needs beat out the likes of Pelle, Ulloa, Cisse and Sakho in order to be a relevant fantasy starter. Let's take a look at where he ranks compared to some of his peers to date:

This time we've gone with per game data to allow for better comparability and we see that Welbeck is fairly well placed among both his comparably priced peers and is at least competitive among the more expensive options (scroll the price slider to the right to see Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero et al). Starting this week with Hull, Arsenal have a nice run of games, making Welbeck an intriguing option, although a slight ankle injury makes him something of a risk for this week. With Giroud sidelined, he seems to offer an appealing combination of job security, excellent supporting cast and high upside, which for 7.3m is a package hard to ignore.

In summary, this Arsenal side hasn't been vintage to date and their shot production is only upper-mid table rather than elite. However, they are creating chances and have looked relatively sharp with Welbeck in the side and there's still reason to think there's more to come. Based on the stats to date, Chambers, Ramsey and Welbeck jump out as the best options at each position but there are plenty of other options to consider, none more so than Sanchez who has looked very good in spells so far this season. I look forward to matching some of the stats with the actual on field performance tomorrow.

1. As a quick reminder, SiB +/- quantifies the percentage of shots inside the box generated or surrendered by a team above or below the opponents' average. So if Chelsea normally concede six SiB and Arsenal manage eight against them, their aSiB +/- would be 33%, representing a 33% premium over the average. Defensively, the idea is the same but a minus number is the sign of a good team as they suppress shot totals compared to the average result.
2. I am half kidding about the exclusion of Man Utd in GW12 there. There's a perception that the team is terrible defensively but can score at will if they want but with an aSiB +/- of -23% on the road, I'll need to see more before I buy into that particular narrative

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Adopt a Team: Hull Lineup

The second team we're going to adopt this week are Arsenal's opponents - Hull - who have been enjoying a reasonable start to the new campaign, although as we'll get to later in the week, their underlying data suggests trouble might be brewing if they don't start to generate more chances for their talented front pair.

Hull have switched between a 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 base formation thus far this year, making their lineup a little harder to forecast on a weekly basis. We don't really have enough of a sample of draw any concrete conclusions about the team scoring/conceding more/less goals when in either formation so I'm not going to focus too much attention there in this post. McGregor, Davies, Dawson, Robertson and Elmohamady all appear to be close to automatic choices here with Chester the first man in if the back three is favoured. Elmohamady is classified as a midfielder in the game so we'll touch on him in a second, leaving three options to consider. Davies and particularly Dawson come with the stronger reputations, while Bruce and Chester have the higher ownership numbers,1 yet it's Robertson who looks like the most interesting option here. We will get to individual data in the next post, suffice to say that Robertson leads his defensive teammates in created chances by a distance and offers as good a goal threat as any of them. Add in his lower price tag and he becomes the clear player to target here. Between the posts this is still very much McGregor's job, but with him sidelined until towards the end of Novemeber, Harper makes a reasonable rotation option for those looking to save a few pounds.

Whatever the formation, Steve Bruce had tended to deploy the Huddlestone and Livermore combination in the middle of the pitch, yet while that decision may be wise in terms of securing Hull's Premier League status, the pair do little to excite fantasy managers. In one sense, Huddlestone has shown flashes of excitement with 13 shots ranking up among some of the league's more promising midfield talents yet with just one of those coming from within the box, it's tough to forecast anything more than the two goals he chipped in with last time season.

The remaining positions - those which are most important to fantasy managers - are the trickiest to forecast and it's that uncertainty which may temper any enthusiasm surrounding this talented group. Whether in an advanced role or playing alongside Huddlestone and Livermore, Diame seems to have the inside track on one of the remaining midfield spots and he currently leads Hull midfielders in shots inside the box and penalty box touches. However, it's reasonable to assume that Ben Arfa has been brought to the KC Stadium to contribute in the first team sooner rather than later, which puts both these players into the risky category. To date Bruce seems to favour deploying both Jelavic and Hernandez, though it wouldn't be too surprising to see him roll with Ben Arfa, Diame or Ince behind a lone forward in away games, as was the case before Hernanez arrived. All this essentially means we have five players to fit into three spots.2 His pair goals in just four games suggests that Hernandez is the automatic choice here but his nine total shots (five SiB) are not spectacular and a local media review suggests there is still room for improvement in his overall game. He's a player who I will be watching closely at the weekend given his reasonable price tag and upside but I couldn't suggest investing in him just yet until we see how Ben Arfa is going to impact this team.

There is without doubt talent in this team yet with unremarkable team totals - despite playing a softer schedule to date - and some uncertainty around which of the attacking will play and how they will be deployed it's hard to immediately focus on any one player to monitor. Hernandez, Ben Arfa and Jelavic all carry solid price tags though and may yet offer some value in the future. At the back, it's the promising Robertson who stands out and he'll be another key focus for the weekend as he's tested against some of the league's finest. Next up is a focus on individual and team stats to date to potentially highlight some areas to capitalise on or avoid.
1. I was never a fan of essentially punting a spot on your bench just to save, at best, 0.5m so would not condone the 11% ownership of Bruce here. We all get stuck with dead weight from time to time as we concentrate transfers on other parts of our teams but Bruce is buried on this depth chart and will contribute essentially nothing for his price tag.
2. I'm assuming that Elmohamady will be preferred either as a wing back or as a more traditional winger in a four man midfield given that he offers the only natural width in this midfield pack.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Adopt a Team: Arsenal Lineup

The first team we're "adopting" this week is Arsenal, and so we'll start with the basics and look at who's played so far and who's likely to keep playing in the future. At the back there isn't too much to talk about with a fairly clear first choice back four of Gibbs, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Debuchy with Chambers likely providing the first bench option in both the middle and on the right with Monreal serving as Gibbs' understudy. Injuries have prevented that lineup from playing together all season, and that trend will continue with Debuchy (three months, ankle) sidelined for a sustained period. That will allow Chambers to continue his impressive start at the Emirates (after his GW8 suspension) and so at 4.6m he would be the clear short-medium term option to use here.

Despite the constant criticism of not spending enough money or being able to compete with the league's big spenders, Wenger has assembled a deep and talented midfield unit; one that is the core strength of this side (at least in terms of the attacking options). The easier portion to forecast is the piece that is of less interest from a fantasy perspective, with Flamini, Wilshere and Arteta essentially competing for two spots in the middle of the park.1 With Arteta currently sidelined (three weeks, calf), those two spots look settled, though their potential value is less clear and something we can touch on in the upcoming player stat review.

Despite the depth, the attacking trio was also shaping up to be relatively predictable with Ozil, Ramsey and Sanchez getting the lion's share of starts to date. Ozil (three months, knee) and Ramsey's (three weeks, hamstring) injuries throw that group into question with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla and Rosicky currently competing for time while Walcott and Gnabry will provide further options in a matter of weeks, or even days. One would expect Walcott to be given every opportunity to win a healthy share of playing time once he's fit, though unlike in previous years, he's unlikely to earn too many minutes in that lone forward role given the arrival of Welbeck. Ramsey looks close enough to a return that his replacement (probably Cazorla) shouldn't really be relied upon, but Ozil is out long enough to be ignored for now, and that should open the window for a returning Walcott to offer a differential option. That said, for 0.2m less, Ramsey is now held by a more manageable proportion of managers (18%) and there's no real reason to think his excellent start to the year wasn't legitimate and so he should remain a key option to consider.2

Up front, the intrigue about how Welbeck and Giroud can fit together is a moot point with the Frenchman sidelined until the new year with an ankle injury. Welbeck looked very promising in his first three games (the team understandably struggled at Chelsea) and will be well placed to excel if he makes that role his own. Perhaps Walcott, Podolski or Campbell vulture minutes here and there but from what we've seen and based on the transfer fee paid, Wenger clearly thinks Welbeck can lead the line for his team on a weekly basis and thus he becomes extremely intriguing for just 7.3m.

Despite Wenger assembling one of the best squads during his tenure at Arsenal, and indeed one of the best around the league, there remains plenty of reliable options here, aided of course by key injuries to Ozil, Giroud and Debuchy. In the next post we'll dig a bit deeper into exactly how players have contributed so far, and try and identify a couple of targets to focus on for the coming weeks.

1. Ramsey can of course play this role too, as he did in GW5, but it looks like his preferred role is behind the front man and he should generally be free to push forward rather than provide defensive support
2. We'll look at a comparison between him and Sanchez in the player stat post to see which player should be targetted going forward for the coming weeks and months

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Adopt a team

With a busy schedule of late, I didn't see much action last weekend and then with the international break in play I've been struggling for inspiration. Like all resourceful bloggers I have stolen settled on an idea for the next few weeks of action. Taking a page from my favourite NFL podcast (Grantland), I am going to "adopt" two teams each week and focus coverage on them in the lead up to their games (ideally against each other which allows a more comprehensive review after the game). The idea being that trying to cover 20 teams on your own is (a) difficult and (b) leads to average coverage of all teams rather than great coverage of some. I would suggest this idea works best in all media, though of course a lot of local news is terrible, but that tends to be because it panders to ridiculous local interests and biases rather than because it's a flawed principle.

The schedule for each team will run roughly from Tuesday - Tuesday and try to feature (as much as possible), a review of the season to date, player highlights, future forecasts and then a review of their game with a light touch on their tactics.1

At least for the first few weeks, I have tried to pick two teams who are facing each other, with the below being the initial schedule.2 I will either give this week's teams a bit more attention or look at a more general topic in the coming days if anything jumps out as a I catch up on the data:

Gameweek 8 - Arsenal and Hull
Gameweek 9 - Burnley and Everton
Gameweek 10 - Newcastle and Liverpool
Gameweek 11 - QPR and Man City
Gameweek 12 - Chelsea and West Brom
Gameweek 13/14 - Man Utd and Stoke

1. I am far from a tactical expert, and so while that doesn't seem to stop many throwing around their "trequartistas", "registas" and other sexy, international names for fairly mundane concepts, I will try and keep things in my wheel house

2. The teams have been selected on which games I have televised here in Canada

Friday, September 26, 2014

A brief look at team totals

While I generally go to great lengths to emphasise the need to avoid placing too much weight on small samples and recent results, I also recognise that absolute certainty is not something we have time to wait for so with five weeks in the books it's time to start delving into the numbers, starting here with a first look at some of the team trends.

We're focusing on teams first as their data tends to stabilise much quicker than for an individual player1 and thus becomes more reliable at an early stage in the season. To underline this point, let's look at some like-for-like data from last season.

We've plotted each team's SiB +/-2 through the first five gameweeks of last season against their eventual season total to see how well these two metrics correlate. The stronger this correlation, the higher our confidence that early season results tell us a lot about the way the rest of the season might play out:

It isn't perfect, of course, but it's a stronger correlation than I expected and really suggests that team data through five weeks should hold some weight. Liverpool and City stand out as the biggest exceptions, turning unremarkable starts into memorable attacking seasons, and thus offer a word of caution about overreacting to what we are going to discuss below, but suffice to say, five games is more important than you might think.3 Here's how the teams lineup so far:
What's more surprising? That Man Utd are second to last on the attacking +/- rank or that you aren't particularly surprised to see them there? In one sense, averaging 6.8 SiB per game isn't the end of the world but when you consider the opponents they've faced - including all three promoted sides - it becomes clear just how badly this team have struggled to create chances and they've been somewhat fortunate to score the goals they have. They'll likely climb these rankings in the coming weeks given the amount of talent on offer but the numbers suggest that the "free scoring" narrative being suggested by some may not really materialise and we might see this team struggle even further to pickup results. Di Maria, Rooney, Mata and even Herrara have all proven to be useful fantasy assets so far, yet despite the notion that the team is 'underachieiving' this group are actually overachieving by a distance, with the midfield trio scoring six goals on just seven shots on target. Rooney's numbers support his success a little more, but questions have been raised about his overall game and with constant speculation of him playing a deeper role, or even dropping to the bench, he too looks like a risky investment. There's so much talent here that we'd still expect someone to enjoy a positive fantasy season but selecting anyone from this team is essentially a bet against the numbers and that's not something I'm here to encourage.4

Brendan Rodgers has suggested that Liverpool are "broken", and while it isn't entirely clear in what way he means, his concern seems premature if we purely look at their shot generation. Despite playing what looks on paper to be a tough schedule, they've outshot the league average in every game other than this past week at West Ham, with the only real drop off from last year being the drop in shot conversion. Though losing a player like Suarez, and for the past two weeks Sturridge, make a drop in conversion a likelihood, we might expect them to start hitting the target a bit more going forward as well as potentially benefiting from some improvement in the G/SoT department.5 The aforementioned BBC article helpfully points out that Balotelli hasn't scored Premier League goal since November 2012, since when he's made exactly four league starts. Fabregas hasn't scored since 2010! Panic! Sell! Overreact! No, Balotelli isn't Suarez but he's been fine so far in the shot department and you don't need to worry about off field issues as you're not paying his wages. With a very nice run of five fixtures to come, this is a team to target as other managers abandon ship.

Southampton made perhaps the most waves in the offseason; rarely in a good way. We all know the talent this team lost during the summer but while players were brought in to fill the gaps (particularly on the attacking side of the pitch), they weren't heralded stars and thus few gave the Saints much chance to succeed again this time around. Three wins and a draw from the first five is one thing but it's the fact that the underlying stats are equally impressive which really stands out. A 20% attacking SiB +/- and a -37% on the defensive side6 both put Southampton among the top three, right up with the elite teams we expect to see up there. Pelle has posted remarkable shot totals, leading the league in both total shots and SiB, and he's ably supported by fellow newbie Tadic and breakout candidate Ward Prowse7 who have each shown potential to contribute very healthy assist and goal totals. The defense hasn't missed a beat either and with very solid games on deck, this is another team to target as other managers are hesitant to believe in Koeman's side.

Tottenham have not made an impressive start to the season all around but it's their defense which is really interesting. I'm not sure many had extremely high hopes for this unit but they were a strong side last season and Eric Dier's pair of early goals caused thousands of managers to flock to him, pushing his ownership up to 27%. The goals are a great bonus but clean sheets should still be driving your targets for defenders in the 5.5m-6.0m range and Tottenham just don't look like delivering in that area in their current incarnation. They're giving up chances all over the field and conceding a tonne of chances inside the box, with worryingly bad performances against West Ham8 and Liverpool. Thing were better in the last two games but with trips to Arsenal and City in the next three gameweeks it's time to cash in on that Dier profit.

In the next couple of weeks I plan to do a quick take on all 20 teams to look at their lineup, ownership and potential differentiators, all while leaning on the new team dashboards. If there's any feedback on what other metrics you'd like to see on their please let me know @plfantasy. Thanks for sticking with the blog during this period of radio silence and I hope I can repay everyone's faith with some improved analysis and graphics in the coming weeks.

1. A two shot variance for a team that averages 10 per game will obviously cause less noise than that same two shot variance for a player who might only average 2.5 per appearance

2. +/- metrics show the amount of shots above/below the average number the league has managed against that team. So if Arsenal have conceded 6 SiB a game and Chelsea come into town and manage 8, they would register an aSiB +/- of 33% for that game

3. It's worth noting that SiB +/- is opponent adjusted so strength of schedule will be less of an issue here than if we simply looked at goals scored of even shots registered

4. That's not to say I'd suggest not owning Di Maria, Falcao or van Persie; just be mindful that you're buying into a team who simply cannot be assumed to reach their historic heights just because of the crest on the front of their shirts

5. How you feel about the likelihood of an improvement in G/SoT depends on your view on how much of that lies with the skill of the attacking player and how much is out of their hands, once they've hit the target

6. Remember that a minus number is a good thing for defenses, showing that they conceded 37% less than the league average

7. Arsenal "Ward Prowse" 2015/16 shirts will be on sale shortly

8. One of the more unlikely clean sheets in recent seasons with 18 shots (12 SiB) conceded without the Hammers breaching the Spurs goal