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Styles of Their Own: How Deep Data Differentiates the Best of Europe’s Best


Assessing the Leaders of La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, Premier League and Ligue 1 with STATS Playing Styles, Expected Goals and Saves, and Ball Movement Points

By: Kevin Chroust

The tables will tell you the five leaders of Europe’s top leagues all have goal differences between plus-17 and 19 through six or seven matches, but the brand of dominance with which they’ve arrived there varies. With Champions League fixtures occupying midweek, let’s look into the tendencies of Barcelona, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli in league play using STATS’ advanced metrics.

We’ve talked about playing styles and expected goals and saves plenty. Ball Movement Points less so. BMP is a nifty metric that rewards creativity. It considers ball movement made by an individual player from a start zone to an end zone and assigns value based on past results from massive amounts of league data. These scores accumulate during a match or across a season to indicate the value of a player’s ball distribution. BMP considers every involvement a player has to credit or discredit decisions with the ball. It’s what football minds could always see but never calculate. It goes beyond expected assists by looking at the full chain of passes, weighing the probability of that pass leading to a shot later in the play. Passing points generate expected shot points, so if a player generates one BMP, he has generated passes to lead to or defend one shot. It expresses the level of threat or wastefulness that can be attributed to a player. It’s broken down into categories of offensive and defensive as well as positive and negative (oBMP+, oBMP-, dBMP+, dBMP-) with net values telling the more conclusive story.

Unsurprisingly, a few of those players suit up at Camp Nou, though Europe’s most dangerous creatives so far this season operate elsewhere. Read on for the details.

La Liga – Barcelona

Barcelona’s 2017-18 playing styles through six La Liga matches measured against league averages (0%).

A matter of weeks ago, the departure of Neymar and a 5-1 aggregate loss to Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup sent the Catalans – or at least their supporters – into something of a panic. Take into account they didn’t land Philippe Coutinho and their summer splash Ousmane Dembele will be shelved for at least three months, and on the surface it seems it should be Barca and not Real Madrid seven points back in La Liga. Instead, the Blaugrana rolled Juventus in the Champions League and have a plus-18 La Liga goal difference.

Yes, Messi has nine league goals in six matches. Yes, he’s outscored 14 of the 20 La Liga clubs. Yes, his 22 shots on goal are nearly half of the team’s 45, and his total either matches or betters the team total of seven La Liga clubs. But Barcelona didn’t need him to net in a 3-0 win at Girona over the weekend. The success might have something to do with a relatively healthy Andrés Iniesta and impressive play out of fellow midfielder Ivan Rakitić, who leads La Liga in offensive ball movement points (oBMP) with a 1.10 rating. Messi ranks second (1.05) ahead of Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos (0.98).

Make no mistake that this isn’t the Barcelona midfield of 2009, but they are operating with impressive tempo to complement their typical sustained possession. It’s only six matches, but they’re so far playing faster this year than they did with Neymar. Their fast tempo playing style is up from 154 percent above league average last season to +212 so far this term. In typical Barca fashion, they played directly less than any La Liga club last season (-40 percent). That’s barely changed (-34). Anyone they replace Neymar with won’t match his on-pitch value, but it’s becoming clearer that he wasn’t Barcelona’s engine. We’ll see if that changes with more demanding matches on the horizon, which is the case for all five clubs discussed here.

Premier League – Manchester City

Manchester City’s 2017-18 playing styles through six Premier League matches measured against league averages (0%).

No surprise here. Pep Guardiola assures us that this hasn’t already turned into a two-team race with his Manchester rivals, but that might just be coach speak. It may have been between those two all along, as we wrote before the season started. That argument was based largely on expected goals and saves, and a lot of that is playing out as the numbers implied it might. Take note of Ederson, who’s made more saves than expected. His plus-1.5 expected save differential – calculated by subtracting expected saves from actual saves – ranks just ahead of Gianluigi Buffon.

Assess City’s playing styles through six matches, and you’ll see plenty of evidence of the kind of big-money dominance they’re going to be capable of in Guardiola’s second season. Their offensiveness has increased from 45 percent above league average to +81, while maintenance – possession in one’s own half – has slightly decreased (+42 percent to +39). Attacking possession styles of build up (+69 to +102), sustained threat (+48 to +77) and fast tempo (+64 to +172) have all jumped along with crossing (+18 to +50). It’s a dangerous team that’s made up of dangerous individuals.

The same case can be made using ball movement points, but the most noteworthy players in that category aren’t Man City newcomers. Kevin De Bruyne might not be scoring, but his oBMP (2.03) is considerably higher than any player in the top-five European leagues with teammate and fellow playmaker David Silva (1.53) ranking second. The only other duo anywhere near that level isn’t the previously mentioned Barca duo, though one of the players famously moved from Catalonia this summer.

Ligue 1 – Paris Saint-Germain

Paris Saint-Germain’s 2017-18 playing styles through seven Ligue 1 matches measured against league averages (0%).

Since he’s already come up in the sections above covering two teams he doesn’t play for, let’s get to Neymar. Heads would soon roll if any other club were listed here after the summer PSG had. Any Neymar-Edinson Cavani penalty rift – perceived or otherwise – isn’t impacting their dominance. But the oBMP duo teased above wasn’t them. It’s Thiago Motta (fifth: 1.35) and Neymar (seventh: 1.27) among the leaders of Europe’s top-five leagues. Kylian Mbappe is settling in and staying out of the goal-scoring diva antics, but let’s focus on playing style because Paris have, essentially overnight, started challenging Barcelona as Europe’s most ball-dominant attacking club.

Their build up (+86 percent in 2016-17 up to +165), sustained threat (+48 to +111) and fast tempo (+115 to +238) have all spiked this season, while their direct play (-46 to -62) has fallen off even more. The same goes for maintenance, which has fallen from +89 of the average to +59. That all points toward that front three and the accompanying midfield having the ball in attacking circumstances. They’re making dangerous decisions when they do: Motta, Neymar, Adrien Rabiot (1.15) and Marco Verratti (1.05) make up four of Ligue 1’s top six in oBMP.

This version of PSG dropped points for the first time over the weekend with a goalless draw at Montpellier. Neymar, of course, didn’t play. Assuming he’s quickly back and healthy for the months to come, it’s hard to imagine any scenario other than this dominant of a Paris side taking back the title from depleted holders Monaco.

Onto another potential changing of the guard.

Bundesliga – Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund’s 2017-18 playing styles through six Bundesliga matches measured against league averages (0%).

It’d be easy here to argue that Bayern Munich are leaving the door open for Dortmund to capture their first title since 2011-12, but that might be taking due credit away from the challengers. Of the five clubs discussed here, Roman Burki has provided the most valuable goalkeeping, ranking 12th among the top-five European league keepers in expected save differential at +2.8 between Inter Milan’s Samir Handanović (+2.8) and Manchester United’s David De Gea (+2.5).

Surprisingly, Sokratis Papastathopoulos’ 1.29 oBMP is the highest any defender in the top-five leagues and leads Bundesliga players of all positions. They’ve also had some efficient finishing. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s +2.1 expected goal differential is third in the Bundesliga, while Maximilian Philipp’s +1.8 is fifth. It’s of course a slippery slope to lean on such individual efficiencies, but these cases aren’t anomalies. PEA posted a Bundesliga-best +6.1 xGD last season, while Philipp’s nine goals with Freiburg came in a relatively impressive +2.6 above his expected mark of 6.4.

In terms of playing style, Dortmund have gone away from the high press some (down from +26 percent last season to +7), while increasing significantly in build up (+58 to +125) and fast tempo (+67 to +174). Their counter attacking has also increased from +19 to +41, which puts their playing styles web almost eerily in line with this week’s Champions League opponents Real Madrid.

Give Dortmund credit for their start, but another dark-horse club has gathered even more hype across Europe.

Serie A – Napoli

Napoli’s 2017-18 playing styles through six Serie A matches measured against league averages (0%).

We’ve saved the most intriguing – and possibly most exciting relative to their league – for last. Napoli may be the outliers on this list because they haven’t won a title since a guy named Maradona was around 1989-90 and Juventus have won the Serie A every season dating to 2011-12. And unlike other clubs on this list, they haven’t compromised their style or spent untold millions to jump in front of Juve on goal difference through six matches. That comes as a relief to plenty of the football world that sees manager Maurizio Sarri as one of the key names in pushing the modern game forward. As was pointed out in a recent ESPN FC piece, Fabio Capello boasted Sarri as an innovator on the level of 1970s Ajax, 1980s AC Milan and 2000s Barcelona. Pep Guardiola had a hand in the last of those and called Napoli one of the three best clubs in Europe back in August when Man City drew them in the Champions League group stage.

Napoli are highlighted by a rather un-Italian attack that’s scored more league goals than any club in Europe’s top-five leagues, including that explosive PSG side that’s played an additional match. How, specifically, are they doing it with a player payroll that ranks fifth in Serie A? Pace and press are key parts. In fact, Napoli might play as fast as any club on the planet. They don’t sustain threat like other clubs on this list (+13 percent of Serie A average last season and +10 this season), but their fast tempo (+265 up from +231) and high press (+78 up from +44) are increasing from already head-turning numbers last season.

On an individual level, Sarri is well aware of Lorenzo Insigne’s value, and that’s supported by a 1.19 oBMP that trails only Juve’s Miralem Pjanić in Serie A. What’s scary – or enthralling – is Napoli have only recently found the No. 9 to head this monster up. Dries Mertens has six goals with a +2.3 xGD, and that’s not a matter of the Belgian finding a streak of luck to start the campaign. He scored 28 goals in 35 matches last season with Serie A’s second best xGD of +6.9. It has, with little doubt, something to do with the system.