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Artificial Intelligence, Fan Engagement, Team Performance

The Talent Factory: Using AI to Identify Emerging Talent

 

Who will be the next Lewandowski? Which centre-backs are the most adept at turning defence into attack? Advances in technology are helping teams identify the players who possess the key traits required to slot into key roles. In the first of a three-part series, Stats Perform’s AI Innovation Manager and all-round talent spotter Tom Reynolds starts putting together his own personal eleven of leading prospects, with the support of AI-derived insights.

 

By: Tom Reynolds

The date is Tuesday 20th October, and 17-year-old Eduardo Camavinga steps onto the pitch to make his first ever appearance in the Champions League at home against Krasnodar.

The date is Wednesday 21st October, and 17-year-old Eduardo Camavinga steps into a car to take a driving lesson.

These two events put into context just how young some of the world’s leading prospects are, delivering performances on the pitch that most people of the same age can only replicate on video games.

Whilst the likes of Camavinga, Ansu Fati and Jude Bellingham are quite rightfully grabbing international headlines for their exploits at such a young age, they are not the only young players making waves across the top five leagues, as the players featured in our current U21 stars to watch series will attest to.

But in addition to these young starlets, there are another crop of emerging players who have quietly established themselves to become integral to their clubs and thanks to advances in AI technology, we can now highlight similarities in their on-field exploits with other leading performers in their roles.

Why do I say roles instead of positions? Well, with Europe’s leading clubs increasingly adopting their own distinctive playing styles, identifying the on-field traits of each player carry just as much weight as their numbers for recruitment analysts. A player ideal to the style of a possession-orientated side, like Dortmund, may not be right for a more direct team, such as Getafe.

Would it be fair to directly compare Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s abilities in advanced areas to those of Trent Alexander-Arnold, given that they are clearly fulfilling very different roles for their respective teams? On paper both are labelled as right backs, but let’s be honest, that label is about as dated as one of Jorge Campos’ goalkeeper kits from the 1990s. Different types of full back are clearly better suited to certain types of game model, there is no doubt.

This is why in my role as AI Innovation Manager at Stats Perform, I have been part of our extraordinary team that has devised a new way of analysing and comparing players called Role Discovery, which does away with these old labels and instead uses data to assign a specific role to an outfield player, based on their actual on-field characteristics. More details of how these roles have been created and assigned can be found here.

In this Talent Factory series, I am going to apply Role Discovery to assemble my own personal starting eleven of players, all aged 23 and under, who are not only excelling in their prescribed roles, but who profile similarly to other stand-out players in the same role based on their performance outputs for their clubs.

So, let’s take this AI-led approach and start assembling the team, starting with the goalkeeper and back four.

Assembling The Back Line

My team is going to feature a mix of emerging players in the top five leagues as well as starlets from further afield, but I’ve made a conscious decision not to include any global superstars, so unfortunately both Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland miss out. However, the good news is if you’d like to read more about them, you can click on their names to read earlier pieces about them on The Analyst.

The team I have chosen will adopt a 4-3-3 shape and to kick things off I have looked to La Liga to make the first selection – the goalkeeper.

Goalkeeper: Unai Simón (23) – Athletic Bilbao

There is currently an abundance of young goalkeepers around the world, and a lot are being trusted between the sticks. It is easy to forget that Gianluigi Donnarumma is still only 21, despite making over 250 club appearances, leaving the highly rated 20-year-old Alessandro Plizzari with limited first team opportunities.

I have chosen Unai Simón of Athletic Bilbao as my keeper. Whilst I respect Bilbao for continuing with their Basque-only policy well into the 21st Century, that isn’t the reason why he has made the cut.

I will grant you that the 23-year-old may not be most obscure of choices, but it is important to remember that Simón only began to appear frequently last season and there is no denying that based on his performances, he has thoroughly deserved to become Gaizka Garitano’s first choice.

Let’s have a look at what he brings to the Basque side.

Shot Stopping

In the 34 matches Simón played last season, he made 82 saves. If we look at our Goals Prevented model, which combines the xGOT he faced (placement of the shots he faced in the goalmouth) with the actual number of goals he conceded, he managed to prevent Bilbao from conceding more than eight goals, highlighting his positioning and ability to cover the full frame of the goal.

Distribution

Since the introduction of the new goal kick rule, Simón’s tendencies from restarts haven’t changed as he is still opting to go long, with 64% of his kicks exceeding 32 metres. As can be seen from the scatter map below, all of his goal kicks from this season have ended outside of his penalty area and he typically aims to the right-hand side of the pitch, targeting Raúl García just inside the opponent’s half.

Our next graphic displays the end location of all goal kicks taken by keepers in the Spanish top-flight this season, ordered by those who have taken the most kicks which have ended inside their own box. The average number of goal kicks taken so far this season has been 38 and the majority of custodians are still looking to clear their lines, with only two out of 25 La Liga goalkeepers going long from fewer than 10 restarts.

Using the Stats Perform Playing Styles model, we can also establish that Simón has made the second highest contribution in the Bilbao squad to starting counterattacks, with 16% of his possession involvements being a transition with his feet.

Defence, Left Hand Side: Harry Pickering (21) – Crewe Alexandra

Harry Pickering is a name that may not be familiar to most, but after graduating through Crewe Alexandra’s academy last season (the same academy that helped shape Dean Ashton into the West Ham legend that he is today), the 21-year-old played a huge role in helping them win promotion from League Two.

Crewe’s #3 has a distinct running style and is the epitome of a modern-day full back, as he is very attack minded and comfortable in possession.

Based on the Role Discovery model, we would categorise him as a Wide Active Playmaker which means:

  • He is heavily involved across all thirds of the pitch, and often takes up positions in the left half space. His Playing Styles contribution is high in the Build-Up and Sustained Threat phases.
  • He has high distribution, and these passes are played into all areas, often looking to penetrate the penalty area.
  • His risk/reward approach to passing suggests that he attempts harder passes – this is backed up by his five cross attempts per 90 and his penetration of the opponent’s penalty area (7.5 times per 90).
  • According to Playing Styles, Pickering is involved in high pressing and this leads to a lot of regains for Crewe.

With Crewe averaging 53% possession (ranking them 7th in League One) Pickering has more opportunity to be involved in the game, particularly given that Crewe like to build up via their full backs: both he and Perry Ng average a massive 166 touches per 90.

What makes him stand out for me is the care that he takes when passing on possession to others. He makes sure each pass is given the right weight and he carefully selects the angle, allowing his team mates to take the ball without breaking stride. He will add the much-needed creativity and width to my eleven.

Speaking of creativity, this season he has outputs matching some of the best left backs around Europe, creating 2.23 chances per 90, which is a 25% contribution of all chances created by Crewe so far this season.

Pickering is not just a provider either – League One defenders take note – do not take down a Crewe player within 25 yards of your goal, as this left-footer has the ability to punish you for it. He has already equalled his goal tally from last season (3), with two of them coming from dead ball situations. He clearly knows a thing or two about getting the ball up and over a wall into the back of the net.

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Wide Active Playmaker: Ben Chilwell (Chelsea) and Mohamed Fares (Lazio)

Defence, Central (L): Maxence Lacroix (20) – VfL Wolfsburg

After seeing his performances in Ligue 2 being recognised by VfL Wolfsburg this summer, who signed him on a four-year deal, I was initially reluctant to include Maxence Lacroix in my team, but given how well he has managed the transition from second tier football in France to the German top-flight, I cannot leave him out. On a more personal level, having him in my team means I have fielded a player who could also pass as a doppelgänger for Sébastien Haller (I guess you will have worked out who I follow on a Saturday afternoon by now).

Lacroix’s role is that of a Defensive Progressor, which reflects his ability to progress the ball forward as part of his wider skillset. When we apply the Possession Value outputs from his attempted passes, we know that he has the ability to play the ball into the attacking half, and given that according to the Playing Styles framework he is heavily involved in direct play, we can attain a better understanding of the context behind his passing risk/reward profile, which indicates that he attempts a high volume of passes which have a medium or hard pass probability.

Defensively, Wolfsburg have conceded the fewest goals in the Bundesliga so far this season (5 – tied with RB Leipzig) and although we cannot put that down entirely to a single defensive pairing’s performance, John Anthony Brooks and Maxence Lacroix have played a big role, as highlighted below.

Lacroix ranks ninth for Defensive Contribution in the Bundesliga this season amongst all players, which is measured by combining all interceptions, tackles made, clearances, blocked shots and aerials occurring in the defensive half and then comparing a player’s total share of these events with their teammates whilst they are on the pitch. If we remove players over the age of 23, only Amos Pieper (22 – Arminia Bielefeld) and Sebastiaan Bornaux (21 – FC Koln), rank higher than Lacroix.

Lacroix is not the only Maxence making a name for himself across the big-five, with Caqueret also excelling for Lyon in Ligue 1, so it will be interesting to see whether either are able to break into the full national team over the coming years, given we know that France are absolutely stacked with talent.

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Defensive Progressor: Duje Caleta-Car (Marseille) and Ezri Konsa (Aston Villa)

Defence, Central (R): Perr Schuurs (21) – Ajax

Ajaxs’ Perr Schuurs completes my centre back pairing, which will come as no surprise to those who know me. Back in the day, when I started out as an Opta analyst, I was tasked with analysing both the first team and Jong Ajax, which was the start of an appreciation of their style which continues to this day. Given their academy’s production line, they really should have considered claiming The Talent Factory name for themselves, instead of allowing me the opportunity to use it.

Schuurs, who has only just turned 21, was a player who stood out and impressed me when playing for Jong Ajax. Back then he lined up alongside Sven Botman, who was recently acquired by Luís Campos and his great recruitment team at Lille to replace Arsenal-bound Gabriel Magalhães.

The 6’3 Dutchman does everything that you’d expect from a central defender who learnt his trade at Ajax. He is comfortable in tight areas, has the ability to step into midfield and carry the ball forward and he can break lines with his passes. With his increased first team involvement, he has been prone to the odd mistake, such as getting caught out of position at times and being beaten 1v1 when being caught flat footed, but who doesn’t make errors, particularly early on in their development? What makes him stand out from the others is that he does the good things consistently well.

Like Lacroix, Schuurs is another defender who is categorised as a Defensive Progressor. He attempts 17 passes per 90 within the opponent’s half, which you could infer as being a result of Ajax’s complete dominance of the ball, allowing him to get high up the pitch frequently, but what this does allow me to do is demonstrate that when given the opportunity, Perr is able to complete penetrative passes.

Here is one such example:

In this game from matchday eight versus Utrecht, Schuurs receives a pass from Ryan Gravenberch. As he is travelling to receive the ball, he has a quick look up to assess his available passing options.

In a split-second, Schuurs has assessed that Antony is a potential passing option and decides to play a pass splitting their left centre back and the left back, which is nicely weighted and played at the perfect angle for Antony to run directly onto, creating a dangerous scoring situation for Ajax.

Spoiler alert…. this play resulted in Ajax recording a shot on goal, which was blocked.

There is no doubt that Perr Schuurs is primed for success and I think we will be hearing a lot more about him as the season progresses.

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Defensive Progressor: Mattias Ginter (BMG) and Zinho Vanheusden (Standard Liège)

Defence, Right Hand Side: Takehiro Tomiyasu (22) – Bologna

At right back is Takehiro Tomiyasu, who has had an excellent time since arriving at Bologna from Belgian side Sint-Truiden.

The 22-year-old Japanese international is the definition of versatile and can be deployed anywhere across the defence, having been regularly switched between right back and centre back. Here is his touchmap since arriving in Italy last year:

Taking only Tomiyasu’s appearances at right back into account, he is assigned the role of a Wide Safe Progressor. The players clustered into this role often take up positions in wide areas, often in the defending and middle thirds, with a tendency to play low risk, safe passes.  A Wide Safe Progressor also contributes to regaining possession high in their opponent’s half.

As highlighted by the characteristics of his role, one of Tomiyasu’s main strengths is he possesses the ability to anticipate where his opponent is going to play their pass. After reading where the ball is potentially going to go, he has the athletic ability to be able to step in front of the man he is marking to intercept the ball and recover possession for his team, before looking to be positive and play forward.

The scatter chart above allows us to highlight the performance of Tomiyasu so far this season. If we possession adjust ball interceptions in Serie A to account for players on high possession teams who have less opportunity to make a defensive action, and then compare these outputs with each player’s progressive passes per 90, which are categorised as any completed pass that starts in their own half and ends in the attacking half, then we can see how the Japanese international offers a dual threat.

The future of Takehiro Tomiyasu is bright, the question is how long will it be before his performances get noticed by a growing number of admirers, both in Italy and beyond?

Role Discovery Player Comparison, Wide Safe Progressor: Hans Hateboer (Atalanta) and Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Manchester United)

In summary, my team so far is made up of a goalkeeper who has proved to be adept at shot stopping and instigating counter attacks, with two central defenders comfortable in possession who are very capable of progressing the ball into advanced areas. These are flanked by a young Englishman happy to penetrate the attacking third down the left, counterbalanced by a player on the right who anticipates danger and who will look to safely progress the ball after winning it back.

In part two, I will start assembling my midfield and then complete the line-up in part three. In the meantime, if you would like to know a bit more about the Role Discovery model feel free to get in touch with me on Twitter.