Monday, November 2, 2015

City Is Kevin De Bruyne's Team Already

After scoring the winner against Sevilla two weeks ago, Kevin De Bruyne was asked if he could have imagined such a fine start to life at Manchester City. He replied, "Probably not. It feels good. Obviously I know I didn’t play my best game here but I am very happy to give the team the three points and it was very important for us." Lost in the admiration of his winner was the fact that he was absolutely correct in his assessment: for large stretches of the game, he misplaced passes and was caught in possession time and time again. At the same time, he was responsible for the moment of brilliance that won the game, and it's fair to say we probably wouldn't have won without him. This game was a perfect illustration on how dependent City have become on De Bruyne, and why he'll need to keep improving in order to keep City at the top in the Premier League and Europe.

In order to demonstrate De Bruyne's influence on City's attack, I'd like to use a stat called Usage Rate. Borrowed from basketball analysis, it looks at how many possessions a team has (measured by counting total shots, unsuccessful passes, and unsuccessful take-ons) and what percentage of them a given player is responsible for the last action of the possession (has a shot, key pass, unsuccessful pass, or unsuccessful take-on), weighted by minutes played*. It's obviously imperfect, but Usage Rate helps to get a basic statistical understanding of how heavily involved each player is in a team's attack. I have listed City's statistics for the first eleven games of the Premier League season below (players with 180+ minutes only):

Minutes Possessions Used Usage Rate Positive Outcomes Negative Outcomes Ratio
De Bruyne
559 125 19.18% 34 91 27.18%
795 131 14.11% 47 84 35.92%
893 133 12.77% 32 101 24.06%
417 62 12.76% 19 43 30.60%
482 71 12.63% 32 39 45.07%
682 98 12.31% 34 64 34.71%
765 100 11.21% 34 66 33.99%
545 65 10.21% 38 27 58.54%
540 61 9.68% 9 52 14.75%
244 27 9.48% 12 15 44.44%
900 90 8.57% 11 79 12.22%
968 96 8.51% 18 78 18.74%
630 58 7.89% 7 51 12.07%
333 28 7.21% 5 23 17.86%
185 14 6.49% 3 11 21.43%
675 44 5.59% 2 42 4.55%
900 49 4.67% 1 48 2.04%

As you can see, there are some clear trends here. It's not surprising that Hart, three central defenders, and Fernando are the lowest in Usage Rate, as they play positions focused on defending, not attacking. Silva and Toure being near the top also makes sense, as they have been the fulcrums of our attack for the past 5 years. Kolarov's presence shows how much we rely on his width on the left to create problems and his role in set pieces. However, De Bruyne being well above everyone is a surprise, given how new he is to our team and system. He has been critical in filling the void left by Silva as the main playmaker in the side, using up a lot of the possessions the Spaniard would have taken.

The problem is that while he has certainly been very involved in the attack, it hasn't always brought the best results. Of the 125 possessions De Bruyne has used, only 34 had a positive outcome (a shot or key pass) and 91 had a negative outcome (an unsuccessful pass or take-on). That means just 27% of his possessions have positive outcomes, which is the lowest of any attacking mid or forward on the team. To a certain extent, it makes sense that a player's efficiency will drop the more of the ball he sees. Defenses will focus more on him, closing down earlier and not giving him the space to pass or shoot. At the same time, it speaks to the fact that De Bruyne is not the finished article. In the game against Sevilla in particular, he had a lot of unforced passing errors, often trying to get that killer final ball. That's not always a bad thing, given City last year were probably too careful in possession, and could have used someone like De Bruyne who is constantly trying things. However, the number of times he gives the ball away stifles the attack and puts pressure on the defense, especially since we commit our fullbacks (especially Kolarov) to the attack frequently.

I truly believe De Bruyne has the tools to be the best attacking player in the Premier League, as his touch, finishing ability, and eye for a pass are evident for all to see. However, it's only when he's able to marry efficiency and volume that he will be able to take the next step, and help City take the next step as a team.

Note: All data from

*Usually, Usage Rate also weights for league pace (measured by average possessions per game), but given there are no league-wide comparisons (and perhaps more importantly I haven't done the league-wide stats yet), I'm not including for this article.

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