Friday, October 13, 2017

American Exceptionalism

The US Men's National Team will not be going to the 2018 World Cup. This fact has caused considerable consternation among American soccer fans, most of whom can't remember a World Cup without the US present. Of course, that very fact demonstrates just how young soccer fandom is in the US, as the 40 years prior to 1990 spent without a World Cup appearance don't register much with Millenials. Still, the US has the largest population of CONCACAF countries by far and one of the largest economies in the world. Surely it should be able to make use of these advantages to dominate the conference, especially now given soccer's increased popularity? Indeed, one of the main premises of the book Soccernomics was that countries like the US would come to dominate soccer, since economic development and population size are key indicators of success in international soccer. While the latter half of that statement is certainly true, I think that analysis missed a key factor of why some countries are better at certain sports than others, a factor that explains why people should temper their expectations of the USMNT.

Junior World Orienteering Championships Opening Ceremony 2007. I am one of these people.

As an example, let's consider a lesser-known sport with which I have some personal experience: orienteering. For those of you who are totally lost (pun intended), a brief explanation: orienteering is a sport where you use a map and compass to find a number of specified locations in the wilderness as quickly as you possibly can (for more information you can click here). I was actually pretty good at this sport once, so much so that I was on the US Junior National Team for four straight years. Of course, making the US team in orienteering wasn't the achievement it sounds given the US was terrible at orienteering at the youth level. Most years, it was a struggle to find a full complement to bring to the Junior World Championships, and when we did compete we were usually close to the bottom along with Hong Kong, Israel, and Ireland. Who did well? The Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway, Sweden, and Finland, and Switzerland were consistently top.

O-Ringen, the world's largest orienteering event. Swedish people really like orienteering

There's a reason I mentioned the countries above. Both those countries at the bottom and the top of the orienteering ladder have similar population sizes and have highly developed economies. So why did some do so well while the others didn't? Geographic factors played a part certainly (though there's a surprising amount of undeveloped land in which to run in Hong Kong, there's a lot less than in Norway). However, I think the main thing is simply the level of interest in the sport. Sweden is the birthplace of competitive orienteering, has events that regularly get over 10,000 contestants (a US meet that has 200 is big), and even had news coverage of orienteering results. Perhaps most impressively, if you say the word orienteering, you aren't looked at like you are from Mars. Norway and Finland are similarly enamored of the sport, and as a result these countries dominate year after year. Though they do not have the resources of the US, or dramatically more resources than Ireland, Hong Kong, or Israel, the higher interest in the sport means a greater share of their resources are invested in it.

This is something you see around the world: there are always countries that are much better than they "should be" at a particular sport based on their economy and demographics if they have a high level of interest in it. The Netherlands has more Olympic medals in speed skating than any other country. Bulgaria has the 4th most weightlifting medals despite its size and level of economic development. No country is a match for Canada at hockey. Jamaica, the home of my fiancee, dominates in athletics, with Usain Bolt just the latest example of a storied tradition. They literally teach every child there how to pass a baton in a relay: say the word "reach" and Jamaicans instinctively move. The high school championships, known as Champs, are the biggest annual sporting event in the country. That stuff matters. Interest affects institutional resources, the pool of athletes available, coaching: everything really.

US sporting interests diverge from the rest of the world.

This is true of soccer as well, and that's a problem for the US, where interest in the sport, while growing, is still well behind team sports like basketball, football, and baseball. Look at any of the institutional factors blamed for poor youth development in soccer (travel teams/AAU, high costs, youth coaching not integrated with professional teams, etc.) and you'll find them just as much in baseball, basketball, and the like. Yet America continues to produce world-class talent at those sports but not at soccer. Similarly, America still has the most Olympic medals of any country in a wide range of sports, so it's not an institutional problem. The difference is that other countries put way more emphasis on soccer compared to America and that's always going to make a difference in how good the US can be. Soccer is the number one sport in most countries around the world, and even in countries where it is not (like Jamaica), it's still usually above the interest level in the US. Honestly, it's more surprising to me that the US has done as well as it has in my lifetime given soccer is a higher priority literally everywhere else.

The idea that the US should always be making the World Cup smacks of the old, jingoistic doctrine of American exceptionalism. In fact it's America's actual exceptionalism, in this case its focus on team sports other than soccer, that shows why that thinking is seriously flawed here. Can the USMNT get better with improved coaching, better scouting, or a new "golden generation"? Of course, countries like Iceland show it can be done. But as with Iceland, those are all attempts to improve performance relative to an unchanged baseline expectation given population, economic development, and soccer's place in the country. Without a fundamental change to soccer's place in America's sports culture, America's place in soccer culture won't change either.

Friday, August 11, 2017

City, Sanchez, and Next Season

Every year there appears to be one large transfer pursuit that takes up the entire summer and unfortunately this time it's City's pursuit of Alexis Sanchez (to wit, I started writing this a month ago and nothing has been resolved). City's transfer business so far has been pretty reasonable, adding goalkeeper Ederson Moraes, attacking wing/mid Bernardo Silva, and fullbacks Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, and Danilo. That said, a move for Alexis would be the proverbial "statement of intent", as it is rare to poach key players from a rival Premier League club (Walker being an obvious exception). However, I'm concerned the club may not be getting what they think they are. Alexis is a good player, but his fit in the City side is less than ideal, and his value to Arsenal is greater than it is to City. Paying more than their worth for someone who'll be giving the team less (and potentially a lot less soon) doesn't strike me as good business, particularly when there are more important areas to upgrade.

There's no doubt Alexis is a special player. There are very, very few players who can generate such a large goal threat from a wide position: he ranked 6th in Shots per 90 in 2015-16 and scored 13 goals, a mark bettered only by Mahrez in terms of non-strikers. However, that excellent record is at least slightly tempered by his Usage Rate, which shows Sanchez used more possessions than any other player in the league that year. In terms of generating shots, assists and key passes per possession used, Sanchez ranked just 6th on Arsenal. That high of a Usage Rate makes it clear how much he was the focal point of Arsenal's attack in 15-16, and as a result that puts his efficiency numbers in a somewhat better light (after all, if you're the primary focus of defensive effort you're less likely to perform well). There's little doubt he would provide more goals from out wide than Sterling or Sane could (the latter had fewer shots per 90 than Kolarov last season), if not from simple shot volume then from the fact he can actually hit the ball with his laces. If City were getting that vintage of Sanchez, I could see an argument for it.

The problem is, of course, that I don't think we are. For one thing, Alexis played primarily as a striker last season. While this led to his highest goal total ever, his Usage Rate and % of possessions with a positive outcome were very similar, and Sanchez greatly outperformed his xG. Also, as I wrote in an earlier piece, playing as a striker reduced the effectiveness of Ozil and the Arsenal attack as a whole.  City have one and possibly two strikers who are better than him, so it would make more sense to put him on the wing, where he excelled previously. That of course would stunt the development of Sterling and Sane and replace the one position where we have starters below peak age with a 29 year old. There's also the fact that Sanchez played over 3000 Premier League minutes last season and is well-known for never wanting to rest. Combined with a playing style that is highly dependent on his legs, I think it unlikely he will age gracefully. You can argue that he will have reduced minutes in this City team, and I think he would were he to join, but that's not what his pricetag is going to be based on and his track record of wanting to play literally all the time suggests he will have trouble accepting that.

So why do City want Sanchez so badly? As far as I can tell, the answer seems to be balance. Indulge me a dive into the subjective here, mainly because I don't have good statistics for this, and let's break up City's attacking personnel into three broad categories based on how they primarily generate shots: passers, runners, and dribblers. Right now, I would say City have passers (Silva, KDB, Gundo, Toure) and runners (Kun, Sterling, Sane) only. Sanchez is a dribbler, something City didn't really have until they picked up Bernardo (yes, Sterling and Sane both dribble a lot, Sterling more than Sanchez on a per 90 basis actually. Still, their ability to latch on to through-balls from KDB and Silva bigger part of their value). I think Pep wants to have more people who can create their own shot off of the dribble on both wings as an option, particularly against teams that set up in a deep block that is hard to break down. Sanchez could definitely help accomplish this goal and Pep may believe getting him is necessary as a result.

The price of that would mean a drastic restructuring of the attack though. City's Usage Rates last season look like this (minimum of 1000 minutes):

Player Unsuccessful Passes Key Passes Assists Goals Shots Unsuccessful Take-Ons Minutes Possessions Used Usage Rate % Positive
De Bruyne 323 83 18 6 86 25 2877 535 15.61% 34.95%
Silva 264 75 7 4 48 23 2760 417 12.68% 31.18%
Sterling 203 40 6 7 64 63 2513 376 12.56% 29.26%
Aguero 136 28 3 20 139 47 2409 353 12.30% 48.16%
Sane 130 32 3 5 33 42 1788 240 11.27% 28.33%
Fernandinho 289 32 1 2 36 9 2755 367 11.18% 18.80%
Kolarov 279 14 1 1 32 8 2535 334 11.06% 14.07%
Toure 181 19 0 5 32 4 1941 236 10.21% 21.61%
Navas 97 20 0 0 8 1 1086 126 9.74% 22.22%
Clichy 218 16 0 1 2 2 2123 238 9.41% 7.56%
Zabaleta 98 8 1 1 7 5 1083 119 9.22% 13.45%
Otamendi 235 5 1 1 15 3 2592 259 8.39% 8.11%
Sagna 99 7 1 0 4 1 1346 112 6.99% 10.71%
Stones 122 4 0 0 13 1 2025 140 5.80% 12.14%
Bravo 109 0 0 0 0 0 1968 109 4.65% 0.00%
Caballero 57 0 0 0 0 0 1452 57 3.30% 0.00%

Right now, Silva and KDB as passers in the advanced double-pivot below the striker take up the majority of possessions. Surrounding them with runners like Sterling, Kun, and Sane gives them good options to pass the ball and helpfully allows those players to be involved without the ball at their feet as much. Sanchez would throw a wrench into that. His Usage Rate is higher than anyone on the City team, at north of 18%, and he had a high percentage of Arsenal's unassisted shots. As Ryan O'Hanlon pointed out, he is not one to take shots directly from a teammate's pass, rather he gets the ball outside the box and then moves in to shoot. That doesn't fit with a team based around incorporating two high-volume passers from just such an area, particularly when he was unable to click with similar players (Ozil in particular) at Arsenal.

There's an argument to be made that it doesn't matter if Sanchez can replicate his previous form, so long as he helps City win the title. I would agree that the marginal value of a point is greater to City than it is to a midtable team like West Ham (another reason their transfer business was so weird). However, I think that argument fails to address the reasons why City didn't meet expectations last season though. In terms of xG, City had the best figure in the league. While we didn't overperform by G-xG, we weren't vastly undershooting. You could argue that City should have created more with the possession we had (City were just 8th in SOT/Possession), but still the overall results were quite good. Where we underperformed was in defense: Bravo obviously was a factor (after a decent enough start, in one six-week period he conceded 64% of the shots on target he faced), but there were also some systemic issues. Benjamin Pugsley has shown that City tended to have few defenders in the box when opponents' moved the ball there, which is a pretty good indication there was less defensive pressure applied. The additions in goal and at fullback were aimed to address these concerns, as the pace supplied by Walker, Danilo, and Mendy ought to allow them to get into position more easily when the ball is lost and still contribute to the attack. However, there has been no indication of City signing a central midfielder to play at the base of the formation, despite Gundogan's injury issues and the age of Fernandinho & Toure, not to mention the defensive limitations of the latter. That to me would be the area City need to address most urgently. The surplus value of Sanchez over the players potentially replaced by him is nowhere near what the value a top-class CM could provide, and that's before considering how Sanchez would necessitate a restructuring of the attack. The old football cliche of "Don't change a winning team" is pretty obvious nonsense as it ignores needed context, but the underlying notion of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" applies in this case.

With or without Sanchez, City are favorites for the Premier League. With or without Sanchez, they are not going to be among the favorites for the Champions League. This would be a win-now move that wouldn't really move the needle on the winning part. It's doesn't fix the weaknesses City have at the base of midfield or the squad age problem and it's questionable how much this improves the attack. As an analyst, it would be fascinating to watch Sanchez and City adapt to each other; as a fan, I would prefer not to have to do so.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Thoughts on Stats and How to Press

The Rangers Report ran an excellent article a few weeks back that focused on how simple stats could be used by teams to press more effectively. One of the main ideas was that by looking at how many times a player loses possession divided by how many times he had possession overall (particularly in the defensive third), we can see how likely he is to lose the ball, and therefore whether it makes sense to press him. It's an intuitive concept, one that I especially like since it fits in very neatly with my own work on Usage Rates. However, I think it is an idea that needs to be more thoroughly explored, and I'd like to offer my own slightly differing viewpoint on the subject.

First of all, the article in question focused on a sample of just four games. While I don't have the data split into thirds of the pitch, I do have all of the relevant stats for the full field for all Premier League teams from the 16-17 season (the raw data is available in my Usage Rate info here). I would also point out that Statszone uses the location of the end of the pass to determine which third it is in, not the beginning. Since from a pressing perspective the priority is where the ball is passed from, the classification Statszone provides is not as helpful as it could be for this purpose, particularly for a team that hits as many long balls as West Brom. The full field data for West Brom in 16-17 is below:

Player Minutes P90 Possessions Loss of Possession % Last 4 Minutes Last 4 possessions p90 Last 4 Loss of Possession %
Dawson 3276 28.3 37% 360 24.0 34%
McAuley 3140 22.2 35% 153 12.9 32%
Rondon 2892 26.1 32% 340 28.3 25%
Wilson 255 27.2 31% 255 27.2 31%
Nyom 2637 25.5 30% 310 26.4 22%
McClean 1480 23.3 29% 199 27.1 35%
Brunt 2477 33.1 25% 360 27.3 25%
Robson-Kanu 751 23.2 25% 31 17.4 17%
Fletcher 3231 34.7 23% 360 28.5 27%
Livermore 1301 36.9 23% 322 32.1 24%
Chadli 2135 30.2 20% 122 31.7 19%
Evans 2637 31.2 19% 320 26.7 15%
Morrison 1751 40.3 19% 146 37.0 13%
Yacob 2422 34.8 18% 227 32.5 12%
Field 291 32.2 18% 103 27.1 32%

When the sample is broadened, it becomes clear it's a bit unfair to pick on Marc Wilson too much. Those four games were the only PL games he played in all year and he appears to have been played at LB (or left CB in a three) rather than his natural position of CB, which is compounded by the fact he is primarily right-footed (he's listed as both-footed via Transfermarkt, but according to James Yorke he shoots more often with his right so I'm calling him right-footed). While that in itself may have been a good reason to press him in those games, it doesn't help much in finding a long-term strategy. Overall though, we can see the pattern generally holds: the correlation between a player's possessions per 90 in the sample versus the full season has an R-squared of .61, while the correlation of the Loss of Possession % has an R-squared of .43 (this also improves when you add a minutes requirement to the sample, as Leko and Field screw things up).

More fundamentally though, there is an important question here: what are the statistical attributes of players an opposing coach should attempt to press directly? Part of this answer depends on the aim of pressing obviously: if you are attempting to intercept the ball in your attacking third your answer may differ from someone who is simply aiming to coax the other team into giving back possession. Still, I think this passage from Marti Perarnau's piece on pressing demonstrates the general things we should be looking for:

The ball is much easier to take from an opponent who controls it poorly. A team can collectively press the ball at the moment it’s miscontrolled because it would take time to re-establish control of the ball. This plays a part in the “opponent’s ability” as well. If the player is very poor at making decisions and controlling the ball it would be logical to put that player under immense pressure as soon as he’s about to receive it. Most players are taught to press the opponent “as the ball is traveling” because the scene cannot change dramatically within the time the presser leaves his position as the ball is moving between players.

The ball cannot dynamically change directions in the middle of its route between players (unless there is some crazy spin on the ball, which would be visible and anticipated by the players) so it is an optimal time to press the destination point of the ball. If the presser decided to leave his position while it is under the control of the opponent player (without the following layers of the press to protect the vacated space and cover him) then the ball could change direction quite easily as the opponent can simply dribble and exploit the movement of the presser.

The Rangers Report article makes the case that it is the rate at which a player loses possession (particularly in their own defensive third) that should indicate who to press. But the Possessions Lost in the article's calculation are primarily misplaced passes, by an order of magnitude over everything else. In other words, the Loss of Possession % is not necessarily showing a lack of ability on the ball (which Perarnau would suggest is the key to a good target of pressure), but rather is showing a lack of passing ability. To me, that means the Loss of Possession % as used there does not indicate who to press, it indicates when to press: i.e. the passes from a player with a high Loss of Possession % should serve as a trigger to initiate the press since they are more likely to be lost. As for who to press, we would need to find players who are "poor at making decisions and controlling the ball", ideally those who are targets of poor passers. This would suggest looking at players with more times dispossessed, more unsuccessful touches (both of which I should point out are unavailable at either Statszone where the author pulled his data or Squawka where I got mine, but are shown on Whoscored), and poor dribble/take-on success.

So what does looking at those stats tell us? I added Unsuccessful Touches and Dispossessed to the Possessions calculation, and looked at what percentage of Possessions result in an on-ball turnover (TO) for all defenders and central midfielders. The results are below:

Player Minutes Unsuccessful Touches p90 Dispossessed p90 Unsuccessful Take-Ons p90 TOs p90 Possessions p90 TO%
Galloway 248 2.2 0.7 0.0 2.9 9.1 32%
Morrison 1740 1.8 1.8 0.4 4.0 13.8 29%
Fletcher 3235 1.3 1.2 0.2 2.7 11.8 23%
Nyom 2639 1 0.6 0.4 2.0 9.8 21%
Gardner 213 1.3 1.3 0.8 3.4 18.7 18%
Livermore 1303 1.2 0.6 0.3 2.1 12.0 17%
Yacob 2418 0.7 0.5 0.1 1.3 8.2 16%
Brunt 2479 0.8 0.6 0.1 1.5 12.7 12%
Dawson 3278 0.8 0.4 0.2 1.4 12.9 11%
Evans 2638 0.4 0.3 0.1 0.8 7.3 11%
Wilson 256 0.4 0.4 0.0 0.8 10.3 8%
McAuley 3143 0.2 0.1 0.1 0.4 8.6 5%
Olsson 591 0.2 0 0.0 0.2 9.6 2%

As you can see, it seems to be ruled primarily by position. The central midfielders and fullbacks are higher, then the centerbacks, which is basically what you'd expect. As such, I would probably give the CBs space, make sure my defense is in good position, and start my press upon passes into midfield or to the fullback. It should be noted that a lot of pressing systems attempt to force passes to the sideline, as the sideline reduces options for the man in possession (sidenote: I had a FIFA flashback typing that sentence), so this would seem to confirm that's an effective strategy against West Brom. Passes from Wilson or McAuley (who have a lot of passing errors) to Nyom or Galloway (who struggle on the ball) seem like an ideal time to press to me.

It's important to note that I have not done any league-wide comparisons on this, so I don't know if West Brom's statistics are notably different from the rest of the league. It may be that their CBs actually are more prone to on-ball turnovers than those of other teams, and that it would make sense to press them as a result. We also don't have great metrics to judge the effectiveness of pressing, so it would be difficult to judge how following these recommendations would help or not, and how that impacted a team's overall performance. Still, I think this is definitely the right area to be looking, as finding the players likely to lose the ball can only help you win it back.

(Shoutout to Nico Morales for his feedback on the tactics side of things.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

NYCFC Season Preview

As an American fan of Manchester City who was born in Albany, New York, I've been avidly following the nascent New York City FC since its inception in 2015. A team affiliated with Manchester City playing in my home state? Sign me up! However, I really think all Manchester City fans should be paying attention to them and not just us Yanks. Not only is the club a place where youth players and other young City signings can be tested (such as Angelino two years ago and Yangel Herrera this coming year), NYCFC attempts to play a similar style of football as well, focusing on attacking, possession-based football. That's before coming to the fact that the manager is one Patrick Vieira, who is probably one of the favorites to take over from Pep when the time comes. Last season, the team took a real step forward and made the playoffs, before being crushed by a far superior Toronto outfit (who somehow were unable to beat Seattle in the Final). That said, this season's squad is going to have a very different look to it, as Frank Lampard and Andoni Iraola retire after playing key roles last season. Last season's finish in the table and subsequent playoff appearance covered over some long-term issues regarding the defense in particular. This team still has a lot of attacking talent, but they're gambling that a focus on ball retention can cover up a paper-thin defense. That is difficult to achieve anywhere, but especially so in a league where the talent level is below that of the top European leagues. It might be great, it might not, but it certainly won't be boring.

What Happened Last Year

NYCFC's season can be pretty easily divided into two halves: before that Hudson River Derby and after that Hudson River Derby. That Hudson River Derby was a 7-1 shellacking at the hands of New York Red Bull(s?) which was about as bad as it could possibly get for NYCFC fans. However, that game marked the first appearance of Frank Lampard in this season and was the driver to move Iraola into the base of midfield, a role he played the rest of the season. From that point forward, NYCFC had a very steady midfield trio of Lampard, Pirlo, and Iraola to support David Villa up top, along with a rotating but talented case of Jack Harrison, Stiven Mendoza, Khiry Shelton, and Tommy McNamara on the wings. It also marked the end of Mix Diskerud's and Federico Bravo's run in the side, as they played 80% and 72% of their total minutes on the season prior to that. The results speak for themselves: up to and including that Derby, NYCFC averaged 1.3 points per game, afterwards they averaged 1.8.

That uptick in form was enough to secure a second-place finish in the Eastern Conference, but it was more than a little fortuitous. NYCFC actually had a negative xGD, mainly because their defense was terrible with the 4th worst xGA. This video sheds light on some of the reasons why: little cohesion in backline, inability to track runners, and insistence on playing from the back with personnel ill-suited for it. As in that game though, the attack usually made up for it, with Lampard and Villa in particular turning in stellar seasons. The rookie Jack Harrison (a former United trainee) provided a real creative spark on the wings, coming up with perhaps one of the goals of the season by beating several players while coming in from the right wing to curl home a beautiful finish. Ultimately though, New York's defensive shortcomings came back to bite them against the talented frontline of Giovinco and Jozy Altidore (who is actually decent in MLS and yes I know that says a lot) in the playoffs, losing 7-0 on aggregate.

The Stats

Player Total Passes Failed Passes Key Passes Assists Goals Shots Take-Ons Failed Take-Ons Minutes Poss Usage Rate Positive Outcomes Negative Outcomes % Positive xG xA (xG+xA) /Poss
Villa 860 241 42 4 23 163 26 37 2779 487 14.74% 209 278 42.92% 20.32 4.75 5.15
Mendoza 425 105 20 0 5 45 27 23 1160 193 13.99% 65 128 33.68% 3.27 2.21 2.84
Shelton 418 118 13 6 4 17 21 29 1163 183 13.23% 36 147 19.67% 2.22 2.63 2.65
Diskerud 333 84 10 2 1 20 6 7 813 123 12.72% 32 91 26.02% 1.84 1.67 2.85
Pirlo 1612 302 57 6 1 26 21 7 2675 398 12.51% 89 309 22.36% 1.64 5.04 1.68
Matarrita 992 234 14 2 1 25 27 10 1987 285 12.06% 41 244 14.39% 1.28 1.8 1.08
Harrison 475 126 25 6 4 22 36 31 1482 210 11.92% 53 157 25.24% 1.61 3.18 2.28
Lampard 521 108 18 2 12 33 5 6 1187 167 11.83% 53 114 31.74% 6.76 1.41 4.89
Allen 757 180 19 4 1 4 26 22 1671 229 11.52% 27 202 11.79% 0.24 3.51 1.64
Bravo 618 135 5 0 0 7 2 2 1112 149 11.27% 12 137 8.05% 0.48 0.25 0.49
White 250 68 0 0 0 0 1 3 598 71 9.98% 0 71 0.00% 0 0 0.00
Taylor 185 39 6 1 2 12 12 12 591 70 9.96% 19 51 27.14% 1.4 0.82 3.17
Mena 554 124 1 0 1 6 2 3 1214 134 9.28% 7 127 5.22% 0.67 0.08 0.56
McNamara 761 138 26 9 4 36 7 16 2121 225 8.92% 71 154 31.56% 4.05 4.06 3.60
Lopez 285 55 3 1 0 12 2 1 683 72 8.86% 16 56 22.22% 1.19 0.33 2.11
Brillant 1478 236 1 0 1 11 1 1 2700 249 7.75% 12 237 4.82% 0.84 0.1 0.38
Iraola 1210 166 7 1 0 3 17 9 2120 186 7.38% 11 175 5.91% 0.11 0.45 0.30
Hernandez 1099 178 6 0 0 0 2 0 2291 184 6.75% 6 178 3.26% 0 0.26 0.14
Saunders 708 173 1 0 0 0 0 0 2880 174 5.08% 1 173 0.57% 0 0.03 0.02

Above is a table of the Usage Rates for NYCFC last season, and thanks to American Soccer Analysis, I have xG and xA numbers for each player as well. What this allows us to do is not only show how heavily each player was involved in the attack, but also show how efficient each player was with the possessions he used as measured by expected goals. This works as a nice complement to my usual efficiency measure: percentage of possessions with a positive outcome. As one might have guessed, Villa had the biggest role in the attack by Usage Rate, but he also produced a hefty 5.15 goals for each 100 possessions used which is also the best on the team. Second by that measure is the retiring Lampard, at 4.89, which shows just how much he'll be missed next year. Though his goals total likely would have come down anyway (he scored 12 on just 6.76 xG; take a look at this video for some of his finishing luck), his ability to score and create while not being a focal point of the offense was critical to NYCFC last season.

Two other players whose numbers stick out are Ronald Matarrita and Iraola. I mentioned Iraola's impact before, but the stats give a clearer picture as to why his move to midfield helped NYCFC so much. His passing range was far superior to Bravo's and enabled NYCFC to build up much more effectively when installed in the deep-lying role, while also bringing better defensive positional sense. The low number of turnovers (and correspondingly low Usage Rate) and high passing volume (3rd most passes on the team) distributed the ball to Pirlo and Lampard excellently allowing them to dominate play further up the pitch. As with Lampard, he will not be easily replaced. Meanwhile, the statistics for Matarrita (and to a lesser extent RJ Allen) show just how high up the fullbacks were in the attack. His Usage Rate is comparable to Pirlo, but because he didn't use the ball very efficiently (only 14% resulted in a shot or chance created) numerous times the opposition came right back down his side. Being outnumbered on the counter was one of many defensive problems City faced last season as a result.

Squad and Salary Makeup

MLS squad construction is always tricky, see this excellent flowchart for its intricacies. The basic gist is that there is a salary cap for each team, but in order to attract top names from other leagues, a team can have a certain number of Designated Players whose salary can be much higher but counts for relatively little towards the cap. That is how David Villa, Lampard, and Pirlo were brought to the club, so it obviously works as intended, but it also makes vast intra-club salary disparities and relatedly tends to make for a stars and scrubs approach to squad building. As such, it's important that your DP players live up to expectation and also critical to find players outperforming their salary.

One of the great things about MLS is that salary information is public, so we can see how players performed relative to their cost:

Player Salary (xG+xA)/$100,000
McNamara 85000 9.54
Allen 63000 5.95
Shelton 94500 5.13
Harrison 160500 2.98
Lopez 51500 2.95
Mendoza 207276 2.64
Taylor 91875 2.42
Matarrita 175000 1.76
Bravo 110000 0.66
Diskerud 761250 0.46
Villa 5610000 0.45
Mena 231400 0.32
Brillant 299666.7 0.31
Iraola 200004 0.28
Lampard 6000000 0.14
Hernandez 210000 0.12
Pirlo 5915690 0.11
Saunders 150000 0.02
White 62500 0.00

As you can see, because the salaries for the Designated Players are an order of magnitude higher, they don't look so good once you take into account their cost (though they would look much better when it comes to their salary cap hold). It also highlights just how valuable Tommy McNamara is, since his salary is so much lower than most of the other players and he's contributing these goals from midfield. The salaries spent on defenders seem high given their abysmal defensive performance last season.

What to Expect

As mentioned, this will be a very different NYCFC team compared to last season. Over half of the players with MLS minutes last season will be gone this season (assuming Diskerud leaves), and 9 of the 19 with more than 500 minutes. In addition to Iraola and Lampard, starting keeper Josh Saunders and defender Jason Hernandez will be leaving, as well as forward Stiven Mendoza. Not all of these departures are necessarily a bad thing: Saunders was overrated as a keeper and disastrous with the ball at his feet (he makes Joe Hart seem a natural at playing from the back). Hernandez too, despite his New York roots, seemed a bit out of place at both center-back and right-back. Other than Saunders' replacement Sean Johnson, the incoming players don't really seem to fix either the preexisting or the looming holes in the squad. NYCFC's only signed two defenders despite their poor results, one of whom was a trialist in training camp. There are two possible replacements for Iraola, but Yangel Herrera is 19 and Alexander Ring was struggling for minutes in the German second division. Hopefully one of them will be able to step up and make the position his own.

The primary focus of the window has been attack once again. NYCFC's first signing was striker Sean Okoli from the USL, they drafted attacker Jonathan Lewis, and their international signing was Maxi Moralez from Leon, formerly of Atalanta in Serie A.With Villa entrenched at striker, Okoli is presumably relegated to backup duty, Lewis will have to contend with NYCFC's last two rookies Shelton and Harrison to get minutes. Moralez is primarily a Number 10, so it will be interesting to see if NYCFC shoehorn him into the 4-3-3 they had played with last season in Lampard's role or give him more freedom further forward. His Usage Rate is also higher than Lampard's, which make it tougher to integrate in a midfield with Pirlo. That said, he played with a Pirlo clone in Luca Cigarini at Atalanta, so he can probably make it work here.

NYCFC seem to be hoping that Moralez's creativity can create enough chances for Villa so that Lampard's magical finishing is not missed, that better passing from the keeper and backline reduce the number of easy opportunities for opponents, and that one or both of Herrera and Ring can solidify the midfield. The promising youth talent will likely improve once more, as Harrison and Shelton in particular stand to gain from Stiven Mendoza leaving, providing an extra boost. However, there are still clear issues across the defense and the age of key players Villa and Pirlo are also a concern. All in all, I'd expect something similar to last season: a dangerous attacking outfit with defensive issues that can make the playoffs, but not make too much noise once there. That's not really a bad thing, but whether that will meet the demands of the fans and ownership is another thing entirely.