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Statistical Slackers: Who’s Not Hitting Their Expected Heights?

 • by Ryan Baldi
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As we enter the latter months of the 2017/18 Premier League season, battles are being fought up and down the table.

Several clubs, caught in the logjam from mid-table down, are struggling to ward off the threat of relegation. Some hope to break into the European qualification places while the race for a top-four finish is more hotly contested than ever. And, while Manchester City are the division’s runaway leaders, the chasing pack are ready and waiting if Pep Guardiola’s side start to slip.

With high stakes come high expectations, and managers throughout the English top flight will be demanding nothing short of full commitment and application from their charges during the run-in.

Some bosses, however, already have cause to question the performances of certain players. We’ve taken a look at the players who stood out statistically last season but have allowed their levels to drop this term.

In the interest of eliminating anomalies, we’ve looked exclusively at players who featured in at least 1,000 minutes of Premier League action in 2016/17, viewing the leaders in several statistical categories to pinpoint the players whose numbers have dropped off this season.

Starting with expected goals (xG), the statistical model which uses historical data to apply a probability-based value to every shot taken, the usual suspects, Harry Kane and Sergio Agüero, figure highly, maintaining their high performance into the current campaign.

One surprise xG high performer from last season, though, was Bournemouth’s Benik Afobe, who, according to understat.com, had the third-highest xG per 90 (0.56) of the players studied.

The 24-year-old, who rejoined Wolverhampton Wanderers on loan last month, went under the radar and consistently found himself in good scoring positions last season – although he only scored six league goals and was second only to Zlatan Ibrahimović when it came to ‘big chances’ missed.

This season, Afobe’s xG90 has fallen by more than half, down to 0.25, starting only five times for the Cherries before leaving, temporarily at least, last month.

In terms of expected assists (xA), which measures the subsequent xG of every chance-creating pass, Chelsea playmaker Cesc Fàbregas was among the Premier League’s most productive creators last season, retaining an xA90 of 0.55. Although his 0.33 average for this season is still a strong return, it does represent a significant regression.

Yannick Bolasie also scored highly in xA90 last season with 0.42, and he has suffered the most dramatic drop-off this term, down to just 0.02. But the Everton winger is still working his was back to full fitness following a serous knee injury, making just six league appearances to date, for a total of 332 minutes.

Sticking with the creative side of the game, most of the top key pass makers have more or less replicated their figures from last season. But Southampton‘s Dušan Tadić, whose 2.4 key passes per 90 ranked him 13th in 2016/17, has been less effective, averaging just 1.8 key passes per 90 this term.

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It’s a similar story for Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino, too. The Brazilian’s key passes per 90 average has fallen to 1.6 from 2.3, but he is also experiencing his best goal-scoring campaign since joining the Reds, so his fluctuating numbers reflect a shifting emphasis in his game, rather than any loss of form.

Adama Traoré of relegated Middlesbrough was the division’s most successful dribbler last season, averaging eight successful take-ons per 90. Of the players still playing in the Premier League, Sofiane Boufal led the way with six dribbles per 90. While the Southampton man has still produced good numbers in this area this term, he is not quite reaching the same level, averaging 4.7 dribbles per 90.

Liverpool’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bournemouth winger Jordon Ibe have experienced the most dramatic drop-offs of last season’s high-performing dribblers, with their take-ons per 90 averages dropping to 2.1 and 1.7 from 3.5 and 3.4 respectively.

Defensively, Crystal Palace midfielder Luka Milivojević demonstrated excellent positioning and anticipation last term, evidenced by his return of 2.9 interceptions per 90 – the sixth-best average of all players to have played 1,000 minutes of more. The Serbian is proving to be less effective at breaking up play in 2017/18, though, with just 1.3 interceptions per 90.

West Ham United centre-back Winston Reid has experienced a similar downturn in interceptions, from 2.8 last season to 1.4.

When it comes to tackling, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson‘s form has regressed significantly. Last season, the England international was averaging 3.7 successful tackles per 90, but this term he is making just 2.2.

Henderson, the man tasked with breaking up play and initiating attacks from his position as the Reds’ deepest midfielder, protecting Jürgen Klopp‘s much-maligned backline, has also slipped in terms of his ability to read the game and make interceptions, stealing the ball 0.9 times per 90 this season, down from 1.7.

Many of these players could be making up for a drop in performance in one area by increasing their levels in another, or a change of role might explain how their numbers have fallen. But with the crucial part of the season approaching, and international managers waiting to be impressed ahead of the World Cup, some will need to rediscover what was setting them apart last season.

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