From Axel Witsel to Cheltenham Town

I’ve been watching a fair amount of football at lower league tiers in the last year both home and abroad.

This is due to a mix of club queries and the fact that detailed data is becoming more and more available from the big data suppliers.

A lot (not all) of teams at lower level appear to have fewer players playing the kind of ‘holding’ midfielder still seen at higher levels in the game.

Whether this is by coach design, due to the pace of the game, a lack of discipline and concentration, or the amount of ball rocketing about in the air etc is up to everyone’s personal interpretation.

Normally, these ‘holders’ are the kind of players I love to ignore at the top end of the game. I’m bored of watching my own team’s players refusing to take risks with their passing. Doubly when they’re not even that good defensively.

I reckon one of my greatest examples of this is Axel Witsel. Disliked in the Riley household, but gracing the biggest sides in every country he’s played in while amassing over 100 caps for Belgium:

But having watched more football at lower levels now, I find myself longing for them. I possibly even dream of having someone with the nous to have held off when it’s clear the ball is about to transition and the opposition come steaming back through the gaping holes.

With this in mind, I’ve been trawling the data for someone in the lower leagues who literally does his stuff on the ball around the centre circle.

And when I say literally, I mean literally. Data bods will know that on a certain data provider’s pitch scheme, point 50, 50 is the centre circle. I set my filters to between 48 and 52 on both axis.

And guess who came up top of the pass ratings on my list with that filter?

Yep, Axel Witsel.

Granted he’s top mostly because he’s Mr Safe playing it sideways and backwards, but there’s no doubting he’s bloody good at it.

And yes, a scan down the list brought me to Cheltenham. And a certain Jake Doyle-Hayes.

Now I’ve looked at Cheltenham before. They generally play a back three. This is what I wrote about them on a scouting report not so long since:

Cheltenham rank 3rd of 24 in League Two for open play passes per game, and try and build from the back more than most. However, they often get bogged down in midfield with the first port of call to shuffle the ball wide rather than try anything vertical.

Cheltenham rank 3rd of 24 for the highest press of all teams in League Two. However, they are also quick to fall into the centre of the pitch once the first press is broken to flood midfield. 

Cheltenham rank as 3rd best defence of 24 for expected goals conceded. They restrict opponents to few shots and low-quality chances in open play.

Now, young Jake Doyle-Hayes is an outlier in this team in some senses and not in others. Does he shuffle it sideways? Yes:

While we’re here, it’s interesting to note the completion difference between spraying it left and right. Look at all those unsuccessful balls towards the right hand side of the pitch! What’s all that about? You’d want to check the video out here and it’s one way that these types of viz (although they can become like a bad etch-a-sketch at times) can be clear and useful.

Does Jake get bogged down? Nope. Unlike his team mates (you can check the rest of them out on the interactive version here!/vizhome/CTFC/CheltenhamDash) he likes to play the odd long vertical:

It’s then noticeable that as he moves forward, the balls to the channels begin to become balls into the centre of the box. At Cheltenham, he is by far and away the man when it comes to doing this:

You may look at all the red unsuccessful attempts here and think bad thoughts. Don’t, it’s normal. The good thing is these passes are being attempted in the first place. Anyway, to the cherry picker…

I chose this clip to illustrate a few points. Context: Cheltenham have just lost the ball after a longish spell of build up (they got bogged down). This shows them (and Jake) flooding back to cover the middle. Jake (no 21) doing something Witsel-like in the centre circle shuffling it a few yards wide. Then doing something un-Witsel-like, quickly joining in up the pitch and sending in vertical ball to cause some bother:

I set out to find someone lower down the leagues who combined holding midfield characteristics with a penchant to also try something riskier (you know, like actually move). Jake’s that man at Cheltenham. Unfortunately for them they don’t own him, Aston Villa do.

But the internet tells me that his contract is up in a few months. He’s made the transition from the tippy-tap of academy football into winner takes all men’s football. It will be interesting to see what’s next.

Cheltenham also have some other good players bytheway. If you want to know about them or any other player for that matter, get in touch at

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How is Jonjoe Kenny doing at Schalke?

There are 16 right-backs in the Bundesliga who’ve made 500 passes or more this season.

Kenny ranks 6th of 16 in my passing model for accuracy.

The passing model assigns a likelihood of a pass from x to y on the pitch being completed. So, a pass between two centre-backs like the one below gets completed 99% of the time:

Accordingly, the model doesn’t give the much player credit for this kind of pass.

The pass displayed below is much more difficult. The model says this type of pass gets completed 58% of the time:

In this way, we can measure how good a player is at passing much more meaningfully than if we simply assign a pass completion % – the type of stat you regularly see on TV or in the data/video software package that gets sold to clubs.

We calculate these more specific %s based on how often similar passes were made previously. There are millions of passes made in the top leagues fed into the model. It sorts similar ones together and tells you how often they were completed.

It’s then also easy to see the difficulty level of the passes each player makes. Kenny ranks 7th of 16 here. He’s trying to complete slightly above average difficulty passes. This is because he’s one of the ones sending a high number of crosses into the box from out wide.

On average, he’s playing passes that would be expected to be completed 74% of the time. To put that into some context, right backs such as Benjamin Pavard at Bayern or Lukasz Piszczek at Dortmund are playing passes that are 10% safer on average (i.e. recycling possession, coming inside more). This is why pass completion isn’t all that helpful. Of course they are going to look better if you look at the bog standard stat. There’s no context there.

If you put Kenny against right-backs who play passes like-for like, he actually ranks 2nd for his passing type in the Bundesliga.

The model says that Kenny ranks 2nd of 16 for passing in the final third. Only Pavard is higher. But we also know that Pavard is being safer with his passing and that proportionately, Kenny enters the final third much more frequently than Pavard does.

Despite this, Kenny only ranks 12th of 16 for expected assists. He does, however, have 3 assists – as many as anyone else in the 16 does. Having 3 times as many assists as expected isn’t particularly sustainable long term. Work to be done there. While Kenny can put the ball in from wide, he doesn’t carry the ball into the opposition box often. In fact Kenny is the worst of the 16 for taking people on. Someone like Stefan Lainer at Borussia is the gold standard here.

Also, Kenny doesn’t look to good in the build up from the back or midfield, but then neither do Schalke as a team.

Schalke aren’t particularly strong in forcing the opposition to go backwards or give the ball away when they come down the left hand side. They’re pretty good at forcing the opposition to cross the ball in rather than letting them carry the ball into the box from out wide.

That’s your lot, kids. No time for video or visualisations today. Jonjoe’s done ok. He’s just turned 23 and has done a decent enough job in his first season abroad and his biggest season in terms of minutes to date.

That said, both Seamus Coleman and Djibril Sidibe still both look better overall on the ball than him on the model in a higher quality league. Kenny ranks second behind Sidibe for final third threat, though. But you wouldn’t want any of them defensively,would you?

Probably time for Everton to look elsewhere.


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