Player Analysis Model Part 4 – The Wide Men

The Disadvantages of Looking in Obvious Places

This week, we look at a selection of the best players currently plying their trade on the wings, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Because, if the rapidly increasing number of reports are to be believed, Manchester United are about to part with around £34m to procure the services of the Fiorentina winger Juan Guillermo Cuadrado. Without beating round the bush, this will be extremely bad business. This is not to say Cuadrado is a bad player, far from it, but he is not worth that kind of money. I don’t say this in the ‘no man is worth that kind of money’ sense, no, this is, as I will try to argue, a statement of fact.

This potential transfer serves as a symbol of the continuation of an outdated, inefficient transfer model. All respect due to those who have come before but, in a world otherwise dominated by big data, supported by the all seeing eye of OPTA and propagated by know-it-all wannabe-scouts like myself, this kind of laissez-faire spending is nothing short of insulting.

The fact of the matter is that there are players currently operating in the highest tiers of World football that have all the tools to be World-Beaters but, for one reason or another, drop under the radar. Statistical analysis is a means by which such players can be brought to light and become viable alternatives to similar players who have been unfairly over-priced due to external circumstances and antiquated ideas of what constitutes talent.

To this end, I will use the rest of this article to analyse players that could be viable alternatives to Juan Cuadardo. This doesn’t mean the Colombian is a bad choice, he’s a very talented player who is capable of operating in a number of positions and who could be very successful at Old Trafford. In fact, I have a lot of sympathy for players like Cuadardo – he is simply doing his job to the best of his abilities, unfortunately though, external forces have inflated his value to such an extent that any potential transfer will burden him with unnecessarily high expectations. I’ll conclude this article with some suggestions of what these external forces may be, but first, let’s look at some players.

Below is the Analysis Model. Click on the MLR tab to see the players to be discussed here. If this is your first time with it, take a look at my first piece using it ( here ) for an explanation.

Dusan Tadic

This is not the best way to follow through on my intentions, as the 25 year old Serbian who spent last season at FC Twente is neither a like-for-like alternative for Cuadrado or an available one – having recently signed for Ronald Koeman’s new look Southampton. However, Tadic deserves a special mention for two reasons.

The first is that, in terms of attacking abilities, Tadic is by far the best player in the list. Looking at each players per game attacking contributions it would be easy to argue that Cuadrado did more going forward…

…but when we break down what those attacking contributions were, we see a different side to the story. Tadic managed the highest assist per game and the second highest goals per game rates out of the studied 16:

He also had the highest Key Passes per Game and Chances Created per Game rates:

He was also the second most deadly player in front of goal, taking 4.31 shots before hitting the back of the net. But perhaps what’s most impressive is how his attacking numbers fared against the best in Europe. His goals per game rate was 1.6 standard deviations higher than the average rate of the top 50 most prolific goalscoring wide men across the top leagues in England, Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Holland…

…and 4.4 standard deviations above the Chances Created pG average:

Although Tadic is not as defensively minded as Cuadrado, and therefore probably not what Man Utd are looking for, shouldn’t big clubs be interested in a player of Tadic’s stature? Well, yessir, they should. But as I said above, it’s way too late because Southampton have already done the business. This is the second reason that I’ve included Tadic – he’s the poster boy for cost-effective player recruitment. Tadic cost the Saints just over £8m. The sales of Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert to Liverpool brought in about £29m. Now have a look at some of these player’s stats from last season:

Tadic was signed for just over a quarter of the money raised by the sales of Lallana and Lambert and yet he created more opportunities than the former and scored more goals than the latter. Only time will tell if Tadic’s stats will hold up to the test of the Premier League but at least at £8m Koeman can consider the risk of failure mitigated.

Hakan Calhanoglu

Talking about ships that have already sailed. The name of Hakan Calhanoglu can be crossed off any potential suitor’s transfer wishlists because the Turkish youngster has moved from Hamburg to Bayer Leverkusen during the summer for around £12.6m. This was somewhat of a coup for the German outfit who apparently had to fight off competition from the likes of Real and Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City to secure the young man’s signature – competition is always likely to be stiff when your target can put away a 40 yard free kick:

In terms of ability, Calhanoglu seems to be cut from the same kind of cloth as Tadic. Whilst never surpassing the Serbian, Calhanoglu (5 years Tadic’s junior) displayed impressive attacking prowess last season, keeping pace with Europe’s finest in a number of key areas:

The Turkish winger was also one of the few players in the list that achieved a positive z-score for cross success – a slightly outdated tool of the wide man’s trade but still useful:

He’s also more defensively capable than both Tadic and Cuadrado, a sign of a hard worker that would be capable of laying a deeper role if required:

It does indeed seem then, that Leverkusen did well to hook this one, however, if some reports are to be believed, they will have to work pretty hard to keep him in their net. Varying reports suggest that some of the other clubs that were linked with Calhanoglu have felt some … (what’s the correct term for non-buyer’s regret?) and will be willing to pay the cash to make his stay in Leverkusen a short one. Either way though, this is a win-win for his newest owners – if he stays, they get to watch a very talented 20 year old mature into the peak of his career; and if he goes you can bet it will be for more than £12.6m.

Leonardo Bittencourt

In the modern game a lot more is expected of a wide layer than just attacking prowess. With the advent of the overlapping full back, the wide midfielder has to be capable of taking up defensive positions and giving cover.

It is uncommon for Jurgen Klopp and Borussia Dortmund to let a starlet go for anything short of full whack; it therefore comes as a surprise that they allowed their young German/Brazilian Leonardo Bittencourt make the move to Hannover last summer. Rumour has it, however, that after an impressive debut season Klopp may yet make a move to bring the 20 year old back to the Westfalenstadion.

Bittencourt has some impressive attacking credentials. Domestically he was above average in terms of chance creation (key passes and assists) and was one of only three players to have a higher dribbles per game average than the top 50 European wingers:

Real impressions were made however, in his own half. Defensively Bittencourt is one of the strongest players in the list:

We can see that only two players made more defensive contributions per game (Bittencourt is the red circle) but neither came anywhere close to matching his attacking contributions. He also blitzed all competition in terms of team contribution – he made 6.4% of Hannover’s defensive actions per game:

Surprising then, that his tackle success rate was one of the lowest (tied with Cuadrado)…

…still, only one other player made more tackles per game than Bittencourt:

The contribution chart suggests that Bittencourt has the energy and discipline to be a box-to-box player, however he appears to be a rough diamond in need of a polish – his technical stats are good, they are just not World Class yet. Still, with a market value of £5.7m perhaps it will not be long before a bigger club takes on the duties of his education.

Jonathan Schmid

So far we have looked at two taken players and a star for the future – all players who have proven to be as effective as Cuadrado but none who would could be viable alternatives for the Colombian in the current transfer window. Freiburg’s Jonathan Schmid, however, is.

He is relatively unknown outside of Germany, but the 24 year old French winger can essentially go toe-to-toe with Cuadrado in all aspects of the game.

Defensively, Schmid contributed more per game than Cuadrado, and his per game % of teams Defensive Actionss was the 4th highest:

Granted, Schmid’s tackle success rate was not high but it was higher than Cuadrado’s

Cuadrado has the numerical advantage on Schmid for attacking contributions per game but this needs some qualification. The majority of the Colombian’s extra contributions were thanks to the largest number of dribbles per game and a higher goal scoring rate than Schmid. However, Schmid  had higher rates of Assists, Key Passes and, therefore, Chances Created per Game than Cuadrado. In fact, Schmid performed above the average top 50 European wingers in these areas:

Which all leads us to the ultimate question – who would be the better transfer target, Schmid or Cuadrado? Llets start with some basics maths – Cuadrado contributes to a goal every 1.9 games, Schmid every 2.3. This would suggest that Cuadrado would be the obvious choice. But we haven’t counted defensive contributions. We’ve seen that Schmid contributes more defensively than Cuadrado – and, if United are looking at recruiting a wingback – which they seem to be, the Frenchman would be a more sensible choice. I think the kicker is the price difference. Schmid is currently valued at £4.4m – about an eighth of the price of Cuadrado. It therefore becomes a question of whether a less frequent contributor to defence but a higher contributor to attack is worth the extra £25-£30 million. In my opinion it isn’t. Schmid offers a hell of a lot and is proven in important aspects of his game where Cuadrado was found lacking, yes, \Schmid was involved in less goals but the difference between the two rates is far too small to justify the price gap.

But can we realistically theorise that a club like Manchester United would drop their interest in Cuadrado if they were given information about a player like Schmid, or Bittencourt? Probaby not…

…But Why?

I think there is a number of reasons both reasonable and unreasonable. We’ll do reasonable first:

1) Statistics only tell half of the story. As regards player evaluation, stat analysis is the perfect complement to conventional scouting. I envision it as a means by which to narrow down a scout’s search – statistics give scouts leads to go on, and then watching the player in the flesh completes the picture. Chances are then that United studied several players as potential suitors to what they envisage of Cuadrado, but none impressed in person like the Colombian.

2) Player are no longer just players. As regards the price tag attached to Cuadrado we must now assume that the fee includes consideration of the players’ commercial worth – sponsorship deals, t-shirt sales, image rights. £34m may seem like a hefty initial outlay but there could well be profit to be made from the investment – on and off the field.

Now, the unreasonable:

1) Cuadrado undeniably had a good season. He scored 11 goals and made another 5. He helped his side reach an Italian Cup Final and the Europa League and he was a big player for an en vogue team in a commercially successful World Cup. A result of which is that everybody knows who Juan Guillermo Cuadrado is, a lot of people have seen him play and can testify to his quality. To this extent, safety in numbers suggests that he is worth the extra money as many would say that he’s a sure thing. There are two problems with that. First, we don’t know if he is a sure thing – a good season at one club does not guarantee success elsewhere – ask Marouane Fellaini, Andy Carroll or Fernando Torres. High visibility is no justification for a transfer and vice versa – just because fewer people have seen a player like Schmid does not mean he is not a viable transfer target for a big club.

2) Juan Guillermo Cuadrado dribbles a lot. This is not an allusion to any oral malfunction the Colombian winger may have, this is a matter of footballing fact. The ball is glued to his feet. Last season in Serie A, Fiorentina’s star performer completed 3.7 dribbles per game (a league high) and a respectable 1.6 dribbles per game in a successful World Cup campaign for his home country.

Now, it’s a pretty tenuous link, but I have a feeling that perhaps this propensity toward the dribble may be linked to Cuadrado’s price tag. Exhibit 1 – A quick regression of the dribbles per game averages of the 16 players I studied this week and their respective values showed a positive correlation (of about r= 0.7) between dribbling and market value. This is of course far too small a data set and ignores way too many other variables to be considered as proof of the link, but don’t you think there is some logic to it? A player who can show skill on the ball and who can take on other players at a blistering pace at the highest level is going to garner some attention. This is especially so with wingers – whose traditional role has been to quickly carry the ball down the flanks into opposition territory.

It kind of reminds me of the Peacock effect – it’s not the strongest or most agile peacock that gets the girl, it’s the prettiest. The same is true of Cuadrado – he may not be the strongest, or the best passer, or fulfill other duties to an expected standard but he can do pretty things that drive potential suitors bat-shit crazy – driving them to take irrational and extreme actions to make him theirs. I suppose, in this sense, we are continuing the idea of visibility.  Last season Cuadrado was one of the go-to-guys for Fiorentina and so was afforded a lot of time on the ball – time to show the world what he can do. But if we cut through the pretty ducking, weaving and step-overs his actual output was only slightly higher than Schmid’s (in attack at least).

This is not necessarily a reason to say that players like Schmid should be chosen ahead of Cuadrado as a transfer target, but I would heavily argue that on grounds of ability alone the gap in value between the two is wholly unjustified. As a wise man once said:

“Believed in truth read by talking heads, I formed my opinions ’round the words they said, They told me what to buy and the price I should pay
I’ve been deceived in a million ways” – Uncle Lucius (A Million Ways)

Next time, Central Midfielders…

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