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Big Data Dig: In the footsteps of Championship giants
Jack Clarke is the messiah, Isaiah Jones a very naughty boy...
Ali Maxwell with Luton Analytics
While George and I are not data scientists, and our skills in Excel - let alone Python or R - leave a lot to be desired, there’s no denying that our relationship with data analysis in football has been a huge factor in the way we have covered the EFL since 2016.
As my colleague and friend likes to say, we are “slaves to the data” and in particular the level of information it can provide which, when matched with contextual knowledge and hours upon hours of watching games and highlights, gives you the platform to say or write thousands of words each week telling the stories of these magical, maddening leagues.
Since launching the newsletter, we’ve been wanting to do a series of what would broadly be called ‘data writing’. In fact, we think it’s what a lot of our subscribers expect of us.
So we called our friend Ben from Luton Analytics, who has done wonderfully well to turn our rambling requests into visualisations. Clean viz, in NTT20 colours. Woof!
Initially, I thought we could present some ‘data tables’, attempt to parse or contextualise raw numbers, and pick out some early trends of the EFL season. But, to be honest, I thought that sounded unbelievably dry, and the sort of thing you can find elsewhere.
We wanted to get creative. So we thought:
Who are our favourite EFL players from the last decade?
Which two statistical metrics best summed up their unique playing personality?
And which current EFL players are doing the best impression?
Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce:
The Grealish Grade
The Bellingham Bracket
The Sharp Spectrum
The Taarabt Test
The Buendia Index
The Hoolahan Hierarchy
Accepting that we’re using small samples, and no doubt committing some heinous data crimes, please hold our hands and dive in.
NB – this piece covers the Championship, but League One and League Two will follow soon.
The Grealish Grade
Metrics: Dribbles per 90 x Fouls Suffered per 90
You remember Jack. He’s won the Champions League now. A Premier League or two. FA Cup. But for a scarcely believable three seasons, he played in the Championship. He was absolutely incredible. He dribbled a lot. He was, very simply, miles better than the level. And he got booted up in the air, a lot.
His 2023/24 Championship heir is named after him.
Jack Clarke plays on the left side for Sunderland. He dribbles a lot. This season in particular, it seems clear that he is better than the level. And he’s getting booted up in the air, a lot.
Kyle Walker-Peters also has the air of a player who believes he’s here for a good time, not a long time. He’s spent much of this season slaloming through opposition tackles from an inverted right-back role, and has the bruises to boot.
We have to talk about Scott Twine. The guy isn’t even that interested in dribbling, so why the need for defenders to absolutely batter him every time he gets it?! Well, it’s because the pre-match report says: ‘DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, LET SCOTT TWINE SHOOT FROM ANYWHERE WITHIN 45 YARDS.’
The issue is… he’s among the best free kick takers in world football. He scored six in one season for MK Dons – better than David Beckham’s record of five in one Premier League season – and two for Burnley last season in 550 minutes of action. He hasn’t scored one yet for Hull City, but surely will soon.
Speaking of Hull, Jaden Philogene does a passable Grealish impression. Having had two and a half years of Grealish study as a youngster as Aston Villa, the effect on him is clear. He’s got incredible close control while carrying the ball at speed – truly, one of the smoothest players at the level.
Jon Rowe is getting booted for the mere crime of ‘being good at dribbling’, as is Leeds’ flying Dutchman, Crysencio Summerville. Now you do not punish someone, Dutch or otherwise, for being good at dribbling.
What else can we say here? Samuel Edozie has got real puppy energy; a whirlwind of chaotic, skilful dribbling where you’re not sure even he knows what’s going to happen next. Patrick Roberts should be commended for being, if anything, too honest. And it’s fair to say that Siriki Dembélé would be right in the top-right portion of this, were he not just below the minutes threshold.
So, there are plenty of dribbly types getting chopped down in the Championship. But look what adding 2018/19 Jack Grealish does to the chart.
The Bellingham Bracket
Metrics: Tackles won per 90 x Progressive Carries per 90
We had to give this a go. Our main memories of 16-year-old Jude Bellingham are that a) he carried the ball with quality and efficiency, and b) he had that dawg in him: a mixture of competitiveness, tenacity and incredible physical profile which stood out more than the six goal contributions. He flew into tackles with alacrity.
Acknowledging the small numbers involved here, feast your eyes on Championship midfielders that carry the ball and win the ball.
Massimo Luongo, come on down! He’ll beat your press with a drop of the shoulder, he’ll happily pass through you and he’ll steal the ball off you. His Ipswich midfield mate, Sam Morsy, will do the same.
Gabriel Sara is doing a lot of things you want your central midfielder to do. Tenacious in the tackle. Quality on the ball. Creating chances and scoring goals. Sounds a bit like Jude Bellingham.
Coventry’s Ben Sheaf has been a data darling for a few seasons now, and his team-mate, Josh Eccles, joins him in doing Good Midfield Things. Oliver Rathbone and Wilfred Ndidi are posting similar numbers in very different manners and in very different tactical approaches, which is always fun.
As for Messrs Azaz, Dewsbury-Hall, Armstrong: yes, those carries are very impressive, but stick a foot in will you, lads? Ali McCann! Preston’s Pac-Man. We love and respect your desire to gobble up the ball, but would it kill you to dribble with it now and then?
There’s no one quite like Jude Bellingham. Wait – that’s not true at all. Brother Jobe is playing for Sunderland. Like Jude, he’s being played in a few different positions: up front, #10, #8 and deeper in midfield. That’s likely going to affect his numbers somewhat, and his presence on this chart, but it’s fair to say he’s got some ‘carry the ball, win the ball’ DNA.
The Sharp Index
Metrics: Non-pen xG per shot x Touches per 90 (where less is more)
Billy Sharp’s all-round game was underrated, particularly in the last few seasons. But at his core, Sharp was a finisher – the most prolific poacher in Championship history. He didn’t mess around.
To score well on the Sharp Spectrum, we don’t want you to touch the ball. We don’t want you involved at all, really. When the ball is near the goal, though, you need to be there. Between the posts. Penalty spot or closer. The cake will arrive fresh out the oven. But it needs icing.
And you’re the only one with the piping bag.
The main thing to say is: this type of player is NOT flavour of the month in the modern Championship.
Look at the Top Scorers table: Sammie Szmodics, Adam Armstrong, Jack Clarke, John Swift, Jon Rowe. These players are not poacher types. Like last season’s Golden Boot winner, Chuba Akpom, they’re involved in build-up. They are wide forwards or #10s. They just happen to take shots and score goals, too. The modern Championship goalscorer has evolved hugely in the last decade.
This is one chart that’s certainly affected by the small sample size. Our outliers, Ike Ugbo and Jerry Yates, have taken only 12 and 13 shots respectively. That means that the odd six-yard box tap-in is going to do a lot of heavy lifting for the xG per shot metric. “Pressing and poaching” probably best sums up the roles of the two South Wales strikers, with both active out of possession but rarely touching the ball until the final moment. They’ll likely be back in the warm embrace of the likes of Scott Hogan, Nahki Wells, Vakoun Bayo and Adam Idah in another two months.
Liam Delap is interesting to me. The Manchester City loanee has performed impressively for Hull this season, stretching play and using his physical attributes and movement to look far more dangerous than he has in previous loan spells. But he isn’t touching the ball much and he has taken just seven shots inside the box, four of them blocked. Delap may have scored 32 goals in 32 PL2 games, but he isn’t projecting as much of a poacher this season… Unlike his team-mate Aaron Connolly, one of the surprise performers of the season so far. Connolly is taking good shots at an impressive volume (0.19 xG per shot, 3.35 shots per game). Highly dangerous, the Irishman leads the league for non-penalty goals per 90 for those who have played more than 500 minutes.
Want a peek behind the Big Data Dig curtain? We debated whether this should be the Dwight Gayle, the Jordan Rhodes, the Teemu Pukki. But here are the stats that cemented Billy Sharp as our prototype poacher: using WhoScored’s shot data for all players, we know that 92% of Sharp’s shots came from inside the box, and 18% from inside the six-yard box. Gayle took 78% inside the box and 15% inside six yards, while Pukki was at 83% inside 18 yards and just 7% inside six – clearly the Finn didn’t like getting his hands dirty! Jordan Rhodes: 86% inside box, 15% inside the six-yard box.
Funnily enough, Scott Hogan, who is on the Sharp Spectrum above, has taken 93% shots inside the box and 17% inside the six-yard box. As the closest fit to Sharp in terms of shot profile, it feels as if Hogan (who is 31) would have had an even better career if he had been born 5-10 years earlier. Over a decade in the Championship is not to be sniffed at, and he has scored at a respectable 0.4 goals per 90 in the second tier, but his profile still feels like something of a dying art.
The Taarabt Test
Metrics: Progressive Carries x Non-penalty xG over-performance
If the streets won’t forget Adel Taarabt, why should we?
The best individual season in Championship history needs to be commemorated.
Although both players drifted all over the pitch from a left-sided starting position and dribbled past opposition players as if they were traffic cones, the crucial difference between Adel Taarabt and Jack Grealish is goals. There were 19 of ‘em in 2010/11 for Adel! Rolling in the deep.
Six were penalties, sure. But seven were scored from outside the box. Now, you may be thinking: we don’t have xG data for that season, so how can we be sure that he overperformed his xG to such a notable standard? To which I would chuckle for a long time, before repeating ‘seven goals from outside the box’.
So, let’s see who carries the ball for fun and over-performs their xG by scoring statistically improbable goals.
Oh God, this is like Bong Joon-ho winning four Oscars in one night. It’s Jack Clarke again. He’s receiving it wide. He’s dribbling inside, driving past tackles and, crucially, he’s crashing in strikes from range, too powerful and precise for the ‘keepers.
Jon Rowe is, as listeners to the podcast know, the reason that I breathe and the reason that I still believe. And he is executing this season. Right foot, left foot, head - that sort of multi-faceted finishing is always going to out-run the xG numbers, and long may it continue. John Swift scores lasers, but his laconic on-ball style means he lacks the dribbling volume necessary.
Matheus Martins feels like the most likely candidate to challenge
Bong Joon-ho Jack Clarke by the end of the season. It’s the same for Stephy Mavididi, but so far his shooting has lacked the sort of power and technique that mean long-range goals will come regularly.
Manuel Benson would have broken this chart last season.
The Buendia Index
Metrics: Goal-creating actions per 90 x Yellow Cards per 90
As the chant goes: Emi Buendia / He drinks Sangria / He makes a beautiful assist / And then has more Sangria / And then gets a little tired and hot-headed / And then does a few fouls / And then gets booked.
We loved Buendia’s rare brain chemistry. Very few players in Championship history have had the vision and composure in crowded areas to thread the sort of quality passes he made to Pukki & Co. And those that do, very rarely have the competitiveness and aggression of Roy Keane alongside it.
Lovely Isaiah Jones is producing goal-creating actions for his team and headaches for referees. Across 6,000 Championship minutes in his career, Jones has more yellow cards (22) than goal contributions (21). Meanwhile, Josh Windass is doing all of the fouling with none of the creativity, while Jaden Philogene has the creative quality but needs to become more of a pain in Bidace off the ball.
There’s no one quite like Emi, I’m afraid.
The Hoolahan Hierarchy
Key passes per 90 x Shots per 90 (inverted)
He had absolutely no interest in scoring. Particularly by the end of his career, shots were an absolute last resort, to be taken only when he didn’t think he had a pass to complete.
But could anyone pick the lock quite like Wessi? Thread the needle? You don’t see the phrase ‘slide-rule pass’ anymore. Perhaps it was quietly retired by the Football Writers’ Association when Hoolahan stopped playing.
Taking less than a shot per game, but creating more than one, is the dream here.
Sorba Thomas is closest, but he’s not quite the right profile of creator. He’s a cross-whipper.
Pleasingly, Ryan Hedges and Yáser Asprilla are both lovely lefties like Hoolahan. Asprilla certainly feels like the most similar profile, and hopefully gets more chance to prove it after only three starts this season. I’m not sure if Wes visited Colombia in early 2003, but Asprilla does seem to share some of his footballing DNA. [Send this to the lawyers to check – Ed.]
Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall has a chance to be a creative cult hero, but is simply doing too many goals, which is just a bit mainstream. It’s the abstention of goals that makes a True Hoolahan.
Yáser, Ryan: the stage is yours.
It’s a good time to be an EFL fan that’s ‘into the numbers’. Compared to 2016, when we first started the Not The Top 20 Podcast, this is a golden age. Whether it’s with Opta Analyst, Fbref, WhoScored, FotMob, Transfermarkt, SofaScore, Wyscout (£) and more, there are many resources for the enthusiast, the amateur, the aspiring analyst.
Many of the most talented data content providers have been hoovered up by clubs, their work now consumed by just half a dozen people within a club. But there is still a ton of amazing work being done. For example, Albion Analytics’ generosity allows anyone to produce player dashboards for any EFL player over the last three seasons. How incredible is that?
I really hope you’ve enjoyed this piece. It’s possibly not what you expected when a ‘data deep dive’ was promised, and frankly it wasn’t what I expected, either. But it’s been a blast to write with Ben from Luton Analytics. It’s the sort of data-led thought experiment that I’ve not seen done elsewhere, and I think that makes it worthwhile.
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Thanks for reading, and go well.