My Thoughts On: Statistics in Football

Nothing seems to divide the footballing world more than the use and implementation of statistics; whether it’s from clubs, television pundits or anyone on Twitter. My opinion, on the whole, has leaned more on the positive side since learning about how much they can tell you about the beautiful game.

Firstly, stats have been something I’ve wanted to grasp since first learning about it entirely. On my original blog (which I deleted right before starting this one), I first used them in a post discussing Tiemoue Bakayoko and a potential move to Manchester United (yes, that long ago). From then on, I would try and include different statistics concerning the topic at hand. Looking back, however, I don’t think I did understand what I was saying, using them for nothing more than emphasising my point, instead of challenging that view. It’s something you see a lot on twitter. Many accounts with a famous player as their avatar do love to throw out random stats about their favourite player to push their agenda further. It’s something along the lines of x player has scored more goals against the big clubs than y player. The one thing you have to remember about stats and football is they aren’t wrong, people are.

The most significant benefit of using stats in football is its method of narrowing down your needs. We’ll get onto why the general stats can never tell the full story of a player, but you can use them to figure out what a player does. Looking at a player’s total aerial duels can tell you if said player can deal with the ball in the air, while total passes can say to you who in a team is the player responsible for keeping possession. It does sound rather simple, and there are some complexities to it. However, some of the more well-known stats are still some of the most useful. Seeing how many shots a striker puts up is still something I rely on when big money moves are involved. Stats can help narrow down your options if you’re looking at who you’d like your club to sign.

Context is the most important thing to consider when stats are involved. The numbers can tell you a lot about a particular player, but it’s essential to not only look at where he ranks in his club but to watch him with your own two eyes. Let’s take Jack Grealish, for example, and I’ll explain why later. Grealish’s return to the Premier League has been stunning, and the numbers even show this. The midfielder’s making 2.7 shot assists per game, more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, David Silva and Willian. It does show that Grealish, on the whole, does create more chances in a game than some big performances for top-six sides. However, you quickly realise that the reason Grealish is creating so much is because of the style of play that Dean Smith prefers. He wants his star player to be on the ball as much as possible, to ensure his side have the best chance of avoiding the drop.

You should always look at the numbers behind the numbers (if that makes sense). James Maddison has been a high-level creator since arriving in the Premier League. Maddison is second in the league for total shot-creating actions (154), one place ahead of Grealish (141). It’s arguably the main reason why the pair are put side to side, especially with potential big moves on the horizon. But when looking into their passing, there’s one area where they massively differ. From open play, Grealish has made 102 passes that lead to a shot attempt, while Maddison has created a much lower 70 passes. The other part of Maddison’s passing game is his set-piece delivery, something where he does excel over the Villa captain. Maddison has completed 51 dead-ball passes that lead to a shot attempt, 36 ahead of Grealish. While both players are great creators, it’s evident that in the area of passing, they can offer something completely different, depending on what your team needs. Manchester United might find Jack Grealish’s versatility and creativity from open play more tempting since Fernandes handles their set-pieces. At the same time, a team like Arsenal would prefer Maddison, who could replace Ozil as the team’s primary set-piece taker.

But as I’ve learned more, I’ve also begun to sympathise they the group who are entirely against the use of numbers in sports. We’ll start with the obvious point of making a sport built on enjoyment and insane highs and boiling it down to models and figures. People watch football for the thrill, and while there are a lot of players who back up their entertaining performances with good numbers, there are a lot who don’t. Adama Traore is an absolute delight to watch sprinting down the wing and trying to take on a whole team on his own, but the numbers label him quite inefficient. Even the idea of Manchester United keeping Pogba and signing Grealish to play alongside Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial sounds like a defensive nightmare for any coach, but who cares. The potential interplay, magic and spectacular goals will make people run to their seats for the first time since prime Rooney. I’ll always say that clubs should follow the o-ring theory (to summarise, it encourages clubs to focus on improving their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths) but it’s hard to argue against the case of wanting to watch and enjoy football.

In all honesty, the only stat that I’ll always defend and encourage people to look at and use in expected goals. It’s one of the more complicated stats to understand at first, but once grasped, it can become beneficial when viewing matches and team performances. As you can probably imagine, I don’t have the time to keep up with every team’s performances in Europe. It’s why my focus is now primarily Bundesliga, Premier League and Champions League matches. Expected goals can give me a rough estimation of how teams are performing in their domestic league. I do generally keep up with who is topping leagues for shot assists, shots, aerial duels and other applicable numbers. Expected goals won’t give you the full picture, but it can give you an indication on what to look out for when next watching a team you haven’t seen for a large part of the season.

The last thing to mention regarding this subject is never to alienate people. Unless your career has an association with stats in football (data companies, writers, scouts .etc), there is simply no need to wave your superior knowledge to someone who either doesn’t understand the use of numbers or has no intention learning about it. There are still plenty of experts I follow on twitter who’s thoughts and opinions I value even if they don’t throw out xG numbers every match day. Be wary of how you’re using stats, and never include them unless you understand or have some relevance to the topic. Nothing can ever tell you more about a player than your own two eyes. If you’re ever interested in a player’s numbers, watch them in a game and see if they’re strengths remain. Never entirely rely on numbers for anything, because they will never tell you the full story.


Have Aston Villa Done Enough to Stay Up? Assessing Their Summer Signings

Aston Villa have earned praise and criticism for their continuous recruitment this summer. They seem to be going down the same route as Fulham; recruitment players from weaker leagues that could either be great or bad. However, I’d argue that their business, in general, is a lot worse than the Cottages last season.

Fulham brought in a lot of players who had a positive reputation beforehand. Andre Schurrle was a Premier League proven winger, Mitrovic had that bite and dominance to the success in the league and Seri was linked to Barcelona only in the previous year. A lot of experts thought these players could have been snapped up by bigger clubs, myself included. Last summer, I wanted to see Zambo Anguissa join one of either Arsenal or Chelsea. What happened to Fulham is challenging to explain because so many players had a down year all at once. It’s an anomaly for many players on that side, and it’s how history will view that team.

One area of context is vital when discussing the comparisons between both of these sides. The main criticism against Fulham signing so many players was because they managed to keep their promotion team together. Their goal was to add as much quality as possible to ensure their chances of survival had increased. Villa were in a very different situation. Their most used eleven during their promotion campaign featured ageing forwards and defenders who were on loan. It meant there was a lot of surgery required to turn this squad into an average Premier League side. It makes the insane amount of signings more necessary than Fulham’s in the previous year.

Embed from Getty Images

Villa, while spending £20 million more than Fulham, have brought in more players on permanent deals from leagues where the quality can be questioned. We’ll go through all of their signings so far in this window and judge whether they are good or bad, giving them a final verdict of either a hit or miss.

Wesley (Club Brugge) – £22.50m

Replacing Tammy Abraham is a difficult task for a promoted club. The Chelsea forward was absolutely sensational during his second spell in the Championship, scoring 26 goals for Villa. He proved once again that he is just too good for England’s second tier and should be starting in the Premier League. However, due to Chelsea’s transfer ban, the chances of signing Abraham were next to impossible. The signing of a striker of a vital, and unsurprisingly, I don’t like this movie.

Embed from Getty Images

I’m not going to act like I’ve watched a lot of Wesley, but judging from the numbers I’ve seen, it doesn’t look so good. When signing players from a bad league, they need to be players who have truly stood out and are clearly better than their competition, and Wesley hasn’t done that. The Brazilian scored 12 non-penalty goals in the Jupiler Pro League. The arguments made against this is he is a target man who’s technical strengths allow him to bring others into play, think Sebastien Haller. However, the forward only wins 1.5 aerial duels per 90, not nearly enough to justify that opinion. I could be very wrong about him, but based on initial impressions, this could be one of the worst signings of the summer come May.

Verdict – Miss

Tyrone Mings (Bournemouth) – £20.07m

Signing players who succeeded on loan is usually pretty safe business, depending on how much-said player will cost. Mings was excellent last season, but paying over £20 million for a player with an injury-struck career, it does seem like a lot of money for him. Mings has missed two full seasons due to long term injuries. Usually, when spending a lot of money on players with very little resell value, you want guarantees that these players will be able to play as many games as possible. Mings is a risk, and while you want to keep some of the key players of that promotion campaign together, Villa have definitely overpaid for him. Mings could perform very well on his return back to the Premier League, but there was definitely better investments out there.

Verdict – Miss

Douglas Luiz (Manchester City) – £15.12m 

The first transfer I seemingly like, Douglas Luiz arrives to compete for those key midfield positions, offering versatility, solid defensive numbers and a very, very good dribbler. Luiz comes after impressing on loan at Girona, Manchester City’s sister club that has housed the Champions younger players in the past. Luiz didn’t necessarily have a breakout season, but he has shown enough to justify a side taking a risk on him. He’s still only 21, and for £15 million, it seems like a pretty good deal for him.

Verdict – Hit

Matt Targett (Southampton) – £13.95m

Targett has played a lot of Premier League games for a player who is still pretty young. He has also done very well in the Championship with Fulham during their previous promotion campaign. For a reasonable fee, Villa have brought in a decent full-back who is good enough defensively, however, the main reason for his signing is his crossing. Targett has consistently averaged over an accurate cross per game over the past 3 seasons, one of the highest in the league. He could function as a good creator for Dean Smith’s side, who were one of the most prominent crossing sides during the Championship. His inclusion makes, and wouldn’t depart if the team do suffer relegation. This is another arrival I’m okay with.

Embed from Getty Images

Verdict – Hit 

Ezri Konsa (Brentford) – 11.97m

When discussing Tyrone Mings, I mentioned finding value in the market, and the possibility of better deals than Mings and Konsa is a better deal. The England under-21 only arrived at the Bees last summer and is already on the move once again. Brentford have earned a reputation of finding value in players domestically and across the continent; Konsa is another example of that. For a 21-year-old, the defender has shown a lot of promise and enough reason for a Premier League to consider him. He started 42 games for Brentford last season, completing 80% of his tackles, making over 50 passes and 3.6 clearances per game. What his most impressive about Konsa is how clean he is, only committing 18 fouls last season. There is a potential England international here and was picked up for a perfect fee.

Verdict – Villa’s best signing

Marvelous Nakamba (Club Brugge) – £10.80m

Initially, it seemed that Villa were going to spend up to £30 million for Leeds defensive midfielder, Kalvin Philipps, but opted to bring in Luiz and Nakamba for less. It was a very sensible move from the promoted side. With Luiz a good signing and Nakamba another good bit of business, I’d say yes. While Luiz is fine defensively and a good ball progressor, Nakamba is definitely on the defensive side. While his numbers in Belgium are unattainable for me, his time at Vitesse is. He showed himself to be a prominent ball winner, consistently putting over 5 tackles and interceptions per 90. While I’m not the biggest fan of Wesley’s signing due to his numbers not standing out in Belgium, Nakamba is a different case. No matter which league you are in, players like Nakamba, Ndidi or Gueye will succeed. Their skillset means they can succeed due to their game being primarily on defensive actions. While Nakamba won’t be an attacking threat, he will adequately cover for McGinn and Grealish as they focus on ball progression and scoring goals. Nakamba is still only 25, meaning it is another good bit of business for Villa.

Verdict – Hit 

Trezeguet (Kasimpasa) – £9.00m 

The Turkish Super League is a real mix bag in terms of recruiting talent. While many bigger clubs like to offload their highest earners to Turkey, signing players from there is quite a rarity. Trezeguet is an excellent dribbler, and while scoring 9 goals from the left-wing does sound promising for a 24-year-old, 5 of those goals did come from outside of the box. The likeliness of the Egyptian scoring that many again is very unlikely and I do not expect him to be this threatening against Premier League opposition. Trezeguet is expected to be a better bench option, which makes sense. He can be unpredictable, and his high dribbling could be great against tiring defences.

Embed from Getty Images

Verdict – A hit if used sparingly 

Anwar El Ghazi (Lille) – £8.10m

Not much to say here. El Ghazi was used often during Villa’s promotion and keeping him is a safe thing to do, considering the lack of wide players Villa have. He doesn’t cost nearly as much as Mings will cost, and is unlikely to leave if Villa to succumb to relegation.

Verdict – No issues

Tom Heaton (Burnley) – £7.92m

While I do think they have slightly overspent on the 33-year-old, all three promoted sides have proven that a good shot-stopper is vital. Norwich managed to sign Ralph Fahrmann on loan and Sheffield brought back Dean Henderson for another season. While the other two sides were justified in their signings, Villa were in desperate need of a goalkeeper. There was constant rotation in that position throughout last season. Jed Steer did manage to earn a place as the number one near the end of the season, but he isn’t good enough for the Premier League. Heaton is a massive improvement over the three goalkeepers they have at the club, with his performances for Burnley earning him a lot of praise since his arrival in the Premier League. It’s a safe signing that has no drawbacks in terms of performances.

Verdict – Hit

Bjorn Engels (Reims) – £7.20m

Engels is third centre back arrival of the summer and is by far the most interesting. While I’m very excited to see how Konsa adapts to the Premier League, Engels is still an excellent addition. The Belgian defender played in a Reims side that defended very well, having the 6th best defensive record in Ligue 1. Engels was a considerable part of that, winning 66% of his aerial duels and making 5.4 clearances per game. My only issue is that while he could perform well against sides who prefer a more target-man approach, he might struggle against better teams in general. Engels only completed around half of his tackles last season, winning only 11. This is primarily down to style of play but could become a problem against the top-level teams. I think he is an okay addition, but I worry he won’t get the playing time he might want.

Verdict – No issue

Jota (Birmingham City) – £4.05m

This was a strange one. This was marketed as Dean Smith bringing back a player he was fond of during his time at Brentford. Villa were in desperate need for wide talent and bringing in the Spaniard for next to nothing does make sense. Jota is a decent creator, but he does lack any sort of ability to beat a man. He might struggle against Premier League full-backs, but for the price, he is bound to offer something for Villa, even if it is minimal.

Verdict – Hit for the price

Kortney Hause (Wolves) – £3.06m

The final transfer is another centre-back, this time from Wolves. Hause is another signing I don’t have an issue with. Hause, while not a mainstay in the Villa side last season, did start over 10 games for the team and performed well when given the opportunity. This signing did feel slightly unnecessary, considering it means Villa now have 5 centre backs at the club. However, the fee is so small I don’t think it is much of an issue

Verdict – Hit

Embed from Getty Images

One might think if my opinion on a majority of the signings is positive, then why have not liked Aston Villa’s business as a whole. It’s because they spent over £40 million on two players who I do not think are a good value for money. It mainly points to Wesley being their only attacking signing of the summer, meaning there is a lot of pressure on him to perform well. I don’t think he will score many goals, but that isn’t what he is there for. He is there to be a focal point and allow Grealish, McGinn, Hourihane and Luiz to push forward and find space around the Brazilian. Last season, Aston Villa’s starting midfielders contributed to 43 goals. It is highly unlikely that they will add to that many, but it seems Smith is hoping that McGinn and Grealish can similarly replicate their success. That still isn’t enough to save Villa from relegation. They’ve lost a lot of goals through Tammy returning to Chelsea, and that could be the difference. Missing out on Maupay has a massive part in this. Villa were chasing the Brentford forward for a majority for the summer but failed to get his signature. His arrival could have brought the goals they need. I predict Villa, alongside Sheffield United, to go straight back down. I do like a lof these signings, but the lack of goals is what I worry about.

Championship Play-offs: Who Will Earn Promotion?

The overall quality of the Championship has been improving every year, and it has been by far its most interesting this season. Fans attacking players, defenders going in goal, brawls on the pitch, manager meltdowns. It’s been a season where there has always been a headline. So with a playoffs approaching, and my own Championship knowledge not being as vast as I would like, let’s preview the biggest games of the season, to see which side will earn promotion into the Premier League.

Leeds United

While Marcelo Bielsa joining Leeds was a huge move at the time, I had my doubts. Bielsa has had a reputation of starting seasons very strongly, but eventually his sides tire and begin to show cracks near the end of the season. It occured with his most well known sides with Bilbao, Marseille and Lille all starting much better than they finish. Nevertheless, it was a positive move that showed the club at least had ambition to compete and were serious about promotion.

Leeds have been excellent this season, and it has by far been of Bielsa’s finest achievements in recent years. While Leeds don’t neccessarily have a bad side, it wasn’t a side that was tipped for promotion, with a midtable finish being expected for the Argentine’s debut season. With the Championship season being longer than any league he has managed in recently, it made sense. Bielsa’s system is one that demands a lot from its players, it seemed unlikely that they could play at their best for the whole season. While this has been true (we’ll touch on that late), it should not take away from just how good they have been all season. The team has bought into what Bielsa is asking of them, and has given new life to some of these players. The manager has built a team that doesn’t rely too heavily on certain players, with the key to the team being the system. Leeds move the ball up the field with great speed and intelligence, with players constantly moving to find space. It’s a system that needs extremely good centre backs, an intelligent striker and midfielders who can help exploit the space in the final third that is created from said striker. It’s meant that Leeds have been the best at creating goal scoring opportunites, with the Yorkshire side taking 17.2 shots a game, 1.8 more than winners Norwich. Their average the highest possession in the divison, and they face the least amount of shots per game in the league, with 9.4. To say that these players have flourished under Bielsa is an understatement. Leeds are putting in numbers that are reminiscent of all of Bielsa’s previous sides. They put in more tackles than any other side with 19.6 per game, and their high line means they catch more opponents offside than anyone else. They have stood out in so many departments that it explains why they were favourites for automatic promotion for a majority of the season.

There are a lot of players in this side that have truly stood out. Let’s start with the defenders, where Liam Cooper and Pontus Jansson have been absolutely fantastic. Both defenders already possessed great athleticism and strength, which made them perfect for this system. Both have been putting in 2.3 interceptions per game, the most in the side. Out of the pair, Liam Cooper has been the stand out. The Scotsman has average more passes per game than any other player in the side, with 67, and ranks 3rd in the team for long balls. His range of passing has helped Leeds distribute effectively from the back, and has given a strong backline to a side so attack focused. Pablo Hernandez and Mateusz Klich have been important attackers for the side, with the pair contributing to 22 goals between them. They have been a huge reason on why Leeds have kept so competitive, even with players suffering from injuries. However while both players have been important, no one has been more vital to the side than Kalvin Phillips. The 23 year old has been the most defensive out of the midfield. He has given freedom to both Hernandez and Klich to push on help the attack. Phillips is usually the player who drops deep to receive the ball and help start attacks, with the midfielder ranking 2nd in the squad for long balls a game, showing how he move Leeds up the pitch. He also ranks 1st in tackles, showing how important he is in recovering the ball and ensuring that Leeds remain dominant. Bielsa has also given opportunities to younger players in the squad, with Jack Clarke, Jamie Shackleton and Tyler Roberts given runs in the team. Bielsa isn’t afraid to give less experienced players a chance, when he thinks they are ready.

With all of those positives, let’s look at some of the negative sides of the team, firstly being their convertion rate. While they take the most shots in the league, they are 5th for goals with 73, 20 behind Norwich’s 93. It could be due to a lack of a consistent striker, with both Roofe and Bamford suffering from injuries throughout the season. Norwich and Sheffield United’s main strikers Pukki and Sharp respectively started most of the season. It definitely had an effect on the side. The difference between Roofe and Bamford is clear. While Bamford is a good finisher, he doesn’t offer the same movement as Roofe, which means that Hernandez and Klich the same chances as they would with Roofe. It’s meant they haven’t had a consistent attack, and struggled in tough games where Bamford has started. They also suffered the usual Bielsa effect. They were favourites for promotion for most of the season, but in the final 10 games, they only managed to win 4 games, with defeats to Ipswich and Wigan putting a sour taste in the fans mouth.It’ll be interesting to see if they recover from this blip in form. Leeds have always been known as one of the nearly teams of the last 10 years. They always get so close and miss out near the end. They have already missed on automatic promotion and now have a real fight on their hands

West Bromwich Albion

This season was set to be a very romantic one for West Brom. They made some great business in the summer, with the side making many smart loan signings with the intention of bouncing straight back into the Premier League. Add that with a couple of experienced Championship players in Sam Johnstone and Kyle Bartley. They even gave Darren Moore job on a permanent basis, which was deserved after he managed to give a poor side a fighting chance at survival. It was all looking so promising, until the club decided to sack Moore, which is still rather baffling, arguably more baffling than appointing Alan Pardew. The club were desperate for automatic promotion, and as soon as that wasn’t possible, it was game over for the former West Brom player. It is a very unfair sacking. While they were humiliated by Leeds, losing 4-0 to their promotion rivals, they weren’t doing that badly, and had a good chance to make it through the playoffs.

West Brom play a counter attacking style of football, with their aerial dominant defenders winning the ball back. Using their good creators like Phillips and Johansen (since Barnes returned to Leicester) to help move the ball and create chances for Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez. It has been very effectiveto say the least, with the pair scoring 45 goals between them, forming the best partnership in the league. The Baggies also take advantage of set pieces, ranking 3rd in the league for set piece goals and 2nd for penalties. While they haven’t been as fun to watch as other sides in the league, they have been very efficient in front of goal. Another part of their play I really like is their balance. In many teams, therw will always be certain side they will focus attacking down, usually the side with a team’s best creators, but West Brom are different. They rank midtable in frequency of attacks down the left side, the middle and the right side. It shows that they don’t rely on a certain player or side to attack, and instead can switch it up if neccessary. They are a balance side who are able to take advantage of dead ball situations, which can make them a massive threat against whoever they play.

Moving onto the stand out players in the side, the goalkeeper deserves a special mention. Sam Johnstone finally left Manchester United on a permanent deal, after loan spells at Aston Villa showing the clear promise he had. He’s played in every game for the Baggies, and has shown himself to be a very solid shot stopper. When looking at goalkeepers who have made over 30 appearances, Johnstone ranks first for saves per game with 3.2. He has been so important for his side and could be vital in the playoffs. One of my favourite things about this group of players is they have taken some massive risks. Jay Rodriguez, Kieran Gibbs, Kyle Bartley and even Gareth Barry. They’ve put a lot of faith in the squad they came down with, and has mostly worked well for them. One player who has stood out for West Brom has easily been Mason Holgate. The Everton loanee has really increased his reputation during this loan spell. The defender has ranks top of the squad for tackles per game with 2.6 and even ranks joint 1st for interceptions (1.6). Holgate is a player I never thought too highly of at Everton because I wasn’t sure what he was. He still doesn’t have the quality to be able to play as a full back, but has never looked too assurred of himself at centre back. However he has improved in both areas during his time in West Midlands.

There are still some things to be worried about for West Brom. The loss of Harvey Barnes was massive. The midfielder was a huge reason on why West Brom were so threatening in the final third, and while Johansen has done a good job in covering his absence, he has been missed. One other area in which the Baggies should be worried about is their finishing. While Rodriguez and Gayle have been fantastic, they have been games (their defeat to Derby comes to mind) where they had chances to win the game, but didn’t take it. They have to make sure to be more clinical in the playoffs, otherwise they could be punished for it.

Aston Villa 

Moving onto their Midlands rivals, Aston Villa are back in the playoffs once again, but this time it could be their best chance of finally rejoining the Premier League. After a truly terrible start under Steve Bruce, he was sacked and replaced with Dean Smith, who has clearly realised just how good his attackers and built a team around scoring goals, and it has worked very well. They had a lot of issues under Bruce, including an over reliance on Jack Grealish to perform miracles, and a defence that sat too deep. The championship is a league that has been taking steps towards playing a more modern style of football, in regards to higher defensive lines and less of an emphasis on long balls to their striker. Dean Smith implimented all of these things. He pushed Tuanzebe and Chester to the half way line. Both are intelligent defenders, and Tuanzebe especially is very comfortable on the ball and can keep possession. By pushing the centre backs further forward, it meant that there could be more players to help in the final third. It was no longer Grealish driving with the ball, but McGinn, Hourihane and El Ghazi all contributing to goals. While Villa rank bottom for both tackles and interceptions in the league, they make up for that by being one of the most possession heavy sides in the divison, ranking 6th with the side averaging 53% possession per game. They also rank 4th for highest pass accuracy, with Smith’s side averaging 79.5% pass accuracy per match, more than Bielsa’s Leeds. While those are all impressive, it’s in the attack where they truly shine. They’re 4th for shots per game with 14.3, and rank 3rd for shots in the 6 yard box, showing how they can create high quality chances. Just like their promotion rivals West Brom, they also get a lot of out set pieces, with the Villans ranking 1st with 24 goals from set piece situations. Only Norwich and West Brom have scored more than their 82. If they had Dean Smith from the beginning, I wouldn’t be surprised if they would be much closer to Norwich. With their new found attacking style, this could be their best chance of earning promotion.

When talking about Aston Villa, there is only one player to begin with, and that’s Jack Grealish. The now English midfielder has arguably the best player in the division this season. Villa have a huge reliance on Grealish to perform and when they went on a difficult run during the winter period, a period in which Grealish missed 15 games, it showed just how much they need him. They only managed 2 wins in those 15 games, and it halted the good work they were doing. Looking at his numbers, it’s clear to see why they rely on him. He’s scored 6 and assisted 6 in 31 games, while not as impressive as other players in the league, what’s more important is how important he is when creating chances and driving his team up the pitch. He is the only player in the squad who is averaging over 2 key passes her game, and is second in the team for dribbles with 1.7. What’s most telling about his importance is how the opposition treat him. The winger is getting fouled 4.8 times per game. It’s also why they have been able to score so many goals from set pieces. Opposition players find him very difficult to contain, usually ending with Grealish giving his side a chance from a dead ball. He’s vital to how Villa play, and will need him to bring his best in the playoffs. Before moving on to arguably their second best player this season, a special mention deserves to go to John McGinn. The Scottish international has contributed to 15 goals from central midfield, and has been a similar threat as Grealish. he’s been taking 2.4 shots per game, and tops the side for dribbles completed. It has clearly helped that opposition players clearly have more focus on Grealish, giving McGinn more of an opportunity to get into goalscoring positions (similar to what Salah has done for Mane this season). One of the stars of the show has easily been Tammy Abraham. The Chelsea loanee had a difficult time at Swansea in the previous season, struggling with injury and playing in a side lacking any sort of creativity. Returning to the Championship was the right thing to do. He had a brilliant time with Bristol in the 16/17 season, scoring 23 goals. He’s done even better this season, scoring 25 goals and in 300 less minutes. While a lot is down to playing in a system that encourages attacking play, he has improved a lot from that successful loan spell with Bristol. His aerial duels won have gone from 2 to 2.9 and is now taking more shots. his chance creation has gone down, but there are plenty of players in this team who can do that, meaning it’s given more focus on Abraham to score goals, which he has done. At this point, It would be absurd for Chelsea not to even give him a chance in a team that can’t add any additional players. He has at least done enough to earn that.

So what is neccessarily wrong with Villa? For starters their goalkeeper situation throughout the season has been a problem. They haven’t been able to settle on one keeper, and have played 4 throughout the season. They seem uncertain on who their first choice even is. The last thing a backline needs is a position that important constantly being changed. At adds a level of doubt, that the other sides in the playoffs haven’t suffered from. Their rivals are fully away of who their first choice stopper is. While Leeds did change in January, it’s clear Castilla is their first choice now. It seems that Jack Steer is their starting goalkeeper, but having that doubt throughout the season isn’t great. The more obvious one is their over reliance on Jack Grealish. They’ve always struggled without him, and if an opposition completely nulifies his effect on the game, it could spell a lot of trouble for them. I do think they can go toe to toe with anyone, thanks to their attackers having stand out seasons.

Derby County

Last but not least, let’s look at Frank Lampard’s Derby. The Rams have been way better than I expected them to be in the ex-Chelsea midfielder’s first season. The team has an interesting combination of young players and experienced Championship players, and has made them an interesting side to watch. With Frank Lampard still being a novice when it comes to management, it’s meant that this side isn’t perfect, but there is a lot to like. Derby usually play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 and focus on overloading the middle of the park, thanks to having intelligent wingers. They aim to dominate games and use their good passers in midfield to create chances. His side to like build up play using the centre backs’s good distribution to start attacks. Richard Keogh and Fikayo Tomori have played a combined 90 games this season, showing how they have built the solid partnership. The pair are top of the team’s average passes per game, and are very important in how Derby play. Their fullbacks play an important role in how Lampard’s side attack. 18 year old Jayden Bogle, arguably one of the breakout stars of the season and the more experienced Scott Malone are responsible for giving the side width. They are one of the most possession heavy sides in the league, with the Rams placing 5th in the league for average possession, ahead of both West Brom and Aston Villa. They also take a respectable 13.5 shots a game, more than runner ups Sheffield United. Derby have been a team who have been looking at quick fixes for a long time, but have found a manager with a long term plan, and the fans have shown that they are behind Lampard.

Moving onto the stand out players, Mason Mount has to be the first to be praised. The young midfielder has had a great debut campaign in the Championship. He’s started 35 games, scoring 8 and assisting 4. Now transitioning to an attacking midfielder, Lampard has brought the best out of the Chelsea loanee. He’s had a season to be positive about, taking 2.6 shots a game, making the most key passes in the team with 1.9 and even been putting 1.4 tackles a game. He has been mature in possession and is a very good passer. his confidence has grown as the season has progressed, and we could see the best out of him in the play offs. Harry Wilson is another who has been great. Taking his fantastic free kicks out of it, he has been great from outwide (and has given me hope as a Wales fan). He is Derby’s top scorer this season with 15 goals. While his shot location is a mess to say the least, he has turned out to be a solid long range shooter, and while it can lead to wasting chances, it’s telling how good he is when he is able to score that many. He is an intelligent winger who is great finding pockets of space near the box to exploit. He is another who will have to turn up if Derby have a chance in the playoffs.

So what exactly is wrong with Lampard’s side so far? My biggest problem is a lack of a good striker. They’ve been very lucky so far that Mount, Lawrence and Wilson have brought the goals, otherwise I doubt they would have finished in the top 6. he originally started with Jack Marriot, but he wasn’t performing and doesn’t offer enough on the ball. Waghorn came into replace him, and while he has been an improvement, he isn’t as good as the other side’s forwards. It’ll leave them lacking a vocal point and make them arguably the worst side in the playoffs this year. This isn’t to discredit them. I think given another season and a summer window, they will be better equipped to face sides who are just better.