Lowered Expectations: Week 15 / by Harrison Crow

By Harrison Crow (@harrison_crow)

Welcome to Lowered Expectations, week fifteen edition! Each week, we go about posting chalkboards and GIFs of the weekend’s best open-play shot attempts which did not quite live up to expectations (and rarely do we update this paragraph). We look at each one and not only evaluate the results, but also the process leading to them.

#5 - Darren Mattocks, DC United, 53rd minute, 0.391 expected goals
Assisted by: Oniel Fisher
Passes in sequence: 7

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If I could channel my mother for one moment but... If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, Headers.Are.More.Difficult.Than.Kicked.Shots.

Now, if you’ve read any of the studies on headers I’ve linked over the last few weeks you might have noted that headers inside the six yard box are actually more likely to both be scored and be on target than shots by either foot. However this header attempt is both right on the edge of the box (borderline location) and sandwiched between two Seattle defenders making it a very difficult play.

Watch as the cross swung in by Oneil Fisher has Darren Mattocks get stuck as Kim Kee Hee gets position in front of him and Kelvin Leerdam leaves hardly any space to win the header. Props to Mattocks for even getting a head on the ball, but trying to direct it on frame under this circumstance was tough.

I rail a lot against the direct tactics of sending in crosses. I understand that some people take issue with that and I want to use this opportunity to dissect this play and speak to the good (and bad) things related to this sequence, which will hopefully bring some insight to these ideas.

The through ball to Zoltan Steiber and his run down the sideline helps transition the attack into the DC United final third. Seattle left back Nouhou Tolo does a solid job preventing him from doing much besides reaching the final third.

But the attack isn’t stopped and DC does a great job of cycling of the ball while Steiber, after passing the ball, moves inside and Nouhou follows him. This creates a nice pocket of space out wide for Fisher to slide into and sets the table for a decision to be made once he receives the ball.

Fisher has tons of space and time to make a choice on the best way to create a chance. Already DC is working from a disadvantage as there are three Sounders defenders in a nice compact space within the 18 yard box, with Mattocks mixed in. Yamil Asad is also sitting at the top of the box, but as you watch the play develop he doesn't show any intention of challenging for space but rather sneaks into the 18 and gains position in case the ball falls to open space.

Back to Fisher, he is waiting for something to develop. Nouhou recognizes the open space and attempts to close down the attacker. Fisher has three immediate options in front of him with a fourth that isn’t really a thing. First, he could pass to Steiber. Second, attempt to take Nouhou on 1v1. Third, cross the ball into the box. Lastly he could keep possession and dribble back into midfield---but, it’s not a strength of DC and they don't really have the personnel to facilitate that style of play.

The first option: a pass to Steiber isn’t really an option as he isn't really prepared to receive a pass from Fisher. He’s moving away from Fisher and I don’t think he’s even paying much attention to the situation that is starting to develop. If he was, there might be some space behind Nouhou to exploit and a really good chance to create a high leverage opportunity. But, this isn’t really an option. Pass on option one.

Nouhou’s approach to closing down Fisher is actually pretty careful and measured. I wasn’t especially kind to him during this game so I’m trying to go out of my way to give him props here. He isn’t giving Fisher a chance to run by him with a hard run but instead neatly creeps up on Fisher and cuts down on the direct angle to go at the touchline, which probably creates a better opportunity for a cross. Option two is out.

DC doesn’t really do much in terms of possession. On the season they have the third lowest possession numbers in MLS. And while they have Luciano Acosta, there aren’t many other guys which are going to help with controlling and holding on to the ball here. Option four isn’t really an option.

That leaves the last option of crossing the ball and that isn’t necessarily bad. It essentially aligns with DC tactics, which means nobody should be surprised to see the direct play and most of their team will be ready to try and move back into their defensive shape as soon as Fisher boots the ball and possession is lost.

But my issue here is that Fisher probably makes the wrong decision as to where to send the cross. Mattocks doesn’t have a lot of space and that the ball finds him is probably more luck than skill. If Fisher waits just a quarter of a second longer to watch the play develop he would see Paul Arriola make a clever near post run in front of Chad Marshall that would be prime for a cross.

This would be a higher percentage header but likely a lower percentage shot. That’s okay. Headers closer to the box are more likely to be scored but they’re all more likely to be put on target and with that have a higher save percentage. The hope here would be to force Stefan Frei into a save opportunity that he either he gets, deflects or misses and a goal is scored. If it’s deflected both Mattocks and Asad are there to pounce and create another high leverage chance (much like Mattocks first goal).

Crossing isn’t my favorite thing but there are opportunities that your opponent is going to give you that match up with your approach to the game. In those moments you just have to find the best play possible. At the time of the kick Mattocks wasn’t the ideal option, but he was probably the best out of Fisher's immediate options, sans the Arriola run. It didn’t pan out but there was a glimmer of a chance in it and this is what you’re looking for in those small windows of opportunities.

#4 - Adama Diomande, LAFC, 70th minute, 0.425 expected goals
Assisted by: Lee Nguyen
Number of passes in sequence: 8

Diomande.png

I love this big deep and wide perspective of the field here in San Jose. One of possibly my favorite venues to visit and a very underrated site to catch a game. Looking at this chance there it’s probably a bit frustrating that he doesn’t score. It's a quality pass, the right idea for the shot, and it just goes wide.

I will say that the finish looks a bit of an off-balance attempt by Adama Diomande and because of that he doesn’t get the power behind the ball which is why Andrew Tarbell gets a piece of it and redirects the path.

But what makes this chance so good is that he has a good look at the goal mouth from just outside the six yard box while just being off center of the penalty spot. It’s also important to think of factors that probably increase the probability of this chance that go unseen by the model. One specific thing is the lack of defenders in this instance. It exposes a much greater amount of the goal mouth which decreases the probability of the shot being blocked.

Now obviously Diomande also has a defender on the inside of his right hip, which helped San Jose deter this opportunity. Not just because it resulted in a slightly off-balance shot, but also because the defender pushes him towards the far post, eliminating roughly half the goal-mouth that he originally had. This helps Tarbell get some of the ball as he doesn’t have to do so much guess work prior to his attempted save. It’s small but big at the same time.

Now, we’ve yet to see much from Lee Nguyen early this year. In all of 236 minutes (subbing into four of six games) on the pitch Nguyen has been directly involved in a grand total of... seven shots. That’s a bit underwhelming in terms of the consistent quality that you would expect Nguyen to bring. That said, this pass is a moment to really shine a light on and while it doesn’t lead to a goal it showcases his quality that is missed by the data.

Something that gets said from time to time but is really important to remember is that GIFs and highlight reels on YouTube are deceptive because they’re purposely created to highlight and showcase the good things about a player. That can be helpful as it helps convey the quality of a player and how good they can be. But, the other side of the coin is how often are they that good. Data provides us that other side and the long view of the player.

Both tools are very much needed to help tell us Nguyen’s story and convey to us what’s happening as a whole. Looking at a play such as this for Nguyen, and perhaps the six other chances he's helped create, you’d think he’s been an amazing playmaker for LA. While he’s shown moments, as he has for years, this year his attacking production has subsided a bit.

Using the game, we may notice that he is playing a bit deeper and perhaps is more removed from the attack than he was in previous season with New England. Looking at data we can see he is receiving a small piece of the total team touches, has a higher expected buildup percentage, and is passing less in the final third than any of the last three seasons in New England.

Together we can marry this data to deduce that his quality is probably very high, but he’s now being deployed in a different tactical role under Bob Bradley than he had been under Jay Heaps. But he still very good in the attack.

#3 - Clint Dempsey, Seattle Sounders, 22nd minute, 0.456 expected goals
Assisted by: NA

Number of passes in sequence: 6

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This is whole buildup screams... “they’re back”. But there are still so many things about this Sounders team and it starts with the fact that they gave up nearly two expected goals against at home. Since appointing Brian Schmetzer the Sounders have been a solid defensive side (before the start of the season they were ranked 7th in xGA from the run of play during his tenure).

While they finally found a couple home goals, the return of the Sounders to the realm of relevance might begin with a team that plays good holistic defense that limits their opponents opportunities both home and away.

One quick thing about this build up: I think the natural thing to say about this progression is that this is some “garbage defense” from DC. But short of the one over commitment by Joseph Mora, the Sounders have some great pass-and-move moments into pockets of space in quick transition which you have to give credit.

Also, I’m a big big fan of Magnus Wolff Eikrem. Watch this guy because once Dempsey makes his full time shift to the bench Eikrem should be stepping into that role and his early showings are promising. Presently he ranks fourth on the Sounders in expected goal chain  behind only Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Will Bruin.

#2 - Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew SC, 37th minute, 0.515 expected goals
Assisted by: Harrison Afful
Number of passes in sequence: 7

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One of the most shocking things about this sequence is how New York’s formation gets so pulled out of position. In the transition from Ricardo Clark to Harrison Afful, you can actually count all 11 Red Bull field players. How a team as disciplined as the Red Bulls became so contorted is beyond me, but it happened more than just this one time.

This cross-field pass is great and one of the things I really appreciate about it is how Clark recognizes the run being made by Afful but holds the ball just for a moment to create the right amount of space before sending the pass.

The cross/pass into the box for Gyasi Zardes isn’t great, but it’s got just enough pace to send it ahead of the defenders which allows the Columbus striker to get a boot on the ball and direct it on to goal. Luis Robles' dive is just about perfect. He has the angle minimized and limited the amount of space available to the goal mouth earning the save.

Columbus dominated this game and this is just one of a couple shots by Zardes that Robles had direct influence on that saved the game, and prevented New York from losing a tough road draw. Considering the difficulty of playing an away game in MLS, any time a team can get a point on the road it's very good outcome. Considering that Columbus was that much better, getting a point was even more amazing for New York.

#1 - Zlatan Ibrahimovic, L.A. Galaxy, 56th minute, 0.738 expected goals
Assisted by:  N/A
Number of passes in sequence: 4

There are a lot of things over the early stages of this season in Lowered Expectations that are shockers, but this is just another level of uncanny and all kinds of criminal. I’ve watched this countless times and I feel like every time it’s going to go squeak into the net and I’m continually stunned when it’s cleared.

LA, if you haven’t noticed, might not be a great team but they score goals and they create beaucoup amount of opportunities. If their defense could hold up across 90 minutes they could knock off a really good team. Additionally, even if their defense doesn't hold up--they could still knock off a good team just by being the first to throw up ten goals.

That being said, they may need to throw up ten with that defense.

This week’s lowest shot probability which actually culminated in a goal being scored...
Chris Wondolowski, San Jose Earthquakes, 52nd minute, 0.0424 expected goals
Assisted by: Danny Hoesen
Number of passes in sequence: 2

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This chip is just... fantastic. I mean--I don’t know much of what I can say about it. As pointed out by Taylor Twellman on MLS Rewind, I’m not sure how many times Chris Wondolowski has attempted a chip and one from that distance is just filthy. He’s without a doubt one of the best American strikers to play in MLS. Soooo---with that being said rather than trying to pick this apart I present to you a top-five within a top-five column.

Before we go there, understand that our dataset has limitations. It doesn’t span Wondolowski’s entire career. We’re missing somewhere north of 4,000 minutes, which is more than an entire seasons worth of data, not to mention over 100 shots. But we can go back to the beginning of our data set (2011) through the end of last season and we are able to look at all 422 shots he’s taken from open play and the 65 total goals from open play and see what other fantastic goals the man called Wondo has cooked up prior to this year.

If we included goals from this season, his two from this past weekend would have been his 2nd and 4th lowest xG goals since 2011.

NUMBER FIVE
Chris Wondolowski vs. Chris Seitz, FC Dallas, 2013
Assist: Steven Lenhart
Expected Goals: 0.0718

NUMBER FOUR
Chris Wondolowski vs. Eric Kronberg, Montreal, 2015
Assist: N/A
Expected Goals: 0.0697

NUMBER THREE
Chris Wondolowski vs. Tim Melia, Sporting Kansas City, 2015
Assist: Fatai Alashe
Expected Goal: 0.0597

NUMBER TWO
Chris Wondolowski vs. Bill Hamid, DC United, 2014
Assist: Khari Stephenson
Expected Goals: 0.0462

NUMBER ONE
Chris Wondolowski vs. Michael Gspurning, Seattle Sounders, 2013
Assist: N/A
Expected Goal: 0.0396

Top-10 individuals in Expected Goals from the last week (excludes PKs)
Player Team Opp Shots Dist xG
Adama Diomande LAFC SJE 4 9.4 1.6
Zlatan Ibrahimovic LAG RSL 6 9.2 1.4
Darren Mattocks DCU SEA 4 6.5 1.3
Gyasi Zardes CLB NYR 5 7.5 1.2
Alphonso Davies VAN ORL 3 8.3 1.0
Yordy Reyna VAN ORL 3 10.4 1.0
David Villa NYC ATL 8 15.9 0.8
Fabrice-Jean Picault PHI TFC 4 16.7 0.8
Clint Dempsey SEA DCU 6 23.3 0.7
Teal Bunbury NER CHI 3 16.6 0.6

That’s all for this week’s edition of Lowered Expectations. I hope it lived up to yours. An extra big and very special thank you to my podcast mate and @TotalMLS twitter personality Ian L. for providing the high quality GIFs for this post.