B/R Football Ranks: The Most Intriguing Under-the-Radar Stats This Season

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterFebruary 10, 2020

MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 09: (BILD ZEITUNG OUT) Thomas Mueller of FC Bayern Muenchen gestures during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and RB Leipzig at Allianz Arena on February 9, 2020 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Statistics can form a crucial part of football analysis; they can hint at something, even reveal something that you hadn't noticed before, or become the basis for more detailed player, team or tactical discussions.

They can help measure the impact a manager has made or illustrate a certain player's strengths. They can also prompt you to investigate why something is happening, be it good or bad.

We've dug out five intriguing or impressive statistics from across Europe and attempted to explain them—to give life to the numbers and show what they are symbolic of, or what they represent.

         

Thomas Muller has 12 Bundesliga assists

MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 09: (BILD ZEITUNG OUT) Thomas Mueller of FC Bayern Muenchen controls the Ball during the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and RB Leipzig at Allianz Arena on February 9, 2020 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by DeFodi Images
DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Muller was in and out of the starting XI over the first portion of the season, leading him to question whether he would remain a Bayern Munich player for much longer, per Sport1 (h/t Daily Mail).

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But since the moment Hansi Flick took over from Niko Kovac in the Bayern dugout, the World Cup winner's fortunes have changed. He's an important part of this team again and thriving in a right-sided role reminiscent of the one he excelled in early last decade when the Reds were on top of Europe.

Flick's Bayern are adventurous in attack than Kovac's; they're far more willing to ad-lib and think on the fly. The more varied an attack is, and the more chaos it creates with runners, the more likely Muller is to thrive, as there's arguably no player better in world football better at popping up in pockets defenders don't spot.

This has led to increased production of all kinds—shots, crosses, passes into the box—and the man he's feeding, Robert Lewandowski, has put those chances away. The Muller-Lewandowski connection has directly yielded five Bundesliga goals this season; no pair has more.

The original "raumdeuter," or "space interpreter," is back at it again. 

      

Striker Roberto Soldado has five times as many yellow cards (10) as goals (two) 

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 08: Stefan Savic of Atletico de Madrid and Roberto Soldado of Granada CF during the Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Granada CF at Wanda Metropolitano on February 8, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Perez Meca/MB Med
Perez Meca/MB Media/Getty Images

Soldado is undoubtedly into the twilight stage of his career. He'll turn 35 in May and plays for a Granada side promoted into La Liga in 2019, so no one is expecting him to trouble the division's top scorers.

They might have expected more than two goals (one of which was a penalty) from 19 league starts, though, and that record looks even more curious when compared to his yellow-card tally of 10.

The weird thing is, this is in no way a problem. Soldado is performing the role his manager asks of him perfectly...because his primary job isn't actually to score goals.

Granada play intense, rough-and-tumble football, pressing high up and committing fouls regularly. They also draw fouls regularly, play for them in fact, as their primary goal source is via these situations—roughly 25 per cent (seven of 27) of their strikes have come from set pieces.

Soldado is the one chasing channel balls and trying to turn them into free-kicks. He tangles his legs with defenders, bodychecks them and at times cons them. Playing that role means you're often nowhere near the box, hence the low goal tally, but frequently walking the referee's line, hence the avalanche of cards.

      

Virgil van Dijk (2,051) has completed over 300 more passes than anyone else in the Premier League  

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19: Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool celebrates scoring to make it 1-0 during the Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United at Anfield on January 19, 2020 in Liverpool, United Kingdom. (Photo by Michael Regan
Michael Regan/Getty Images

There are some extremely obvious factors at play in this statistic, but also some more illuminative, intriguing ones, too.

It's hardly a surprise that an ever-present, ball-playing defender, who turns out for a side who average the second-most possession per game in the Premier League (58.2 per cent), is on top here. However, the fact the gap between him and everyone else is actually more of a chasm may cause a double-take.

Liverpool completed 969 passes against Sheffield United in January, breaking a club record in the process, and Van Dijk was responsible for 134 of them.

But the fact Van Dijk accumulates so many touches and passes is also representative of something tactical at play at Anfield, too.

When Liverpool dispossess their opponents in midfield, they'll surge forward if possible, but if not, they'll reset with a pass back to Van Dijk. He'll work it out to a full-back, trying to invite pressing, which then creates the space to play through the lines and break forward. Like clockwork.

That reset function is crucial in drawing opponents out, and you need a comfortable passer to administrate it. That Trent Alexander-Arnold (1,708) and Andrew Robertson (1,687) have the second-most and fourth-most passes in the league, respectively, underlines the strategy.

       

Theo Hernandez, a left-back, is AC Milan's top scorer this season

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 19 : Theo Hernandez of AC Milan celebrates after scoring his goal with his team mates Andrea Conti ,during the Serie A match between AC Milan and  Udinese Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 19, 2020 in Milan, Italy. (Photo
MB Media/Getty Images

After 23 games, left-back Theo is AC Milan's top scorer in Serie A with five goals. The statistic is both a damning indictment of his attacking team-mates' season performance and an illustration of just how good he has been in the final third.

It's a matter of time before Ante Rebic (four), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (two) and perhaps even Hakan Calhanoglu (three) overtake him in the scoring charts, as the Rossoneri continue to steadily improve under Stefano Pioli's management.

But for now, the fact Theo tops the charts shows just how much they lean on him tactically and just how dominant a presence he can be on the left.

For the last two months, the entire Milan formation (first 4-3-3, now 4-4-2) has been designed to get Theo running into space with the ball on the left. The left-winger drifts inward to create room, and the midfielders pass the ball left more than any other direction.

The tactic is: Give it to Theo. He's so powerful, so direct and has such a rasping, drilled strike. He's been their biggest weapon. He runs beyond, plays one-twos, roams inward, crosses and shoots. He's brilliant.

As the Rossoneri have slowly stabilised in 2020, the team has diversified its approach a little. Zlatan's target-man play has been a big help, Samu Castillejo has vastly improved over on the right, and Rebic's dribbles have been a factor, too.

But Theo still gets first crack of the whip; they still give it to him for the first 10 minutes of most games to see if he can land the first punch.

       

Real Madrid have conceded the fewest goals in Europe's top five leagues

PAMPLONA, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 09: Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid CF celebrates after scoring his team's second goal during the Liga match between CA Osasuna and Real Madrid CF at El Sadar Stadium on February 09, 2020 in Pamplona, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport
Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Yep, you read that right. Los Blancos have the best defensive record not just in Spain, but across Europe. Their 14 goals conceded betters Liverpool and Atletico Madrid (15), Paris Saint-Germain (17), Inter Milan (20) and then everyone else by a distance.

It represents a significant change in direction and approach from the capital club, who for the last decade have thrilled us with Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired attacking football and dominated Europe by virtue of outscoring everyone else.

Now they're doing the opposite; they're shutting everyone else out, and to great effect—they're top of La Liga having lost just a single game this term.

A big factor in this has been the collective regaining of form from Real Madrid's defensive corps. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane both dipped hard in 2019, while Thibaut Courtois' debut season at the Bernabeu wasn't pretty, but all three have recovered. They're playing to a strong or elite level and have cut out most of their mistakes.

Another factor is new personnel. Ferland Mendy, a summer arrival, is more defensively able than Marcelo ever was, with his incredible recovery speed a valuable bailout option; and Federico Valverde has been given a key role in midfield—often displacing Luka Modric now—adding extra legs, extra grit and extra defensive tactical acumen to the setup.

Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is the superhuman form of Casemiro in midfield. He's the equivalent of about three players right now, sweeping up in defence, playmaking from the centre and offering a goal threat. 

In January, he scored a brace—including a deft chip of the goalkeeper—as Real Madrid beat Sevilla 2-1. At the weekend, he set up Ramos' go-ahead goal against Osasuna. He does everything.

With Casemiro in this form, Valverde glueing the formation together and Toni Kroos much improved, Modric isn't often missed at the moment. And that midfield combo, plus improvements in form at the back, creates a far more stable outfit.

Real Madrid have been rebuilt to outlast and outmanoeuvre, not just outgun.

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All statistics via WhoScored.com