Chasing the narrative: What the numbers tell us (if anything) about Michael Bradley’s World Cup

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After the U.S.’s third group game, the counter-narrative hit full steam, with Major League Soccer’s official website putting its weight behind the rosy view of Michael Bradley’s play. According to FIFA, the United States central midfielder covered more ground in group stage than anybody in the tournament, a factoid that got a full writeup as the league lauded one of its biggest stars. It’d be nice if Bradley’s other numbers got the same attention, but it’s understandable why MLS is trying to promote Bradley’s cause.

So why don’t we do that? Why don’t we give the full statistical record some attention? If the “Bradley’s been awful” narrative is already out there and the counter-narrative’s gaining steam, why don’t we try to take a broader look at Bradley’s production? Let’s collect the numbers, provide some context, and see if there really is anything that confirms the general assessment. Is there anything in the broader statistical record that says Bradley’s been bad?

The subtext of that assessment is more complicated, though. It’s not that Bradley has been bad in the absolute sense (some people are saying this, though). It’s that he hasn’t come close to meeting expectations. This is a player around whom head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has built his formation. It’s not only fair to judge him against a normal player’s expectations but against the performance his coach wants from his most important player. Klinsmann and the U.S. have incurred a type of opportunity cost by setting up as they do.

For his part, Klinsmann has weighed in on the issue, but that’s not the point, here. The point is to see if the statistics, as flawed and limited as they are, offer any support to either claim. What numbers say Bradley’s failed to meet expectations? Or, what statistics support the opposing view, that Bradley’s been fine and has become a scapegoat?

Some numbers we won’t discuss here: Goals (Bradley doesn’t have any, though he should); assists (again, none); distance covered (it speaks to effort, not efficacy). Those numbers are pretty self-evident. We don’t need to dig deeper.

Instead, we’ll look at some of the secondary statistics, though these numbers don’t mean much independent of their context. So we’ve done our best to give that to you. Not only do you get the raw number, but you see where Bradley ranked within the team and within the game.

Of course, that’s only part of the context. The team’s style of play has also been a big factor in Bradley’s numbers. It’s hard to lead a game in passing when your team’s willing to play without the ball. For the most part, that’s what the U.S. has done.

There’s also Bradley’s role within the team to consider, one which establishes some expectations for his performance. As the highest man in the U.S.’s central midfield, we should expect Bradley to be among the team’s leaders in key passes, touches, and passes every game.  As a focal point for the U.S. in transition, Bradley should see more contested time on the ball than his teammates, meaning he’ll likely lead the U.S. in times dispossessed and turnovers, even on good days.

What we’re really looking for here are outlying numbers – something that supports the notion Bradley has been particularly poor:

(All numbers are available via WhoScored.com.)

Opponent Key Passes Touches Dispossessed Passes Turnovers
Ghana (W, 2-1)  0  52  3  43  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T6/T16  4th/11th  1st/T1  1st/T6  2nd/T4
Portugal (D, 2-2)  1  82  1  69  0
Ranks (Team/Game)  T4/T8  1st/3rd  T1/T3  1st/2nd  T7/T11
Germany (L, 0-1)  1  61  2  49  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T1/T3  1st/9th  T2/T3  1st/9th  T3/T3

 

There are other numbers we can look at, like passes completed, through balls, and dribbles. I chose these because they require the fewest caveats, whether those caveats be based on the nature of the data, context dependence, or other, more philosophical issues.

The numbers that stand out: The lack of chances creates (key passes – passes that lead to shots), and two games where the overall pass numbers are low. That Bradley had three ‘dispossessions’ and two turnovers against Ghana (when his passes and touches were both low) supports the idea he was far below his standards in the opener. The larger body of data only supports one other claim: Bradley hasn’t been creating changes. The degree to wish you can separate that from the U.S.’s tactics is up to you.

The defensive numbers, where, given the U.S.’s deficits in possession, you’d expect Bradley to be among his team’s as well as the game’s leaders:

Opponent Tackles Interceptions Fouls
Ghana (W, 2-1)  1  1  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T7/T13  T3/T5  T3/T4
Portugal (D, 2-2)  1  2  2
Ranks (Team/Game)  T4/T9  T4/T8  T1/T3
Germany (L, 0-1)  4  0  3
Ranks (Team/Game)  1st/1st  T8/T13  2nd/2nd

 

Again, what’s our goal here: To find something that clearly highlights Bradley’s struggles. Among the defensive numbers, there’s nothing convincing in either direction. Bradley had a good night in tackles against Germany, but he only generated one more turnover than he did against Portugal.

All of the in-team and in-game ranks look decent enough, considering players like Kyle Beckerman are better positioned to rack up tackles, while Matt Besler would be the best bet to lead the team in interceptions.

Even in the fouls number, there’s nothing eye-catchingly bad. While there’s little here that tells us how Bradley actually played, the description the numbers offer doesn’t support many conclusions.

source: Getty Images
Michael Bradley speaks to the media during training at Sao Paulo FC in Brazil. Through three games at the World Cup, the U.S. central midfielder has no goals and no assists while leading the tournament in distance covered. (Source: Getty Images)

So we’re left back where we started: Relying on our eyes, our analysis, and the more obvious numbers. The extent to which any of that’s reliable is unclear. He missed an easy goal against Portugal and has failed to generate many chances for his teammates, but it’s reasonable to assume the absence of Jozy Altidore and the U.S.’s tactics are heavily skewing those results (at least, the chance creation). People may be seeing what they want, judging Bradley against what they hope will happen instead of a more equitable benchmark.

Me? I tend to agree with the broader opinion. This is as bad as I’ve seen Bradley play in a long time. I think Bradley’s been below average compared to other midfielders in the tournament, and I think it’s completely fair to judge him against a higher standard, given his coach has made decisions to put him in advantageous positions. Though I think, given his track record, it’s highly unlikely Bradley’s poor performances will continue, I think his first 270 minutes in Brazil speak for themselves.

How do I back that up, though? Persuasive language, mostly. I can also highlight particularly poor touches, appeal to my own self-inflated authority, or rely on the wisdom of crowds, however “wise” that may be. Sometimes, I actually manage a complete, cogent argument, though it’s pretty rare.

What I can’t do is rely on the numbers. I can’t lean on distance covered. I can’t build a case on chances created. In context, there’s little in the statistical record that tells us anything about Bradley’s World Cup, whether I’m trying to trumpet the counter-narrative or pile on.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.

Moyes: West Ham “low in confidence,” encouraged by crowd

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David Moyes is just trying to buy himself a bit of time with the West Ham United fans, who were roundly unhappy at his appointment — and the board which hired him, of course — an undertaking toward which he made a small step on Friday.

[ RECAP: West Ham come back to earn a point vs. Leicester ]

Following the Hammers’ 1-1 draw with Leicester, Moyes joined the Sky Sports broadcast crew field-side at the London Stadium. While acknowledging it’s still early days in his tenure, Moyes knows he’s got very little time to build momentum after being appointed manager of a bottom-three side mid-season.

“I thought [the players] worked great in the second half, I think that’s why the crowd reacted so well. I think they are low in confidence. The results haven’t gone [well] and they’ve lost a manager. When it’s like that, it’s difficult. You need some things to go for you now and again.”

As for the Hammers’ most mercurial player, Marko Arnautovic, Moyes has taken a rather hardline approach with the Austrian attacker, and he believes it’s already paying dividends:

“I thought he played really well for us on Sunday, without getting an awful lot of praise for it. Everybody’s said that he hasn’t run, so I said to him, ‘If you don’t run, I won’t play you.’ So, he’s running [now.]

“I don’t think you want to play against Arnautovic if you’re a fullback, because he’s got power, he’s got pace. He probably prefers to play on the left-hand side, but at the moment we’ve got people who want to do that role, so we’re happy to play him on the opposite side. We want him to be a big player, [the club] spent big money on him. We need him to score goals, make goals. He helped us tonight.”

West Ham 1-1 Leicester: Hammers marginally improved

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  • Albrighton opens scoring in 8′
  • Kouyate brings Hammers back in 45′
  • Moyes’ first point as West Ham boss

The tangible takeaway was small — a single point — but the overall sentiment appeared my larger for West Ham United, as David Moyes‘ side came from behind to secure a 1-1 draw with Leicester City at the London Stadium on Friday.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It didn’t take long for the Hammers’ boo birds to re-emerge and for the spotlight to return squarely — and blisteringly hotly — onto the club’s (already, after two games) beleaguered manager. Jamie Vardy broke down the left side of the penalty area, cut a left-footed cross back toward the penalty spot, and Marc Albrighton arrived at the right time to redirect the ball through traffic with an outstretched right foot.

Kasper Schmichael was forced to make one spectacular save during the first half, in the 25th minute. Manuel Lanzini‘s free kick floated to Angelo Ogbonna at the back post, where the Italian headed downward and inside the post. Schmichael quickly scrambled across the face of goal and pushed the ball away with two hands.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Then, the strangest event occurred: for just the sixth time in 25 games since relocation in the summer of 2016, West Ham scored a first-half goal — with only seconds to spare. Again, it was a set piece from which the Hammers posed their greatest threat. Lanzini lofted another beautiful ball to the top of Schmichael’s six-yard box, this time from a corner kick, where Cheikhou Kouyate rose above the rest and headed the ball off the back of Danny Simpson and into the back of the net.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

With the two sides seemingly pleased to split the points, the second half featured very little notable action — in terms of scoring chances, that is.

Riyad Mahrez, who spent all summer trying to engineer a move away from Leicester, was subbed out by manager Claude Puel in the 70th minute. The Algerian international and 2015-16 Player of the Year appeared to be far from pleased, as he and Puel made no eye contact nor gave any acknowledgement of one another when Mahrez walked past Puel and made his way to the bench. Rekindled rumors are right around the corner.

The draw leaves West Ham (10 points), who are now six games without a win, 18th in the league table, now level on points with West Bromwich Albion who currently sit just outside the relegation zone. Leicester (14 points), meanwhile, leapfrogged Newcastle United for 11th.

Zenit face racism charge after banner honors war criminal

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NYON, Switzerland (AP) Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg is facing a UEFA racism charge after its fans displayed a large banner honoring convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic.

Two Serbian clubs, Red Star Belgrade and Partizan Belgrade, were also charged for similar offenses of supporting Mladic at Europa League games on Thursday.

UEFA said Friday that all three clubs faced charges of “racist behavior.” No dates were set for disciplinary hearings.

Zenit fans unfurled the banner, about 10 yards in length, during Thursday’s 2-1 Europa League group-stage win over Macedonian club Vardar Skopje.

The game took place the day after former Bosnian Serb military chief Mladic was convicted by a United Nations tribunal of genocide and other crimes in the wars following the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Mladic and other Serb leaders have broad support from Russian nationalist groups, which often see them as allies.

Red Star fans drew 0-0 at BATE Borisov in Belarus, while Partizan beat Swiss club Young Boys in their Europa League games.

Partizan also faces a range of charges for incidents in Belgrade including “field invasions” and “improper conduct” by fans.