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.

MLS Snapshot: FCD lose 2nd in a row; Fire win 4th straight

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The game in 100 words (or less): After starting the 2017 season nine games without a loss, FC Dallas, the longest-lasting unbeaten team in MLS, has lost two straight. Saturday saw their unbeaten start come to an end, against the San Jose Earthquakes, just as Wednesday’s trip to Toyota Stadium saw Oscar Pareja’s side drop all three points to the Chicago Fire. All three of the game’s goals were scored during the opening nine minutes, as FCD fought back from 1-0, but couldn’t find a second equalizer on the night. Nemanja Nikolic bagged the opener, his 11th goal in 13 games to extend his lead in the Golden Boot race to two, in the 3rd minute. Roland Lamah brought FCD back to level terms three minutes later, but David Accam restored the home side’s advantage after three more minutes. Nikolic had every opportunity in the world to take his goals tally to a dozen during second-half stoppage time, but Chris Seitz denied the Hungarian international from the penalty spot. For the first time since Sept. 2012, Chicago have won four straight league games, and sit just two points back of Eastern Conference-leading Toronto FC (26 points).

[ WATCH: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to $10M contract demands ]

Three moments that mattered

3′ — Nikolic redirects past Seitz for 1-0 — Nikolic ran 15 yards straight ahead without a single FCD player picking him up or impeding his path to the near post, and they paid for it.

6′ — Lamah taps it in to make it 1-1 right away — Lamah has been quite the disappointment since arriving in Dallas this winter, but he happened to eb in the right place at the right time in this one, as a failed clearance fell to the five-times-capped Belgian international for an easy tap-in, and his first MLS goal.

9′ — Accam cuts inside to make it 2-1 just as quickly — At some point, Accam will be properly rated by the wider MLS audience, as he’s been Chicago’s best player for two full seasons, and has only hit a new high with capable attackers all around him.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Dax McCarty

Goalscorers: Nikolic (3′), Lamah (6′), Accam (9′)

Report: Chicharito-to-MLS in doubt due to contract demands

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While Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has the feel of the player most clearly destined to play in MLS since Thierry Henry, we might have to wait a little while longer before the 28-year-old Mexican international ditches Europe in favor of a return to North America.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

According to a report from ESPN FC on Thursday, Hernandez is seeking an annual salary “way north of $10 million,” which would shatter the current record contract for an MLS player (Kaka — $7.2 million per year).

Hernandez has one more season left on his contract with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen. During the summer of 2018 he’ll be available for any club in the world to sign on a free transfer. With Los Angeles FC, the team Hernandez has reportedly been negotiating with for months now, set to debut in MLS in March 2018, chances are they’d like the centerpiece of their squad (and the largest annual investment in MLS history) to be involved on opening day, thus a fee will be required, very likely pushing the club’s total investment (salary plus fee) into the neighborhood of $50 million.

[ WATCH: Giovani dos Santos’ jaw-dropping volley vs. MIN ]

You can see pretty quickly why LAFC might balk at such demands.

With that said, 1) LAFC shouldn’t be surprised by this recent development, given Hernandez’s otherworldly allure within the LA market; 2) to piggyback on no. 1, a player should be paid every cent he’s worth to the club, on and off the field, and there might not be a player in the entire world (this side Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) who’d make LAFC a bigger hit in LA from day one.

Enrique “more than satisfied” with Barca tenure, eyes one more trophy

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MADRID (AP) Luis Enrique is finally saying goodbye to Barcelona, with one last chance at a trophy.

The Luis Enrique era in Barcelona ends after the Copa del Rey final against Alaves on Saturday, when the coach could cap his three-year stint with a ninth trophy out of a possible 13.

It would be a fitting farewell for him nearly three months after his surprise announcement that he was leaving.

“It would be a special title,” Luis Enrique said.

The former Barcelona midfielder has won nearly everything as the coach, since replacing Gerard Martino in 2014.

He led the team to the treble of the Spanish league, Copa del Rey, and Champions League in 2015. He achieved the league-Copa double in 2016, and began this season with the Spanish Super Cup title, their only trophy so far.

It hasn’t been Luis Enrique’s best season with Barcelona, which was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, and lost the Spanish league to Real Madrid last weekend.

“I’m happy and more than satisfied for all the years that I’ve enjoyed with this club,” the 47-year-old Luis Enrique said.

He announced in March he was leaving so he could get some rest.

“I came here to be a leader and I’ve been one. I’m leaving when I think it’s the best time to do it.”

His other titles included the 2015 European Super Cup and the 2015 Club World Cup.

Barcelona has yet to lose a Copa del Rey home-and-away series since he took over, a run of 12 straight triumphs.

“We are all thankful for these three years (with Luis Enrique),” captain Andres Iniesta said. “We have to win one last title to finish the best possible way.”

Barcelona has been in the Copa final in seven of the last nine seasons, including the last four. It has won it a record 28 times, including the last two.

Alaves will be playing in the final of a major tournament for only the second time in its 96-year history. The other was the UEFA Cup 16 years ago, when it lost to Liverpool 5-4 in extra time.

Alaves’ only winner’s trophy is for Spain’s second division. It was a promoted club in Spain’s top division this season after 10 years in the lower divisions, including four in the third tier. It finished ninth in the Liga.

Alaves enters the Copa final boosted from having beaten Barcelona 2-1 at Camp Nou at the beginning of the season.

The coach touted to replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona is Ernesto Valverde, who left Athletic Bilbao this week. An official announcement is expected next week.

Marco Silva leaves Hull; Premier League clubs lining up

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Marco Silva came to the Premier League, he saw the PL, but he didn’t conquer the PL — at least, not yet.

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It was announced on Thursday that the 39-year-old Portuguese manager, who took over last-place Hull City in January, has left the club after succumbing to relegation from the PL. Silva, whose stock rose quickly during his brief stay in England, signed a contract that ran only through the end of the season should they be relegated, thus he’s not sure on options these days. Hull would have undoubtedly welcomed him back for a run at promotion from the Championship next season.

As recently as Wednesday, Silva was expected to be named the new boss at Porto, though various reports stated that talks between the manager and club had broken down.

[ MORE: Terry “couldn’t care less” about criticism of his farewell ]

Watford and Crystal Palace, both of whom are manager-less after Walter Mazzarri was fired and Sam Allardyce resigned, respectively, are said to be extremely interested in Silva’s services.