JACKSONVILLE, FL - JUNE 07: Midfielder Michael Bradley #4 of the United States dribbles during the international friendly match against Nigeria at EverBank Field on June 7, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida.

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.

Southampton: Van Dijk won’t leave, selling days likely done

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MARCH 29:  Ralph Krueger the Southampton Chairman looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Newcastle United at St Mary's Stadium on March 29, 2014 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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Ralph Krueger doesn’t plan on selling any more big Southampton stars, and there’s none brighter than Virgil Van Dijk.

The Dutchman is perhaps the best center back in the Premier League, regularly linked with transfers to anywhere from Manchester City to Liverpool.

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But Krueger says Saints have had enough of selling big assets. Southampton has sold Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Sadio Mane, and Nathaniel Clyne in the past three seasons, and those are just the names to go to Liverpool. Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama have also moved on from St. Mary’s.

From Sky Sports:

“We would like to move away from that and we feel confident this summer will be a lot quieter in Southampton and we can keep the core of this team moving forward for a few years.

“That is going to be important when you see how excellent the group is right now and how exciting the football is. The game we are playing is a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to be part of.”

Saints were the more effective side in a 3-2 EFL Cup Final loss to Manchester United this weekend, but are well off the pace in the race to make back-to-back trips into Europe.

It will be hard to hold onto Van Dijk and even new bright light Manolo Gabbiadini without Europe, but Krueger is a strong leader with the ability to convince almost anyone to buy into a plan.

Real Salt Lake signs Plata to multi-year DP deal

Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (8) gestures while walking during an MLS soccer game against New York City FC Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) DESERET NEWS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; MAGS OUT
Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
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SANDY, Utah (AP) Real Salt Lake has re-signed forward Joao Plata to a multi-year contract and he will continue to hold a designated-player spot.

The 24-year-old was acquired from Toronto FC before the 2013 season and he has 30 goals and 30 assists in regular-season play with RSL.

[ MORE: Liverpool flops vs LCFC ]

Plata ranks No. 3 on the team’s all-time assists list and No. 5 in goals. He has 33 goals and 35 assists during his MLS career.

Real Salt Lake begins the season Saturday when it hosts Toronto FC.

Gotze out indefinitely with metabolism disorder

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 06:  Mario Goetze (R) and Ann-Kathrin Broemmel attend the MTV Europe Music Awards 2016 on November 6, 2016 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for MTV)
Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for MTV
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Mario Gotze’s last few seasons have not fulfilled the expectations thrust about the World Cup-winning attacker.

Gotze, 24, scored the 113th minute goal that lifted Germany past Argentina in the 2014 World Cup, but has endured successive disappointing seasons between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

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With just two goals this season, Gotze has played just 24 minutes since BVB came back from winter break. On Monday, the club revealed why: a metabolism disorder that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. From Sky Sports:

“We are glad to know the reasons for Mario’s complaints and we are convinced that after recovering he will give us extra quality with his exceptional abilities,” said Dortmund’s director of sport Michael Zorc.

“Mario gets the full backing and maximum support from all of us at Borussia Dortmund on his way back.”

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Gotze at his best, and here’s hoping this problem is both curable and the reason for his struggles.

Liverpool hires EA Sports executive as new CEO

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Liverpool has named Peter Moore as the successor to chief executive office Ian Ayre.

Ayre, 53, is off to 1860 Munich this summer, and has stepped down early to allow Moore to take over.

[ MORE: Liverpool flops vs LCFC ]

A Liverpool-born executive, Moore was the chief operating officer at EA Sports and has also worked with Microsoft and SEGA.

The move “completes a transitional phase” which saw several new names join the fray. From The Liverpool Echo:

The appointment completes a transition plan by FSG which included appointing Michael Edwards as sporting director while Billy Hogan was promoted to the role of managing director and chief commercial officer.