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.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 11 — Time to settle Groups A & B

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Day 12 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Monday, and with it begins the final round of group games to decide the 16 teams headed to the knockout rounds. For the next four days, we’ll be treated to four games each day.

Also, the end of 8 a.m. ET kickoffs. Hooray for sleeping in.

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

First up, the conclusion of Group A, where both the hosts, Russia, and Uruguay have already advanced with wins in their first two games. Now, the two meet in the southwestern city of Samara to determine who’ll go through to the round of 16 as the group winners, and who’ll be the runners-up. Most likely awaiting either of them will be Spain and Portugal, pending the order in which they finish in Group B.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]

Speaking of Group B, Spain will finish group play against fourth-place and points-less Morocco, while Portugal have a tricky meeting with third-place Iran, who sit just a point behind the reigning European champions. The winner of Group B will face the runners-up of Group A, and vice versa.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 25

Group A
Uruguay vs. Russia: Samara, 10 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt: Volgograd, 10 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group B
Spain vs. Morocco: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Iran vs. Portugal: Saransk, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Transfer rumor roundup: Emery raiding Sevilla; Wilshere’s suitor(s)

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Unai Emery has reportedly been in contact with at least one former player, Ever Banega, in an attempt to convince the Argentine midfielder to join him at Arsenal.

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Banega, who’ll turn 30 on Friday, played two seasons under Emery at Sevilla — where they won back-to-back Europa League titles (Banega was only at the club for the second and third of three straight from 2013-2016).

With Banega reportedly on the fence about whether or not to leave Sevilla again — he only just returned last summer after one season at Inter Milan — Emery is said to have made a personal call after Arsenal’s bid of roughly $23 million triggered the release clause in Banega’s contract. Sevilla will join Arsenal in the Europa League next season after finishing seventh in La Liga.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Jack Wilshere announced last week that he will leave Arsenal this summer — thus opening up the handful of games for which he was healthy and fit to play each season, perhaps for Banega — which leads us nicely to the final bit of transfer talk for Sunday: West Ham are interested in the 26-year-old, but are reportedly only willing to offer him a one-year contract.

The Hammers’ hesitancy is, of course, a response to his years-long battle with injuries — he’s made just 66 appearances over the last four PL seasons (three with Arsenal, one on loan to Bournemouth).

Two other clubs to keep an eye on, as they’ve reportedly indicated interest in Wilshere and/or been in contact already: Everton and Juventus.

Durmaz condemns Sweden fans’ racist abuse after World Cup loss

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KRASNODAR, Russia (AP) — Sweden midfielder Jimmy Durmaz says the racist abuse aimed at him over social media following the 2-1 loss to Germany at the World Cup has been “completely unacceptable.”

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

After coming on as a substitute, Durmaz gave away the free kick that led to Toni Kroos curling in an injury-time winner in Saturday’s group game. Durmaz has since been subjected to online abuse, including threats to his family.

Before a training session on Sunday, Durmaz — standing in front of the rest of the Sweden squad and beside coach Janne Andersson — read out a statement to the media from a mobile phone.

“When you threaten me, when you call me ‘Arab devil,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘Taliban,’ then you have gone far beyond the limit,” Durmaz said in the statement, which was published on the Swedish Football Association’s website.

“And even worse, when you go after my family, my children, threaten them. Who does such a thing? It is completely unacceptable.”

Durmaz was born in Sweden to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“I am Swedish and I am proud to play in the Swedish national team. That’s the biggest thing you can do as a football player,” he said in the statement. “I will never let any racists destroy that pride. We must all stand against all forms of racism.”

The Swedish FA has reported the abuse toward Durmaz to police.

“We do not tolerate a player being exposed to threats and violations,” said Hakan Sjostrand, secretary general of the Swedish FA. “It is unpleasant and very upsetting to see the treatment that Jimmy Durmaz has suffered. Completely unacceptable.”

The loss to Germany left Sweden tied on three points with its opponent. Both countries are three points behind Mexico with one game left. Sweden plays Mexico in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, with Germany taking on South Korea at the same time.

Scenarios: Final round of 2018 World Cup group stage

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With just one round of group games left to be played at the 2018 World Cup, the time to begin scoreboard (and table… and tiebreaker) watching is now. 24 teams are still alive with a chance to making it into the knockout rounds and lifting the trophy in Moscow on July 15…

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Group A

Games remaining: Uruguay (2nd – 6 points) vs. Russia (1st – 6 points); Saudi Arabia (4th) vs. Egypt (3rd)

Who can finish 1st: Russia (advanced), Uruguay (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: Russia, Uruguay

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Russia (+7), Uruguay (+2)

Scenario(s): Uruguay or Russia will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; Russia will finish 1st if a draw


Group B

Games remaining: Iran (3rd – 3 points) vs. Portugal (2nd – 4 points); Spain (1st – 4 points) vs. Morocco (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Spain, Portugal, Iran
Who can finish 2nd: Spain, Portugal, Iran

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Spain (+1), Portugal (+1), Iran (0)
Goals scored: Spain (4), Portugal (4), Iran (1)

Scenario(s): Spain or Portugal will finish 1st with a win by more goals (or scoring more goals, if the same margin) than the other; Iran will finish 1st with a win and a Spain draw/loss


Group C

Games remaining: Denmark (2nd – 4 points) vs. France (1st – 6 points); Australia (3rd – 1 point) vs. Peru (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: France (advanced), Denmark
Who can finish 2nd: France, Denmark, Australia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: France (+2), Denmark (+1), Australia (-1)
Goals scored: France (3), Denmark (2), Australia (2)

Scenario(s): France will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Denmark; Denmark will finish 1st with a win; Australia will finish 2nd with a win and Denmark (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group D

Games remaining: Nigeria (2nd – 3 points) vs. Argentina (4th – 1 point); Iceland (3rd – 1 point) vs. Croatia (1st – 6 points)

Who can finish 1st: Croatia (advanced), Nigeria
Who can finish 2nd: Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland, Argentina

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Croatia (+5), Nigeria (0), Iceland(-2), Argentina (-3)
Goals scored: Croatia (5), Nigeria (2), Iceland (1), Argentina (1)

Scenario(s): Croatia will will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Iceland; Nigeria will finish 1st with a win over Argentina and a Croatia loss (if the two results combine to overturn their five-goal goal-differential deficit); Iceland will finish 2nd with a win and a Nigeria loss, or a Nigeria draw (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Argentina will finish 2nd with a win and an Iceland loss/draw, or an Iceland win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group E

Games remaining: Serbia (3rd – 3 points) vs. Brazil (1st – 4 points); Switzerland (2nd – 4 points) vs. Costa Rica (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia
Who can finish 2nd: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Brazil (+2), Switzerland (+1), Serbia(0)
Goals scored: Brazil (3), Switzerland (3), Serbia(2)

Scenario(s): Brazil will finish 1st with a win over Serbia and a Switzerland draw/loss, or a Switzerland win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their one-goal goal-differential advantage); Switzerland will finish 1st with a win over Costa Rica and a Brazil loss/draw, or a Brazil win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit); Serbia will finish 1st with a win and a Switzerland draw/loss


Group F

Games remaining: South Korea (4th – 0 points) vs. Germany (2nd – 3 points); Mexico (1st – 6 points) vs. Sweden (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Mexico, Germany, Sweden
Who can finish 2nd: Mexico, Germany, Sweden, South Korea

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Mexico (+2), Germany (0), Sweden (0), South Korea (-2)
Goals scored: Mexico (3), Germany (2), Sweden (2), South Korea (1)

Scenario(s): Mexico will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Sweden, or a draw and a Germany draw/loss, or a one-goal loss and a Germany loss; Germany will finish 1st with a win over South Korea and a Mexico loss (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Sweden will finish 1st with a win and Germany loss/draw, or a Germany win (if the two results combine to overturn their identical goal differentials); South Korea will finish 2nd with a win and a Sweden loss (if the three results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficits)


Group G

Games remaining: England (1st – 6 points) vs. Belgium (2nd – 6 points); Panama (4th – 0 points) vs. Tunisia (3rd – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: England (advanced), Belgium (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: England, Belgium

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: England (+6), Belgium (+6)
Goals scored: England (8), Belgium (8)
Fair-play points (yellow/red cards): England (-2), Belgium (-3)

Scenario(s): England or Belgium will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; fair-play points will determine who finishes 1st if a draw


Group H

Games remaining: Japan (1st – 4 points) vs. Poland (4th – 0 points); Senegal (2nd – 4 points) vs. Colombia (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Japan, Senegal, Colombia
Who can finish 2nd: Japan, Senegal, Colombia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Colombia (+2), Japan (+1), Senegal (+1)
Goals scored: Japan (4), Senegal (4), Colombia (4)
Fair-play points: Japan (-3), Senegal (-5)

Scenario(s): Japan will finish 1st with a win over Poland and a Senegal draw/loss, or a Senegal win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their fair-play points advantage); Senegal will finish 1st with a win over Colombia and a Japan draw/loss, or a Japan win (if the two results combine to overturn their fair-play points deficit); Colombia will finish 1st with a win and a Japan draw/loss