Losing Milinkovic, & how a trialist (?) can make it all better

courtesy of SNS

courtesy of SNS

written by:  @TheGersReport

Hearts have been one of the busiest Scottish Premiership clubs this summer, having already completed nine signings.  However, it was the transfer that they appear to have missed out on that could have the biggest impact on Hearts' chances next season.

Earlier this week, Barry Anderson reported that David Milinkovic's wage demands have forced the club to pull the plug on the transfer deal of the Genoa winger.

The 24-year-old is looking for a salary well beyond Hearts’ financial capabilities and the deal now looks to be dead. Contract talks took place throughout yesterday and this morning before Tynecastle officials pulled the plug this afternoon. Chances of the deal being resurrected appear unlikely at this stage as Hearts are now ready to turn their attentions elsewhere.
— Barry Anderson (Edinburgh Evening News, June 20, 2018)

This is really bad news for Hearts.  What makes this missed opportunity especially troubling for Hearts is the fact he was one of the few dangerous players on a team that was among the most insipid attacking sides in the league last season.

Hearts had the second lowest Expected Goals total in the Premiership & created the second fewest Scoring Chances (kicked shots from the heart of the box & headed/kicked shots from within six yard box).  Only Hamilton was worse in both categories.  

Hearts truly struggled to create quality shooting opportunities & losing Milinkovic means they are losing their most <errrr....only> creative playmaker (he led the team in Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90 minutes).

David Milinkovic 2017-18

David Milinkovic 2017-18

If you are solely looking at actual goals produced, Milinkovic was directly involved in ten non-penalty goals (5 goals, 5 assists).   Furthermore, if you include Secondary Assists & Third Assists (the second & third pass leading to a goal), he had a direct impact on 13 goals.  Hearts only scored 37 non-penalty goals last season & Milinkovic factored in on 35% of those goals.  What makes that number even more impressive is the fact that he only played in 43% of the available minutes.  

Now goals & assists aren't necessarily the most repeatable stats & the fact is Milinkovic's goal rate of 0.31 is likely to decrease next season.  

I wrote about this when I first introduced Expected Shooting Percentage (xSh%), a stat that can help gauge how a player's finishing will regress or improve moving forward.  It applies the league average Shooting Percentage (rate of shots on target that are goals) for the kinds of shots a player gets on target to see what his xSh% is.  For example, a kicked shot on target from the heart of the box beats the keeper 45% of the time, Milinkovic had four shots on target from the heart of the box & he scored on 100% of them.  Next season, you could expect that finishing to regress towards the league average rate.

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You can see that Milnkovic scored on an unsustainable 50% of his shots on target in 2017-18, while his xSh% was 32%.  

When applying league average rates for both Shot Accuracy & Shooting Percentage, you can get a better sense of what a player's Projected Goal rates should have been & what those rates may look like in the future.  

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Milinkovic had one of the highest differences between actual goals scored & Projected Goals & is a very, very safe bet to see a decline in goal production next season (if he was actually to return).

But, that does not ease the impact of him not coming back next season.  As I wrote back in May, his real value comes in his ability to create quality chances for teammates.  

The 24-year old led the team in Key Passes per 90, as well as Expected Assists per 90. His 0.62 Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90 was on par with the likes of Leigh Griffiths, Ryan Christie, & Miles Storey.

For a team that generated the second fewest Scoring Chances (kicked shots from the heart of the box & kicked/headed shots from within six yard box), Hearts will have a real void in playmaking to fill if they cannot re-sign Milinkovic.

But, yeah...don’t expect the same goal rate.
— Modern Fitba (May 28, 2018)

So much of the emphasis on losing Milnkovic comes from the fact that Hearts had a real dearth in quality playmakers in 2017-18.  This seems like a good opportunity to (re)introduce readers to Relative Shot Creation Passing stats, which I first talked about in December of 2017.

The goal of using relative stats is to provide context.  Averaging 1.79 Key Passes per 90 for a team like Hearts means something very different than averaging the same rate for a club like Celtic.  Eight midfielders & wingers averaged that rate (or higher) for Celtic, while that rate topped Hearts' squad.  Celtic created 343 more shots than Hearts last season (they literally doubled Hearts' amount).  So, when looking at David Milinkovic's Shot Creation Passing stats, you can learn a whole lot more about his impact by comparing his numbers within the team's collection of midfielders & wingers.  If you compare his numbers to the rest of the league, they could easily be overlooked.

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That's what Relative Shot Creation Passing Stats do.  They compare a player's output to the the per 90 rates of the other midfielders & wingers on the team.  For example, Milinkovic (who led the team in Key Passes) has a Relative Key Pass rate of +0.95 - which means he averaged nearly a full Key Pass more than the average rate of the rest of the team's midfielders & wingers.  Compare that to someone like Danny Amankwaa, who was brought in to add a creative flare to Hearts wing play, who has a Relative Key Pass rate of -0.12.

Below you will find a series of visualizations depicting each one of Heart's midfielders & wingers Relative Shot Creating Passing rates from last season.  

In each case, I will highlight the players who had similar relative rates as Milinkovic last season.

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Milinkovic's rate was similar to Blair Spittal & Niall McGinn.  Meanwhile, it was better than the likes of James Forrest (+0.86) & John McGinn (+0.81), despite the fact both players averaged more Key Passes per 90.

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Even though Milinkovic is relied upon mainly for his final ball, you can see he still had a positive rate when it comes to Secondary Shot Assists (the pass to the player who gets the Key Pass).  Back in 2016, I talked about the importance of this kind of pass.  Milinkovic's relative rate is similar to Olivier Ntcham & Graeme Shinnie.  It's better than the likes of Scott Brown & Greg Docherty.

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Establishing Passes are basically the third shot assists - sometimes this is the pass that splits open the defence to create space in the final third that eventually leads to a shot, sometimes it's a meaningless pass to a player a few feet away.  Regardless, certain players consistently are making this pass & clearly are having a real impact on the build-up play leading to shots.  Milinkovic's rate is a bit surprising given the perception that his playmaking ability is rooted in his final ball (& it is), but you can see that he was also very involved earlier in the build-up play.  His Relative Establishing Pass rate is on par with the likes of Ryan Christie & Scott Brown, & is better than players like Graeme Shinnie, Kenny McLean, & John McGinn.

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Not only was Milinkovic setting up the most shots for Hearts, he was creating quality chances.  His rate was similar to Liam Craig & Blair Spittal & better than players like Chris Cadden, Jordan Jones, John McGinn & James Forrest.

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xG Chain was first introduced by Ted Knutson as a means of giving credit for all of the players involved in a passing network leading to a shot.  In my version, I only assign the xG value of the shot to players involved in the three passes leading to the shot (if applicable).  I like the stat because there are certain outliers who are consistently involved, at some point, in the creation of dangerous shots.  When I was consulting a lower league club in Scotland a couple of seasons ago, there was a center back who had been left out of the starting eleven for a few weeks in a row.  I brought it to management's attention that he actually had one of the highest xG Chain rates in the squad as he consistently had the Secondary Shot Assist or Establishing Pass in a network of passing that was leading to dangerous chances.  The player was back in the line-up the next week & really hasn't left the starting eleven ever since.

For Milinkovic, you can see a similar trend.  If there was a dangerous shot being created, he tended to be involved somehow.  His rate was similar to John McGinn, Martin Woods & Elliot Frear, while being better than big names like Jordan Jones, Greg Docherty, Ryan Christie, Callum McGregor, & James Forrest.

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People who have been reading my work know that I really stress the importance of Scoring Chances given the fact the majority of goals (59%) come from these kinds of shots, despite the fact they only make-up 30% of the shots.  So when you find players who thrive in setting up teammates for these kinds of high percentage shots, that's an asset that truly can't be overlooked.  You can see that Milinkovic was really the only midfielder or winger to get (somewhat) regular minutes that was able to consistently set up Scoring Chances.  His rate was similar to Stefan Scougall, Martin Woods & Ryan Christie, while it was better than some of those same names we've mentioned before who have reputations of being elite playmakers:  Chris Cadden, Jordan Jones, John McGinn, Martin Boyle, James Forrest, Scott Sinclair, & Niall McGinn.

The point of this post is to highlight how difficult it will be to replace David Milinkovic, while preparing to write it -- another reality also became very clear. 

Hearts have yet to truly replace Jamie Walker. 

Go back & look at those visualizations...notice Walker is at the top of nearly each one.

It's funny how all of the talk around Walker before he left for Wigan Athletic was that he was distracted by his contract running out & by offers from big clubs, like Rangers.  His scoring rates were down, as he went from averaging 0.46 goals per 90 in 2016-17, to 0.16 last season.


“He’s had opportunities but not been quite as clinical as he has been. His overall game will improve and if we do better things round about him it will give him more chances to score goals.”

Craig Levein on Jamie Walker (Daily Record, December 2017)

It's true his Shooting Percentage (the rate of shots on target that beat the keeper) dropped from 29% in 2016-17 to a woeful 15% in 2017-18. However, when you look at his Shot Creation Passing stats relative to his teammates he was still carrying that midfield in attack - he ranked in the top two of every category but Scoring Chance Key Passes per 90.   

Replacing the output of both Milinkovic & Walker seems like a daunting task for Hearts & like Craig Fowler astutely highlighted this week for The Scotsman...they are trying...but it isn't easy.

But, there is hope. 

Strangely it comes in the form of a trialist who will begin training soon with the club & he may just be the player who can step in & be that player who makes up for the lost production of both Milinkovic & Walker...even though I don't think everyone realizes it.

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Twitter can be so harsh...

The perception of Ali Crawford from many is that he is coming off an underwhelming season for Hamilton Academical.  Part of that stems from the fact he scored zero goals last season after totaling nine in the past two seasons.  Another part of that comes from the fact injuries meant he didn't get on the pitch all that much last season.

However, when you peel back the layers of Crawford's underlying stats you find a player who is still among the very best playmakers in the Scottish Premiership.

Below you'll find a table of Crawford's Relative Shot Creating Passing stats.  Remember, only Hamilton was as bad as Hearts in creating quality chances last season.  I've also included where his stats would rank in Hearts midfield, along with peers in the league who had similar numbers.

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Ummm....if Crawford had a bad season...I want to see what his good season looks like.  Notice the names in that right column.  Stuart Armstrong & Scott Allan were elite playmakers in the Scottish Premiership last season...the other names aren't too shabby either.  The simple fact is that Ali Crawford was among the very best playmakers in the league despite playing for the most anemic attack in the Premiership.  

His ability to create high percentage shots (Expected Assists & Scoring Chance Key Passes) would be a comparable replacement for David Milinkovic, while his all around involvement in the passing network leading to shots is comparable to what Jamie Walker provided Hearts last season.

Not bad for a trialist.

Some notes:  

  • Stats used in this post come from my season long tracking of Scottish Premiership data. Next season, Modern Fitba will work off a unified set of stats.

  • I will publish more Relative Shot Creation Passing stats throughout the summer. I really like how it can balance out how you can analyze a player's impact within the context of the team he plays with. I would love to create something like this tool, created by Ryan Stimson, to compare different midfielders & wingers in the league. But I'm not that good with Tableau...any help would be much appreciated

  • This was written under the influence of the Swutscher, Mourn, the Buzzcocks & Insecure Men.

  • Make sure to check out our glossary to get a better understanding of stats used on our site. Thanks to Jamie for putting it together.

  • Once Matt Rhein heard I was writing about Milinkovic, he sent over a visualization looking at successful dribbles & Key Passes per 90. You can see that Milinkovic's ability to beat defenders on the dribble is helping him create space in the final third & that probably has a lot to do with his high number of Key Passes. Again, you can see that he is grouped with some of the best performers in the Premiership last season.

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