Scouting with Stats: Switzerland
Written by: Christian Wulff (@ahellofabeating)
In the first part of this series I looked at how advanced statistics can play a crucial part in the player recruitment process for SPFL Premiership clubs, helping to focus the precious time and money allocated to scouting on areas where they can have the best chance of success.
Starting with the Jupiler Pro League in Belgium we didn’t go looking for the very best players and the most obvious talents in the league (as they would simply be out of reach for most SPFL clubs), but rather try to identify under-appreciated talent and players whose advanced stats signal that they might be due an upswing in goals or assists.
In this article we move more centrally and further south into Europe, to the Swiss Super League. Again, it’s a country where the very best players are very unlikely to come to Scotland (Basel’s Norwegian forward Moi Elyounoussi – who was linked to Celtic under Ronny Deila – went to Southampton for a reported fee of £16m this summer) but as seen with the great success Florian Kamberi has had at Hibs there could be plenty of very good value players in the league if you know where, and how, to look.
The first player identified is probably the most ‘obvious’ choice of this series so far, due to his high amount of assists. Quite simply, even his traditional stats have been so good over the last two seasons it seems strange that he has not moved from Switzerland and could be available for a relatively small fee.
Name: Matteo Tosetti
Born: 15th February, 1992
Club 2017/18: FC Thun
Nationality/Caps: Swiss / 16 youth caps
Height: 1.76m (5’9’)
Matteo Tosetti loves a cross. Over the last two seasons, 53 of the 78 passes he's made to set up a chance from open play has been labelled as a cross by Strata. That’s in addition to the 57 corners and free-kicks he’s also set up a chance from in the same period. His delivery skills have propelled him to the top of the stats table in Switzerland; he was 1st in total assists (13) in 2016/17 and 2nd in 17/18 (14), and he was 2nd in both seasons when it came to assists per every 90 minutes played, with 0.47 and 0.51 assist p90 respectively.
Stats analysts are often very wary of assists as an indicator of performance, as they are obviously not recorded unless a goal is scored; a player might set up a great chance only for the striker to fluff it. So assist stats should always be taken with a pinch of salt, requiring us instead to look at more advanced chance creation stats such as Key Passes (the pass that sets up an attempt) and Expected Assists (the Expected Goals value of the chances those key passes help set up). These metrics will give a very good indicator of whether the assist rate of a player is sustainable and likely to continue.
For Tosetti, it absolutely is; he had the highest total Expected Assists (xA) the last two seasons (11.40 in 16/17 and 11.64 in 17/18), and was 1st and 2nd in xA p90 (0.42 and 0.41).
47% of his Key Passes the last two seasons have come from a corner or free-kick, but he was still 7th and 6th in the league when it came to open play chance creation in the same period.
The pass maps below shows clearly how much success he has had in creating chances from down the right side of the field.
At 26, Tosetti is not an emerging young starlet anymore, but even as a wide player you expect him to have at least 2-3 seasons of peak performance left in him. So with such impressive, consistent and sustainable playmaking stats, why isn’t Tosetti playing at a higher level than a mid-level Swiss club, or even capped by Switzerland?
Alex Robinson works as the Super League analyst for the football analytics and consultancy company Football Radar. His job is to watch every single league game and he is a big fan of Tosetti:
"He’s one of my favourite players in the league. He can play on both flanks – and even down the middle - but I believe the right is where he performs his best. He can play in attack as well, but is best when he is up front with someone else. He may be one of those players that are happy to stay in Switzerland, having never played football abroad."
In terms of a potential transfer to Scotland, Alex think there might be a chance, but likely only for the clubs with the most money in the league:
"The only issue with him in terms of Scottish clubs is that he would be expensive. He is contracted till 2021 so it would not be cheap to get Thun to sell him."
Transfrmarket.co.uk estimates Tossetti current market value to £1.58m, but Alex reckons that Thun would probably want more than that to part with him, potentially putting him out of reach for most SPFL clubs apart from Celtic and Rangers.
While Rangers’ right side is arguably their strongest - with players such as Tavernier, Candeias and Windass - Tossetti, with his great delivery from crosses and set-pieces, would seemingly fit well into a side that had both the most headed attempts in the league last season, and the highest amount of chances from which one of the last two passes was a cross. Tossetti’s ability to play on either flank could also lend some extra creativity to a Rangers left-side somewhat bereft of it compared to the opposite flank.
At 26, Tossetti is probably a bit above the ideal age-range in which Celtic seems to prefer to shop in, especially from abroad. Having said that, they brought in 30-year old winger Johnny Hayes last season and with the Irishman’s injury problems, the departure of Patrick Roberts and Charly Musonda, Scott Sinclair’s dip in performances last season and the inexperience of Lewis Morgan and Michael Johnston, there could well be room for another wide player at Celtic Park. With Rodgers seemingly preferring a 3-5-2 formation this season and with questions mark around Mikael Lustig and Christian Gamboa, Celtic’s right side does look a little bit thin behind first choice James Forrest. Tossetti could be a relatively good value back-up, especially as he can also operate across the pitch if needed.
Perhaps Matteo Tosetti is happy to play out his career in Switzerland and there will obviously be question marks over how he would handle the step up to playing in front of 50-60,000 demanding home fans compared to being relatively out of the limelight in front of the average 6,000 strong crowd at FC Thun. What we know is that he is extremely interesting from a stats perspective – he would be well worth investigating further for any club in Scotland than can potenitally afford him.
While Tosetti might be out of reach for most SPFL clubs, we know there is plenty of value to be had in the league, especially when looking at players that have not had too much playing time over the last season (Florian Kamberi only had 35 minutes of senior football in Switzerland before he went to Hibs in the January window last season). With smaller samples, we also have to be a lot more careful when evaluating players from a stat perspective – only with larger samples do we know with a lot more certainty whether good stats performances are sustainable or not.
For the analysis of the Super League, I put threshold for analysis at 630 minutes, or 7 full 90s played. This is on the low side in terms of sample size, but it also allow us to pick up potential emerging talents who is yet not a mainstay at their teams, and might be willing to move for more playing time. This certainly seem to be the case for our next player, a team-mate of Matteo Tosetti at FC Thun.
Name: Nicolas Hunziker
Born: 23rd February, 1996
Club 2017/18: FC Thun
Nationality/Caps: Swiss / 34 youth caps
Height: 1.80m (5’11’)
After going through the youth ranks at Basel and a year’s loan at Grasshoppers, Nicolas Hunziker made a permanent transfer to Thun before the start of last season. At 21 and capped at 7(!) different levels for Switzerland, it seemed a sensible way of kick-starting the career of a promising young forward, who hadn’t quite manage to break through at either of the two bigger clubs in Switzerland.
He made 24 appearances for Thus in the Super League last season, but that is a misleading number; he only had 6 starts and was subbed off in all of them, on average in the 64th minute. In the 18 games he came off the bench, he was allowed an average of 15 minutes to impress. All together Hunziker was only on the pitch for 7.2 full 90 minutes, surely not even close to the playing time he had hoped for.
Looking at his numbers, it’s slightly curious as to why. Hunziker scored three goals, which equates to 0.41 goals p90: 12th in the Super League last season. That was no fluke; he had a total of 3.01 Expected Goals (0.42 p90 – 13th in league), almost perfectly matching his goals output. So during his limited time on the pitch, he both scores and gets to chances at a rate that puts him towards the top in the league.
The chances he gets to is also of a very good nature; of the players with at least one attempt p90 in the Super League last season (so most attacking players), he was first in terms of the % of shots taken in the Danger Zone – from which most goals are scored – with 87%. He was eight in xG per attempt with 0.20 – his average chance is one that is expected to be scored one in five times. These are very interesting numbers, and we can see from the shot map below the good positions Hunziker got into during his limited time on the pitch last season.
Taking only two shots from outside the penalty box points to good decision making by the young striker, who could not be faulted if he felt the need to shot at sight from any position to prove his worth in the little time he got on the pitch.
At 5’11, Hunziker is no wee man but not among the tallest strikers either – that 40% of his attempts were headers (4th in league), also points to a striker with good movement and timing, not overly relying on a physical presence to get to headed chances, as seen with this goal against his old club Grasshoppers:
Alex Stewart is positive in terms of Hunziker following Florian Kamberi to the SPFL:
"He is a player that could well be worth a risk on. His favoured role is as a striker but he can shift on to the flanks if required. He did not make the grade at Basel and the lower echelons of the Swiss top flight is a more appropriate level."
Alex also notes that Kamberi’s success at Hibs shows there is talent and value to be found in Switzerland. There’s quite a few similarities between Hunziker and Kamberi; both failed to break through at a top club in the Super League after being capped for Switzerland at youth level (Hunziker far more times), with Hunizker now just a few months younger than when Kamberi was when he came to the SPFL.
FC Thun got Hunziker on a free transfer from Grasshoppers, so will not be looking to recoup any transfer fees on their young striker. Outside maybe Celtic and Rangers, Hunziker could be a good alternative – maybe for a loan with option to buy – for pretty much any team in the Premiership this season.
As discussed above, the bigger the sample the better when evaluating players. Hunziker’s 7.2 full p90 is definitely on the low side and his stats need to be considered in that context. Bearing that in mind, it was just too tempting to highlight a player with even less SuperLeague minutes last season.
Name: Aimery Pinga Maria
Born: 6th January, 1998
Club 2017/18: FC Sion
Nationality/Caps: Swiss / 2 youth caps (1 goal)
Height: 1.85m (6’0’)
Aimery Pinga had 14 appearances in the Super League last season, all as a substitute, playing an average of 19 minutes in each match (44 minutes was the longest he played in one game). All together he had 266 minutes, or just short of 3 full 90 minutes (2.96). This is usually way too small a sample to make any sort of proper judgement from - but his numbers were so impressive (especially for someone who was a teenager when the season started), that I needed to take a closer look.
During his time on the pitch (and compared to Super League players who played at least seven full 90s, and had either one attempt p90 or 0.5 key passes p90), Pinga scored 0.68 goals p90 (third in league) and had 0.59 xG p90 (also third), and he took 4.1 attempts p90 (1st in league).
He also created chances; he was involved in setting up 2.4 attempts p90 (8th in league) which had an xG value of 0.50 (2nd).
So during his very limited time on the pitch, Pinga was towards the top of the league both in goals scored and when it came to the quality and quantity of chances he both got to himself and created for others.
There is another interesting piece of data; for each attempt taken, Strata rates the quality of the shot/header from 0 to 5. Pinga’s quality for his 14 attempts was measured to be 21.8% better than the league average (excludes penalties and direct-free kicks) – that was the highest of any player with more than one attempt per every full game.
A glimpse of this quality can be seen below as Pinga scores one of his two goals in the Super League last season:
There are of course a lot of caveats to this data; first of all the sample is very small and there is no way of knowing whether Pinga could replicate such a rate over more games. We also need to consider the game situation of Pinga’s minutes as he would usually come on at a point where the game is likely to be more stretched, perhaps more un-organised from a tactical perspective and with tiring defenders – these are all factors that can influence the outcome over such short samples.
However, the reporter from SuperLeague, expert Alex Stewart is very positive on Pinga:
"He is a fast, talented striker who can also play on the right flank. He was prolific in youth football for BSC Young Boys and Sion, he’s got three goals in the senior team and I expect he will develop."
Alex’s point about youth football leads us to one area where we can look at a bigger sample of games for Pinga. Jason from the @TheGersReport has recently written some excellent pieces for Modern Fitba on how to evaluate the limited stats we have for youth football to identify talented Scottish-based players. While we usually have a lot less information about youth football and games from the lower leagues, transfermrkt.co.uk has a record of Aimery Pinga’s games and goals outside the FC Sion first-team.
Since the 2014/15 season (when he was only 16), he has played almost 5000 minutes (55.4 full 90s), covering both the Swiss U18 league and games for Sion and Young Boys U21 teams on the third and fourth tier of the Swiss senior league pyramid.
Over these 55.4 p90s played, he has scored 47 goals, or 0.85 per every full game. This is split as 16 goals (0.70) over 23 p90s in the lower leagues, and 31 goals (0.96) over 32.4 p90s in the youth leagues. Prolific indeed.
Alex Stewart thinks a move to Scotland is not out of the question for Pinga:
"He certainly could be looked at by Scottish clubs as he is struggling to get game time at Sion. He is contracted till 2021 so a loan option may be more likely. The main problem is that he may not want to go to the Scottish league as he will be looking at a higher level."
It is crucial that we put Aimery Pinga’s impressive numbers in the context of a small sample size and the carefulness this require us to threat the data with. But the information we do have sends a clear signal to Scottish clubs; spend time and resources to further investigate and analyse this young Swiss striker – it might well be a very good investment.