Between the lines: Is Newcastle’s Ayoze Perez an answer to Tottenham’s forward puzzle?

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Ayoze Perez scores against West Brom. BBC via Google Images

Louise Taylor of The Guardian recently profiled Newcastle’s Ayoze Perez, drawing not one but one four intriguing comparisons. Praising the Spanish forward’s three dimensional, “between the lines” game, Perez, Taylor suggested, had shades of Jari Litmanen, David Silva, Peter Beardsley and Matt Jansen about him.

While Silva seemed a stretch, and more a nod to their shared Canary Islands roots than similar playing styles, the mentions of Litmanen, Beardsley and Jansen piqued my interest.

Per Taylor, a very reliable source of news from northeast clubs, Spurs had a bid turned down for Perez in the summer. Subsequent murmurings have linked him with excitement-averse Manchester United, and with renewed interest from Spurs.

Most Spurs fans agree that another striker needs to be purchased in January — we can’t walk the Harry Kane hamstring tightrope forever, especially not with a Top Four place in sight. But it isn’t a straightforward purchase — whoever comes in knows that they have little or no chance of superseding Kane as the club’s main striker, due to Kane’s high degree of awesomeness. Mauricio Pochettino appears to have little interest in expensive squad players who don’t really care if they play or not, and has said that he likes versatile players.

So, whoever comes in needs to be able to play in another position if they want to earn a regular place, and play the lone striker role if Kane needs a breather or gets hurt. Son Heung-min has showed some ability to do this — impressing from both right and left of the attacking midfield three, but also up front against Qarabag when he scored twice. Clinton N’Jie, on the other hand, had a good 15 minutes against a beaten Man City, but has done little else.

I recently took a look at Saido Berahino, arguably a more conventional Number 9, but who has also played from wider positions. But when I read comparisons like Litmanen, Jansen and Beardsley, my first thought was: “Spurs don’t have someone like that.”

So, I’ve spent a little time looking at Perez. I’ve seen him a fair bit, as I always try to watch Newcastle when they are on TV due to a long-held affection for the club. My bias before writing this article has been in his favour — he has always struck me as a classy player who scores important goals.

The goals

I’m not usually into video analysis as I’m the last person to spot stuff, but while refreshing my memory of his goals last season, something really obvious jumped out: defensive errors.

His goal against WBA, at the Hawthorns, a flicked back-heel from a low cross, was a wonderful, instinctive piece of finishing. He also scored a nice goal in the reverse fixture. But the rest? All were heavily helped by defensive errors.

Vs Swansea: Mix-up between goalkeeper and defender. Taps into empty net.

Vs Liverpool: Alberto Moreno mis-kicks clearance straight to Perez. Easy finish from 5 yards.

Vs Tottenham: No pressure on cross. Vertonghen asleep, Rose reacts too late. Simple header from close range.

Vs Arsenal. Zero marking on free kick, allows unchallenged header. Neat finish across keeper, but no defensive pressure

Vs Everton: Four defenders stand around him, fail to challenge ball but obstruct keeper’s view. Ball squirms in from edge of area.

Yes, there is the “but you’ve got to be in a position to capitalize on mistakes” argument, but five out of seven goals stemming from clear errors seems to be on the high side, and raises the awkward question of why there weren’t more “non-error” goals last season.

Basic numbers

I pulled together a few of Perez’s basic stats using WhoScored and Transfermarkt — goals, assists, key passes, shots per 90, that sort of thing.*  I would note, according to Transfermarkt, he played as a central striker in 19 out of his 39 appearances last season. Likewise he has been listed as a centre forward in four out of 14 appearances this term. The rest were either wide or in the “shadow striker” role behind the No. 9

perezbasicstats1

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This is rudimentary data, so I don’t want to over-draw conclusions. But a few points:

  • Perez averaged 358 minutes per goal last season and had zero assists. Someone like Danny Ings, playing on a relegated Burnley team, averaged 283 minutes per goal and had 4 assists. No one is expecting Perez to bring Harry Kane (118 min/goal) or Berahino (172 min/goal) levels of fire, given he is playing more than half his games wide or deep. But that should be compensated, surely, by at least the occasional assist? This season, he has two assists (one was a corner).
  • Perez isn’t taking many shots. He was at 2.3 per 90 last season — lower than Berahino (2.6), Ings (2.9) and Kane (3.9). He is at 2.1 shots per 90 this season. Few if any are from inside the penalty box.
  • Perez dribbles a lot. He is going at 6.3 attempted dribbles per 90 minutes this season. By contrast, Kane dribbles at a rate of 3.0 per 90 in the league this term, while Son Heung-min is at 3.2 dribbles per 90 in his limited appearances. This is more than guys who you think dribble “a lot” like Andros Townsend (3.9 per 90 last season) and Erik Lamela (2.8 per 90). His dribbles are successful less than 50 percent of the time, so a lot of potentially wasted possession. Of course, systems (Pochettino has a good one, McClaren doesn’t think they matter) are a big factor in how players use the ball.
  • Despite often playing in what may be considered a more “creative” role than an out-and-out striker, Perez’s key pass stats don’t seem great. Last season he made 1.1 key passes per 90. At Burnley, Ings made 1.0, while Kane was the same as Perez at 1.1 despite predominantly playing as the main striker. This season, Perez is passing the ball more — up from 21.6 to 24.3 passes per 90, but his key passes are only up to 1.2 per 90.

I was slightly underwhelmed by these basic numbers, but I wondered if this seeming lack of production was some sort of symptom of the broader malaise at Newcastle?

(Newcastle were an absolute travesty last year, avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth, but are hardly any better under McClaren. When a manager says, like that McClaren did after the Leicester defeat, that “the problem was we were second best in all areas”, you can be fairly sure he has no idea what the problem is. But I digress.)

Digging a little deeper

Using Paul Riley’s tools**, I looked first at Perez (both key passes from open play, and on the right expected goals) and the key passes from open play of the two players who you would say form the bulk of Newcastle’s “creativity department”, Moussa Sissoko and Georgino Wiljnaldum.

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keypasses_sisswijn

Once you strip out set pieces (Perez takes the corners), you can see both Sissoko and Wijnaldum are offering more in terms of key passes than Perez.

While (especially) Sissoko appears to be making a lot of key passes, Perez isn’t on the receiving end of many of them.

So, if Perez isn’t creating chances, and isn’t getting on the end of them, what is he doing all game?

I looked at some heat maps from Squawka to see if I could get any hints.

perez_combinedheatmaps

These are the heat maps for Perez, Sissoko and Wijnaldum for Newcastle’s two “best” performances of the season — the 2-2 draw with Chelsea and the 6-2 win against Norwich.

Against Norwich and Chelsea, you can see Wijnaldum mainly playing from the left, and Sissoko rampaging up and down the right. Perez’s involvement against Chelsea was limited compared to the other two, but he got a goal and an assist from a corner and Newcastle mostly defended in the match. Against Norwich, he was much more involved. He appears in interesting spaces, just outside or just inside the box from the left, but he also pops up on the right as well. Is this an indicator of the “between-the-lines” drifting that Taylor was alluding to? At best, it is a glimpse.

I’d love to look at Perez’s movement, and the space he creates both on and off the ball, but I don’t have the skill or the resources. I’m sure Paul Mitchell and his Black Box team do. Is he one of these pre-assist guys, who you know are contributing when you watch them but whose work doesn’t really show up in the basic stats? Maybe, but I can’t prove it.

On a more anecdotal level, his “highlights” from the Crystal Palace debacle perhaps told a story. For the opening goal, Perez fed Daryl Janmaat then made a lovely run drawing a defender and creating space for a cross. He also made one attempted through ball that showed imagination and was almost well-executed. But then, he was seen dawdling instead of tracking when Palace surged forward for the third goal that all but sealed the game. McClaren hooked him off at half-time. Pochettino would love the run to draw the defender, he’d hate the refusal to track back. Which is the real Ayoze Perez, I wonder?

Conclusion

Putting this piece together, I was underwhelmed by the basic stats. If Perez is a 360-degree player, why isn’t he creating more chances? And if he is such a classy finisher, why isn’t he scoring more? But I was also intrigued: a between-the-lines player is bound to defy such conventional analysis.

I always wonder how someone like Beardsley would be seen in the modern age of analytics, unlimited camera angles and blanket media coverage. Did the often bleak football of the 1980s and early 90s in England exaggerate his moments of class, or did it serve to suffocate his talent?

Likewise Perez. Are an inept Newcastle holding him back, or is his flickering talent made to look brighter by the gloom that surrounds him?

Thanks for reading. Please follow me on Twitter for more articles.

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As previously mentioned, I’m not a number wizard — I’m just someone who loves writing about Spurs and wants to use all available resources to improve the quality of my arguments. I welcome any constructive criticism, and suggestions of how I can do better. In particular, my ability to find and gather data is very limited — any advice on how to improve that is particularly appreciated. 

** These don’t include the Crystal Palace game

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