Tag Archives: Manchester

Arsenal’s Midfield and the Potential Case for a Diamond

Ramsey, Cazorla and Ozil

Arsenal put in a much improved display at the Champions Manchester City on Sunday to get their first win in the city for over four years and their first league win against a Champions League side since beating City 1-0 at home in 2012. The midfield was far tighter than in previous away games against the “big sides”, being happy enough to sit off the City centre backs and the defensive midfield paring of Fernando and Fernandinho, looking instead to close the space in front of the back four where David Silva is usually so dangerous. The central midfield three featured two aggressive ball winners in Coquelin and Ramsey and one fighting technician in the form of Cazorla. In a first half where City had almost 65% possession Silva made just 27 passes, few of which posed any real threat.

Silva first half

For many people it was the midfield balance Arsenal has been crying out for, finally being able to fight successfully for 50-50 challenges and not rolling over at the sight of opposition pressure and intensity. In truth though the performance was far from perfect. There are still debates about the best potential balance for the midfield and attack, and there is the case of trying to fit all the necessary components in to try and achieve that balance.

Arsene Wenger has often spoke about trying to get the balance right between attack and defence with the narrative usually being that he has swung too far in favour of the former over the latter and has been over reliant on technical players. In truth, this game was probably the opposite. While the added physicality and counter attacking approach suited this match, Arsenal didn’t actually create much, instead relying on opposition error and being clinical with their half chances to score twice. In games where there is more emphasis for Arsenal to win they’ll need to be better with their ball retention in the final third. Secondly, in the early stages of the second half the game became far too open from Arsenal’s perspective and the City midfielders were able to carry the ball at a far greater tempo with more purpose. None of this is to say Arsenal’s midfield were poor on Sunday, far from it, just that there are still improvements to be made and potential questions.

At defensive midfield Francis Coquelin has somewhat come out of nowhere to make the position his own with Arteta out for a prolonged period. He’s read the game well, shown good strength in tackles and has distributed possession at a decent standard. It would probably be naive to use his performances to justify inactivity in the transfer market when it comes to midfield additions, but he has shown he can do a good job, both as a box-to-box ball winner and the deepest midfielder. In the current squad, halfway through the January window, he is currently the standout choice for the base of the midfield for now.

In central midfield another lock is Santi Cazorla, who since moving to a more central, slightly deeper role, in Arsenal’s new 4-3-3, has risen to new heights and has arguably been Arsenal’s standout performer. On Sunday he was the best player on the pitch, showing aggression when without the ball and immense control with it, weaving in and out of players in deep positions without ever playing himself into danger and distributing it cleanly with both feet. He orchestrated things from deep and was the pinnacle reason Arsenal were able to form some kind of stranglehold on the game and get up field which was crucial as he was the only pure technical player in Arsenal’s midfield five.

Cazorla dribblesCazorla passing

Aaron Ramsey is the most obvious candidate to fill the 3rd central role. At his best he performers all the duties you want a central midfielder to. Defensively he adds help for a holding midfielder and is perhaps Arsenal’s best ball winner. On the ball he can add control from deep, incisive passing and regular goals plus an immense engine which sees him cover huge amounts of ground. He’s had a tendency to be slightly sluggish technically when coming back from injuries but he’s a player who can get on a role, and was doing just that before he frustratingly strained his hamstring in Istanbul a month ago.

In the front three Arsenal have recently favoured power and pace in the wide areas and a focal point in Giroud centrally to hold the ball up and act as someone to bounce the play off. This has bucked the trend of recent years, were wide playmakers in the form of Cazorla, Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky and Özil have regularly been deployed on at least one flank, usually with a more direct player on the opposite one. This has brought obvious benefits and obvious downsides. Arsenal are now a very fast side and dangerous on the counter, but they often lack the ability to retain possession as effectively in advanced areas. Regularly at the Eithad dangerous breaks broke down due to sloppiness in possession and Arsenal were left on the back foot again.

I think the potential addition of Mesut Özil to the front three could greatly help in that regard. Özil has received wide criticism for his performances wide in the last year, but he does a good job there and was improving with every game until he sustained his knee injury. He can help Arsenal assert more control and dominance on games. He is admittedly not as prolific as in his preferred number 10 role, but with the move away from 4-2-3-1 he doesn’t suit a role in the midfield three over any of the aforementioned players.

However, I think there is a slightly weird situation brewing because I don’t think Ramsey is actually as well suited to his role in this system as he could be. All of Ramsey’s best performances in an Arsenal shirt have come alongside a holding midfielder – primarily Mikel Arteta and occasionally Mathieu Flamini – but also with a number 10 ahead of him. With no number 10 Ramsey is often drawn to the great space in front of him which isn’t filled by a teammate, and while his forward runs can be of great benefit it can lead to him leaving sufficient space for opposition to get in behind. This was seen in the early parts of the second half when the game became more stretched and Ramsey was often seen filling the number 10 space despite being needed deeper. It is similar problem Pep Guardiola found with Thomas Müller in his 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system, where again a player of immense work rate was causing havoc tactically due to his attacking instincts and Guardiola was forced to abandon the idea of using Müller in an interior midfield role.

Ramsey is drawn to the space between the city DMs which is left unoccupied due to Arsenal not having a number 10

Ramsey is drawn to the space between the city DMs which is left unoccupied due to Arsenal not having a number 10

A number 10 filling the space in front of him could help Ramsey stay more disciplined and improve team structure without the ball even further after the improvements seen on Sunday. Ramsey can still make the lung busting forward runs with a true 10 in front of him; they’ll just be less regular and potentially more effective. Instead of surging forward every attack, he can arrive later when Özil has dragged the opposition defensive midfielders out of position. This is something we saw a lot last year, one example being in the home victory against Liverpool in the league, as shown by @DezilDez in this video. A compact Liverpool midfield is covering the space in front of the box, only for Özil to drag them wide, Ramsey to run into the space and score brilliantly.

Ozil creating space 1 Ozil creating space 2

I believe returning to a number 10 in front of Ramsey could create duel benefits of Ramsey keeping shape more regularly, and potentially scoring from his ventures forward at a better rate. When you add in that Özil is far more comfortable in a free central role than a wide one, where his passing options are more limited and his responsibilities without the ball are greater, it seems something that Arsenal should be trying to get working. The issue is a return to 4-2-3-1 would see Cazorla shifted wide, where he’d struggled in large chunks last year and in the early stages of this season.

Ever since the early parts of the season where Özil being played in wide areas caused much frustration I’ve thought about the potential use of a diamond midfield. The midfield three from Sunday would remain with Özil ahead of them behind two strikers or wide forwards.

Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud would be the obvious strike paring, offering diversity in their partnership. Alexis could help push the defensive line back while Giroud can also act as a focal point to the attack. The fullbacks can compensate for the lack of width, particularly Hector Bellerin, who after impressing in recent weeks will get a run in the side with Debuchy’s injury. The former Barca winger is a particularly attack minded fullback, not afraid to try and break beyond and behind a defensive line with his electrifying pace. It could effectively look something like this.

Potential diamond shape

My guess is that Özil will return in the current 4-3-3 in one of the wide areas, perhaps with additional license to roam, which realistically, isn’t particularly different to a diamond formation. In both situations Özil will likely present another horizontal line between the central midfielders and other forwards, regardless of where he is positioned vertically, with the aim of trying to meet an adequate balance between directness and ball retention. Moving to an untested diamond structure would represent a risk for a side who have won 10 out of their last 13 in all competitions, but I do think it’s a system to bear in mind, both for the immediate present and the long term as it may be able to get the best out of Arsenal’s most influential players.

How do you think Arsenal should setup? Feel free to comment or tweet me with your thoughts. 

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Lukas Podolski Represents a Period Arsenal are Trying to Move Beyond

The German international is one of the best strikers of a ball in the world, but he lacks the all-round skill set for a side looking to win Championships

Podolski

So long Lukas. It would be a lie to say we hardly knew ye. These last few restless months of frustration have felt like an eternity and your imminent departure feels somewhat overdue. But that doesn’t curb the feeling that getting rid of one of the more popular squad members and arguably the most skilled player at the club when it comes to the all important asset of striking a ball towards goal for next to nothing is a bit of a waste.

So it is, that a man with 121 international caps for Germany, the most prolific goal scorer at Arsenal in the previous two seasons in the Premier League and Champions League, a man blessed with immense shooting technique, power and precision is about to head off to Italy and struggling Inter Milan on loan for a small fee with an option to buy at £5 million.

There were a few jokes on social media before Arsenal’s trip to West Ham a few days ago that it would be a fitting swan song for the German. His record v the irons stands at an incredible 270 minutes played in four games, registering four goals and four assists in the process, meaning he directly contributed to a goal approximately every half an hour against them.

But in many ways that was his problem. In his two full seasons at Arsenal West Ham finished 10th and 13th, they were a lower mid table club, one which was responsible for nearly a quarter of the goals and assists Podolski provided in his Premier League career. Against sides Arsenal dominated Podoslki flourished because he put away the chances that were there, but against a higher calibre of opponent he wasn’t able to have the influence needed to have a real impact in front of goal.

That wouldn’t be a huge issue if he contributed to the team in other ways, but the truth is he lacked the all-round skill set for a modern wide man. He didn’t have the pace and off ball movement to create enough chances for himself and others, didn’t get involved in build up play as effectively as some of the creative 10s Arsenal used there and didn’t always track back to help his fullback sufficiently.

With Arsenal regularly struggling in the centre forward position last season, there were numerous calls for Podolski to be used as a striker, but a good shot and decent goal rate is far from all that is needed for a modern day centre forward. In truth, Podolski perhaps suffers from modern tactics shifting away from a strike paring more towards a sole front man, who needs to be able to hold the ball up and link up play with the midfielders more, something Podolski fails to do as effectively as someone like Olivier Giroud. When Arsenal have varied their striker approach from Giroud, Welbeck and Sanago they’ve preferred the pace and dribbling of Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez instead. There is a suspicion that Wenger signed Podolski as a striker, giving him the number 9, and playing him up top on his debut, only to quickly realise his shortcomings after watching him struggle in the role.

In a sense, Podolski represents what Arsenal became in the early parts of this decade. After the investment in youth that occurred in the Fabregas era failed to get the elusive trophy, players kept leaving and there was a more immediate threat to Arsenal’s standing in England’s top 4 and Europe’s top 16. Young prodigies were replaced as transfer targets with proven reliable performers in their peaks, such as Arteta, Mertesacker, Giroud, Podolski, Cazorla and Monreal. While all have been relatively successful they arrived when Arsenal were scraping the barrel of their resources to maintain their position in the Champions League. Arsenal are now trying to move beyond that and become a club that can compete for the highest honours, and there are signs with the arrival of Özil and Alexis, plus the high level improvements of players such as Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny, that they’re not that far away with a couple more signings, a reduction in injury issues and less tactical naivety. As such, Podolski has become a player below the calibre Arsenal are looking for.

Arsenal are now incredibly well stocked in wide areas. Recently Cazorla’s influence wide has deteriorated but Özil is still competent in the role and had a good World Cup playing as a left sided inside forward, when the likes of Podolski himself could’ve been used instead. Among the Arsenal forwards, all of Alexis, Walcott, Chamberlain, Welbeck and Campbell are good wide players who are younger than Podolski and offer a wider variety of skills.

Podolski is something of a fan favourite for his character, social media skills and antics involving Tottenham, so many will be sad to see him go. But the truth is, as one of the higher earners in the squad, someone starting to move beyond his peak years, and a player Wenger clearly lacks an adequate level of belief in these days, it no longer makes sense for either club or player for him to remain at Arsenal, especially as his departure could help fund holes downfield.

So farewell Poldi. Thank you for your service. It’s a shame it never quite worked out. You’ll always have the highlight of a couple of thunderbastards, terrifying Manuel Neuer and pissing off Tottenham fans though.

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Yaya Toure – Last Season and Expectations Going Forward.

KNEE SLIDE

Yaya Toure is an immense footballer. I don’t think I’ve seen a player in my watching lifetime be as physically imposing – with his physical size and strength he’s a human bulldozer and he’s deceptively quick – but also have such technical ability to be able to act as a playmaker and dribbler. His qualities are pretty unique and he’s been a major asset for Manchester City since he signed for them.

However, I do have severe doubts about whether he is quite as good as the vast majority seem to think, and seriously suspect he will fail to meet many of the staggeringly high expectations set upon him after his fantastic 2013/14 campaign.

What is his role? 

Everyone knows and accepts Toure’s role has changed since the move from Barcelona to Manchester City in 2010. The man who scored 20 Premier League goals is a far cry away from the man who played centre back for Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. But the way some talk you’d think the new found abilities going forward were just added to his already great qualities as a defensive midfielder, making him the ultimate central midfielder. After all, you still here the occasional person referring to him as a defensive midfielder and the common assumption is that he now plays as a box-to-box central midfielder. In reality, he has sacrificed a lot of his defensive qualities to become the player he is now.

Yaya 09/10 Yaya 13/14
Tackles per 90

2.36

1.67

Interceptions per 90

2.54

0.74

Dribbled past per 90

0.42

1.35

The 2009/10 season was an immense defensive profile, with Yaya tackling relatively frequently, intercepting like crazy and almost never getting dribbled past. The fall by 2013/14 is drastic. But the 13/14 version still probably compares well with average premier league players though, right? Not quite.

I decided to look at all the central midfielders who had scored at least 5 non penalty goals last season in the premier league. Allowing penalties would make for unfair comparisons as players could carry no goal threat during open play (allowing them to work more defensively) and still qualify. All these players I thought you could reasonably say were midfielders who carried a goal threat, like Yaya, last season and would probably be expected to play a similar role and share a similar defensive workload. In all there were 10 of them, and I compared their defensive stats per 90 last season.

In terms of tackles per 90 only Jonjo Shelvey completed less than Yaya last season. The likes of Aaron Ramsey, Steve Sidwell and Yaya’s partner in crime Fernandinho made twice as many tackles.

Tackles

But lots of tackling isn’t always a sign of better defensive work. Tackling is often something of a risk, particularly in deeper positions. Players such as Xabi Alonso believe tackling is a last resort and something only to be done at a time of desperation. Measures such as interceptions can be better at showing how people are reading the game defensively and working hard in the shadows. Well Toure wasn’t exactly getting a lot of interceptions last season, in fact the trend gets worse when we look at them.

Interceptions

A combined tackles and interceptions graph shows how far Yaya falls behind some of his counterparts. While Fernandinho got a lot of praise for his unheralded work last season it is really easy to bypass how important he was generating twice the numbers of Toure and still contributing five goals. Special mentions to Aaron Ramsey who was the most prolific goalscorer among the central midfielders while still generating huge defensive numbers, and Yohan Cabaye, who fell 3rd on the list, marginally behind Toure, while being truly prolific defensively. Newcastle really did have a special player.

Combined Tackles + Interceptions

But using positive defensive metrics (i.e. occurrences) is debated as the best way to analyse defending. Maybe Toure doesn’t tackle or intercept because he doesn’t need to? A decent way to analyse this is to look at the dribbled past stats. Maybe people are getting past Toure less than the others?

While the trend improves for Toure, it’s still not brilliant, with Toure being a bit average. Remember, getting dribbled past, is bad, so the lower you are on the graph, the better.

Dribbled past

Baring in mind that there is an inverse relationship with tackling and getting dribbled past – every tackle is a an opportunity to get dribbled – Toure’s ratio of tackles to getting dribbled past is actually rather poor, even compared to those who get dribbled past more. When you also bare in mind that you could never attempt to win the ball or stop the attacker and not ever get dribbled past it starts to undermine the stat in the case of Yaya.

Overall I actually think there’s a case to be made that he should play as the 10 in a 4-2-3-1, in between Silva and Nasri, with both Fernandinho and Fernando playing behind him. At least in the big games and Champions League. It will be interesting to see how Man City set-up tomorrow against Arsenal.

Analyzing Yaya’s 20 goal season

So Yaya doesn’t do as much defending as he probably should and people think he does. But he still scored 20 goals last season which is more than enough to cover the fact he’s a bit lazy when his team doesn’t have the ball, right? Well in isolation I agree, which is why I’m in no denial about his fantastic season last year. But going forward his lack of defensive work worries me because I have little to no confidence of him scoring 20 goals in a season again. For a start 6 of his goals were penalties. Whether or not penalties should count towards goal rates and top scorer tallies is debated, but one thing for sure is penalties being won is not a consistent matter and Toure was granted the luxury for the first time in his City career last season, so you’d expect him to have an additional goal boost compared to his previous seasons and most other midfielders in the league.

But even him repeating his 14 non penalty goals next season is something I have high doubts about. Why, because last year Toure didn’t shoot more, he just converted a much higher proportion of his shots as goals. In fact, looking back over the last four seasons of Yaya in the premier league his shot generation was actually down marginally, 64 shots all season, compared to 68 and 65 the previous two years respectively, where he scored six goals each. In his time in the Premier League Yaya has shown decent repeatability with his shot generation, bar to an extent, his first season in England in 2010/11. But his 2013/14 goals tally is something he’s never shown a capability of before.

Why is this relevant? Well, because shot generation is actually a better indicator of future goalscoring than goals themselves.  Alex Olshansky and Ben Pugsley reveal this brilliantly and show that, bar a few elite exceptions, goals, and assists for that matter, are, a bit random*. Sometimes players can shoot the same amount, from the same places, and just score a lot more.

Yaya’s conversion rate last season was an absurd 31.25%, easily the highest among any prolific goalscorer in the Premier League last season. It’s extremely unlikely to be repeatable in the long run. Granted, it’s unfair to hold Yaya’s penalty snatching against his overall tally and then let it contribute to his high conversion rate, so we have to exempt shots and goals that came from penalties. But that still leaves a conversion rate of 24.13, which is both higher than anything he’s achieved before, greater than other high class central midfielders across Europe have ever achieved since records began.

Yaya shooting to goals

Below is a scatter graph of Toure, Vidal, Kroos and Modric for each of the last five seasons (since records began) bar Yaya in 2009/10 where his role at Barca was different. Each plot is a season by a player. It shows the number of non penalty shots and the number of non penalty goals against each other.*

SHOTS TO GOALS COMP

The overall trend is strong, with an average conversion rate of 8.63% for 17 of the seasons, bar a couple of outliers. The first is Luka Modric’s last season at Tottenham, where he managed to take 83 shots but only scored four times, and the second, even greater outlier, is Yaya’s 58 shots, 14 goals season last year.

Could the dramatic shift in conversion rate be explained by means other than chance? Could it be that he was taking many long shots previously and is now using his great build and dribbling skills to enter the prime zones more? Could he just have dramatically improved his finishing along with his new found penalty and free kick ability? Quite possibly. I don’t have shot location data, meaning it’s hard to say if he’s shooting from better locations. But Yaya isn’t dribbling more than he used to or other’s do, so unless he’s suddenly dribbling in much more dangerous areas it’s unlikely to be a factor.

As for the finishing, I decided to compare him with some of the world’s best strikers. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamal Falcao all strike me as people who are renowned for being fantastic finishers and clinical goal scorers so I looked at their conversion rates for each of the last four seasons, except for Falcao’s 10/11 season, as I didn’t have data for the Portuguese league from back then. In total this gave us 19 different seasons, 4 of which where Yaya’s. Bare in mind these players all play as forwards, they are in an around the box more, meaning they tend to shoot from better areas, and their shot is almost always their main weapon, which is why they have much better conversion rates than Vidal, Kroos and Modric.

Rank Player – Season Conversion rate Rank Player – Season Conversion rate

1

Messi – 12/13

26.42

11

Aguero 10/11

15.32

2

Yaya – 13/14

24.13

12

Messi – 13/14

14.29

3

Messi – 11/12

20.83

13

Falcao – 13/14

14.00

4

Aguero – 13/14

19.77

14

Ibra 11/12

13.74

5

Messi – 10/11

18.49

15

Ibra – 13/14

12.5

6

Falcao – 12/13

17.39

16

Aguero 12/13

11.63

7

Ibra – 12/13

16.56

17

Ibra – 10/11

9.73

8

Yaya – 10/11

16.32

18

Yaya – 11/12

9.23

9

Falcao 11/12

15.83

19

Yaya – 12/13

8.82

10

Aguero 11/12

15.75

Only Lionel Messi’s greatest season ever manages to beat Yaya last year, with none of the other seasons getting particularly close either. Conclusions? Yaya either had a bit of a lucky season with his conversion rate and won’t be able to repeat it, or he suddenly turned into the best finisher we’ve seen in recent time in one highly productive off season. Given he’s the wrong side of 30 and hadn’t shown any signs of a potential improvement in his trend, I’m much more inclined to go with the former.

A more clinical creator than Özil and Silva?

A similar pattern can be found with Yaya’s assists and key passes last year. His key pass rate was again down on the previous two seasons, but his assist tally more than doubled. Toure completed nine assists last season, the same number as David Silva and Mesut Özil, but he only created half as many chances overall – 40 compared to 86 and 76 respectively. This can mean either two things. Toure’s chances created could just be much more clearcut than Silva and Özil’s or, due to factors beyond his and the other two’s control, people just finished his chances better. Assuming the former, realistically, relies upon us believing Yaya is a better playmaker than two of the best chance creators Europe has seen since records began, who is only creating less chances because he is playing deeper. I’m skeptical, and like with his conversion rates, he’d previously shown no similar trends. Indeed, his key pass to assist conversion rate more than doubled anything he’d ever done before. 22.5% last season compared to 8.89%, 5.56% and 10.81% the previous three seasons.

I also compared his key pass to assist plot with Vidal, Kroos and Modric again, and just like with his finishing he stuck out as the most clinical claimer of assists seen recently among players seen as the elite midfielders.

KEY PASSES TO ASSISTS

Whether or not a key pass leads to an assist is pretty random. You can quite easily create a clearcut one on one chance for a striker that they can miss, and equally you can play a two yard sideways pass to someone who dribbles past three players and smashes it into the top corner. It’s random and highly unlikely that Toure was anything more than lucky with his chance creation last year.

Conclusions? 

I’m not really trying to detract from Yaya’s last season. He probably got a bit lucky yes, but that kind of thing evens out and he was probably unfortunate with conversions in an earlier seasons. But looking towards the future it is highly unlikely Yaya will be able to keep such conversion rates up, so unless his shot generation and chance creation suddenly shoots up, something it hasn’t shown a potential trend of yet, then expect his goal and assist tally to fall, potentially quite dramatically. He’s currently viewed among the very top of central midfielders and the world’s best footballers overall, but I’m wary that people’s expectations of him are unrealistic. If he gets 10 non pen goals and 5 assists this season he’ll have had another great year, and, rather than having a post birthdaygate strop, will have just regressed to the mean. He’s also 31. If anything you’d expect his shot generation and chance creation to fall off, not rise.

Three games into this season he’s had 9 shots and 1 key pass. By last season’s levels, you’d expect him to have at least two goals by now. But it’s simply impossible to keep such levels up. Add in that he’s probably not as well rounded as people like to think and you realise he’s perhaps, contrary to his own opinion, actually overrated, not underrated. Like I said earlier, still a phenomenal players, just not quite as good as the masses think.

* * *

1) Colin Trainor does great stuff on this type of thing, and he’s done loads of stuff that talks further about shot locations and expected goals if you haven’t come across this before and want to read more: http://statsbomb.com/2013/09/where-have-all-the-goals-gone/ http://statsbomb.com/2014/01/why-suarez-cant-keep-up-his-scoring-rate/ http://statsbomb.com/2014/05/liverpool-an-analytical-look-at-201314-a-missed-opportunity/ 

2)This does work on the flawed assumption that all penalties are scored. I only have data for penalties scored, not penalties missed, and it’s too much work to go through every match individually looking for missed penalties. The difference would only be one or two shots less for a single season maximum though, so it’s almost negligible. 

All stats are sourced from whoscored, except for minutes played and penalty goals, which come from transfermarket. Picture © BBC

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Arsenal, Man City and a word on squad depth

I guess it was predictable in the end. After dominating in the Autumn injuries, nerves and, ultimately, a lack of squad depth meant that in the late winter and early spring they crashed out of cup competitions and saw their title push breaking at the seams. This is a sentence one would usually associate with Arsenal, but has surprisingly become relevant to Manchester City after their draw at Sunderland left their league hopes in serious jepody. It followed what has been a disappointing two months for the club, where they’ve been knocked out of the Champions League, FA cup and gone from title favourites to outsiders.  A League Cup win featured in between, however, it’s fair to say at the start of February their ambitions were greater.
 
There’s been a lot of talk about squad depth this season.  With Arsenal’s season collapsing under the strain of injuries and fatigue and Liverpool arguably profiting from less games outside the league as the season has gone on, it’s become incredibly relevant towards who’s going to win the Premier League this season.  But the recent struggles of rich City, who’s depth has been praised all season, presents an interesting conclusion to the whole debate.  They’ve shown, that for all the theoretical depth in the world, competing on four fronts all year round is still incredibly tough and that injuries to star players will hinder everyone.  
 
Injuries to Sergio Aguero, Fernandinho and recently Yaya Toure have impacted heavily on City at different times this season and it may ultimately be the difference between success and failure.  Edin Dzeko and Javi Garcia are very good footballers, but Aguero and Toure are unique in their ability and style, and can’t be replaced.  Similarly, constant reshuffling, which City have had to do at the back this season, disrupts rhythm and stability.
 
Arsenal’s inability to keep up their form after the injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and, to an extent, Mesut Özil, has been heavily criticised, but it shouldn’t be put down to a lack of squad depth.  Ramsey was the best midfielder in the league for the first half of the season, Walcott has been one of the most potent goal threats in the country in the last couple of seasons and Özil is one of the best number 10’s on the planet.  No team can account for that with the squad players at their disposal bar perhaps Bayern Munich.  Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi Cazorla are fine replacements for Arsenal’s injured trio, but they’re not as good and the team will inevitably not do as well without them.  It’s the same way Barcelona struggle without Messi, Liverpool would struggle without Gerrard, Sturridge and Sterling, Chelsea without Cahil, Oscar and Hazzard, etc.  
 
This isn’t to say certain sides should be exempt of criticism.  There’s a reason some sides are more injury prone than others and many such injuries are preventable.  But it’s far too simplistic to say an injury ravaged sides struggles are down to a lack of squad depth.  When any teams best players are out, they won’t do as well.  It’s simple and rarely to do with whether their bench was assembled with superstars or not.

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Do statistics have a role in football?

The growth of football statistics have revolutionised the way many people think about football, but not everyone is convinced.  

Image

Do stats like these help us derive who the better player is, or are they just meaningless numbers which show nothing watching them can’t?

In the early parts of last spring, about a year ago, I came across a site named “Whoscored” via a forum discussion on just how good Gareth Bale was.  On Gillette Soccer Saturday, Jeff Stelling had claimed he was as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, which naturally led to discussions on the merits of the statement.  At this point one of the doubters brought up a diagram which showed a far less renowned player named Theo Walcott, playing in a similar wide offensive role to Bale, had a greater number of career goals and assists, despite playing a fewer amount of total games, showing that Bale perhaps wasn’t obviously much better than the top players in the league.  This naturally drew contempt from others, who laughed off the meaning of “stats” and the meaning they have in evaluating a players overall quality.

One person did, however, point out that Walcott wasn’t even statistically superior to Bale.  Obviously despite being similar positionally Bale and Walcott’s roles weren’t identical.  Walcott is a far more direct player and doesn’t get that involved in Arsenal build up play, being more the icing on the cake to a move.  Whereas Bale was the focal point at Spurs, where most moves came through him, and he also offered far more defensively.  The second poster pointed this out by claiming that in nearly all other areas Bale was statistically superior to Walcott, sighting whoscored.com as the source.

For those who don’t know, Whoscored is a football site centred around statistics.  They provide a great service for finding out results, fixtures and live scores all around the globe but their major quirk is the in-depth statistical analysis they provide for the major European leagues.  For each match everything a player does is recorded and at the end they’re given a statistical rating based on their performance.

Upon first looking at the site I was intrigued.  In-depth statistics had never really been covered in the mainstream media and I didn’t really know what to think of what I was looking at.  Due to being a major follower of cricket, where raw statistics play huge roles in how players are rated and matters of selection, I was well equipped with the idea of carefully using statistics to analyse a sport.  I also, however, new that such data could be misused by people in arguments and articles.  What I found most remarkable, however, was that despite following football for nearly a decade, most of the stats were like a different language to me.  I simply hadn’t been exposed to them before.

Arguably because of this, many football fans are incredibly skeptical of the role statistics can play in football.  They’re a relatively new innovation that reflect the technological age we live in and are something people from certain eras have never experienced.  Certainly the idea that a 17 year old kid in London could get a detailed statistical report of all games in leagues such as the Bundesliga or Ligue 1 moments after the full time whistle was blown would’ve seemed unthinkable not so long ago.  One would think that it’s something we should enjoy and encourage.  People can now look at football in greater depth and have another dimension to how they analyse and follow the game.  Since finding Whoscored last year my understanding of football statistics have skyrocketed and it’s completely changed my understanding of football and how I experience the game.  Not everyone sees it the same way, however.

For many people football isn’t something which can be read through a spreadsheet, graph or chart, it’s something that needs to be watched and experienced.  A great attacking player’s contribution can’t be quantified into a few dribbles, key passes and a shot from a prime area.  Pub debates about who the best midfielder in the country is aren’t about who can read the most impressive stats off their smartphone, it’s about forming your own opinions based on what you see with your own eyes.

They’re partly right of course.  Statistics used without the right context, or presented badly, are close to meaningless.  Using pass competition rates  on their own as the way to decide who the best passer in the Premier League is foolish.  Laurent Koscienly clearly isn’t the best passer in the premier league.  But as a part of a whole greater range of stats, such as key passes, successful long balls, successful through balls and where the passes are made can give you a great idea of whether or not a player is a top notch passer or not.  Furthermore, even the stat on its own isn’t useless.  The top four for pass completion rate for this season are all Arsenal players, all of whom play centrally and primarily defensively, which speaks volumes about how Arsenal like to control the ball on the edge of the opposition half, liking to distribute the ball carefully out wide and are willing to be patient before seeking the ambitious ball.

They’re not perfect, no, but neither are human judgements.  Humans can be swayed by personal preferences, stereotypes, conventional opinion and more which computers and databases are devoid of.  Most humans would probably tell you the growling in your face Mathieu Flamini makes more tackles than the graceful Spanish passer Mikel Arteta.  They’d be wrong (Arteta makes twice the tackles per game Flamini does).

Statistical ratings systems certainly create interesting results.  Whoscored ranked Santiago Cazorla as the 3rd best player in the premier league last season, ahead of the likes of Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata and Eden Hazzard.  Meanwhile, Michael Carrick a PFA player of the year nominee – Cazorla wasn’t – was ranked 62.  Stop, I hear you cry.  That’s a perfect example of statistics being flawed and not appreciating the role Carrick plays.  Well, it’s worth noting Mikel Arteta played a very similar role for Arsenal last year, and he was ranked 14th.  One could argue Carrick was the more impressive since he did it for a tittle winning side, but it’s also worth noting that players ratings for each match get a boost if the game is won; Arteta’s rating would’ve been even more superior to Carrick’s had the sides respective results been reversed.  I’m not trying to diminish the role Carrick played in United’s title win last season, but perhaps he wasn’t the best holding midfielder in the league and his nomination was simply a case of people only really noticing a good holding midfielder in a title wining side (I’ve previously written about this before).  That’s a basic human error and flaw which a statistical rating doesn’t have.

Another interesting result is just how far in front of everyone else Frank Ribery has been in the Bundesliga in the last season and a half.  His Ballon D’or case was a peculiar one, mostly because people were unsure how to really mount his case.  Most centred around the need for a Bayern player to be involved, although a large proportion felt that any of a large group of Bayern players had just as worthy a case.  Ribery certainly didn’t standout like Messi or Ronaldo and was neither as incredible on the eye or in basic statistics as his two rivals.  Yet for the period in question Whoscored had him as by far the standout for Bayern and not far behind Ronaldo and Messi.  Statsbomb, a site created by someone who has worked in football betting since 2006, also revealed interesting statistical results for the Ballon D’or nominees.  Messi and Ronaldo dominated goal scoring and shooting stats, but Ribery dominated nearly everything else; passing, dribbling, defensive contribution and was arguably more influential in the overall performance of Bayern Munich.  In a side which won everything, that’s no mean feat.  His Ballon D’or case was certainly a strong one, perhaps more so than most would’ve imagined.

There are still those who resist the influence of statistics like this.  I myself have little problem with that.  Football is not only a highly competitive game of which lots of statistical commodities can be derived from, it’s also an art and form of entertainment, arguably more importantly so. What of the negative narrative that many have towards the development of football statistics?  That I have a problem with.  Football statistics aren’t yet thrown at people.  If you want to seek them you can, if it’s not for you, you can easily avoid them without having to go out of your way.  I did it myself blissfully for years.

There’s also no reason why both can’t live in a happy harmony.  I love the things we can find through good use of statistics.  They not only provide a measure of quality, but also how players play and how certain people are unique.  We can look into three great Arsenal midfielders but see they’re all incredibly different.  We can look into the fascination of Frank Ribery’s role and how he and Cristiano Ronaldo, despite playing in the same position, have incredibly different roles and output.  That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy Barney Ronay describing the phenomenon that is Thomas Müller, in a truly unique and vivid style that no array of graphs, charts and tables could ever do.  I rarely watch a football match without following it live on Whoscored, but conversely, I’d never follow a match online like that and not bother to watch it if I could.

Of course, like in most similar circumstances the best solution is an effective medium.  Analysis not simply being a few tables and numbers, but also not being as airy fairy as a few creative adjectives, metaphors and cliches – with perhaps more extreme versions of each for the hardcore fans.  Statistics have provided groundbreaking analysis of professional sport, and it’s a major shame that articles like this represent the views of so many.  It’s a fascinating football world we now live in and it should be nurtured and encouraged, not diminished and putdown.

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