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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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Lionel Messi Changing the Boundaries Again

Messi article header photo

Much has been made of Lionel Messi’s supposed role change this season. A year after the arrival of Neymar and with Luis Suarez’s Barcelona debut now imminent Messi’s role has changed in order to allow Barca’s wingers to play more centrally and further up the pitch. Messi himself has explained this.

“I changed my way of playing this season because the other forwards play more in the centre now. Before we played with real wingers.” – Lionel Messi, 2nd October 2014

Collin Trainor also did a brief piece showcasing that Messi is now picking the ball up less in central areas, as such spaces are being occupied by other players. Additionally, with Xavi now being less of a first team starter, there has become extra onus on Messi to be a creative passer, making chances and goals as well as scoring them. The combined result of both has been evident in Messi’s chance created and assist numbers this season.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 14.08.56

Messi has adapted brilliantly to the role and has so far claimed 9 assists from just 11 games in La Liga and the Champions League this season. One of the things I’ve always found incredible about Messi is that he’s managed to coincide super human goalscoring with being a high level creator as well, almost on a par with the likes of Mesut Özil, Frank Ribery and David Silva. So with reduced need to score himself, and greater incentive to create for others, just what can Messi achieve? Can he change what we can hope to realistically expect from creators, just like he has done, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, with goalscoring in the last few years?

Messi tweet

So is Messi set to break the assist record and potentially shatter it? I decided to compare his current start with the best assist seasons from the 2009/10 season onwards in Europe’s top 5 leagues (when public Opta data begins). These are all seasons with at least 16 assists, plus David Silva in 2011-12, Andrea Pirlo the same year and Frank Ribery a year later (I wanted to get wider league coverage).

Assist trends

Messi is just 8 games into the season, but with 7 assists already he’s got off to a better start than any of the best assist seasons in the last five years have, including his own in 2010/11. But is it sustainable? I used data from all of the graphed seasons, plus every season from Messi himself, Özil, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas, Ribery, Reus, Götze and Hazard and sorted them by the best KP per 90 minutes. This is how the top 20 or so look.

Top KPs

Although Messi has improved his chance created figures to world class levels, it’s not to unprecedented levels at all. Özil topped it in all three of his seasons at Madrid and Fabregas, Reus, Ribery and Silva have all done better in their best seasons. If Messi isn’t actually creating more chances than these guys have at their best we can’t expect him to keep churning out assists at rates far beyond what they have can we?

Indeed, a simple plot of these seasons, comparing their key pass rates and assist rates shows Messi sticks out like a sore thumb as having a ridiculously higher assist rate among all of the high volume key passers. After all whether chances and converted can be a bit random and such high conversion rates usually aren’t sustain nable.

MESSI KP 90 A90

In fact honestly, when setting out to try and answer the question of whether Messi could break assist records, my early indications where that the answer was no. Just comparing his current key pass rate to the likes of Özil and Silva made me think he’d be unable to maintain such high assist figures. But after looking through his past seasons in closer detail I realised that Messi has always done this. His ratio of key passes per assist has always been low since records began and it’s something of a consistent trend, both over his career and in comparison to other players.

From the players I looked at I used the six most consistently efficient creators (those who had the lowest key pass per assist ratios) and compared them over all the seasons where their key pass and assist volumes were high.

KPs per assist last six seasons

In a full season none of them have reached the highs of Messi in 10/11 and 12/13 and not even Messi’s current rates have yet. Is this a Barca thing? The idea that they’re predominantly a passing team and only shoot if they’re in a really good position or have a high chance to score makes sense. Fabregas’ ratio fell somewhat substantially upon arriving at Barcelona (it’s probably too early to make conclusions for this season at Chelsea) and Andres Iniesta hit ridiculous heights in 12-13 of just 2.75 key passes every assist, though his rates have been a bit more random.

Comparing Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the clubs where the players in the above graph featured most prominently, it’s clear that Barca have mostly converted their shots at a better rate in the last four seasons. Shot conversion isn’t the most repeatable stat but there is enough evidence Barca usually do it well.

Shots Per Goal

There’s also the chance that Messi creates much better chances than everyone else. It wouldn’t be at all unlike Messi to defy the norm so heavily, and a brief sample at his chance creating work so far shows many of them passing into really dangerous areas. Messi certainly doesn’t seem to bloat his key pass numbers from simply passing to someone deep and them shooting from improbable distance. To really asses whether Messi creates better chances than others we need to start trying to look more into key pass quality. This is something I’ve started looking into and will hopefully post something on the matter around the halfway mark of the season.

Regardless of the specific quality of his key passes, Messi has shown enough repeatability in his key pass conversion for us to assume it is a trend that will continue. If we were to take his average conversion rate over the last five full seasons of 5.32 and applied it to his current key pass figure of 3.5 per 90 minutes, it would give him an assist per 90 minutes figure of 0.66. Given his ludicrous start to the season Messi has had, he already has extra ground on any of the best assist seasons recently. If he were to match his minutes last season, his lowest amount in the last 5 seasons may I ad, and play another 1798 minutes this season, at the rate of 0.66 assists every 90 minutes, he’d end the league season with 20 assists, beating the record in Europe’s top five leagues over the last five seasons, one more than the record of 19 in Europe’s top five leagues since 2009.

There is, however, one more factor we need to consider and that is the impending arrival of a certain Luis Suarez, generator of 181 shots and 31 goals last season. He has the potential, and likelihood, of boosting Messi’s key pass and assist volumes further. Quite the impact he’ll have we don’t know, but it’s unlikely to be detrimental to Messi’s quest for assist greatness.

Whether or not he will break, or indeed shatter, the 19 figure we can’t be sure. His key pass figure should remain at such a level, it’s a reasonably repeatable stat and with Suarez coming it should only head up if it’s going to dramatically change. His conversion rate of key passes to assists is a bit more random, but it’s always been low with Messi. It could realistically be a bit higher or a bit lower than the average value I mentioned. Injuries we never know what will happen.

If I were a betting man my money would be on him getting 20+ assists, thereby reaching unprecedented levels since Opta data emerged publicly in 2009. Quite how high the figure is will depend on whether he, and his teammates, can keep such high levels of performance up, as well as a contribution from good old luck.

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Can Extreme Possession be Detrimental to Success?

Pep and Mourinho

First lets rewind to the 28th of May 2011. Barcalona have just swept aside Manchester United 3-1 to win the Uefa Champions League. It’s domination. 68% ball possession, to go with 22 shots to United’s 4. Xavi completed almost double the amount of passes all of United’s central midfielders did combined and the quartet of he, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi out passed the entire United team themselves. It’s Barcelona’s second Champions League crown in three years, to go with Spain’s World Cup triumph in 2010, and people from all places are once again praising the success of heavy possession football.

Forward the clock 11 months and Barcelona are in the Champions League semi final, their fourth out of four under Pep Guardiola. This time their dominance on the ball is even greater, obtaining the obscene figures of 79% possession in the first leg and 82% in the second leg. Only this time the result is not an emphatic victory. Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate to go to Munich where they would win their first ever Champions League. A month later Guardiola would manage his last game for the club. Barca’s period as the standout best club in the world is effectively over.

The result was seen as a huge shock but we’ve seen an increasing number of instances since where sides with huge chunks of the ball have effectively been shut down by sides sitting deep and often ripped apart by fast breaks during the rare moments they don’t have the ball. First we had Bayern Munich’s destruction of Barcelona in the 2013 Champions League semi finals where despite a having much less of the ball they were the dominant force. The following April a changed Bayern under Guardiola were destroyed in a similar manner by Real Madrid in both legs, and in between Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea brought Liverpool’s 11 game winning streak to an abrupt end despite having less than a quarter of the possession. And in the World Cup Lois Van Gaal’s Netherlands, without the injured Kevin Strootman and with a back line that lacked the pedigree of some other teams, found solace in a counter attacking system led by the speed of Arjen Robben. The Netherlands’ three best performances in Brazil where the three times their possession was lowest.

But are such occurrences just infrequent results that will always come up when hundreds of matches are played per season? Where they just acts of chance in a sport where upsets occur far more frequently than most at almost 50% of the time? Or are they all examples of a recent trend of possession, an in particular extreme levels of possession, actually being detrimental to a sides chance of success?

Well, possession is certainly not a hindrance in a simple sense. In the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga over the last three seasons there is still a reasonably strong correlation between amount of possession and the number of points a team gets in a single season. Bar Atletico Madrid twice, no team has got more than 65 points with under 50% possession, though Atletico did win the title in the second of those instances with 90 points.

Possession-points correlation

However, can we confidently say that sides are having success because of possession? Or could it just be the case that better sides naturally achieve higher possession figures? Certainly you’d expect sides at the top of the table playing sides at the bottom of the table to dominate the ball. The better sides tend to have players who are naturally better at retaining possession due to superior use of space, ball control and passing. On top of this better sides usually have higher aspirations and need for a win, meaning they need to be constantly pushing forward with the ball. Whereas on the other hand, lower sides may be happy playing for a point, therefore willing to concede possession, with concentration on defence with the hope of the occasional break.

This is even true at the elite level, albeit it at a lesser extent. In the last three Champions League knockout rounds, sides winning have averaged 52.3% of the ball compared to 47.7 for the sides suffering a defeat. However, it is when we start to look at extreme levels of possession, where we see that possession can actually be detrimental to success, and that sides are becoming increasingly equipped at conceding possession and generating success.

Extreme possession at the elite level

As someone who has watched the champions league the last three seasons and developed into something of a possession sceptic, I wanted to divulge into whether possession superiority was beneficial or in fact detrimental. Specifically I wanted to look at whether possession can be a hindrance in extreme cases against opposition of a similar level. I didn’t want to look at marginal cases of possession superiority, as I don’t think small cases are either relevant to the pattens of the game or show any proof to which team is better at ball retention. And I wanted to compare sides of similar pedigree in order to eliminate the cases where possession superiority is the result of a large quality gap, or where a tactical decision to surrender possession is extremely unlikely to come off, due mainly to the talent gap on the field.

As my want to look into the matter has mainly developed from watching the Champions League in recent season, that seemed the obvious place to start. I decided to cull the group stages just because you still get large mismatches in the preliminary stages. (No offence intended to Viktoria Pizen, but their destruction at the Alianz Arena last season isn’t really that relevant as to whether extreme possession is a positive or negative for Bayern against Dortmund, Madrid or Chelsea.) I also set the parameters for extreme possession to be any instance a side achieved 65% or more.

From the 2012 Champions League semi finals onwards (where Chelsea beat Barcelona) there have been 18 instances where a side has achieved > 65% possession. In that time 5 have been won, 6 drawn and 7 lost.

To see if this was a trend that was consistent I decided to look at more matches so broadened the boundaries to any clash between top four sides in Europe’s to five leagues from the 2012/13 season onwards as well. For the current season I used matches between last seasons’s top four. I found 21 instances of extreme possession in league football, with 5 draws and 8 wins either way. Interestingly the results in different leagues are revealing. In the Premier League, Serie A and Ligue 1 there were only five instances, 3 of which were won by teams who’d severely surrendered possession. In the Bundesliga there had been 8 cases, we’ll call it the Bayern effect, with the > 65% team achieving 4 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. La Liga also had 8 games, we’ll call it the Barca effect, but the arguable superior opposition (apologies to Jens Keller) caused 3 wins and 3 losses.

In total this left 39 games where there was a huge case of possession superiority, 11 of which were drawn, 13 won by the side with superior possession, and 15 won by the side without. So while the results don’t absolutely show that possession is a clear hindrance, they do show it’s not necessarily a positive either. We’ll have to divulge deeper.

Analysing shot data

Anyone familiar with football analytics will know that shot data is regarded as the best indicator of performance. Quantity of shots are one of the most repeatable statistics in the sport and, along with other factors such as the location of shots, are currently seen as the best indicator of future goals. As a result the number of shots a team takes, where they’re from and whether or not they’re on target are a great indicator of how many goals they’re going to score and the same applies for shots they concede being a measure of potential goals against.

In the 39 games were a team had > 65% possession the side who had dominated possession heavily outshot those who didn’t and in total had 645 shots at an average of 16.54 per game. Conversely they suffered only 335 at 8.82 per game. In other words, the side who dominated possession had a total shot ratio, the ratio of their shots to the total of shots in the game, (TSR) of 0.65, compared to a TSR of 0.35 for the sides that surrendered possession. To put things into perspective, Man City won the premier league last year with a TSR of 0.65 and Cardiff finished bottom with a TSR of 0.38. This is severe disparity. Yet the huge gap in shot quantity isn’t represented to the same extent when it comes to goals. The side with superior possession outscored the one which surrendered by a total of 67-50, which while significant, isn’t to the same extent that the gap in shot quantity was. A total goals ratio calculated the same way TSR is gives the superior possession side a ratio of 0.57 and the team which surrendered the ball a ratio of 0.43.

This can usually either be because of two things. First, the sides with the ball could simply have been unlucky. Or, their shot quality could be significantly poorer. We have to look more specifically at the respective shots that were taken. For all the 39 games I did my own shot location data recording, based somewhat on the excellent work of Colin Trainor and Michael Caley. I created three zones, primary locations, secondary locations and marginal locations. Primary would be all shots inline with the six yard box and inside the area, secondary shots would be shots in the box from wide positions and inline with the six yard box from deeper positions. Marginal shots would be all others, from deeper positions and poorer angles. It wasn’t particularly detailed, but would give a decent indication of where sides were taking their shots.

Somewhat surprisingly for me, the teams with less possession weren’t shooting from significantly better positions. My theory was that teams without the ball sitting deep would mean the side having the ball not being able to penetrate the edge of the box as much, therefore not being able to shoot as regularly from prime positions and requiring more hopeful shots from range. The sides with 35% or less averaged 38.81% of their shots from prime zones, compared to 35.19% for teams whoch had at least 65%. Possession sides had a slightly larger proportion of secondary shots but also had a similarly larger proportion of marginal shots. Sides with less possession shot from reasonably better positions, but the locations themselves were likely not significant enough to warrant such a contrast in the efficiency of the different extremes shots.

A deep wall of defenders, however, doesn’t only prevent a team getting into the box, it also tends to make shot quality from the same position worse. So far data relating to the location of defenders relative to on the ball actions hasn’t come about, so having lots of men behind the ball doesn’t effect ExpGoal calculations and the like, but the presence of nearby defenders and ones in line with the shot and goal are obviously going to make shot quality worse. Shots are more likely to be blocked and shots are more likely to be put off target due to less of a clear sight at goal the chance of a defender potentially intervening if a shot isn’t take quickly.

In the 39 games, the teams with greater position had 34.73% of their shots blocked, compared to just 21.79% for the teams which mostly played without the ball. The scatter graph below shows there is a correlation, albeit it quite a weak one, between amount of possession and the proportion of shots which are blocked.

Possession-blocked shots

Of course, a greater proportion of shots being blocked also means a smaller proportion of shots being on target. There is a inverse trend between amount of possession and the proportion of shots on target. The average proportion of shots on target of 30.54 in instances of extreme possession rises to 41.11 for the sides who have had less than 35% of the ball.

Possession-SoT

Indeed the TSR of 0.65 for the team with superior possession falls to 0.58 as a total shots on target ratio (TSoR) and vice-versa a change of TSR from 0.35 to a TSoR of 0.42 for the sides with less possession, which very closely matches the total goals ratios of 0.57 and 0.43 respectively. When you bare in mind that the teams which conceded possession where marginally shooting from better positions then it suddenly shows that they’re not being more clinical with their on target shots, or benefiting from a lucky PDO (the addition of a teams scoring percentage and save percentage) in a similar way, but are instead simply able to get a greater degree of their shots on goal due to the benefits of less crowded opposition thirds, which in itself derives from having less of the ball than the opposition.

The final thing I wanted to look at with regards to shots is the effect speed of attack has on the likelihood of a shot being converted. Colin Trainor discovered that speed of attack is very important when it comes to shot conversion rates and could potentially be even more important than shot locations. He discovered that the quickest attacks had the best conversion rates despite not having the highest proportion of shots in prime locations. While I don’t have speed of attack data at hand, it’s somewhat safe to assume that the side who spent considerably less time with the ball will have had faster attacks. Possession superiority usually leads to territorial superiority, meaning the side without the ball tend to shoot a lot more from counter attacks. In his research Colin also discovered that there is a strong negative correlation between speed of attacks and the average number of touches prior to a shot.

What all this tells us is that despite possession usually helping raw shot generation it doesn’t have the same help in scoring goals. This could be just a random trend, but looking at matches over the last 30 months, and nearly 1,000 shots in total it wouldn’t seem so, especially when there are legitimate explanations for such a trend, such as the location of shots, the number of defenders in close proximity and the speed of attacks. Indeed, when we only look at shots on target, there is almost no disparity between conversion rates.

Conclusions

With Bayern Munich and Barcelona sitting comfortably atop of arguably two of the three best leagues in the world at the moment it would be ridiculous to suggest possession football is dead. In most cases superior teams will dominate the ball and as a result the most successful sides will usually be among the sides who have the best possession figures. However what we can argue is that at the elite level extreme figures of possession have shown minimum signs of being a benefit and that certain factors have shown it to in fact be detrimental.

Higher levels of possession can help you shoot more, that we’ve seen, but it’s also much harder to get said shots on target. Arguably a high possession figure means a side has to do more in terms of overall shot generation than their opponent to counter act the better quality of shooting they concede due to suffering faster attacks, with less men behind the ball from slightly better positions.

Possession football may not be dead but equally conceding possession has never been more alive. Ever since Chelsea spent the best part of an hour with ten men, one proper centre back and just three defenders against the best side of this generation; conceded just once and scored twice with a fifth of the possession of their opponents, the world has seen that it’s not only possible to win doggedly despite rarely seeing the ball but also that it’s possible to destroy opponents with fast counters the way Bayern, Real Madrid and Holland have in the last couple of years. Top sides are more willing to concede the ball and hit sides on the break. People who use the term park the bus in a disparaging manner could be in for a painful few years as world football evolves and more and more sides become happy to use the tactic to their advantage.

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2013 signings could hold key for Dortmund in 14/15.

Despite the signings of Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos, Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang might be the men who will step up for Borussia Dortmund this season. 
 ASDF

Despite the occasional murmur otherwise one of the major positives for Borussia Dortmund last season was the performances of the new signings. The exuberantly named (and comically if you’re Alan Shearer) Sokratis Papastathopolous was immense in the absence of Neven Subotic and at times Mats Hummels and was one of the standout players for Dortmund and in the Bundesliga as a whole. Henrikh Mkhitaryan hit nine goals and ten assists en route to a successful first season with the black and yellows. And Pierre-Emerick scored 13 times and assisted four in the league.

But the feeling in Dortmund is that they can do more, particularly the latter two more advanced players. Mkhitaryan had an impressive late season revival but at times struggled in the autumn and winter. He often lacked composure in front of goal, which was disappointing given he arrived as someone who had netted 25 times in just 29 games the previous season in Ukraine. The general feeling was that at times he struggled mentally with the added pressure of playing at a level as high as the Bundesliga for a club like Dortmund, but after an overall fine first season this isn’t something that should continue. Despite a few flurries of goals, Aubameyang struggled to hit top form at Dortmund, failing to really integrate into their system successfully and benefiting from a high number of tap ins to booster the goal tally. Towards the end of the season he almost got phased out as Borussia moved towards something of a wingless 4-1-3-1-1 formation, as Dortmund re-strategised after the January loss of Jakub Blaszczykowski to the dreaded ACL tear.

New acquisitions in the form of Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos and the returning Shinji Kagawa have been made, and there is both excitement and expectations for them given the departure of Robert Lewandowski and recent injury to Marco Reus that will leave the attacking midfielder out for approximately a month.  But for the former two in their first seasons it would be unreasonable to expect them to be able to replicate Lewandowski’s performances and goals and Kagawa will take time to readjust and find his form which made his so coveted in his former stint with the club. Instead, the increased contribution the team will have to supply to make up for the loss of the pole and temporary absence of Reus could rest in the hands of the Armenian and Gabon internationals. A season of experience, successful pre seasons, and a new set-up where they finally seem to have found a home are reasons enough to believe they may start to deliver on their immense potential. 

Mkhitaryan has all the assets needed to be one of the world’s very best midfielders. He has a fantastic burst of pace, which combined with his dribbling ability allows him to beat players. He has a great passing range which, although not at it’s best at times last season, appears improved after a shift deeper in the latter parts of the season. He works very hard defensively for someone who has played mostly as a 10 in the last two seasons and is a major force of Dortmund’s pressing unit. He’s also blessed with a long range shooting ability, and improved finishing, which appeared to be happening throughout last season, could see his goal tally shoot up. 

With his pace and proven goalscoring record Aubameyang is a natural fit for Dortmund’s philosophy and attacking systems. In his first season he was unable to play through the middle but it seems likely that he will be given a chance in the second striker role this season. Assuming Dortmund lineup like they have for preseason most of the early parts of this season, with something of a 4-1-2-1-2 it seems likely that Aubameyang will play as one of the two strikers and Mkhitaryan as one of the midfield two with Marco Reus as the number 10 (Shinji Kagawa will likely occupy the role while he is injured), like he played for much of the second half of last season.

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A potential Dortmund lineup for the coming weeks. Injured players to return in bold.

Both players had promising preseasons and appear ready to step up. Aubameyang has had a flurry of goals and performed admirably in the lone striker role at Ausburg in match day two. Klopp seemed hesitant to ever use Aubameyang as the main striker last season – though with Lewandowski around why would you? – and when he did play their, such as in Madrid for the first leg of the Champions League quarter final, he struggled so it was encouraging. The potential two up top in a diamond formation seems perfect for him, as it allows him to drift wide and exploit his pace, without burdening him by forcing him to play a disciplined role out wide, while also not restricting him to a hold up role that would be associated with a lone front man. 

Since his move to central midfield Mkhitaryan has been a revelation and has undoubtably been the biggest beneficiary from Klopp’s move away from the 4-2-3-1 last March. From deeper he’s been better able to showcase his lightening fast Messi dribbling and his goal tally has shot up. As Dortmund’s most expensive ever player there is pressure for Mkhitaryan to prove he is one of the world’s finest footballers. If he continues his progression curve since at Dortmund this season they’ll be no more doubters. Already the greatest Armenian footballer that’s lived (who are you to doubt Jonathan Wilson) Mkhitaryan has achieved a lot in his career. But there is a suspicion that, this season, he’ll go one step further. 

 

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Toni Kroos could suit Madrid better than Pep’s Bayern

The potentially Real bound Bavarian might find greater influence in a faster, less possession based side, similarly to how he did in Belo Horizonte. 

Miroslav Klose Toni Kroos Sami Khedira Germany

I’ll admit something, I haven’t always been a massive fan of Toni Kroos. He’s obviously an incredibly talented and skilful player. His passing range is fantastic, as are his long shots. He can tackle, is physically strong, reads the game well and is equally adept off both feet. But I’ve often had doubts about just how much he’s able to influence this game. It’s not something I’ve always had the confidence to express publicly as it’s the sort of thing people will get upset about and create accusations of not understanding the game properly, but his season for Bayern this year consisted of minimal goals, just a few assists and not a lot of ball winning, though the latter was slightly to do with Bayern’s absurd possession (more on that later). With Manchester United rumoured to be offering him £260k a week for his services I thought they’d jumped a bullet when they stopped pursuing him as it was surely an excessive amount for someone who struggled to really dominant games playing in the deeper role he’d surely have occupied at United.

But over the last couple of months I’ve kind of been turned on his work. First of all he dominated the DFB Pokal final in mid May as Bayern clinched the double. A strong World Cup, with the highlight being the way he rocked Brazil in the opening half an hour in their World Cup semi final has further enhanced his reputation. He’s shown energy, won tackles, made goals and scored them himself. But are his improvements also as much to do with team tactics and dynamics as much as any personal differences?

There’s a bit of a stereotype, perhaps due to the existence of Xavi, that fantastic deep lying passers are better off in possession based sides such as Barcelona, Spain and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. While more possession naturally means more touches of the ball and more chances to showcase a players passing ability, the detracts of a possession based nature, particularly a slow one, mean defences can get many men behind the ball. This really limits a player’s ability to play incisive passes and often restricts them to sideways passing, unable to breakthrough the wall of opposition defences.

Over the last few years many sides have very successfully defended against possession sides in this manner. One of the better examples this season was Manchester United at home to Bayern Munich in the first leg of their quarter final clash, where Bayern had 74% possession but could only muster three shots on target. Kroos played as the number 10 in that game and was therefore designated with being the chief playmaker.  Here’s his passing radar for the game.

Kroos passing United all

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His overall passing immediately bring up reminders of the infamous Tom Cleverly passing radar against Stoke, which led to immense criticism for only being able to “pass the ball sideways”.  Kroos’ is similar, with very little substantial final third penetration. No passes successfully arrive into the box and any forward pass is usually from deep or a very short one. His passing stats for the game? 92 passes at a completion rate of 96% and 12 accurate long balls, but no through balls or key passes at all. This isn’t really Kroos’ fault, but more to do with the detracts of working in a heavy possession based side playing against side happy to shut up shop.

Another example would be Bayern’s 1-0 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in the next round.  Perhaps as a response to the Manchester United game, Bastian Schweinstiger occupied the number 10 roll in the game, with Kroos sitting slightly deeper in the number 8 role. But the result was similar, with Bayern having 72% but just four shots on target and Kroos’ passing map was reminiscent of Old Trafford.

Kroos passing Madrid all

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So if possession can stifle a passer what can less of the ball and a system suited greater towards counter attacking do for a deep lying playmaker? Luka Modric is arguably one of, if not the, finest deep lying playmaker today and it’s notable how his passing radar from the same game differs to Kroos’. Obviously there are less passes, but of those that are there, they are of a very different nature. There are far more straight or diagonal balls, many of which would’ve helped to unleash fast breaks.

Modrid passing all

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Obviously Germany are still a heavy possession side, but not to the same extreme effects that Pep’s Bayern are (59% average possession this World Cup, down from 71.2% for Bayern in the Bundesliga). Kroos’ passing radar in the 4-0 demolition of Portugal, where Germany had just 57% of the ball saw a greater proportion of forward passes and aggressive balls out to the flanks.

Kroos passing Portugal

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But without a doubt his best performance was on Tuesday night against Brazil, where his outstanding contribution in the first half an hour rendered the final hour redundant. His far post corner set up Müller for the opener, his forward ball in between Dante and Luiz set through Müller in the lead up to Klose’s goal, he finished brilliantly for the third goal and disposed Fernandinho before exchanging passes with Khedira on the edge of the box for an open goal finish. He played a major hand in the first four goals and the game was finished in a flash.

Kroos v Brazil

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The dispossession of Fernandinho (green cross 30 yards from goal) is particularly relevant. Kroos has shown in the last couple of months he can do more than just coast through games and makes the case he can work in a pressing system. The way he and Khedira pressed for the fourth goal in particular could be a sign of things to come at Real Madrid – there are major links with Kroos and Real at the moment, some saying it’s already done – with Kroos and Khedira in a high energy midfield either side of a deeper Luka Modric (though there are reports linking Khedira away from Madrid).

Some have suggested Kroos would be better suited at Barcelona, but it’s arguable that Real’s style presents a far better chance for Kroos’ to showcase a wider range of his skills.  From incisive passing, to tackling, pressing and shooting. Whatever happens, if he leaves someone will get a great addition and Bayern will miss him.

 

– Radars courtesy of FourFourTwo stats zone.  Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA.  Possession stats courtesy of whoscored.com. 

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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.  

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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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Di Maria flourishes away from the limelight

Angel Di Maria has defied the doubters to prosper under the faith of Carlo Ancelotti 

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It was a fantastic strike.  The ball popped out to him via a corner and he struck it beautifully on the bounce to send it whistling through the array of bodies into the bottom corner from 25 yards out.  There was no whistling, no accusations of obscene gestures and, for the moment at least, no doubts about his future at the club.  

For Ángel Di Maria it was a yet another response to the critics and doubters who have been so prominent in the Spanish Capital this season.  Rumours to premier league clubs, the arrival of Gareth Bale and controversy with the fans have meant Di Maria hasn’t had it easy this season. But helped by the faith given to him by his new manager Carlo Ancelotti, Di Maria has continued to show his worth and bit by bit is doing his best to quell the rumours and speculations.  

His long range strike, Madrid’s fourth of their five-nil rout of Real Betis, was Di Maria’s seventh in all competitions this season, and came after what was his ninth assist earlier in the day.  He’s already almost equaled his goals and assists tally for the league and Europe for last season, in Mid January, despite this being a season where his starting spot became under more question after the purchase of Gareth Bale.  

During Bale’s initial injury plagued start Di Maria was particularly profitable in the Champions League, and has so far netted three goals and five assists in just four starts in the competition.  His performance against Copenhagen was an astonishing display of pace skill, featuring a truly astonishing rabona cross to Cristiano Ronaldo.  What more, even after Bale’s return Ancelotti has regularly opted to play Di Maria in a midfield three behind the attacking trio of a 4-3-3, instead of the alternative of playing Isco in the hole of a 4-2-3-1.

Ancelotti’s faith in the Argentine’s ability has gone beyond simply finding a way to feature him in a game against Real Betis, however.  After the summer signings of Isco and Bale something had to give, both financially and to keep a reasonable amount of options for a limited number of spaces.  Many in the media predicted Di Maria to be the sacrifice, but astonishingly Ancelotti chose to part company with Mesut Özil instead.  Many questioned the decision but Di Maria has gone someway towards proving the belief in him was well directed.  

Away from the dressing room, Di Maria has not had such assured signs of confidence directed his away, however.  The Argentine has had to deal with constant transfer speculation, firstly rumours to Arsenal in the summer and more recently further rumours to Arsenal and talk that he could be on his way to Old Trafford.  Last week speculation even propped up that he could be moving to Galatasaray.

In truth, he could be forgiven for trying to force a move.  He’d be all but a guaranteed starter at all of those clubs, as opposed to having to compete with Bale, Ronaldo, Isco and co at Madrid.  And in a World Cup year, where he has to fight with the likes of Messi, Higuain, Lavezzi, Augero, Tevez and Lemella for a starting birth, those extra minutes which could’ve been gained away from the Bernabeu could be pivotal.  He’s not exactly always been made to feel welcome this year either, with the fans and media seeming to be on a crusade to drive him away from the club.  

But that’s what has made this season from Di Maria so admirable.  There was an easy way out, the one which Özil took, but he chose to stick it out at Madrid and show he’s good enough.  He may never get the positive headlines that the Ballon D’or winner (Ronaldo) the world’s most expensive footballer (Bale) or Spain’s next big thing (Isco) will get, but he continues to be a vital cog in the Madrid system.  The critics and doubters will never truly derive from him, but bit by bit he’s doing what he can silence them.  Lurking in the shadows, sliding and gliding into the box like a silent assassin.  

For now at least, before the next blown up on field gesture or transfer rumour, he deserves some positive limelight.  

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