Sunday, 27 April 2014

Premier League Round-Up: 28st April

Finding angles & points of interest since March 2014 

We'll start with a quick quote from last week:

'Until Chelsea crumbled under the weight of Sunderland, I had intended on including a picture i'd made too but Mourinho is no longer the decisive figure in this championship battle, so it's been canned.'

And in a fashion so very typical of this season, Mourinho's squad members XI suddenly became decisive & so here's the picture (derived from a fun idea from Ted Knutson in which Mourinho is envisaged as an end of Premiership game boss) :
Wahey! Jose Robotnho swung his ball of defensive grip & quelled Brendan the Rodgehog's sonic powered speedy counters with ease, finally delivering a coup de grace in which former Kop hero Torres supplied the final most gut wrenching twist of the knife.  It's a hacky storyline, right?

1. The title that defied reach.

But as we're often reminded in low grade writing, the truth can be stranger than fiction.  

As each week has passed, the title has seemed within the near grasp of variously Chelsea, Liverpool & Man City & at every point where a decisive move has looked like it could be made, the team with apparently good field position has tossed up a docile interception & fallen back.

Mourinho's second stringers looked OK to me, pre-match.  Thanks to a bit of ratings work I've done behind the scenes (one of many articles in a long pipeline) I'm liking Ba's efficiency, (he's never done much ba(r) score), Salah & Schurrle have good offensive numbers, Matic is decent & Mikel isn't anywhere near as ineffective as you might think.  Even Frankie Lampardu is a friend of statistics; he always has been.  

So the only query was 'Some Kid' at centre back & he did just fine.

But this mattered not a jot, for Mourinho took centre stage & all the praise for his anti-football tactical masterclass.  And why not? Liverpool have regularly shredded everyone at Anfield and i'm sure Abramovich wants this kind of football from his team. Arf.

What was revealed today was the paucity of depth in Liverpool's squad, a deficiency that they have kept well concealed until now.  The loss of Henderson & partial fitness of Sturridge lead to Aspas (!?) as a go-to bench option in their most crucial fixture of the season? Not good enough.

I seriously fear that this is the only time Liverpool are going to be able to challenge for the league in the near future.  With Champions League commitments forthcoming, they probably need 4/5/6 players of good standard in the summer to maintain their level & there will be some serious regrets if they can't make this run stick. 

To Selhurst Park! Where little Pulis/Palace came up against a City in pragmatic mode.  2-0 and only 3 shots all afternoon for Palace is exactly what a team trying to win a title needs to do at the 'business end' of things.


2. Snaps
  • You're threatened by relegation. You have a huge fixture against a key rival. You lose 4-0. You deserve to be relegated. Ole Dunna Fjuckall.
  • Back in ancient history, Jay-Jay Okocha, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo and suchlike enlivened the experience of watching a Sam Allardyce team. This is no longer the case.
  • Villa might be lucky that the season is about to end, cos they've completely run out of anything resembling quality & that bizarre win against Chelsea aeons ago might be the result that kept them up.
  • You're 2-0 up with a few minutes to go.  The opposition score.  They hit the woodwork not once, but twice.  You think you've ridden your luck & it's your day.  The opposition score. It's 2-2.  This is what happens to teams that get relegated.
  • Gerrard had 9 shots, a Barcelona-esque 148 touches, played 26 long balls, made 7 clearances, put in 3 tackles & 8 unmet crosses.  He tried to do it all himself.  It wasn't to be.  Poor Steven.

3. I suppose I've got to write about bloody Giggs.

In a wonderous reinvigoration full of verve and passion, Manchester United regained the speed, panache & killer instinct they had sprinkled so very liberally & very regularly over the last 20 years.  The Good Reverend Giggs, flanked by the able lieutenants so intrinsically educated & steeped in the magical ways of Zen Master Ferguson, set out a team of hungry, viciously ruthless uber-players to destroy the canary yellow warriors of Norfolk.  And they did. 
The Mountain of Eternal Glory sits sternly in front of them:
'Why will you climb the mountain, Esteemed Brother Giggs?' asked a wide-eyed tabloid reporter. 'Because it's there, son.' replied the Exalted Giggs King, '...and for a club like Manchester United, there is only one destination: the top.'

4. Alright, i'll do it properly... 

If you pick up a half-baked book of business maxims, you'll find daft sayings like 'success breeds success' next to a picture of a guy who may or may not look like a Glazer family member.  Of course it is, at best, a partial truth, and at worst, downright lies but something else success can breed is the idea that because you have been part of a successful organisation, then you know how to create success yourself. This is a dangerous & naive assumption.  Particularly for a massive sports club facing a crisis.

Ryan Giggs' belief that he knows what success looks like has carried him, full of assurance & a smattering of conceit, into the Man. Utd hotseat.  His unerring belief that a 'club like Manchester United' should do things a certain way will colour his every move.

And in his first match, up against a team faced with a miserable destiny of relegation by repeated hammerings, a second half onslaught gave out the right message.

Mata, immediately benched despite good form, looked at severe risk of being marginalised by a stubborn manager once again.  Thankfully he took it upon himself to raise two fingers to that notion with a virtuoso substitute performance, something that poor Fellaini wasn't able to do having been left on the team bus.  For 40 minutes though they weren't good. They did run around more, as befits a team coached by novice staff, but didn't really get behind a Norwich team that has offered plenty of shooting practice this season.  

Still, as the goals finally did come, everyone forgot that Moyes had managed them to 4-0 and 4-1 wins recently, enjoyed the score running up and felt good again.  I personally view Giggs in the Shearer mould of appointments rather than say Pep or Dalglish. I can't accept that a man who has failed to foresee life outside the Manchester United changing room & been so stubborn in retaining his playing career far beyond it's useful life is a born leader or even a learnt one. I noticed that the players have seemed a little too happy in interviews, which suggests that Ryan's giving out extra days off already & may well be organising a golf trip.  Also, the blurry manager search that appears to be going on gives me genuine suspicions that the power brokers are ill-equipped to carry out an adequate recruitment process and that maybe, just maybe, giving Moyes Year 2 (or at least until Christmas with new players) would have been the shrewd move.  It's all reminiscent of Villas Boas at Chelsea for now & it's taken Chelsea two more managers, a Champions League win, a Europa League win & a retro appointment to climb out of that mess.

But of course this is football & sense rarely prevails.


That's it for now!

I take it you read: Man Utd under Moyes: Under-performance & blame culture ?
and: Arsenal's midfield strength AKA How injuries wreck a season.

Hopefully I'll get another piece out this week, but my family are hungry & i've had to go out data-gathering rather a lot recently.

Unlikely to be getting another piece out this week but the Tottenham Statistical season review is coming along: well, i've written nothing but the data is practically compiled.

Ideas around types of midfielder or potential elite players in the league are a possible but either way, articles will continue through the summer.  Much to be done! Either way: check back for next week's review next Sunday/Monday

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Man Utd under Moyes: Under-performance & blame culture

There's nothing like the finality of a sacking to add impetus to getting a review piece done & with Utd facing a fairly meaningless Giggs-led four match run in, all the important information is already consigned to record and the Moyes era is bookended for posterity by two mind states: hope and resignation. I personally think the board have had two options and have picked neither.   January would have been a logical out, it clearly wasn't going well, after all. But if not then, allow the man the fruits of his extensive scouting system and give him until next Christmas with a raft of his summer signings; allow the system that he's spent all year setting out for Utd's benefit to do its work... I hope he takes the password with him. 

There's many reasons why David Moyes appointment as Man. Utd manager didn't work out and most of the media will cover this to the nth degree in the forthcoming days, as if they were all knowing prescient creatures that understood all the nuances of managing a football team, nay, managing one of the world's largest football teams.  So why not have a go myself & attempt to offer a bit of nuance? Oh go on then...

Of course Moyes was on a hiding to nothing from day one.  There were a lot of things he could and maybe should have done differently:

  • He probably shouldn't have removed the entire previous coaching set-up, but he made that call and he did.
  • He probably should have thought more about tactical variation, but he knew what had worked for him at Everton and he didn't.
  • He probably should have been stronger in the transfer market and more ruthless with the current squad, but he inherited a Championship winning team & was given the security of a long contract so could have felt he had time & quality.
  • He probably should have been more aware of the impact a torpedoing share price would have on the thought processes of the owners, but he wasn't. 
  • He probably should have realised that trying to be 'one of the boys' out on the training ground would be viewed with suspicion by a group of players used to a remote patriarchal manager like Ferguson but he didn't.
On the plus side, he did actually get to the Champions League quarter finals (City did not) & found good form in Rooney, De Gea & latterly Mata.  Sadly, for him, that was the sum total in the positive tick boxes & so, he left. 

Reasons for failure:
I am going to focus on what I feel are two of the main reasons for Moyes' failure.

1.  To my mind, the clear issue with Man. Utd this season has been player under-performance & specifically under-performance in an area i've been carrying out some study: midfield.  It is no coincidence that this is the area where most observers of Man Utd have historically noted significant under-investment and a lack of creative or dominant quality, and that is something that has been levelled at the club for some seasons.  Some of this issue is likely systemic, for Moyes was rigid in his approach here, but nonetheless, too many experienced & decorated professionals have underperformed. (Ironically, the capture of Mata represents a move to solve this issue and has been a generally positive acquisition.  Moyes clearly thought so: he played him in every match.)

2.  I also feel that Moyes was specifically poor at empowering his players & may have alienated a large part of his team through a blame culture; one I suspect may well have been somewhat subtle & covert and will have engendered a distrust & resentment from an early point.  If some of the players felt unsupported & scapegoated, then their subsequent performance levels will have suffered.  Interestingly, in his typically dignified farewell statement, he made no mention of the playing staff.

This is Man Utd 2012/13, their last title winning year under Ferguson & then 2013/14 under Moyes:

2012/13:   1. Man Utd  P38  W28  D5  L5  F86  A43  GD +43  Pts89
2013/14:    7. Man Utd P34  W17  D6  L11  F56  A40  GD +16  Pts57

Quickly, we see a problem and it's not goal prevention (they are 4th in the league this year, actually better than the =5th from last). De Gea has been generally decent and whilst much of the back 4 is on the way out or purely old, they've acquitted themselves adequately;  Moyes can coach defence and he's used a 2DM variation in his formations throughout.  Indeed as we're about to see, Moyes has had a surfeit of defensive midfield options in his squad.  The problem has been in attack.  2.26 GPG has turned into 1.65 GPG, which is quite evidently, a very poor turn of events.

'But Moyes' system has killed the offense!'

Could be? Good players should be able to perform in any system though and simply put, they haven't.

Attacking Options: 
Here's Man Utd's midfield & forward options & how they've largely been utilised this year:

Carrick / Cleverley / Jones / Fellaini / Fletcher: Defensive midfielders, thou shall not pass
Mata: Playmaker
Valencia: Right midfield/winger
Januzaj: Left midfield/winger
Kagawa: Central attacking midfielder; if there was such a role in a Moyes team
Nani / Young: Versatile attacking wingers
Giggs: Will play midfield for food. Club legend.

Welbeck: Kinda left, kinda forward, kinda striker; for this analysis i've deemed him a forward.
Rooney: Talismanic versatile forward
Hernandez: Poacher
Van Persie: Striker

Out of 3060 available Premier League minutes, this is how many each of Man Utd's midfielders and forwards have played:

When you consider Jones has spent 2/3 of those minutes in defence, it shows that only Rooney and Carrick have played over 50% available minutes. [Mata has been subbed off for a total of 35 minutes since he has arrived]

Carrick, Fellaini, Van Persie, Nani & Fletcher have missed significant time through injury although of these only Carrick & Van Persie can be considered to have had prominent regular starting roles for Moyes.  

What this means is that injuries have had a moderate effect on team selection.  Moyes seems to have struggled to have found players that he felt he could trust implicitly and has regularly chopped and changed his starting line ups; hence a wide range of players with a medium level of minutes.

Impact Values:
If you read my Arsenal piece last week you'll have met my 'Impact Values'.  Here's a brief explanation:
What the hell is an impact value?  Each player has been rated for both offensive power (OP) & defensive power (DP) with a combined figure generated. We can then see who has done well and who has performed not so well.  Doing this has then enabled identification of the offensive & defensive strength of starting line-ups throughout the season. It has also enabled us to see where their midfield has shown effective balance or an over-reliance on either offensive or defensive players.  There is a bit of a chicken or egg situation here regarding inputs & the possibility of almost endless tweaks as a basis for future work, but where we're at is a good starting point. Also, as any model will include user-generated biases, i've attempted to minimise this by normalising the inputs and standing them against the league's top performers.

At the moment, a lot of the value is in how they give separate values for offensive and defensive 'power', which is a good fit for examining midfield players.  I have also started to generate forward values (we'll see these later) and defender values (needs work, we won't see these yet).
(Also these values do not directly compare with those done for the Arsenal piece; more inputs have gone in. The trends are comparable but not the direct figures)

Anyway: here's Utd's midfield values for this season:

So what can we gauge from these figures? Well...
  • Mata was an essential purchase and has done pretty well.  I calculated his Chelsea IV at 0.50 with almost identical DP, so all his improvement since joining Utd has been on the attacking side & he's clearly been empowered.  His number here is elite but it's easy to see where Mourinho was sceptical: his defensive number is low.  He's in a category akin to Eriksen or Ozil insofar as you don't get any defensive work from them, that's the trade-off.  Moyes favoured Mata like no other & it's understandable why.
  • Januzaj is the only other midfield man with even half decent offensive production.  He's a kid; but has started well.  He also has a low defensive number & that could explain why he has featured less upon the purchase of Mata.
  • There is a surfeit of defensive midfielders. Carrick, Jones (when not picked as a CB), Cleverley, Fellaini and Fletcher are all playing as and putting out defensive midfield numbers.
  • Cleverley has been harshly treated by the wider media.  He's been asked to play as a DM this year, pure & simple, & has solid, unspectacular DM numbers. 
  • Why Fellaini? He made a nuisance of himself in 2012/13 as a goalscoring target man cum attacking midfielder.  Moyes has fielded him at DM for Utd & he's been, like the others, unspectacular.  This makes his signing all the more unfathomable.  In a team needing striker support, Fellaini has been neutered further back.
  • The other wide men & attacking midfielders have been woeful.  Young, Valencia, Nani and in particular, poor Kagawa have had dreadfully sub-par seasons on all levels.
  • Giggs has played all over the midfield at times and has the figures of a very, very bad defensive midfielder.  Time waits for no man & if he picks himself, at all, ever again, he deserves shooting.

So with pretty sub-par midfield production, the onus has been on the forwards to carry the burden & generally they've done okay.  Rooney has performed at an elite level this year without scoring a ton of goals & the others have contributed a share of offense, though Van Persie has had limited effectiveness in reduced minutes.  
Indeed, no player has been able to contribute elite levels of goals. Van Persie's 26 from last year was a big contributor to their title run, ditto Liverpool's two strikers this year.  Hernandez has done well in his typical Solskjaer-esque role. Welback has goals to his name but both he and Hernandez have had very sporadic appearances.

Here's the forward IV chart (I should warn that these values do not directly correlate to those of the midfield values, so do not work for direct comparison, yet!):

Underneath the obvious value in the offensive figures, both Rooney & Welbeck contribute a lot to defensive play.  This is possibly because they spend time in more withdrawn positions than the other two who are pure strikers but both have an excellent work ethic for team play.  Welbeck has also spent some time in left midfield this year.


Apologies, in editing I've contrived to lose half this article!

Here's the tables I created anyway:

The crux of the original article was that Moyes repeatedly dropped his players after bad performances.
Each squared tick in the table was an incident where Moyes had seemingly 'blamed' a player for a poor draw or a loss.  By Oct 19th IIRC, 9 of his midfielders/attackers had cause to feel marginalised through being dropped.

No wonder he struggled to elicit good performances when so much of the squad was likely alienated.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Premier League Round-Up: 21st April

Willkommen zu einem Premier League Round-up-Blog! 
Finding angles & points of interest since March 2014

Narrative, narrative, narrative.

Plenty of narrative around this last week and whilst it'd be easy to concentrate on Liverpool's sturdy march towards triumphant glory & Suarez and King Gerrard and Mourinho meltdowns and such & such i'll endeavour to pick the bones out of some of the more interesting nuggets around the games played.  
Until Chelsea crumbled under the weight of Sunderland, I had intended on including a picture i'd made too but Mourinho is no longer the decisive figure in this championship battle, so it's been canned.  Everyone has laid down and rolled out a Liverpool Red carpet. Very strange. The decisive title now belongs to former 'Most Smug Manager' award winner 2011/12 & 2012/13, Tony Pulis who actually seems alright now, in a perverse kinda way.

Anyway on with the (no) show!

1. Villa v Southampton.

Aston Villa Southampton: La correzione era?- HEADLINE Corriere dello Sport

Over in Italy a huge scandal erupted concerning a match between team of the heartlands Aston Villa and provincial, coastal outfit Southampton.  In a match that meant little to either club, although Villa could not be said to be entirely secure, neither team tried at all & played out a meaningless 0-0 draw.  Anschluss? Maybe.

Well, of course NONE OF THESE ACCUSATIONS ARE TRUE and it is written as parody but hell, this has to be a contender for worst game of the season. Villa 'won' the shot count 6-3. I can barely remember a Premiership game with so few shots! Southampton average about 14 a game & regularly play decent attacking football. Villa have been part of a good few poor matches this year & it can't be too surprising to see them in another, but I think the real issue we see here is a thread that runs through a few stories this week.  Jay Rodriguez is Southampton's primary offensive contributor this year and since his injury they haven't scored.  But he's only one player? Yup, and they've not got a player to replace him as good as him.  The balance of their attack has gone out of kilter and so you get shit like this.

Shame on these two clubs (for being dull not any kind of corruption, I was joking)

2. When your best attackers are absent; you, whoever you are, may struggle.

Man City 2-2 Sunderland. Unfathomable!
Best player this season? Silva: ABSENT
Goal threat from midfield? Toure: ABSENT
Best striker full stop? Aguero: played but SUBBED OFF early & recovering from injury

(City also wobbled earlier in the year when missing Fernandinho who whilst not an attacker is a key cog in that midfield.)

Chelsea 1-2 Sunderland. Ridiculous!
Most valuable player? Hazard: ABSENT
Goal threat from midfield? Schurrle & Lampard: LATE SUB & BENCHWARMER

More on this game later, but hey, this is a Mou-streak that's gone down & to a relegation threatened team. 
Not easy to predict!

Sunderland now have a chance to save themselves mere days after I waved them off, but they've enjoyed a marvellous rub regarding their opponents fitness.

3. When your best attackers are available; you, whoever you are, may win convincingly.
(AKA Liverpool's whole season)

Yeah, Liverpool. All season. 8 players in 6 attacking positions. Perfect storm. Never again. 

I wrote an article last week about Arsenal's injury malaise & ranked their midfield in order of effectiveness.
What was clear was that they had seriously missed Ramsey, were missing Ozil's offensive production & that there had been too much Rosicky and Flamini going on in recent months.
Midweek, Podolski refuted my mild criticisms by coming to life as did Cazorla as they dispatched West Ham routinely. Sunday saw an impressive and classically dominant Arsenal-of-old* win at Hull. (*late 2013-style)
Not dominant statistically, they're still under par there, but the gulf in class in the final third was tangible and lo and behold, 'Sun Star Man' Ramsey finished a lovely move for the first & created Podolski's first of two more with an unwitting layoff.

The converse of what has happened to City & Chelsea this last week; Arsenal got some of their best players on the pitch & won well.

4. Mirror Game 

So: I am looking at the stats in games regularly & occasionally things come up that intrigue or appeal.
This is one:

edit: both matches also involved London clubs at home to North-East clubs

IT IS BASICALLY THE SAME MATCH. *Glitch in the Matrix*

So earlier I suggested Chelsea missed Hazard & others and that's why they lost.

Maybe? More likely is that they had a freaky statistical match, so freaky that it had formerly happened almost exactly the same way to Andre Villas Boas during his 'Berlin'-phase at Tottenham.

The hooks for me here are the Key Passes and Saves stats.  They just don't happen on that scale very often at all, less so in tandem. In fact, Willian had an enormous game here given some license to create in the absence of Hazard.  That is encouraging for his future as it seems to me his creative influence has been stifled somewhat by Mourinho's system.   And also, pleasingly, given his desparing flails after Nasri's shot in midweek, Mannone, who I complimented last week, had a game of 'immense dimension'.  I like Mannone & I felt his pain as he lay face down on the Etihad turf. Poignant.

So yeah, the inputs all went in but the outputs came out backwards.

Sunderland were fortunate, Chelsea were not.


That's all for this week, at least probably in the realm of Premiership Round Up. I'll have some more articles coming up soon in the 'Arsenal's Midfield' vein. I'm crunching a lot of numbers at the moment, mainly for midfielders & some insight pieces will be forthcoming as and when time/inspiration allows.


Monday, 14 April 2014

Arsenal's Midfield Strength 2013/14 AKA How injuries wreck a season

Beautiful weather here in the UK at the moment so what better way to make the most of it than to ponder and calculate what i'm calling 'Impact Values' for Arsenal's midfield.  The express intent being to understand why they haven't been able to maintain any degree of form over recent weeks or indeed longer.

The reason i've chosen their midfield to focus on is twofold.  Firstly, systematic: with a one up striker system, Arsenal play with 5 players in their midfield and secondly, this is where there has been the greatest fluctuation in personnel.  Generally the defense, despite regular aberrations, has had few personnel changes; Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs and Szczesny have started the vast majority of games.  Similarly, Giroud has started all but two games up front.

So most of Wenger's tweaking has taken place in midfield. Why? Is it injuries? Well, yes.  Simply mentioning the names Diaby and Kallstrom tells a good deal about Arsenal's fitness troubles, neither of whom has featured this season beyond Kallstrom's 11 minutes vs Swansea.  Ryo Miyaichi's 17 minutes back in September do not merit inclusion either.

Beyond that Wenger has utilised 11 players in the midfield and wide forward areas & they can be loosely defined as follows:

Flamini/Arteta: Defensive midfielders (Flamini more of a grinder, Arteta a passer)
Walcott: Right forward (ability to play up front)
Podolski: Left forward (questionable ability to play up front)
Ozil: Playmaker (gifted offensive hub)
Cazorla/Ramsey/Wilshire/Rosicky/Oxlade-Chamberlain: Versatile midfielders (will play midfield for food)
Gnabry: Right midfield (but young so could vary in future)

Injuries have been rife. Podolski & Oxlade-Chamberlain each missed the first half of the season, Walcott has been physically cursed this year & as we enter the last weeks of the season Ozil & Wilshire have notably gone down.  Out of a maximum 2970 minutes available in the league, this is how many each has played:

Aaron Ramsey     1517 
Santi Cazorla      2251 
Mesut Özil           1827 
Theo Walcott       859
Jack Wilshere      1691 
Mikel Arteta        1986 
Serge Gnabry         484 
Lukas Podolski      724 
Tomas Rosicky      1393 
Mathieu Flamini     1470 
Alex Oxlade-Cham.  512 
No player over 75% & only 2 over 50%. 

Not ideal. But the squad has been stretched, right? Sure has. Of 33 games played, between these 11 players, 98 potential starts have been missed due to injury. Effectively this means that throughout the season, on average, Wenger has had 8 players to fill 5 positions rather than 11. This is severely limiting. (Technically, the injury nadir came in the 2-0 win against Liverpool in November: the 5 players that started were the only 5 of the 11 fit and the bench contained Steve Bould and a couple of 12 year olds.) 

What are Impact Values?
Numbers-wise, Arsenal have had two particularly bad periods for midfield injuries: Mid-September to mid November and now, from mid-March onwards. In that first period, their results were uniformly very good and there are two reasons I can identify. This first is obvious: they played a lot of the poorer teams. The second is less obvious & this is where Impact Values come in.  In a nutshell, despite the injuries, Wenger was able to put out a strong midfield between September and November.  In recent weeks? Yep, not so much.

What the hell is an impact value, anyway? Well, that's complicated... *shuffles, looks at floor, retains mystique* but I have created them for Arsenal's 11 midfielders. Each player has been rated for both offensive power (OP) & defensive power (DP) with a combined figure generated too. Doing this has then enabled identification of the offensive & defensive strength of Arsenal's starting line-ups throughout the season. It has also enabled us to see where their midfield has shown effective balance or an over-reliance on either offensive or defensive players.  There is a bit of a chicken or egg situation here regarding inputs & the possibility of almost endless tweaks as a basis for future work, but where we're at is a good starting point. Also, as any model will include user-generated biases, i've attempted to minimise this by normalising the inputs and standing them against the league's top performers.

And it has shown something that other statistical analysis has revealed: Arsenal are not as good as their initial good form suggested they were.  It also shows something else: if they could shake off their seasonal wretched bad injury luck, they'd have half a chance of maintaining form akin to the level that they are capable of reaching, when and only when, they have a largely fit squad.

Player Impact Values
Here's the stats for those plucky 11:

So what to make of these values?

Immediately it's apparent that the top 3 most influential players have missed huge chunks of the season.  Ramsey was pretty much ever present before his injury; he had to be and he was clearly the top team performer both very strong in offensive production and his defensive work. Indeed only dedicated defensive performers Arteta and Flamini outstrip his number in the latter.

As is often seen, once you delve into the stats, Arteta's value becomes apparent and Flamini is represented as a slightly lesser replacement.  Their defense-centric values separate them from the others & show how the signing of Flamini was necessary for squad balance.  However, some of Arsenal's recent poorer performances have featured Flamini and Arteta as a DM pair; this hasn't worked and Arsenal's offensive effectiveness is killed by their dual presence.

What else?

  • Ramsey, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil are the primary offensive contributors. The former 3 back-up decent offensive figures with average to good defensive numbers.
  • Ozil's offensive effectiveness is not dominant, indeed he ranks 4th, and his overall figure is brought down by his terrible defensive number.  He's dangerously close to luxury status here.
  • Podolski ranks similarly to Ozil.  His reputation is nowhere near the level of Ozil, but is this why two players, historically so widely feted and capped by their country, are now playing for Arsenal and not one of the true 'elite' teams?
  • Cazorla is off a peak. Last year his number would have been far better, this year? Not so good. He is an average contributor to Arsenal's midfield right now & has played more than anyone else.
  • Rosicky's resurgence is an illusion.  At 33, it's not gonna get any better for him.  He's often been seen as a squad man & that's all he is.  His inadequate total contribution is particularly fuelled by a lack of offensive input.
  • Wilshire is a reverse image of Rosicky.  His offensive number is OK and his defensive number is poor.  Injuries? Could be.  Whatever the reason, he is their least effective midfielder.  He and/or Rosicky on the team sheet does not a good Arsenal make.
  • There's hope for Gnabry.  His numbers aren't great but they're derived from limited minutes and at 19 he has a solid defensive base and a chance for improvement.
  • Due to the unresolved quest for a new forward, Flamini and Ozil were not deemed essential positional recruits; the opposite has been shown to be true: they were very much needed, especially Flamini as the only recognised alternative to Arteta.
Now we've got these figures, can we do anything else with them?

Combination Impact Values & +/- Analysis
Here's Arsenal's season with their starting midfield strength (offensive (OP) and defensive (DP) ) calculated along with a +/- figure indicating the relative bias towards attack or defense.  Theoretically, a well balanced starting line-up might have a figure close to zero but a heavily +ve starting line-up might be the order of the day at home to a poor side.

'Woah, numbers and abbreviations!  Too much!'

I know. So here's a graph derived from the final two columns representing 'Midfield Strength' & 'Attack/Defence balance':

A couple of things are immediately apparent here:
  • Arsenal's season can be split into two halves: a good half and a bad half. I believe most people may have noticed this already. 
  • Their recent poor run has occurred during a period where some of their least balanced, weakest & most defensively biased midfields have represented them.
When the +/- stat is examined we find this: 

+ve starting line-up (W-D-L) 14-2-3
-ve starting line-up (W-D-L) 5-5-4

Far poorer when the line-up has been defensively orientated & those 5 victories were against Norwich, a pre-Pulis Palace, Cardiff, Sunderland and the recent win at White Hart Lane, a match that Arsenal, their early goal aside, created very little offensively.  I did think that maybe mindset & match location could have had an effect but the 6-8 split between home and away isn't obviously significant.

Ironically, a notable outlier beyond the opening 4 games of the season (which all featured heavily +ve midfields) is the 3-6 defeat to Man City.  That day Arsenal started with a heavily +ve midfield against one of the best attacking sides in the country and were dealt a heck of a beating despite scoring 3 times.

My personal interpretation  here is that when you're running a system involving one striker, you simply have to have adequate offensive support from your midfield or wide forwards and that is why injuries to Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil and to a lesser extent Podolski, have hampered Arsenal's forward prowess.  Trying to create offensive penetration in recent weeks without Ramsey, Ozil or Walcott has been understandably beyond them.

Wenger favours a 4-2-3-1 & to my mind, the strongest midfield 5 he can put out is as follows:


At first glance, this line-up may appear to orientated towards attack.  I'd suggest that the research done here shows that each player in this line-up (bar Ozil) is adept enough to contribute defensively.  Intriguingly, Oxlade-Chamberlain has only played 45 minutes in this position; the first 45 minutes of his season before his injury.  Playing him in this role allows a transition into 4-3-3 with Oxlade-Chamberlain dropping back into the midfield 3 as required.

There has not been one single moment where Wenger has had this line-up available to him. Fitness has killed Arsenal's potential.


A few points revealed by the research:

There have been a lot of complaints about a lack of pace on Arsenal's team this year, certainly without Walcott it's very noticable.  This is often a function of youth and it has to be a concern whether Walcott's injury will ultimately blunt his speed.  The notably under-par performance against Everton (0-3) featured Rosicky (33), Arteta (32), Flamini (31), Podolski (28) and Cazorla (29).  This is a noticably pedestrian and aging line-up.  None of these guys are on an upward curve and will need replacing in the near to mid-term.

Linked to this, and also to their lack of a midfield stopper bar Flamini, Arsenal's dribbled by stats are very poor.  Visualise Arteta or Rosicky turning and vainly chasing younger, speedier players.  Only Flamini approaches a good standard in this metric.

Wilshire's overall impact may be sub-par but he leads the team in through-balls, a metric in which Arsenal are particularly strong.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Premier League Round-Up: 14th April

Welcome to a Premier League Round-up blog!
All opinions are just that, so... yeah...

Saturday Review:

(If I type 'Premier Lague' once I type it a hundred times...)
A thrilling goalfest here in the Premier Lague League with 6 goals in the West Brom/Tottenham game and 5 in all the other Saturday fixtures.  But that's OK at this time of year because it's all about RESULTS and GRINDING OUT RESULTS and EKEING OUT RESULTS.  Plus none of the goal-monster teams played, so a merry band of 'relegation haunted outfits' & 'holidaying' clubs tossed coins & decided who really wanted 'the three points'...

1. Everton are now in the Top 4

And well done to them.

But once again, for the 5th game in a row, they were outshot by the opposition.  Their overall performance against Arsenal merited a downgrading of this stat to 'not relevant' last week, but this time they were playing Sunderland
and went down 24-20 in the shot count.  Say again?

Yup, 44 (!) shots registered in a 0-1 scoreline. That's quite some game.
Once again Martinez's magic skills enabled Everton to come out ahead and this result all but...

2. ...relegated Sunderland

If football had an employment market similar to the real world, you'd be forgiven for thinking Wes Brown was attempting to get the sack.  Here he added an own goal to go with his league leading 3 red cards. 

Sunderland have 2 games in hand but it doesn't matter. They've lost 5 straight, are 7 points from safety, spirits are low and have had no luck. This is a miserable recipe & that they're beneath Cardiff, who are routinely awful, is damning.  Nor is their long-term potential very sound.  Adam Johnson should be able to secure a contract in the PL but the only player I've been impressed with this season has been Vito Mannone, who has shown good qualities in a busy job.

The rest of the squad looks like what it is: a bloated and weird amalgamation of ill-conceived signings, both inexperienced or too old, cast in the image of multiple managers. There is a huge job in front of somebody next season, not least the paring down of playing staff & removal of high earners, and I don't think Poyet has done enough to suggest he's up to that task.  He talks a good game, does Gus, but his message hasn't made it past the Beats headphones on the team bus.  Farewell Sunderland & may your luck improve next year.

3. Felix Magath

'This is my football, this is my shirt. (This is my football, this is my shirt.)
We run til we drop, we run til we hurt. (We run til we drop, we run til we hurt.)

It's the media's fault. So gleefully did it report Felix Magath's drill instructor tendencies when he arrived at Fulham that I envisaged hilarity as Premier League primadonnas were worked to within a sliver of their souls all in the name of SURVIVAL. And indeed, at the time, it looked a case of kill or be killed.  Fulham's barely twitching corpse had lugged it's way around the league like a proto-Sunderland; aging players, a United Nations of cultural integration, no shortage of fancy-dans, the wrong players and Flight Lieutenant Scott Parker.

All this amounted to nothing, or at least nothing for the Fulham side of things, for the defense regularly accommodated opposition sorties, enemy supply lines were well stocked and poundings became regular.

No more!

As hinted last week. Magath has got shit together. Sorry?

'Sir, Gunnery Sergeant Magath has got shit together, sir!'

That's better.

The big win in the massive six pointer (AKA Norwich's Last Stand) has taken his record against the lesser teams in the league to 3-1-1.  This, despite the small sample, is out-Pulising Lord Pulis! It does also lend credence to the idea that a grizzled relegation freedom fighter is better in the trench than some fresh-faced rookie. Both Pulis and Magath are getting degrees of success with tried and tested methods, not something Solskjaer or Poyet can claim to have behind them.  Anyway, they've 4 games left and when you're Fulham, despite this upsurge, none look like guaranteed points.  However, one win might be enough (target: Hull) and two or more would surely do it (Operation Stoke or Crystal Pulis). Hell, Spurs can be accommodating at times.

The looming visage of the Championship tends to focus certain teams each year, and Fulham, right now, have the look of a team that has seen the edge of it's soul and doesn't want to see it again.  
And that's thanks to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman Magath.

4. Saturday snacks 

  1. Southampton did what they usually do at home: dominate possession & outshoot and restrict the opposition. This was to be expected, after all they were playing league punchbags, Cardiff.  A 3-0 win was no more than they deserved.  But wait! They lost 0-1? Ah football, surprise is rarely far away.
  2. Pulis won again to go 10-3-9. Southampton are 13-9-12 all year. Pulis & Palace are efficient. AS I THINK I MAY HAVE MENTIONED BEFORE?
  3. Newcastle are 4-1-10 in 2014 with goals F & A of 9-29. 5 of those goals were scored between Cabaye (long gone) and Remy (owned by QPR) & they are lacking in assets. Truly dreadful form and certainly a difficult summer awaits.
Sunday Review

5. Liverpool march on

In an understandably emotionally charged environment up at Anfield, Liverpool came through what might be their biggest test on their way to a potential title win. A 10 game win streak and figures of 13-2-0 since the turn of the year is indeed the form of Champions and it's likely that the visit of Chelsea stands squarely in their way of landing the big pot.  Whilst some, mainly City fans, will have considered them fortunate in parts today, their opening salvo and effort to lead 2-0 was again typically irresistible.  That they almost gave it away was testament to the majesty of David Silva and the soft defensive core that may yet undermine Liverpool.

Their entire season has been defined by the continued fitness of their star men.  Again today their bench looked sub-par, a huge step down from the front 6 that have served them so effectively but influence was not needed from there as in the absence of goals from Sturridge & Suarez another S & S came to the fore: Skrtel & Sterling.  Skrtel, a player who I particularly dislike thanks to his scurrilous ways, has masked any defensive malignancies with 7 goals this season whilst Sterling has truly come of age in 2014 and is regularly unplayable.

In contrast, by the time City were required to chase the game, it looked as if Silva was all they had left. Only he, and a spirited but unexpected cameo from James Milner, showed the will & quality required.  The absence of Aguero & now Toure has hampered City's title challenge for when the best get injured the rest merely fill in. Javi Garcia to replace Toure? Is that it? They now look to lack options as players such as Navas & Negredo have flattened off and week-in, week-out Dzeko is his profligate, erratic self.  No team can star without their key men and the title is now an outside but by no means longshot bet for City, though fascinatingly Chelsea and (to an intriguing extent for fans of Pulisball), Palace are the exterior influences that conceivably remain on the 2013/14 race.  

Henderson's late and unnecessary red card adds a smite of intrigue for the casual observer. Ever present and to my mind key in the side this year he now misses 3 matches.

6. 26th August 2013

Back in August, a pragmatic Jose Mourinho sent his new Chelsea team, a group of players he was largely unfamiliar with, up to Old Trafford to take on the Champions.  A classic in non-football, Jose was content to shut down the game and collect a point whilst Moyes, in his first big test, was unwilling to gamble either.

Looking back now, I suspect Mourinho has regularly cursed his percentage play for the 1 point gained that day now looks all the more like 2 points lost.  And by some coincidence that's the difference between Chelsea and Liverpool at the the top of the league.

Today, Chelsea clasped a slight win against the 10 men of Swansea to keep their title hopes at least conceivable.  Last week I presumed Chelsea were about to win nothing this season and thanks to the Gods of Football, it's perfectly possible that they could win 2 trophies.  Unlikely, yes, but nonetheless, in a world of the mega-offenses of Madrid, Liverpool, Atletico, Man. City & Bayern, Jose's defensive structures remain standing. 

Only now faced with such trials does Jose's pragmatism become his greatest asset.

7. Obligatory Tottenham bit

All the fun of the fair up at the Hawthorns where unlucky Pepe Mel walked into a last minute equalizer again with all the verve of a man stepping on a rake.
Tottenham's deficiencies in defence have become so pronounced now that early concessions are no longer a surprise, nor is entertaining attempts to dig themselves out of the holes they've climbed into.
That the 6th consecutive game that they've conceded the first goal generated a point by the bitter end was a reward for non-stop Sherwoodian attack but no more did it endorse his claims for an extended tenure than anything that we've seen before.  Not that it matters of course because Tim's finished, is into holiday mode and enjoying his last few minutes on the rollercoaster.

Youth is what Sherwood knows and now he's flaunting his wares.  Whilst Bentaleb has been unfairly tarnished by association, it might be that the last thing Sherwood does is also the best.  Harry Kane has started the last two Premiership matches and has scored 2 goals. He's 20 years old, an England Under-21 international and has only seen fleeting substitute minutes until now, although his previous appearance against Benfica was a 19 minute 2 assist cameo.

What he's doing well, above and beyond hitting the scoring ground running is shooting.  In two matches he's taken 13 shots (8+5) and is showing an uncanny ability to take up good positions. Whilst his actual finishing needs work, that he's making the right runs, receiving the ball and getting shots off is a solid blueprint for the future.

That is all... for now

*COMING SOON (probably Monday/Tuesday):

A detailed statistical analysis of Arsenal's midfield contributors, their effectiveness and impact on Arsenal's form and how injuries have hindered Wenger's plans. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Premier League Round-up: 7th April PT2

Welcome to a Premier League Round-up blog!

All opinions are just that, so... yeah...

*Part 2 of this weekend's blog, as promised, and now with EXTRA post-Tottenham v Sunderland content*
Check out Part 1 if you missed it: Premier League Round Up: 7th April PT1

5. Fulham: a glimmer of hope?
When you consider the misery of Fulham's season as a whole it is reminiscent of a former time.  In the early 90's, I like many of my contemporaries, used to be enthralled and excited by Channel 4's Serie A coverage. Initially fuelled by the media following of Paul Gascoigne, the slightly grainy footage of world class players plying their trade in the dominant Italian league was a great fix for the armchair football fan; one used to being brought up on 'Sportsnight', The FA Cup Final, The World Cup and the odd Division One match.  Football did not have the ubiquity it has now & Calcio provided very different type of football experience.

One of the factors that endlessly amused media commentators back here in Britain was the 'trigger-happy' attitude of club owners towards management when disappointed by their expensively assembled but underachieving teams.

As we look in on the Premier League, 20 years on, we now have this very same phenomenon and to this end, it has been expressly grasped by recent Fulham owner Shahid Khan.

Khan himself marries this old-style attitude to hiring with a pragmatism borne of his time in America: if Fulham ain't in the Premier League, he ain't got shit.

And maybe, the Magath Gambit could work?

Magath is running at 2-1-4 since starting.  That in itself isn't enough, but take out fixtures against decent sides (Chelsea, Man City, Everton) and he's 2-1-1 with only a miserable defeat to fellow league punching bags Cardiff and he's in pretty decent shape.

The huge 6 pointer against Norwich (larger still now that Norwich have realised they're running out of points & aren't likely to get any more) looks very winnable & whilst Tottenham (A), Stoke (A), Palace (H) aren't straightforward, Hull (H) could well be and might be enough to save them.
This the team that signed all the wrong players, all the old players. The team that played more players than people knew they had, employed managers, ex-managers, coaches and more, conceded goals with unerring regularity & generally stunk out the league until March. That team could survive.

It would be some feat.

6. At the top

This week City were dominant, Liverpool perfunctory & Chelsea kept trying.  Mourinho could end up with nothing, y'know?  That's not really part of his spiel: 

'Last two years, nothing. Big clubs, great players; I won nothing.'

Man Utd dodged a bullet, yeah? 

7. Tottenham v Sunderland

Usual chaos off field in the world of Tottenham, the club that tabloid journalists dream of.  Sherwood, having lost the support of er... the support, has seemingly lost the support of the BIG MAN, Chief Dan Levy.
Whether he ever explicitly had it in the first place is a moot point as it always seemed likely that beyond a dominant drive towards comfortable Champions League qualification, his chances of retaining the job were slim.

And so, with nothing to lose and nothing to gain Tim sets up his team with Ardiles-esque positivity & they proceed to roll over Sunderland in a manner that bore many hallmarks both good and bad of Sherwood's tenure.

Horrific individual error to gift opposition a goal? Yup, every week!
Eriksen/Adebayor inspired victory? Been a few of those.
Young players integrated? Hello Kane & Veljkovic!

Eriksen rightly got all the praise this evening & it was good that he was able to show this with the world watching.  A Monday night game against poor opposition is a great place to build yourself a reputation & he put in a performance of the highest quality.  He's got 8 goals & 6 assists since Christmas in c.15 first team games.  

Them's elite stats.

Eriksen is hot.
Sunderland, trying and ultimately failing, are not.

That is all... for now

[Check back next Sunday/Monday for further installments!]

Premier League Round Up: 7th April PT1

Welcome to a Premier League Round-up blog!

All opinions are just that, so... yeah...

New for April: *Now includes one chart*

1. Everton schooled Arsenal

In years gone by, we've become well accustomed to Arsenal receiving a lesser team at Highbury or the Emirates and as the old cliche goes, 'teaching them a footballing lesson.' They're still well capable on their day but have met with a series of defining defeats this year of which this one against Everton could be most significant.

The qualities Liverpool or City or Chelsea can bring are obvious; after all they each have very expensively assembled squads & match winners aplenty, less so Everton, a veritable rag bag of veteran players, enthusiastic loanees, prodigal youngsters & Moyesian journeymen.

Fuelled by the enthusiastic dust Roberto Positive sprinkles on their pre-match Corn Flakes, they put in an outstanding performance full of spacial awareness, speed and intelligence. So much so that they now hold the charge for 4th place in their own hands. Their opponents looked largely the opposite; devoid of speed & ideas & unable to break down a well drilled team.

So, the paper schedules clearly favour Arsenal, indeed their next three games are against holidaying teams (West Ham, Hull & Newcastle) followed by West Brom & Norwich, whilst Everton's tests involved welcoming Palace, Utd & City & travelling to tricky Southampton, but one can't help but remember Martinez's Wigan team of 2011/12 who won 7 of 9 to finish safe, including wins against Utd, Arsenal & Liverpool.

Last week I warned Everton were riding the shot count & had a tough run but this performance was very good & sometimes a manager has skills that are hard to define clearly, Ferguson being the benchmark. Martinez has history here & they are peaking when they need to; Arsenal worryingly are not.

2. Pulisball


Palace are long safe now, Pulis has led them along his effective road to safety despite not scoring any goals (23 at last count) and can be rightly lauded for picking up a 1-1-9 team and running 9-3-9 since.
Nowheresville to Midocrity; nice one, Tony.
Since the goals were absent almost thoughout, the truth had to be there in the defensive numbers, yep, those incomplete numbers that aren't nearly as easy to interpret as their offensive counterparts.

Squawka states Palace have the most defensive actions in the league. Ok, that's fine but what if we split the league into readily digestible segments of say, 7 games, arbitrarily chosen as the length of Holloway's reign and work with some stats & dig about? Baby steps in the stats world here! Can we find anything else?

Here's a chart with Tackles & Interceptions in it:
(Using tap conventions, RED is HOT & BLUE is COLD ;) 

Some fun lies in the interception rate!
Under Holloway they were poor and in deficit .
Under Pulis they have tackled as much, allowed the same amount of tackles & interceptions BUT increased their interception dominance over the opposition from an average +3.5 per match to +8.5...
(If you actually reduce it the the last 4 games, they're running at an absurd +14! )

Palace isn't an easy game, they work very hard & they're becoming tougher. 
Unsung hero of the midfield Mile Jedinak, would be a cracking signing for a team aspiring to the top half.  Indeed, I'd not be averse to thinking that's where they could end up themselves next season, Pulis' win rate suggests as much. Whatever his message is, it's got through.

3. What the Stoke is going on?

Stoke are weird.  Just as you feel that Hughes might be getting the hang of things there, after a fine run of one defeat in nine, they arrive at Chelsea, indeed a potentially vulnerable Chelsea, and rather than play football choose to take the afternoon off.  It's happened a few times this season too.

When they went to Tottenham in late December, they were by far the poorest team to visit White Hart Lane this season; indeed they created 2 shots all game & the oft-maligned Paulinho was so effective that day that the Spurs fans figured he'd finally arrived. Charlie Adam soon halted that theory.

Similarly a visit to Everton in November yielded 4 shots and a beating, and now this visit to Chelsea yielded the same. Ten shots is a poor average for one game, for three non-randomly chosen events? Terrible.

Sure the expectation in these games will have been low, but to perform so utterly badly, is beyond even that.  It does lead to questioning how gifted Hughes' motivational skills are.  He can fire the team up to perform more than adequately at home, wins over Utd, Arsenal & Chelsea testify as so, but these terrible away performances will harm the soul of even the most loyal travelling fan.

4. Man Utd flattered, again.

A marvellous 4-0 demolition for Man Utd against Newcastle followed their heroic 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich and the steamrollering of Aston Villa.

As I said last week, MAN UTD ARE BACK! (RED= HOT, remember)

They're really not though.

They've created 10 shots on target in those last 2 league games & scored 8 goals.  This is not sustainable in any way.  It took until Juan Mata's free-kick for them to register a shot against holiday-team-de-jour Newcastle & they finished with 8 shots total after 2 in the first half. Two shots in a half. Against Newcastle. This is not good.

Any way you twist the stats over these recent games, Utd come out with a good score in one metric, goals, and very sub par in every other attacking stat available.  

Even worse, these flattering wins could even create the worst case scenario: THE EUROPA LEAGUE 2014/15, only Tottenham & their own failings stand between Utd and the Fate They Never Wanted.

Heck, let's be positive for a change!

Mata is now chipping in. 

That's it.