Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Teen millionaire comparison: Luke Shaw vs. Calum Chambers

The £12 million (rising to 16 million) paid for young Southampton right-back Calum Chambers might best exhibit the premium placed on potential in the English Premier League. The nineteen year-old joined the Gunners this week for a fee around half of that paid by Manchester United for line-mate Luke Shaw, who travelled north for a sum thought to be around £30 million.

There are a few subtle differences between the pair, however. Firstly, Chambers can’t possibly expect to earn the reputed £100,000 per week. This is probably in part because he hasn’t yet played for England, nor apparently interested the club he supported as a boy. And – perhaps – finally, while a quality player and precisely no grumbling has accompanied his transfer, Chambers’ performances for the Saints last year didn’t actually inspire a lot of success (he might be fitter, though).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

World Cup: Winners

Germany: They won the World Cup.

Oh, all right. It’s not so much that they won, so much as how. The manner in which they dismembered Brazil was one of the all-time great World Cup events, a real “Where were you when…” type of moment. The pace from the flanks was outstanding – especially from super-sub Schurrle and future great Thomas Muller, while they were along with France the most potent attacking force in the competition. The key elements of the home World Cup team from 2006 were able to finally summit the hump that’s been their seemingly-eternal undoing, while several of their squad seem set for 2016 and beyond – the Germans had an average squad age of 25 years and nine months, and the two senior citizens (Miroslav Klose and Roman Weidenfeller) ranking as two of their more expendable players.

What the numbers said: Aston Villa 2013-14

The following analysis was performed utilizing data from the Individual Plus/Minus series published on the site throughout the year. You can find the full data set in the Room of Informational Illusions. Should you wish for a glossary of terms used in this article, it can be found here.

Overview
Villa finished the season in fifteenth position on the EPL table, when, pre-season many expected them to challenge for a top-half berth.

2013-14 was hardly a success for Aston Villa. After assuming control of the midlands club prior to 2012-13, Scotland’s entry for World’s Most Charismatic Man Paul Lambert orchestrated something of a revolution-on-the-cheap by marginalizing the overpaid stars who had taken Villa to the brink of Champions League football and then almost to relegation. Little was heard of Alan Hutton, Darren Bent, Charles N’Zogbia and Jean Il Makoun, while young players from lower divisions like Matthew Lowton and Ashley Westwood came in as accoutrements to centerpiece Christian Benteke, who was acquired from Genk.

While some Villans – not least captain Ron Vlaar and central midfielder Fabian Delph – had solid seasons, many of the players who finished 2012-13 so promisingly regressed or struggled to impact games in 2013-14 as they had the previous season.

One of the more notable examples was Lowton, who managed only 23 matches for the term. The right-back, who scored the goal of the season against Stoke City the year before, was a defensive liability and spent vast stretches of the season either on the bench or unselected. While Andreas Weimann’s numbers according to the Individual Plus/Minus system compared quite favourably to his teammates, far more was expected from the Villa player to whom the Spiderman Principle most obviously applies.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Plus/Minus Glossary

Plus/minus = The amount of cumulative goals over the course of a season a club scores with a particular player on the field. For example, should Manchester United score 50 goals over a season with Ryan Giggs on the field while conceding 34, his Plus/minus score would be +16.

Scored/90 = The amount of goals scored per 90 minutes a player is on the field. This varies slightly from goals scored per game, as often football players don't play entire games. Scored/90 allows us to observe the rate at which a team scores goals while a certain player is on the field.

Using the same example as above, were Ryan Giggs to play every minute of every game (ie. 3420 for the season), his Scored/90 and Goals-per-game rates would be the same at 1.315. However, if Giggs played only 3000 minutes for the year over those 38 matches, his Scored/90 rate rises to 1.5.

Conc/90 = As for Scored/90, only tracking the rate at which a team concedes while a certain player is on the field. Any of these numbers adjusted for rate allows us to compare players within teams - if Giggs' Conc/90 is 1.0 and Nani's stands at 1.1, we can suggest that United are better off defensively on the wing with Giggs on the left wing.

Goal Difference = As calculated by leagues for years, Goal Difference (sometimes here you'll see it denoted as Team GD) is the season-long difference between goals scored and goals conceded. Adjusted slightly, it becomes GD/game, or how many goals on average a club scores or concedes than their oppositon per game. You (really should) know how it works.

+/- per 90 = Adjusts Plus/Minus for rate, allowing us to judge a player by his compatriots. Using Ryan Giggs again, with a Scored/90 rate of 1.315 and Conc/90 rate of 1.0, his +/- per 90 stands at 0.315.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The curious case of world cricket, perspective and Sir Curtly Ambrose

Perspective is a funny thing. A respected older friend once told me “Your perspective is your reality”; it’s an adage I’ve often tried to fault without ever managing to do so.

While listening to Subash Jayaraman’s excellent interview with Sir Curtly Ambrose, I was struck by one of Sir Curtly’s remarks about his series mirabilis, the 1992-93 five-Test stoush away against the upstart Australians.
“We were a young team; we were not expected to win”.
Sir Curtly’s reasoning is logical, in a way: the Undisputed Champs had a new captain in Richie Richardson and the team’s middle order had played in a combined 43 Tests, with Carl Hooper having the vast majority of those (33).

That doesn’t make his statement any less stunning to much of his audience, because while Australia had some victories under their belts against India at home and, with the first glimpses of Warne-spun mastery, away in Sri Lanka, this hardly gave them a claim to the title of World’s Best.

While Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge had retired, the West Indies of 1992 had last lost a series in 1980 and had conceded only 7 of 34 Tests – never more than one in a series – since Ambrose’s debut in April 1988. But Sir Curtly’s interview tells of an interior perception of a team not expected to win.

This is somewhat odd, because the Australian crowd expected nothing else. The locals were talented and might put up a fight, but victory for the home side was nestled in next to a Geelong Premiership and dating Elizabeth Berkley in the most teen of dreams. Our perception of the West Indies was of an implacable machine, a viewpoint reinforced when Keith Arthurton made the highest score of his career in the first innings of the first Test.

Local perceptions formed our reality – the West Indies were coming and they would almost certainly win. How could two viewpoints on the same series be at such crossed purposes? The answer is relatively straighforward: a unique perspective narrows the visual field, for better and worse. What is gained in the detail is lost in the scope.

As heralded best (amongst others) by the documentary Fire in Babylon, the West Indies began life as a handful of colonies who existed almost solely to be taken advantage of. It took independence for these colonies to really coalesce around an oval and some of the best players of all time waged private battles against against racism and imperialism, not just intimidating their cricketing opponents but demoralizing them. While the forefathers of that revolution had moved on, their progeny – Richardson, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, Haynes and Lara – remained.

The West Indies of 1992 thought of themselves as underdogs because forty years of being enjoyable non-threats (to 1975-76) had taught them how to be exactly not that.

To outsiders, in no way should the West Indians have been anything other than favourites – if only due to the mental barriers faced by Aussies still scarred from years of Marshall, Garner, Colin Croft, Holding, Walsh, Roberts, Ambrose and Patrick Patterson. The tourists were still a generation influenced heavily by revolutionaries like Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Clive Lloyd and Sir Vivian Richards; their self-perception was of a team that would continue fighting because otherwise they once again risked being marginalized by the actions of cricket’s off-field establishment.

Australians knew nothing of the financial climate in the West Indies. Nor were we aware of the difficulties faced by many – or most – of our vanquishers, such that cricket was only a route to a comfortable lifestyle for those who managed to secure major sponsors or County deals.

Our perception – bouncers fired in at 155 clicks and Viv swatting Tony Dodemaide for six (again) – meant antipodean audiences could see only a small fraction of the macroeconomic picture. For generations, the West Indies knew nothing but being entertainers. For nearly twenty years, the Australians could only couple this particular set of opponents with impending defeat.

Twenty-one years later, and we can begin to reconcile these opposing perspectives. Both viewpoints are still absolutely valid; if swayed a little by the Kenobi principle (“What I told you was true. From a certain point of view”). Even though world cricket is still plagued by nepotism and self-interest that threatens to further marginalize boards such as the West Indies, the accessibility of information has never been greater and as such we have more facility to appreciate the situations of our rivals. Unfortunately cricket’s never been really good at that.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Quietly winning World Cups

We have our final eight teams and with one major exception, they are much as expected: Brazil, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Germany, Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica. According to FIFA, who are wrong about nearly everything, even Costa Rica isn’t that great a surprise - the surviving teams are ranked no. 2, 3, 5, 8, 11, 15, 17 and 28 in their pre-tournament listings.

Among many stories of the Cup so far – including the success of incisive attacking, the failure of Asian teams and (sigh) Luis Suarez, one key factor that’s been overlooked has been the success of the understated. The ever-increasing queries as to Suarez's psychological capacity to cope with big occasions now creates even more questions for one-day fantasy sports owners.

Arguably the three most impressive teams this cup – the Dutch, French and Colombian outfits – are all helmed by managers with impressive track records yet who have been (remarkably, in some cases) quiet about their team’s chances. No sweeping statements, no auspicious team selections – simply an almost-implacable certainty in their players and tactics.

It helps that all three teams have enviable talent pools from which to draw – albeit reduced by the absence of some of the world’s best – but managing precocious talent requires more than rolling the ball out and saying “Let’s play” (sorry, ‘Arry). All three teams came to the Cup hopeful, but hardly expecting Finals berths – the Netherlands were tipped by many not to exit Group B, France took years to right their imposing battleship the friendly-fire that was Raymond Domenech, while the 2014 World Cup is Colombia’s first in nearly two decades.

Not only does a tournament tactical plan need to be suited to his players (Spain) and capable of defeating their opposition (Chile or Mexico), but that plan also needs to be communicated effectively.


That communication then influences – and is in turn influenced by – a coach’s public persona, which governs their interactions with the slavering world media. Louis van Gaal, Didier Deschamps and Jose Pekermann have done that in spades. France’s clinical forward play and late-game Dutch heroics are contrasted by Colombia’s languid brilliance, but the players are obviously playing for a coach and a system in which they collectively believe. The message is good – but its communication might be even better. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sam Robson - Australia's "What If"

At first glance, Sam Robson has the pedigree for international success: he was raised in New South Wales and monstered county attacks for years before getting a Test call-up.

Only it was for England.

In his second Test – the deciding match of the series against Sri Lanka that concluded dramatically today – Robson made his maiden Test ton, an unspectacular but very interesting 127.

The ECB deploying cricketers born overseas is hardly new*. The ranks of proxy Englishmen have swelled even recently as players from five countries turned out for the Three Lions in the series defeat by the Sri Lankans. Even poaching Aussies isn’t a new one; however, the biggest difference between Sam Robson and Martin McCague (or Alan Mullally, ad infinitum) is that Australia desperately wanted him in a Baggy Green.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Today's transfer nonsense: Vermaelen for Smalling

Let's take a brief break from the World Cup to talk about a transfer rumour involving two players currently playing (or riding the pine) in Brazil.

It has recently been suggested that Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal has decided to bid for Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen. The Belgian, who had a fine start to his Arsenal career, is now Arsene Wenger's "emergency defender", used most often when Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker or Kieren Gibbs are unavailable (for Gibbs, read: injured).

At 28 and fending off Jan Vertonghen for his place beside Vincent Kompany at the heart of Belgium's defence, it’s logical to assume that Vermaelen wants first-team football; United certainly have money to burn that may raise his earnings above what the Gunners are willing (or able) to offer.

However, the rumour suggests Vermaelen’s current manager Arsene Wenger wants a return that includes a transfer fee and one of Tom Cleverley or Chris Smalling.

While possible, it’s unlikely that van Gaal would sanction such a move for several reasons. Both Smalling and Cleverley fit into the coach’s modus operandi as young players malleable to his methods; the Englishman is also four years younger than his supposed upgrade. Smalling is also United’s emergency right-back, while both midfielder and defender are English and therefore come at a FFP-induced premium.

While data rarely drives a transfer, especially in the case of Louis van Gaal, let's examine why the numbers don't like a Smalling-for-Vermaelen swap straight up – let alone with a transfer fee involved. Most of the data that follows comes from a pilot project that tracks each player's individual plus/minus throughout the course of the seasonHow each player’s team performed during those minutes give us an idea of how he compares to his team (and teammates).

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

2014 World Cup predictions

Predictions are a mug’s game – so here we go!

World Cup winners: Let’s just say it – Spain are great, they have been for years and over the past five years or so and despite being short a centre-forward they find ways to win. They truly are a team with no holes (especially with the acquisition of Diego Costa) and their manager knows how to get the most from them. The inability to win that plagued them for fifty years before the 2008 Euros has now been utterly reversed.

Finalist: Brazil. Boasting probably the iconic player of the tournament in Neymar, a fine supporting cast and a manager who borders on genius, the reason I haven’t selected them isn’t so much commentary on them but a reflection on how much faith I have in Spain (and Spanish football in general). However, this team depends more on three players (Thiago Silva, Luis Gustavo and Hulk) than you might suspect.

Third-place game: Germany vs Argentina, with Argentina coming out on top. The quality going forward that the Argentines have is mind-boggling: the best player on the planet, perhaps the fourth-best player on the planet (Aguero), and – according to the Guardian – the criminally-underrated 72nd best player on the planet (Angel Di Maria – he may be the 72nd “best”, but may rank in the top 20 in terms of actual impact).

This trident are backed by the wiles of Martin Dimichelis, Pablo Zabaleta, Javier Mascherano, while the elegance of Ezequiel Garay will shine in South American conditions. Unfortunately for Germany, a reliance on a goalscorer who is only two years away from using a Zimmer frame is just too great to achieve their lofty – and now increasingly tempered – ambitions.