Friday, March 29, 2013

Graphic: Manchester United's best defence

Click to expand
The chart above details how well each of Manchester United's key defenders perform as part of a three-man unit.  These units - goalkeeper plus two centre-backs - were tracked for minutes played together, goals conceded and goals scored over the season so far.

Should a player be farther right on the X-axis, United scores goals more regularly (per 90 minutes) while he is on the field; the Y-axis indicates how regularly they concede while that player is in a key defensive position.

While sample size for some players is small - Michael Carrick has a total of 360 minutes at centre-back this season, Scott Wootton 281, Phil Jones and Michael Keane nominally 180 each - their positions above represent not so much a change in defensive efficiency but in United's tactics.

United is blessed with five players with whom they can be comfortable at the heart of defence, but problems emerge when they employ their sixth choice.  That guy, Carrick, is a central midfielder and part of a three-man central defensive unit concedes a relatively high average of 1.5 goals per 90 minutes - no matter who his partners have been.  What makes this worse is United feel the need to cover more for him and drop drop midfielders back to cover, creating a double-edged sword in which they concede more and score fewer.

Also noticeable is that Nemanja Vidic's presence almost automatically means United are entering a game with a more defensive mindset.  The Serbian's figures correspond to a significant reduction in both goals allowed and scored per 90 minutes - highlighting a change in Ferguson's tactical outlook.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Short Pitch: Lessons from World Series Cricket

The following excerpt is taken from page 81 of Gideon Haigh's wonderful book The Cricket War, and describes the Australian tour to England in 1977.
Generational problems in the team had been some time coming... nine players [in the back row of the team photograph] had a combined eighteen Tests between them.  Among the team's nominal seniors ... only the captain and vice-captain Chappell and Marsh were genuinely risk-averse selections: Walters had never succeeded in England, McCosker's jaw might not have healed, Thomson was a medical miracle, and none of Walker, O'Keeffe or Davis had been first-choice players a year earlier.  Premature Australian retirements in the preceding two years had divided the team before Packer's intercession.  As Ian Davis remembers: "There was literally no middle age in that side.  You had me and Hooksey, and Serj and Kim Hughes in our early twenties, and then all these other guys round thirty.  Unless you were a very strong personality, you were just in awe of them". 
A page later, Haigh continues regarding Greg Chappell's captaincy:
The captain pined for the do-it-yourself ethos of his brother's time: cricketers who didn't need to be told ... As his virtuoso skill proved insufficient to inspire, Chappell withdrew.  The senior players closed ranks around him, instinctively protective but inadvertently widening their distance from the ranks.  Everyone felt aggrieved, nobody felt responsible, individual isolation was universal.
Sound familiar?

It's fair to say that in the dozen years following the Centenary Test, Australian cricket struggled to reclaim anywhere near its best form.  The hard-bitten culture instilled by Chappell or Allan Border has been minimised by subsequent captains who - while the logical or best choice - didn't have either the same horses to choose from, nor the psychological skills to maximise their performance.

A case in point - would any Australian dare disappoint Chappell or Border?  Recently, we saw players "try" their captain and face the ramifications.  With the most effective Australian captains of old, expectations were communicated through personal relationship, rather than rules.  It is within this environment that players like Lillee, Thomson, Warne and McGrath flourished and under which Australians traditionally perform best.

Australian cricket took a decade to recover from such a fractured dressing room.  Similar stories abound of the 1989 Englishmen and the post-Richards West Indians; one wonders whether it will take Cricket Australia another decade to understand the value of powerful and incisive leadership - on and off the field.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Soccer in the snow: should USMNT's victory count?

On Friday, the US Men's National Soccer team defeated Costa Rica in a crucial W0rld Cup Qualifying encounter. The match was played at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, in Denver - the famed "Mile High" city - and amid torrents of snow.

The final result was 1-0 to the home team, who were spurred on by an excellent performance from in-form goalkeeper Brad Guzan, and an opportunist's goal from Spurs striker Clint Dempsey.  The result leave the US second in the CONCACAF qualifying table, while Costa Rica (who appeared at the big dance in 1990, 2002 and 2006) are affixed firmly to that same table's lowest regions.

The upshot of the match, however, has been that the Costa Rican Football Federation has filed an official complaint about the match, citing concerns for their players' physical wellbeing.

One wonders if the complaint is based not so much upon player safety concerns, but in Los Ticos having to play in a stadium which received 2.35" of snow.  Such conditions would be very unfamiliar to many of the Costa Rican players: the average low temperature for Costa Rica during it's coldest month is 17 degrees celsius.

But is it such a crime for a home team to play at in advantageous conditions?   Bolivia's national team is remarkable at home and poor away due to the altitude level of their national stadium.  Qatar - and the other Arabic nations - play in suffering heat.  Each of these climatic or location advantages produce results for the home team.  That's what home-and-away ties are supposed to do - give each team one match at advantage and one at disadvantage.

And, in the immortal words of every youth coach, ever: "Both teams have to play with the cold, not just one".

Sticking points faced by the USSF include it's sheer size, varied climates and stadia, which are in stark contrast to opposition nations boasting only one suitable major arena (like Jamaica, Costa Rica or El Salvador).  While temperature must have entered discussion in the selection of Denver for this qualifier, the rotating stadium system employed by the US Soccer Federation (USSF) means proving any forthcoming allegations of blatant favouritism would be extremely difficult.

Legislation against venues and their weather conditions is a slippery slope, as FIFA's aborted case against high-altitude football grounds proved in the latter part of the last decade.  While it seems rather ruthless for a country of 300 million to seek such benefits from their home stadia - especially when playing a country whose population is roughly the same size as Boston - they have every right to do so.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Graphic: EPL best buys of 2012-13

Click to enlarge
The above chart hints at just how much English Premier League clubs are prepared to pay for good attackers.  Any forward (ie. wingers and strikers) who arrived at an English club during the Summer transfer window of 2012 has been included and the cost of his acquisition plotted against the number of goals for which he has been directly responsible.

When transfer fees were not disclosed, best estimates were taken from reputable online sources such as and several online newspapers (chiefly the Guardian, Mirror and Independent).

Unsurprisingly for a Golden Boot contender - and discounting QPR's Andy Johnson, who has managed only two games this term - Robin van Persie leads last season's acquisitions, averaging nearly a goal created/scored per game.  His price tag however means that he doesn't provide as much bang-for-buck as the likes of Villa's Christian Benteke, Wigan's Arouna Kone or Michu.  Were it not for any of this trio (or indeed Fulham's depreciated Dimitar Berbatov), all three clubs might be struggling at the foot of the table.

This year's flop crop includes Manchester City new boy Scott Sinclair, injured Liverpudlian Fabio Borini and, most surprisingly, the fleet of foot and extremely impressive Oscar.  Obviously this analysis takes into account only part of one season and measures only discrete measurable events - part of Benteke's success hasn't so much been his scoring but the fact his leadup play has created space that Andreas Weimann and Gaby Agbonlahor have used to get open and score.

Interpreting value from afar is always a risky business: from the stats above, it would seem that Oscar has yet to repay Chelsea's investment.  However, in concert with Juan Mata and Eden Hazard, the Brazilian maestro seems likely to torture Premiership defenders for years.  Blues' fans and administrators alike should have no doubts about their potential ROI.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Villa's Benteke the Premier League's key man

Christian Benteke might be the most important player in the English Premiership. 

The forward's strengths (especially physically) by far outweigh any weaknesses: the deadline-day signing from Genk is fast, accurate, remarkably powerful and has an incredible happy knack of finding space in the box. 

Any questions as to Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert starting “his man” over the similarly-named Darren Bent have been made completely redundant.  Benteke has goaled 13 times this term and assisted four more scores, making him responsible for over half of Villa’s goals during 2012-13 – 54.8% to be precise. 

While numbers usually tell only half the tale, this figure is nonetheless impressive: of all players with more than ten goals this term, he ranks alongside the likes of Celta Vigo’s Iago Aspas (59.25%), Messi (59.1%), Zlatan (56.6%), Atalanta’s Erik Lamela (53.3%) as players who contribute to over 50% of their club’s goals.

However important as his goals have been, his physical and implied presence has had more of an impact in this year’s relegation struggle.  In Villa’s recent wins against fellow battlers QPR and Reading, he has not only scored goals but routinely drawn multiple defenders, thereby allowing striking partners Gaby Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann the freedom they need to score.

Quite simply, he has been the difference between Villa’s recent wins against their struggling brethren.  None of Reading, Wigan Athletic or QPR have a player who demands the same respect from defenders and tacticians alike.  And with the amount of money staked upon Premiership survival, this probably makes him the most irreplaceable man in the league.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Arsenal debate: Vermaelen, Koscielny or Mertesacker?

That Arsenal won in Munich on Wednesday is no real surprise: it has been a recent disturbing tendency of the Gooners to perform valiantly in causes already cast unto the wind. 

However, the Highbury/Emirati gallantry has provided pundits on the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast with more ammunition for the argument that the North Londoners’ best central defensive partnership doesn’t actually include their captain, Belgian Thomas Vermaelen.

We can eliminate the comical Johan Djourou and (perhaps Wenger’s worst-ever signing) Sebastien Squillaci from real First Team contention.  The discussion revolves around the best combination of the short, but effective freelancer Vermaelen; the peg-legged but smart and aerially-proficient Per Mertesacker; and jack of all trades Laurent Koscielny.

The table below examines how effective each Arsenal pairing has been so far in season 2012-13.  Every match the Gunners have played since the first EPL match of the season has been taken into account (and points awarded for victories/draws in Cups competitions). 

Statistics are like bikinis.  What they reveal is interesting, but what they hide is vital.  This table is taken in complete isolation, and disregards the defensive capabilities of the ‘keeper and other players.  However, it still makes for interesting reading.  As the Guardian’s analysts tacitly decided, perhaps the Arsenal captain’s favoured position may not actually be best for the team.

Central defensive combination
Avg Conceded
Avg Scored
Points/ game
*For many of the eleven matches in which Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker partnered each other, Vermaelen was deployed at left-back as either first-choice or in the event of injury/Andre Santos.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Moyes all set to continue at Everton

With Everton’s demise at the hands of Wigan in their FA Cup Quarter Final, the future of David Moyes has been cast into doubt.  During his long and successful tenure at Goodison Park, the Scot has been lauded as an exemplary manager who consistently compelled teams to overachieve in spite of a modest budget.

However, this success has been juxtaposed against a stark lack of results when it comes to the final hurdle.  
During his reign, the Toffees stumbled against a good Villarreal team during the 2005-06 Champions League Qualifiers, fell in the 2009 FA Cup Final and, despite a great start to a relatively-open season, look like missing out on a top-four position this term.  (It must be said, however, that Everton owner Bill Kenwright is almost certainly stoked with Moyes’ ability to generate top-third finishes.)

Moyes’ name has been linked with jobs as high profile and varied as Tottenham Hotspur, Scotland and even Manchester United.  However, opportunities to “progress” to a club with a larger budget are intrinsically linked with quantifiable success (ie. Trophies and Champions’ League berths), which means there are now pundits questioning whether Everton’s rather staid tactics are actually suited to success in one-off, crucial matches.

Managerial hiring is now trending towards younger, more adventurous managers.  Liverpool took a punt last year on Brendan Rodgers (perhaps after missing out on Roberto Martinez, a man constantly in demand despite Wigan Athletic’s constantly underwhelming league position) and Moyes was reportedly considered for the Spurs position before they opted for a younger, sexier look with André Villas-Boas.  Ugly-but-effective Young Thing Paul Lambert was snaffled quickly by a club with pretentions. 

Though effective, Moyes’ methods are now distinctly unfashionable, limiting British-based positions.
The Everton manager has become typecast.  He is Tom Baker, Raymond Burr, a beardless Chuck Norris; pigeonholed as someone who achieves much with … not much.  With a record such as his, would Daniel Levy, the Glazers or Stan Kroenke trust him with acquiring bright young things to advance their teams?

But there’s a certain job security that comes with inertia.  There’s no sense in Moyes moving on at this point in time: his straightforward style and more straightforward manner might make management opportunities scarce at wealthier teams.  He succeeds at Everton with less money spent than at clubs like Stoke City or Queens Park Rangers, and in so doing shepherds his men closer to success than might otherwise be possible.  Both manager and club have continued to find new ways of filling a leaky bucket – almost, but not quite, to the brim.  A Toffee flirtation with a PYT probably wouldn’t be to their best advantage (remember the Owen-Coyle-to-Arsenal malarkey?), considering Kenwright seeks success without expense.

He – and Everton – are both victim/beneficiaries of success lacking the ultimate prize.

It’s doubtful that there is reciprocal interest between Moyes and outside clubs.  Any real suitor would need more standing and disposable dosh than he already has at his disposal (narrowing the field substantially), while - like so many shallow beauties - so-called “glamour clubs” demand a partner as sexy as they think they are (removing most of the others).

David Moyes may be many things, but sexy isn’t one of them.  He is well suited to Goodison Park, Liverpool in general, and to Everton.  Man and club are a match for the job at hand.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Redknapp's fearless Queens Park Rangers

Despite a weekend win at Southampton, QPR have taken up residence Struggle street and there doesn’t seem to be an exit for miles. 

Though they’ve entered perhaps the easiest portion of their schedule all season, the Rs remain tied firmly to the bottom of the English Premier League table.   Escape is – at best – improbable.  Common wisdom suggests that a club needs 40 points to dodge relegation; achieving that total with no room for error would require the hoop’d men to win five and draw five of their final ten matches.

Since Tony Fernandes bought the club in August 2011 there has been a steady procession of highly-paid stars enter Loftus Road.  Precious few have performed consistently to the levels expected.  Rumours persist of a player culture ill-suited to toughing out Premiership survival.

While few outside Rangers’ sheds really know the truth behind the club’s recent trip to the Middle East, it seems reasonable to suggest that there’s probably some fire backing up the smoke.  Though denying reports of excessive sweaty partying, manager Harry Redknapp has often spoke of the startling lack of results Fernandes’ money seems to have purchased.

According to the textbooks, it would seem that Rangers’ players are fearless.  This may seem an odd choice of words, but it is deliberate: the result of having the fear centres excised isn’t aggression or thinking one is king of the world – a lack of fear doesn’t make us think we’re invulnerable.  Fear is an entirely different emotional concept – if it’s removed, the person in question exhibits an insensate, docile flatness; the simply accept destiny as created for them by others. 

According to the neuroscience textbooks, the lack of fear doesn’t create bombast but “… [a] calming affect, reduced aggression, personality changes, lack of inhibition and decreased drive”.  Sound familiar? 

Barring incident, the Hoops’ players are financially set for life.  Should Rangers be relegated, many of these players will be allowed either to leave “earn” their cash in the second divisionWhat do they have to fear?  A punctured ego?  Surely if that were the case, results might have been obtained sooner.  The last modicum of passion requisite  to extricating themselves might have left with Ryan Nelsen.

Money can allay many fears.  However in the case of QPR, it seems to have buried them almost entirely.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Benítez and Chelsea: the inevitable breakup

The Rafael Benítez experiment at Chelsea has quickly and predictably moved into an endgame as inevitable as it will be tedious.  The Spaniard will depart Stamford Bridge at the end of the season –perhaps much, much sooner – after presiding over half a season of rebellious players, fractious fan groups and disappointing English Premier League season.

In a curious press conference after win at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup, the Interim Chelsea boss delivered a long-winded (and loaded) response to question that might earn him his P45 far earlier than his preferred departure date.  In his lengthy statement, Benítez railed at his “Interim” title and at fans he thought – correctly –had never wanted him at the Blues in the first place.

Like many relationships, the Chelsea/ Benítez affair failed for one simple reason: the parties involved simply weren’t right for each other in the first place.  Abramovich and his board were on the rebound, a fact Benitez knew and accepted.  However, knowing that chances to step out on the arm of such an eligible club don’t come along that often, he hoped that a winning smile and ready-to-please personality might entice Roman into something more permanent.

But the groundwork for the break-up was laid even before the fling started.  An antagonistic relationship with Chelsea fans and a penchant for squad rotation wasn’t a great starting place for Benítez, while Abramovich is a managerial commitment-phobe on a level with James Bond and Hugh Hefner.  He has, and will continue to, move between managerial starlets and stalwarts alike with ready ease.

Sometimes when a break-up is inevitable, parties visibly plan exit strategies days, weeks or even months in advance.  Wednesday’s presser was just that – Benítez has realized the partnership is bad for both of them and has started making unmuffled noises about moving forward unattached.

Rafa Benítez never stood a chance to end up as an Abramovich long-termer – there was just too much baggage to begin with.