Friday, December 5, 2014

Introducing EPL Effect Size Index

Effect Size Index (ESI) tracks how well a team performs when a player is on the park, as opposed to their scoring/concession rates when he is not. 

A player who plays every minute of every contest for his club - usually a goalkeeper or centre-back, will have an ESI of 0.000, as this statistic charts the difference between the team's performance when a player is on the pitch (in terms of frequency of goals scored/conceded) and compares it to his club's overall rates of goals scored/conceded. Thus, a player who plays every minute of the season - or who's Individual Plus/Minus per 90 minute matches that of his club - has an ESI of 0.

Take, for example, Jack Wilshere (please). Arsenal score less frequently when he is on the pitch, while conceding more often: Arsenal have GD this season of +7, but while Wilshere has been on the pitch the Gunners have been outscored by a total of 10 goals to 4 (making Wilshere's +/- a poor -6). While this might be bad luck, bad teammates or bad Jack, and keeping in mind that 0.000 is for want of a better word "baseline", his ESI is a phenomenally bad -1.527.

You can find the ESI of every player who has managed 450 minutes on the pitch this season by clicking this link. Player are grouped by position, and arranged in order of best to worst ESI.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On the impact of Bobby Zamora, Eduardo Vargas and Richard Dunne at QPR

The thoroughly entertaining Iain Macintosh today compiled an article suggesting how well QPR have been performing recently. He credits much of this resurgence to Harry Redknapp's re-utilisation of two senior Rangers, Bobby Zamora and Richard Dunne.

While he is of course correct - especially in a poetic sense - a certain set of numbers emerging from my ever-expanding Player Plus/Minus dataset - which you can find by clicking here - might help quantify the effect Zamora and Dunne have both have on the Hoops.

In their eleven matches so far, the Rs have managed a goal difference of -11, or being outscored by one goal for every 90 minutes they take the field. This means any player who has managed each of the 990 minutes Rangers played so far this season will have an Individual Plus/Minus of -11. If you will, think of Individual Plus/Minus as a player's "personal" goal difference, or the amount of goals his team concedes while he's on the field, subtracted from those his team scores when he plays.

However, players rarely play every minute of every match of the Premier League season - in fact, in last year's abbreviated (four-team) sample, only Brad Guzan and Steven Caulker managed such a feat. This means to compare a player to his teammates and thereby examine his impact on his club, we must standardize the time-frame in which player and team both score and concede. That is, a team's Goal Difference divided by 38 results in the average amount they score/concede more than their opponents per match - so a Player's Plus/Minus rating per 90 minutes allows us to compare a team's performance when a certain player is deployed against when he is not.

But technical definitions aside, this set of information details how much a team scores or concedes over 90 minutes when a player is on the field. And Zamora's, particularly, numbers are spectacular. When he is on the field, QPR have a Goal Difference per game of 0, a full goal-per-game improved over when he doesn't take the park. 

This is the single best "Impact Factor" for a forward in the league, and is shared (with teammate Yun Suk-Young) for the third-best rating of any position. Only Jack Cork and Charles N'Zogbia are better throughout the entire league; another Ranger with a similarly lofty total is forward Eduardo Vargas, whose Impact rating of +0.803 is fifth-best.

Dunne, the other cartworkhorse whose virtues Macintosh espouses, rates as the seventeenth-most impactful defender in the league of the 95 that qualified (must have played at least 360 minutes).

Other interesting points to come out of the data set include Adnan Januzaj's lack of ability to influence proceedings for Manchester United (with the Reds 0.71 goals per 90 minutes worse off with him on the field), Jack Wilshere's awful start to the campaign (Arsenal are nearly 1.7 goals worse-off with him playing, the worst ratio in the EPL) and the absolute ostrich egg laid by France forward Emmanuel Riviere.

For more information - and some pretty, relatively-informative charts - on Player Plus/Minus, you can read the primer here, or search this site for "Plus/Minus".

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Decline and Fall of the Caribbean Empire

Throughout recorded human history, there exists a circular nature to the rise and fall of the great or powerful civilisations. This can be thought of as a series of stages, listed below, that describes the path each major power takes in their rise to supremacy and eventual ruin.

From bondage to spiritual faith
From spiritual faith to great courage
From great courage to strength
From strength to liberty
From liberty to abundance
From abundance to leisure
For leisure to selfishness
From selfishness to complacency
From complacency to apathy
From apathy to dependency
From dependency to weakness
From weakness to bondage

For the Roman Empire, the cycle took somewhere - if you use the same death rattle as Gibbon - a little over five hundred years. For the West Indies, a complete circle looks likely to be complete in less than fifty.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

On Pietersen, again.

"Relationships don't work the way they do on television and in the movies. Will they, won't they, and then they finally do and they're happy forever. Gimme a break. Nine out of ten of 'em end because they weren't right for each other to begin with and half the ones that get married get divorced anyway and I'm telling you right now through all this stuff I have not become a cynic - I haven't ... Bottom line, couples who are truly right for each other wade through the same crap as everybody else but the big difference is they don't let it take them down. One of those two people will stand up and fight for that relationship every time".

I used to really like Scrubs, back when it was as about an accurate representation of a hospital as has ever been shown regularly on US television. (And when the writing/overarching plots didn't stink, so, if you're counting that's about to the end of Season 3). While being funny in many different ways, it also had the uncanny ability to drop truth bombs like a veritaserum-charged cluster weapon. The quote above from Dr. Cox is one of my favourites.

Ten years ago, Kevin Pietersen and the England and Wales Cricket Board decided to commit to one another in a very real - and legally binding - sense. Ten years' shared property and escalating spats over which account pays which bill dutifully followed. When each party could complain to their mates about the other no longer, we all got to experience thee long-expected divorce, one in which the ECB retained sole custody of Alastair Cook and Pietersen kept the loyal-but-crazy family terrier.

Both went into this star-cross'd tryst expecting the other to mellow in response to their charms. Neither ever truly appreciated just how far apart they were on some - or indeed most - issues.

The pair fell out once and for all because they just weren't right for each other in the first place. Pietersen was always too outgoing/free-spirited/much of a wanker for a cricket board renowned for conservatism, uniformity and unleashing Chris Tavare on the world. As much as they may have spooned in public early on, their romance was almost certainly due to end poorly: the ECB wished Pietersen would curtail his silvertail tendencies, while the player just wanted his hem-hawing spouse to get off his back and let him be the man they fell in love with. 

Thirteen or so years after Dr. Cox indirectly predicted it, when each side felt they had compromised enough, neither was willing to take the first step towards reconciliation and risk losing face.

Love disappeared long ago, probably when each side realised they couldn't change the other enough to tolerate coexistence; nor was it worth anyone's time trying. Pietersen and England weren't right for each other in the first place, but mutual success made them (temporarily) brush aside most major concerns until there was simply too much detritus surrounding them.

The ECB will move on, and likely marry someone not quite so ostentatious, less of a good-time guy - but still someone who might have the talent to average 40 or 45 at Test level. Like his buddy Shane Warne, Pietersen will be seen with every flash young thing able to provide him with an ego boost and a quick cheque, starting with the Delhi Daredevils and the Melbourne Stars. 

The accounts are separate and the kids are starting to get to know Mum's new "friend", Gary. But the offspring of this flawed marriage won't ever forget the good times. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thursday, September 18, 2014

2014-15 EPL individual player plus/minus

Interested in which player contributes the most - or the least - to your favourite club's wins or losses? You can find out by checking out the 2014-15 EPL individual plus/minus stat pages.

You can also access this information via the Room of Informational Illusions.

(Suggested reading: A Plus/Minus Glossary).

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What the numbers said: Cardiff City 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.


Cardiff City didn’t have a great 2014. After an encouraging start, the Bluebirds tailed away almost at the precise the instant owner Vincent Tan began questioning manager Malky Mackay’s job security. When Mackay was replaced by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the new manager began rotating their first team and team structure at an alarming rate – with the results you’d expect.

Some players didn’t suffer from their Welsh association. The two players for whom Cardiff City broke their transfer record in 2013 (Gary Medel and Steve Caulker) were perhaps the club’s best players, while two loyal Mackay men – David Marshall and Fraizer Campbell – had seasons that have or still might win them moves back up to the Premiership.

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.

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 (S90) = 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 (C90) = 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 (GD) = 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 (PMP) = 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.

Impact Rating (IR) = Assesses the difference between a team's performance while a player is on the field, with their overall performance.

Again, using the above example involving Ryan Giggs, if United score 16 goals more than their opponents for the season when he plays, but have a goal difference of +7 for the season, his Impact Rating is his PMP compared to his team's GD/game. For this example, if Giggs played 1500 minutes over 30 games, his IR would rate at 0.324 - or Man U would be 0.324 goals per 90 minutes better than their opponenets when Ryan Giggs was on the pitch.

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.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Not quite an infographic, but...

This is a spreadsheet visualisation that I just enjoy looking at. It tracks the performance of every English Football League club during the Premier League era. It gives a real feel for the cyclical nature of English football and allows for easy tracking of precipitous ascents (c.f. Hull City, circa 2004-08), descents (Luton Town, 2007-09) and deaths (marked with an X).

Numbers in bold face indicate the highest position a club has reached - if there are several, the latest is highlighted. Those figures in italics represent a club's league nadir.

For more easy-to-follow data like this, visit the Room of Informational Illusions.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Philosophising the most important game in world football

Naming the most important club game in club football is perhaps more of a poser than you’d think.

There are two major contenders for the title and both will occur today. The case for one challenger, the UEFA Champions League Final is based around the prestige (and money) that accompanies winning the title of best team in the best league in the most competitive confederation. The case for the other competitor, the English League Championship Playoff Final, revolves around the money (and prestige) that accompanies promotion to the world’s richest league.

The monies on offer are truly remarkable. For winning the most lucrative club competition on Earth, either Real or Atletico Madrid will pocket up to €50 million (or about 1/10th of Atleti’s debt); while estimates vary on the worth of promotion to the English Premier League, recent hearsay puts the financial windfall for Derby County or Queens Park Rangers somewhere between £80-120 million – potentially three times as much as for the continent’s premier competition.

Players would certainly opt for the Champions League. Administrators, depending on the club, might flip-flop depending on the media forum in which they’re speaking. Fans – well, that’s a different story.

It goes without saying that the Champions League trophy carries just a little more kudos than does the award presented to (at best) the third-best club in England’s second division. As are sponsorship opportunities – for Atletico, at any rate. But, as clubs like Birmingham City, Leeds United and Norwich City have discovered recently, the revenues that the Premiership generates can be life-sustaining (or at least life-altering) – potentially more so than victory in the Champions League.

The counterargument is based purely on the reasons behind football as a concept – do you watch to see your team excel, or is a high, Icarian flight (c.f. Portsmouth) that ends in a near-fatal swan dive worth the fiscal risk not worth the risk? As a fan – or administrator – do you value survival and/or the opportunity to test yourself in an achievable competition, or the (pen)ultimate glory? You play to win the game – but at all costs?

The most important game in club football then depends very much on the audience and can be distilled down to one paraphrase: Survive, or advance?

Friday, May 16, 2014

FA Cup Final preview

The English FA Cup has long been thought of as the crowning jewel of that nation’s football season. For a country in which the term “second season” usually has a very different meaning, a cup competition interspersed amongst the sweaty buildup to the season’s final days is meant to provide the most tangible drama available before everyone takes a nice Bex and retires for a three-month long siesta.

This year’s Cup Final will be played today at Wembley, and features an Arsenal team that hopes to break a nine-year title drought and Hull City, whose trophyless dates back to 1965-66 when they triumphed in England’s third tier.

Hull City come into the games as palpable underdogs and haven’t won since the 5th of April. That victory took them to twelfth in the Premiership before more recent results have slipped the club to sixteenth and within sight of relegation. The club’s two most potent attackers, strikers Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long, are both ineligible for the matchup after having already played FA Cup matches this season for Everton and West Bromwich Albion.

I'm a Tiger!  Raawr!
Their replacements will likely be Yannick Sagbo and Matty Fryatt, journeymen players whose best hope will be to capitalize on any potential poacher’s chances that come their way. This is football writer’s code for “not as good as the other guys”.

Manager Steve Bruce is likely to field a team that revolves around a midfield more balanced than most in the Premier League; the club’s midfield trio include Tottenham expats Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore with Slovenian mainstay Robert Koren. The crown jewel undoubtedly Huddlestone (no, not Loki), whose ability to spray accurate, lengthy through balls betwixt defences remains somehow unmissed by England bos Roy Hodgson.

The Tigers have more than a modicum of hope, however. Few teams have been as capable of mental disintegration over the past decade as their opponents, The Arsenal. This iteration of the Gunners however has a few pieces that were missing in former years, namely central midfielder Aaron Ramsey’s A-game and the second-striking wizardry of Mesut Ozil.-

After all the hype that (probably fairly) accompanied his arrival at the Emirates stadium, Ozil has been a disappointment in 2013-14. It says much of the fabled German that most of his influence has come about as a result of his presence rather than as a result of appreciable moments of pure skill; manager Arsene Wenger should certainly hope that all his featured player requires is a stage with sufficient exposure.

Ozil’s relative absence has been made up for in part by the barnstorming season experienced by Aaron Ramsey. He last played in an FA Cup final with Cardiff City in 2008 only weeks before his transfer to North London and has waited several years for his health to catch up to his talent. With a defence led by Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny far improved from seasons previous, elimination games tend to highlight Arsenal’s real point of weakness – their aforementioned tendency to freeze.

While theories abound, no-one can quite explain why a team with as much footballing nous as the Gunners tend to freak out when finding themselves in positions of power. Popular hypotheses include them buying too far into Wenger’s we-are-a-young-team Kool-Aid, that the men in red “sense the occasion” (in the bad way), or that they just don’t know how to win. The distinctive proof of the club’s poor record in big matches than the 2009 League Cup Final, where they lost to Birmingham City – a team who would then be relegated.
The similarities between the two situations are all too obvious for Gooner fans.

The match will likely be a close one – not since 2003-04, where Manchester United spiflicated low-riders Millwall, has the FA Cup Final produced a margin of over a goal. This, and the presence of difference-makers like Ozil, Ramsey and Huddlestone, adds to the promise of a great match.

Prediction: Hull City 1-1 victors on penalties, with Tom Huddlestone Man of the Match.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Reflecting on the Socceroos' 30-man squad

Most suspected that Australia manager Ange Postecoglou would select a young side for the upcoming World Cup, but few perhaps were able to envisage the aspect of the 2014 Socceroos.

There are only a few readily recognizable faces in the squad, with Postecoglou true to his word in selecting ten players of his initial 30 from the A-League. As expected, there was no room for longstanding captain and lightning rod Lucas Neill, while the recent international exiles of Emerton, Holman, Schwarzer and Ognenovski mean the Aussies will fill their gold kits with an almost patriotically green squad.

Five Socceroos survive from Australia’s watershed 2006 campaign – Luke Wilkshire, Joshua Kennedy, Tim Cahill, Mark Milligan and Mark Bresciano – and they will be expected to provide most of the veteran professionalism required to extract the best from a group described best as youthful and perhaps even na├»ve.

Asia’s brotherhood of ageing bruisers are now no more than a bolded entry in gilt-edged history books. Australia is looking to the future with a special focus not on the 2014 World Cup but on success at next year’s home Asian Cup.

Bresciano, resident Old Man
Pete Smith suggests this squad is nothing if not fresh and links to the Golden era of Socceroo football all but gone. Postecoglou has opted for dynamism and exuberance – especially in defensive positions – and a squad unjaded by long exposure commuting globally to represent a nation with only a passing interest in local football.

This is probably the best squad Postecoglou could select. The team also accurately represents Australia’s standing in the football world – there are big gaps between some numbers in FIFA’s rankings. Locals also seem happier with this lineup of exciting question marks than one highlighting staid veterans.

Featuring only two players from Europe’s big four leagues, whoever comprises the final 23-man roster will hardly be hampered by expectations. These Socceroos are also unscarred by past unrealistic hopes engendered by a wonderful run under Guus Hiddink, the ravages of age on bigger bodies or more recently, thumpings against quality opposition. What they have is pace, a new identity based around Postecoglou’s preferred passing game and a typical Australian passion for the contest.

While mandated by his superiors (and common sense) to empower a new youthful team, Postecoglou’s quick revamp may have hastened the departure of players like Schwarzer and Holman who may have played a key role in Brazil. Without these battle-scarred troops, the coach risks marking another band of younger, more impressionable players in the toughest slate of matches any team will play. With the Asian Cup (and the 2018 World Cup) more realistic targets for Aussie success, failure at the upcoming tournament might have longstanding consequences.

The flip side of callowness is a youthful confidence that serves sportsmen well. While there are only weeks to go until the tournament, Postecoglou must use that time to make sure the coin comes down on the right side for his young Socceroos.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Individual plus/minus: Aston Villa, Cardiff City, Manchester United, Southampton & Tottenham Hotspur - 11th May 2014

Statistics valid before games on May 11th.
Aston Villa
Team GD
El Ahmadi