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October 28, 2013

5 Thoughts Through 9 Games – The English Premier League

By Ted Knutson

1) AVB and the Crazy Contradictions

I was talking to Mike Goodman this weekend, and we both noted that we’ve never encountered a manager with such a strong tactical system, who seems to be so adept at choosing the wrong personnel like AVB.

villas-boas_contemplateAt this point, Spurs tactical system is a fairly easy read. They run a high line and two destructive midfielders to break up opponent play and recycle the ball back into the offense. They need their fullbacks to overlap and create width so their wide forwards/attacking midfielders can flood the box.  They counterattack whenever possible. And they can definitely have problems creating good chances from open play. This is especially true now that opponents understand what is going on.

This last one is kind of a big deal, because as good as they look in defense (and they are outstanding), Spurs still need to score goals to win games. Last season, they averaged 1.73 goals per game on the offensive end, all of which came from open play. Spurs probably should have had 3-4 penalties last season, but those were converted into yellow cards for Gareth Bale via the magic combination of reputation + diving.

This season, sans only Gareth Bale, but plus Roberto Soldado, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Nacer Chadli, and Andros Townsend, they average… 1 goal per game. But three of the nine goals they have scored so far this season came via penalty. So in reality, they are averaging .66 non-penalty goals per game, or over one goal per game fewer than last season.

Knowing that they have some systemic creativity difficulties, and going into a match against Hull, a team whose only definable footballing trait is “organized defense,” who did AVB choose for his front 6?

  • Sandro, destroyer.
  • Paulinho, runner.
  • Roberto Soldado, potential penalty-box goal converter, but equally likely Spanish olive tree.
  • Andros Townsend, Captain of the Dibbles Well and Shoots from Range All-Stars.
  • Aaron Lennon… on the left. (Wait, what?)
  • And Lewis Holtby, who might be good, might be shit, and has been in England since January, yet somehow we still don’t know which is which.

On the bench were

  • Moussa Dembele, Spurs glue midfielder and their most important transitional player.
  • Christian Eriksen, a wildly creative passer and one of the top 10 assist men in Europe over the last three seasons.
  • Gylffi Sigurdsson, Icelander. Another attacking midfielder and one of the few creative bright spots for Spurs so far.
  • And Erik Lamela, £30M man, and one of the best young wide forwards in Europe. A guy who is best played as an inverted wing (on the right) because his left-footed dribbling brings him into better central shooting positions, and also helps link up with his teammates. He goes central, leaving space for the always important Kyle Walker overlaps. But who was played on the left in Europe midweek because… um… yeah.

Thus it came as little surprise to anyone that pays attention that Spurs had real problems breaking down Hull. They escaped with yet another narrow 1-0 victory, courtesy of a sketchy penalty call. Sound familiar? (Chorus: Yes!) Hull can just barely mount an attack – why not replace either Paulinho or Sandro with another good passer centrally? Why not put Sig on the left wing instead of putting Lennon out of position, especially since Lennon NEVER SCORES GOALS? Why not… well, I could do this all day. Regardless of what I think, AVB did his own thing and Spurs scrapped out another scintillating win.

It did, however, come as quite a surprise that AVB chose the press conference after this game to take shots at the White Hart Lane support.  “We looked like the away team. We played in a difficult atmosphere with almost no support.” I see…

It’s not that he’s wrong – fan support at home when your team is winning consistently should be tremendous. England would certainly benefit from having more German-style fans. Then again, English fans would certainly benefit from paying more German-style prices… The problem comes with the timing, and realization among Spurs fans that, hey our team DOES have problems creating, and double hey, that lineup was fucking terrible.

Questioning AVB’s lineups isn’t a new thing, it’s a constant. Last year, he kept playing old dudes in defense to start the season and Spurs kept giving up late goals. Huh. This year, it’s a different angle. I personally would suggest playing your most creative players away in Europe midweek in a meaningless match was stupid.

I would also suggest that leaving them out of a match where they were definitely needed in the Premier League was just asinine. Yet it keeps happening. And fans keep noticing.

AVB has a great system. Spurs have a number of quite impressive players. At some point he’ll figure out how to use them all correctly, right? Maybe?

2) David Moyes, Archetypical Muggle

United were almost inexplicably good last year. Everything about David Moyes suggests that he operates in the world of muggles. Fergie was secretly headmaster of footballing Hogwarts.”

moyes-resizeThat’s from the season preview. At this point, it’s probably fair to say that not only is Moyes a muggle, he is the archetypical one. His footballing system is built entirely on hard work and perspiration, lacking entirely in inspiration, especially with the ball. This is a problem, because Manchester United have a number of certified footballing geniuses in the squad who are used to magicking up amazing finishes for the entire world to see. Thus far under Moyes, United players have largely been robbed of their magic.

All of those Evertonian thoughts about how Moyes’s offensive system would be better if he just had better players? Nonsense. He has some of the best talent in Europe at his disposal at Manchester United, and they still struggle to score, just like Everton did.

Strip out 80% of the inexplicable things Fergie did – including the high tempo, and RVP taking set pieces, and the final third post-up, give-and-go game – and replace it with Moyes’s swing-it-wide, then swing crosses back in because… well, just because, and you have the 2013-14 version of Manchester United.  Including the leaky defense Fergie had in the first half of last year.

Mourinho’s Chelsea have given up 6 goals through nine matches. United have given up 12. That’s enough to be the difference in the title, though right now it looks as though United will struggle to finish fourth.

Back in that preview, I speculated that Fergie might help Moyes add his offensive system to Moyes’s defensive principles. After reading excerpts of Fergie’s autobiography, I feel fairly confident that would never happen. Despite his love for United, Fergie still needs the world to know he was the greatest. Giving Moyes that element of his genius so that United could carry on performing at such an amazing level might have diminished his legacy, and that’s something the old man probably couldn’t allow.

At the end of the day, Moyes’s greatest crime isn’t not being Fergie, though many people will see it as such. His greatest crime will be not understanding how to coach an effective offense, and subsequently stealing all the fun from the Theater of Dreams.

3) Broadsides and Barns
Up until this year, Luis Suarez was the poster boy for inefficient forwards. He was brilliant at creating shots for himself, but horrific at choosing effective areas to shoot from. His first season in England, this added up to a whole lotta shots and not much return. Last year, this added up to even more shots, but also quite a few goals. Yet it wasn’t nearly enough to propel Liverpool into the top 4. Efficiency matters.

This season… 23 shots. 12 on target. 6 goals. 26% conversion rate.  In four games!!! That is very un-Suarez-like.

Check out the guy next to him, too.

Daniel Sturridge was my pick to win the golden boot in our season previews, based in large part because of how good he was at Liverpool last year, and how many chances I expected this team to create. Through nine matches, Sturridge has 32 shots, 15 on target, 8 goals and a cool 25% conversion rate. I’m going to be really irritated if Suarez pips him to the goal-scoring title.

Up front, Liverpool are now one of the four most dangerous teams in the league, even without Coutinho. What’s weird, is that they have dramatically changed their style as part of the process. Mostly gone is the possession passing game, and in its place is a pragmatic, fast-break style that uses those quick, tricky attackers to their fullest extent. I get the sense that Rodgers figured out he just didn’t have the passing talent in the team to pull off his ideal footballing vision, but he does have the attacking talent to demolish teams consistently on the break.

It’s an unexpected change, but one that is yielding dividends, as Liverpool sit tied for second in the table. Rodgers now has two of the top 10 forwards in the Premier League at his disposal, a fairly solid defense, an excellent keeper, and a very real chance of finishing in the top 4. I’m not sure this way of playing is more effective than last season’s, and I feel like melding the two together would yield the greatest dividends (something Arsenal appear to have already done), but I am swayed enough by the results to keep giving Rodgers the benefit of the doubt.

4) Doom Patrol
Because of their early start under Crazy Paolo, Sunderland need to perform like a slightly above average Premier League team in their remaining games just to escape relegation.  That’s a huge ask for a team that is clearly “a bit challenged” in talent, but they do still get to play Cardiff, Hull, and Norwich twice. Probability says they are almost certainly doomed. To the silver lining crew hoping that Poyet is going to make them that much better… they were outshot 16-8 at home against Newcastle on Sunday.

Good result. Still the worst fundamentals in the league.

Speaking of awful fundamentals, the predictive model has Cardiff as the second worst team in the Premier League. Some of you are clearly spluttering and saying, “BUT CRYSTAL PALACE!!!”  The reality is that despite their initial beating of Manchester City, Cardiff are surprisingly bad, and it’s not just because they’ve had a tough schedule so far. This past weekend against offensively-challenged Norwich (their official name), the home team had 31 shots, 10 of which were on target. Cardiff had 6 shots, 4 on target.

To recap, Cardiff gave up the most shots in a single Premier League game so far this season to a fellow relegation candidate. They drew that match, but still… Assuming they don’t change managers, I would be surprised if they are somehow back in the Premier League again next August.

Crystal Palace may have the least talent of any team to enter the Premier League in recent memory. They have already burned through one manager and have yet to hire another. I fully expect them to pocket the Premier League money for this year, use it as a longer-term investment in the club, and rebuild back in the Championship next season.

Norwich are a tricky team. At this point, it’s clear that Chris Hughton doesn’t know how to coach an offense, but he’s good at organizing defences. This particular trait, plus a reasonable level of talent  -Redmond, Snodgrass, and Fer are actually pretty good. Hooper and Ricky from the Wolfshop… maybe not – should be enough to see them through to another season. Hull will likely do the same on the back of an even more stout defense, but less* offensive talent.

shahid-khan-locksMartin Jol needs to send Christmas baskets to the owners of Sunderland, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, and Norwich simply for existing in the Premier League this season.

Or as a Christmas gift to the world at large, he could just grow a Shahid Khan-style handlebar mustache. THAT would be awesome.

*And by less, I mean almost none.

Error, Error on the Wall
One of the things that models have a really hard time with is incorporating individual errors. Is Joe Hart going to screw up… again? Is Laurent Koscielny going to take down a forward 45 yards from goal near the sideline and get a red card… again? Is Yanga-Mbiwa going to… well, in the case of Mbiwa, you can just assume the likelihood of error is 100% and move along, but for most teams predicting when and where errors will happen is basically impossible.

This brings us to the problem of Manuel Pellegrini and Manchester City.

This team is playing outstanding football. Possibly the best football in the Premier League this season. They have the best offense in the league. They have the second best goal difference, one point behind Arsenal.

hart_faceExcept…

They keep committing soul-crushing, goal-yielding errors on defense.

Joe Hart is a problem, but he’s not the problem. The problem is that they have had too many injuries at center back for any sort of a reliable partnership to form, and they somehow keep letting guys run through on goal. Oh, and Gael Clichy might as well be named the team’s official bonfire for how often he gets torched. And Joe Hart is completely, and utterly unreliable right now.

Quality full backs are hugely important. So are healthy, good center backs. The margin for error in the Premier League is exceptionally low, which makes the cost of individual errors exceptionally high. City are good enough that they can overcome being 7th in the table after 9 games, six points back of the league leaders. A couple more of these, however, and another Champions League qualification will be all they play for this season.

5) That Team In First

1)      Are not as good as they were last season defensively.

2)      Went toe-to-toe with one of the two best teams in Europe for 84 minutes last week in a match that could have gone either way.

3)      Still might not make it through to the knock out stages of the CL.

4)      Have had a fairly easy run of teams in the league so far this season.

5)      Are somehow getting 43% of their shots on target, a Barcelona-like number.

6)      Still haven’t fielded their best 11 players together yet this season.

7)      Are leading the league in goal difference.

8)      Analytically look an awful lot like Manchester United last year.

9)      Have one healthy starting forward. A forward who is only getting 30% of his shots on target, and converting only 14% of his shots into goals (which is basically his career rate).

10)   Will inevitably… *CRY OF ANGUISH* *I AM NOT TYPING THIS, YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!!!!*

Cheers,
–TK

 

 

 

 

 

*…regress. Dammit.

 

Article by Ted Knutson