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November 25, 2013

Football Thoughts and Figures After Nov 23-24

By Ted Knutson

These are my opinions and observations after the glorious return of league football.

Spurs Are a Mess
I believe in the predictive power of models. I also know that models are inherently limited in what they understand. They are a tool, but they don’t tell you everything because they can’t. Most of the time a good model will get things right, but sometimes they are missing contextual data that just makes them wrong. On the other hand, variance exists. Some teams have good and/or bad luck throughout a season. Figuring out whether something is a fluke or whether the model just doesn’t understand can be a challenge.

The predictive model that spits out the rankings here on the site thinks Spurs are Top 4 material. The table shows they are in 9th, with a goal difference of -3. Hrm.

I’m on record as liking AVB’s tactical system, but I’ve got enough data now to come to the conclusion that he doesn’t know how to coach his players to a more efficient offense. Their shooting locations are bad, especially when compared to other elite teams. They are fantastic defensively – even with some pretty mediocre personnel – but they just do not create that many great chances in the final third. Last year they were consistently Bale’d out. This year… not so much.

Don’t get me wrong, they actually do have good players in attack. Lamela and Eriksen were not mistakes – they were purchases of outstanding young players with good track records of production. Holtby could have been a mistake, but he was practically free and worth the risk. Sig has been good elsewhere, for other managers. Townsend… well, Andros is a great athlete who needs some strong coaching to realize his potential. Right now he’s too wasteful in the final third to be any good. In general, there’s talent in this Spurs squad at both ends of the pitch.

Don’t believe me? Fine, I’m just some guy. I’m not the only one who has this opinion though.

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Story time…

So I’m watching the City v. Spurs pregame on Sunday and I got all excited when Sky suddenly started talking about Tottenham’s conversion stats with regard to their problems scoring goals. This is a great use of stats because Spurs have some epically bad conversion rates. Townsend has 1 goal from 45 shots. Paulinho has 1 goal from 38. Even a bog average 10% conversion rate would mean these two had at least 8 goals between them. Instead they have two.

Anyway, bully to Sky to putting useful, easy-to-understand stats in their broadcast.

They then throw it to former manager Glenn Hoddle and ask what Spurs could do to help with this problem.

Hoddle pitches this.

hoddle_spurs_formation

I’m trying to walk through his thought process for working this into the conversation at hand, and really struggling to understand what Hoddle was thinking.

“Alright, let’s see… Spurs are having trouble scoring goals. How can we fix this?”

“Aha, the first thing we’ll do is add another center back!”

“And Spurs have trouble creating good chances with service to Soldado. So what he needs is a partner up front. I’ve got it! He and Defoe would be perfect together!”

“Now we’ll keep Sandro and Paulinho in their spots because we’ve got to protect those center backs. And we’ve got wing backs to give us width and pump in those crosses to Defoe and Soldado. But we need someone in the center to pull strings and do some shooting…”

“I’ve got it! Let’s put that Townsend kid in there. He’s young, English, and shoots a lot already. I’m sure he’ll be great.”

During the same segment, he also went on to question Eriksen’s ability/production, and his formation has left out literally every single Spurs player who might be able to make a killer pass except Kyle Walker.

Glenn Hoddle, ladies and gentlemen!

In a lot of ways, I guess Hoddle and to some extent AVB show how easy it is to get things wrong on the football pitch. You have 22 guys, 4-5 potential different formations, and millions of tactical instructions. Mistakes will be made, even by smart people. However, it’s not that hard to get things right enough to be in Champions League contention with this Spurs team.

Now seeing as how Glenn had a formation he wanted to pitch, I think it’s only fair that I get to pitch my own, right?

I don’t want to change much. I’d keep AVB’s shape and general tactical instructions. All I want to do is loosen up a bit in search of creativity.

Spurs_4231

It’s not that complex. Pick your best players, play them in their best positions, and do so with a mind to creating offense. Up until Sunday, Spurs had the best defensive record in the league – they can afford to loosen up a bit there in pursuit of scoring more goals because you need to score goals to win.

Attacking fullbacks are important in this formation and Spurs actually have two good ones when healthy. Rose being out is a significant loss, and it’s created the grumpy Vertonghen face time and again as the Janimal is forced to play out wide.

In the center, I’ve chosen Sandro and Dembele. Dembele gets a lot of stick, but he was good last season and consistently great for Fulham before that. Even his bad games see him active defensively and he’s an important transition player. He doesn’t shoot enough/well enough for AVB to be completely happy with him in this position, but Paulinho’s shooting has been so bad as to take away most of the benefit you’d see there anyway. You can also swap Sandro for Capoue and lose nothing. You might even gain a little bit. Capoue is that good.

The best creative passer in the squad is Eriksen by a mile, and contrary to Hoddle’s opinion, he’s looked excellent in the Premier league so far. However, Lamela was also good creatively in Rome last season and he’s an excellent goalscorer too. Just play the kid in his proper fucking inverted winger position and let him go. Just because he’s left-footed doesn’t mean you should stick him on the bloody left.

This leaves you with the two real problem spots in the squad. Spurs potential forwards are 28, 29, and 31 years old. So they start at two years past their prime and work their way up to five years past by the time you get to Defoe. How did that happen?

The most talented of the lot is still Adebayor. Say what you want about attitude, when he’s focused, he’s the only forward they have that can dominate a match by himself. Find a way to bring him back into the fold and motivate the man. At this point, Spurs forward production can’t get any worse. Barring a Manu resurgence, Soldado remains the best likely second choice unless we want to get really creative and stick Lamela in the center. Personally, I’d give him a year or two and let him bulk up before doing so.

The biggest single weakness on the Spurs roster is left wing. Candidates to fill this position include three different right wings (Townsend and Lamela are inverted, Lennon is Lennon), Nacer Chadli (who clearly peed in someone’s cereal and has been relegated to Do Not Play status), and Gylfi Sigurdsson. I’d go with Sig out there and instruct he and Eriksen to interchange quite a bit, like Arsenal’s attacking mids do. Sig has an eye for a pass and can make intelligent runs. Eriksen has definitely shown he can move into space when required. The other options aren’t very good (Holtby comes into play at that point too), and this position will probably remain a weakness until the next transfer window at least.

Chelsea stealing Willian (a natural LW) away from Spurs this summer looks like a Machiavellian stroke of brilliance, as well as a wonderfully petty fuck you from Mourinho to estranged son AVB.

To me, this is the most talented lineup Spurs could field. It has some issues, but it has less than almost any other setup and has the most potential for greatness. It also relies on players who have actually proven to be good in the past (even in other leagues) versus those who merely have potential not to suck.

Whatever you think of my opinion on this matter, Spurs are clearly a mess. AVB has been consistently poor at picking Spurs personnel and playing them in the right positions, and I’m no longer sure the lack of goalscoring is a freakish occurrence.  More data is required.

Liverpool Notes
Another weekend, another Suarez goal. I wrote about this last week – he could actually average over 1 goal per90 this season, heights achieved only Ronaldo and Messi.

Get excited Liverpool fans, but if whatever you do, don’t tell Suarez. You want Luis to be a cliche. Play within himself. Do whatever it takes to help the team. Once Luis starts dream chasing, he could revert back to selfish Suarez, which will hurt LFC’s CL chances. Just keep it on the downlow and quietly appreciate what has started out as an amazing season.

You need Suarez quietly speaking affirmations to himself like, “Tengo hambre. Tengo que comer carne humana. Tal vez voy a morder Ronaldo o Messi.”

Which is Suarez for, “I just want to help my brothers at Liverpool to win. I must work hard to be great like Ronaldo and Messi.”

Speaking of Liverpool, their shots on target conceded percentage last season was 31.6%. This season it looks like 38.5%. That’s way too much work for Mignolet for Rodgers to be happy, even if the shots they are giving up aren’t necessarily from good positions.  The defense is better than last year through 12 games (16 conceded versus 13), but it’s still a work in progress. Personnel at center back now seems quite good though.

They still have a chance to be top of the league in mid-December.

David Moyes, Still at Everton?

Moyes was less sanguine.

“Disappointed,” he said. “It was similar to Southampton when we had the game under control with a minute to go and then we conceded from a set piece. We can’t keep dropping two points and we could have played better, but it’s a tough place to come after international duty and I would have taken the result before the game.”

Which place is tough, Dave? Wales? Newly promoted Cardiff? Draws on the road against promoted sides are something you’d willingly accept as Manchester United manager?

Maybe Moyes was just putting a healthy spin on a match that didn’t go their way, but that’s not a statement or sentiment I would want floating around in the press if I were the manager of Manchester United.

Maybe there’s a reason why Fergie said some completely barmy things whenever United struggled in a match they should have won. He certainly wouldn’t have been happy with a point on the road against Cardiff.

Lambert and the Poor Villans
More strange manager comments, this time from Paul Lambert in the Birmingham Mail. In that article, Lambert laments not having enough money to pay Lukaku’s wages on loan last year (while fellow Midlands club West Brom did).

However, instead of paying for Lukaku, Aston Villa bought Christian Benteke. And then instead of doing the same thing this season, they bought guys like Leandro Bacuna and Nicklas Helenius, etc. They now own them. Arguably, Benteke and Lukaku would have been worth almost identical amounts had they been sold this summer.

I don’t know about you, but instead of having Lukaku on loan for a season or two, I would much rather own Benteke and Bacuna. This is exactly what Premier League clubs should be doing. Scout for bargains, bring them in, train them up in the Premier League, and eventually sell them to bigger clubs for a massive profit (which they will eventually get on both of these guys). Rinse and repeat.

Renting younger or middle-aged players for a season is correct in the Championship (provided the wages aren’t too much), especially because it’s harder to get talent to transfer to Champ clubs permanently. It’s a poor use of money for most Premier League clubs though, especially ones who are trying to improve their team for the long term.

Don’t be sorry you couldn’t afford Lukaku, Paul. Just keep finding and polishing gems and everything will turn out right.

Southampton’s Concession Stand
Southampton have given up a total of seven goals this season, the best in the Premier League and three fewer than the next closest team. Of these seven, they include

  • A header from 5’5” Emanuele Giaccherini
  • A kick from Stoke goalie Asmir Begovic, made from his own 18.
  • Olivier Giroud stealing the ball from Artur Boruc for the easiest goal he will score this season.
  • And a penalty against Arsenal, given after a shirt tug on Mertesacker in the box was noticed by a referee. These fouls are constant and are never called.

Arsenal were 1 goal favs on Saturday. If they give up just one of the improbable goals, the bet pushes. Obviously they gave up two. Let’s watch the Boruc Cruyff turn one more time.

olivier-giroud-artur-boruc-goal-vs-southampton

Both the Stoke and Sunderland goals turned bets on Southampton into losers.

Conclusion: The betting gods hate Southampton fans.

Drawing Dead?
Nurnberg currently share the bottom of the Bundesliga table, having won exactly zero matches in thirteen games. They do, however, have eight points this season, meaning they have drawn an astounding 61% of their matches so far. The next closest number of draws in the league are Freiburg and Frankfurt with five, both of whom are also hovering near the relegation zone.

I noticed this over the weekend, and it prompted me to poke around the other leagues in Europe searching for other crazy draw teams.  Everton lead the Premier League with six draws so far this season, or 50% of their matches. The highest in the usually draw prevalent Serie A is 6 out of 13 from Torino.

There is, however, with an even higher draw rate than Nurnberg. That team resides in France, where Montpellier have shared the honors an amazing 9 out of 14 matches so far (64%). France is traditionally the league with the highest percentage in Europe, but Montpellier are special even for there. They are 16th in the table… with a goal difference of -1!

Dear young managers across the world: draws are not your friend.

Leo Messi? Meh.
I was talking to someone at work this weekend about Champions League matches, and we noticed that Ribery, Ronaldo, and Messi are all likely out from the matches this week. While pondering how much Madrid would miss Ronaldo, he noted that Barcelona had struggled since Messi started getting injured.

This is the common wisdom. Messi is the best player in the world. He has the highest scoring rate ever seen in the modern game. Clearly Barcelona would miss him.

But what does the data say?

In four matches sans-Messi this season (I’m including his injury game where he only lasted 20 minutes), Barcelona won 0-1 at Malaga, 4-1 at home to Valladolid, 1-4 at Betis (inj game), and 4-0 against Granada. The competition there is pretty weak, but that’s La Liga for you.

At the end of last season, Messi missed six matches. In those games they produced a 5-0 versus Mallorca, 0-3 at Zaragoza, 1-0 versus Levante, 2-1 versus Valladolid, 0-2 at Espanyol, and 4-1 to Malaga. Six matches against unimpressive competition, but also six more wins.

That makes Barcelona 10-0-0 in their last ten league matches without superman, winning by an average of 2.6 goals per match.

Yes they were demolished by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and having Messi around there certainly would have helped, but overall they haven’t struggled even a little without the little man in La Liga.

Are Barcelona a better team with Messi around? Obviously. Is his presence vital to their ability to win La Liga this year? Probably not. Alexis and Neymar are thriving this season under Tata, and moving Cesc into the center of the pitch has given the team more attacking versatility than we’ve seen from Barcelona in years.

Messi’s great, but Barcelona don’t need him to trounce the average Spanish team. As for Real and Ronaldo… Benzema, Bale, Morata, and Di Maria seem pretty dangerous without him around as well.

We’ll know more on Wednesday night.

A Final Note
A lot of people have been asking me to write transfer pieces for the January window. Obviously it’s great to have people excited about my work in that area. Expect to see some research and shopping pieces December 16th or so. I’m waiting to have as much data as possible from the current season before flagging players for specific teams and positions.

 

Article by Ted Knutson