New Season, New Data
As I fire up my spreadsheet,
And stare at the shot count,
A story line falls away,
Here: a different truth,
It’s too soon for all the answers,
Much more will transpire,
Empty rows await their fill,
Engorged they will inform
James Yorke (Aged 37, nearly 38)
First game bullshit
A lot has been said about the results and performances in this first weekend of fixtures and a hell of a lot of it has been utter nonsense. Having seen a summer of football from the far flung regions of the world, or at least mainly the Americas, the return of the big European Leagues is welcomed with an ever increasing fanfare combined with a cavalcade of previews and opinions, some high quality, whilst others appear to have been plucked from the sky- mainly the “Man City will fail” brigade.
As the transfer window grumbles on in the background we see unfinished squads take the field and quelle surprise, a strange result or two. These results, that would be disregarded if they sat on the tail of a mid season winning streak, take on entirely overstated positions and will likely have little bearing on the wider picture as we move forward. Arsenal losing to Villa in 2013-14 then winning 8 from 9 is often wheeled out, Man City lost to Cardiff the same year in week two and also to Stoke in week three last year. It can happen and with the season now starting in mid summer and the new fad of resting players thought exhausted by summer tournaments, August and the matches prior to the first and unwelcome international break are a slightly bizarre precursor to the season bedding down.
Man Utd v Tottenham
I’ve noted repeatedly that Pochettino and van Gaal favour a prescriptive and strict formulation for their football and after yet another “tactical battle” in which each team cancelled out the other, we should probably be glad that every team doesn’t play in this fashion, regardless of any success that is derived from it. But what do I mean?
Since van Gaal’s arrival in the league, he has now faced Tottenham and Pochettino three times and on each occasion we have seen a minimal exchange of shots and little to thrill. Utd’s win at Old Trafford last year at least offered three goals, but also killed the contest quickly and if we look at the shot counts from the three games and consider the average Premier League match contained a shade under 26 shots last year, we can see that when the immovable object encounters his twin, the results aren’t pretty:
Dull stuff, huh? 18, 16 and 18 shots in total. Particularly underwhelming from the Spurs end of things too with zero goals. So: what’s interesting to me here is we have a quick opposition to an early take. Tottenham’s defence shaped up quite well against Man Utd yesterday and a perfunctory analysis might presume that Eric Dier in central midfield is a winning idea or that Alderweireld is the answer to Spurs’ defensive woes. These things may in time show to be true, but we can see that in the games against Man Utd last year, the rate of shot prevention was similarly effective. Even the 0-3 could be explained away somewhat if we recall Fellaini sprinting clear to finish- a rarity, or Carrick’s annual goal and the fact that three goals were scored from three shots on target. In fact, we come full circle if we want to take anything from the game, Van Gaal and Pochettino have teams that play prescriptive and restrictive football, they played it last year and they’re already playing it this. Is more of the same enough for Man Utd to challenge and Tottenham to go for the top four? It looks a stretch to me.
What have we learnt? Maybe less than is generally thought, after all it’s one game.
Stoke (v Liverpool)
It’s possible I should be careful what I say here given the kerfuffle some analysis of this game has already caused but again, it looked to me that despite time passing and players being purchased, the intrinsic personalities of the two teams remain from last season too. In other words, Stoke are better than most people generally think and Liverpool are a work in progress. Here we found another game in which the two teams cancelled each other out; an extremely understandable scenario given Rodgers’ need to avoid defeat and with the 1-6 defeat remaining fresh in the memory.
Stoke were a pretty solid team last year and their defence was a strong point. They ranked 6th in Goals Against, 7th in Total Shot Ratio and 9th in Shot on Target Ratio. Indeed, if they could just get something going on the front end they have a strong base to build on. They struggled with their rate of getting shots on target last year in a big way (ranked 20/20) and that’s something that can be reasonably presumed to improve. With the interesting signing of players that were perhaps expected to make it at bigger clubs like van Ginkel and Afellay pitching up alongside the hopefully returning, similarly statused Bojan and maybe even The Xherdan Shaq Attack, we have a level of talent and diversity many worlds away from the arse end of a Rory Delap throw in. I think they are the club most likely to “do a Southampton” and grasp onto the coattails of the contenders and Hughes has done a solid job of improving them and changing their style. And maybe the talent level has stepped up a notch?
I am also in rarified company: Robbie Savage has predicted a 7th place finish for Stoke. That he blotted his copybook with a 5th slot for Man City shall be overlooked here.
Oh by the way, Arsenal had 22 shots to West Ham’s eight.
Thanks for reading
Follow me on Twitter here: @jair1970
This column will appear every week after a set of fixtures throughout the season, so make sure you come back and also take a look at our season previews, a diverse and talented collection of writers contributed fine work and they are really worth your time.