Southampton Were Never Bad
Once more as we enjoy the plot and intrigue surrounding the league boiling up to a deliciously non-tepid level, the all important momentum is halted by the intervention of a wholly undesired and largely trivial wander into the international arena. That said, the time off gives plenty of time for recruitment and sadly i’m going to have to rule myself out of the running for the Sunderland job; the threat of relegation is simply too great a risk at this stage of my managerial career and I feel the organisation has not sufficiently embraced the modern analytical methods I espouse…
“After a slow start, again Koeman’s doing a magnificent job.”
The words of Alan Shearer there. Given the prevailing story around Chelsea, the actual merits of Southampton’s performance at Stamford Bridge played a distinct supporting role in all coverage. From newspapers to television to the sharpest minds on social media, the apparent and continuous decline of last year’s champions has been the dominant story this early season. Again, their defense proved easily penetrable, to an extent that it isn’t even notable and more interesting to me in this game was the ineptitude of their attack. Zero shots on target from the 25th minute onwards while supervising a score changing from 1-0 to 1-3 is the stuff of nightmares and the hallmark of a team with problems.
Shorn of Costa, and once more relying on Willian’s weird run of ranged free kicks, this was another example of last year’s key men failing to lift their game. To some extent, any team can carry players out of form but when nobody is shining and the return of Ramires is the headline news for your goal threat, there are issues. See here:
And what have I done? The same as everyone else. Talk about Chelsea.
Southampton’s performance does not exist in isolation and Shearer’s view is easy to equate with their early results and a widespread reticence to believe that they could once more withstand the removal of some of their perceived better players. I’ll admit to having had my doubts here too, but so far it looks as if the system in place is stronger than the parts that fuel it.
Last season I wrote about how facets of their start marked them out as a team likely to make a sustained challenge for the top four; their underlying numbers implied this and were backed up by good results. Their defense remained impressive all year– conceding a league low 3 shots on target per game– and but for a tough run mid-season and a scoring slump after Christmas as squad strength became an issue, they may even have exceeded an objectively impressive seventh place.
This season once more sees impressive underlying numbers. Despite the departures of Clyne and Schneiderlin, seen as big influences in the continued repression of opposition shooting, and the unfortunate non-arrival of Jordy Clasie, the numbers have continued to be stable. Once more, no team concedes fewer shots on goal and the chances created at the other end have, for now, increased. In fact their defense hasn’t conceded more than 13 shots or four shots on target in any one game, an extremely impressive and consistent run of form.
That Southampton can visit Stamford Bridge and secure victory against a wobbly Chelsea is far less surprising than prior reputations suggest. The only problem for them was that this year, their early results did not match their underlying numbers, so casual commentators presumed that things were different. It’s more a case of ” as you were” and having made a few depth signings in the summer, their position in the upper echelon of the league looks secure.
And so it came to pass. In the year of our Lord 2015, his chosen representative on earth Mr Brendan Rodgers was thus relieved of his duties as chief shepherd at Liverpool Football Club and lo, many reams were filled with memories of “that season”, and there was hope that a new guide would heed the words of the “Parable of a Consistent Formation” and return with the spoils of victory so readily found in former times.
I wouldn’t have sacked him but now he’s gone we are left with an enthralling game of “Catch Klopp!” that if unsuccessful could lead to an even more entertaining game of “What if not Klopp?”– a puzzle that lacks a ready answer.
And that was the big story on Sunday, so much so that Arsenal trouncing Man Utd seemed almost a sideline, especially as the match was over as a contest within less time than an average weather report. Arsenal’s victory was so straightforward that their total dominance early on killed the game stone dead and gave a marvellous example of “issues with shot modelling”. With all the relevant action inside twenty minutes, what took place beyond that point was superficial at best.
Similar comments could be levelled at Arsenal’s victory at Villa last year, in which the second half was a perfunctory non-event and also Man Utd’s own victory against Tottenham back in March. The comparatively rare occasions in which a team races into an unassailable lead generate non-representative chance rates and underline the big impact we see in score effects.
That the three goals came from the first three shots on target was remarkably similar to a medicine that United themselves had been prescribing in recent weeks, so a certain schadenfreude surrounded the game. In a hallmark of van Gaal’s reign, a scythe arrived at the exact moment that belief arrived in the fan base and presumptions of genuine superiority were starting to take hold.
However, Arsenal’s precision passing and ability to bypass the fast press employed is not something that Man Utd will face very often this season– on current form this was arguably their second toughest fixture– so one might presume that the controlling sterility will resume next time. They just aren’t set up to recover deficits against good opposition and like any team are vulnerable to the effective use of pace.
Despite courting more injuries than Wile E Coyote, Bournemouth have made a steady start to their time in the Premier League. Existing in an inverse universe to the “QPR model” of survival, their defense has made a solid job of resisting the opposition’s sorties and ranks fourth least for shots faced while only Southampton have faced fewer shots on target. Their attacking numbers aren’t quite up to par but this blend this may well be a van Gaal style trade-off that is keeping them in games for as long as possible and an attempt to manage leads. In this instance they have spent the 5th most amount of time leading and there is no one game in which they’ve been stomped on shots-wise; the Liverpool game was worst in this aspect—they conceded 18 but only two troubled the goalkeeper.
Their chief issues that I see are variably solvable or problematic.
Firstly half of the shots that reach their goal are going in, which is miles over league average and unlikely to continue. Seventy percent is a long term save rate to aspire towards and they won’t stay at 50% for too much longer.
Less encouragingly, Liverpool are the only one of last season’s top seven that they have faced, and they haven’t effectively cashed in on a favourable start to the schedule. Eight points from eight games is the kind of rate that only John Carver considers adequate and benchmarks the team as one that needs to maintain and build on their generally positive early numbers.
Man City, Tottenham and Southampton are their next three games and if they retain a point a game pace through that schedule they will have a short run of more apparently winnable games to follow. That they seem not irredeemably bad, in contrast to at least three more established Premier League clubs bodes well for their survival aspirations. “Least bad” is often enough in this league and throw in the other promoted teams and it looks like long term we may have three from seven to go.
Obligatory Tottenham section
Two defeats in eleven and rarely a bad performance seen. It’s looking just dandy for Pochettino’s devoted soldiers as another dominant draw was secured in Wales. Eric Dier channeled his hitherto concealed Roy Keane and the general performance gave Fabianski an opportunity to spend the afternoon repelling accurate long range shots. At least up to a point, as Christian Eriksen found some form back from injury and showed that the first thing a free kick needs to be is on target and then maybe the rest will follow.
In fact in ending the game with Clinton, Eriksen, Townsend and Dembele as a nominal front four, some depth has been found. Kane continued his run of refinding the net and there looks to be a functioning meritocracy in amongst key attacking positions. Such is expectation against anyone beyond the traditional powers, some fans were disappointed to only secure a point but after recent seasons’ repeated post-Europe League capitulations, this was probably good enough.
Sure the save percentage is still on the high side and the scoring percentage on the low side but shot creation isn’t a problem so far and Spurs are currently pleasing most number watchers. This is a far cry from last season and is to be welcomed. The visit of an Allardyce-inspired Liverpool could be an intriguing test next time.
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Thanks for reading!