A Gary Neville Sized Void
Newcastle’s victory against Liverpool provided a welcome tonic for under fire boss Steve McClaren who, when asked about his players, reflected: “They’ve just proved the harder you work the luckier you get.” Sky analyst Thierry Henry agreed “When you work hard in the game, the ball will always go your way.” Anchorman Ed Chamberlain rounded off the broadcast with another firm statement: “Newcastle were absolutely brilliant.”
Week in, week out, the general narrative around teams is built by surface observations and confirmed by results. The idea here, that because Newcastle worked hard, they deserved to win is relatively simple to deconstruct.
The game that most observers watched was pretty poor and neither team managed to create an adequate volume of chances to score. A combined sixteen shots makes this an extremely low event game and suggests that defences had the upper hand. A deflection, so luck, was decisive for Newcastle’s first and a second goal came late in stoppage time, by which point the match had entered a zone in which a chasing defence necessarily shifts its emphasis; the reward for risk becomes high and immediate and the punishment for failure irrelevant.
In reality, the game was hugely influenced by Liverpool’s strengths and inadequacies. Their strength, a view that is irretrievably punctured by the concession of two goals, was in defence. In limiting Newcastle to six shots all game and prior to the Wijnaldum cherry, zero shots on target, they can be complimented for achieving a structure that will usually achieve their goal- a clean sheet. In contrast, their weakness was failing to test the opposition goalkeeper sufficiently with the chances they created and a failure to create a greater volume of chances. Newcastle can get some credit for the latter but it stops short of being feasibly described as “brilliant”.
But what of hard work creating luck? This belief was parroted by all and sundry as if it was the magic key to Newcastle’s game. A quick search finds that many great minds have espoused this opinion and some have even found their thought transposed onto a meadowed background and shared widely around social media. We also often hear successful people cite the hard work they put in as a key contributor to their success. (Hard work put in by those less successful is rarely noted.)
However, in this specific situation we have a scenario in which two professional sports teams from the same league were competing for a common goal. Not only that but Newcastle’s opponents have been widely cited as a team that “works hard” thanks to the known style of their coach. Earlier on in the season, Liverpool became the first team to outrun another “hard-working” team in Tottenham and Match of the Day 2, who have in recent months endeavoured to broaden their analyses, noted how Liverpool “worked as hard” against Newcastle as any other Klopp fixture. But maybe working hard isn’t quite the key indicator?
As an aside, often, the first thing a new coach promises that he will do is to get his players “working hard”, as if to say that the previous incumbent had failed in this task. It plays well with fans and capitalists, with the implication that a prescription for winning involves a simple increase in effort. The problem here is that there is no evidence that an increase beyond a certain level in physical effort has any influence on success. There is obviously a baseline for “amount of effort required” or else a team will simply be outmatched but at best it can be described as a stylistic measure. The influencers for success are actually found elsewhere, largely in talent and to a lesser degree in systems and luck.
Anyway, if Sturridge finishes his chance or Moreno gets a break, then inevitably we will find that Liverpool worked hard and “deserved” to win. The margins between two professional football teams competing solidly are necessarily small. Victory need not equate to brilliance, or even praise if the process is faulty, for replication may not be forthcoming. Newcastle won the day but the reason was more closely related to random variation than hard work. A good result masked an inability to be sufficiently creative; a problem they have found all year.
None of this is anything more than a simple considered reflection of the game and why this is relevant now is that as armchair fans, this week we have lost the chief visible anchor for smart analysis. Most popular football coverage severely lacks what has made Monday Night Football great; most of it is instantly reactive in the aftermath of a game, is ill-conceived and relies on cliche, monotony and throwaway opinions. MNF and Gary Neville’s roles were different. You knew that either he, Jamie Carragher or analysts working on the show had attempted to look beyond the surface of the weekend’s games to find nuanced opinions and truths about what they had seen. As lifelong one-club men, on occasion their analysis could be blinkered by the limitations of their world view but in television’s scorching desert of hot takes, the show and particularly Neville’s contribution stood out.
This is not about the promotion of analytics or tactical analysis in themselves. Millions of people bet regularly, play fantasy games or watch every game their team plays. These people consume huge amounts of information about the sport and their teams and are currently poorly served by widespread generic TV analysis. All we can ask for is considered opinion and if backed up by tangible facts, all the better. Neville’s shoes are big and Sky should feel obliged to maintain the level of their flagship football show.
Let’s hope they do.
Stoke come to life in an otherwise inept week
Title contenders Arsenal, Leicester and Watford get a free pass here having continued their strong form with routine wins. Elsewhere the might of Man Utd, Liverpool and Tottenham created a combined total of five shots on target against West Ham, Newcastle and West Brom, and Chelsea added being reasonably unlucky to their list of inadequacies.
After seeing the last two weeks draw analytical attention first for Tottenham and then Man Utd, this week is prime for a new team to enter the fray and with exceptional timing Stoke comfortably fended off an injury affected and underperforming Man City.
Stoke have had a strange season. Any team which can surround a defeat to Sunderland with victories against Chelsea, Southampton and Man City deserves further investigation and largely because of these eyecatching results, potential analysis has moved from a shrug to a raised eyebrow. They sit tenth and don’t concede much, which seems fine but sit joint last for goals scored which isn’t.
Under the hood, it isn’t looking too healthy with a season total of -5.1 shots per game and the avoidance of trouble being propped up by a now league high save percentage of over 80%. Contributing to games with few goals, Stoke’s opposition are also preventing them scoring at a high rate–75%–and only four of their fifteen games have involved both teams scoring, including none of the last eight.
Considering Stoke broadly matched their expectation based on their shooting last year and invested ambitiously, it seems jarring to see us faced with what looks like it might be a lesser team. Their position this year looks similar to last year but this time they are over performing against sub par numbers. In fact, by my reckoning their level of overperformance is rivaling that of Leicester. I’ve got them both about six points ahead of expectation but when that takes you to a level the wider world pegs you at regardless, nobody notices.
Crazily all this looks a bit Tony Pulis: dismal shot numbers with decent results and of course he is at it again at West Brom. Two and a half years on and with a complete refit done, Stoke are by some measures, very much still Stoke. The hope has to be that these good recent results signify the start of the new parts gelling, the intricate skills of Bojan and Shaqiri can continue to feed Arnautovic and their early form has been a function of new players taking time to settle. For now though, that’s pure speculation.
Obligatory Tottenham failure to break down a parked team
Pulis once more turned to his one page playbook to thwart Tottenham. Gleefully following the renewed fashion for placing centre backs in central midfield, Jonny Evans found himself in there tasked with “doing a job”. and once they had found an equaliser, the game stagnated towards a familiar shape. Over Pochettino’s reign, Tottenham have often struggled against a set defence and so it proved again. With limited evidence, it’s hard to quantify if this underwhelming attacking effort, much like that against Chelsea, is a function of opposition tactics or if the team has slowed slightly after an energetic early peak.
With fixtures in the near future looking generally favourable – the next time they face a moneyed or traditional big club is in February – it is to be hoped that the former is true but as noted by Will Morgan on the Anfield Index podcast and with a heavy caveat for sample size, Pochettino’s two full seasons in English football have featured mid-season dips in form. The turnaround through late December is quick and few teams come through unscathed, so this run of fixtures will be a solid test of their top four credentials.
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