So, the end of the road came for Mourinho. Mutually frogmarched out of the club having presided over a dip in performance deeper than the journey taken by Villas Boas and without precedence in his own career. Nobody is denying that the human factors behind this drop in performance have precluded his retention but beyond that it seems wrong to presume that in turning his Champions into Chumpions, he had much leeway to continue. The demands of helming a mega-club require only the finest returns and presumably only his reputation, or financial considerations, kept him alive for this long.
It has been noted that his team have improved in recent weeks, but that improvement has come from a very low base. Dotted among the poor results have been occasional solid performances that have lacked the finishing touches. The team still controlled possession in the majority of it’s games, at least when not facing teams that pressed, and just couldn’t find some finishing smarts. The recent withdrawal of Costa from a starting role compounded that issue. As so often, when faced with a challenge, Jose reverted to a defensive set-up, never more comprehensively than in the attacking void that was the Tottenham away fixture.
In rolling over Sunderland and going back to the future again with Hiddink, it looks like all could be right in their world once more, but getting two nil up inside thirteen minutes against a struggling team is a perfect scenario in any game and reminiscent of the marvellous run that laid their title foundations at the start of last season. Where they end up from here is hard to predict for the weight of the apparent Mourinho anchor is hard to measure. Top four vanished from view some weeks back, the Europa League undesirable and it looks like the whole season rests on an ability to outfox PSG. There are still question marks over how many of the team in key defensive roles are yesterday’s men: Terry? Ivanovic? Fabregas even? And the form of Matic, Costa and Hazard, so pivotal last year, needs to revert quickly, for when a squad appears in flux a strong base of performance is needed to redefine a preferred starting eleven.
Feeling sorry for Villa
That Aston Villa aren’t very good and haven’t been very good isn’t really in dispute. Having attempted to blend smart recruitment with old school management Sherwood-style and unsurprisingly failed to find a common ground, the hiring of Remi Garde at least looks like a case of theory starting to match reality. The main problem they face is that they have seven points from 17 games which is historically terrible and nearly consigns them to the Championship before even the year’s end. What’s unfortunate is that while bad, they haven’t been necessarily worse than any of the other bad teams. Newcastle and Sunderland have failed to impress in many matches, Norwich have been subtly not good without drawing much attention to it and Tony Pulis’ army of aging centre backs are doing their usual trick of projecting to be terrible but exceeding the sum of their parts.
If I chuck some metrics into a pot, I get Villa as the 17th best team in the league, Paul Riley’s xG model has them at 19th and Michael Caley’s 18th; all thereabouts among the dross but not worst. Where the pity arrives is that all those teams around them have an advantage of five, seven, ten points or more, which in relegation terms is enormous. In fact no team is undershooting an expected points total by more than Villa; they’re somewhere between five and seven points behind a reasonable assumption.
All this conspires to leave them in an unenviable position as a club that has tried to adopt a forward thinking strategy to recruitment but has probably run out of time to successfully realise the benefits while retaining their league slot. It’s tempting to presume the real issues date back years; the last competitive Villa teams were early in the decade and the personnel from those teams were moved on at great pace. Between 2010-11, their last decent season, and two years later, they retained a historically low volume of first team players. The team was entirely rebuilt (Agbonlahor apart!) and has drifted around the lower reaches of the table ever since: 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th, at no point offering anything like positive shot numbers. That initial quality never got replaced and mediocrity in performance has become standard.
Therein lies the problem, when performance levels stagnate – and four and a half seasons of under twelve shots per game reflects that – there is little room for a negative skew or a drop, it will dump you in the bottom three. So while their shot on target rate has floated around the 43-44% mark throughout that time, that it’s dived to 37% this year has compounded the problem.
It’s a shame: despite the obvious issues around ownership, in regard the working operations, they have attempted to move with the times and make progressive decisions at the exact point that their performance levels have dipped and variance has bitten hard. A broader issue is that for analytics to gain ground and penetrate across the board, there is a need for success stories; see Arsene Wenger’s horrifically titled but vibrant and insightful discussion just this week. If as seems likely Villa fail to rescue themselves, it’s possible that their methods will be derided by the skeptical end of football and the media, when in fact it’s likely that they will be well set for the future. It just won’t be the immediate future that they had hoped for.
A little Leicester riff
Continuing to make a mockery of any predictions that they will ultimately fall back (they will) Leicester now sit handsomely on top of the league. The start of their difficult schedule hasn’t slowed them up at all as Chelsea in lurching crisis mode couldn’t peg them back and Everton’s ever generous defence waved in three goals.
They still remain an enigma in many aspects, their shot numbers are fine for a team challenging for a Europa place, but there is just no recent precedent for a team that has so little of the ball, or that retains the ball so irregularly to challenge even for the top four. Why it seems so likely that they will fall back is that some of their conversion numbers have now entered extreme levels. And by extreme I mean, Man Utd 2012-13 or Liverpool 2013-14 style.
Their all shot conversion rate is right up around 16% which has only been approached over a starting half season by that United team and Man City in 2013-14, and now exceeds the full year rate by the three teams mentioned. Their goal per shot on target rate is a shade under 43%, which again maps to these teams. Very early in the season, @footyintheclouds noted that there were similarities in the contribution levels of Vardy and Mahrez to those of Suarez and Sturridge back in 2013-14, and having two attacking players at absolute peak output can do wonders for a team’s results. Where a little skepticism was placed was in how long they could keep it up, yet here we are in late December and they aren’t slowing down. Just as a contrast, here’s a few of their numbers stacked up against each other:
From all that we can see that their conversions are running broadly as hot as Suarez and Sturridge were, but their overall contributions are slightly lesser. The key question for summer suitors will be as to how sustainable such contributions are, but that’s a wider debate. Any season long goal and assist rate above 0.75 per game in the Premier League is the preserve of the elite but with more reliability in shot contribution numbers, the levels Mahrez and Vardy are currently providing are good but not league dominant as Suarez’s were. To have one player contributing a goal a game is uncommon, to have two is rarer still. This dual output level has to be regarded as the biggest factor for Leicester’s success and it appears unlikely that both players will continue at this pace, their cooling off isn’t inevitable, just probable.
So, Leicester are flying, but why aren’t any of the big teams at least matching their efforts? One key contributor here is again in the conversions. Having such an extreme positive conversion translates to Leicester now being around ten points ahead of an expectation based on their underlying numbers. Chelsea skewed similarly in their dominant half season last year, and the aforementioned teams all overshot a points expectation in part thanks to hugely positive rates of scoring. None of the top sides are converting shots at a rate anywhere near that of Leicester; City and United are at under 12% for all shots, Tottenham and Arsenal under 11%, Liverpool under 9% and Chelsea aren’t even in the question. Simon Gleave has commented that although there is a wide perception that this season has been wild and unpredictable, the truth is far more rudimentary: Chelsea and Leicester have swapped places and nearly everyone else is as you were. I agree and none of the big teams have managed a positive skew off their numbers and as such Leicester have stolen a small march.
Again we come to Liverpool 2013-14 for precedence, but this time on the side of the chasers: their dream run at the title came with 17% all shot and 42% on target conversion throughout the second half of the season, and City followed with 14% and 42% themselves. As ever, with conversion rates, what went before has little bearing on what comes after but it is reasonable to expect that both Leicester will revert to a lower level and one or more of the contending teams will run hotter. In particular, Arsenal and Man City look positioned to exploit their already dominant numbers and to a lesser extent Tottenham and
Liverpool Watford, who are both giving up very few shots on target and have done all year, may each feel that there is space to improve their attacking output and benefit.
Finally, Leicester have had very few injuries. Seven players have started between 15 and 17 games and another two have started at least 12. Objectivefooty tracks injury rates (among a ton of other good stat things) and has Leicester close to West Brom as being relatively unaffected. We simply don’t know if the squad could cushion the loss of any of their key men but can confidently presume that it’s highly unlikely that the rank and file could even come vaguely near Vardy and Mahrez’s contribution.
Their points banked is a huge positive to their actual chance of staying near the top. Both James Grayson and Michael Caley have noted that roughly par results would probably be enough for a top four finish now, and they’ve provided much for analysts and fans alike to chew on during their fine run of form.
Thanks for reading!