The Premier League has transformed from a very good football league into one of the world’s greatest soap operas, and perhaps my favorite storyline right now is the struggle of Pep Guardiola.
Before the season, most people thought it would be that simple. Halfway through the year, it is clear it has been anything but. The question is why? Pep didn’t struggle like this at Barcelona, nor at Bayern Munich. What makes Manchester City – just two seasons removed from the title when he took over – so much harder?
For the answer to this question, I want to briefly cast back to some stuff written at the start of StatsBomb’s existence in 2013 by myself and Benjamin Pugsley. That summer City recruited Fernandinho, Jesus Navas, Stevan Jovetic, and Alvaro Negredo at the top end of the scale, aged 28, 27, 23, and 27 respectively. The problem we flagged up at the time was that these were clearly “win now” transfers that would have a stonking replacement cost down the road. You can’t sign guys in their late 20s and expect them to contribute at the same level as players in their prime at the end of 4- and 5-year contracts. It just doesn’t happen. Add in 32-year-old Martin DeMichelis for salt and City had signed fairly old.
The next summer saw the arrival of Mangala, Fernando, Willy Caballero, and Bacary Sagna. Now Mangala was 23, but ended up being a disaster. This happens, especially with center backs. Fernando was 26 and has hardly contributed at a level commensurate with his fee. Caballero is a backup GK, and Arsenal fans will tell you that as much as they loved Sagna, he was already approaching washed up as a two-way fullback when City signed him at age 31. In his last season in North London, you could have Sagna attack. Or you could have him defend. Do not expect both.
Two years, lots of fees, and no players in their prime that stuck. This is a problem for a club that wants to contend for titles every year.
Last summer, City spent about £150M on Sterling, De Bruyne, and Otamendi to start digging out of the mess, and all three have proven to be good/great additions. Unfortunately, this equates to “normal” turnover spending for a super club. It didn’t improve the spine much, nor solve the growing geriatric issue.
Fast forward to this summer, and the great master arrives along with John Stones, Leroy Sane, Nolito, Gundogan, and Claudio Bravo. Nolito and Bravo are 29 and 33, and neither one of them is a fullback. Gundogan is a world class talent and midfielding brain packed into a Mr. Glass body. Sane provides good depth and youth, but probably a year away from being good, and John Stones is a center back project that Pep desperately needs to succeed.
The point of all this is that yes, Pep’s system might be the most fundamentally superior tactical system we have seen in modern football. And yes, Pep Guardiola is still a goddamned Footballing Jesus. But even Jesus was going to have a tough time resurrecting this squad and romping the league this season because of the issues created by years of ineffective squad planning before he ever got there. And all of that was before the entire league chose to collectively get their shit together on the manager front, giving the Premier League probably the greatest collection of coaching talent it has ever had at one time.
City might have the best manager in England, but they could spend £200M in January and still need to stump up more in the summer in order to have the best squad in the league.
It is great to see Guardiola struggle, and try to adjust his tactics to both the league and his squad at the same time. That very struggle has not only created a great story for this season, but it’s also enhanced the reputation of the Premier League by proving to be a tougher title to take than anything Pep has faced in recent times.
Young Rash and Tam Tam
I was asked this week on Twitter whether I would pick Marcus Rashford or Tammy Abraham as the bigger talent. This came out of a broader discussion on what “the analytics world” thought of Rashford this summer, after a fiery debut season.
My point then bears repeating: there is no such thing as “the analytics world.” There is no monolith of opinion with regard to stats and football. There is a loosely-connected community of people who work with stats, but that’s about it. The site you are reading this on right now is not called TedBomb, and even here on StatsBomb you will see differing opinions and analysis of the exact same data by different writers. Lumping all analysts into a group sells the great work everyone does short in the same way lumping all journalists into one misguided, monolithic opinion group would.
We are all unique snowflakes, dahling.
My opinion from this summer on what Rashford was and what he could be is largely unchanged. The fact that he is scoring goals regularly in the Premier League at his age is notable by itself. Add to that a serious commitment to run at defenders this year and a bit more creative passing, and he looks like one of the best prospects to come out of Manchester in ages. He’s clearly still learning, but also good enough to start for most teams in the league right now, either as a center forward or as a wide forward.
Tammy Abraham may be a less common household name right now, but he has been lighting up the Championship at Bristol City this year in his first season of senior football. The Chelsea loanee is only 19.
This is extremely unusual for a young forward, and looking backward one of the most similar profiles I can find at this age is another Chelsea loanee: Romelu Lukaku. Yes, Lukaku’s season came against Premier League competition and TamTam’s is in the Championship, but Lukaku certainly looked a bit more physically mature when he did it while Tammy still has some teenager left on those lanky bones.
Back in February, my group at Brentford produced a list of young forwards that we thought would contribute to our club this season, and Abraham was at the very top of that list*. He is a breathtaking talent who is producing incredible numbers without being surrounded by particularly good teammates at Bristol City. So you know I’m legit on this, here’s a tweet from the first day of the season in August.
(* The previous season we flagged up Sergi Canos and John Swift as good loanees, both of whom were excellent contributors, so pretty happy with the process there.)
Anyway, back to the actual question: say for the next five seasons would you rather have Rashford or Abraham?
The statistician in me leans Rashford. Obviously he’s performing against better competition, and the success he is having as a wide forward at his age is more rare and unusual than Abraham’s profile. Yung Rash is the real deal already, and who knows how high his ceiling is?
The scout in me leans Abraham. He’s killing it week in and week out, in a very physical league, without the help of United’s amazing squad around him. His passing as a CF is probably better than average, and he has pace, strength, and surprising technical ability for a player his size. He’ll be in the Premier League next season and will likely not look at all out of place.
Both of these guys are part of the English National Team setup, and England is absolutely spoiled for choice at the attacking positions for what looks like a decade to come.
Oh, and before we change topics, Kelechi Iheanacho at City still looks really special.
The Premier League Cliff
Some years the relegation battle is all we have left for excitement by the end of the season. Others, it’s the race for the final Champions League spot. Once a generation you might get “AGUEROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” This year, the entire table seems to be in motion every single week, but I find the bottom of the table particularly intriguing.
Two early, improbable wins disguised it for a while, but Hull have been the worst team in the league since the start. They have a squad stuck between Championship and Premier League calibre and though they were probably improving a bit in recent months, they still hadn’t beaten anyone since
*scrolls through fixture list*
Uh… Jesus, November 6th against Southampton. Even that was *ahem* a bit fortunate.
So yeah, change was needed and Hull went way off the beaten path to hire former Sporting Lisbon and Olympiakos boss Marco Silva. I like this appointment for lots of reasons, not least that it should give them an actual chance to survive pending additional recruitment this month, and it doesn’t recycle old names. They are 4 points off safety with 18 games left. It’s an ask, but I am saying there’s a chance.
Moving up the table, we have The Swansea Debacle. A club that can’t stop shooting themselves in the foot has named Paul Clement as a perfectly reasonable head coaching appointment that also gives them a shot at survival. Like Hull, their squad is also a mixed bag of talent, with two solid forwards, some decent pieces dotted around the pitch, and yet huge need for upgrades in about five positions. Like we discussed above with Manchester City, if you recruit poorly for a couple of seasons in a row, you will eventually pay a price. Swansea’s Premier League dreams will live or die on Clement’s ability to solidify the defense while still allowing them to create enough goals to get 3 points on a regular basis.
One simple barometer of doom that I discovered a couple of seasons ago is the 16 Shots Rule. If your club is giving up 16 shots or more a game, you have a strong probability of being relegated. Burnley are defying this metric this season because Sean Dyche has somehow crafted a Jekyll and Hyde tactical team who are surprisingly good at home – 5th best in the league right now with 22 points – while being the worst team in the league on the road. Their home return means they are almost certainly safe this year, and if Dyche can figure out how to bring similar output to Burnley’s road performances, they may become mainstays in the PL, at which point the media will suddenly appreciate him more and begin referring to him as Dutch tactical mastermind Jan Dijks. (Shout out to @noverheul for the nickname.)
The doom clock doth toll, and it tolls for Sunderland. David Moyes’s team are giving up nearly 19 shots a game, and circling the Premier League toilet bowl, waiting to be flushed. We know Moyes’s Everton teams were difficult to beat, but Sunderland are tied for most losses in the league with 13. Something is clearly lacking at the Stadium of Light beyond funds for additional transfers. That said, given Moyes’s history, it’s tough to completely rule them out either.
Directly above Sunderland, one point away from being flushable, are Crystal Palace. The complicated reign of Alan Pardew is now over, and The Great Allardici has been tasked with his usual magic act of keeping a struggling club up. Their underlying metrics were actually pretty good even before Pardew was sacked, but the table position is precarious enough that a bad run will cause normally sweaty Big Sam to look like he’s managing in a sauna. Who doesn’t want to see that?
Finally we get to the clubs that appear in relative safety. Aitor Karanka’s Middlesboro are dreadfully boring to watch, but are also 4 points plus strong goal difference away from the drop. They could get sucked down to the bottom, but it would take a strong final 18 matches from two clubs below them to cause any real trouble. Every other club from Leicester on up should surely fight on for another season and another massive injection of TV money.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m kind of looking forward to the relegation run-in of nearly competent teams desperately hanging on for another year.
It’s SCRABBLING FOR SAFETY SUNDAY, AND IT’S LIVE…
Random xGChain Trivia
I teased a new metric that Thom Lawrence has developed for StatsBomb Services on the podcast this week. I’m not going to steal Thom’s thunder – he will write about it in detail next week, and then I will follow-up with more analysis after, but I am going to provide random historic trivia with absolutely zero explanation right now.
I will say that we’re currently breaking it into xGChain/90 and what I refer to as xGChain Residual, but Thom may end up calling Pre-xGCh**. Either way, please enjoy.
Oh, and back when I first started toying with Manager Fingerprints in 2013, I described Mark Hughes as a bang average Premier League manager. Stoke are currently 11th in the table, having finished 9th, 9th, and well… 9th in the previous three seasons. Some times “average” really is a bit of a compliment.
Have a good weekend!
** If you want to complain about names, feel free to develop your own metrics instead 😀