Top Four Review: Part Two, Man City, Liverpool and Arsenal
The Pep Guardiola revolution has had a decidedly flat first season. With prior expectations high, anything short of a title was going to be deemed under par and while third place may seem solid enough in a competitive year, City’s results appeared best before Guardiola’s systems had really taken hold. They started fast before hitting something of a wall and meandering through much of the centre of the season, a superficial storyline that mimicked the year before. Kevin de Bruyne hitting the bar from yards out against Chelsea was held up as a key point in both team’s seasons and it pointed clearly the general trajectory each team then took. A mixed bag of signings generally failed to displace the City mainstays; İlkay Gündoğan was injured, briefly fit then injured again, Nolito fitfully sparkled then disappeared, John Stones looked every inch the potential liability he always has done while Gabriel Jesus was promising and Leroy Sane eventually got motoring to good effect.
Wonderment at Guardiola fielding centre midfielders as inverted wing backs or more than two full backs while playing a system featuring no orthodox fullback positions now seems like a quaint reflection of more innocent times. The early fascination with every detail of his selection gave way to accepting that he was going to channel Ossie Ardiles with forward heavy line ups and tinker with his extravagantly assembled squad, come what may. Results stayed erratic until very late on, when they motored home. .
Generally, they were too easy to score against, but allowed very few shots. No team allowed the shots that it conceded to land on target as easily as City and no team conceded those shots at such a high rate. That all this did not equate with generally solid locations lightly implied that when shooting the opposition were often unpressured, and the miserable mid-season run of Bravo brings exactly that to mind. They outshot every team they played bar one, Tottenham away, their pass completion was higher against every team they played, and they had more of the ball in every match too. Peponomics was installed and much like Arsenal last year, expected goals loved them, but they struggled to turn such dominance into title contending form. Aspects of variance hindered them at key moments but they can analyse the season and see that much of what they did was very good. However, a flawed squad, underbuilt across multiple seasons, had its weaknesses brutally exposed much as it had in previous years, when perhaps Nicolás Otamendi and a less lean and lumbering Yaya Toure bore the brunt of responsibility. Instead now, Stones and Bravo carried the can.
The team had real verve in attack, with the January arrival of Jesus looking to lift it up a gear, but his injury and a slightly flat, though still prolific season from Sergio Agüero meant the team only rarely hit top speed. He scored plenty across all competitions but before a late flurry, only at par in the Premier League, which when held up against the returns of Harry Kane or Diego Costa, who both scored plenty ahead of expectation and when it mattered, reflect exactly what’s needed to power a team late into the season. A goalscorer needs to be on fire, something that Agüero is well capable of achieving, and will need to again. Maybe that's harsh and the real problem was elsewhere with Jesus and Raheem Sterling, with seven league goals apiece, meaning that there was no real backup in goal volume from one player. The continued overlooking of Kelechi Iheanacho was perplexing in this regard. He will represent a solid gamble for someone else should he remain as unwanted as appeared in the latter half of the year.
So for Pepalytics season one, what to think? The Champions League demise against Monaco was incredibly tame and he seemed to hint that he felt his players performed within themselves. It still feels like the team needs control and strength in the centre of midfield--Yaya can't be expected to do that forever--while all the full backs have seen better days. Any system will work best when built around Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta all at their peak. Or when installed on top of the wealthiest club in Germany with gamechangers like Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Robert Lewandowski or Franck Ribery in the ranks. Who are Man City’s gamechangers? Can they make enough of a difference to lift Pep's values into genuine contention?
Reinforcements will be fascinating and inevitable. Full backs at least, surely, three years late, will be incoming.
Step back from the rollercoaster and what Liverpool achieved last season was against the odds and successful. Sure, this is a club that measures success in trophies and the fantastic early season form led the league title talk to emerge but the bigger picture is that in edging out Arsenal and forcing Man Utd to win a trophy to qualify for the Champions League, Jurgen Klopp’s men have taken a large and well deserved step forward. Pre season, eighth to fourth would have been a fair benchmark for progress, and some of their thrilling attacking play will be remembered and potentially offers a platform for sustained success.
That the team was capable of a step forward was well flagged by last season’s metrics, and moreso those confined to the Klopp era. They may have finished eighth but profiled more like a team a coinflip away from the top four, and the deficit wasn’t large. That they had to improve to actually land such a slot indicates the strength of the bigger teams in general. A lot has been made of the variation in results for Liverpool--extremely strong against rivals, but vulnerable against weaker teams. I’m more inclined to suspect that this is a freakish artefact but that Liverpool’s opposition expected goals per shot rate was extremely poor is undeniable. A vulnerability to the second ball on set pieces and an occasionally porous midfield meant that although they allowed few chances, the ones they did were high quality, a problem they shared with Man City.
Beyond this, the true problem with Liverpool’s season stems back to May 2016 and their Europa League final defeat to Sevilla. That defeat was a huge fork in the road; a win would have ensured Champions League football, but more importantly a European campaign. The club would not have been able to prepare its squad as it did had it faced European football. Liverpool’s squad depth after the summer of 2016 was simply insufficient, and they failed to remedy that in January 2017. When all were fit, play was scintillating, but as soon as Philippe Coutinho suffered his injury and Sadio Mane departed for AFCON duty, the combination of a fixture pileup and squad weakness quickly told.
Liverpool right now perhaps have 14 or 15 definitive first teamers before a steep drop in quality, and then the kids, who Klopp seems reluctant to trust. In truth they probably needed 17 or 18 to get through this season and maintain a high standard throughout, and may need more like 19 or 20 to get through a season with a Champions League campaign glued on. You can’t plan for injuries, but you know they will probably occur, and reliable backups are imperative. Also over multiple seasons, bouncing in and out of European competition plays havoc with sensible recruitment. Tottenham may have fumbled their Champions League run this last season and been lightly mocked for living in the Europa League before, but being involved in European competition year in, year out means that their squad has the depth to combat the fatigue effects that inevitably come with extra fixtures and travel. Liverpool now have to build up again and land straight in the deep end, just as they did after 2013-14.
This lack of depth, even with no European schedule, can explain the team’s second half of the season decline in quality. Furthermore Jordan Henderson, Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane all missed chunks at the business end through injury while Daniel Sturridge was variously unused and sidelined.
There is talk now of Liverpool moving some of their lesser lights on, In fact, given they probably need four or five first team ready talents to add into the squad, the retention of even a utility type such as Lucas or a back up like Alberto Moreno makes just as much sense. Cast them out and you’ve more slots to fill. That said, Liverpool’s transfer business has been solid in recent years. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Georginio Wijnaldum and Joel Matip all represent smart talent identification and/or no fear of pushing large fees onto players they trust will fit the club and latterly Klopp’s systems. A couple of early transfers this summer would be a solid look here.
So: in review, a good year, with the problems of the season now the challenges of the summer. Liverpool were outsiders of the six teams for the top four, and may well be again, with expectation that Arsenal and Man Utd will contend strongly and the added pressure and workload of a European campaign, but they overcame a wobble this time to secure their spot in the elite. Klopp now needs to find a way to keep them there.
Eight wins in their last ten, sufficient points to comfortably land in your average top four, an FA Cup final coming up, a deep squad, a legendary manager… what’s not to like at Arsenal?
Groundhog Day comes but once a year, every year at the Emirates and said legendary manager now faces the strongest challenge to his autocracy yet after a typically virile end to the season failed to land the usual Champions League qualification. The team found a way to generate more points than last season, but that only tells part of the story. Last year they really should have contrived to build a challenge to Leicester and Tottenham that consisted of more than pipping their North London rivals in the last game. A run of three wins in ten from around halfway killed them off and a similar run of four wins in ten this season, which featured a distinctly vulnerable, and notably bad run in defence, was enough ultimately cost not just a title run but the top four.
The biggest disappointment from over here in stats land--and let’s recall Arsenal are well stocked with stats people, so will be well aware of this--is the year on year decline. 2015-16’s side looked like they had benefited from smart advice; the team’s expected goals per shot at both ends was league leading and the volumes were excellent too. They undershot and were better early on, but backed up by Mesut Ozil’s great season, they looked to be the closest team the Premier League had to replicating the shooting efficiency often seen by various Barcelona teams. This year a hot autumn offered a slight sticking plaster to issues that came later and the move from a back four to a back three, which coincided with an upturn in results if not an upturn in underlying performance looked a reaction to the post Christmas slump. Sadly, now we are a long way away from knowing how Arsenal should best line up, and this apparent lack of a cohesive strategy doesn’t get bailed out in the numbers. Year on year, expected goal rates have fallen by a rate only exceeded by Leicester, and when the structure declines, a team is left to rely on variance to succeed, a far less pretty picture than a year ago.
Both seasons see a with or without Santi Cazorla narrative easily applied, and even as he approaches his dotage his influence appears key. However, that’s too simple, and Wenger’s strategic transitions appear the biggest driver. Ozil has suffered hugely through lacking a target, and a late season flurry against beach-dwelling opponents hasn’t masked that. Alexis Sanchez has been electric and has benefited from changes more than most, his individual season tallies would have created a greater appreciation had the team itself managed to compete. It does feel as though perhaps the benefit of Sanchez may have hindered the rest of the attacking corps, but as ever things like that are hard to prove.
Their impending term in the Europa League offers a line in the sand but also an opportunity. Arsenal are a competent European side, and their style has regularly been more suited to the open play found in European matches rather than the attrition of the Premier League.
Perhaps the team is just flawed? Coasting along in comfort, unchallenged by modern ideas or lost in long term malaise? It’s hard. For curiosity’s sake and beyond any “Wenger Out” takes, a new manager would be welcomed just to see what another set of eyes could do with a fairly capable and balanced squad. The possible retention--or not-- of Ozil and Sanchez will likely dominate the summer, with each looking for mega-money but with few mega years left in front of them and a lot of football in their legs. The possible retention--or not--of Arsene Wenger will determine likely whether next season will feel any different.
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