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October 12, 2018

StatsBomb Mailbag: Real Madrid, Declan Rice, Penalties, Marriage Advice and More!

By Mike Goodman

It’s been a while since we did a mailbag. You have questions and I have definitive answers that are the result of years of careful study and calculation and aren’t at all being thrown together to generate content during an international break.

Is it cheating to take a question from one of your own writers? Don’t care, I’m doing it anyway. The last few years at Real Madrid contained an unlikely amount of continuity. There were no international megastars coming and going, no managerial feuds, and really no upheaval of any sort. Florentino Perez’s name was barely in the news at all. That continuity helped contribute to three straight Champions Leagues and an era of general happiness and success at Madrid. Then Zinedine Zidane left, and Cristiano Ronaldo was sold, marking the definitive end of the era. And leaving the cupboard just a teensy bit bare.

I think even as Madrid struggle right now, and they are struggling, it’s hard to second guess their decision making to let it ride with Zidane and Ronaldo. Mostly, they were just dumb not to turn around and buy a star after their previous one departed. The problem isn’t so much that the team failed to prepare for Ronaldo leaving, it’s that when he did leave, they declined to replace him. Even now, they keep getting linked to Eden Hazard, who is decidedly not the kind of player Madrid need at the moment.

It seems like some degree of magical thinking took hold. Madrid tried to convince themselves that losing one of the two best players of a generation wouldn’t make them worse. If indeed Madrid have thrived after losing Ronaldo and not replacing him, then it would have been cause to reassess exactly how good he was. But, unsurprisingly, they are not. The bottom line is that Ronaldo is a shot monster like no other, and the team hasn’t replaced that attacking output. They could have though. That’s the mysterious thing. There are plenty of good high volume attacking players they could have pursued, instead they went and bought Mariano Diaz. Being Real Madrid is supposed to let you get away with letting it ride for three years by splashing the cash the summer you need to. Madrid just forgot to splash the cash.

 

The question looming over West Ham’s season was always whether Manuel Pellegrini could figure out a way to make this team’s midfield work. It seems like after struggling for the first month of the season they’ve got it figured out. The combination of Pedro Obiang, Mark Noble and Declan Rice are getting the job done. After four straight losses to open the season, seven points from their next four sure seems to indicate they’ve righted the ship. And sure, they lost last week to Brighton, but even that disappointing result was accompanied by a respectable performance.

It’s important to differentiate between players playing well, and the team playing well though. The system Pellegrini has implemented is one that works not because he’s discovered a star in Rice (or Obiang or Noble) but one that instead puts three mostly mediocre midfielders together, and lets them be mediocre in ways that complement each other. Obiang moves, Noble passes and Rice cleans up. None of this means that Rice can’t be good. He’s 19, there’s plenty of time for him to develop. Right now though, he’s not doing anything particularly special. At his young age, he’s a fairly limited player. He’s just being deployed in the exact right fairly limited role.

A lot.

The obvious answer here is Manchester United. They have lots of money. They also haven’t ever had a sporting director. You get to come in and build the whole front office from scratch. And the reality is that the resources that United have, as opposed to any other team that conceivably need a rebuild, just make the question impossible to answer any other way.

No. And definitely not in year three.

This is an interesting question because it gets at some of the fundamentally different goals analytics can have. The kinds of tools of the trade you’d apply to penalties in order to make better guesses about who should and shouldn’t take them, are all things that help you deal with small sample sizes and extrapolating information from very few observed instances. There simply aren’t a lot of penalties taken.

But, there’s no point doing that if you are actually working with a team. There’s no reason to worry about null hypotheses and binomial distributions and how confident you should be in your confidence intervals. Instead, you can just go out and get more information. Teams can and should (and some do) spend some time taking penalties. By doing that, they won’t actually have to guess at who is good and who isn’t. Is it a perfect solution? No. Obviously in game penalties are always going to be somewhat different than practice. Even so, it’s a simple solution to a difficult problem. Figure out who is good at taking penalties in practice, and then have that person take penalties during matches.

Sometimes, the insights nerds have to offer are really basic. If you want to find out who is good at taking penalties, practice penalties a bunch. Then, after you’ve figured out who is good at taking penalties, have that person take penalties during matches. Truly revolutionary stuff.

Seems like it would be a good idea!

So, good old Paco got the big leap to Barcelona and then washed out to Dortmund. Except, he wasn’t actually all the bad at Barcelona when he played there. He just rarely played.

He was a good passer, a good presser, and took good shots. He just didn’t take enough of them. He also played with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, so maybe that’s understandable. He’s 24 now and hitting his prime, and while he’s obviously not going to stay this hot forever, six goals on ten shots sure isn’t anything to complain about. He’s also played less than 100 minutes this season for Dortmund so there’s really no point in breaking down the stats yet.

It’s hard to say exactly where his career goes from here, but it’s also not quite fair to suggest that being a strong contributor to a Dortmund side isn’t playing at the highest echelons of the game. Is starting for Dortmund right now a less prestigious options than starting for Arsenal? Or Manchester United? It certainly doesn’t pay as well, which is why, all things being equal, I imagine Alcacer would rather make his way to one of those teams, (just like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan did) but that’s a slightly different question. It seems unlikely that Alcacer is going to turn into one of the best couple of strikers in the world, but he seems good enough to play, in some capacity, at the level below that. The question then is one of it and role, more than absolute ability.

Yes! Congratulations! Let me start with some wedding advice (knowing nothing about your wedding).

First. Eat food. Everybody says you won’t have time to eat, they’re right. Make time.

Second. Don’t get drunk by accident. If you and your newly minted spouse like the booze and want to party hard, go nuts. If not. Remember you probably didn’t eat. Also, you’ll probably have a well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) friend or family member hand you a drink or two with a drink or two in it.

Third. Whatever your wedding looks like, from courthouse to gazillion dollar eat the rich gala, it’s about y’all. Lots of people want to make other people’s weddings about them and start to finish the day might often be a hectic mess. Take time with your partner over the day to center yourselves for each other. It’s your day. Give yourself moments that will let your remember it that way.

Okay, onto marriage. It’s great. I’m married. I love it. Like, I really like being a married person. I’m very into it. I assume you like the person you’re marrying, so that’s awesome. People like to offer trite advice like don’t go to bed mad or whatever. Meh. It’s hard to offer real concrete marriage advice from the outside. People’s relationships are all so different. What makes people tick, and what makes them work as individuals and as a couple is unique. So, what I’ll say is this. Just pay attention. Pay attention to what works for y’all and what doesn’t. Building a life together is awesome work, but that doesn’t mean it’s never work. Being conscious about what works, what helps you communicate better, what makes you happy, what brings out the best in you, makes the hard times easier. All relationships require maintenance from time to time, and having a full and effective relationship toolbox makes that maintenance easier.

Article by Mike Goodman