Friday, August 26, 2011

Weekend Preview

Couple of things to look for this weekend.

  • I'm very interested in the Villa-Wolves game. The interesting fact about this game is that both teams have played the same schedule so far, playing against Fulham and Blackburn. This means they are much more easily comparable than most other teams at this point in the season. Unfortunately for Villa, Wolves have played better against those teams than Villa so I'm predicting them to get an away win.
  • Man City-Tottenham will most likely be the most entertaining match of the round. Based on a formula for excitement I created last year (the total number of SOG in games featuring the team), they are ranked numbers one and two respectively.
  • Several people have mentioned the relative low scoring in the early part of this season. I don't believe that this will be a problem for the rest of the season. The chances being created are about equal, it's just that teams are finishing their chances 22% of the time rather than the usual 30% of the time. I predict scoring will increase in the coming weeks.

A Lost Week

Okay, finally back from NYC/Adirondacks/job search. Lots of things happening. Let's get to it, bullet-style.

  • Nasri signs for City. Color me unimpressed. A good player certainly, but one I don't think we need. It really all depends on how it impacts FFP. I'll be much happier if we manage to unload some of our unwanted players, the way we did with Adebayor.
  • Speaking of FFP, Malcolm Gladwell has a good article on Grantland where he talks about why sports franchises shouldn't make money. Replace franchises with clubs and he could easily be talking about soccer.
  • My first gambling pick certainly went pear-shaped. Note to self: never bet against the team you picked to win the title on the basis of one game. In my defense, I do have to note that the line moved toward Tottenham and I expected Modric to play. Oh well.
  • Champions League draw was certainly tough. Still, as a fan, it's more fun to see City play the best as opposed to some random team from Romania or Czech. The Bayern games in particular should be fantastic.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bolton vs. City Recap

Different formation, same result. Mancini started with a much more attacking formation, having Aguero and Dzeko paired together up top. The wrinkle I really liked was that he started Silva out wide right in a kind of 4-4-2, but Silva constantly moved into the middle behind the two strikers, dragging his defender with him. This made it easy for Richards to maraud forward on the right side with only Petrov defending him.

I liked this win a lot because we managed it with a fair bit of squad rotation. There was no De Jong in the lineup; the midfield consisted of Silva, Barry, Milner, and Yaya in De Jong's usual spot. Also missing from last weekend's win was AJ, replaced by Aguero, and Clichy, replaced by Kolarov. Good to know that we can change formations and players and still be successful.

Not too concerned about the goals we gave up because we were so potent offensively. I was a little disappointed with Richards defensively, he should know not to give Petrov that much space to cross. The free kick, well, Lescott challenged well, but Davies got a head to it first. Not sure exactly what you can do about that. Side note: I hate Kevin Davies. He constantly backs in to defenders, which while seeming innocuous enough, doing it when said defenders are in air it can really mess them up. The problem is that he never gets cards for doing it, so no matter how many times he gets whistled, he keeps on doing it.

Anyway, still top of the league. At this rate, can't see any reason why we shouldn't be there for a good long while.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Gambling Picks

Every Friday, I'm going to be making a few picks here, along with some reasoning. I usually only pick upsets, so I only pick a few games a week. This week I'm unsure how well I'll do, as there is not enough data to really tell what teams are for real yet. Nevertheless, I'm going to attempt it anyway. Follow my picks at your own risk.

Pick #1: Tottenham (5/1) at Man United
United would have been fortunate to get just a draw out of their last game, they were extremely lucky to pick up a win. They mustered a solitary SOG, yet scored two goals. Suffice it to say I don't think that is repeatable and they will have to be much better against Spurs to get three points. United are at home and they are the better team, but between injuries to key defenders, the shakiness of De Gea, and the form Spurs showed in midweek, I like Tottenham to win. I like them even more at 5/1 odds.

Pick #2: Annndddd that's it. Sorry, only one game I really like this week. More next week, I promise.

Introducing Advanced Statistics Part 1: Possession

This will be the first in a series of posts in which I attempt to explain some of the statistics I've created and why I think they are more useful than the traditional statistics.

One of the things I've tried to do with my statistics is separate out the different skills needed in soccer. As I see it, there are three skills needed on the offensive side of the ball: possession, creating chances to score, and turning those chances into goals. Similarly, on the defensive side of the ball the three skills are limiting opponents' possession, limiting opponents' scoring chances, and limiting the taking of those chances. The statistics I've created evaluate a team's skill in each of these areas. In this post, we'll focus on those evaluating possession. 

Possession is easy to calculate as it is provided in nearly every match report, with pundits often pointing to possession statistics as evidence of how a team played. In reality, there is no correlation whatsoever between possession and winning, but that doesn't mean possession is useless. Looking at possession can tell you how good a team is at keeping the ball and winning it back from their opponents.

Ideally, I'd like to look at the number of times a team had possession too, similar to what Hollinger does for basketball. Time per possession would tell us how good a team was at keeping the ball; time per opponents' possession would tell us how good a team was at winning the ball back. I think that would be much more useful analytically. However, the best measure of possession available to us is the Time of Possession statistic, or the percentage of time a team had the ball in the match. Since possession is zero-sum, we don't really need to calculate Opponents' Possession; in other words, we know from a team's possession how successful they were at limiting their opponents' possession. Last season, the league mean for possession was 50% (duh) and the range was from 60% (Arsenal) to 39% (Stoke).

What good is it to look at a team's possession if it is not correlated with winning? Well, for one thing it can tell us something about a team's approach. Take for example Stoke's game against Chelsea last weekend. Stoke had just 34% of possession. That tells us that Stoke was sitting back and absorbing pressure and that Chelsea was initiating most of the play. What it does NOT do, and what many commentators mistakenly think it does, is indicate that Chelsea was the better side. As stated above, last year Stoke averaged 39% possession and yet finished in 12th place. Possession is just one piece of the puzzle, the rest of which we will get to later.

Monday, August 15, 2011

City vs. Swansea Recap

Wow. That was better than I dared hope. I know it was only one game, but that was as complete a victory as you could ask for. Shots On Goal were 15 to 3 in favor of City, Joe Hart was truly tested just the once, and we took our chances well. Were it not for Swansea's new goalie Vorn, the game would have been even more of a slaughter.

But it was not just the goals, it was the manner of the performance. I don't think there was one player on the team who preformed poorly. Dzeko had his best game in a City shirt, Silva continued his ongoing audition for the role of Best City Player Ever, Johnson was threatening, the back line solid. And Aguero. Good God, what a debut! The first goal was good, his assist was fantastic, and his second goal sublime. his link-up play with Dzeko was perfect, it seemed as though they'd been playing together for years.

The only nitpick I have is that our defense did lose a fair amount when De Jong went out. Swansea's most threatening attacking play occurred in that period, having a couple of good counter-attacks. Obviously, Aguero's boost to the offense more than compensated for that, but it still seems we will have trouble being tight defensively in a 4-4-2 without De Jong. In fact, in Silva and De Jong, City have two players that seem to be irreplaceable. If we do get Nasri, he could maybe fill in for Silva, but De Jong has no backup.

However, that is a worry for the future. Right now, we are top of the league and hopefully we won't change our position in the table the rest of the season.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Preseason Predictions

This seems like the time to make them.

The promoted teams will struggle. As I have mentioned in previous posts, last year’s Premier League was both balanced (very low standard deviation of points) and strong (excellent UEFA coefficient). It would be tough for even very good Championship teams to break in and secure a place. However, it is not clear that the three promoted teams are even that good. Below is a table that shows the z-scores of promoted teams’ points in the Championship the previous season and whether or not they achieved survival. As you can see, things do not look very good for Norwich and Swansea, as only Hull City had a worse score and survived (by the skin of their teeth, I might add). QPR looks to be in a better position, and is certainly in a better financial position if they should have to spend to stay up. At this point, they are the only promoted team I’m backing to stay in the Premier League.

Year Team Z Points Survived?
2006 Reading 2.79 y
2010 Newcastle 2.70 y
2009 Wolves 2.17 y
2010 West Brom 1.96 y
2011 QPR 1.89 ?
2008 West Brom 1.84 n
2006 Sheffield United 1.78 n
2007 Sunderland 1.74 y
2008 Stoke 1.65 y
2009 Birmingham 1.63 y
2007 Birmingham 1.59 n
2011 Norwich 1.59 ?
2007 Derby 1.45 n
2011 Swansea 1.29 ?
2008 Hull 1.26 y
2006 Watford 1.21 n
2009 Burnley 1.08 n
2010 Blackpool 0.55 n

Fulham will struggle. Fulham were actually underrated last year, mainly because they had 16 draws, the most in the league. Their goal differential (+6) was the same as Everton’s, and close to Tottenham’s (+9). However, there are three sobering facts about Fulham:

1) They had the oldest average age of their starting eleven of any EPL team.
2) They had only 14 outfield players start 10 or more games.
3) They are playing in the Europa League this year.

This seems to me to be a perfect storm of having more games to play with a small and old squad.  It is bound to take a toll on their performance. People have questioned Mark Hughes for leaving, but I think he was quite smart to leave on a high. I don’t see them finishing in the top half again.

Liverpool will make the top four. Yeah, I know, I said this last year too. But unlike last year, when I was stepping out on a bit of a limb, this year everyone and their mother have Liverpool challenging for the title. That I don’t see. During the second half of last season, after Dalglish replaced Hodgson, Liverpool were undeniably a better team. In fact, they had the third-highest goal differential over that period. The problem is that only some of this resulted from Dalglish and his signings and some of it was luck. For example, the number of shots on goal per game allowed by Liverpool was exactly the same in each half of the season, but the percentage that were goals was higher in the first half. It’s hard not to see that as luck. Liverpool did improve offensively over the course of the season (they averaged about a shot per game more under Dalglish), but I don’t see any evidence that they are close to United at this point. I think they will finish third.

United will win the league. I know, for a City blog, I’ve been fawning on the scum far too much. That doesn’t change the fact that they still have the best squad. The null hypothesis is that the previous winners are the best team this season. I don’t see enough evidence to reject that hypothesis.

One of Wolves or Wigan will go down. They finished 16th and 17th last year, they were much closer to the relegated teams in the table than to the teams above them, and neither have improved their squads. If I were a betting man, and I am, my money would be on Wigan to go down. Not only did Wigan lose some of their best players, but they were incredibly lucky last year. Last year, the average shot distance of Wigan’s goals was far longer than anyone else. Scoring on long-range strikes, while impressive, is not exactly a recipe for sustained success because it is much harder to repeat. This is reflected in their abysmally low finish rate (goals divided by shots on goal), and without N’Zogbia and his penchant for scoring ridiculous long range goals, I see them struggling. Of course, I predicted that both of them would go down last year.

Chelsea will drop out of the top 4. I feel that the fourth spot will come down to Chelsea and Arsenal, and Chelsea will ultimately lose out. This is a tough one though, because we don’t have all the information about transfers. I’d feel more optimistic about Chelsea’s top four chances if they grabbed Modric, or if Arsenal sold Fabregas and Nasri. However, at the moment, Chelsea look like the team to make way. Arsenal didn’t perform as well as Chelsea last year, but they had a ton of injuries to key players. I think Arsenal’s first-choice starting eleven was stronger last year and I feel Chelsea may decline because they, like their neighbors Fulham, are a very old team. I also think Villas-Boas might have a hard time dealing with such an old squad, particularly since that was one of the strengths of Ancelotti.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Klinsmann Is The Wrong Choice

The replacement of Bob Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann was inevitable. Gulati always wanted him to be the coach and as soon as Bradley faltered, it was clear he would be shown the door. The obvious recent comparison is Hodgson at Liverpool, who always had Dallish looking over his shoulder waiting to jump in. In that sense, it was good to finally get the transition over, as it is hard for anyone in Bradley's position to do well. That said, I think this is an incredibly stupid move by Sunil Gulati and will not help the U.S. Men's National Team in either the short or long term.

In order to evaluate the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as the U.S. Men's National Team Coach, we need to be clear on what exactly the position entails. The coach of the national team has two main duties: to select the squad and coach the squad. As this article makes clear, Klinsmann says nothing about how he will do better in performing either of these duties and focuses instead on a duty he does not have: youth development. Youth development is not under the purview of the National Team Coach, it is instead under the direction of the Youth Technical Director, a separate position currently held by Claudio Reyna. The coach's job is to do what he can with the players he has, not to train new players. If he wanted to do the latter, he should have gotten a different job.

Moreover, youth development in the U.S. is already going through a sea change without Klinsmann. The development of youth academies by MLS clubs and less of a reliance on college players was done without his direction. Some have complained about the lack of diversity among the US team, but the under-17 team this year was loaded with African-American and Hispanic players. The shift away from the predominantly white college grads has already started; hiring Klinsmann will do little to change that. In fact, the only specific policy change he mentions in the above link, other than a vague plan to "improve the grass-roots level", is the development of MLS academies, something which has already happened.

Aside from a stated focus on youth development, what else does Klinsmann bring to the table? Managerial experience? He has had a grand total of two coaching jobs: Germany and Bayern Munich. Fans of Klinsmann like to point out his excellent job coaching Germany to a 3rd place finish in the World Cup, but there are some qualifications there. First, it was in Germany and home-field advantage does a lot (see South Korea, 2002). Second, according to all accounts, Joachim Low (his then-assistant) was in charge of tactics and selection. Low has since become the Germany coach (Klinsmann left after the 2006 World Cup) and gone on to record a second-place finish at the 2008 Euros and a third-place finish at the 2010 World Cup. Klinsmann went to coach Bayern Munich, the richest and best-supported club in Germany, and failed to make the Champions League, something Bayern had regularly done, resulting in his firing before the end of his first season. Since then, he has not had a coaching job for two years. Nothing in his resume suggests that he is that good of a coach.

Some might rightly point out that it is not just a matter of how good or bad Klinsmann is, we instead need to look at him relative to who he is replacing. There is a large contingent of U.S. soccer fans that argue that Bob Bradley was a bad coach and needed to be replaced; Klinsmann naturally represents a step forward. I disagree strongly with this assessment. People seem to forget Bradley's tenure had many accomplishments, including making the final of the Confederations Cup (beating Spain on the way), winning our group over England in the 2010 World Cup, and a victory in the 2007 Gold Cup. Instead, the focus has been on the few negatives, the loss to Ghana (in extra time, remember) and the recent loss to Mexico (though we were 2-0 up before the injury to Cherundolo). Based on the overall record of results, there is little doubt that Bradley's tenure was one of the most successful in our history. There is a reason that his contract was extended and that Fulham and Aston Villa were considering him for their managerial positions. People complain about Bradley's substitutions and tactics, but those are exactly the kind of things that will NOT be better under Klinsmann.

The other question to consider is why now? After all, Bradley had his contract recently extended. Klinsmann has been out of work for a while. This appointment could have been made any number of times in the past year. What specifically has changed that makes this appointment so urgent? Were other candidates even looked at? The manner of the appointment is almost more baffling than the appointment himself.

Despite my pessimism on the appointment, I am confident the national team will improve, if only because the talent level will improve. The U.S. is still a growing soccer power, no matter who coaches the national team. Frankly, Klinsmann was very smart to take the job as he will get the plaudits for being in charge during an upward trend he has little to do with (known as the anti-Barack Obama effect). I just see no need to appoint a coach with such a poor record and fire one with such a good one.