Friday, September 30, 2011

Weekend Preview: City vs. Bayern Aftermath

The City-Bayern game was painful to watch. Not just because we lost, but the fact that the referees didn't give two clear penalties and missed Gomez being offside for Bayern's second. Mancini's substitutions were also bizarre. I understood the reasoning for bringing on De Jong, we were far too open at the back. What I don't understand was not playing him in the first half and taking him off in the second to add more to the attack. This was Mancini's modus operandi all of last season and I have no idea why he abandoned it in our biggest game so far this year.

Then there's the Tevez situation. I said before the season that if we acquired Aguero, we needed to get rid of Tevez. We didn't and now we are reaping the consequences. The thing is that if Tevez had no suitors in the summer, how are we going to offload him in the short window? And that's without considering that teams may be afraid to sign him because of dressing room issues now. A real mess without an easy answer.

  • Last week I picked Stoke to beat Man U. Unfortunately, they only drew. However, I think my point about United being weaker than they seem was somewhat vindicated. I think the Basel game showed why I was concerned about their defense as well.
  • Gambling Picks: Everton (19/10) over Liverpool and Newcastle (19/10) over Wolves. Liverpool haven't played well lately and I like Everton to win at home. Wolves just suck and Newcastle are actually pretty good. Just goes to show if you have a striker you can get 35+ million pounds for, SELL HIM.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Weekend Preview: Buy/Sell

So apparently, this is the favored new format for ranking systems: viewing teams as if they were stocks and then deciding to buy or sell depending on if you think their value will rise or fall. Without further ado, a few stock tips (in addition to selling on Stoke which I prophetically talked about last column) I think people should have.

Manchester United: SELL. Don't let the scorelines fool you. Chelsea outplayed them last game at home, West Brom outplayed them in the opener, and they have been really lucky in their Finish Rates. Right now, ManUre allows more SOG per time of possession than any team in the league, but those shots simply aren't hitting the back of the net. Either De Gea is brilliant, which fails the eye test, or they have been lucky. The same is true at the other end of the pitch where they have posted a Finish Rate of 46%. Half of their SOG going in the net? Not going to continue. This is not to say that they won't do very well this year, I still think they're the favorites for the title, but they won't run away with it like people seem to be thinking.

Chelsea: BUY. The game against Man United was just the latest good display by Chelsea. They have been consistently getting more SOG than their opponents and only failed to win at Stoke and against United. If AVB figures out his best starting lineup, they could be really scary. I really think they're closer to City and United than to the teams below them. By the way, I'm starting to think that AVB bought Mata just because he's his doppelganger.

Everton: SELL. I actually think Everton might win against Man City tomorrow, given that they have always won against City the past few years. That said, their excellent start has been fueled by 3 out of 4 games being at home against very poor opposition. I'd wait until tomorrow, and then get rid.

West Brom: BUY. West Brom have played an incredibly tough schedule, have played well, and have earned next to no points. I think Hodgson is an excellent manager who was unfairly blamed for Liverpool's poor start and I hope he isn't unfairly blamed for West Brom's start. West Brom have the worst Finish Rate differential of the league and a large part of that is luck. I think they get back on the winning track tomorrow against Fulham.

Aston Villa: SELL. I don't like this team. They don't keep the ball well and they don't have the efficiency on the break that carried the team in the past. Bent is good and Given has started very well, but I don't see their unbeaten start continuing, particularly since they have played an easy schedule so far.

Arsenal: HOLD. Arsenal's defense has been certifiably terrible, but I think once Vermaelen comes back it will improve. They've also been a bit unlucky in their Opponents' Finish Rate and their first two games had red cards, which limits how much we can take away from their performances. All in all, we haven't had enough time to judge how the new-look squad will shape up.



  • Gambling picks: @Stoke over Man U 5/1. I know, I know. I think both of these teams are overrated, but I like how the matchup plays out. United haven't yet played a team with a particularly good defense and I think Stoke will be a problem for them. United have also allowed too many chances on the break and I think Stoke can take advantage of that. This is the part where I urge you to not put too much stock in my advice.
  • I am officially christening Bryan Ruiz, who wears "Bryan" on the back of his jersey, William Jennings.
  • On a personal note, I have a new Sharp Aquos TV sitting in my living room. I can't wait to watch City-Everton in HD tomorrow on it. Good stuff.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fouling Is Not Cheating And Foulers Don't Prosper

I feel I need to respond to Chris Anderson, the Cornell professor who writes the blog Soccer by the Numbers. In his most recent post, he looks at whether a team fouling more is correlated with winning and finds that it is not (I also have to take issue with the title. Cheating is breaking the rules without being punished; fouling by definition is punished). He then looks at the same question on a team by team basis and finds that there are some teams with which fouling more is correlated with winning, including our beloved City. However, this analysis doesn't hold water if you take a deeper look at the statistics.

It's true that City fouling more has a slight correlation with earning City more points (emphasis on slight; the R-squared is .0214). However, the correlation is slightly stronger between City suffering more fouls and earning more points. It's even stronger between the total number of fouls in the match and earning more points. This suggests to me that City do not play better when they foul more, but rather the games in which they do well tend to have more fouls in them. Why would that be? One possible explanation could be refereeing differences. It's possible that City fare better when games are called rather tightly, protecting our creative players and allowing them to work. That solution doesn't make too much sense though, as we would expect the same to hold true for other talented offensive teams were that the case. A more compelling explanation is that City favor a game that is more fast-paced, i.e. a game in which possession changes hands more frequently. In such a game (although I have absolutely no evidence for this), I would posit that there are more fouls because the game is less settled. This would pass the sniff test, as City last season tended to labor when they had steady possession (one of the many reasons the recent comparisons between City and Barca, who are excellent at making possession count, are weak). They tended to do better in games with more fouls since they are indicative of a more fast-paced, counter-attacking game. Unfortunately, there's no way I can really test this hypothesis as possessions are not shown in the official statistics.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Weekend Preview: Not Stoked About Stoke

Currently, Stoke lie 5th in the table, earning eight points from four games played. That's pretty impressive, especially considering they've already played Liverpool and Chelsea. However, I think that Stoke will be lucky if they finish in the top ten this year. Their good start has been fueled almost entirely by luck and it is extremely unlikely that it will continue.

Take a look at their most recent Premier League game against Liverpool. Stoke produced zero, yes zero, shots on goal from open play and allowed seven. They won because they were awarded a penalty, an event that is extremely unlikely to be repeated weekly. They allowed seven shots on goal, none of which went in the net. It's hard to claim that Stoke deserved to win that game, or even that they defended stoutly. They were lucky, plain and simple.

This is not the only game where Stoke have ridden their luck. Against Chelsea, Stoke had one shot on goal, Chelsea had seven. The game was a 0-0 draw. Against West Brom, Stoke had one shot on goal, West Brom had four. Stoke won that game 1-0. All told, Stoke's opponents have averaged a Finish Rate (G/SOG) of 4%. The best mark last year was Man City with 23.4%. This is unsustainable.

Even the lone game they actually outshot the opposition is not that impressive. Stoke did have five shots on goal to Norwich's three in that game, but Norwich went down to ten men in the 63rd minute. Before that, the teams were equal in shots on goal.

At the moment, if we looked at Expected Goal Differential, which assumes teams convert chances at the same rate, Stoke is second-worst in the league. Now this doesn't account for the fact that Stoke have played a relatively tough schedule (Tottenham are at the bottom at the moment), but still it illustrates that Stoke do not belong in the top half of the table on the merit of their play so far. And the thing is, this is before Stoke's commitments in the Europa League come into play. If Stoke were a stock, I would urge everyone to sell high immediately.
Other things:

  • Gambling picks: Sunderland 7/5 over Stoke, West Brom 13/8 over @Norwich. Given that I just wrote about Stoke in detail, I don't think I need to go over the logic of that pick. West Brom have been criminally unlucky so far this season and should beat Swansea even on the road.
  • Two very interesting games this weekend in Tottenham-Liverpool and Man U-Chelsea. I see these two as toss-ups, but would probably go with the home sides if you held a gun to my head.
  • Man City drew with Napoli during the week. I was fascinated by Napoli's approach as a team, talk about intelligent counterattacking football. The 3-4-3 has been a favorite formation of mine since I started playing FIFA 05 (FC Porto with Anderson, Quaresma, and Lucho Gonzalez was pretty unbeatable) but I've never seen it used at the top level. But man, was it effective. It frustrated City's attacks through the middle and led to some great breakaway opportunities. Adam Johnson coming on earlier would have helped a lot. Also, Tevez really sucked. He looks fatter than Michael Johnson now.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

City vs. Wigan Recap

Another excellent win. I was surprised to see Tevez start, particularly as this might have been a chance to get Balotelli a game (he's suspended for the first few Champions League games). Tevez was probably the weak link in our lineup, he sat too deep and clogged the linkup play, and generally didn't play anywhere near the level Dzeko has over the past few games. And that's without mentioning his missed penalty.

It's interesting to contrast him with Aguero. In a lot of ways, they are similar. In particular, I love how they both have such quick releases on their shots. How many times do they get a shot between the defender's legs? The quick shot just after a dribble is a huge weapon for both of them. However, Tevez needs to be a focal point of the offense to be effective in a way that Aguero does not, hence Tevez's struggles today in this team.

Still, the team played well. Apart from the usual suspects (Silva, Aguero, Toure), I was very impressed with Clichy. When we signed him, I had heard concerns about his crossing, but it was excellent in this game. I much prefer him to Kolarov at this point.

At this point, it's very hard to see a weak link in City's play. Midfield has been solid, the defense has been excellent even without DeJong in front of them, and of course the attack has been overwhelming. The most important thing is that the rotation of the squad hasn't affected the level of performance.

Comparisons with United are inevitable of course, given that United are the only other team with maximum points. I still believe that City have played better though. The old adage "Form is temporary, class is permanent" springs to mind. United still have an incredibly high finish rate (44.7%) and an incredible low Opponents' Finish Rate (12%). It's the latter number that is clearly unsustainable and I expect United to start drawing some games once they play teams that sit back more. United's defense to date has been unimpressive, posting the league's second-worst Defensive Efficiency, or shots on goal allowed per time of possession. Bolton, despite only having the ball 42% of the time, had six shots on goal, none of which went in. That will not always happen. United are certainly in good form, but I don't think they have the class of City.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Swansea is a crazy team

Browsing through my data, I came upon a really interesting observation: Swansea City is second in the league in time of possession. The tiny team from Wales has had more possession in its first three games (61%) than any team other than Chelsea, more than last season's leaders Arsenal and the Manchester duopoly. Obviously, it's a small sample and can be partly attributed to scheduling (playing Sunderland and Wigan at home), but they did play City on the road and had the ball 57% of the time.

But here's the crazy bit. Swansea have also been extraordinarily bad at creating and allowing chances given their very high possession. I mean, second from bottom of the league in both categories bad. If we normalized possession, giving both Swansea and their opponents 50% possession, Swansea would have the worst SOG differential in the league. And it's not even close, the next lowest would be Arsenal and they're a full standard deviation better than Swansea.

So what does this tell us? One thing is for sure, Swansea have decided to continue playing possession football in the top flight. This team is not going to sit back and absorb pressure a la Stoke. It might seem that this gameplan doesn't suit them though, as they are poor at creating chances from their possession. However, a lot of the bad statistics are the result of being crushed by Man City in the first game. It would be foolish to read too much into that, particularly since they have played a little better in subsequent games. Still, I would be interested to see how they would fare sitting back and playing more of a counter-attacking style. Their match at Arsenal this weekend might well be instructive.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Goodbye Irene

Yes, I am still operating this blog. Unfortunately for me, Hurricane Irene saw fit to dump tons of rain in the creek next to my house, resulting in the loss of my garage, my driveway a third of my land, my basement, and (up to and including the present) power and internet. So one quick thought and I'll get back to enjoying cooking on a gas stove and using hurricane lamps.

It was certainly a great weekend in the Premier League. I did manage to catch the Blues' destruction of Tottenham in its entirety, but missed United's thrashing of Arsenal. And in some ways, I think it's good that I did because everybody is making way too much of this game. As of right now, United are not even close to City as a team if you take a deeper look at the stats.

The issue is that SOG are more informative than goals at this stage of the season. Because there are more SOG than goals per game and SOG are highly correlated with goals, looking at SOG gives a larger sample and thus tells us more about a team's true talent level at this point in the season. One way we can look at how good a team is at this point in the season then is to look at their goal differential given that the the team and their opponents convert SOG to goals at the same rate, what I call adjusted Expected Goal Differential (the assumed rate is .3 for both teams and the number is expressed per game). Here are the leaders so far this season.

Man City 2
Chelsea 1.1
Man United 0.9
Liverpool 0.5
Wigan 0.4
Wolves 0.3
Fulham 0.2
Newcastle 0.2
West Brom 0.1
Aston Villa 0
Blackburn -0.1
Everton -0.15
Sunderland -0.3
Bolton -0.4
Norwich -0.7
Stoke -0.7
QPR -0.7
Arsenal -0.8
Swansea -1
Tottenham -1.35

Now obviously, caveats apply due to scheduling. I'm still bullish on Tottenham, for example; they won't play Manchester teams every week (by the same token, I'm very down on Wigan, who got to play the three promoted teams in succession). However, City and United have played comparable schedules (United's was tougher, but they have played two home games to City's one) and City have been far superior. Consider that United have allowed 17 SOG in the past two games and only allowed two goals. That rate of allowing goals will not continue. Through this point of the season, City have been a goal a game better, a significant difference in quality.

Now this is not to say that City will be better over the course of the season. United's true strength is its depth, not its firepower, and I still expect them to win the title. However, people should not be making so much of United's start to the season. It is much less impressive than City's.