Sunday, October 30, 2011

Is Petr Cech Good Anymore?

Arsenal's victory at Chelsea was certainly impressive, but what I took away from it was how bad Petr Cech has become seemingly overnight. He was beaten three times at his near post, all of which were stoppable. It is the latest in a disturbing trend for Chelsea this season: their Opponents' Finish Rate is 3rd-worst in the league at 41.18%, behind only Bolton and Blackburn.

It looks even worse when you take a harder look at the data. This early in the season, one might suppose that Chelsea's struggles in this department might be the result of a tough schedule. In other words, perhaps the teams Chelsea is playing are very good at taking their chances. However, their opponents have posted an average Finish Rate of 26.84% when not playing Chelsea, below the league average.

Perhaps this is a function of the team instead of Cech: Chelsea's bad defending leads to easy opportunities which their opponents duly dispatch. Chelsea may be liable give up more fast break opportunities because Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa push up so high and more fast break opportunities generally lead to a higher Finish Rate. Or they may be susceptible to free kicks and corners, which although they do not often result in SOG, typically go in at a higher rate when they are on target. I don't really have any data on that, but it's possible that it's not Cech but rather a function of the way Chelsea play. Arguing against that is that last year Chelsea posted a 23.74% Opponents' Finish Rate, second-best in the league. Other than Villas-Boas, the personnel is the same, but yet the results are completely different.

Cech is only 29, not old by football standards, and certainly not for a goaltender. I'm really unsure what has caused this dramatic turnaround, and this may prove to just be a rough patch. However, it's such a dramatic difference that I can't help but wonder if this may be the fatal flaw in Chelsea's title challenge.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Weekend Preview: Most Exciting Teams

Last season, I created a simple little measure to determine which teams were the most exciting to a neutral. I did so by finding the average number of scoring chances both created and allowed (using shots on goal as a proxy) by each team in a given match. Last year, the three most exciting teams were West Ham, Blackpool, and Chelsea and the three least exciting teams were Stoke, Blackburn, and Manchester City. Obviously, a lot has changed in the excitement table, as West Ham and Blackpool are unfortunately no longer in the league, while Man City have been much more entertaining this season. Here is the table in full, the number is the average number of SOG occurring in each team's games:

Tottenham 12.50
Man United 12.33
Man City 11.89
Bolton 10.89
Wolves 10.56
Arsenal 10.00
Norwich 9.89
Chelsea 9.67
Swansea 9.44
Fulham 9.22
Liverpool 9.22
Blackburn 8.67
Wigan 8.56
West Brom 8.56
Everton 8.50
Sunderland 8.22
Newcastle 8.00
QPR 7.89
Aston Villa 7.56
Stoke 6.78

As you can see, it is quite different. Manchester City have gone from being one of the most boring teams to one of the most exciting almost overnight. Wolves and Man U are also high up there, so it's no surprise that City's last game against both saw 7 goals between the sides. Stoke is still the worst value for your money, though Aston Villa and QPR are right behind. For TV viewers, I would say you should check out City vs. Wolves and Chelsea vs. Arsenal, and steer clear of Stoke vs. Newcastle.
Gambling Picks: Bolton over @Swansea 5/2.  I think Bolton are still underrated. They have played a very tough schedule and deserved to win last time out against Sunderland, but ultimately lost 2-0. I think they'll have a bounce back against a Swansea side that plays very open football which will be to their benefit.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Six and the City

Sorry, couldn't resist throwing in one of the many puns out and about. I honestly am still having trouble believing that it actually happened in that fashion. As I said before the game, I expected City to win, but to win 6-1? Obviously, the red card had an impact on the result, but even if Evans hadn't fouled Balotelli, Balotelli would surely have scored and we would have been 2-0 up at the start of the second half. I'm sure we would have gone on to win from that position.

The game itself was amazing to watch. Some of the moves that City put together were mind-blowingly good. I loved Aguero's goal, the flick from Balotelli in the buildup was sumptuous. Silva's no-look 30-yard volley splitting two defenders to find Dzeko for the sixth was simply unbelievable. That game will live on in the memory for quite some time.

However, it is way too early to say that this means anything definitive. City are the best team right now, I don't think there's any doubt about that, but it's not necessarily going to continue and we should all just...

Nah, screw it. City to win the league. Not because of this one game, but because through the first quarter of the season, they have been demonstrably better than everyone else and they have a large enough squad to cope with just about any injuries. City's goal differential is higher than their points total at +26, they have the largest SOG differential, the 3rd most possession, the highest Finish Rate, and the second-lowest Opponents' Finish Rate.

More importantly, the other challengers haven't looked nearly as good. United have the worst defensive efficiency in the league, meaning they give up more shots on goal per opponents' time of possession than anybody. Chelsea don't have a real weakness the way United does, but they have been behind City in all aspects of the game. It's hard at this point to see either outplaying City over the rest of the season.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Contrary to Popular Belief, De Gea is Really Good

Throughout the season, there has been no summer signing subject to more scrutiny than United's new goalkeeper David De Gea. Somehow, every game people have been questioning his positioning, or his ability to deal with crosses, or his command of his penalty area. And yet, somehow, he's not only been good, he's been the best goalkeeper in the league through these first eight games.

Judging goalkeepers is somewhat easier than other players because they are solely limited to the defensive side of the ball. The best measure of a goalkeeper is what I term the Opponents' Finish Rate, or the percentage of shots on goal that lead to goals for the opposing team (G/SOG). In games that De Gea has started this season, he has posted a 13.5% Opp FR, best in the league among starters (though his understudy Lindegard has a 0% Opp FR thanks to his one clean sheet). The next few names on the list are Krul at Newcastle (mainly due to Newcastle's easy schedule thus far; I expect him to drop), Begovic at Stoke, Hart at Man City, and Given at Villa. Krul aside, those are some of the best keepers in the league.

To be sure, that one statistic doesn't tell us everything. What about his struggles with crosses? Actually, we would expect that to show up in the above statistic. Think about it. Shots on goal directly from crosses produce goals at a higher rate than other shots on goal, mainly because they tend to be taken closer to the net. If De Gea were struggling with crosses and allowing opponents chances that are easily convertible, we would expect his Opp FR to be high, but it's not.

A more legitimate concern would be the command of his penalty area. It's possible that if he can't direct his defense, opponents will get more quality opportunities. Since Opp FR is a rate stat not a counting stat, this would not show in the data. There may be some truth to this as United have allowed a lot more shots on goal this year compared to last. However, I don't think the blame should be entirely directed at De Gea: as I pointed out in a previous post, United's defense has actually been very poor this year. Even if it was true, I would expect it to improve as De Gea improves his English and gains experience in the EPL.

It's funny, but I believe United to be very overrated and their most commonly called-out player to be very underrated. I expect City to win next weekend, but I don't think De Gea will be the reason.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Meet the New Boss, Same As the Old Boss?

It's starting. Despite the season only being seven games in, speculation on which English Premier League manager will be fired first has begun in earnest. The favorite right now would have to be Steve Kean (1/2 odds on Skybet), whose Blackburn Rovers were recently demolished by Manchester City, but he is far from the only one in the hotseat. While it is only natural that fans tend to blame the manager for the team underperforming, I can't help but wonder if fired coaches are the victims of overreactions. After all, replacing a coach mid-season generally requires that you replace him with someone currently out of work, not usually the best pool of applicants. Also, despite the influence the manager has, it is the players who most determine success on the field. Do teams that fire their coaches mid-season tend to do better after the firing? To help answer the question, here's a look at the four teams last year who fired their manager during the season (Blackburn, Liverpool, Newcastle, and West Brom) and how they fared under their new manager.