Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Problem of Yaya Toure

I think it's fair to say City's start to the season has been a little underwhelming. Chelsea have hit the ground sprinting, and while their first few games were easy, the recent wins against Everton and Swansea were impressive. By contrast, City have looked labored, and the difference is clearest in the attack. Last year, City were truly impressive going forward, earning a 121 offensive efficiency rating, by creating chance after chance for Aguero, Negredo, and Dzeko to finish. This year, that figure is down to 89, which would have been 14th in the league last year. City's possession is up, the defensive efficiency is improved, and the finishing is still outstanding thanks to Aguero, but the team's decline in chance creation is really limiting.

The person getting the blame for City's form in the media is Yaya, and for once the media is spot on. Let me begin by saying that Yaya is a great player, and has been invaluable to City's success in the Sheik Mansour era. Still, there's no denying he hasn't been the same attacking force so far in this campaign. He has had just two shots on goal in 3 Premier League games, and the attack looked much better against Arsenal, a game he sat out.

Last year, Toure's offensive explosion (and sudden free kick expertise) masked a worrying decline in his defensive capabilities. He's a step slow in tackling, and doesn't cover enough ground to effectively screen the back four. Yaya's totals of 9 fouls and 2 yellow cards, both most on the team despite only playing 3 games, are proof of this. Though he was called out by Dietmar Hamann, I don't think everyone fully appreciated how bad he had gotten. Everyone, that is, except for Manuel Pellegrini, who compensated for Toure's deficiencies by playing Javi Garcia, a pure defensive midfielder, alongside him in the run-in. It was also why he brought in Fernando, a tough-tackling midfielder with the ability to actually make a forward pass, to be the ideal complement to Toure in the center of the pitch. Fernando's injury has made things more complicated, and Pellegrini now has to make some difficult choices. 

There's no doubt that Yaya still has the ability to change games and be a dominant force for City. Pellegrini can try and hide him defensively by playing three in central midfield, and given our current shortage of strikers that might make sense. But his start to the season may be a sign that at 31 years old, his age is catching up with him, and that is behind City's reluctance to re-sign him to a new contract. Unless Toure rediscovers his attacking form, City are unlikely to retain the championship, and equally unlikely to retain his services.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Southampton Going South?

 There has been a media circus surrounding Southampton basically since the season ended. As the surprise team of last season, it's inevitable that they would be the team whose players are targeted by the bigger clubs. The club is in an unenviable position, as they were not likely to progress above their finish last season, and they have players who would like to test themselves at a higher level. This makes it easy for United and Liverpool to come in, offer larger amounts of money than Southampton could afford, and pick up the players they want. Money rules in football, and Southampton are just getting the short end of the stick, or so the media would have you believe. Except that they're not. At all. In fact, Southampton have done tremendously well with their outgoing transfers so far, considering their limited negotiating position. If they manage their acquisitions that well, I expect them to remain a top half team, which would be a considerable accomplishment.

Obviously, the first part of a sound transfer strategy is knowing your own team's strengths and weaknesses. As we covered recently here, not all teams get this part right. But in Southampton's case it was the media, not the manager, who really overrated the team and in so doing blew this "crisis" out of proportions. The fact that Southampton performed well early in the season made it seem as though they were closer to the top sides than they actually were. Their goal difference was closer to Swansea's than it was to the top 6 (they did have a better goal difference than Tottenham though, which is probably a subject for another article). Also, the fact that they had so many English players made the jingoistic English press fawn all over them, with articles being written about how Southampton should be the model for England. Southampton did accomplish a lot last year, but the way the press was talking about them you'd think they invented football.

So why was Southampton successful last season? If we look at the statistics, it's clear that Southampton excelled in three areas: possession of the football, limiting opponent's chances to score, and converting their own opportunities. Southampton averaged more possession than any other team in the league, which is pretty insane in a league with Manchester City and Arsenal. They took care of the ball well, and just as importantly, recovered it very quickly after they lost it thanks to a high press. Their second strength was their defense, as their defensive efficiency (SOG Allowed/Possession) ranked 6th in the league. As you can tell, that figure takes into account the fact that their offense had the ball so much leaving their defense with less to do; if we are looking simply at SOG Allowed, they would rank third. Finally, they possessed a good Finish Rate, converting 29% of their SOG, good for 6th in the league. This was due primarily to Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, and a number of defensive goals from Lovren and Fonte.

Southampton was really held back in two areas: save percentage and chance creation. The first one is not surprising. Southampton's save percentage was partly due to poor games from backup keepers when Artur Boric's hand injury kept him out, but also due to Boruc's mediocre play himself (see Arsenal vs Southampton 11/23/13 for a start). The second though, will come as a shock to most of the media. Southampton actually were ranked 14th in offensive efficiency and are Exhibit B in why you have to control for possession when looking at a team's attacking potency (Swansea 2011-12 are always Exhibit A). Yes, Southampton controlled the ball for long periods of time. They just rarely did anything productive with it. Their success in creating Shots on Goal (they ranked 9th) is almost entirely due to the fact they had the ball more than any other team.

So if Southampton were being rational, their transfer strategy would be trying to improve the areas they were weak (save percentage, chance creation) and maintain what they did well. At the same time, they would probably want to follow some of the below advice (much of it ripped from Soccernomics):
  • Sell older players. Stands to reason that cashing in on stars before they start to decline would make sense.
  • Sell English players. Clubs have to pay a premium for English players, which makes sense to a degree. Fans and the media can more easily connect with them, so they do bring some added value to the club. Even with that, they tend to be overpriced in the market.
  •  Sell to desperate teams. As anyone who sold to Tottenham last year knows, there's nothing better than doing business with a team who has lost a star and needs to replace him.
 So given these criteria, how have Southampton done so far? Let's break it down for each player who left:

Rickie Lambert: Lambert was a big part of the team's success last year with his strong Finish Rate, but he is 32 years old. Last season was most likely as good as it was going to get for Lambert and Southampton were probably right to sell him now. As an English player, they got a pretty good price for him.

Adam Lallana: Lallana is the perfect example of the type of player the media overrates. He's the rarest of breeds, an English attacking midfielder, and that leads to everyone making him the Great White Hope. However, he is billed as a creative midfielder, but he is really not that creative. He scores goals which is valuable, but as Martin Laurence pointed out, he lost the ball more times than any other midfielder in the Premier League. He's also an English player sold to a desperate Liverpool,and I would have ripped Ian Ayre's hand off for 25 million pounds.

Luke Shaw: The brightest star of the bunch. He contributed a lot to Southampton's defending and attacking play, and will certainly be missed. However, 30 million is lot of money for a player and it was unlikely Southampton would be able to hold on to him for too much longer without Champions League football. I think they were probably right to sell.

Dejan Lovren: You can tell Lovren was the player Saints wanted to sell the least, for good reason. The transfer was drawn out forever, and Lovren finally forced a move to Liverpool. Lovren was a stalwart of their defense and contributed some set piece goals at the other end. This was the sale more than any other that I think the team will regret.

Calum Chambers: Chambers didn't start in more than half of the Premier League games, and Southampton already have a better right back in Nathaniel Clyne. He has potential, but 18 million is a lot for potential, particularly when he's not guaranteed a starting spot.

Overall, I think Southampton played this offseason about as well as they could. They sold for a big profit some of their overrated players (Lallana), some players who probably wouldn't hit the heights of last campaign again (Lambert), and some players who had potential with little to show for it yet (Chambers). They did get rid of some key contributors for big money, so they will be hurt there. However, their rumored acquisitions of Ron Vlaar and Ryan Bertrand would replace Lovren and Shaw nicely, and Dusan Tadic (most chances created in the Eredivisie last term along with 13 goals) and Fraser Forster are likely to improve their chance creation and save percentage respectively, two areas Southampton struggled last year. Assuming they get their targets hold firm on Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez, Southampton look to be a top half side, just like last year. They may not be the model for England, but at this point who would really want to be?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sam Allardyce Completely Misunderstands West Ham's Problem, and Other Stories

Right now is the most fascinating part of the transfer window. Yes, I know it is nowhere close to the over the top mayhem that accompanies Deadline Day, but right now is where you hear managers start trumpeting/defending their transfer activity so far, depending on what the fans think of it. And surprisingly, their comments can actually reveal a lot about how they view their own team, and particularly what they think can be improved.

Sam Allardyce recently voiced his opinion that West Ham need to score more goals next year, stating the blindingly fucking obvious. The Hammers finished joint 14th in the goal scoring charts, and three of the teams below them were relegated. I have to give credit where it's due, that is the area I'd focus on were I the manager, and it's not one Big Sam has always focused on, being a 1-0 sort of guy. Perhaps Sam can enlighten us further about why his team failed to score goals? "It wasn't about the fact that we didn’t create chances last year, it was the fact that we didn’t convert enough." I guess not then.

I suppose it is good Sam is admitting his team had a problem. That's the first step on the road to recovery. Of course, admitting you have a chocolate problem when you're an alcoholic probably isn't going to get you to quit drinking. West Ham finished dead last in the Premier League in Shots on Goal last year, which is my preferred measure of chance creation. By contrast, they finished 8th in Finish Rate (Goals/Shots on Goal), my preferred measure of converting chances. This also passes the eye test. West Ham were regularly one of the poorest teams to watch last year, and that's in a league with Cardiff City. West Ham tend to attack with a lot of long balls up to Andy Carroll, crosses in from the wingers like Downing and Jarvis, and set pieces. These types of attacks tend to be less effective in creating large numbers of chances, as the defense is usually more set and able to deal with them. However, if they do result in a shot on goal, there is a good chance it will go in. Based on the available evidence, I don't think there could be a worse assessment of West Ham's performance in the past year. All of which is to say Sam's remarks probably won't get the Irons fans to quit drinking either.

Another manager reviewing his team is Arsene Wenger, who recently stated that his team do not need to buy another striker. This was met with derision from large sections of the Gunners faithful, who seem to always be waiting for a new Henry. I'd agree with Wenger that Arsenal don't need another striker. Wenger always plays his base 4-3-3 with just one central striker. Therefore, you really don't need more than 2 strikers, particularly when Podolski can play central and someone like Sanchez can play as a false 9 effectively. Since Arsenal have two strikers already in Sanogo and Giroud, and might have a third in Joel Campbell, they definitely don't need another one. It's just that they probably need a better one.

But where to find one? Last year, Giroud had an acceptable 16 goals, and his Finish Rate was 42%.  The common complaint about Giroud is that he wastes chances, and I thought it would be interesting to see how he looked compared to some other similar players who play for upper tier teams in the Premier League, as well as a few strikers once mooted to be joining Arsenal. Obviously huge caveats apply when translating numbers from league to league and these numbers don't differentiate non-penalty goals, but I think in this case it can still be instructive:

Player Minutes Goals Goals Per 90 SOG Shots FR (Goals/SOG) Goals/Shots
Mandzukic 2015 18 0.80 45 76 40.00% 23.68%
RVP 1580 12 0.68 21 62 57.14% 19.35%
Dzeko 1987 16 0.72 38 103 42.11% 15.53%
Lukaku 2509 15 0.54 45 101 33.33% 14.85%
Giroud 3067 16 0.47 38 112 42.11% 14.29%
Balotelli 2294 14 0.55 51 152 27.45% 9.21%

As you can see, Giroud had by far the largest minutes total of all of the players. This means despite his decent goal scoring record, he is last of the bunch in terms of goals per 90 minutes. And despite a decent Finish Rate, his goals/shots ratio is second-worst. Of course, one of his potential replacements is last by a wide margin on that list, proving that Mario Balotelli was probably never the answer for Arsenal. However, another rumored target is at the top, and here's where Arsenal really missed an opportunity. Mandzukic has since moved to Atletico Madrid, but it's hard to imagine shelling out the money to bring him on board would not have been well spent.

Wenger is betting on Sanogo improving and being able to take off some of Giroud's burden, and thinks that there are more pressing areas in the team he needs to fix (like Arsenal's incredibly overrated defense, which is probably a topic for another post). That's not necessarily wrong, but Arsenal fans want more than 4th place and it's hard to see the team bettering that without a better strikeforce.

Monday, May 26, 2014

France shoots itself in the foot by omitting Nasri

Samir Nasri is not going to the World Cup. Given his foibles with the French national team, this was not exactly a surprise, but it’s a stupid decision nonetheless. Ryan O’Hanlon recently wrote a terrific piece on Samir Nasri for Grantland, highlighting his talent for retaining possession while still creating chances for his teammates.

It’s tough to quantify the benefit of someone who’s so careful with the ball so high up the field. And yet he was second on the team (obviously) to Silva in key passes per game, with 2.7. Across the league, among all players who completed 90 percent of their passes, no one else created more than one chance per game. Nasri steadied the rollicking death train that was often Manchester City in possession, but also accelerated it forward.

Tough to quantify, eh? Challenge accepted! Let’s start by saying the metrics O’Hanlon used are pretty flawed. Using passing percentage to approximate ball control has its problems, potentially inflating a player’s totals due to making easy, short passes (Javi Garcia has a 91% passing percentage after all).  And using per game statistics doesn’t account for the minutes each player played. The best measure of a player’s creativity, as I’ve argued before, is how many chances he creates for each time he turns the ball over to the other team. Think of each attempted defense-splitting pass as a risk. It can be successful and lead to a chance on goal, or it can be intercepted by the defense and lead to a counter-attack. Those players that consistently provide that successful final ball, as Nasri has done this year, are going to be much more valuable than those who hit and hope. As this is a ratio rather than a counting stat, we can compare players much more easily without having to worry about the number of games they played.

Unfortunately, nowhere really measures turnovers yet, so I have developed the following proxy (all data from

Chances Created/Turnover Proxy = Key Passes/(Unsuccessful Passes + Unsuccessful Take-Ons)

As you can see, this helps account for times the player lost the ball in possession as well as the times he misplaced a pass. I’ve looked at all midfielders with over 1000 minutes played and over 20 key passes in the Premier League this year and placed their results in the table below.

Name Chances Created vs Turnovers
Dorrans 0.37
Willian 0.37
Nasri 0.34
Mata 0.34
Mirallas 0.34
Silva 0.32
Assaidi 0.31
Jesus Navas 0.30
Downing 0.29
Ozil 0.28
Eriksen 0.27
Adam Johnson 0.27
Jarvis 0.26
Dembele 0.26
Sessegnon 0.26
Kacaniklic 0.26
Larsson 0.25
Ward-Prowse 0.24
Ki Sung-Yueng 0.24
Westwood 0.23
Snodgrass 0.22
Lallana 0.22
Townsend 0.22
De Guzman 0.22
Chadli 0.22
Whittingham 0.21
Sissoko 0.21
Giaccherini 0.21
Ireland 0.21
Lennon 0.21
Amalfitano 0.21
Sterling 0.21
Ben Arfa 0.20
Boyd 0.19
Bannan 0.19
Cazorla 0.19
Cabaye 0.19
Henderson 0.19
Oscar 0.19
Puncheon 0.18
Fernandinho 0.18
Januzaj 0.18
Holtby 0.18
Milner 0.17
Rosicky 0.17
Coutinho 0.17
Davis 0.17
Gerrard 0.17
Nolan 0.17
Lampard 0.17
McCarthy 0.17
Pienaar 0.16
Anita 0.16
Sigurdsson 0.16
Noble 0.16
Allen 0.16
Colback 0.16
Whelan 0.16
Dejagah 0.16
Redmond 0.15
Huddlestone 0.15
Routledge 0.14
James Morrison 0.14
Fer 0.14
Nathan Dyer 0.14
Shelvey 0.14
El Ahmadi 0.14
Schneiderlin 0.13
Kim Bo-Kyung 0.13
Brunt 0.13
Ashley Young 0.13
Wilshere 0.13
Barry 0.13
Noone 0.13
Kagawa 0.13
Tettey 0.13
Matic 0.12
Valencia 0.12
Yaya Toure 0.12
Pablo Hernandez 0.12
Carrick 0.12
Ramires 0.11
Adam 0.11
Arteta 0.11
Nzonzi 0.11
Osman 0.11
Mikel 0.11
Barkley 0.11
Kasami 0.11
Koren 0.11
Livermore 0.10
Javi Garcia 0.10
Howson 0.10
Gunnarsson 0.10
Kieran Richardson 0.10
Bolasie 0.10
Leiva 0.10
Mutch 0.10
Ledley 0.10
Ravel Morrison 0.09
Delph 0.09
Paulinho 0.09
Diame 0.09
Ramsey 0.09
Scott Parker 0.09
Dikgacoi 0.09
Cleverley 0.08
Cattermole 0.08
Tiote 0.08
Bentaleb 0.08
Cork 0.07
Sidwell 0.07
Yacob 0.07
Flamini 0.07
Meyler 0.07
Jedinak 0.07
Elmohamady 0.07
Bradley Johnson 0.06
Calum Chambers 0.06
Mulumbu 0.06
Fellaini 0.06
Britton 0.05
Matt Taylor 0.05
Wanyama 0.04
Medel 0.03
Bacuna 0.03
Canas 0.02

As you can see, Nasri is third in the league by this metric behind Graham Dorrans (whose result should be taken with a grain of salt due to the smaller sample size, he played just over 1000 minutes) and Willian. Mata, Silva, Kevin Mirallas, Jesus Navas, and Mesut Ozil are all high up on the leaderboard as well. With three midfielders high up the board, it’s no wonder that Manchester City were such a potent attacking force this year.

And that is what France are missing out on: a potent attacking force. If you look at total chances per turnover (expressed as (SOG + Key Passes) / (Unsuccessful Passes + Unsuccessful Take-Ons)), Nasri looks even better, ranking #2 behind Mirallas. He is one of the best attacking midfielders in England and would improve any squad. Leaving your best players out of the squad is no way to win a World Cup.